Nostalgia is in fashion – at least in the material sense – but memory forever precludes a unwelcome melancholic attachment. Even our fondest reflections of days past are tainted with the knowledge that these better times are gone, glimpsed through a hazy visual recollection that soon too will take its leave as our mind gradually empties itself of the clutter.
Loss is a key component of memory. It is the trauma that gives us the drive to grab tight hold of the data our brains have amassed over the years. It reminds us to stash our backlog online, to remember vicariously through the internet by way of all-encompassing info-buckets such as Wikipedia and Google, who contain to relieve us of the burden of having to retain. Loss prompts us to bring our cameras along to every destination, holiday or otherwise, to ‘collect’ these locales so that our lens has a visual record of their splendour, even if our eyes do not.
A lot of the big films in 2012 dealt with loss in various idiosyncratic ways. Michael Haneke’s Palme D’or winner Amour portrayed the deterioration of both a life and a relationship, depicting all semblance of Emmanuelle Riva’s original being falling away with every passing minute. Nipping at its heels in the main Cannes competition was Holy Motors, a delightful cinematic odyssey that acknowledged through invariably creative ways the onset and implications of the digital age. Tabu was similarly nostalgic for the days of old, setting its sumptuous second act inside an idealised 16mm monochrome landscape in colonised Africa. Yet when we consider this small field of films it is important to recognise that a vast majority of cinema concerns itself with loss, or indeed, lack. The fundamental gape at the heart of the human existence facilitates the very function of cinema as a tool for asking important questions of ourselves and the world around us.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is just as concerned with memory and loss as any other, though his form of remembrance is optimistically transfixed by the notion of a transformative rebirth. His Palme D’or triumph, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is casually lauded for its bewildering mysticism (by many of the same who tend to sell Holy Motors with lazy claims to ‘surrealism’ and ‘the many masks we wear’), though make no mistake, the Thai director’s latest masterpiece is – to run risk of such same hyperbole – cinema at its most transcendental.
Uncle Boonmee is the centrepiece of a multi-part project by Weerasethakul named Primitive, spread across a variety of works, from print to video installations. Though its beauty is apparent as a standalone, the themes of Uncle Boonmee are expounded further when supplemented by its preceding shorts. I viewed a number of these a few days ago; already, tragically, they are fading images in the black of my mind, recalled to the centre for immediate reference before falling back into their respective cells, soon to disappear. Far from condemning these pictures, I am merely exemplifying the way in which the overzealous film-viewing habits of cinephiles begin a process whereby the quantity of art absorbed gradually proves a heavy burden on our memorial capacity. And yet, I felt it necessary to mention them. Simply listing them as titles on a spreadsheet would not do (though the process is effective enough for conjuring the barest of memories and opinions on certain films).
Elementary in its framing and composition, the first short Phantoms of Nabua depicts a doozy of a metatextual reference through the placement of a cinema screen isolated in the dark of night. This frame-within-a-frame shows a land under siege from unrelenting forks of lightning, a sly exhibition of the plight of Nabua villagers in the 1960s purging of communist sympathisers, which was an underlying historical context of the Primitive project. The screen’s doomed metaphor is given credence by its imminent destruction, as a group of nearby youths kick a ball of flame to each other until its trajectory inevitably sends it firing into the open goal of the lightning-laden image. The flames tear apart the canvas, leaving only a stuttering projection to flicker alone in the darkness to no one at all.
Slightly more uplifting is A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, which takes us inside the aforementioned village of Nabua, now deserted and deadly silent save for the repeated narration of the eponymous letter. The camera is the phantom here, searching through the dark, empty spaces of each house in search of life. There is a vibrancy to be sensed in the the gusts of wind pushing through the trees on the outskirts of the village, beckoning us out into the open where spirits wait. Once we emerge into the forest, we catch sight of a wild animal, distant and gracious in the thicket. Its presence alone is reason enough to disregard the tragedy inherent to extinction and instead begin to consider the implicit transformation that begins thereafter.
Ashes is a more recent work, and not part of the aforementioned project, though it too gives a celebratory lamentation of life, memory and, indeed, film, before turning its head to the next transformative step. The first half is assembled through a montage of collected snapshots: personal memories of yesteryear, of walks with the dog through fresh pastures, travels through remembered towns and places. The white balance shifts with every other still. The faces are captured in frozen gestures and subsequently engineered into a warm, affectionate motion.
The closing minutes of Ashes bring us back to that glorious element of fire. The great destroyer, at once magnificent and terrifying. A crowd of onlookers watch as burning ashes fall all around them, each body captured in motion on digital footage. Arms are outstretched to the heavens, and at their ends they grasp onto their own digital device, recording with the same impersonal documentation as the next man. Welcome to the new age.
As cinephiles, we feel a sense of guilt when viewing a film and thereafter discarding it for the very next. It benefits our long-term memory to engage with the text long after the close of a viewing and not exclusively within its runtime, to document our experiences and forever have on record the profound impact a singular cinematic experience can have on our perspective. I am compelled to mention a few acquaintances of mine that manage to watch over 800 films in a single year. A daunting and hollow feat this may appear to some, though their continued efforts to write about every single one, no matter how extensive or terse their evaluation, shows a commendable method of consolidating the imprint of rich texts that may deserve far more than a single engagement.
Like most other things that we pass by, or allow to pass us by, films are memories, no matter our insistence on their material prominence upon a shelf. What’s more, like all memories they are fleeting. One day, for each of us, they will all be gone.
But to take a leaf from the book of Weerasethakul, we can look past the finality of it all and instead choose to emphasise how cinema changes our constitution for the better. The best art looks back at us, it engages us with questions leading to questions leading to more questions, until our basic understanding of the world and our place in it is fundamentally altered. It shakes us from our complacency and equips us to challenge preconceived notions, to break through illusory assumptions and posit new, brave perspectives.
True cinema is transformative, transcendental; its memory can break apart, but it keeps in our mind as small fragments, each aiding to construct the whole.