Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Uncle Boonmee, Take Two: Radical Nostalgia

(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!)

Just before dashing over to the BFI for my second viewing of Uncle Boonmee, I finished reading Patrick Curry's fascinating Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, which I stumbled upon a couple of weeks ago at a Wiccan bookstore. My relationship to The Lord of the Rings is, I imagine, quite typical for my generation: as a nerdy, book-loving kid, I first read it a little too young, and was left nonplussed by its fiercely ecological and unabashedly English elements. So, of course, the movies were perfectly designed for 13-year-old me, and I embraced them wholeheartedly (upon recent re-viewing, I have reservations, but that's another topic). Curry's passionate, insightful book is equally perfect for 21-year-old me, delving as it does into the multi-tiered mythology and anti-modernist subtext of Tolkien's epic, which I now can't wait to re-read for the first time in years. But back to the silver screen...

I walked into the BFI's Studio Theatre with plenty of half-thoughts from my first viewing to complete, but as I watched Apichatpong Weerasethakul's magisterial fable again unfold, Defending Middle-Earth kept returning to mind. Curry takes to task critics who've lazily dismissed Tolkien as a simplistic, sentimental reactionary, defending Middle-Earth as a locus of principled opposition to (and, yes, retreat from) the flattening and destructive forces of technological modernity. Nostalgic, yes, but never disingenuous and never passive: Curry's term is "radical nostalgia," an idea I loved immediately and which stuck with me throughout my second take on Uncle Boonmee.

As Apichatpong's work has gradually gained recognition outside his native Thailand (culminating in Uncle Boonmee's Palme d'Or), western critics have taken upon themselves the usual task of describing his films in terms of western influences, for their readers' sake (and for their own, probably). Certainly, films like Blissfully Yours and Syndromes and a Century are so generous of spirit that they could easily appeal even to subtitle-haters, and so the question (as usual, IMO) is really one of distribution rather than translation, but that, again, is another topic. Besides, I'm as guilty as anyone--in my last post, I compared Apichatpong to David Lynch multiple times, and I probably will again before I'm done. I've also frequently heard him stacked up next to Renoir and Malick, both of which are valid enough reference points (after catching All About My Mother at the BFI last night with fresh eyes, I'd add Almodóvar to the list as well). Yet Tolkien is perhaps the closest thing to a Western kindred spirit to Apichatpong's latest; specifically, those aforementioned elements of Rings that stand in fierce ideological opposition to the Wagnerian sound-and-fury employed by Peter Jackson & Co. Like Tolkien's book, Uncle Boonmee realizes its subtle social polemics via wholly immersive fantasy, including lived-in magic, a constant sense of multiple unfolding stories, and above all, a revelatory emphasis on place, with characters inextricably linked to their homes in nature. Radical nostalgia, indeed.

I closed my last post by arguing that Uncle Boonmee represented the collapsing of spaces (modern/ancient, real/mythical) that Apichatpong had previously kept separate even as they naturally cross-fertilized. It would be easy, then, to cast this film as depicting civilizations in clash, but there's little strife in Uncle Boonmee--a few muttered slurs and a pang or two of homesickness, but that's all. If the circumstances that the titular uncle and his family find themselves in are decidedly fantastic (ghosts, visions, and Wookiees, oh my!), their reactions feel more like a kind of poetic realism. They crack jokes and keep up their routines as long as they can. A reunion dinner for Boonmee, his sister-in-law Jen, and her nephew Tong is interrupted by the Banquo-esque appearance of Boonmee's dead wife Huay and the revelation that the mysterious beast glimpsed at the film's beginning is Boonmee's long-vanished son Boonsong. Shattering stuff, but not five minutes later the camera has again isolated the three flesh-and-blood humans, as Boonmee earnestly begs a stunned Jen to take over his farm when he's gone--after all, if Huay can come back, Boonmee can too, to help Jen with the day-to-day affairs. Tong looks on silently, as he does for most of the scene, which ends when he cracks a goofy, can't-keep-this-in-any-more grin.

This is the milieu in which these people live, and in Boonmee's case, die. Huay and Boonsong have returned because they sense Boonmee's looming death due to kidney failure. He knows it, too: in an earlier scene, even after a doctor has made the trip to drain his kidneys (in a quiet dance of medical making-do very reminiscent of Syndromes and a Century), Boonmee asks him to stay "until the end," and continually reminds a reluctant Jen of the need to think about the future. Just before the doctor scene, Apichatpong shows us something strange and beautiful: a lush, overflowing plain, in which Boonmee has erected several lean-tos below which he grows vegetables. The structures stand out immediately, but nevertheless look completely at home: Apichatpong's artfully arranged mise-en-scène harmonizes man and nature. We cut to Boonmee staring out his bedroom window longingly as the doctor unpacks his equipment. Perhaps we just caught a glimpse of Boonmee's mind's eye, knowing his fate and thinking of the beauty he's been part of.

Windows are a key component of Apichatpong's aesthetic, never more so before than in Uncle Boonmee, where they act as a sort of skin. Renowned political geographer Stephen Jones conceived of border studies in this way--borders as a definite but permeable element of states, allowing for both identification and communication. So, too, do the outside and inside visually blur and bleed into each other in Uncle Boonmee, reflecting the impossibility of separating the titular man's life (lives?) from nature. When Tong first arrives at Uncle Boonmee's, he and Boonmee's assistant Jaai set about unpacking in a darkened room, giving it life as they spread out their things and turn on the lights, but the room's most gorgeous feature remains the glimpses of the jungle's tangle through the open windows.

That jungle is a locus of almost absurd fertility; in the opening scenes featuring the ox, there's a palpable sense that if the camera doesn't keep a close eye on the ground, it'll float off into an eternal arboreal sea. Cross-fertilization--or, sex--is a recurring theme in Uncle Boonmee: Boonsong transforms into a Monkey Ghost (think a Wookiee merged with that thing behind Winkie's in Mulholland Drive) after mating with one, and the film's most memorable side-story involves a mottled princess giving herself over to a catfish-god. Apichatpong's collisions are joyous (and funny), but also messy and a little squeamish, which is probably as it should be. These are the engines by which myth is reified: weird sex and matter-of-fact magic. Sounds right to me, and though Tolkien wasn't exactly the most libidinous of authors, he'd probably agree.

"Radical nostalgia" is that which asserts its place as if there never was anything else, but precisely by making room for the audience, relying on the slow excitement of magic coupled with magic's banality in this strange old world. The trees and valleys of northern Thailand, in Apichatpong's hands, are as fantastic as his film's more overtly mythical elements. These jungles are exactly where we expect magic to be, if it's anywhere. If the woods of New England are where Americans root their (gloomy, terrifying, morally severe) origin myths, as explicated in Irving and Hawthorne, then this jungle is the locus of Apichatpong's career-long pilgrimage. This is where the stories come from, and where they must return. And so must Uncle Boonmee; as Curry quotes Russell Hoban in Defending Middle-Earth, "We make fiction because we are fiction. We make stories because we are story." Step by step in Uncle Boonmee, nature takes back its own.

Yet the story ends in a modern hospital, among his survivors; Apichatpong's fable is broader and messier than simple transcendence. I'm getting more of a handle on what, exactly, it is; I'm looking forward to one more screening (tomorrow night, back at the Prince Charles), but I'm not expecting a feeling of "snapping into place," and I'm glad for that. Uncle Boonmee is above all open-ended; as Curry describes The Lord of the Rings, it's more rooted in hope than longing.

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