Since few of us at The Nation speak Thai, I’m going to refer to my favorite filmmaker of the month as Joe, which is the name actually used in this country by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Joe hails from the northeast of Thailand–so writes my principal source, the American critic Chuck Stephens–and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he seems to have majored in Surrealism. Two years ago, he completed a feature titled Blissfully Yours, which I haven’t seen. Almost nobody has in the United States; it’s unreleased, and so it qualifies for the series “Film Comment Selects 2003,” currently being shown at the Walter Reade Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center.
The purpose of the series, curated by the editors of Film Comment magazine, is to screen what they consider to be the best recent films currently unavailable in the United States. If you can make it to the Walter Reade on February 11 or 12 (check schedule for showtimes), you’ll probably find me in a seat nearby, sharing in the discovery of Blissfully Yours. If you can’t get to those screenings, then let me tell you about Joe’s first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, which has just been released on DVD by the Plexifilm company (www.plexifilm.com).
Correction: Let me try to tell you about Mysterious Object at Noon, which comes so close to being indescribable that explanations run as long as the movie itself.
On one level, Mysterious Object at Noon is a documentary: a black-and-white, 16-millimeter road diary recorded in 1998, taking you from the north to the south of Thailand and introducing you to all sorts of people. You meet foodmongers, housebuilders, schoolchildren, kickboxers–the poor and the modest, but no one with money to speak of. Although Joe throws in some folks in Bangkok (such as squeegee boys, who ply their trade in a traffic jam), he’s mostly interested in rural areas, and also in the modes of transport that get you through them: trucks, trains, boats.
What do the film’s subjects talk about? Joe could have got them to tell of their own lives; but instead, having elicited the beginnings of a story from a vegetable seller, he asks people in each new place to make up their own continuations of the tale. Mysterious Object at Noon shows how the story grows, collectively and progressively. It also reveals the kinds of ideas that pop into the heads of Thai villagers, when they’re encouraged to contribute to this Exquisite Corpse.
You might want to know that the original scrap of story concerns a crippled orphan boy. He views the world principally through the eyes of a teacher who brings him photographs–until one day she collapses, and a strange, round object rolls out of her skirt (giving the film its title). As Joe carries this narrative tatter to different people, it accumulates episodes involving metamorphoses, disguises, amulets, swords, an airplane crash, a kidnapping, Bangkok night life, a marriage proposal and two, maybe three tigers. In one of the film’s high points, the story even turns into a play with music, performed by an itinerant acting troupe in a village square.
So Mysterious Object at Noon is also a fiction film. It tells you a story that’s so astonishingly exciting, it’s all but indecipherable.
Joe goes so far as to film some of the episodes that people make up, occasionally adding narrative details of his own. It seems, for example, that the story takes place at the end of World War II, amid solemn government orders to be friendly to Americans, buy American products and give Americans a 25 percent discount in bars. These decrees, issued over the radio, blend in with archival newsreels, contemporary television footage, pop songs, advertisements and political posters–which means that on yet another level, Mysterious Object at Noon is a compilation documentary, assembled from the artifacts of the Thai mass media.
Smart guy, this Joe. He’s located a place where avant-garde practice merges with folk culture, to their mutual improvement; where people speak about such experiences as want and abandonment, but magically transform them into occasions of wonder. Whether his new film, Blissfully Yours, lives up to this precedent, I don’t yet know (although Film Comment promises that it “flowers into a contemplative experience of terrific breadth and mystery”). But having marveled at Mysterious Object at Noon, I’m willing to swear by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
A French filmmaker with an easier and more familiar name, Olivier Assayas, is also represented in the Film Comment series. I had a chance to preview his 2002 picture, demonlover, which shows on February 9, and can tell you not to worry if you miss it at Lincoln Center. This one is so slickly perverse, some distributor is bound to pick it up.
If you’ve seen Assayas’s previous movies (such as Cold Water, Irma Vep or Late August, Early September), then you know he’s an exceptionally thoughtful and knowledgeable filmmaker. That’s why I bring demonlover to your attention–because in it, Assayas sums up our global corporate and media culture, and tells us it’s worse than we’d feared.
He’s set demonlover in the milieu of dealmakers: people who live in conference rooms, five-star hotels and the first-class sections of airplanes, where they spend their time working out three-way contracts among France, Japan and the United States. These people want their surroundings to be like a kiss, and every item had better wear lip gloss. The underlying business, on the other hand, is not so immaculate. The characters in demonlover are vying to control the distribution of the next generation of porn.
Now, as Assayas reminds us, the basic rule of the entertainment media (porn included) is that the fantasies being peddled today must always seem more three-dimensional–more real–than yesterday’s products. A corollary: To be alluring, the ever-more-believable fantasy must also present something horrific, from which the viewer-participant feels safe. From this point of view, the dealmakers in demonlover are porn consumers of their own lives. Witness the film’s opening shot: The characters (most of them) are asleep in the reclining seats of an airplane, like rows of eggs protected in glowing white incubators. Nothing is going to disturb these people. Above them, on video screens, a movie plays unwatched: row after row of the same fiery explosion.
These are the people who run the world, dreaming of mayhem. The story of demonlover concerns one of them, Diane, who imagines she’s bringing real danger into their privileged sphere. She’s a double agent in her corporation–a spy who sometimes slinks around in a cat-burglar outfit, like a newly updated version of Assayas’s Irma Vep. But the movie departs from the relatively realistic terrain that Assayas has tended to occupy, in Irma Vep as elsewhere. It twists through increasingly lurid revelations like a David Lynch picture, or a variation on Cronenberg’s Videodrome, until it becomes apparent that the media masters can contain Diane much better than she’d anticipated. She’s not so much a disrupter of their repose as another object for their fantasies.
Summed up this way, demonlover might sound like just another sour pastiche, or (at best) a Frankfurt School essay dressed in Parisian chic. But it’s a good deal creepier than that. Its final target is not the corporate masters but rather the consumers who share their appetites, who want to be like them in every way. I don’t think I’m wrenching demonlover too far out of context when I say I watched it in a month of war porn, when our masters strove on television to make their dreams of mayhem become more three-dimensional, more interactive. I don’t yet know how many consumers bought the product; but those who did must have felt safer, more privileged, for doing so, even while being maneuvered into a danger that is all too real.
I’m sorry to say that demonlover may be more than a movie.
Short Take: The great documentarian Frederick Wiseman has had a long fascination with the theater, which he’s expressed (among other ways) by making a film about the Comédie Française. He subsequently directed a dramatic monologue there–his adaptation of a chapter from Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate–featuring the senior member of the company, Catherine Samie. His film version of this production, The Last Letter, was shown out of competition in the 2002 Cannes festival and is now having its theatrical debut at New York’s Film Forum.
The text of The Last Letter is a farewell, sent to an absent son by a woman who is about to die in the Holocaust. She is a Jew, a doctor in a Ukrainian city, who was first shunned and plundered by her neighbors, then shut into a ghetto. Now she is about to be taken away in a transport, and she knows she won’t be coming back. The child to whom she delivers her final testimony is in effect the audience, since she speaks directly to the camera and sometimes looks into it. Much of her monologue is recorded in closeup; but then, she is also absent throughout much of the movie, or rather is seen as a shadow on a scrim, as if already a ghost.
Since the substance of Grossman’s text, though important, will be familiar to most audiences, I suppose the real interest of The Last Letter lies in Samie’s performance. That’s certainly what Wiseman focuses on, dwelling on the artfulness of each tremor of her hands, lingering on the nuances of her face during the inflection of each cadenced phrase. She comes before the camera without makeup, but outfitted with a lifetime’s accumulation of acting technique. She and Wiseman make her skill into a monument: a tower of art, part flesh and part shadow, set up as a memorial.