“NOTE ON GAVAGAI”
In this innovative and moving project, Director Rob Tregenza (Talking to Strangers) and screenwriter Kirk Kjeldsen have adapted the poetry of the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) to the screen. Andreas Lust (Revanche) plays Carsten Neuer, a grieving husband whose wife had been translating Vesaas’ poems into Chinese before her death. Neuer travels to Telemark, Vesaas’ home turf, partly in the hopes of finding a fitting resting place, and partly in an attempt to come to terms with his grief. Immense care has been taken to set up a field of resonances between this storyline, Vesaas’ writing, and the Norwegian landscapes invoked by the poems and shot on location in splendid 35mm. Counterpoints between Vesaas’ words and Neuer’s situation invoke the core problems involved in all sorts of translations. (The title, “Gavagai,” was the philosopher Willard van Orman Quine’s famous term for a word in an imaginary language that, perhaps like life itself, can be interpreted in multiple ways.) This film does not feel like an intellectual game, but rather a slow-burning odyssey in the face of death. Through its subtle treatment of the twists and turns of individual loss, Gavagai stands as both a remarkable homage to an important figure in Scandinavian literature and a humor-tinged journey into the underworld of grief.
– J. M. Tyree, author of Vanishing Streets, Our Secret Life in the Movies, and BFI Film Classics: Salesman
J. M. Tyree: Gavagai was a Scandinavian production, and in terms of cinematic approach and storytelling it has, for lack of a better word, a slow-burning “Scandinavian” feeling about it. Yet you are both North Americans. Do you have a deliberative orientation towards a Scandinavian (or even “European,” whatever that might mean) sensibility, in terms of narrative and style?
Rob Tregenza: Stylistically, the mise-en-scene I work in is informed by Mizoguchi, Godard, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and to a lesser degree Bergman. I would call that an international art film style rather than situate it in a single culture.
Kirk Kjeldsen: When I first read Vesaas’ poetry, aesthetically, it reminded me of Rob’s style somehow – sparse, visual, and concrete, yet at the same time somehow spiritual.
JMT: Your decision to use photochemical film – 35mm – fits this project very well. At this point it does feel a little bit retro, in the best possible sense, to use 35mm, but it also seems part of a larger moment in which some filmmakers, writers, artists, and intellectuals are trying out alternatives to the all-embracing grasp of digital culture. I am interested in your comments on that process involving 35mm…
RT: It’s both aesthetic and political. I don’t understand why multi-national corporations, for their own profits, can deny visual artists the 35mm motion picture image, which has been to my mind the defining image of cinema.
JMT: When it comes to films based on poetry, did you have Tarkovsky’s Mirror in mind or did you take a completely different approach to the adaptation process with the poems of Tarjei Vesaas? How did the poem become this storyline, and what other storylines, if any, did you consider?
KK: I first brought up the idea to Rob of adapting a Vesaas’ novel, but we felt like it would be too reverential. Turning to his poetry, to which we both had a stronger response, we initially discussed the possibility of a documentary, but neither of us work in or are interested in documentary. Then we came up with the idea of creating a narrative structured around a number of poems, and after a few discussions, we had a basic storyline, which then quickly became a script. I haven’t seen Mirror, but I have seen Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, and Stalker, and Tarkovsky and Bergman are two filmmakers that strongly inform my writing.
JMT: Your title, Gavagai, seems to invoke the theory of translation in the philosophy of Quine. I’m no expert on Quine but from what I’ve read it seems that “gavagai” is an invented word in an imaginary language that Quine uses as an example of something that could translated in several different ways. Have I got that right and how does this title inform the story and the characters in the film?
RT: Yes, that’s right. It’s also about the indeterminacy of reference. My sister, who is a philosopher, told me the story of Quine’s rabbit years ago, before I did Talking to Strangers. I never forgot that idea. When we started talking about the story’s protagonist translating Vesaas’ poems into Chinese, it became an organizing theme for the film.
KK: I’ve been living abroad for six years now, first China, when we were initially discussing this, and now Germany, and I am constantly translating and have always been fascinated by language and its possibilities and limitations. Cinema and storytelling are ways of translating ideas and language into images, so it lent well to the film.
JMT: I found myself moved watching the scene near the end in which Carsten (Lust) attempts to fling his deceased wife’s manuscript of her translations from a hill or little viewpoint of some kind. The papers wind up getting strewn around, if I recall correctly. The ritual does not go according to plan, but the result is extremely affecting. How was that scene written, how did it work when it was shot, and what were the more philosophical elements of using long takes for these scenes? Did chance or serendipity enter the frame?
RT: We wrote it that way, but we were also blessed by a rainstorm that day that made the scene even more difficult for the actor. That shot is about ten minutes and thirty seconds long, and I knew going in that I wanted it to be a long take. For me, the long take is not realism; it actually plays with time in an interesting way. After a while, it goes beyond understanding and beyond the moment. One of the Vesaas poems we used, incidentally, was titled Beyond the Moment, and it was the working title of the script before we decided upon Gavagai.