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Cinematic Oscillations: A Post-'Memoria' Manifesto

I saw Memoria at the closest thing my city has to an arthouse theater (everything’s a Regal here) with a group of friends who would almost definitely describe themselves as movie buffs. The movie ended, we left the theater, and, as we began to talk, I discovered, to my horror, that a solid majority of them absolutely hated it. In fact, they were offended that the culture they were a part of had asked them to sit through something so plodding, so unstimulating, so utterly worthless.

The Letterboxd reviews rolled in: it was boring, it was pretentious, some even self-righteously accused it of being bourgeois. It was an activity feed from hell. These people were my friends whose opinions I respected and, all of sudden, the gulf between our tastes had grown disturbingly wide. One of the great things about interacting with the other masochists who choose to fry their ears and eyes in the boiling grease basket we call cinema is that you get to see things from a new perspective.

“Maybe you’re right, maybe Keanu Reeves is good in Dracula.”

“Eisensteinian, you say? I guess I should give Quantum of Solace a rewatch.”

“Of course I’ll go to the theater and pay $20 to see Hal Needham’s 1986 BMX-focused cult classic Rad with you.”

Sharing your neuroses with your fellow cinephile is what makes it all worth it, but what happens when you don’t want their revolting cinematically transmitted disease? What about when you realize you don’t even have the same idea about what a movie even is? That’s Memoria, for me. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s hand-delivered crisis of faith.

To “review” Memoria is to write for the undecided potential viewer or, at least, for the viewer who can’t quite decide how they feel. To that end, I just can’t imagine it would be at all productive to talk about the quality of the direction or the acting or (God forbid) the plot. Instead, I’ll do my best to outline some method of interacting with Weerasethakul’s newest masterpiece on its own terms.

The concerns I heard coming out of the movie can be, generally, boiled down to the following: the movie was boring because it had no plot, no discernible emotional arc, and, in the absence of those, no clear meaning. Asking for any of these things from Memoria isn’t productive and, what’s more, if you go in wanting them, you won’t have a good time. Does it have a plot? I think so. Does it have ideas? Most definitely. However, me explaining them at length won’t help anybody. In fact, it would only encourage people to go in looking for all the wrong things. So, starting from square one, I’ll do my best to set some proper expectations.

Let’s begin at the beginning: “slow cinema” is, like most terms, an insufficient and often arbitrary descriptor. But, as so many ridiculous labels are, it’s useful. The tradition of slow cinema is often narrativized as including Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Chantal Akerman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Abbas Kiarostami, among others. The films are characterized by a general lack of plot and formal kineticism, often obtuse themes, and extensive use of long takes. For these filmmakers, the exploration of cinematic texture is often an end in and of itself. However, if one is to locate Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s closest cinematic cousin within this tradition, the only figure of note is the Malaysian master Tsai Ming-Liang.

Dedicated to formally exploring modern urban life, Tsai has made such great films as Stray Dogs and what is, for me and many others, the ultimate slow cinema text: Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The movie follows one night in a theater that is showing the King Hu classic, Dragon Inn, and, rather than extrapolating on the content of the film his subjects are viewing, Tsai meticulously illustrates how they view it, the space they view it in, and the sensations that result. None of his “characters” are there to transform or bare their soul for the viewer, but to watch a movie or piss or try (unsuccessfully) to get laid. Tsai took this to a new extreme in his most recent film, Days, which he insisted go unsubtitled in foreign markets.

The message is clear: what his characters are talking about doesn’t matter as much as the simple fact that they are talking. The sounds of their voices are more important than any meaning their words may have. Plot is disposed of in favor of those characteristics that are most intensely cinematic: sound and image. Bodies in spaces. Sound from the ether. These are the catch-all phrases that can apply to all of our great filmmakers, from Jean Renoir to Walter Hill to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. We lack words for them not because they are hollow, but because the only medium where we get to explore them is cinema.

Weerasethakul is not Tsai. He is not concerned with the material world that we recognize, but with the metaphysical that so many of us perceive as existing beyond it. Memoria is a relatively accessible distillation of that. In fact, it even explains to the viewer how best to interact with it. Early in the movie, Jessica (Tilda Swinton) visits a musician and sound engineer, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), and asks him to reconstruct a mysterious sound she’s been hearing.

Weerasethakul lingers on each varied thud and Swinton’s inability to describe it until, suddenly, she hears it, and is overwhelmed by its power over her. This scene is practically an instruction manual for the viewer: feel every image and every sound. The beauty of Memoria isn’t in any moment-of-truth story or narrative climax, but in the form itself. The sudden onset of rain, the unsettling lifelessness of an unmoving body among shivering grass, and the wonderful, indescribable thud that the film orbits around. It is the construction of the sensational experience, the visual and aural set of stimuli that have been constructed for the viewer, that makes Memoria potent. In other words, it’s all about the vibes.

When Weerasethakul tears the focus away from Swinton to foreground a band, that’s beautiful. Two characters go looking to buy a large refrigerator; that’s beautiful. Someone deliciously describes their experience attempting to rescue a sick dog; that’s beautiful. The sensation each of these moments creates is more important than any of the stakes and structures most movies live and die by. The glory is the cinematic form itself.

Am I disparaging plot and character? No, not in the slightest, but it’s important for people to remember that writing a great plot or creating interesting characters are their own arts. Asking a filmmaker to make sure their work is built around a good noir story or some solid philosophical idea is the same as asking them to make sculptures instead. Even so, Memoria isn’t completely lacking these things. I only emphasize the extreme approach for this reason: to experience the purely sensation-based, moment-to-moment cinematic impressions is the most important part of Memoria.

It has plenty of ideas about the experience of being alien, rationalizing and narrativizing all the strange and inconvenient things that happen to us, and how our modern conceptions of memory (from television to computers) are only apparatuses that allow us to see more clearly the naturally matrixes of memory that existed before us and will continue to exist the earth long after we’re good and gone. If interacting with those concepts makes the viewing experience enjoyable for you, that’s great! If your enjoyment comes from listening to some eminently esoteric and fuckable sounds, that’s also great! However, to sit through the whole film and then ask it to be something it’s not even trying to be is not only disingenuous, it’s just plain sad.

To love a movie for vibes alone isn’t even a remotely new concept. For me to try and explain the idea of it isn’t new, either. The hippies that dropped acid and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and all the poor schmucks who sat through Andy Warhol’s Empire are part of the same lineage of folks who knew that cinema has and always will be able to persist on vibes alone. In fact, the way I view John Ford’s Wagon Master, one of my favorite movies and (superficially) a paint-by-numbers western picture, is almost identical to my interactions with Memoria. The craft of constructing stimuli for the viewer is a powerful and delicate one, but it’s also dangerous; if the viewer wants to be told what to think or feel, to be at all passive, they enter the theater ready to hate Memoria for no other reason than their own refusal to participate.

It is not unfair of a movie to ask you to put part of yourself in to get something out. I’m reminded of a Kiarostami quote and, though his movies are generally more traditional than those of Tsai or Weerasethakul, it rings true: “I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” Kiarostami’s words are a powerful reminder not only of the potential of cinema, but of the myriad ways to interact with it.

To call Memoria great is to beat the ever-loving shit out of a very, very dead horse. I know it’s great and the very fact that I’m hardly able to put words to what about Swinton’s face or that aquatic, metallic thud affects me so deeply is why I love it. To its core, Memoria is a film, a kind of total cinema that Andre Bazin himself couldn’t have dreamed up.

To my friends and to all the people who couldn’t connect with it for one reason or another, I can only beg you to try again. Open yourself up as best you can to all my bullshit, cinema-as-meditation mumbo jumbo and let the vibes wash over you. Try Rebels of the Neon God or Tropical Malady. My little crisis of faith in the wonders of cinephile-to-cinephile relations has no polite conclusion. Instead, it has an impassioned and half-hostile plea: even if it’s not for you, approach every movie on its own terms. You may get something wonderful out of it.



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