[You click this link, you go back to the first installment, which found me and Jeremy unable to get service at an Applebee’s, following a screening of Duncan Jones’s Source Code. Increasingly hungry, increasingly desperate, we debated the nutritional value of our napkins and tablecloths, before Jeremy remembered that Applebee’s coats all such textiles in an indigestible plastic (to prevent sullen teenagers from rending or defiling them). Our gazes fell upon the Awesome Blossoms sizzling on our various neighbors’ tables.]
A D: Let’s keep talking about movies; it’ll distract us.
Jeremy: Capital! I liked Source Code better than Thor, I’d say (though not so much as Ang Lee or Bill Bixby’s Hulks). Because Source Code is a nice little movie. Though not as nice or little as Moon, Duncan Jones’s debut.
Source Code lacks Moon’s pathos.
Though it’s probably more fun. On the other hand, Moon is, overall, more memorable. Being a harder trick to pull off. Though a no-less familiar trick, really.
I agree on both counts. I finally saw it over Christmas, mainly because you and Justin [our friend] kept suggesting I should see it.
And what did you think?
I liked it; it’s good.
This is starting to sound like Donald Barthelme’s Superman III review.
We should be so lucky.
Would you like to be able to fly?
Though I did think Moon weaker, narratively, than Source Code. Jones didn’t mine Moon (begging your pardon) for anywhere as much suspense as he might have.
Which I found rather refreshing.
Oh, me, too. Although it surprised me at first. I didn’t expect him to clarify so quickly that Sam Rockwell’s character’s a clone (spoiler).
Is that even a spoiler?
Actually, I found it refreshing how both Moon and Source Code underplay their eventual “gotcha” moments.
You mean their plot twists.
Those, and all manner, really, of post-Philip K. Dick metatextual mind-fuck unwriting. Which has managed to become dull, thanks to the spate of films using these tropes over the last decade and change …
That little top in the final scene of Inception is probably still spinning. It will do forever.
Unless it topples.
Ohmigod, I wonder will it fall? Maybe if I watch it again, the ending will finally resolve …
For good and for ill, Source Code depends more on plot twists than Moon did. Because Moon is much more concerned with the tragedy of Sam Rockwell’s character’s situation.
All to the good. Fantasy and science fiction films are sorely lacking in legitimate pathos. They bend over backward to pretend to care about such things (for the focus groups, you know): everyone must have the obligatory love interest to fight for or revenge, etc. But how rare to posit a situation that is simply irremediable, melancholy … well, “human.”
Already with the scare quotes?
Humans scare me. (Just like they do Duncan’s father.)
He specified only Americans.
We’re all Americans now.
But I use the epithet “human” as a convenience: it’s no more human to make a small, sad movie than to make a totalitarian blockbuster. These are just different ways of being manipulated, to take the cynical view. But I certainly know which methodology I prefer, which variety of manipulation feels less intrusive, less offensive, and more effective …
I, too, like how sad Moon is. Was.
You’ve always been rather mopey. And Source Code traded pathos for suspense. It was intended as a popular high-concept thriller. Its secondary ambition, let us say, was to not disappoint the people who liked Moon (presumably including the producer(s) who hired Jones for SC). And I think it succeeds in its both its aims. And does so without offending me. Which is no mean feat.
You’ve always been easily offended.
You take that back, you!
Moon isn’t exactly a tightly wound mechanism. But there is something pleasant about its limited scope and the absence of secondary figures, or indeed much exposition (at least in its dialogue).
In all fairness, it has less set-up to explain. But one bad scene in Source Code is the one where Jeffrey Wright’s character tries to explain how his magic brain-transference technology does its thing.
Yes, it reminded me of those scenes in Star Trek: The Next Generation where the screenwriters reputedly just typed “TECH” into their scripts so that some mythos aficionado on the staff could swap in technobabble—
“We need to reverse of the zonal polarity of the fluctuating neutron flow.”
“Or pick up Monica Bellucci.”
Although I am not so “past” my science fiction days that I didn’t wish Wright’s explanation weren’t a bit more sensible. If the source code project isn’t time travel, then how can it create an alternate world that survives the program’s being switched off (spoiler)? I feel like someone could have done a few more rewrites of that explanation scene to make it sensible, or else, hey, why not elide it entirely?
I don’t think it’s time travel to our time’s past, but rather to—
An alternate universe inside the computer? That is somehow created by their having a recording of the thoughts of the dead passenger? And that therefore can only be reached by a partially uploaded human personality? Sounds like a simulation to me. The difference isn’t made clear; they just throw nonsense at it/us and hope we tune out.
—an alternate universe’s past, I think. Which is also, I think, the current understanding of how actual time travel would work? Michael Crichton did something similar in Timeline.
Well, he’s the ranking authority. Him and Reed Richards.
As far as computer simulations of alternate timelines go, the movie reminded me a bit of the Infocom game A Mind Forever Voyaging. (Which seems a primary influence. Or would, if anyone remembered what it was.)
The Wikipedia remembers it.
Quantum Leap being the other progenitor.
I would have been all the more happy to see the film had I known about that in advance. (Because, you see, it is referencing a franchise I remember fondly from my childhood! I am such a goddamn mark.)
I devote five minutes daily to remembering that nostalgia was originally considered a disease.
It’s certainly a symptom. The disease is far more pernicious. (But now I know why you were five minutes late to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.)
I actually didn’t see that one, and I give myself a lot of credit for that. Because, when I was a very young kid, I didn’t love anything more than I loved G.I. Joe.
Yes, I recall your subscription to Guns & Ammo.
G.I. Joe has nothing to do with guns. It’s all about the costumes. And accessories. And looking fabulous! … Speaking of accessories, why do you think Jones gave Wright’s character that crutch? Just so he’d have a bit of business?
Because it invites speculation. Maybe he was injured in a terrorist attack. Or military service.
Or maybe it’s simply that all villains must bear scars. And here’s an interesting point: is he not more sinister an antagonist than the bomber?
He is—well, he’s really the film’s antagonist. The bomber is just a deadline, an obstacle to be turned on and off.
I had a psychiatrist once who spoke of me in much the same terms. Of course, we were dating at the time.
Wright’s crutch also made me keep thinking of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable, Mr. Glass:
So, for the first thirty minutes or so, I kept wanting to shout, “Jeffrey Wright blew up the train! Jeffrey Wright blew up the train!” … This is probably very racist of me (plus a spoiler).
That never occurred to me. I mean, that Wright could—in yet another twist—turn out to have engineered the disaster in order to get additional funding for his project.
With narrative, anything is possible.
Though not necessarily advisable. I don’t think he could have been wounded in battle, however. The film posits Wright as being antagonistic to the soldiers—they are only there to further his ends. Whereas Farmiga’s character—and the lead—are made sympathetic to the audience and each other because they are military, and are meant to have a (source) code of ethics, to seem honorable despite the circumstances, etc. It’s the cold-hearted intellectuals versus the humanist grunts! How Hawksian.
“Wright was wounded in a battle, which is why he now hates soldiers.”
All right. How … Stan Leesian!
One thing I like about both Source Code and Moon is how they share a healthy distrust of corporations and the military—in the ways in which they (that any bureaucracies, really) utilize people (and use them up).
They’re both “anti-Human Resources films.” Since Alien, this has been a common trope in sci-fi.
Common, yes, but Jones (to his credit) has made it feel fresh again.
Are you trying for a gig at Variety?
“Pic looks sure to reap big B.O.; sequel is skedded for 2012 release.”
You’ve got the lingo down.
I’ll write a novel with it.
Although here’s a tough question—
To what extent is Star Wars (I refuse to call it “A New Hope”) the source of the “working man in space” conceit? It’s the first science-fiction film I know where the spaceships are all scuffed up.
If we leave America behind, I’m sure we could find an earlier example. Like the no-budget space opera (more like, um, Raumverfremdungseffekt? do we have a Germanist on staff?) of Alexander Kluge’s Der große Verhau (The Big Mess) (1971), which hits all those notes (space as a territory to be exploited by corporations/empires, not a backdrop for grand or even especially interesting adventures). It has dirty, cluttered spaceships as well (which are just practical sets, if I recall, barely dressed for their new, sci-fi context).
It looks more like hippies playing touch football.
That’s what they said about the original Star Trek pitch, philistine.
Check out this footnote from DVDSavant, one of the few English-language reviews of The Big Mess online:
Oddly, around the time that Roger Corman was putting together cheapjack space movies like Planet of Horrors in his Venice shop, his young art directors were using the word “kluge” (or “klooj”) to describe making a set look lived-in simply by adding clutter and extraneous bric-a-brac. 2001‘s clean and antiseptic look is the exact opposite of the Kluge Look. This probably has nothing to do with the German filmmaker Alexander Kluge, but …
It probably doesn’t. The Free Online Dictionary of Computing claims a different origin.
Well, that ellipsis is well placed. Savant isn’t saying Kluge the director was really the origin of the term, just noting a nice coincidence; I was twisting his words (hence my malefic cackling). He doesn’t seem much of a Kluge fan, sadly. It’s true The Big Mess might not be AK’s finest moment, but I think he’s the bee’s knees. He adapted Das Kapital! He was a student of Theodor Adorno! So, you see, I am spreading the disinformation that Kluge the director is indeed the proper reference point. Gonna kluge this baby up.
I have no doubt you will.
But I’m sure Kluge’s Big Mess is no more a source than 2001: A Space Odyssey, which despite its antiseptic-ism, goes to great pains to show how mundane (and privatized) space travel would really be.
That’s very true.
Science-fiction hasn’t found its way outside the Star Wars / 2001 influence, not yet.
But for a simple twist of fate, it could have been A Simple Twist of Fate.
Well, even somewhat more obscure movies have had some kind of influence. (Certainly on Joe Dante!) And will continue to, so long as they can be seen. Those Martian saucers were filthy.
Unlike the Metra trains in Source Code, which were much too clean. And had bike racks!
Hollywood truly is the dream factory.
I know, bathrooms that nice are almost worth the bomb scare. Will Source Code have any influence?
Not on the Metra. As for audiences … ? Justin asked me whether he should see it. And the more I told him that I’d liked it, the more he thought I was urging him not to go. The best I could manage was something like, “It’s very well done. And not terrible. It’s fine!”
Well, I can go further than that. If we’re going to have mainstream thrillers, they should all be as solid, capable, restrained, well-designed, and thoughtful as Source Code.
That sounds more like a blurb.
Since you’ve already got Variety reading us, I figured I’d give it a shot.
It also bears a suspicious resemblance to Pauline Kael. (“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”)
I agree with that. (Aren’t you relieved?)
(How can I disagree with anyone who’s effectively called Last Tango in Paris the greatest film ever made?)
She also said something like that about Nashville, mind you. And did her part in ruining (or keeping ruined) Orson Welles’s twilight-years career. That’s a lot of bad karma for one writer. Like saying, “Oh, he was a great soldier, a crack-shot! … shame he gunned that Webern guy down …”
I grew up with Kael’s books, so there’s only so much animus I can feel toward her … though, if one takes a step back, isn’t my (or her) asking for well-made mainstream trash a little like saying, “We should go to the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s, since they make the best Quarter Pounders in the city!”
We should go to the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s. Should have gone.
Let us aspire to being epicures of junk.
Don’t you mean epicenes?
We need not aspire on that front.
My second time viewing it.
What, it isn’t new for you every time?
But Uncle Boonmee is an extraordinary work and no mistake.
I like all his films equally, I think.
I know better.
Though perhaps I like Tropical Malady best, for personal and inexplicable reasons (for one thing, it was the first time I saw him do his thing).
Yes, his ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing. Didn’t you meet him while he was editing that film?
Because I met The Thing as well, while I was in Bangkok.
Yeah? Well, I met She-Hulk in Brussels. What a night. But we’ll save those stories for when we discuss Thor. Tell me right now about meeting AW. Right now.
I visited him at his studio (Kick the Machine) in Bangkok. We’d spoken on the phone a few times since I’d arrived in Thailand, but never found the time to meet up. (I realize now he was busy shooting. You must realize I’d seen only Mysterious Object at Noon by this point; Blissfully Yours was tough to come by.)
For heaven’s sake, why doesn’t the IMDb list the English title of Mysterious Object at Noon? It’s hardly an obscure film.
Not a clue. Incidentally, the Thai title translates roughly as “Dofka in the Hands of the Devil,” Dokfa—ดอกฟ้—being the name of one of the characters. Which is cutely subversive, given the film’s Exquisite Corpse structure.
He is very good at coming up with English titles for his films. Well, he’s a poet. Am I right in thinking that Uncle Boonmee is the first of his films for which the Thai and English titles are basically the same?
Pretty much. The Thai title of Syndromes and a Century is แสงศตวรรษ, or “Light of the Century.” And Blissfully Yours is called สุดเสน่หา in Thai, or “Ultimate Love” (or something along those lines).
The Thai title of Tropical Malady— สัตว์ประหลาด—translates literally as something like “Strange Monster.” Which is important in the film; it’s the last thing we hear before the narrative shifts, while Keng is thumbing through the photographs (which is one of my favorite moments in any of his films, of any film).
I’ll admit to a serious flirtation with the … vent-thing in Syndromes.
[For those who haven’t yet seen that film, Jeremy is talking about a scene toward its very end, certainly one of the most amazing shots I’ve seen in a film in a long time. See 2:50–6:11. —Adam]
Wow, there’s a complete, high quality, English subtitled copy of Syndromes and a Century available at YouTube?
In the future, anything is possible.
How I’ll miss the future! But for now I’ll be doing nothing but watching that vent scene. What the hell is that thing? Seriously. I see it in my dreams …
We were talking about Apichatpong’s great titles.
Like Spooky Uncle Vent-Thing Who Doesn’t Know What the Hell He Is? To be sure, Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) has a pretty great title too.
Maybe it’s just that the English-language distributors are actually giving really good advice/instructions to the filmmakers of the few Thai art films making the circuit?
Well, the Thai title of that one—ฟ้าทะลายโจร—is rather untranslatable.
What does it mean again? Sky versus Gangster? Or, I guess, Heaven versus Outlaw would be the “edited” translation?
Something like that. But more in the sense of, “Fate destroys the gangster” (which it does; everybody knows that).
Whom the gods would destroy, they first elect to office.
One day, I will use the original Tears title for something. Maybe when I write my Western. If it was good enough for John Hawkes—
Then you’re not good enough for it.
Someone’s cranky. I sure hope our food comes soon.
In Thailand, it would have come ages ago. And it wouldn’t give us heart attacks. And it would have cost a pittance. And we would be allowed all afternoon to eat it, if we so desired.
Anyway, one day, in early 2004, Apichatpong called me and said he was in town, and that I should stop by. (Lest anyone think I’m being overly familiar, Thai people go by their first names, usually with some title of address before it, often ขุน—“Khun”—sounds like “khoon.”)
I remember it took a long time to get to his studio; it was in a part of Bangkok I hadn’t been to yet. We spoke for a while, and then he said he had to get back to work. I asked him whether he was working on anything. He said he was editing a new film (I don’t know if it yet had an English title), and that if he finished it in time, it would go to Cannes. Which it did. Where it won a Jury Prize, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.
It’s a good thing that you didn’t detain him longer.
I feel guilty enough as it is! My bag broke as I was boarding a motorcycle to leave—picture me, Apichatpong, and the driver stooping to pick up scattered papers in an alleyway—and I think now that was karma.
For him, or for you?
He can have all of my good karma, provided he keeps making pictures.
You won’t get to see them, when you come back as a fly. 24 frames per don’t cut it with their nervous systems, you know. Probably all cineastes come back as insects, unable to watch movies. That’ll teach ‘em.
It taught Gregor Samsa.
He was askin’ for it.
Parts of Uncle Boonmee struck me as some kind of remake of Tropical Malady. The shots of the soldiers with the creature (in Uncle Boonmee) recalls the footage of the soldiers around the dead body, with which Tropical Malady opens. And the character of Tong reappears (Sakda Kaewbuadee, whom I’m becoming rather a fan of).
After we start our Sergio Castellitto fanclub, we can move on to him. There’s a wonderful moment near the start of Uncle Boonmee where he turns and smiles, looking more or less directly into the camera, and Apichatpong just holds the shot.
He fake-smiles. It’s beautiful.
Which is the moment one realizes one has seen him before. (If one has seen Tropical …)
He’s also in Syndromes. He plays Sakda (his own name).
Is that the monk who flirts with the dentist in the film’s “happier,” countryside iteration?
So his reappearance in monk’s garb at the end of Boonmee is no accident …
This … means something.
Speaking of references, when Uncle Boonmee relates his dream about the future—the only time in the film we aren’t seeing what one assumes, thanks to the title, is a past life—the character narrates this not over a live-action “reenactment,” as with the other anecdotes/digressions in the film, but over a photomontage. … Were those images taken from Apichatpong’s gallery-bound Primitive project?
I believe so. See here.
… Well, I immediately assumed, film geek that I am, that this must also be a reference to Chris Marker’s own “future memory,” La jetée ….
Wow, there’s a complete, high quality copy of La jetée available at YouTube?
In the future, anything is possible. (Although the English-language version is here. And you’ll note that this future, too, is decidedly less-than-antiseptic.)
Returning to the present and to Uncle Boonmee: as compared to Tropical Malady, the new film’s transformations are cleaner (though no less bewildering). By the end, every one of the main characters has become something or someone else. Literally as well as in their, god I hate this term, “character arcs.”
Echoing how Huay became a spirit, and Boonsong a monkey ghost.
Jen, Uncle Boonmee’s sister-in-law, completely transforms after his death.
She switches between her Bangkok self and her rural self; city vs. country is a very strong dichotomy in Thai culture. In Bangkok, for instance, mailboxes always come in pairs. One says “Bangkok,” and the other says “other places.”
Her line, spoken to her daughter, that she hardly knew Boonmee is very moving: of course she won’t be taking over his farm. Of course all of the supernatural sights she’s been treated to are now forgotten, or irrelevant, under the florescent lights and with the television on. Boonmee is lucky to die when he does—his world was leaving him in any case, and he will be spared further disillusion.
What about Tong’s transformation? Is he a monk for good, or is it something he’s doing only for the duration of the grieving period?
I think it’s more the latter. Incidentally, from what I’ve heard—although keep in mind that all my Thai knowledge is suspect—I’m like an 18th Century traveler, returned with tales of men with their heads in their chests—all Thai men are expected to enter a monastery at some point, for at least three months. It’s a rite of passage.
Seems like a damn good idea. (Long as that wouldn’t mean I’d have to spend any time in shul.)
The Thai are smarter than us, in many ways. … Tong’s monastic turn is the source of no small comedy, given his discomfort with the role. The scene where he progressively sheds that identity is the funniest thing Apichatpong’s ever filmed.
First heading to the hotel, then taking a shower, then dressing in civilian clothes, then wanting to “check out” the 7-Eleven with Jen’s daughter.
That gets a laugh in the States. But 7-Eleven’s are everywhere in Thailand.
One on every street corner?
Pretty much, at least in Bangkok.
And they sell iced Ovaltine?
Yes. And some of the best ซาลาเปา—salapao, or Chinese-style steamed buns—around.
Are you getting product-placement money for this?
I’m getting free salapao.
Karaoke is also ubiquitous in Thailand, hence its presence at the restaurant that Tong ends up at with Jen—
Even while, simultaneously, they remain in the hotel room, mesmerized by the TV, having separated from their “other selves.”
It’s apposite to discuss Source Code and Uncle Boonmee together: both are movies exploring alternate timelines, multiple chances at making certain decisions … or having them both ways, as it were.
I don’t want to set up any sort of high art/low art divide here: Source Code is quite good at what it does, and I’ll be keeping up with this Jones. But sure, it’s instructive to make this comparison. What Apichatpong does with simple decisions Hollywood can only do with: Bomb! One chance at happiness! Love of your life! (Cf. Sliding Doors, Back to the Future, you name it.) Hollywood likes predestination, not reincarnation … you were meant to suffer this confusion and fear, so that you might emerge triumphant, the Chosen One, with a new and better life! How perspicacious of you to be you!
It’s like you’re quoting from my biography …
How wonderful that Apichatpong never quite commits to any one version of any of his plots—which are, as a matter of course, never justified by an intelligible, over-arching concept (a structure, perhaps, but a concept?). Everything is a divergence; there is no one reality. I know this has religious connotations, which the title of Uncle Boonmee emphasizes—though I think AW is too clever not to know that he is offering (particularly to white people) a “safe” interpretation that is all too easy and all too unsatisfying, there. If Boonmee ever went through an earlier iteration, in screenplay form or rough cut, wherein we were reassured, explicitly, that each of its anecdotes and digressions were indeed from Uncle B.’s past lives, none of that really survives in the finished cut. So I prefer to see this narrative indeterminacy as a foundational tenet of AW’s poetics: cinema, after all, is about motion, the scrambling of the possibilities ramifying outward from depicted (or elided) causes and effects.
Boonmee is Cinema!
Quite so. And cinema is dead. And also not dead. You see what I did, there?
Quoted Jean-Luc Godard?
“End of cinema, end of this conversation.”
[Except not exactly. We’ll be back in one week’s time, when we finally talk about Thor.]
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Jeremy [M. Davies] is the author of the critically-acclaimed film-centric novel Rose Alley, and an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.
- Source Code, Friends, Woody Allen, The Man from London, Sucker Punch, Zardoz, Tron, Willow, and Shoot ‘Em Up
- Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)
- Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)
- Extra: Ranking Woody Allen
- The Tree of Life
- Extra: Linda’s Voice-Over Narration in Days of Heaven
- X-Men: First Class