I’m dizzy with joy. I’ve just had one of those rare experiences at the movies. It only happens about once a year, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. It’s that giddy feeling that I’ve just seen something which will become an all-time favorite, something I can’t wait to see again soon, and again, and again. And I can’t summarize what’s great about it, because it’s a vast, mysterious, and beautiful work.
Syndromes and a Century, directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is a transporting, hyponotizing experience. It’s a long poem about:
- transition, and the fragile threads between eras;
- tenuous connections, or attempts to connect, between starkly different people;
- possibilities and questions that rise like like feathers and then drift off unanswered;
- conversations that happen in one context, and then again¬†in another, provoking us to consider what the differences in the “proposed” scenes convey about worldviews, genders, generations, and the differences between the intellect and the heart.
It’s entirely unpredictable in the best ways. And it contains three or four of the most breathtaking scenes I’ve ever experienced, reminding me of moments like that miraculous wave of wind in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.
Now, a word of warning. This is more poetry than prose. It’s not a fast-food meal… it’s a meditative work of art. It’s the kind of thing that might actually prove substantially nourishing, because it demands a great deal of the viewer. You might want to have a pot of coffee on hand. Those of you who thought I was crazy to rave about Malick’s The New World may not find anything to love here.
But I was reminded of many other favorite films, movies that, even though I return to them again and again with deepening appreciation, could not be more different:
from Songs from the Second Floor, the way it is mournful, and yet somehow darkly funny, with moments of inspired surrealism;
to Yi Yi, with its emphasis on reflections, divided frames, opportunities missed, paths taken and regretted, and crossroads;
to Tony Takitani, with its slow, steady pace gliding from scene to dreamlike scene;
to The World, with deep-focus, layered images that offer commentary on global change;
to moments of sinister, slow-zoom foreboding that remind me of David Lynch’s work in films from The Straight Story to Inland Empire; to Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, with its buoyant, rhythmic finale.Clearly, I’ve only scratched the surface with this first viewing. But I’m confident this is going to become an all-time favorite. It’s beautiful to watch, and each scene could merits plenty of meditation and discussion.
On this first pass, I’m haunted by a moment when two groups of people pass in a hospital corridor. One is a group of uniformed nurses, representing a particular work, a particular order, a particular perspective. The other seems to be a group of students. The groups pass each other. But in each case, one member falls behind, pausing to tie a shoelace. This suggested to me that the film’s constant juxtapositions — men and women, civilization and nature, old and new, religious and scientific — are asking a question about what it is we have in common, what it is that we share no matter what our path. The shoelace suggests a flaw, but a connection that can be found through that imperfection.
But there is also a sense of real loss, and even destruction, as we move from one world to the next. The power and purity of sunlight is captured in moments of unforgettable glory here, but the sterility and suffocating artificiality of some of the hospital environments gave me a sense of dread not unlike the nightmarish future of Brazil.
I feel as though I had better stop writing, or I will sit here working on this post for the next several hours.
But… oh, wow.
I’m reluctant to read any reviews just yet, because my head is spinning and I don’t want to read anybody else’s interpretations just yet. As I scan down through the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes, I see that one fellow criticized it because “Nothing happens.” That does it. I don’t want my enjoyment to be cluttered by somebody else’s hasty dismissals.
He couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, some of the film’s furious tension comes from the fact that something enormous is happening here, and it is happening while two women sit under a tree and talk casually, apparently oblivious to how the world — and cosmic bodies beyond it — are turning. And somewhere, a dark and frightening vacuum is sucking up the vapors of an era and all of its memories and wisdom.
I’ll be smiling after the Oscars tomorrow night. But it will have nothing to do with the Oscars. I’ll be thinking about Syndromes and a Century.