“It is now floating in my head”: the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul
The New Yorker has a new essay on the metaphysics of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The essay does not deal with metaphysics at all, being a lot more interested in biography and cultural politics, but in a way that is proper and unsurprising, since there is no metaphysics in Weerasethakul. If you want a philosophical term to ease your way into movies like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or Cemetery of Splendour, his approach is phenomenological.
Weerasethakul asks us to accept the existence of a mental world of thoughts and desires. If a man spends his last days thinking about his dead wife or his lost son, then this is the world as it exists for him. Every other form of reality is hypothetical. His thoughts are indisputable. His wife is there with him. His son returns as a forest creature, having one day disappeared in the forest.
As Descartes would say, these thoughts would still exist even if this man were dreaming or if his thoughts were somehow being thought by someone else. Cinema, the art of imaginary worlds, can give them reality, but for Weerasethakul it does more than this: it gives them truth.
The problem with thoughts is how difficult it is to raise them to awareness. You think about a chair and while you are thinking about the chair — but never about your thought of the chair — the thought disappears and it is now too late to recover it. Even if you could recover the original thought, you would be thinking about it as an object, not as a living thought.
Different Eastern meditation techniques claim to be able to make you aware of your inner life and Weerasethakul is intimately familiar with them, but as a young man he also realised how cinema was a powerful modern version of those techniques. He once pointed out that Eastern audiences understand reincarnation and Western audiences understand cinema, both unaware that reincarnation and cinema are one and the same thing. The filmmaker does not experience the world in the naive way we experience the world. He or she are intensely aware, probing, methodical and they work entirely within the medium, decoupled from physical reality. Cinema has no other reality than pure experience. There is a beautiful scene at the end of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives where this truth is thematised: as he leaves to go to a restaurant, Tong sees himself, Jen and Roong on the bed, watching television. Similarly, at the end of Cemetery of Splendour, a group of boys play football, not in a real pitch but in a simulacrum of the human brain.