In the opening scene of The Waiting Room, the 51-minute film made to accompany the Tindersticks album of the same name, a small beam of light creeps its way through a window and spreads slowly across a bedroom wall. It’s a good introduction to both the film and the music that follows: like all of the Tindersticks records that came before it, The Waiting Room takes its time, its protagonists existing mostly in the pauses between actions. They rifle through old memories searching for clues and replace decisive motion with hesitation. They’re all waiting for something—death, hope, some kind of revelation—but it’s always just a few inches beyond their grasp. So they pace and worry and deliberate instead.
“I think it’s about how memories define you, in a way,” says Tindersticks frontman Stuart A. Staples, sitting in a Brooklyn coffee shop on a brutally cold winter morning. “Getting older, losing a sense of yourself, or being aware that so many people are losing a sense of themselves, of who they are and the memories that define them.” For The Waiting Room, Staples commissioned seven short films to accompany the album’s songs, with Staples handling two with his wife Suzanne Osborne and one on his own. The result is a gorgeous, mesmerizing film that gestures toward the album’s themes of memory, nostalgia, and hesitation without depicting them explicitly, or merely aping the actions in the song. “I didn’t want the films to be narrative or to describe the music,” explains Staples. “I wanted them to think about the ideas being a counterpoint to the music. I wanted them to create a visual space for the songs to exist.”
The project began when Staples was asked to be on the jury for the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. After reviewing the films as part of the selection process, an idea began to take shape. “As you watch them, you start to think that some of the reels [from the directors] are really successful,” Staples observed. “It was about being varied, with different viewpoints, being balanced but, at the end of it, feeling like you’d experienced something as a whole. I started to think about this in relationship to making an album—I want an album to be varied and I want songs to come from different directions, but at the same time, I also want it to be a whole. These two things started going through my mind, so I started to talk to Calmine Borel, the director of the festival, about it. Gradually, this started to emerge as an idea.”
Some directors were natural fits. Tindersticks had already worked extensively with the French director Claire Denis on the scores for five of her films, so Staples already knew he wanted her to direct the short film that accompanies the simmering, Afrobeat-influenced “Help Yourself.” Other directors came at the suggestion of Borel. Staples gave each director a working version of each song with a few brief notes, but left the realization of the vision to each director. For Christoph Girardet, who directed the film that accompanies “Second Chance Man,” Staples simply said, “This is a song about risk.” The resulting film stitches together stock footage that appears to date from the early ’70s, showing a man sweating, a coin spinning, and a car recklessly barreling down a highway. The film is followed by another driving film, this one by Pierre Vinour, but unlike “Second Chance Man,” it operates at breakneck speed, the frantic rush of traffic mirroring the song’s panicked lyrics. “There are different things connecting with the song,” Staples says. “The speed, the frantic feeling that I think ‘Lovers’ has, the words, the feeling of me singing it. It’s the words that go around in your head—the subconscious that gets confused, then breaks out and you get clear thoughts for a moment, and then it gets cloudy again. I really felt this song could exist in the driver’s mind.”
While none of the directors involved in The Waiting Room knew what the others were shooting, repeated motifs begin to appear as the film goes on: water, blue skies, amusement parks, long drives, fragments of old films. Taken together, they work as a kind of abstract meditation on sadness and memory, all of them having a kind of wistfulness and longing, yanking at a door to the past that has long since closed. And while Tindertsicks have a long history of exploring the emotional terrain of the heart, there’s a kind of inescapable sadness running through all of the songs on The Waiting Room. The music is ruthlessly minimal—guitar recedes into the shadows, providing mostly texture and shade. The majority of the songs consist of dry percussion, mournful horns, and Staples’ warm, leathery voice buckling at the center. They’re The National without the need for crescendos, all of the emotional gestures beautifully underplayed.
In the title track, against a wheezing carnival calliope organ, Staples pleads “Don’t make me suffer” again and again. And in the album’s most affecting number, the spoken-word “How He Entered,” Staples takes a moment in time—a young man walking into a room—and pauses to sketch a heartbreaking narrative of hope and potential and its aftermath. His writing is elegant in its conciseness: “This is how he entered, how he came in:/ with an open heart, his eyes wide/ a rubber in his pocket/ …a skip in his step.” It’s the little details—the unused condom, the wide eyes—that make the song feel more vivid, more lived-in. The accompanying film is simply old black-and-white home movies of director Gregorio Graziosi’s grandfather on his wedding day. “It’s a song that’s looking back on those wide-open times with the perspective of ‘this is what happened,’” explains Staples. “But in that moment, anything could happen. I think it’s really important for the record to have the feeling of that moment—and the memory of that moment. I’m able to say, ‘This is what happened, this was my reaction to it, and I remember it, and I understand how that relates to me now, and where I went wrong.’”
The album’s other two peaks come from a pair of duets. “We Are Dreamers!,” which features Jehnny Beth of Savages, is a tense, grinding song of desperation and disbelief. Its counterpoint is the light, lovely “Hey Lucinda,” where Staples tries to goad Lhasa De Sala to go out dancing with him. De Sala rebuffs his advances, singing, “I only dance to remember how dance used to feel.” The song was recorded in 2009, but was shelved when De Sala passed away in 2010. “I just couldn’t listen to her singing,” Staples explains. “Then last year, I wanted to listen to it again, after four years. And I just heard it in a really different way. I didn’t hear it as a song I was wrestling with, I heard it as a moment in time. The thing that is really great about Lhasa’s song is that so many singers would have taken a line like, ‘I only dance to remember how dancing used to feel’ and made it so sad. Lhasa understood that there’s mischief there. To me, the female part of that song—she’s already figured out that she’s moving on. She’s not clinging to the past anymore. It’s the guy who’s doomed. He’s going to be hanging on for dear life in a place that he doesn’t belong.”
It’s the ability to effortlessly capture that nuance that makes The Waiting Room—both the album and the film—so moving and unique. It’s the work of a band that repeatedly opts for suggestion over grand gesture, and is able to locate the panic, pain, and anxiety of the human condition again and again and again. “It’s kind of not right that, for 25 years, we’re actually this much engaged in what we’re doing,” says Staples. “On a certain level of creativity, I think what keeps you going is the idea that there’s something missing that you’re trying to figure out. And it’s almost getting to the point now where you’re thinking that, if you could just solve it, it could just be over.” That the search never ends is what makes Tindersticks’ music so poignant, and so real.
Photos by Richard Dumas