fragments of obsolete cinema
In their different ways the best teachers I’ve had and the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul tell me similar things: people try to overcome the hell of the eternal present by diving into the dustbin of history, getting their hands dirty digging deep for rags and bits to turn into ghost stories that tell us about forgotten fantasies or dreams of the future now sunken into obscurity. Since we tend to make all sorts of imaginative associations when watching and rewatching Apichatpong’s work, that’s the potency of his metamorphic films and videos, I’d like to try out here one strand of association.
The starting point is an experience I hold dearest when I watch Apichatpong’s films and videos: the sensation of watching a world that seems to be in Siam, but it’s hard to fathom whether that world presented before me is a past that’s still here or a newly remembered future. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives (2010), Apichatpong makes a graceful gesture of remembrance by shooting the film on Super 16mm. This formal conceit quietly asks us to look anew at the affinity between the artist’s films and videos and the history of plebeian cinema in Siam.
The image comes from Apichatpong’s early single-screen installation, Haunted Houses (2001), which is on until late February as part of his solo show, FICTION, at Future Perfect gallery in Singapore. For this video Apichatpong collaborated with a group of villagers on the periphery of Khon Kaen province in the northeast, recording them as they agree to take turns to act scenes from an episode of a rags-to-riches TV soap in the familiar surrounding of their homes. There’s a line of interpretation that describes this work as Apichatpong’s critique of the hypnotising effect of mass media on the psychic lives, fantasies, and aspirations of ordinary people, a reading that calls to mind the notion of the people as bearers of false consciousness. This reading isn’t quite true to the work. The camera’s look at the villagers’ charmingly unpredictable delivery of the melodramatic dialogues is a patient look, one that simultaneously records an amateurish performance-in-the-making while indexing a world of fleeting, contingent motion, a world of being. It’s this reflexive doubling of performance and presence that destabilises the spectacle of metropolitan wealth and status conjured by the dialogues. The other thing that’s fascinating about this work, a fascination that grows stronger as the video and this particular viewer ages, is the historical sensibility suffusing it. Let’s look again at the enframing of this image.
What are the spectators in the background doing in the frame? In another art historical context, the one underscoring the dominant conception of the narrative feature, the frame is the borderline separating the diegetic universe from real life. Here, we have a kind of anarchic framing, whereby what’s being disinterred is a particular genealogy of the collective pleasure of making and experiencing a performance. The look of Haunted Houses is a gesture of remembrance of sorts, calling forth a marginalised tradition of performance whose encounter with cinema had the effect of de-centering the frame, de-stabilising the authority to make something happen in front of the camera.
This brings me to a striking feature of cinema history in Siam during what’s often called its 16mm era, which lasted roughly between the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s. During those decades there developed a local mode of cheapie moviemaking characterised by shooting quickly on 16mm silent film strip in the understanding that the voices, foley sound effects and musical accompaniment would be performed live by the versionists during the projection of celluloid reels.
Critics of the 16mm versioned quickies have tended to characterised the films as emblematic of the underdevelopment of Thai cinema. They blamed the 16mm filmmakers for failing to develop Thai filmmaking according to the perceived “international standard” of 35mm synch or post-synch sound, in other words, for failing to follow in the footsteps of Siam’s pioneering filmmakers who had completed the first homegrown talkie in 1932. They were embarrassed by the failure to “standardise” local filmmaking aesthetics in conformity to Hollywood’s classical narrative mode. During the Cold War years, when the discourse of national development reigned supreme, film critics and culture’s tastemakers quickly came to associate what they perceived as the sub-standard failings of 16mm films and versioned cinema with the problem of the country’s backwardness more generally. If only those masses hooked on versioned 16mm movies – the great unwashed, maids and housewives who were enraptured by the stars on the screen and the voice performers in the shadow – were more educated, then Thai cinema would achieve “development,” and the country would “progress” more rapidly, or so went the logic.
Yet a range of questions quickly open up when we step outside the logic of developed vs. underdeveloped cinema. What, in fact, were the distinguishing aesthetic features of the 16mm movies? What factors determined the aesthetics and experience of this mode of film performance – what combination of technological factors, filmic stylistic lineage, performance tradition, and culture of spectatorship? The thread I’d like to pursue more specifically here concerns the 16mm technology’s impact on aesthetics and spectatorship. When 16mm cameras became affordable and the cost of film processing relatively cheap, this, as was the case in the history of experimental and avant-garde cinema elsewhere, had a decisive impact in terms of freeing up the filmmaking process. One of the most important changes in the Thai case was the shift towards location shooting, as is nicely demonstrated in this old photograph of the major star pairing of the 1960s, Mit Chaibancha and Petchara Chaowarat. In the 16mm era stars performed scenes on location in the eyes of the crowd.
The mobility and relative cheapness of the 16mm camera made it easier to transform the streets and other public spaces into what film theorists call profilmic sites: those sites in which the flow of contingent, real life events could be captured on film, alongside the artificialised, highly exaggerated performances and gestures of the stars. Location shooting created ontologically complex enframed images. In this sense, as the 16mm cheapies grow old and we encounter them across the decades (that is, if they somehow manage to hold off the inevitable deterioration process), they are of greater aesthetic interest and value, as archival images, than the studio-bound shooting practice of prestigious Thai directors who were active during the same Cold War period, those who tried to restrict their output to wooden, stagey 35mm synch sound films.
The images below come from a scene in a 1966 film called Norah, the directorial debut of Cherd Songsri, whose แผลเก่า/The Scar (1977) was one of the few Thai films that circulated internationally in the 1980s. The scene presents a comic sequence featuring two of the most popular comedy stars of the period, Chan Phuangwaan and Lortok. It plays in one shot with the camera in a largely static position, placed high enough to anticipate the comedians’ movement, getting out of the car.
Because of this enframing the top edge of the frame is high enough to capture the bodies of a group of schoolboys in the background. The camera records the performance in the foreground: the comedians are getting out of the car. And it simultaneously records actuality in the background: a group of schoolboys is crossing the road. Halfway across the road the schoolboys notice a film is being shot in front of them, and pause on the island in the middle of the road to watch the event. In this frame they become spectators gripped by a “spectacle,” a filmmaking event. Why wasn’t a sequence of this sort discarded? What assumptions or conventions regarding performance, spectatorship, or a “good” or even “legitimate” mise-en-scene, an acceptable way to frame the image, had to have been actively present such that a sequence of this sort wasn’t substituted with another take in which the background is clean of gawkers?
Approaching the 16mm movies as ontologically complex and porous things, rather than as naively, cheaply and badly made movies, led me to notice the pervasive presence of the figure of the onlooker within the frame. This figure seems to be emblematic of the 16mm movies’ explicit acknowledgement of the pleasure of gawking – in Walter Benjamin’s sense of an activity and state of being swept up in a crowd gaping in wonder at modern sights – and also emblematic of the ontological multiplicity of the films themselves.
These images are from the opening sequence of another film by Cherd Songsri, อกธรณี/Ock thorani (1968), a multi-star vehicle. Ock thorani opens with shots of a street procession and dance, in other words, it opens with documentary footage of an event which would have taken place irrespective of the existence of this particular film. Then Cherd quickly cuts to a sequence showing four people performing a dance, watched by a crowd. The nature of the profilmic environment has changed: the dancers and the crowd were now there, at that location, as part of the same filmmaking event. The (presumably unpaid) extras have a diegetic function here as spectators of a street procession dance. Yet, at the same time, these extras remained a crowd that had gathered there to watch a film being made. Despite their diegetic function, the attraction in the crowd’s eyes is the star Pitsamai Wilaisak, who’s dressed in pink and playing a dancing girl. Whilst dancing, Pitsamai’s character recognises a man standing in the distance, and, having seen him, she stops dancing and moves offscreen. What’s fascinating about this sequence is that it ends by lingering on the fact that all eyes are following her movement offscreen. The crowd had simply slipped out of its diegetically motivated role as spectators of a street dance. As the last image highlights, at the end of the scene the crowd is a crowd that’s clearly just taking pleasure in watching an actress perform.
It’s very tempting to juxtapose the displaying of the spectators’ presence within the film frame – a trope that speaks of the pleasure of being in the moment of gawking – with this type of film advertisement commonly found during the Cold War era. During those years – the years of ‘Americanisation’ and the expansion of mass culture – photographs were often printed in the entertainment pages of newspapers with a large and nationwide daily circulation, as a tactic to verify the popularity of a film on current release. Such photographic images index the crowd convulsed by sensation, the crowd electrified by the larger than life images on the screen and by the gigantic cut-out boards at the cinema’s entrance. What images fed the lust of the eyes of these anonymous bodies? Just those of the stars as is often assumed? The answer may not be that obvious or simple. Do the images of the onlookers accidentally recorded by the 16mm camera many decades ago, and the photographs of mass figures and sensation archived in the yellowing, brittled pages of old newspapers, suggest to us another history yet to be disinterred? This is a history which seems crucial to get to grips with now that the old of royal nationalist sovereignty is dying and the new of popular democratic sovereignty is not quite born: that highly ambiguous aspect of historical modernity that has to do with the pleasure and possibility of people seeing themselves visualised, spectacularised, and represented as a mass.
May Adadol Ingawanij
An earlier version was published in the proceedings of the 2011 Busan Cinema Forum, and the catalogue of the 2012 Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film and Video Festival: Deframed.
For a more extensive reading of Haunted Houses please see my FICTION catalogue essay, ‘Playing for real.’