Apichatpong’s film is the bang in the night that has the power to shock us out of convention, to help us open our eyes and ears to the rich and largely unexplored potential of the immense and beautiful worlds around us (the world of film; the world of experience; worlds of sight and sound, of sensation, sentiment, and deeper meaning). Better yet, it’s a pleasant shock, with equal parts beauty and mystery, sparking both appreciation and curiosity.
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The plot is simple, really more a situation than a story. A woman is startled awake in the middle of the night by an unexplained loud bang. In the days that follow, she seems haunted by this disruption, somehow changed, jarred into a state of heightened awareness to the sensory inputs of the world around her. She wanders with a mixture of unease and curiosity through a vague landscape – a construction site, an art gallery, an overgrown scrap of land alongside a burbling river – seeking something, but not really sure exactly what. The resulting film, assembled from these humble and seemingly inconsequential elements – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria1 – is a fascinating, slow-motion inquiry into nothing less than the experience of being a sentient mind in a physical body moving in the dimensions of space and time: which is to say, an exploration of what it means to be human.
We are given only the barest background and context, just enough grounding to keep the story from seeming too abstract or surreal, saving enough negative space in the narrative to pique our interest and keep us watching, listening, wondering (not unlike our heroine). The woman (Tilda Swinton, in a masterfully understated performance of largely wordless acting) is named Jessica; she’s a stranger in a strange land, visiting her sister in Bogota; there’s a group of engineers and archaeologists tunneling through a mountain in the jungle; she has a friend who knows someone who works in a recording studio. But for the most part, she’s alone, without a lot to fill the time: there’s nothing to distract her from the strange auditory richness of her surroundings and the existential attention they cultivate in her.
Through the most subtly ingenious filmmaking – careful, thoughtful, deliberate – we, too, become aware of, and fascinated by, every sight, sound, and stimulation, both on the screen and just outside the frame. The compositions, the long takes, the smooth tracking movement – or persistent stillness – of the camera all contribute to the pervasive sense of hidden meaning: an underlying force, growing, spanning, connecting – here, the tree, the rock, yes, even between the land and we who traverse it. Importantly, though, while the technique is precise, it is never sterile: Apichatpong’s lens is an empathetic one, delivering warmth and capturing the humanity of everything it photographs. And this emotional depth is reflected back, and channeled in Swinton’s performance and those people she encounters in her wanderings: the pensive pauses and slow, considered meditations draw us in, as they quietly mull over the profoundly quotidian riddle of existence in a world alive with sensation.
There’s an extended scene where Jessica visits the friend of a friend who happens to work in a recording studio, hoping to recreate the noise that went bump in the night. Working with the patient engineer (Juan Pablo Urrego), she attempts to describe – and then recreate – what she only dimly recalls from just off the edge of sleep, a memory of an echo of a wisp of a sensation. The setup is similar to sequences in more conventional thrillers – The Conversation and Blow Out, or even The Fugitive – where characters puzzle through the challenge of remembering and matching an exact sound, but here the mystery is more existential. Rather than providing a concrete clue to solve a murder or catch a thief, Jessica’s lost sound serves as a mystic touchstone, an anchor to the ineffable, a focus for our meditation. Unlike vision, which can be frozen in time and compared (although this film plays with these aspects of perception as well), sound is invisible, momentary, fleeting: a perfect non-material for reflecting on essential impermanence, change, and transcendence. We move forward in time, leaving only traces and echoes in our wake, which slip through our fingers as we reach back and try to grasp them.
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In the 2018 update to his landmark study The Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer (1972), Paul Schrader included a short essay entitled “Rethinking Transcendental Style.” Reflecting back on the evolution of the experimental, artistic, and other nonnarrative works he was originally intrigued with, he’s expanded his original study to categorize nearly a century of so-called “slow film” using a clever diagram, resembling a scatterplot of directors on a strange three-way polar coordinate graph.
Each director can be located along one of three major axes headed out from the large “N” at the center (representing the more conventional, plot-driven works: “N” for narrative). Based on his earlier works, Apichatpong can be found in the lower right-hand corner, along what Schrader dubs the “Mandala” line, grouped with Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson (two of Schrader’s early favorites). In contrast, other filmmakers have moved away from narrative in other directions: say Terrence Malick and Stan Brakhage (the “Art Gallery” axis), or Chantal Akerman and Alberto Serra (the “Surveillance Cam”).
But the real thrust of Schrader’s thesis concerns a fourth dimension to his classification scheme, overlaid across the three other axes: a boundary line he refers to (somewhat disparagingly) as the “Tarkovsky Ring,” representing the loss of anything resembling a coherent narrative and consequently the limit of audience acceptance. Films found within this circle may be artsy, but they are generally accessible: transcendent, yes, but close enough to conventional fare to be #relatable (as the kids say these days); but beyond this event horizon, Schrader contends, directors have pushed their fascination with technique and other aesthetic/academic concerns too far for most of us: they are films made for critics, scholars, museums, and possibly other filmmakers, not for people.
It’s a clever analysis, and one that lines up well with the initial experiences of audiences, but it’s too static in its knee-jerk populism. Film art changes over time, as does film criticism – and so, too, do audiences. Importantly, the process is dynamic, and often intentional as well: tastes and tolerances do not just change through some natural, unguided evolution, but as a result of the ongoing conversation of creators, critics, and consumers. (To paraphrase Churchill’s famous maxim about architecture: “we shape our filmmakers; thereafter they shape us.”) Some films or directors that are considered too artsy or experimental at one point in time may, in turn, move the entire field, fundamentally reshaping our understanding of what is possible in film – and we’re richer for the effort. (In retrospect, we may even look back and wonder what was once considered to be so revolutionary: consider Birth of a Nation, Bicycle Thieves, or Citizen Kane, all groundbreaking works which redefined our shared understanding of film, but now seem fairly conventional: a testimony to their influence.) Similarly, audiences grow and change, becoming more tolerant and open to – or even excited by – different approaches to storytelling. (They may even be intrigued by different ways of using film beyond telling stories at all.)
Memoria provides just this service, at a moment when it is truly needed. Apichatpong’s film is the bang in the night that has the power to shock us out of convention, to help us open our eyes and ears to the rich and largely unexplored potential of the immense and beautiful worlds around us (the world of film; the world of experience; worlds of sight and sound, of sensation, sentiment, and deeper meaning). Better yet, it’s a pleasant shock, with equal parts beauty and mystery, sparking both appreciation and curiosity. The director knows well that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and to make a film that is innovative yet approachable requires connection with the audience, not just pretentious artifice or awesome pyrotechnics. It’s a fascinating magic trick, pulled off with only the simplest everyday items: sound, framing, attention, time, space, memory, experience, emotion – assembled as a primer to help us relearn the language of film. The mysteries of the world are all around us: we just need to wake up to notice them.
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Note: Although Memoria is best viewed without preparation, with fresh eyes and ears, those seeking a deeper engagement may also want to explore the companion book published by Fireflies Press, which collects notes, sketches, photos, and other ephemera to chronicle the winding path Apichatpong followed to create the film.
- Memoria, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, is being presented in an innovative/controversial “roadshow” of weeklong screenings from city to city, starting in New York. The distributor, Neon, has said that it will never be available for home viewing, and it will play exclusively at each location/theater, only once in the world at any given time. For more information, see here. [↩]