Aaron Katz, Cold Weather, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes.
BEN CHACE AND SAM FLEISCHNER’S Wah Do Dem (2009), in which a young man from Brooklyn comes to knowledge during a trip to Jamaica, has a sensational climax. The movie is among the highlights of the BAMcinemaFEST, and it’s a measure of how exciting a festival this is that Wah Do Dem is not the only astonishing movie on a schedule that mixes recent American indies—Aaron Katz’s lovely shape-shifting Cold Weather (2010) is another knockout, as is Bryan Poyser’s claustrophobic spin on sibling rivalry, Lovers of Hate (2009)—with fabulous music docs and vintage genre flicks.
Wah Do Dem (Jamaican patois for “What’s wrong with them?”) opens with cool Brooklyn musician Max (Sean Bones) being jilted by his girlfriend (Norah Jones in a two-minute cameo), which forces him to go solo on a luxury cruise to Jamaica. Out of his element among the moneyed oldsters, Max spends a couple of days lurching from deck to deck and from ballroom to cabin, alternately drunk and seasick. Chace and Fleischner’s editing is fast and elliptical, and Fleischner keeps the camera close and unpredictably angled. The effect is a Fred and Ginger movie sampled on crystal.
Nothing could be further from the cruise ship’s glitzy excess than the lush natural beauty and desperate poverty of Jamaica. An innocent abroad, Max accepts a ride to the beach with a sweet-talking couple. They relieve him of his money, passport, clothes, and shoes while he’s taking a swim. Barefoot and shirtless, Max hitches a ride back to the boat, only to arrive as it’s pulling away. For the next forty-eight hours, he tries to make his way across the island to the American embassy in Kingston, cadging a few bucks from a pair of suspicious tourists and some beat-up sneakers from a group of soccer-playing locals. The Jamaicans he meets warn him that he’s lucky no one has murdered him yet, but it’s the eve of Obama’s election, when few would begrudge even the most callow and pasty-skinned American his life. And then something happens that could have come out of one of those Carlos Castaneda guidebooks to 1960s-style enlightenment. Max encounters an aged Rasta (Carl Bradshaw) who seems to exist on a plane so crazily high that just to look at him made me feel as if I were levitating. He escorts Max to a full moon celebration where the great reggae group the Congos play on and on, and time, which had been galloping along, stands still.
A similarly intense sense of place and mastery of tonal shifts distinguishes Aaron Katz’s third feature, Cold Weather. Doug (Cris Lankenau) drops out of college just short of getting his degree in forensic science. He moves into a Portland apartment with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). For a while nothing much happens. Doug gets a job at an ice factory and makes friends with another worker (Raúl Castillo). Just when the movie begins to feel as if it’s going limp, Doug’s ex-girlfriend shows up acting nervous, and suddenly we’re in the middle of a rescue-the-damsel-in-distress mystery that’s not quite as nightmarish as Blue Velvet but that has the same Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew antecedents. Cinematographer Andrew Reed worked with Katz on his first two features, Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007), but here, shooting with the Red One (a very cool digital camera), he provides more expressive and subtle imagery, just as Keegan DeWitt, the composer for all three movies, delivers a score with just enough genre elements to get the adrenaline running.
Like Matt Porterfield’s debut narrative Hamilton (2006), which John Waters included in his Artforum Top Ten, his Putty Hill (2010) is set in an impoverished, largely white Baltimore neighborhood. A young man has died of a drug overdose, and family and friends have assembled for his funeral. The movie is filled with vividly detailed behavior and many small, moving, emotional moments. In the large cast of nonprofessional actors, the young women make the strongest impressions, but there are just too many characters to allow any of them to develop fully. Forced by his limited budget to work quickly and improvisationally, Porterfield uses the device of having an offscreen reporter interview some of the characters, who turn away from whatever they are doing and talk directly to the camera. It may be an economical way of delivering exposition, but it also makes the movie seem like an acting-class exercise. One can’t believe that these characters would be quite so eager to confide in a stranger.
In Tiny Furniture (2010), director/writer/star Lena Dunham also toys with screen “truth,” but in a creepier way. Dunham plays Aura, Tiny Furniture’s protagonist, who, after graduating from college and being dumped by her boyfriend, returns to the TriBeCa loft where she grew up. And in fact, the filmmaker actually did grow up in the loft that she uses as the movie’s set, and she cast her actual mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, and her actual younger sister, Grace Dunham, as Aura’s artist mother and precocious younger sister. In the movie, Mom is a nasty piece of work—cold, narcissistic, willfully indifferent to her needy daughter’s pain. She and younger sis form a united front of rejection, but the extremity of Aura’s masochism guarantees that she won’t move out. She also courts the contempt and rejection of two male losers who barely notice her presence sufficiently to abuse her. And stickier still, she courts our rejection by walking around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt, flaunting her ass and thighs for anyone who’s looking—and we can’t help but look—as if daring us to pass judgment on her body. It’s a game I dislike being roped into, just as I dislike being roped into speculating about whether Simmons knew she was playing an art-world Mommie Dearest, and whether she worried that her daughter really thought she was a monster, or whether the audience would think that, and was this movie meant to be a satire or a psychodrama. On the other hand, if you know nothing about the people involved, I suspect you’ll just be bored.
Along with the Congos’ appearance in Wah Do Dem, the musical treat of the festival is Goran Hugo Olsson’s Am I Black Enough for You, a documentary about the Philadelphia soul singer Billy Paul, famed for his gorgeous, sexy 1972 hit single “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The film is chock-full of thrilling singing and frank, amusing conversation, threaded with a complicated debate about music, militancy, and black identity. Paul, who still has great pipes, is slated for a post-screening Q&A with Olsson. Among the other special events: Olivier Assayas presents two of his favorite films, David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972). There’s brutish, bloody horror aplenty in Nicolas Winding Refn’s heavy-metal Viking saga Valhalla Rising (2009), and Refn is on hand also to introduce William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). See it and be disabused of any romance you may have cultivated about NYC in the ’70s. The horror is psychosexual in Ted Kotcheff’s Australian cult classic Wake in Fright (1971) and in G. W. Pabst’s more austere Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which screens at the closing night special event with live music by 3epkano.
BAMcinemaFEST runs June 9–20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For more details, click here. Wah Do Dem opens theatrically June 18 at Cinema Village in New York.
Left: Jean-Pierre Gorin, Routine Pleasures, 1986, still from a video, 81 minutes. Right: Zhao Liang, Petition, 2009, still from a color video, 123 minutes.
ASKED ONCE to describe his 1986 essay film Routine Pleasures, Jean-Pierre Gorin settled on saying that it is simply “a film about about.” One might argue the same of the Migrating Forms festival, held May 14–23 at Anthology Film Archives, where three of Gorin’s works screened amid a selection of films and videos that cannily sustained breadth and focus while corralling explorations, co-presenters, and essentials from both the art gallery and the cinema. Besides programs of new and recent experimental shorts by the usual suspects, the Gotham-bound one-stop cinephile could scoop up rare revivals (Gorin, Ed Ruscha’s 16-mm works), catch-up suites (Stanya Kahn, Kerry Tribe, Straub plus or minus Huillet), and ambitious documentary deployments (Zhao Liang’s Petition , John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail [Clark] , Kutlug Ataman’s Journey to the Moon ).
The Gorin screenings demonstrated the nimble insights of the former Godard collaborator and “twin brain” to Manny Farber (a fellow UCSDer). Poto and Cabengo (1979) is an extraordinary funny-sad document of Gorin’s encounter with pidgin-speaking six-year-old twins and their desperately optimistic half-German parents. Shot by Les Blank and enlivened by the distinctive stonerlike drawl of Gorin’s voice-over, it’s a film about translation, and it’s as restless as its pent-up subjects, replete with text scrolls, sound looping, and freeze frames. The film presents a suburban California snapshot of ready-made housing, eye-popping wigs, and Dad’s hopeless realtor-ing. (The title alone is a fascinating closed circuit: the children’s names for each other.)
Even more fertile and visually engrossing, Routine Pleasures treks into the clubhouse of a group of train hobbyists, with its replica terrain and “temporal landscapes.” Full of reflective pivots and outright comedy, Gorin’s “small-scale epic” is punctuated with considerations of Farber and his own omnidirectional work (on canvas and off). It’s about men hanging out, a Frenchman in America, tools (“What you do with them and what they do to you”), and, in a spectacular climactic montage, the heavy grace with which the clubhouse’s wires and rigging hang together. Less an essay film than a collaborative chronicle, My Crasy Life (1992) goes heart to heart with ethnic-Samoan gangbangers in “Strong Beach.” There’s homegrown rap and the bizarre conceit of a beat cop’s Knight Rider-ish onboard computer making ironic observations.
Gorin’s films were the sort that send one walking away with freshly inquisitive eyes, and the festival’s programs likewise tapped multiple modes of attention: the immersive sylvan nocturne of Robert Todd’s Golden Hour (2009); shifts in and out of headily dynamic animal perception in Ruth Maclennan’s Three Short Films on Hawks and Men (2009); Dani Leventhal’s lusciously disorienting close-ups in 54 Days This Winter 36 Days This Spring for 18 Minutes (2009); the hypervivid field recordings and Song of Ceylon–descended sonic pastiches of Luke Fowler’s A Grammar for Listening (2009); and hypnotic digressions in Peggy Ahwesh’s Ape of Nature (2010). In these mixed contexts, a program of critically adored Straub and Huillet shorts was free to seem as precious as any other sampling of exactingly executed but rigid and off-putting aesthetics.
The feature documentary work in Migrating Forms (which opened with the trompe l’oeil actualités of Kevin Jerome Everson’s Erie ) included Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark), about the toxic legacy of the US military presence in the Philippines. Originating in Gianvito’s scouting for documentary material for a fiction project, the 264-minute mammoth is part history lecture, part marathon testimonial by activists and victims. While informative and boasting Gianvito’s striking landscape photography, the film suffers from the literal-minded conceit that duration ensures fidelity and, at worst, suggests a kind of penitence cinema. (“I’m not sure the film asks enough of you,” Gianvito said in introductory remarks.)
Zhao’s Petition achieves more with less, burrowing into the psychological hellholes of Beijing legal petitioners from the provinces. Whole chunks of life, a decade or more at a time, are sheared off during their disputes; the dead-end disorder of their victimhood is echoed in the screen-filling clutter of their temporary shantytown rooms and environs, and in slurry grays of debris and the sad washed-out synthetic pinks and blues of clothing. Last, continuing the extraordinarily intimate globe-trotting, was Stephanie Spray’s As Long as There’s Breath (2009), in which a family frets over a son gone to Maoist rebels in between bickering, bantering, frank sex talk, and offhand wisdom: “Things look good used.”
Johan Grimonprez, Double Take, 2009, stills from a color film/video in 35 mm and digital Betacam versions, 80 minutes.
“THEY SAY THAT if you meet your double, you should kill him.” The mantra in Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s eighty-minute film Double Take, 2009, suggests that the real must assert itself against its image to prevent its own defeat in an ongoing battle between fiction and reality. The quotation is from the narrative that anchors the film—written by British novelist Tom McCarthy and based on Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “August 25, 1983”—in which Alfred Hitchcock meets an older version of himself. Alongside the intermittent narration of this tale in voice-over by a Hitchcock “sound-alike,” the film features interviews with Ron Burrage, one of the plethora of portly bowler-hatted Hitchcock look-alikes in Grimonprez’s Looking for Alfred, 2005, as well as carefully edited sequences of archival footage from the late 1950s and early ’60s. These include television news reports of the Cuban missile crisis, US and Soviet satellite launches, atomic bomb tests, and Nixon and Khrushchev’s 1959 “kitchen debate,” in addition to excerpts from Hitchcock’s wry introductions to his own television programs. At various points we see Folgers coffee commercials in which distraught housewives learn to mend their ways after serving their husbands unsatisfactory coffee. Throughout, echoes of and excerpts from The Birds propose Hitchcock’s 1963 film as an allegory for television (which, the director once quipped, “has brought murder back into the home—where it belongs”) and for missiles descending from the sky, suggesting a psychohistorical analogy between the fear of nuclear attack and the suspense that Hitchcock made his trademark.
As Grimonprez’s film develops, the parallels press in upon us ever more closely. The two Hitchcocks meet; television duplicates cinema; the opening salvos of the cold war expose the Soviet Union and the West as mirrors of each other. The proliferating layers of doubling are themselves interconnected: In one excerpt from the kitchen debate, Nixon boasts, “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us—for example, in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space. There may be some instances—for example, color television—where we’re ahead of you.” Yet, as the film implies, the overriding purpose of the space race and of television was propaganda, both individually and, to greatest effect, when acting together.
The interplay between fiction and reality has long been central to Grimonprez’s practice; it already characterized his 1997 film essay Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which conjoined archival footage of plane hijackings with excerpts from Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Mao II, and became notorious for its uncanny preemption of some of the shrewder theorizations of 9/11. Double Take—recently on view at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and currently at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall—clearly speaks to the origins of our current predicament, too, in which the symbiosis of the fictional and the actual has become increasingly difficult to parse. Indeed, a rapid-fire sequence after the final credits portrays both politicians and Hollywood as still invested in perpetuating a culture of fear. We should remember, as Grimonprez has noted, that “The Birds is the first Hitchcock film not to feature ‘The End.’ ” Double Take plays out our recent history against a fiction even while it presents that history itself as an ongoing story of claustrophobic suspense.
Johan Grimonprez, Double Take, 2009. (“The Humiliation of Old Age.”)
IN ONE OF HIS interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock speaks of the difference between surprise and suspense. He explains that to create suspense—even during the interview itself—the audience needs only to know that a bomb is under the table. Hitchcock is talking about how he constructs his fictions, but it’s hard not to think of the Cuban missile crisis, which was dominating television screens the same fall that the two directors were having their conversation in Los Angeles—in 1962, during the filming of The Birds. Although Hitchcock argued that his film wasn’t an allegory for catastrophe coming from the sky, it came to seem to me—after I’d worked my way through a vast quantity of archival material—that The Birds is entirely embedded in that specific historical context. At that time, even as cinema was having to redefine itself as a consequence of losing its audience to television, television was playing a pivotal role in the propaganda of fear: catastrophe culture—just like the birds—invading the world of domestic bliss.
Today, Hollywood seems to be running ahead of reality. The world is so awash in images that we related to 9/11 through images we had already projected out into the world. In a sense, fiction came back to haunt us as reality. After being confronted with Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y’s being a kind of premonition of 9/11, I wondered how to deal with that—with something happening in life confirming the film, even going beyond what one could have imagined. Slavoj Žižek described the 9/11 attacks as a real-life version of The Birds, the ultimate Hitchcockian threat, suddenly appearing from nowhere.
But I’m not a Baudrillard addict who thinks that reality has totally disappeared. Double Take does explore those boundaries, though it doesn’t say that reality has imploded. I think reality is very much there, but it’s co-constructed: Fictions are made into reality and back and forth. There was all this talk about weapons of mass destruction. It was a lie, yet even though the war was actually triggered by a fiction, it turned into an abhorrent reality.
When I was editing Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the news coverage of the first Iraq war was a way for me to work through the material in that film. The second Iraq war was totally different—a double take on the first Iraq war. But Double Take is not overtly about Iraq, of course. It looks at the two rival ideologies of the Communist bloc and the capitalist bloc as analogies for the doubling that is mapped out in the film and in the story Tom McCarthy wrote, in which Hitchcock meets Hitchcock in a meditation on the perfect crime. The film looks at how fear was projected into society, like a fiction, on both sides of the ideological divide between East and West. It’s also about the fear industry and how fear has become a commodity.
Double Take starts off with Hitchcock saying, “I think my mother scared me when I was three months old.” He is pretending to be totally serious, but then he says, “You see, she said ‘Boo!’ ” and turns it into a joke. It’s like the whole cold war—the entire world was like, “Oh, they are scaring us,” but in the end all either side actually did was say “Boo!” in order to boost their defense industries, and people started to wonder, was this all a big joke or something?
Even Kennedy came to power by exaggerating the Red threat. And television played a huge part in drilling fear into people during the cold war, which justified the military’s accumulating large, expensive stockpiles of nuclear arms—at the beginning, for sure, but even more so at the end, when, with no reasonable gain in security, defense budgets escalated with the Star Wars program while public programs were eroded to a third-world standard. History repeats itself. That’s why the two Hitchcocks meet each other in the story—the Hitchcock from 1962 and the Hitchcock from 1980. Among other things, they talk about how television changed the nature of storytelling. Hitchcock had helped define what television was all about, and there’s something awkward about his ambivalence toward the television format and toward the programming getting interrupted all the time with commercials. As Heiner Müller said, the commercials are the most political part of television. The commercials hijack the whole history—the story that you’re telling. When Hitchcock introduced Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, he was always goofing around and laughing at the commercials in a sardonic way—that was his way of dealing with it. He was television’s biggest prankster.
The ads for Folgers coffee in Double Take are written into the story in such a way that sometimes you don’t know what’s going on: With the cup of poisoned coffee from Hitchcock’s Notorious occasionally spliced in between, and especially when the Psycho music instills the images with a double meaning, the commercial suddenly seems like a murder weapon. If you connect Hitchcock and these ads, it makes you think of poisoned coffee; at the end of the story maybe Hitchcock is killed by a cup of coffee. But it’s also the commercials that start to kill Hitchcock—because cinema and television are rival doubles as well. The older Hitchcock in the story even argues that “television killed cinema.”
We stumbled onto Ron Burrage when we held Hitchcock look-alike castings in London in 2004, and that developed into the doppelgänger plot and the Hitchcockian theme of mistaken identity. Ron, who died last year, was someone from a totally different background whose connection with a Hollywood icon, through circumstances not entirely of his own making, had become his life. In reality, his life and Hitchcock’s were tied together by a series of coincidences: There was more to the resemblance than met the eye. Ron used to work as a bellboy at Claridge’s, where Hitchcock stayed whenever he was in London; then he waited tables at the Savoy—Hitchcock’s favorite restaurant—where he served the likes of Cary Grant and James Mason. So he was at the other end of the spectrum from Hitchcock, who was working with the same actors on the set. And Ron was actually born on the same day as Hitchcock, August 13, but thirty years later. Then we found an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents where Hitchcock introduces himself as “the Alfred Hitchcock of thirty years ago.” And Ron actually introduced Tippi Hedren at the premiere of the restored version of The Birds in 1999, on the night of his seventieth and Hitchcock’s hundredth birthday.
In his appearances on television, Hitchcock often played off the idea of the double: He would be mistaken for someone pretending to be the real Hitchcock, he would work the strings of a marionette of himself, walk off with his own head under his arm, dress as a woman, or appear as his own brother, explaining that Alfred was nowhere to be found. Once he staged a look-alike contest in which he claimed to have been disqualified in the first round. More generally, the doppelgänger is often depicted as the harbinger of bad luck, as in Dostoyevsky’s The Double, which inspired Borges as well as Hitchcock.
Johan Grimonprez, Double Take, 2009. (“If You Meet Your Double, You Should Kill Him.”)
There were so many coincidences and other doubling analogies that came up. The Birds came out in 1963, the year Kennedy was shot, and I found a peculiar anecdote in Hitchcock’s daughter’s 2003 book, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, where she says that her father got an invitation from President Kennedy for a White House luncheon that was postmarked one day before Kennedy’s assassination. For me, that coincidence was a knot connecting everything—Kennedy’s funeral, which the whole world watched on television, The Birds . . . A lot of things fell into place.
After the credits at the end of the film, there’s a footnote in very fast-forward acceleration. I show the Berlin wall coming down—marking a time when the whole world had to be redefined and when the United States had to reinvent its imaginary other. Next, the flying saucers descending on Washington, DC—from the opening of Independence Day—suggest how, at the beginning of the 1990s, the image of the alien became pervasive in American society. That role was later taken on by Bin Laden, and again fictions were being projected into society. We were in desperate need of another fear factor, and that’s where the film leaves off, with Donald Rumsfeld talking about the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.
Pablo Larraín, Tony Manero, 2008, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 97 minutes.
DISCO AND DANTEAN INFERNO, Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero portrays a dead-eyed survivor who is “stayin’ alive” during the bloody years of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. Set in Santiago’s bas-fonds of grubby cantinas and crumbling cinemas in 1978, the year Saturday Night Fever was released in Chile and half a decade after Pinochet seized power in a US-backed coup, Manero turns one man’s obsession with his eponymous alter ego into a scary, airless metaphor for cultural imperialism and the psychosis of fascism.
Despite his rather baroque moniker—Raúl Peralta Paredes O—and his grand aspirations to television stardom as a John Travolta imitator, the film’s fifty-two-year-old protagonist cuts an anonymous figure in tan windbreaker and dyed pompadour, his impassive mien masking murderous intent. Rushing to the aid of an old woman, mugged and bloody in the street below, Raúl gallantly shepherds her home. “Thank God there are decent people like you,” she says, bleak irony and political metaphor accumulating in the dank obscurity of her apartment. Identifying herself as an air force officer’s widow, proffering a tin of past-date tuna as recompense, and noting that Pinochet’s eyes are blue as she admires the dictator on television, the old woman, one of the film’s many Dostoyevskian characters, has no time to contemplate the hazards of gratitude as Raúl suddenly whacks her to death with his hand, calmly feeds her cat with the expired fish, and spoons a little for himself before scuttling through the eerily empty streets, color TV in tow. Psycho killer disguised as Good Samaritan, Raúl embodies a world in which the state executes the innocent and reduces the rest to mute acquiescence through fear.
Director Larraín, who hails from a right-wing family of wealth and political power, re-creates the dread and clandestine resistance of the Pinochet era with a manner by turns elliptical and overt. Frantic and implacable, Tony Manero employs a cinema nervoso arsenal of whip pans, extreme shallow- or out-of-focus images, jump cuts, and fast tracking follow shots, filmed in handheld 16 mm with a Dardennes-style adherence to Raúl’s body, itself the site of insistent metaphor. “You’re lifeless,” the madman’s girlfriend claims halfway through the film, critiquing his penis for getting swollen but never hard. (The cinephilic Larraín equates sexual impotence and everyday fascism in the manner of 1970s Italian cinema.) Looking less like taut Travolta than decaying Pacino, Raúl strips and madly capers to music in his room, but his dance is of the dead, his grin a rictus of pretend ecstasy. In the simulacrum of his country’s colonized culture, rife with Chuck Norris look-alikes and Travolta wannabes, Raúl has no authentic being, only a feigned or fantasized one, founded in caricature and maintained by duplicity and subjugation. The parallels with Pinochet are entirely intentional.
Tony Manero leans heavily on its influences, which include The Conformist, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy; its pervasive Catholic imagery and abrupt brutality may not derive from Scorsese, but its sense of cultural artifact as catechistic ritual does. Raúl’s treks to the cinema to see Fever take on the aura of lone pilgrimage. He enters through a crimson-lit antechamber, and recites the film’s dialogue in phonetic English as if repeating liturgy. Proceeding obliquely—nothing is indicated of Raúl’s previous life—but given to portentous detail, Manero first shows Raúl following along with the Fever sequence in which Manero’s friend tells him, “One day you look at a crucifix, and all you see is a man dying on a cross,” and then stealing a chain and crucifix from the corpse of an anti-Pinochet activist who has been shot and dumped by plainclothes police. The hidden or slant meanings of another recent political allegory about a repressive Latin American regime, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, are not for Larraín. Tony Manero sometimes outwits its own intelligence with overbearing metaphor, but its immense, fetid power undeniably places it at the forefront of the resurgent Chilean cinema.
Tony Manero is now available on DVD in the US and Canada through Kino International.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 113 minutes.
WHEN CANNES JURY PRESIDENT Tim Burton announced Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or on Sunday, the cheers that erupted from some quarters of the normally jaded press corps spoke volumes. Forget impartiality. This was precisely the improbable happy ending (“shocking” and “exhilarating,” as Manohla Dargis described it in the New York Times) that many of us had been rooting for as the increasingly suspenseful awards ceremony progressed. Not just because Uncle Boonmee was the one truly transporting film in a so-so competition. Not just because anyone who has heard Apichatpong speak about his work knows him as a man of uncommon grace and thoughtfulness. And not just because—as Bangkok Post critic Kong Rithdee noted while addressing Apichatpong at the post-awards news conference—it had been a very tough week for violence-racked Thailand.
To acknowledge that the Uncle Boonmee Palme felt like a personal victory is to acknowledge that contemporary film culture can feel like a battleground, with, broadly speaking, the cinephiles on one side and the populists on the other—or, to use the insults often preferred by both camps, the elitists and the philistines. The divide is especially pronounced in an environment like Cannes, which some approach as a beacon of glamour and others as a bastion of high art. This is where journalists with a low tolerance for difficulty and difference have to contend with films that lack stars, production values, or, heaven forfend, a clear narrative, and these scribes often react with frustration and anger (as happened all too predictably this year with Jean-Luc Godard’s new provocation Film Socialisme).
What the press-room cheers drowned out on Sunday was the wariness or even antipathy that some harbor for a figure like Apichatpong—you can detect this in the bemused Cannes wrap-ups by writers who had clearly not bothered to see the film by the Thai guy with the unpronounceable name, and in the metaracist line of reasoning by which his detractors accuse his fans of Orientalism. Apichatpong’s last Cannes entry, Tropical Malady (2004), won the Jury Prize but was booed at its press screening and condemned in Variety as “incomprehensible.” In the final accounting, this was a Palme d’Or that mattered, enormously, for having been awarded to a film that would otherwise have gone unmentioned in most mainstream coverage of the festival. And now that he’s received world cinema’s highest honor (from a jury led by the director of Alice, no less), it might be a little harder to dismiss Apichatpong as an obscure filmmaker with no hope of finding an audience.
I saw Uncle Boonmee twice in Cannes (despite Apichatpong’s objections: “Better to leave it all jumbled,” he told me when I interviewed him), and it strikes me as both his simplest work to date and a step forward in his ongoing project to change the way we experience movies. For the receptive viewer, Apichatpong’s sensory immersions induce a state of simultaneous relaxation and watchfulness. This time, despite a few enigmatic detours, there are no midmovie reboots. The title spells out the premise, which crystallizes the sly paradox at the heart of the film. We watch a movie about a terminally ill man (Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, tended to by loved ones, including the ghost of his wife) ever alert to signs of life. A water buffalo freeing itself from its tether, a disfigured princess who sees her reflection by an idyllic waterfall, the talking catfish that performs underwater cunnilingus on her, the insects whose chirps and buzzes engulf the nighttime jungle scenes: Might these be Boonmee’s past (or future) incarnations?
An otherworldly fable, Uncle Boonmee often alights on earthly sensations (the taste of raw honey, a lingering embrace) and political realities (the violent history of Thailand’s poor, rural northeast and, at a remove, the current clashes in Bangkok). Much like another high point of the festival, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, it’s both a radiant ghost story and a tale of cinema itself, concerned with the act of perception and the mysterious conjuring of alternate worlds. Both films are by artists who defy most existing categories. At 101, Oliveira is a man out of time or, perhaps, of multiple times. No less an outsider, equally at ease in a variety of idioms and registers, Apichatpong synthesizes the Western avant-garde tradition with Buddhist thought, animist belief, and Thai pop culture. As Uncle Boonmee confirms, his vision is above all a generous one. In the threat of extinction—a dying man, a disintegrating country, a disappearing medium—Apichatpong sees the possibility of regeneration.
“I WOULD LIKE to thank all the spirits and all the ghosts in Thailand. They made it possible for me to be here,” beamed Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the winner of the Palme d’Or for his animist tale Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The international press, gathered in the Salle Debussy to watch a live transmission of the awards ceremony, may have been even more elated than the director: After jury president Tim Burton announced Uncle Boonmee as the winner, many journalists cheered and raised their fists, thrilled that their own clear favorite had been selected (a stark contrast to last year’s shrugs when Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon took home Cannes’s top prize).
Over the past twelve days, several critics groused that a jury led by the man who made Mars Attacks! would be predisposed to honor the safer, more middlebrow titles in the Competition roster, like Another Year, Mike Leigh’s study of a happily married couple and their dysfunctional social set. That the nine-person committee singled out a film in which an ancient Thai princess is sexually pleasured by a talking catfish proves that what many were calling “the most boring jury ever” was actually the most daring—and generous—in its choices. The seven major prizes were spread out over as many films, with Mathieu Almaric a surprise winner for best director for his burlesque tribute, Tournée, and Mahamet-Saleh Haroun taking home the jury prize for A Screaming Man, about a father’s selfish sacrifice in war-torn Chad.
Gathered to meet the press immediately after the awards ceremony, the jurors uttered platitudes and remained deliberately vague about their selections. One reporter became fed up with the niceties, insisting, “You’re very quiet and not very talkative and we need you to talk about the festival”—a demand that led only to more banal evasions from the jurors. Director Victor Erice, best known for The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), stated the obvious: “The list of winners is always the result of a vote. Perhaps we haven’t given sufficient justice to all the films. And for this I apologize.” But it was actress Kate Beckinsale, who had remained silent for nearly the entire thirty-minute press conference, who spoke most concretely: “There’s a slight nausea at the ones that were left behind. We tried to invent more prizes.”