1 (2009)

! first published by EyeforFilm

Stanislaw Lem‘s short story One Human Minute, first published in 1986, purported to be a review of an imaginary book that reduces all human activity and endeavour over a 60-second period to a dizzying set of statistical data. Pater Sparrow’s 1 reimagines this same book emerging in a dystopian world that mirrors our own, and has its narrator declare in the prologue that our only solace for the book’s “slander that insults the whole world” is that “no one could make it into a film”.

If that sounds paradoxical, then paradox is very much the point here. For Sparrow’s film is a groping towards truths that are suggested to be inaccessible, incommunicable and entirely subjective. Its uncanny events are set within a constructed world that is both entirely generic and overtly allegorical, and yet can still accommodate extended montages of genuine archival footage.

A book is posited whose very adherence to unerring factuality marks it as an impossible marvel of omniscience. Indeed, the very contradictions and dissonances implied within the label ‘science fiction’ are thoroughly aired. And within the film, the authorship of the (imaginary) book is (imaginatively) ascribed to a collection of writers, alluding all at once to Philip K. Dick‘s notorious claim in a paranoid 1974 letter written to the FBI that Lem himself was “a composite committee rather than an individual”, as well as to the multiplicity of personnel who have contributed in different ways to this adaptation, including the author Lem, the screenwriters Góczán Judit and Sparrow himself, and the late Hungarian philosopher Béla Hamvas whose maxims have been appropriated verbatim for the character Swan Tamel (Sinkó László).

If 1 is a mystery, concerned with the very nature of reality, humanity, knowledge, perception, power and the divine, then Sparrow frames its freeform ideas, at least at first, within the familiar boundaries of the mystery genre. When the oracular Tamel requests an out-of-print tome from a world-famous dealership in second-hand books, the store’s owner Al F Eveson (Mácsai Pál), manageress Maya Satin (Kerekes Vica) and mute janitor Agnus Andersen (Czukor Balázs) discover that all the rare stock has disappeared – even with the shop’s doors locked from the inside – and been replaced with hundreds of copies of a book, plainly entitled 1, that “presents the broadest spectrum of human life circumstance in arithmological form.” Despite having no publisher and being credited to no author, the book’s data prove to be “impossibly accurate”, and have unpredictable, even dangerous effects on any reader.

Special Agent Phil Pitch (Mucsi Zoltán), a veteran detective of the Reality Defence Institute, arrives to investigate this bizarre crime, and immediately imposes a semblance of ordered rationality by having ‘citizen of the Vatican’ Tamel and the bookshop’s three staff ‘segregated’ in a medical sanatorium that also serves as an interrogation centre. At first, Pitch insists on adopting a literal-minded approach to the case, and refuses to take his suspects’ dreams into consideration (“you can tell them to our psychologist”), but as pears begin materialising everywhere seemingly out of thin air and chaos takes over the asylum, the investigator finds himself becoming an integral part of the strange and miraculous events unfolding around him.

Meanwhile, a copy of 1 has been leaked by Tamel to the general public, with results that might just change the world forever.

Enigmatic in form, encyclopaedic in scope, and leaving room between its lines for many different readings, Sparrow’s 1 encapsulates, much like the book from which it takes its name, the whole of human experience in eccentric, elliptical cross-section. Reminiscent of the works of Peter Greenaway (especially The Falls, 1980) in its vast referential breadth, its mannered blurring of fact and fiction, and the beauty of its tableau-like images, this fever dream of a film conjures up the ineffable presence of God alongside the whiff of dog turd, and defies viewers to determine for themselves both what’s what and what it’s all about. To have even a clue requires more than one viewing, and perhaps a whole lifetime – or as Pitch puts it: “We are only witnesses. Witnesses always interpret. You have to keep going back to the scene.”

© Anton Bitel