Tillsammans is a well-made sorta-comic sorta-serious feelgood ensemble drama about a communish collective located in a Swedish suburb in 1975. The collective, Tillsammans (Together), includes your couple experimenting with an open relationship in a building with thin walls, your newly-minted lesbian, your gay man, some unhappy kids, a woman taking refuge from her abusive husband, neighbors of antithetical mood looking on, politics, a woman airing out her apparatus due to a fungal infection, a man airing out his apparatus because the woman is airing out hers, so forth. Ironically, these folks become less and less together at first, but then the plot does a volte-face, with togetherness increasing amongst the group now on a deeper level than before, new connections made that everyone in the movie, kid and adult, has been missing, wants, and needs. I cannot vouch for the verisimilitude of the representation of this collective; writer/director Lukas Moodysson was only six in 1975, but perhaps he was present at the scene at that age, now revisiting his memories through his script. Perhaps that’s the reason for the movie. Perhaps Moodysson interviewed his parents for insights into the 70s.
I’ve seen Tillsammans three or four times over the past nine years and it holds up. The characterization is paper thin: all that you need to know about each member of the ensemble is sketched in moments as the soapish plot advances. But given that the dreaded staring-off-into-space motif is so often used these days to signify unknowable depths in a protagonist, who needs characterization?
Several quick points about the movie:
- It was made in Trollhättan. Which I thought was located on Discworld or in Middle Earth.
- Trollhättan here is standing in for a Stockholm suburb. It also stood in for rural Washington State in “Dancer in the Dark.” Moodysson isn’t doing dogme here, but the grainy photography, close-ups, and handheld photography remind of Von Trier and Scandinavian guerilla filmmaking, at least until the humor in the film emerges, a minute or two in.
- The writer/director’s first film was titled “F**king Amal.”
- A line about Baader Meinhof was left out of the subtitles. Conspiracy???
- It’s possible that throughout the 50s and 60s, and maybe the early 70s as well, the only Swedish movies I saw were Bergman’s. I skipped “I Am Curious Yellow,” reports of boredom outweighing my prurient interest. So now, years later, the sound of onscreen Swedish dialog still triggers Pavlovian expectations in me of conversations that plumb the depths of the human puddle of the soul. So maybe I invested the collective members of Tillsammans with more gravitas than they actually had earned during my viewing. I remember going out on a dinner date once with a young woman who had a strong Swedish accent, and it was the weirdest thing. As I sat across from her, I kept dropping into monologs about winter, Olaf Palme’s murder, Fårö, the bare trees with their bare branches, my chilblains, the cold drafts in the empty chapel where I prayed in the face of the stubborn divine silence, after cracking the ice on the water bowl in my bedroom, only to abrade my thighs with a frozen washcloth. And this was at a luau on Kauai, mind.
- I don’t recall shopping bags having paper handles yet in the 70s, as depicted in the movie. Also, the VW bus looks like it would look now, not then.
- I’ve heard it said that Eva, the fourteen-year-old in the movie, is the most adult of all the characters – an opinion that evidently originated with someone who has never lived with a fourteen-year-old girl, and mistakes angst for insight.
- It is not good to hear your partner experiencing her first orgasm when you aren’t in the room with her but she isn’t alone.
Anyway, a collective is a group the members of which share a common goal. In the case of the Tillsammans collective, the goal is political, or was in some year or other before the action begins. Hence the opening scene of joy at the news of Franco’s death. Hence one of the collective’s children being named “Tet,” after the offensive. Meanwhile, a commune is a group the members of which share a common purpose and join together to be with others who share similar tastes, thoughts, and desires. Tillsammans, though the point is never made explicitly in the film, seems to be transmogrifying from collective to commune as the movie progresses… or no. Now I’m thinking that Moodysson simply chose the collective setting as a convenient way to stage an ensemble drama, or a soap opera. The commune truths that I personally experienced are barely nodded to in the movie. (Moodysson has gone on to write/direct five more movies, none of which I’ve seen.)… Or no. Now that I come to think of it, many of the interactions in the movie actually do hinge on the facts of collective life. E.g., reassigning the relaxation/meditation room for use by a non-collective outsider; dealing with the group member who won’t do the dishes; solidarity in the face of opposing opinions… But hey! Wait a second. I just realized that this movie, made in 2000, presents the 1975 collective as if the whole concept of collective action, born in the 1960s (actually it’s been around since humans were fighting off the tyrannosauruses), has past, so that these guys are, well hell, saps for soldiering on, though Moodysson obviously cares for them (music by Abba) and probably didn’t mean for them to seem like saps. No, they aren’t saps; it’s hard to make a Swede look like a sap; a dolt, maybe, but not a sap.
What’s the difference between a soap opera and a legitimate dramatic creation based on solid characterization, anyway? The characters in Tillsammans grow and change in the course of the film; most evince conflicting characteristics within themselves, automatically making them seem more real, so forget what I said above about their paper-thinness. They deal with emotional issues emotionally, but with enough restraint to avoid bathos. There are plenty of characters, though, so a cinematic lick and a promise must often suffice in defining them via the action.
I was 16 when the 60s began and 26 when they ended. At the time, the creation and growth of communes in the U.S. seemed like a natural development in the cultural evolution of human society – a cultural maturation of 50s on-the-road into 60s pulling-off-onto-the-shoulder-and-then-taking-a-hard-left-out-into-the-Upper-Sonoran-wilderness consciousness.
I began my part in this by sharing peyote at a hot springs with a lot of other naked sojourners, thence moving on to communal life. I take the subsequent history of the togetherness movement, from the 70s to the present, as a metaphor for my life. My time in the commune began with my participation in a triangle-type relationship, but it turned out that the legs of the triangle were of unequal length. Also, it seemed that we kept slipping into two-against-one mode, and for this reason I reached out within the community to transform the triangle into a square – well, a trapezoid really, because once again I didn’t properly address the leg-length issue before acting. This caused the two-against-one dynamic to transmogrify into a three-against-one situation. Then, the fifth leg that we (I) added created, switching metaphors, a healthy hearty four-legged beast with an unhealthy unhappy wagging tail. Neurasthenically wagging, a downhearted drooping wag-twitching tail. Long story short, for every individual in the commune, multiple relationships are possible, but for one or two of the individuals it can be difficult finding a grouping that doesn’t leave you shucking the damn corn and shelling the damn peas while your groupmates are noisily making the sign of the multi-sided yam out back in the yurt.
So how could communes and ashrams seem so natural, so normal, so necessary to one generation only to then practically evaporate, leaving hardly a trace in the decades that followed. What, it was only a fad? The ideas wore out? Who’s to blame? Reagan? The rise of the NFL? The defeat of Communism? How have the young gone about dropping out and rebelling since then? As per mumblecore? Or by scoring high on their SATs and leaving for college, only to return home after graduation to clear the stuffed animals off the bed and move back in until those darned lagging unemployment indicators turn around again? The communes were wiped out by the materialism of the 80s? They were simply impractical? These experiments in cooperative living – all failures? Reagan did turn off the community-action spigot in the first year of his reign; that didn’t help, but it didn’t surprise anybody, either. And how come we’ve got to live through yet another set of stupid wars without even getting a summer of love to go with them? It’s an outrage.
I googled for area communes and discovered one listed right across town, out beyond the tank farm. I went over for a visit after reading the commune specs online: one man, one woman, one boy, one girl. If I join, we will share labor, take our meals together, start a garden after breaking up the concrete covering the backyard, and share spiritual searchings and mingle our chakras after the kids fall asleep at night. The man asked me if I had a sledge hammer and wheelbarrow. I said yes. The woman asked me about my seeds.
So if you grow up in a decade, does that make it, and the decades just before it, seem special? Do the 50s and 60s just seem special to me because that’s when I was young? Do the 80s and 90s seem unique and distinct to you now, dear reader, if that’s when you were young? While to me, the years from 1980 to 2009 are mostly an undifferentiated blur? The young, as the communes died out, abandoned free love, extended group families, and radical democracy in favor of what, the blur? Not in favor of the weblike internets, which took a while to arrive; though I did send my first email in 1981. Whole Foods? Drowning polar bears? Facebook as the new commune? Or, wait, did society just subsume everything that used to make a commune seem unique? By Jupiter, am I sitting here in the middle of it? The Big Commune?
How can there be no hippies but the proverbial “aging” hippies? What currently replaces the hippie urge? I googled “internet commune” with high hopes, dashed. The “Internet Collective” is, ugh, incorporated. Drug use? No, that’s so high school. Clothing easiness? Hey, I’m at work as I finally write this and you should see me. Those glimpses of commune life in “Into the Wild,” are they just Sean Penn’s surmise? Times are supposed to be hard; doesn’t that mean that there are plenty of post-college youth out there with nothing to do, not to mention boomers flashing back to their youthful roots, and disaffected x- and y-gen unemployed? Are intentional communities and unschooling programs and suchlike anything more than just notions?
And my God, I just realized something else. The greatest literary influence of my youth was “On The Road.” I hitchhiked to school every day. I hitchhiked back and forth across the U.S. and Canada multiple times. I hitchhiked up and down Mexico. “Two-Lane Blacktop” resides in my Top 5. But where have all the hitchhikers gone? Not to communes, that’s for sure. The only hitchhikers left are the serial killers, and they’re just doing it until somebody makes a movie about them after they’ve been executed. The nation has lost its way.
Why no hitching? Hitchhiking can be an important rite of passage. How many hitchhikers in “Into the Wild”? One. Emil Hirsch. What’s getting in the way? Improvements in mass transit? I don’t think so. Affordable gasoline? Nope. Rattletraps you can buy for peanuts? They hardly exist anymore outside of Cuba, not like the “iron” you could used to buy. Bicycles? Nope – those helmeted, costumed figures peddling along in the bike lanes are not lapsed thumbers. Freeways?
And who is more afraid of whom now, between driver and hitcher? These days, as the hitchhiker climbs into the car or truck that has pulled over and sits idling with ominously tinted windows, will that passenger climb out again later, still in one piece?
An hour later: OK, I called my friend Jane. I’ve known Jane for ten years and was sort of aware all that time that her living arrangements were somehow out of the ordinary, but I never asked her for details. Turns out that she lives in a house with a name like Glow Lobster Aura or something, owning 1/8 of it and dedicated to a type of community living that involves sharing a variety of things that I for one tend to keep to myself. As I asked her about the current state of collectives, group homes, and communes in the area, she took me on a verbal tour of co-housing and alternative lifestyles locally that amazed me. Turns out that I know more folks involved in non-traditional lifestyles than I would ever have guessed. Dreams endure, though transmuted by time into modern forms. Dreams, but also the reality that living together is not easy, like married life is not easy.
But I digress.
When Moodysson made “F**king Amal,” Ingmar Bergman announced that a new master had been born. Tillsammans strengthened Moodysson’s reputation. Since then, he’s written a TV movie and written and directed five more films. After two additional arthouse flicks, he brought forth a couple of real head-scratchers (“A Hole in My Heart” and “Container”), and most recently, his first English-language effort, the globe-trotting “Mammoth.” Tillsammans won various awards, including the Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Moodysson is always interesting, but I’d say that at 40, we all hope that his future is still ahead of him.
The movie’s lesson: let’s all move to Sweden, where everyone, no matter how nutty he or she may sometimes seem (refer to my next review for an analysis of Elin Nordegren), is in fact way saner than Americans are, or at least way saner than my gun-toting, tea-bagging, Palin-lovin American neighbors next door. (But I’m only raggin on the G.O.P. because I’m frustrated trying to find a good big solid incorporated Republican commune with a good big solid commune president who would keep us focused not on the weak sisters in our group but on America, love it or leave it, goddamnit, and on the uranium-mining business that our commune would operate, and on the commune’s goddamned bottom line.)