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By Mark Peranson
As violent 30–foot waves were crashing along the shores of Nice and Cannes, destroying fancy beach-side restaurants and flooding the streets, the Icelandic volcano continued to spew airplane-averting ash into the lower atmosphere, wind gusts blowing the cloud closer and closer towards southwestern Europe; this oddsmaker listed Eyjafjallajokull as the early favourite to take home the Palme. For April and May in Europe, even if it didn’t really feel that way on the ground, the spectre of a real-life Roland Emmerich disaster movie was upon us, 2012 two years too soon. By the time Cannes began, alas on time and with open beaches, the only travel danger ultimately was for the Thai filmmaker with an alien-sounding name, trapped in his home country by near-civil war, closed embassies, and a nightly curfew. That Apichatpong Weerasethakul got his passport and visa and showed up in time for his technical check is, by now, public knowledge, and soon became the stuff of history. On May 23, 2010, when, to great applause and eye-blinking befuddlement, he got on stage in borrowed shoes and a splendid white smoking jacket to raise Thailand’s first Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—the score, for those who are counting, would be Thailand 1, Canada 0—it was Joe who had beaten the Volcano, and “we” were all with him. You could say it was our Independence Day.
What a difference a day makes. If you’d have asked me on May 22 to sum up Cannes 2010, the predictable response might have been to combine the titles of two of the most memorably awful films from this year’s festival: Another Shit Year. The persuasively balanced awards, coming from a jury that nobody expected much from at the beginning, was the best thing that could have happened to the Festival de Cannes. (About the only way it could have got more Cronenbergian would have been if jury chief Tim Burton, Víctor Erice, Kate Beckinsale et al. had also given Uncle Boonmee’s lead, roof welder Thanpat Saisaymar, the Best Actor prize.) In a way it negated the whole affair, allowing “we” to forget that there were other films out there that had come and gone, some worthy of praise, and others so mind-blowingly awful that they had no place being in competition in Montréal or San Sebastian, let alone Cannes. The Apichatpong effect allowed (and still allows) for an alternate reality to exist, one where it was a parallel self that sat through the feeble Competition; that sad, sallow self became expunged, its consciousness left behind to flail in the streams of life alongside other catfish, gallivant through the jungle alongside an ox, or cohabit with a red-eyed monkey spirit. How could Tim Burton not like a film—by a fellow acclaimed artist, I should add—featuring dudes in cheap ape suits, ghosts, a big fish…You could even say that with its inspiration drawn from memories of the crude dramatics of his youth, Uncle Boonmee is Apichatpong’s Ed Wood (1994). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
To state the obvious, as a festival that is at the mercy of various economies, Cannes exhibits little curatorial stance (that a number of notable films across the selections featured animals, say, or ghosts, was pure coincidence; that a number dealt with the theme of “family” is like saying the same about the Bible); when combined with bad taste, the results are predictable and predictably uninteresting. Stale to execrable work from mid-to-late career auteurs who have snuck their way into the canon and closed the door behind them, like Mike Leigh (the worst film since the last Mike Leigh film), Ken Loach (didn’t see), Doug Liman (pass), Nikita Mikhalkov (are you kidding me?), Rachid Bouchareb (saw about 40 minutes), Kitano Takeshi (trapped in the middle of a row), that Hungarian guy, etc. Moderately successful work from newer auteurs, accomplished enough to merit selection in a competition, but still films that would stand out compared to much of the drivel in other major competitions (Mathieu Amalric, Sergei Loznitza). Oddballs, like Xavier Beauvois, who decided to remake 7 Women (1966) with monks in Algeria and a straight face and pretty much pulled it off. And important films from the old white guys, a recent Cannes refrain, this year from Messers Godard, Iosseliani, and Oliveira, all of whom were shunted away from Competition to Special Screenings and Un Certain Regard.
Indeed, UCR this year at last provided a glimmer of hope that Thierry Frémaux does know what he’s doing, fulfilling his desire to make UCR a competition of new and established filmmakers with perhaps a bit more “edge,” only doing so by removing titles that would have better stood in Competition, and replacing them with inexplicable padding to reach a whopping 19-film main slate. Indeed, UCR was so strong—unless you count all the bad films—that a week before the festival Wang Xiaoshuai felt the effect, and was demoted to Competition. No doubt his film stood up better alongside Im Sang-soo’s worthless The Housemaid than in comparison to Jia Zhangke’s criminally underrated I Wish I Knew, or even a minor work from the always reliable Hong Sang-soo (whose lifetime-achievement prizewinner Hahaha is his second-best film of the year—watch your festivals for even more Hong Sang-soo films about filmmakers, thwarted romance, and soju drinking, coming soon).
Despite spending a few months in early 2010 tossing off his best film in a decade, Manoel de Oliveira was standing on the Debussy stage on the opening night of UCR declaring The Strange Case of Angelica, a haunting masterpiece he wrote almost before my parents were born, “Hors competition” to the Claire Denis-led UCR jury—though he could have just said it was out of this world. All signs point to the fact that aliens must have abducted the Portuguese centenarian sometime in the (and his) mid-70s, perhaps swapping his blood for some magical intergalactic space juice. And our new fearless leader, Mr. Burton of the great hairstyle, surely would have liked a timeless work about doomed love haunting from beyond the grave, complete with, yes, ghosts, impossible photographs, and an amazing scene with a cat and a canary. About the only thing that beat Oliveira for transcendence, Joe aside, was the awards ceremony. But maybe that was just the slanted perspective that “we” have on the matter.
Because this is a Palme that truly matters, both for the appreciation and nurturing of a type of cinema and for a mode of appreciating cinema—also sometimes known as film criticism. I was recently asked by the Spanish Cahiers du Cinéma to respond to a questionnaire about film criticism and programming, and one question asked about how critics in newspapers and less-specialized magazines should deal with so-called “festival cinema.” Appending the suggestion that for me, “festival cinema” is not separable from “cinema” (whatever that means these days), I wrote that a film critic is either worthwhile or useless: how they can deal with what people persist in calling “festival cinema” is the precise way of proving one’s worth. This issue arose last year in the context of a well-written piece of hogwash by A.O. Scott in The New York Times diagnosing a case of “festivalism” in that year’s New York Film Festival selection: an elitist, constrictive, and forbidding program that forestalled pleasure for a narrow, self-regarding vision of cinema as an exclusive art that takes pleasure in misery. In other words, “we” minority of programmers or critics who gain a perverse sense of gratification when shackled into planet Cannes, its slow and painful-to-watch art films.
To continue to say “we” without being more specific is perhaps engaging in a dangerous verbal slippage—or maybe I can define this “we,” if such a definition is necessary, in terms of actions. In the case of the Apichatpalme, the following reportage is unassailable in its fidelity to reality on the great night for the ages when cinema triumphed. At Cannes, before the awards ceremony commences, it’s clear which films have won prizes, based on their directors’ presence or absence on the red carpet, often jiving with the rumours that have been circulating for the prior few hours. As the names on the prize list were ticked off—Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, Amalric, the Mexican whose name we will not speak, some Italian dude who looks like Paul Thomas Anderson, Juliette Binoche for playing herself—it became clear in the Debussy, where the press gathers yearly in anticipation of yet another disappointing compromise, that something seriously fucked up was going on.
With the awarding of the Grand Prix to Beauvois’ Des hommes et des dieux, pockets of startled cries (including one very feminine-sounding shriek from this writer) could be heard. Still, when Burton announced the winner, his mispronunciation of “Apichatpong Weerasethakul” was drowned out by the most cheers I’ve heard for a Palmaire in my decade-plus at Cannes. Only 26 of the arrogant film critics jarred out of their hibernation could have been participants in the blog Letras del Cine’s democratic Cannes poll, which collected scores for almost all the films in the section, and where Uncle Boonmee was rated by 26 critics from 11 countries, including dailies, weeklies, and specialized film magazines. Including two proclamations for Uncle Boonmee as the best film of all time from a couple of Spanish jokers, it received an average of 9.37/10, the highest rating of any film in the festival (buoyed by a certain infrequent contributor’s 13.7, a number that was perhaps communicated to me by someone in a future or past life).
In no way does this picture match the one finger-painted by Peter Howell in Canada’s biggest and least-influential newspaper, The Toronto Star, in one of the stupidest articles I’ve ever read in my life. “For more than a few scribes, Uncle Boonmee was the worst of the 19 films competing for the Palme,” he scribes, and its award was “a shocker” that “brought gasps from the audience…Many critics at Cannes, who are used to seeing challenging material, found Uncle Boonmee to be a shapeless mass of wacky images masquerading as a spiritual journey.” Admittedly, Howell may be an easy straw man, but every country has one, and “we” know who “they” are. This piece, worth reading in full before using it to wipe your ass, illustrates the attitude of this 20th-century majority which is on its way, thanks to a vibrant, DVD-and-internet-driven cinephilia that has filled in a gap that formed when Hollywood decided to start making globally marketed events rather than movies, to minority status. The daily critics are losing control and power, and on some level they know it.
On one level it really doesn’t matter whether or not Uncle Boonmee is a better film than La Dolce Vita (1960), Apocalypse Now (1979), or Kagemusha (1980), three examples of past Palme d’Or winners that Howell cites as further proof that audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival—last time I checked, a film festival that last year screened Baaria, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Kamui—will be baffled at this year’s prizewinner. (In fact, Uncle Boonmee is better than all three, along with being better than the similarly themed The Seventh Seal , The Wizard of Oz , the entire national cinema of Australia, and that M.I.A. video). But it still may matter that “they” have the attitude that films such as Boonmee are worthless in the greater scheme of things, as they, according to Howell, “are shunted off to single-screen art houses where they play to tiny audiences and miniscule box office receipts before vanishing from the minds of all but film critics and the most adventurous of regular filmgoers,” i.e., “we.”
This is the precise place where charges of “festivalism,” even by usually perceptive critics like Scott, lead. Such writing signals to me that the time has come for “we” members of the alien-nation to completely disengage with “they”—they who call themselves film critics, and let’s allow them the right to keep that title. They, who only went to the Quinzaine to see Mick Jagger (though in hindsight this year I guess they weren’t too wrong), are as close to me as are trash collectors. “We” can call ourselves amateurs: film lovers. “They” are old and getting older, literally and metaphorically, trapped in a mode of thought that can barely be called thought anymore, and their time has come. They care about their jobs, but don’t give a shit about cinema. As usual, “they,” being rationalist tools of the establishment, have it all backwards. The Palme for Uncle Boonmee was not “the most cynical and political decision in the history of Cannes”; rather, every single other year, the jury decisions have been cynical and political. (I doubt Howell was even referring to the unstable political situation on the ground in Thailand, and if that did have some bearing on the jury’s decision, I couldn’t care less.) It’s truly a shame that their own tunnel vision doesn’t allow them to accept the pleasures offered up by Apichatpong’s deceptively simple joy ride, a meditation that only took on the appearance of a UFO alongside “their” favourite (as exemplified by its topping the old fogey Screen Daily and Le Film Français polls, Mike Leigh’s dehumanizing Another Year, a shapeless mass of wacky images masquerading as a spiritual journey). And we’re the masochists. For “them” I have two words: Joe mama!
A calming oasis in a desert of celluloid waste, if anything Uncle Boonmee is more straightforward—no Tropical Malady-like bifurcation here (or is there?)—enchanting, funny, and, shall we say, mainstream (the backlash is already foreseen, but misguided) than any other film Apichatpong has given us. The film that made him the only director in history to go three for three for Cannes prizes is in a way also kind of a personal summary, with reappearance of actors (and, maybe, their characters) from Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), and Syndromes and a Century (2006). His kidneys failing, farmer Uncle Boonmee is slowly dying, and he’s visited by his dead relatives (his dead wife a ghost, his son Boonsong a monkey spirit with glowing red eyes) on his countryside tamarind and honey farm, while at times meditating on the karma that brought him to this state—gnawing at his mind is the fact that he killed too many communists. While Apichatpong introduces asides that may or may not be his past lives: most memorably, a detour into Thai costume drama involving a princess (played by perhaps Thailand’s greatest scuba instructor, Wallapa Mongkolprasert) procreating with a talking catfish.
Emphatically of a piece, Uncle Boonmee is still part of a greater puzzle known as the multi-platform Primitive project whose understanding provides sufficient, but not necessary, background for Uncle Boonmee jungle love. First installed as a seven-screen installation last year at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, online (Phantoms of Nabua, now screening as a gallery installation, as it did last year at TIFF’s in this case appropriately named Future Projections), in book form (Cujo), and in cinema with the prior short A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, Primitive takes as its subject the northeast town of Nabua, a place Apichatpong found while searching for relatives of Uncle Boonmee, whose existence as a man of many lives was enshrined in a small book given to the director by a monk in a chance encounter close to his hometown. Beginning with a gun battle breaking out between agrarian communists and the totalitarian government on August 7, 1965, Nabua was occupied by the Thai army from the ‘60s to the ‘80s to suppress communist agitators; the only thing similar to the story of Boonmee was that, in Joe’s words, “the village is also full of repressed memories…It is a place where memories and ideologies are extinct.” (Sounds like Cannes.) It is with the sons of those communists who were persecuted during the occupation that Apichatpong made Primitive, a project that re-imagines Nabua by bringing light to the ghosts of the past through the lost generation of today, while echoing the current political turmoil in Thailand.
Besides one perfectly placed photo montage of Primitive stills that evokes the mood, place, and overt psychic politics—accompanied by a voiceover identical to one appearing in the installation—there’s nothing explicit connecting Uncle Boonmee with the rest of Primitive, but as with the evocations of Apichatpong’s other features and their like-minded fascination with spirits, light, nature, and the connection between the world in front of our eyes and that in our imaginations, Primitive is there, in the back of one’s mind, another person you’ve met in a different place and context and can’t quite forget. That said, there’s a certain testimonial feel to Uncle Boonmee, as befitting a film about a dying man—it’s more of a solid object, one that’s gently graspable, not the least of which has to do with Apichatpong here filming on Super 16 rather than digital video and, for the most part, shooting composed tableaux from a fixed tripod.
What matters most about this incarnation of Apichatpong is that nailing down meanings is something left to the catfish. Joe’s refrain with much of his work is that he’d rather not explain too much about the film for fear of ruining its mysteries, and I’ll take him at his word—though some hints are provided in the too-brief discussion that follows, his films in a way are best experienced as experiences that don’t require definitive interpretation. Reader, give it a shot for yourself. Uncle Boonmee takes as its starting point, as does all “good cinema,” that the foundation of the medium is illusion; that sitting passively in the dark is an environment well suited to destroying our worldly experience of time, that indeed in this day and age an individual can still be transported—and if they’ve stopped believing in that, maybe they’re in the wrong profession.
The longest video piece in Primitive, Making of a Spaceship, finds Joe and his collaborators literally constructing a UFO, which appears in passing as if on fire in one of A Letter to Uncle Boonmee’s fluid tracking shots, and as a kind of psychic time machine in the dual-screen centerpiece installation called Primitive, while in the real world still serving as a shelter in which the Nabua kids hang out. This UFO doesn’t make an appearance in Uncle Boonmee because we’re already on board: the aliens have landed, brainwashed us, and we’re on their side. At one point in the film, when Boonmee and his companions have traversed the buzzing jungle to end up in a hilltop cave, Apichatpong’s letter to cinema shows its cards: Boonmee can’t tell whether his eyes are closed, or his eyes are open and he can’t see a thing because they haven’t yet adjusted to the dark. I refuse to get into a more detailed argument as to why one should consider Uncle Boonmee a great film—if not the greatest of all Palme d’Or winners—because this is the kind of question that I don’t want to answer; I’d rather fumble my way through the dark, not knowing if my eyes are opened or closed.