Thursday, April 7, 2011

Does everyone care about Uncle Boonmee? Should everyone?

(Image courtesy of Kick the Machine and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's blog)

In his rave review in the current issue of Film Comment magazine, Chuck Stephens makes the rather remarkable statement that "everybody who cares about cinema has already long been stoked about seeing Uncle Boonmee."  In case you are somebody who Just Does Not Care About Cinema, I shall inform you that he refers to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the latest feature by Thai avant-garde filmmaker Apichatpong "just call me Joe" Weerasethakul and the upset winner of the Palme d'Or for best picture at last year's Cannes Film Festival.  As usual for The Joe, it includes Buddhist and animist mysticism, animal transmogrifications and ruminations on reincarnation, references to Thai folklore and more oblique references to Thai history and politics, homey low-key humor, and lots and lots of jungle vegetation and chirping cricket sounds.  I suppose this is as good a paragraph as any to fulfill my obligations under the law governing all writers on Uncle Boonmee by mentioning the monkey ghosts with glowing red eyes and the disfigured princess who receives oral sex from a talking catfish.

Now, as someone who Cares About Cinema, and who is furthermore a fan of Weerasethakul's work, I was certainly stoked about seeing it long before I did last fall at the New York Film Festival, and was almost equally stoked about seeing it a second time, as I did last month at Manhattan's Film Forum when it was finally released for a U.S. run.  But the combination of that second experience and Stephens' above-quoted assertion got me thinking again about the gap between the quite small group of cosmopolitan-intellectual-professional film pundits and the more-or-less-casual paying audience, and how wide that gap often is even in the cineaste circles of a town like New York.

I'm totally on board with the art cinema punditocracy in finding Uncle Boonmee an enthrallingly happy experience (although I would put it at least a notch below two of his previous features, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, two of my favorites of the last decade).  But even in such a seemingly rareified venue as Film Forum, one of the city's most venerable and respected arthouse and repertory cinemas, there were clearly quite a few people around me in the dark who were just plain bored and mystified.  Not the fun kind of mystified, but the "what the hell? - give me a break!" kind of mystified.  The standard complaints all apply: it's the kind of movie where "nothing happens" and "there's no plot" and "nothing makes any sense" - and above all, it's "sooooooo slooooow."  Only times ten, for all of those things.

The sounds of sighing and shifting in seats were occasionally audible around me, of course.  To get more specific, there was a young couple next to me who did not seem to be on the same page about how much of a chance to give Uncle Boonmee.  He kept leaning over to ask her whispered questions, she kept shushing him.  I noticed out of the corner of my eye that at a certain point in the running time, he began to spend a lot of time simply staring at her in the universal sign language for "I've had enough - can we please go?"  She ignored him.  Then there was the small group of young folk behind me who tittered and whispered through much of the movie, and as the end credits rolled, burst out laughing and shaking their heads for quite a long time.  A couple of them were still chuckling in the men's room afterwards and emitting semi-articulate expressions of contemptuous bewilderment.

I recall these details with more calm and amusement that I experienced at the time - I'm a bit of a stickler for Shutting the Hell Up in a movie and not bothering the people around you, regardless of your opinion about what's onscreen.  But under my annoyance, I felt the sad letdown that I think is common to art-cultists who encounter people completely resistant to their enthusiasms.  The ideal movie theater experience is the sensation of breathing, sighing and laughing together as one organism, each individual's reaction reflected and multiplied by the multitude as in a hall of mirrors.  When the opposite happens, for me at least, the enjoyment can be considerably dampened, as if I'm trying to sing into a stiff headwind that blows my breath back down my throat and muffles my notes until they're almost inaudible.

Maybe it's the same for Chuck Stephens and the other art-cinema pundits who've fallen under Weerasethakul's spell.  I think I can hear undertones of pleading and wish-fulfillment in the widespread declarations about how Uncle Boonmee is "more accessible" than his previous work, and a movie that everyone ought to see.  For some of us, this is a blissful fantasy entertainment (and there's some indication that group is larger than I'd dared hope, as the movie was held over at Film Forum and played for almost a month, then immediately opened at two other NYC theaters, at least).  But for a much larger group, even among educated, cosmopolitan viewers who don't mind reading at the movies, it's just another bit of self-indulgence from an ivory tower masturbator who can't be bothered to entertain or even make himself understood.  And maybe that shouldn't matter to me, but, yeah, that makes me sad.  Because I am Somebody Who Cares About Cinema, dammit.  And about monkey ghosts.

[Here's a terrific interview with the director in the AV Club.  Even the comments are great - this one especially: "His films are like a drug. When you first take it, you're not sure if it's working and you might wonder why anyone recommended it. Then it hits, and it hits hard, and you're feeling it, man, you're diggin' it. You might continue to drift out of it now and then, but you'll keep going back under, and eventually you'll be fiending."  Exactly.] 
Comics artist Chris Ware's stunning poster for the American release (Image courtesy of Strand Releasing)

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