Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

" I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Not this big a one. "
— Martin Sheen, Badlands

MRQE Top Critic

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Each spring in Boulder, experimental filmmakers gather to talk shop. The Brakhage Center Symposium brings together scholars, critics, and curators for a long, strange, wonderful weekend.

Warhol: Narrative is Transformation

Syndromes and a Century kicked off the weekend
Syndromes and a Century kicked off the weekend

The 8th Annual Brakhage Symposium was, as expected, a headlong rush of the unexpected, a lush cornucopia of sensory stimulation and new ideas about cinema. This year’s symposium held its focus on the question of narrative: What is it? Where is it going? What are its parameters? What is its essence?

Diverse examples of narrative ranged from Boulder’s own Stacey Steers—whose stunningly beautiful handmade collage work in, say, Night Hunter evokes our collective cultural memories of Lillian Gish as well as our own personal means of layering memory over experience and under longing—to the foreclosed and empty garages of massive housing developments now filled with sagebrush and dust in Amie Siegel’s apocalyptic Black Moon (and what could be more apocalyptic than women wearing camouflage and AK47s?).

As visiting film scholar J.J. Murphy reminded us, narrative usually employs the basic strategies of classical Hollywood film: events, actors and agents, linear chains of cause and effect, and resolutions. But Murphy was at CU’s Visual Arts Complex on Saturday afternoon to talk about the unlikely conjunction of Andy Warhol and narrative. And after showing us screen tests from Four of Andy Warhol’s Most Beautiful Women (1964), Murphy reported that Warhol employs film’s temporal duration as a means to provide transformation, that “transformation” is the essence of narrative cinema. What beautiful women with sixties hair and makeup, staring, unblinkingly, at a camera for the duration of a 3 minute reel have to tell us about transformation is, well, revelatory. Take bohemian-beat Anne Buchanan’s screen test for example. She is so intent on staring without blinking that she begins to tear up. Or is she remembering something that’s causing actual tears? (She had recently shared an apartment with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, for god’s sake.) Or, just as likely, is the cameraperson spewing cruelties at her so she cries for the camera? It’s subtle, as Warhol’s durational work is, but very powerful to watch this most primal of transformations — one that occurs on the human face.

Weerasethakul and I’m Still Breathing

But for me it was the wise counsel of Thai filmmaker (and Cannes Palm d’Or recipient) Apichatpong Weerasethakul that gave me a truly new perspective on narrative cinema. In a small-class environment Friday afternoon, Weerasethakul spoke to a group of us about the relationships between Buddhism and film — how film encourages our attachment to memory through image-making and how Buddhism, at the same time, guides us to let go of these self-same attachments. Weersekatul’s rock video I’m Still Breathing was a powerful evocation of that principle.

I'm Still Breathing: rock video in its purest form
I’m Still Breathing: rock video in its purest form

Originally part of Weerasethakul’s 2009 Primitive installation work at New York’s New Museum, I’m Still Breathing is deceptively simple in structure and form. Like his award-winning feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, it’s about memory—both trying to remember and trying to forget the violent Thai crackdown of citizens in 70s and 80s. In essence, this short installation piece shows a group of the young people who dwell in a rural Thai village running and dancing down a dirt road. The bouncing camera runs with them to pop music from Thailand’s Modern Dog, singing about breathing. The runners eventually catch up to the “apparatus of production”. It is here that the singing on the soundtrack stops and, to a solo drumbeat, we see the cameras on their truck beds. Then the young ones splay themselves across a field laughing and resting; but the drum solo continues so they catch their breath, jump onto the “trucking” vehicle, and keep on dancing. (Just when you thought the young were going to run out of energy, they get a second wind.) Amidst all this bliss, sunshine and freedom, we see one young man wearing his red shirt as a bandana. It complicates the apparent naivete of this short piece, for it’s been said this is a reference to Thailand’s “red shirts”—the anti-government faction of urban and rural poor who continually struggle against Bangkok’s royalist elite. Yes, I’m Still Breathing is like any rock concert video of kids listening to loud music in order to rebel. But these rural children in I’m Still Breathing are both more free and have more to rebel against. It’s a rock video in its purest form. It’s the essence of rock and roll: celebration, revelation, rebellion and freedom for the village people.

Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century was the official opener of this year’s Symposium. It doesn’t so much tell a story as reveal the conditions in Thailand from two different places in Weersethakul’s memory. It is broken into halves—one half his mother’s memory of meeting and romancing his father, one half the same action from the father’s point of view. The same actions and the dialogue occur twice in two different places. As in several of Weerasethakul’s films, he breaks the narrative into segments so we stay awake to the hypnotic effects of narrative.

And as in so many of his films, the sense of place — evocative and articulate — is magically overwhelming. Weersekatul’s films remind us of how the natural world is a holding place for our human memory, and in his films the natural and human worlds are tightly interlaced, cross-stitched and “sutured.” For Weersekatul, “It’s a very rich landscape that I play with. To me the jungle signifies the desire to go home, to go back to one’s roots, the origin in the cave where we used to live and dream and where the first movies started.”

So we started our weekend in Weersekatul’s ancestral cave with the idea of torchlight making the painted beasts move. And we ended on a late Sunday afternoon with Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight — fragments of moth wings and flower petals attached to strips of tape, bouncing its light into the minds and psyches of America’s experimental filmmakers and film-lovers — in Brakhage’s own words, “what a moth might see from birth to death.”

Not a bad way to spend a weekend.