Sunday, October 10, 2010

Altered States

In 2006, I wrote this about Syndromes And A Century, by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose work I’d never seen before): “It’s not the easiest work to assimilate on a single viewing (I have some trepidation that I’ve misunderstood the thing completely), but my initial impression was that Apichatpong’s cinema might indeed be one of awesome possibilities.” Since then I’ve gone back and seen the two key films he made before that, Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, and I realize he’d already moved way past the stage of possibilities. Tropical Malady was so alluring to me - and yet I was again so uncertain of my grasp of it – that I watched it a second time within days, which helped a lot in appreciating its vision of fragile earthly lust careening into an altered state. Blissfully Yours is more earthbound, but no less propelled by its own muse (the opening credits, for instance, show up some 45 minutes into the movie).

Uncle Boonmee’s Past Lives

Although he’s only 40 years old, these films have put Apichatpong at the forefront of world cinema, which sadly doesn’t mean much mainstream awareness comes his way. This year he’s taken a major step toward greater fame, winning the top prize at Cannes for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The film was one of the opening attractions at the very pleasant new Bell Lightbox facility and it’s playing at the Varsity as I write; it’s likely to remain much more accessible than the director’s earlier works.

The Star’s less-than-visionary Peter Howell earned himself some attention for taking down the film after it won at Cannes. He called it “one of the most political and cynical moves ever from a Cannes jury,” alleging the president Tim Burton and the other members, “acting on his cue, wanted to show how cool and cutting-edge they were.” “As a cinema experience,” said Howell, “Uncle Boonmee is about as gripping as watching a variety store security video” (weirdly though, he then went on to suggest Burton should make more movies in the same vein, or at least spend some of his money promoting them). Just to show his own cynicism, when the film subsequently opened here at the Lightbox, Howell dutifully allocated it a TIFF-friendly three stars, neither acknowledging his earlier rant nor describing how the film might have grown on him with time.

Stirring Up The Next World

This tells you a lot about the degraded state of mass-market writing about film, which expects us to care about a lot of transient shiny toys (and to spend a lot of money on seeing them), while seldom putting together a coherent conversation from one week to the next. Uncle Boonmee is an especially interesting focal point for this, because the film’s importance lies I think in setting out an alternate vision for our interaction with the universe, not just for the sake of our own spiritual health, but that of our political and social infrastructure. Boonmee is dying of kidney disease, and his long-dead wife’s sister and her son come to see him on his farm; at the first night’s dinner, the dead wife materializes at the table, and then his dead son arrives too, in the guise of a red-eyed “monkey ghost” (the generalized notion is that Boonmee’s weakening grasp on this world is stirring up the next). The film follows his last days, while also digressing to other scenes that we can only understand as glimpses of his past lives: an ox escaping from its tether, a princess’ erotic encounter with a talking catfish.

Howell’s “security video” crack does reinforce the point that Apichatpong seldom reaches for flamboyant or splashy beauty; instead he suggests the poverty of our usual rushed or circumscribed perception of things. His approach to the other world is extremely plastic; the depiction of the monkey ghost (a man in an ape suit, basically) bravely invites derision. But many of the movie’s most striking images belong entirely to this world, such as the gorgeous night-time view of the ox, its actions suggesting a purpose we can’t fathom, but maybe largely because we so seldom spend time watching oxen, or any other animals.

It would be inattentive though to think the film’s concerns are entirely ethereal. Early on, the visiting sister expresses her paranoia about illegal immigrants from Laos, and Boonmee fears his illness may be a result of bad karma for having killed too many Communists in the past (and also too many bugs). As he nears his end, the film makes a startling change of direction, into a photomontage suggesting (to me anyway) the extreme danger that man would only abuse any greater access to the spirit world. The film’s coda extends this theme, following the aftermath of Boonmee’s funeral via a monk who hardly conforms to our idealistic concepts of orange-robed Buddhist acolytes, and a new category of out-of-body mysteries (carrying an implied critique of how our better natures are torn between the world’s everyday ills on the one hand, and all-suffusing cultural pap on the other).

The Value Of Cinema

All in all, Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall His Past Lives seems to me one of the year’s most graceful and rewarding films, and one of the most deserving Cannes prizewinners in a long time; it belongs to the privileged circle of cinema that extends and deepens the conversation about why some of us care so much about the art in the first place. I mean, if our concern is with finding good stories, an easy way to pass two hours, then cinema isn’t a particularly cost-effective or reliable way of doing that. But I still believe in its inherent capacity for illumination and enhanced awareness. As with anything, the main drive of cinema is toward more technology, more size, faster pace, which may make for better spectacle in a certain abstract way, but can’t possibly yield a better understanding of anything that should matter to us.

And when you look at the state of things, it’s not as if we don’t need some help in understanding where we should go from here. There’s a lot of anger in the public discourse now, especially in the US, but it’s surely inadequately rooted either in an appreciation for the complexity of how we got to where we are, or a true commitment to what it’ll take to forge a sustainable renewal. Apichatpong doesn’t have an answer to all of that, of course, but with great equanimity and patience, his film puts all those strident assertions about values and entitlements in perspective, illustrating how little we value the complexity within ourselves.

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