Best of the Decade Derby: David Lynch is okay, but he's no Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Some historical context:

Tuesday, February 11, 2003, 3:30 PM - Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, NY

3:30 PM can't be right, but that's what's listed on the schedule I have, so I must have taken a late lunch from my day job to watch this.   I wonder, did I even come back to the office?   Did I leave my computer on to feign my presence in the office?   What I remember is watching two Thai women and the Burmese man they are illegally harboring marking time through several mundane errands, appointments and obligations.   Yes, I escaped from white collar banality to watch third world banality.   45 minutes of this pass before me.   And finally, with all obligations fulfilled and provisions set, they finally get in their car and embark on a getaway to the Thai equivalent of the Catskills, at which point the opening credits roll to a blast of pop music, and I cried out "Yes!"   How many times do you get that moment where everything comes together, not just the meaning of the movie but its relevance to your life?   For me, it was this irreconcilable duality between my daily demands and the idyllic existence I was trying to formulate -- and have been for the last 5 years -- as a wage slave moonlighting as a career cinephile.   To live as an average young person is to live in a world that has made us numbly compliant to our own exploitation at the service of global capitalism, whether we be illegal migrant day laborers or overqualified computer drones.

What is Apichatpong Weerasethakul's prescription for our ailment?   A day in the country, an eternal balm.   Sounds like the kind of mystical opiate that Karl Marx railed against, and yet Weerasethakul depicts it in such a natural, inventive way, that our alibis for 21st century creative fatigue melt away.   He seems to say that all it takes is to observe nature and draw strength from its infinite mystery -- though he acknowledges that such transcendence is fleeting, and that the disappointments of the world are waiting at a moment's distance, an everyday horror into which we must dive headlong.

2006 New York Film Festival:

What David Lynch promises in Inland Empire, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century delivers. Again, it is a film that defies easy summarisation; basically it is another A.W. diptych, the two halves comparing life and love in a rural and urban hospital. The film manages to be both inscrutable and hypnotic, enigmatic yet ravishingly beautiful in its handling of visuals, rhythms and human interactions. It manages to occupy a number of contradictions at once: terrifying in its environmental creepiness yet funny in the shaggy, laid back behaviour of his characters, schematic yet spontaneous, natural and realistic yet self-conscious as an act of filmmaking, concerned about the conflicts between modernisation and the environment and the physical and spiritual well-being of the people around him, and yet the film is never pushy or preachy, just always watching and listening. His camera almost always seems to place itself in a non-assuming position, whether in close up or long shot – quite a few times his characters’ backs are turned away or they’re talking off-screen. He’s making the rules up as he goes, just going with what feels right, and having a blast doing it. I’ve rarely encountered a film with a filmmaker so innately in tune with his intuition.

Interestingly, both films share a similar ending, a kind of musical number, but I think the comparative effects are totally different. Lynch is closed, looking inward into his own reservoir of ideas, whereas Jo takes inspiration from the activity bustling in the world around him.

I don't think I set out, Armond White-like, to make Apichatpong Weerasethakul the corrective to David Lynch; it's just happened that way through seeing their most recent films in contradistinction at the New York Film Festival, and this week seeing Blissfully Yours following Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire (I still need to track down a copy of Syndromes and a Century; I'm not as eager to rewatch Tropical Malady or Mysterious Object at Noon, which are fine films but in my mind aren't "best of 2000s" caliber). As documented in this three party play-by-play viewing of Inland Empire, there are certainly a number of smart things to say about what Lynch may be up to in that film. The thing is, I found a lot of those smart things going on in rewatching Blissfully Yours, and presented in a way that feels more genuine, more organic, more beautiful, more true. An indulgence in non-narrative or anti-narrative. The attempts of people to escape from the dehumanizing industries of consumerist capitalism, specifically the entertainment industry (in Lynch it's the cruel politics of Hollywood film production; here it's factory work, with a girl painting the eyes on an endless array of Bugs Bunny toys).

There's also a good deal of game-playing in both films, not just by the directors but by the characters. Laura Dern gets to play several characters and part of the pleasure of her performance is in watching her feel her way through each one, an experience that must have been adventurous and torturous for her in alternating measures. Similarly, one thing that struck me rewatching Blissfully Yours is how much putting on and pretending there is among the main characters: in the first scene, they lie to the doctor in order for her to treat an illegal immigrant; later, we see them lying to get off work to pave the way for their jungle romp; by the end, we get an amazing sense of how this outing amounted to these three characters convening to act out their individual fantasies, before giving way to a bittersweet, dissolute flow of life's next chapter. I'll have to carry this insight the next time I go on a picnic, group excursion or even a party; thanks to this movie I'll see my social gatherings as collective productions of individual intentions commingling together. This isn't a cynical observation, just one that makes for a new sense of awareness to how one lives their life. (And not to be an asshole, but I'm not sure what Lynch has to offer in that department).

Both directors also use ambient sound to memorable effect, except that here again I state a strong preference: whereas Lynch uses a wall of white noise and synth chords to generate three hours of menace, Weerasethakul uses the teeming chorus of cicadas and frogs to convey an immersion in nature that's both meditative and hedonistic, tranquil and sensual.  Maybe it can be chalked up to what kind of film I prefer, but there it is.

When I think about both artists, I also think about that maxim someone once said about art being "whatever you can get away with." What amazes me about Blissfully Yours is just how little happens in terms of plot and incident.  It takes a good while to see how the initial, somewhat dissheveled sequence of scenes adds up to the brilliant catharsis that happens at the midway point - a lot of it is in adjusting to the. But every moment gets milked for all its worth, and every moment builds together into a strange paradox: a film that is both linear and alinear, that threatens to dissolve in the vagaries of a moment, then solidifies in the lucidness of another; that expands and contracts, that breathes.  I suppose the Lynch apologists could say the same for their film in their own way.  To each his own.