Saturday, January 22, 2011

Uncle Boonmee, Take One: Ghost Stories

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an incredible film. So much so that I'm planning on seeing it three times, in two different theaters, and bloggin' a new post for each viewing. Hopefully, this will help me get at the astonishing play of ideas at work in this movie; if not, at least it'll be an unusually-for-me organized attempt. Either way, really. Stay tuned!)

It’s a lamentably typical complaint among filmgoers: “I couldn’t keep my eyes open.” But why does this have to be a negative? Certainly, drifting off in a classroom is a bad sign, for both student and teacher; our standards for art, however, ought to be different. How many of us fight off bouts of insomnia with the help of soothing, hypnotizing music? Few traditions cut across cultures like putting children to sleep with stories. As much as our sacred fables help establish our collective values, fears, and hopes, they also introduce stories as a world in between the conscious world and the unconsciousness of sleep. The best bedtime stories, the ones we return to as curious, analytic adults, are perfectly pitched somewhere among the detritus of history, parable, and fantasy. Universes are blurred, cross-fertilizing, evoking the mixture of preconscious fear and elemental excitement with which kids the world over greet nightfall. Eyelids droop. Dreams follow.

I kept my eyes closed during most of the opening credits of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the latest cinephilic symphony from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, on whose shoulders I’m increasingly resting the future of the medium. In part, it was the sound. Before any words appeared onscreen, the sprawling basement theater of the Prince Charles Cinema was enveloped in the chirp of insects, the flow of distant streams, the creaking of trees, and that indefinable rustle that seems to hang behind every sound in the natural world. This may sound familiar, even banal, but the restful density of Apichatpong’s soundscapes introduce a calm anticipation like nothing I’ve experienced in any other art—like nothing I’ve experienced in anything outside of deep nature itself. Even the faint gray glow of the screen was too much. I closed my eyes.

I opened them to see an ox, tied to a tree, rooted in a silvery plateau surrounded by shadowy trees. The ox strains to pull free; the rope holding it forms a perfect line against the lush ellipticism of the surrounding environment. Apichatpong cuts to its human keepers, sitting and talking quietly in a nearby glade. The ox finally succeeds and trots off, with increasing speed and confidence, into the nearby jungle. The camera follows at first, but gradually begins to lag behind, lingering on the impossibly tangled trees, as if waiting for something to emerge from this moonlit mystery. Eventually, of course, one of the men finds the ox. A single, unbroken frame watches as he untangles the ox and strains to drag in back; as well as exemplifying Apichatpong’s wry, deadpan humor, the shot avoids any cuts that might have disrupted this enveloping jungle and the enchantment moving within. The latter is finally given concrete form, after a cut necessary and enlivening: a shadowy thing, hunched but huge, with laser-red eyes shining out of the jungle’s dusk.

Whenever I find myself somewhere overwhelmingly majestic, so beautiful as to seem unreal, I like to close my eyes for a moment or two. I imagine myself somewhere familiar, a street in my hometown, or a classroom, or my bed, waking from a dream. Just as I have my body and mind convinced, my eyes snap open again. There it still is: the stormy Atlantic, or the mountains of Hokkaido, or that fantastic creature lurking in Apichatpong’s jungle. When I opened my eyes again to Uncle Boonmee, I had one last glimpse of the beast before the title flashed onscreen. Waking up, or falling asleep?

It’s difficult to say. After the title, we jump out of the jungle and onto the road. The camera hovers inside a sedan, collecting still shots of each silently staring passenger in turn. Certainly, it’s a massive shift in mise-en-scène, and marks the introduction of the narrative proper in lieu of the opening one-off, but one element remains: the forefronting of sound. This time, we’re blanketed by the roar of the engine and the air-conditioning, yet the effect is the same—the sensorial domination of environment. But then, one of the passengers (Auntie Jen, played with immobile kindness by Jenjira Pongpas) cracks her window a bit, and a smile plays across her weathered face. The jungle whips by.

Such subtle dichotomies and ambiguous collisions define Apichatpong’s oeuvre, from which Uncle Boonmee marks both a diversion and an evolution. His earlier treasures Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century were radically split down the middle, initial narrative threads cast off and remade new. Malady’s feverish love story shifts sideways into a deep-jungle tiger hunt, while Syndromes literally starts over halfway through, transplanting its central fledgling couple from a small rural hospital to a sprawling Bangkok medical complex. Among Western critics, this recurring motif earned Apichatpong no end of comparisons to beloved formalist tricksters like Resnais and Lynch, but the Thai filmmaker is more playful, less capital-A ambitious, and ultimately less definable than his monolithic forebears. His virtuoso sequences are more synced to life rhythms, his imagist impact tied less to modernist deck-shuffling than nature’s eternal resurrections. Beauty and mystery pre-empt and replace theoretical teasing-out of meaning.

As such, while Malady and Syndromes may sound foreboding, academic, and mysterious in description, they couldn’t be less so in execution. Not that there’s anything wrong with those adjectives or the films they actually do describe, but Apichatpong’s filmography blazes a different path for explicitly elliptical narrative filmmaking. His films are meditative, horizontal takes on “total cinema,” immersive rather than suspenseful. Like latter-day Lynch, he works primarily with spare parts, but his sidling camera and graceful editing speak to a sparer, more accessibly rhythmic poetry than Lynch’s (brilliantly) overstuffed collages. For those familiar with his work, there’s nothing properly “mysterious” about Apichatpong’s filmmaking, because unlike Lynch (or Denis, or Haneke), he’s not actually hiding anything. His films’ constructions unmistakably concern themselves with the mechanics of narrative, but not at the ontological or ethical level, and teasing specific allegories out of Malady or Syndromes is an exceedingly difficult dead-end. Apichatpong is instead invested heavily in film’s relationship to ancient modes of storytelling, rooted in local myth, which is itself rooted in the kind of repetitions and gradual changes his work exemplifies. His full-length debut, Mysterious Object at Noon, is the kind of self-reflexive shaggy-dog story that ought to seem familiar to any Slacker fan, but is also grounded in (very specifically) Thai history, culture, and most thornily, contemporary politics.

In its fairy-tale asides, its deadpan collision of wild fantasy and treasured banality, and its individualistically grounded allusions to Thailand’s bloody history and uncertain present and future, Uncle Boonmee expertly guides the Apichatpong project into its second decade. Yet given its relative lack of formal play, its restless, goofy humor, and its literal evocation of ghosts and hybrids (as opposed to Malady’s ambiguous transformations), it’s tempting for even (especially) Apichatpong devotees to demote his latest to the status of “minor work.” Yet Uncle Boonmee is already stirring the interest of wider bases than the open-minded art-house frequenters who embraced his previous works. Perhaps this is because, instead of dividing up his various ancient/modern, real/mythical spaces, Apichatpong is concerned here with collapsing these spaces into each other, centered on an old man facing death—but, as the title indicates, also confronting life.

I’ve barely begun delving into the film’s specific achievements; I’m taking the advantage of second (and third) viewings to develop my thoughts further. Repetition and, perhaps, transformation—surely, Uncle Boonmee’s creator would approve.

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