Friday, September 21, 2007

Syndromes and a Cine

Ciné is important as a cornerstone of serious film in Athens, and has presented an incredible gift to the town with the screening of films like Offside, Bamako, Killer of Sheep, Grbavica, and Climates. That said, in finding their way financially and artistically, their screening practices are not above reproach.

Take, for instance, last week’s scheduled run of Rear Window. In good faith, I assumed that they had acquired a print from the film’s theatrical re-release that I recall coming to the Manor in my high school or college days. I was prepared to pluck down $8, but on a whim I called ahead of time to confirm a 35mm screening, only to be told that it would actually be digitally projected from a run of the mill DVD release. I decided that I could watch a projected DVD at home, and of a film I’d not already seen, at that.

Ciné’s policy of DVD screenings is not always problematic- for a midnight movie, for instance, the ambience is lighter and more social, so a “cheap” format is acceptable (and I also understand that midnight shows can be cash cows for indie theaters.) Bamako, which was shown on a very limited, one night schedule, came digital with a slight pixilation- but, it was a first run film that we were lucky to have seen in Athens at all.

But Rear Window is a different story. Certainly many if not most in the audience were not watching this, an exceedingly popular and accessible movie, for the first time. Hitchcock is so familiar to most film goers that to charge full price for a screening indicates the opportunity to see them in their original, cinematic glory; a DVD projection for a classic film should not be charged for, or if so, only a few bucks, a la Tate Student Union theater. Perhaps I’d be more forgiving if their advertising included a note on presentation. Without even this, it seems like a cynical ploy to cheat viewers out of what they clearly have come to see. As a friend and Ciné employee noted, it’s like going to a concert and having the band put in their CD. While I can understand Ciné’s business imperative, if you have a gap in your scheduling and have to screen repertory digitally, why not dig up something more adventurous, less familiar- there’s over 100 years of cinema to pick from (with a warning to the public that’s about to lay an hour’s wages down.)

It’s easy to forget about all that when the following week Ciné brings to Athens a remarkable film like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. Easily one of the best films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in the theater, it is perhaps the type of film David Lynch would make had he at some point been humbled down from his ivory tower of cynicism and ostentation. That is, it unfolds like a game with ever changing rules, in which Weerasethakul appears to be always two moves ahead, not logically, per se, but aesthetically and subconsciously. At the end, we find it wasn’t a game at all, but a total reinterpretation of cinematic grammar that defies the rules we think we know all movies should follow.

The biggest rule to shatter is one of the West’s most essential: the expectation for a binary structure, symmetry, and repetition. Syndromes opens at a rural Thai hospital, sometime in the recent past or present. Surrounded by languid green fields and forests, the environment seeps into the behavior of the patients and staff- as they work or recuperate they tell stories, exchange folk remedies, play guitar, and feel their way towards love and grace. Eventually, the story focuses in somewhat on the young Dr. Toey who, to ward off a soldier’s awkward advances, points the film to another skeletal, digressive narrative, of her flirtatious relationship with an orchid grower. This story, or rather the fragments of time in this setting, comes to an end, but there’s still half of the movie left.

Then, we think we have Weerasethakul’s card- the story restarts, recreated almost scene by scene initially in another hospital, a high tech urban one of the present or near future. Although shots are reversed and the dialogue slightly different, we see the same actors in the same roles- the fresh army doctor, the cantankerous monk, the kind female doctor, the singing dentist. Yet after the initial sequence of shots, the symmetry crumbles, and we are led onto other paths- the new doctor’s possible relocation, a young patient’s corridor tennis practice, and the strange happenings in the dated basement of the building, including a prosthetics workshop and endless, ominous remodeling. The disappearance of a dialectical, logical game leaves the film open to the free play of memories, impressions, and seemingly unconnected scenes. To describe it as dream-like is inaccurate- Weerasethakul is not a surrealist or a freak-out artist. Avant garde is a more appropriate descriptor, but an avant garde of great humility and humanism; one that starts with quiet moments of the quotidian, building his work not to shock or confuse, but in a spirit of reverence and wonder. It is no surprise that much of the film was based on the memories of his doctor parents.

99% of contemporary films operate in a fairly closed and settled grammar that, while not always or necessarily bad, does little to expand the boundaries of cinema. Syndromes and a Century (like his previous Tropical Malady) is the 1% that confirms that cinema can and must remain a vibrant medium in the 21st century. It is a type of film-making that can surprise even the most hardened movie explorer, and will hopefully reach a wider audience upon DVD release. But, following the manner of Weerasethakul and to invoke for my own memory some of the most remarkable moments of the film, I’ll conclude not with clinical analysis, but with a list (from memory):

The blanched out color palette; going against conventional Western views of southeast Asia as a bright, colorful jungle paradise, the cinematography bleaches the sky white, and tones the verdant greens into paler tones.

We are treated to the uninterrupted performance of a festival guitarist- why not? A conventional film would deem this nonessential, distracting.

Matching shots in both “versions” of the story, both completely spell-binding but in absolutely different contexts: the solar eclipse of the first, the droning ventilation piping in a swirl of dust in the second.

In the second story, the new doctor reviews with his wife pictures of the industrial works to which they may move. The photos look absolutely dated, from the 1970’s perhaps, out of sync with the high rise landscape behind them. The image marking memory across bounds of time?

The concluding outdoor exercise shot, with its bouncing electro-pop, Niked-up Asian populace, smoggy urban backdrop, it has postmodern echoes of Jia Zhang-Ke’s The World.