rodney ascher songs from the second floor

The ABCs of Death 2 gives twenty-six directors (or, in some cases, directorial teams) the chance to explore whatever mean, violent, strange ideas they want. Each is anchored only with a letter, a small budget, and a running time of just a few minutes. One director is Rodney Ascher, who made Room 237, and is now making a film about sleep paralysis.

We have an interview coming with Ascher where he talks about his work on the anthology film, but for now we’re going to give him room to talk about one of his favorite death scenes. What’s better is that he has chosen a movie I expect most people haven’t seen: the relatively obscure Songs From the Second Floor

Here Ascher goes into great detail about one bit in Songs From the Second Floor.

Songs From the Second Floor is probably the most depressing movie I ever watched twice on the same day. But its also funny and scary and downright beautiful (both on its surface and for the audacity of its style.)

It’s comprised of just 46 single-shot scenes (most of them static, each running an average of a little over 2 minutes) and is justly praised on the considerable strength of these impeccably composed and staged tableaus which sometimes evoke monumental oil painted panoramas. Slowly, and methodically they come together to tell a story of society’s slow collapse into total apocalypse. It feels a little like a lost Nick Cave / Terry Gilliam collaboration, not that any of us deserve such a thing.

Most of the conversations I’ve heard about it focus on what’s within these frames, but there’s real magic in the sequencing too – my favorite 4 shots play in a row and tell the tale of an especially elaborate, tragic, and ultimately futile human sacrifice. Although the sequence is chronological, we only grasp the significance of the first two shots after the third.

Shot 1: A small group of workers, politicians, paramedics, and military types are standing on a beach at the edge of a cliff. Eventually a cloth dummy plummets down onto the rocks to be carried away on a stretcher. Apparently this was a test.

Shot 2: A self-conscious little girl is being lectured about the wisdom of authority (“They’ve read all the books!”) and that the world has winners and losers (“Everyone can’t come to your birthday party, can they? They’d get a piece of cake no bigger than a crumb”) by a friendly psychologist. The scene is set in a massive, ornate room, where the girl is being sternly scrutinized by a few dozen self-important parliamentarians

Shot 3: An insanely grand ceremony, hundreds of extras including representatives of the Church, the Government, & the Military, joined by countless upstanding citizens, all silently witnessing this girl, now blindfolded, as she’s led to a plank looming off a cliff top. The real-time walk from foreground to the edge is excruciatingly painful and suspenseful, leveled only by the absurd pomp of the whole affair and the grim slapstick of the final delicate push over the edge. Afterwards we’re forced to wait a sadistically long and awkward time before tinny, pre-recorded hymns play over a loudspeaker as one of the bleakest punchlines in cinematic history.

And finally, Shot 4: Guilt, regret, self-justification, (and fear?) as many of the dignitaries drink themselves into oblivion in the wee hours of that horrible evening, vomiting over their formal wear.

This is a death scene I still haven’t shaken off in the 13 years since I first saw it even though the girl barely had a line. (Did I mention her parents helped lead her to the cliff? Oh lord, it was even worse rewatching it now that I have a kid.)

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Here’s the Songs From the Second Floor trailer, which is not safe for work due to nudity.

The ABCs of Death 2 is on VOD now, and will be in theaters on October 31.

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