In last week’s blog I talked about the experience of seeing a film with low expectations, and the potential this has to skew one’s judgement, making a surprisingly good film seem even better than it really is. I had the opposite experience that same week when I went to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat). This film was the 2010 winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, received five-star reviews by The Guardian and the Financial Times, and only slightly less glowing assessments from The Evening Standard, The Telegraph and Little White Lies. ‘There are things in this jungle you have never seen before’ promised the London Film Festival’s programme guide. I meticulously avoided reading too much about the film, so that I could go to it fresh, and be thoroughly enchanted by all its surprises. The poster had already tantalisingly revealed the black-haired Bigfoot-like creatures with glowing red eyes, which magically remained just this side of terrifying. The rest of the film, I felt assured, would surprise, delight and inspire me. As life’s distractions and bad-timings would have it, I didn’t get around to seeing it until its last day on London’s cinema screens. And because it was not the grippingly revelatory experience I expected, I felt let down. Throughout the film, I had at the back of my mind the nagging concern that my cinema companion was bored to death (that is, until he actually fell asleep). I tried to decide whether I myself was completely bored, or whether the film was subtly managing to enchant me.
Some reviewers will tell you that Uncle Boonmee is indescribable, that you just have to see it: the experience will be different for every viewer. I think that this is true, but it doesn’t mean that a reviewer shouldn’t try to explain it. Although it is slow-moving, happily the film is not without a plot: although I didn’t notice much of the advertised recalling of past lives, the film is indeed about Uncle Boonmee. He has a life-threatening kidney problem and retreats to a house in the jungle where he is looked after by a young doctor, and is visited by his sister-in-law and cousin. Some supernatural visitors also come to call, including a black-haired creature with glowing red eyes.
The film’s strengths are its atmosphere and dialogue. The atmosphere is tranquil. It is also almost magical and scary. This ‘almost’ is important, as it is a quality which distinguishes the film. As I watched Uncle Boonmee, I dreaded going on to read reviews characterising its style as magic realism: its style was more complex and subtle than that. Uncle Boonmee only brushes the edges of everything that is. It is not an all-out ghost story or fairytale, although it hints at these genres. It exists on the periphery of categories of being, which is perhaps an appropriate stylistic metaphor for a film about a man close to death. In the midst of this evocative atmosphere, the dialogue came as a relief. It was simple but poetic, consisting of everyday observations that were strangely satisfying. The dialogue’s banality could be humorous when confronted with the supernatural. Boonmee’s son comes to visit, transformed into an ape: his aunt asks him why he has grown his hair so long.
There is much in Uncle Boonmee to love, and to be enchanted by. Weerasethakul deserves praise for achieving any consistency at all in creating such an elusive atmosphere. But there were moments where, for me, the film’s effect stuttered. To help to discount the weight of high expectations, you always have to ask yourself whether you would think that a given film was something special if you did not know it was the product of an acclaimed master. In the case of Uncle Boonmee, while there were moments of magical genius, there were also moments of frustration and boredom.
A final note on boredom in films: I read a nice analysis of this a while back, where the author made the insightful observation that your receptiveness to a ‘slow’ film depends a great deal on your frame of mind at that moment. It can be daunting, as a serious film goer, to say that you are bored by a slow-moving film, because it implies that you lack the patience and insight to fully appreciate the long take. But is it really all down to how patient you happen to be feeling that day, or how at ease you are with quiet meditation in general?
Some films make you forget that you are watching a film: for 90 minutes or more, you are a different person, living a different life, sometimes in a time and place quite different from your own. The problem with a slow film is that you are often excruciatingly aware of the experience of watching. You have been presented with an image, and unless you close your eyes or leave the cinema, you are forced to contemplate it. You might wonder why the director has chosen to make you gaze at this scene for so long: if there is no answer readily apparent, you may become annoyed or restless. The reason we can enjoy daydreaming or meditation in our own lives is that we are the masters of it: we decide when to meditate, what to meditate upon. We follow our own thoughts as we daydream, allowing our gaze to wander, or looking without seeing. Watching a film, the spectator’s eyes can wander over a given image, but it is ultimately the director choosing the image and how long the spectator may (or must) look at it. It is not just the experience of watching a film that your are aware of, then, as a spectator, but the experience of having your attention directed by someone else. When you know that the director is a master, you may be more willing to place your trust in their judgement: ‘if this image has been chosen by this director, it must be relevant. Its duration has been selected by someone with a talent for timing and rhythm’. But even the best director can make mistakes. Even more important, as so many reviewers have acknowledged, this film will mean different things to different people: in this case, different people might prefer different durations for a given image.
We live in an age of interactivity and tailored choice, thanks to computers and the internet: by creating online profiles, we can present our fantasy selves to potential mates online, and through internet dating, reject a potential mate before even meeting them in person, just because they don’t enjoy all the same books, films or sports as we do. We read only the articles that interest us in online newspapers: not having paid for them, we feel no compulsion to get our money’s worth by reading as much as possible. We don’t peruse newspapers in the same way: we’re less likely to accidentally skim a story we might not normally read. Amazon presents us with items similar to those we have already bought, rather than introducing us to anything new, and online advertising has begun to do the same. Similarly, the online world has taken some power away from book publishers and film distributors: now, blogs allow anyone to be a writer with an audience, and a home video by Joe Blogs might well become a viral hit on YouTube. On the face of it, an age of interactive cinema would seem a step backwards. No longer would we trust the critically acclaimed director to take us to new places: even before the DVD stage, we could fast forward through the apparent boring bits, trying to find something new. The meditative experience of Boonmee would probably be lost along with the moments of boredom. But we have power over much of our experience of everyday life, and have had power over many art forms for ages: we can skip boring parts in a book, and decide just how long to stand in front of a painting in a gallery. Would it really destroy the soul of cinema to give the audience a bit more power?