Saturday, July 5, 2008

Apichatpong Weerasethakul connections

When I watch a film, I usually struggle to resist evaluating it as a discrete object that succeeds or fails on its own merits. I prefer to think of each film or other artwork as a segment of a continuum of creation -- usually the context of an artist's body of work, though there are other continuums I'm interested in as well.

When I watch a film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, it's no struggle to see it in the latter mode. Apichatpong's strategies especially invite the observation of them as part of a continuum. As critic Chuck Stephens has said of the director's filmography, "Something in one film will establish something that will recur in the next film, or there'll be a reminder of something in one film from a previous film."

So as a strong admirer of the filmmaker's feature-length films, I've been particularly grateful that Frisco venue Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has decided to show two programs of Apichatpong's rarely-screened short works, none of which I'd seen before. Unfortunately, the one-week postponement of the screenings has prevented me from watching them on the Yerba Buena's screen; I was able to make sure my work schedule didn't conflict with the originally posted dates, but unable to take time off on short notice to see the rescheduled shows.

That's why I was so relieved when the YBCA staff allowed me to view all but one of these short works on screener DVDs; a compromised viewing situation to be sure, but at least I wouldn't have to miss them completely. In addition, as much as I would have liked to see them in a cinema I'm not sure I'd trade that for two chances to see the masterpiece Syndromes and a Century in a 35mm print, which YBCA provided as compensation for those of us who had planned to see the shorts as originally scheduled. (They're reviewed as a group here, here and here.)

Each short I watched (all those in Program 1, which played on Thursday, and all but one film in Program 2, which plays tomorrow at 2PM) brought up rhymes, resonances, and questions from at least one of the feature-length works I've seen from Apichatpong's filmography. This is a beginning, by no means exhaustive :

Program One (already occurred):

The Anthem, 2006
One of my favorites of the set, this brief piece recalls Tropical Malady and especially Syndromes and a Century in its marriage of exuberantly catchy pop music to large-scale group exercise.

Windows, 1999
Perhaps the piece I most wish I could have seen on as large a screen as possible, this completely abstract study of light, rhythm and the camera mechanism nonetheless takes place in a room that reminded me of the settings of the director's hour-long video work Haunted Houses from 2001, even if the nature of each film's laboratory quality is completely different. I also have to wonder if some of what Apichatpong learned about light streaming through a window in 1999 was later applied to certain scenes in Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady.

Malee and the Boy, 1999
Made before his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, this color video work feels if not like a technical, then a spiritual precursor to the latter, which was shot on 16mm and 8mm and blown up to 35mm. Both pieces emphasize the communal nature of Apichatpong's work in a very front-and-center way, by putting unskilled collaborators (in this case a young boy who recorded the soundtrack in various Bangkok locales, as the director followed him) in control of the narrative.

Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves, 1996
This film brought forth connections to many of Apichatpong's credits, but none more than a film he did not direct but is credited with contributing a story idea to: I-San Special, made by Mingmongkul Sonakul in 2002, which like this film features a Thai radio drama as soundtrack over images of a group of passengers being driven from Point A to Point B. Chuck Stephens, in the same (unfortunately technically compromised) DVD commentary track that I quoted from near the beginning of this piece, brings up I-San Special, asking Apichatpong about a never-filmed project called Driving that apparently became the inspiration for Mingmongkol's film. When reviewing her film, Time Out New York refers to Driving as an "early short", with no mention that it never was filmed by Apichatpong. It makes me wonder if the Time Out reviewer was conflating the non-existent film with Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves...

Thirdworld, 1998
I'll be honest: of the nine short I saw, this is the piece that felt the most impenetrable to me upon a single viewing. I'd like to take another stab at it, but in the meantime I'd rather not write anything about it, other than to point out that since I watched it I've learned its production connection to Mysterious Object at Noon.

Program Two: (Sunday, July 6, 2PM)

Worldly Desires, 2005
Like Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, this 40-minute piece (co-directed by Pimpaka Towira, whose thriller One Night Husband is referenced in a scene in Tropical Malady in which the poster is visible) is set in a forest. But though at one point or another I thought of just about every one of his major works, what formed the most active mental connection for me was the resonance of its musical presentation to another forest-set feature co-directed by Apichatpong, this time with drag performer Michael Shaowanasai: the Adventure of Iron Pussy. For Apichatpong, the forest is an important sphere in which the expected norms of culture and society cannot hold the same deep influence that they can in civilization and especially inside government buildings. Both Worldly Desires and the Adventure of Iron Pussy fit into that conception as well as any of his films. As an aside: is it coincidence that his feature film that traverses territory farthest from the forest, Syndromes and a Century, is the one that has had the most publicly visible struggles with the self-appointed arbiters of cultural norms?

0116643225059, 1994
The earliest of the pieces seen is this one, titled after a phone number, and pictured at the top of this post. It shows that the budding director was from very early in his career concerned with investigating the schism between soundtrack and image, as he has been in most if not all of his subsequent works.

Ghost of Asia, 2005
The most purely enjoyable of all the pieces I viewed (though competition for that standing is pretty stiff from certain corners), this successor to Mysterious Object at Noon features Sakda Kaewbuadee, the "tiger" from Tropical Malady and the music-loving monk from Syndromes and a Century, as a kind of puppet-actor being controlled by the whims of a young team of "screenwriters" who appear in the other frame of a digital split-screen. It has a credited co-director in Christelle Lheureux, but that understates its collaborative authorship.

My Mother’s Garden, 2007
This piece of mixed-media animation reminded me that when I once rewatched the superimposed-drawing scenes from Blissfully Yours after seeing some Jim Trainor films I had to wonder if Apichatpong's time studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago overlapped at all with Trainor's employment as a professor there, if he had come across Trainor's work by some other means, or if he was wholly ignorant of Trainor yet shared some aesthetic strategies nonetheless.

Luminous People, 2007
This is the only piece I did not get a chance to see on screener, and I also was out of town when it played the YBCA as part of the State of the World omnibus in January of this year. I'll miss it again tomorrow, but would love to get your comments on it if you had a chance to see it.


  1. Interesting post…I am rally into the idea of the thread that runs through ones artwork, in your case film, and connective-ness of past to future works. I though I have not seen the film I love love love that title: Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves.

  2. This "continuum of creation" is an interesting way to look at films. It calls into question the idea of film authorship in a cool way. As I embark on a long-form project of similar nature, your post is a thoughtful model to encounter. The thing I find daunting when it comes to writing about current films (whether reviewing or in a longer essay) is situating the film at hand in a body of work, especially if I'm ignorant of the other films of the director. For instance: last summer, when I saw _I Don't Want To Sleep Alone_, I had no idea how to write about the film. I certainly did not do it justice. I think I'd write a different essay about _Syndromes_, too, now, but at least those portions of that post seemed to deal with the movie. Anyways: this situating is just a part of accounting for how our minds are directed towards the object and its particulars, how we produced certain associations. And Apitchatpong's films are all about that, in really accessible (yet not simple) ways, which is really cool. This is why I've fallen back in love with the Coens, too. It's why I dig those _Pirates_ pictures; not that they can really "compete" with something like _Syndromes_, a picture I continue to grow fonder and fonder of with each viewing.

    I'm not sure if I'll be able to go today, but I'm gonna try. I missed Thursday. I'm mostly sad I missed _Anthem_ and _Windows_ but I'm excited about the possibility of all of the pieces of Program Two.

    Also: That Nathan Lee essay is awesome.

  3. dude,

    you did this just to make me feel even worse about missing this, huh?

    j/k, some other things just as important (if not more) as cinema happened yesterday because I didn't go, so it all works out in the long run.

    at least I have your prose too venture what a viewing of these incredible films was like, which is the next best thing, except when the films are crap, then your prose is the better thing ;)


  4. Oh good, now I don't have to do it. Nice wrap-up.

  5. Thanks, all of you. Ryland, I like the "continuum of creation" model as much as I do because I believe it can be effectively used to strengthen inquiries into film authorship (when the continuum is an oeuvre) as well as it can augment realms of discovery well outside auteurism.

    Sometimes a strong working knowledge of a director doesn't help engaging with an individual film- my reaction to Thirdworld here is an extreme case, but I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is another film I had some trouble engaging with critically even though I'd seen pretty much every one of its director's films beforehand.

    I really loved the first Pirates of the Carribean film- so much that I've been scared to sample the other two for fear that they'll dilute some of my affection for the original.

  6. LUMINOUS PEOPLE was not shown at the YBCA. I don't remember it and it's not on the listing of films that was handed out.

  7. "I believe it can be effectively used to strengthen inquiries into film authorship (when the continuum is an oeuvre) as well as it can augment realms of discovery well outside auteurism."

    Let's hope so. I, on the other hand, appreciate Mark Peranson's cautionary observation in his Cannes 2008 round-up for the current issue of Cinema Scope: "Today's auteurism at times risks running its course, at least in its popular formulation: films that can easily be read as works similar to, or fitting into, a filmmaker's extant oeuvre, films that gaze inwards rather than searching outwards." (Cinema Scope, Summer 2008, Issue 35, p. 33.)

  8. Wise words about the limitations of becoming lazily dogmatic about a single approach to film appreciation! Looks like I need to read that article. Thanks for the tip.

  9. Trainor started teaching at SAIC in 2000, according to his bio on the school's website; that's roughly 4-5 years too late for any crossover.

    Luminous People was replaced in this touring package by the new film Emerald.

  10. Thanks for doing that footwork, Jim. I still wonder if he's seen Trainor's work.

  11. Well, I didn't make it. Oh well.

    I agree the "continuum" can strengthen the argument but I like that it forces you to look at all the different elements at play in the creation/s, not just the central name (brand?).

    Also, you should see the second and third _Pirates_ movies. They're dope. Even better than the first one.

  12. In my best Frankenstein's Monster voice: "Dope is good"