Saturday, July 14, 2007

Syndromes and a Century d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006

This has been the tacit question of my movie-watching for a while now: Critically, is emotion as valid as logic? A large percentage of the films shown where I work seem to exchange - almost always in part, often wholesale - in the currency of emotion: logic, continuity, and plot play second fiddle to tone, mood, and an oneiric and ponderous pensiveness. I'm talking about movies like Institute Benjamenta or, the current subject, Syndromes and a Century. This type of film seems to be a direct rebellion against the typical Hollywood boxed-drama and its encroaching territory of power. I.e. it's perfect fare for Berkeleyites, who never fail to clap after one of these dreamlike tone-poems plays at the PFA. Still, others are less enthused.

Mike D'Angelo says that Syndromes isn't really about anything, and he's absolutely right. I don't buy for a second the claim that this film is "about" the nature of memory, even if Weerasethakul was inspired to make the film by his own memories of growing up in a hospital. This is where md'a and I (might) diverge, though: Does a film need to be "about" something? He says yes; I'm not sure either way. Emotionally, there are some stunning moments in this film. The second half - and it's a clearly a second half; Joe reprises the mimetic deus ex machina of Tropical Malady here - is punctuated with fluid shots tracking shots of the various architecture and environs of the films, while the soundtrack swells with a pretty gorgeous ambient score. Emotionally, it's terribly affecting. I have no idea what's going on, what anything symbolizes, but I'm taken by the beauty - ocular and aural - of the scene. That is - and this goes for the film as a whole - these scenes don't speak to me on any logical level, but they punch me in my emotional nether regions pretty fucking hard.

Yet, I feel a bit bamboozled after seeing a film like Syndromes and a Century, like someone figured out how to put steak taste in my mouth w/o actually feeding me anything. This is it, I think: a perfectly executed languorous tone-poem of a film is just as difficult to make as a perfectly executed Hollywood drama, the difference is two-fold though. Personally, I'm so familiar with the form of the latter that any imperfection is magnified by familiarity; I can spot a half-assed Hollywood drama - ditto an excellent one - from the Gods. Conversely, I'm not nearly as familiar w/ this new breed of film - and, I'd argue, neither is the nightly audience at your local revival house - so the differences, ergo the cumulative effect on the viewer, are not nearly as easy to differentiate. Secondly, it is easy to nail a few sections of perfection in film that relies purely on tone, giving the viewer a sense of culmination. This, I think, is the case w/ Syndromes. It's not that a movie that relies on pure tone does not appeal to logical criticism, but that a disjointed film doesn't stand up under critical scrutiny. There is no divide between emotion and logic when film is concerned. Instead, a film creates its own logic, and the appeal to pure emotion is something that happens when the film's internal logic disintegrates or remains dormant from the start. I wouldn't claim that the logic of Syndromes and a Century is disintegrated, only that the purpose of the film isn't clear; there are moments of beauty, but those moments are disjunct from the rest of the film, creating a ruptured viewing experience doesn't have much to offer.


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