Gavagai | Chicago Reader

Gavagai

The title of Gavagai refers to a word in a made-up language invented by American philosopher W.V. Quine in his thesis on the indeterminacy of translation. I won’t pretend to understand Quine, but thankfully he’s not discussed in the film, which in fact contains little dialogue. Rather, cowriter-director-cinematographer-editor Rob Tregenza employs the term as a clue to the movie’s opaque content. As you might guess, Gavagai is about the difficulties of translation, in both subject and form. The main character is a German tourist trying to translate the poetry of Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) into Chinese; in a formal analogue to the story, Tregenza spotlights the difficulties of translating into cinematic terms both poetry and the internal experience. The filmmaking is ravishing. Tregenza employs long takes and elaborate yet gracefully executed camera movements—you could say it flows like a poem. Yet Tregenza often reminds us how movies and poems are dissimilar, not to mention how movies can’t convey emotions as precisely as poems do. The most interesting thing about Gavagai may be that it produces something so calming out of such a jarring clash of art forms.

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