Patience (After Sebald)

Lowestoft horizon

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see Grant Gee's Patience (After Sebald), a documentary of WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn at the Edinburgh Filmhouse the other evening.

The Rings of Saturn is somewhat unclassifiable. Ostensibly its a record of a walking tour Sebald undertook along the East Anglian coast in the early 1990s. But each place he visits, no matter how mundane, serves as an impetus to labyrinthine reflections on a vast range of subjects: the decline of the fishing industry that had traditionally sustained Suffolk's coastal towns and villages, the nature of landscape, sea monsters, the Temple of Jerusalem, the silkworm moth, Thomas Browne's skull, the nature of depression and hope. It's travel writing I suppose, but more free flowing, filtered through a philosophical lens.

I thought the film succeeded wonderfully in evoking the spirit of the book. And, importantly for me, as a native East Anglian, something of the ambience of that bleak, bright coastline. It's a flat land of vast cloud- and seascapes, immense horizons marked by the occasional copse, windmill or farm. A melancholy landscape, for sure. But luminous, and, I think, cleansing: as Sebald's book testifies those strips of coast between land and sea confront the walker with the infinite, with themselves. Grant Gee's film is shot almost entirely in grainy monochrome, which perfectly communicated the landscape's elemental, pure, spartan, brilliant quality. The mood is further enhanced by Leyland James Kirby's fine soundtrack, which mixes ambient with snatches from Schubert's Winterreise, a favourite work of Sebald.

Watching the film I realised that the East Anglian landscape has deeply influenced my concept of good design. I don't like clutter (we're talking about design here, not my office). I like clear shining pages set on disciplined grids and legible typography. No blurring of images and content. Restrained colours. I've read a library of books on modernist, Swiss, minimalist and Japanese design, but Patience (After Sebald) has helped clarify my sense that those design preferences are not ultimately a product of reading and theory, but have much deeper roots.

If you're interested in finding out more about the film The Guardian has a good review and some other interesting resources, including an interview with Grant Gee and a clip.