Reorienting Narrative Reality
What is reincarnative narration, other than a bit of a mouthful? It is where a film's capacity to carry its story, its mode, its theme, happens to be through the dissolution of character rather than through its solidity. We see it in Vertigo and Psycho, in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., and in still more experimental form in Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. We can find variations of it in Antonioni's L'avventura, and Identification of a Woman, a hint of it in Taxi Driver, and a mainstream version of it in The Place Beyond the Pines. This type of film has nothing do with what have been called network narrative films, or hyperlink cinema: Short Cuts, City of Hope, Wonderland, Beautiful People, Crash - films that offer multi-narrative strands as one character disappears for a while from the story and then we pick them up again later. Usually, in reincarnative narration, it is various manifestations of disappearance, with an unusual reappearance, or the focus of the story shifting. Usually what happens is that there is an investment made, an expectation countered or a characterisational shift offered. In Antonioni's The Passenger the two leading characters offer an exchange: "people disappear all the time" one says; "yes, every time someone leaves a room" comes the reply. In the films we are discussing people disappear all the time too, but often to leave the film and not the room, with their absence creating a narrative fissure that only a mode of speculation or reorientation can redeem. What we can call consequential narration cannot in itself resolve the narrative crisis created.
Usually, when someone leaves a room in a film we know where they are going or we have no need to know. If the leading character exits we expect him to come back, or to find out where he has gone. The film might cut from him leaving his apartment and then showing him getting into his car. Generally, no problem arises: he has left the room and we find him again in the vehicle. At the opposite end, we have a waiter who serves the food and exits. If we never see him again we are not surprised; there has been no expectation that we would. The latter disappears completely from the film because they have served their function: to put food on the table. The leading character hasn't because we expect further functions from him. The absence of these further functions would feel like a fissure, and that is why we use the words speculation or reorientation. In Psycho and The Place Beyond the Pines, we needn't at all speculate; merely reorientate. In L'Avventura and Identification of a Woman we are put into the position of speculation. In Psycho and The Place Beyond the Pines both Janet Leigh and Ryan Gosling's characters are killed and other characters become our focal points. In L'avventura, Lea Massari's leading character goes missing on an island and we have no idea what has happened to her; just as we have no idea what happens to Daniela Silverio's character when she disappears in the fog in Identification of a Woman. The orientation is greater in the first two examples; speculation greater in the latter. In Psycho and The Place Beyond the Pines the disappearances are categorical: we shift our identificatory perspective. In Antonioni's films, Massari hasn't been so categorically our lead and Silverio no more than a secondary lead character that their disappearances can be initially absorbed into the sort of movie suspense Antonioni has no interest in pursuing. Thus their disappearance at the time of their going missing is no more than surprising. The deaths of Leigh and Gosling are shocks. The shock is two-fold, both diegetic and non-diegetic: we have not only lost our leading characters, we are paying customers who have lost our stars. We have paid our money and not been given a choice. Yet this shock is merely a loss of identification. It is not epistemologically troublesome. The reincarnative aspect rests on us shifting our focus from one character to another: to Anthony Perkins' hotelier in Psycho; to Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond the Pines after Gosling is killed and we follow the man who shot him. The films' skill rests on their ability to recover from their own acts of narrative self-harm: can Perkins' determination to cover up a crime meet the tension evident in Marion's escape with the money? Can Cooper's angst meet Gosling's exciting and chaotic life as a thief? Few will doubt the genius of Hitchcock's manoeuvre, while some might wonder if Derek Cianfrance's film ever recovers from its first section. Nevertheless, both films offer a narrative shock, reincarnative narration as reoriented narration. One life replaces another as we find ourselves nevertheless dispositionally placed with a new figure.
Antonioni, however, seeks a very different response: closer perhaps to empathy than identification, to concerning ourselves with an absence rather than reconfigurating a new presence. Hitchcock and Cianfrance expect us to remain focused on what is on the screen as our disorientation quickly becomes reorientation. We lose a central character and a well-known actor, but we are given a new central character with goals of their own, with new figures who are stars too. The point is to throw us, but not into the void. Antonioni's interest is in the void itself, in the potential meaninglessness of meaning. In Identification of a Woman, Mavi (Silvero) disappears and central character filmmaker Niccolo (Tomas Milian), takes up with Ida (Christine Boisson), the half-hearted search for Mavi emphasizing the director's listless search for purpose rather than his desperate need to find a woman who has disappeared. Antonioni takes the potentially narratively suspenseful and turns it into the characterisationally enervated. Niccolo doesn't only suffer a loss; the filmmaker can subsequently acknowledge an emptiness. This is vital to Antonioni's purpose: to work with the potentiality of suspense all the better to emphasize the subsequent loss of meaning. This is why Antonioni weakens the narrative but strengthens the image, finding in visual correlation the suggestive, quizzical problem at the heart of the work. The fog and the desert aren't metaphors in his films. They don't serve to give us an abstract symbol but instead provide imagistic force. Antonioni's specific cinematic reincarnative narration involves a brilliantly complex transfiguration from self to landscape. If Hitchcock can replace Janet Leigh with Anthony Perkins, Antonioni replaces people with places. He finds a felt absence rather than a new presence, even if, as in both L'avventura and Identification of a Woman, a new woman seems to replace the old one: in L'avventura Massari's friend, played by Monica Vitti. Yet though Vitti would go on to become Antonioni's actrice fetiche during the early sixties, her character remains at all times a presence within an absence. Antonioni reflects this in the framing and narrative drift, evident in the scene for example in L'avventura when Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Claudia find themselves in a small Italian village. While Claudia waits for Sandro, we see her in the town square looked upon by numerous men. Claudia and Sandro might be looking for the missing Anna, but this looks like a town where men are missing women more generally. Antonioni suggests a swarm of swarthy masculinity with Vitti stuck in the middle as femininely fragile. In another scene, Sandro and Claudia are in Noto, a Sicilian town, and Antonioni captures the emptiness through modern architecture that lacks curves and cornices. Antonioni frames the shots or holds the camera in a manner that indicates both architectural presence and human absence. As they drive into the town the camera follows the car and then leaves it briefly to pay attention to the architecture. Before they stop and get out the car, Antonioni frames the buildings first, the camera panning across the dwellings, then picking up the car as it drives into the car park. In Identification of a Woman, Niccolo cannot quite find in Ida what he found in Mavi as we might notice that a search can be both internal and external, a search for someone who is missing in someone who is not. Again, Antonioni frames events in a manner that contains them within a much greater sense than narrative necessity. In the great scene with Mavi as they drive through the fog, any suspense within the sequence is more than matched by a tension within the relationship, and we shouldn't be entirely surprised that shortly afterwards she goes missing. Yet Antonioni does not dramatize this disintegration, he offers a correlative to its mystery in the fog that surrounds them.
Identification of a Woman is one of many films that would seem somehow indebted to Vertigo, an absolutely key film of reincarnative narration as we are couching it. From Lost Highway to Mulholland Drive, from Hong Sang Soo's The Turning Gate to Woman on the Beach would seem to have been influenced by it in their broken-backed narrative structures and their interest in two 'different' women. Even Taxi Driver's shows its influence, if we accept the shift from one emotional investment to another: with Travis Bickle projecting onto Betsy before then deciding he needs to save child prostitute Iris. This is the reincarnative narration through a secondary character: the viewer invests in one woman and is then expected to invest equally in another. The 'love interest' becomes bifurcated and the film has to find in the second woman an aspect of meaning evident in the first. This is generally not the case in most films. When in other Scorsese movies like Raging Bull and The Wolf of Wall Street the central characters leave their wives when they fall in love with someone else, there is no sense of narrative loss in the shift from one to another. We might as moral viewers insist that what Jake and Jordan are doing is wrong, but the story does not focus on that aspect: we are not made to feel the loss on the level of the storytelling. The first wives can more or less disappear from the film because there has been almost no investment made on the viewer's part in the first place. This would have been quite different if the same had happened with GoodFellas, for example. Since so much of the early part of the film goes into watching Henry Hill wooing his wife, for another woman to have replaced her would have meant we would have to reinvest in another character altogether: and thus a version of reincarnative narration that the film eschews. Hence, if Raging Bull and The Wolf of Wall Street eschew it because we are not at all invested in the first wives, then GoodFellas does so by the absence of a second one. Now of course in Taxi Driver neither Betsy nor Iris are Bickle's wives, but Betsy is what we will call in crude language an emotional investment: we have been led to believe that she is important to the story since she is important to Bickle. When Betsy turns up again at the end of the film in the cab we shouldn't be entirely surprised: she has been too important to the first half of the film to disappear entirely from the second half as her re-appearance offers an ironic coda. There Bickle is, a man in the newspapers, a hero who has slain some pimps, who Betsy looks on anew. If he is the crazy person she suspected, he is a socially sanctioned one whom she might still wish to avoid, but someone she cannot help but admire. This could be Bickle's private fantasy, but it works on us since the first half of the film played up Bickle's need for credence from Betsy. That absolute absence of credence is felt so strongly in the great connotative moment when the camera drifts away from Bickle as he speaks to her on the phone in the corridor. The end brings that credence back.
Thus we can see that though the shift from one leading character to another can be very shocking, or accumulatively disturbing, as we find respectively in Psycho and L'avventura, a secondary character disappearing from the film can generate a reconfiguration of narrative coordinates too. This is one reason why Vertigo is so effective. Through the film's first half Madeleine (Kim Novak) is the object of Scottie's affection and gaze, so her death is more than a shock; it is a reverberation.
Let us say a shock is when a character is killed in a horror film or a thriller but that it needn't contain much of an after effect. Often it serves as nothing more than a death that sets the film's mood, perhaps galvanizes the central character. Even if it is a loved one (if early enough in the film), or a buddy (often later on), then the consequence is usually galvanizing rather than reverberative: it sets the character on course for vengeance, for example, or to change their life. But the reverberative contains an aspect of trauma that even if it moves forward narratively reverberates emotionally and psychologically. Whether it is Vertigo or Taxi Driver we are in no doubt that any narrative event is secondary to psychological complexity. Scottie is traumatized at the beginning of the film by the death of a colleague who fell off a rooftop trying to save Scottie's life, while Bickle seems to be the Vietnam veteran who cannot adjust to life back home in the US. When Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, and then after her death projects onto Judy (of course, again Novak), this is all part of a free-fall in its various manifestations. He is a damaged man passing through a narrative space warped by his own confused relationship with it. Ditto Bickle. This is not so for the typical action hero, even when there might be a crisis in the person's life, an issue of marital discord or loss for example in Lethal Weapon, Die Hard or Heat. Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis and Al Pacino might all be in danger of losing their perspective as they focus on their jobs, but even if they have a drink problem, grief to deal with, or anger issues, they are never so imbalanced that they unbalance the story itself. By contrast, Scottie and Bickle generate the reincarnative out of their mental fragility.
Nevertheless, while both Vertigo and Taxi Driver indicate the questionable mental well-being of the characters, the films do not quite become irrational themselves. A certain logic prevails. It is this logic that is absent in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. with David Lynch incorporating the irrational into stories that cannot make sense. What exactly is the relationship between Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) in Lost Highway, as one seems to segue onto the other? When near the end of Mulholland Dr., when Naomi Watts orders a hit on a rival actress, how does she then become the successful and charming Betty in the film's first section after the car crash that opens the movie, and the crash the effect of what would seem to be the cause generated by Watts near the film's conclusion? Lynch's films are psychologically and narratively unhinged, as if seeking in a fresh narrative form an acknowledgement of the nature of trauma. Here the trauma narrativises itself as psychic chaos. While the acrophobia of Scottie, the traumatised solitude of Bickle, is contained by the story even if the traumatic event is present in the former (the opening chase sequence) and absent in the latter (what we must assume would be Bickle's Vietnam experiences), in Lynch's films they become confused as the objective and subjective realms aren't easily distinguishable. This is where Lynch has talked of the psychogenic fugue. "That's why I think they called it a psychogenic fugue; because it goes from one thing, segues to another, and then I think comes back again." (Lynch on Lynch) Also known as a disassociative fugue, this is when an event is so terrible or traumatic the person cannot possibly face it and might become someone else altogether to escape the realization. "A dissociative fugue may last from hours to months, occasionally longer. If the fugue is brief, people may appear simply to have missed some work or come home late. If the fugue lasts several days or longer, people may travel far from home, form a new identity, and begin a new job, unaware of any change in their life."(Merck Manuals.com) In Lost Highway it would seem that Fred has murdered his wife, can't accept the atrocity and becomes someone else. When the jail guards look into his cell they no longer see Fred but now Pete Dayton, who is released from prison as an innocent man. Lynch takes the psychogenic fugue where a person cannot accept the nature of their deeds and flees their life and changes their identity. The bankrupt banker who becomes a farm hand; the lawyer who loses a case he should have won who works in a coffee shop, the woman who can't cope with her kids and becomes a sex worker for instance. The examples we give are all comprehensible versions of the psychogenic fugue, but what happens when you obliterate the line between the internal and the external? It is one thing to case study the situation, quite another to generate narrative which acknowledges the trauma in cinematic form: the crisis of self. What makes things even more troublesome is that Lynch does not signpost what is internal chaos and external fact. When Dayton replaces Madison in his cell, there is nothing categorical that suggests we have moved from Madison's objective existence to psychic ideal: that rather than being the jealous husband who has killed his wife, he becomes the young man who is desired by a jealous man's lover.
Lynch goes farther than most in recognizing trauma in narrative form by damaging the narrative that explores the trauma. This is perhaps because Lynch wants to acknowledge that trauma often has a dimension of the unrepresentable, taking into account remarks by Jean-Francois Lyotard in Heidegger and 'the jews'. Lyotard talks of" Nachtrglichkeit [the "belatedness" that, according to Freud, characterizes trauma and] thus implies the following: (1) a double blow that is constitutively asymmetrical, and (2) a temporality that has nothing to do with what the phenomenology of consciousness (even that of Saint Augustine) can thematize." Lyotard adds, "The double blow includes a first blow, the first excitation, which upsets the apparatus with such "force" that it is not registered. . . . The discovery of an originary repression leads Freud to assume that it cannot be represented. And it is not representable because, in dynamic terms, the quantity of energy transmitted by this shock is not transformed into "objects," not even inferior ones, objects lodged in the substratum, in the hell of the soul, but it remains potential, unexploitable, and thus ignored by the apparatus. . . ." What Lyotard sees is that "The first blow, then, strikes the apparatus without observable internal effect, without affecting it. It is a shock without affect. With the second blow there takes place an affect without a shock. I buy something in a store, anxiety crushes me, I flee, but nothing had really happened. . . . And it is this flight, that feeling that accompanies it, which informs consciousness that there is something, without being able to tell what it is. . . ." Often the crisis will be triggered by a relatively minor event over the major, earlier one - as though a shock that was unassimilable finds its meaning through a secondary experience that is surprisingly traumatic. A person who has been in a war situation might not have very many observable symptoms, but three years later a minor break-up with a casual girlfriend generates devastation. It isn't that the latter is so much more significant than the former; more that the former couldn't find its thematic and temporal completeness without the second, 'minor' crisis.
Let us think thus far how some of these ideas play out in the context of the reincarnative narratives we have looked at, and think especially of the idea of shock and the problem of its thematisation. We all know that Hitchcock was regarded as the master of suspense but it was as if Hitchcock became increasingly the master of trauma, with Psycho, Vertigo and Marnie finding ways to generate shocks that went beyond the suspenseful and towards the traumatic. Suspense is local and easily thematised: a man is chased by a bull and feels relieved when he makes it over the wall; a parent looks on as a child wanders out into the streets and almost gets knocked over by a bus. In each instance, the filmmaker could cross-cut between the man and the bull, the parent, child and bus, as suspense is built. Yet the films wouldn't be generating trauma partly because the event is complete in itself. It would not possess the aspect of the traumatic Lyotard invokes. What might seem odd about Vertigo is that its opening sequence can feel like a concluding one and that we never find out how Scottie gets off the roof. In the wake of James Bond films this idea of an opening cliffhanger seems conventional, but in 1958 would it not have seemed gratuitous, and at the same time half-hearted, as Hitchcock builds up a suspense sequence only for its conclusion to be elided? We think not, of course; Hitchcock was announcing he was no longer merely interested in being the master of suspense, and increasingly making evident his interest in trauma and the difficulty of accessing it. Suspense in film is a formal problem. Though some will do it much better than others, following the conventions will usually lead at least to the efficient. If our central character is trying to escape from someone, the screen space will need to be laid out clearly enough for us to know the risks involved and the proximity between the two characters. We might have a close-up of our hero looking behind him and seeing the villain closing in, looking in front of him and seeing how far is the fall, and then a little further over some sandbags that will cushion the jump. He lands on the sandbags, thinks whether he should keep running or quickly move the sandbags so that the villain will have to risk landing on hard concrete and might break his legs with nothing to break his fall. He does the latter, seeing the villain on top of the wall, cursing the hero for his luck and ingenuity and the scene ends. We have suspense but no trauma: we have a perfectly acceptable scene of filmic tension but no sense of what we could call the ontology behind it - the being of suspense far beyond its immediate tension cranking present.
This would seem to be what Hitchcock wanted to convey in Vertigo, a film clearly influenced by Proust if we take into account Kim Novak's Madeleine that invokes Proust's memory device, and that the book upon which it was based happened to be written by two French novelists. With Proust in mind, we might think of a passage by the writer Thomas Merton on Proust and memory. "To Proust experience seems to be valuable only after it has been transformed by memory. That is, he is not interested in the present: and I suppose while he was writing his other possible present experiences did not appeal to him: sick in bed." The "present time of things present" was unbearable." What kept attracting him was the "present time of things past" (Echoing Silence) Merton touches upon here the inadequacy of the present moment for Proust; and we have already addressed the problem of the trauma taking place in the past, but that the shock cannot presently be understood until another event makes us aware of it, even if the later one happens to be much more innocuous. Now of course in Vertigo the other events are not irrelevant as Madeleine will die in the tower by her husband's design, and the woman who impersonated Madeleine for the purposes of the husband's murder plan, Judy, will die as Scottie replicates the moment. This is still Hitchcock the commercial filmmaker who must accept aspects of the melodramatic thriller while vitally interested in the temporality of the traumatic. The film could have been an account of a detective who falls in love with a beautiful woman and gets framed for her death after the husband sets him up, but both the plot and the psychology is much more complicated than that. It is as though Scottie can only fall in love once he has understood the nature of falling; once he understands the vertiginous. There is no sense that the middle-aged Scottie has been in love before; his college thing with his girlfriend Midge was far more important for her than for him. We watch a man fall in various manifestations but as if fundamentally through time as Madeleine talks to him about her fascination with a woman from the past who is buried in a cemetery Scottie finds her in. This is where reincarnation manifests itself as narrative form, with Madeline echoing Carlotta and Judy reincarnated as Madeleine, with Scottie the vertiginous figure falling in love and falling through time, exemplified in the three hundred and sixty degree shot with the past and present folding into one. By the end of the film, Scottie is properly traumatised, lost in past events that he cannot redeem and a present where he would no doubt find "the present time of present things unbearable."
What Lynch seemed to want to do with Mulholland Dr. and especially Lost Highway was take Hitchcock's approach to the reincarnative and play havoc with past and present, subjectivity and objectivity, self and other. Whether it is the phone call Robert Blake's character makes to himself at the party, the feeling that Patricia Arquette's character is both Fred's wife and Pete's mistress, that the film's second section is all in the mind of Fred as he can't face the atrocity of murdering his spouse, Lynch removes the coordinates of sense so that we aren't just watching a film about trauma; we are watching a film that is traumatic itself. Lost Highway uses the reincarnative narrative to ask us to feel the trauma rather than understand it. If Vertigo goes so much farther than the thriller in comprehending tense states as traumatic residue, Lost Highway seems to focus on that residue. It is evident in Lynch's use of audio, of course, where the hierarchy of dialogue, music and sound are countered or confused. In Blue Velvet we see central character Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) beaten up while 'In Dreams' plays mellifluously on the radio. In Lost Highway, the sound fades out and then in during the scene with Robert Blake phoning himself at the party. It is there in camera placements that disturb and disorientate. In Mulholland Dr. partly why the scene in the diner between the two detectives is so frightening lies in the way Lynch never quite lets the camera settle in the shot-counter shots.
A filmmaker who has gone as far and in some ways farther than Lynch in reincarnative narrative would be Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. Weerasethakul often break his films in two, with Tropical Malady starting out as a romance between two young men (a soldier and an illiterate villager), while the second half concentrates on a soldier (played by the same actor as the one playing a soldier in the first half) who goes into the jungle facing various animals. The film is literally split in two: with credits coming up halfway through the film and there is no suggestion the first story is linked to the second much beyond the actor playing again a soldier, or the same soldier. In Syndromes and a Century, the film is again in two halves, with the first set in a hospital in rural Thailand, the second in a medical centre in Bangkok. Again the filmmaker seeks echoes rather than narrative through lines, as though thematic suggestibility is more important than plot logical coordinates. Indeed one of the striking aspects of Weerasethakul's work is it leaves us wondering why almost every other film insists on plot logic over thematic suggestibility or at least contains the latter within the former. There are probably some very good reasons for this, closely associated to automatic memory, to allowing us through reasoning processes to access the immediate sense of a situation. If a film is what we would call thematically rich, we are nevertheless following a story that usually contains the theme, not the other way round. Even Taxi Driver or L'Avventura in this sense offer a rich thematic within a story; it is just they allow for the story to drift enough, to change direction enough, for the story to lose its purpose and for the theme, idea or problematic to become more focused. If L'avventura attended exclusively to finding Anna, or Taxi Driver followed through on Bickle's determination to clean up political life in New York, then the thematic would be weakened as the story would be strengthened. But L'avventura is 'about' the weakness of love and Taxi Driver about the strength of violence. Antonioni and Scorsese convey the absence of desire and the presence of violence in contemporary life respectively, and we might say they dislocate the story enough for this to become pronounced. We don't want to simplify either film, and we don't want to ignore aesthetic aspects that make their visions very cinematic - evident when we talked about the framing and placing of characters in L'Avventura. But though in very different ways they debilitate narrative, they don't quite destroy it. One of the dangers of destroying it is that even the thematic aspect becomes difficult to register. This is why Weerasethakul is so often asked questions about the meaning of his work. As the Guardian says: "So for the past year, touring the world's film festivals - Toronto, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Sitges, and, most recently, London - Thailand's auteur of the moment has been in a Groundhog Day of perplexed questioning. Why is your film so slow? Why the sex scene between the princess and the catfish? Is the runaway buffalo really Uncle Boonmee? Is the cave a metaphor, or just a cave? Do you believe in reincarnation? What the hell does it all mean, Mr Weerasethakul?"
It is not enough to be insightful on the films; we have to be speculative about their meaning if we want to extract meaning from them at all. It seems 'obvious' that L'avventura is about the enervation of love and Taxi Driver about the force of violence because the stories are evident enough for such a theme to be extracted from them. But with Weerasethakul, the meaning is perhaps constructed rather than extracted: that out of the disjunctive images and disjunctive story we are left to generate sense. When Weerasethakul says in the Guardian piece, "But that's life, no? Sometimes you don't need to understand everything to appreciate a certain beauty. And I think the film operates in the same way. It's like tapping into someone's mind. The thinking pattern is quite random, jumping here and there like a monkey" is this the director falling into the fallacy of imitative form: to write chaotically to convey chaos, for example? Perhaps, but better to see Weerasethakul talking here about life in a much more fundamental way than making something realistic. This is life closer to Bergson's notion of it when he talks of the constant process of making new and of the never given. It gives the opportunity to consciousness. "When many equally possible actions are indicated without there being any real action (as in a deliberation that has not come to an end), consciousness is intense. Where the action performed is the only action possible...consciousness is reduced to nothing." (Creative Evolution) Thus Bergson can say "what constitutes animality...is the faculty of utilizing a releasing mechanism for the conversion of as much stored-up potential energy as possible into 'explosive actions'." Bergson adds, "in the beginning the explosion is haphazard, and does not choose its direction. Thus the amoeba thrusts out in all directions at once. But, as we rise in the animal scale, the form of the body itself is observed to indicate a certain number of very definite directions along which the energy travels." This is very far away from automatic memory and, in this sense, Weerasethakul's films absorb the morphogenic just as Lynch's draw upon the psychogenic. If Lynch's work suggests the trauma; Weerasethakul's invoke the shape-shifting too but in a much more morphological manner. Both Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. generate the traumatic within the diegesis and the traumatic beyond it as Lynch tears apart the diegetic continuity. Weerasethakul's, however, is a much gentler aesthetic and asks us to accept the morphological consequences of his tales without quite wishing to traumatise us with the shifts that take place. Life in Weerasethakul's films is a process of change and renewal as he sees reincarnation as the basis both of narrational possibility and a mode of existence. We start with spirit and become selves.
By way of a brief digression from Weerasethakul, if Gilles Deleuze so astutely noted the importance of David Hume in the work of Hitchcock, it rested on the significance in Hume's philosophy of habit. "Skepticism quite properly forbids us to speculate beyond the content of our present experience and memory, yet we find it entirely natural to believe much more than that. Hume held that these unjustifiable beliefs can be explained by reference to custom or habit." That's how we learn from experience," Hume would say in 'Enquiry V ii'. "When I observe the constant conjunction of events in my experience, I grow accustomed to associating them with each other." The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Hume notes, "although many past cases of sunrise do not guarantee the future of nature, my experience of them does get me used to the idea and produces in me an expectation that the sun will rise again tomorrow. I cannot prove that it will, but I feel that it must." Hitchcock's genius resided partly on working with habit as speculation, by allowing the viewer to work on the relations between things even if the empirical detail itself was not always evident. Hence Hitchcock's famous MacGuffin - we do not need to know what everyone is chasing, we just need to know that it is obviously of importance because everybody is chasing it. "The main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing" he would say to Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock. Our habits of perception allow us to ignore the specifics of the empirical. In this sense it is the opposite of life as Weerasethakul perceives it. The habits of perception are all but ignored for the vitally new and this is why we talk of the constructive rather than extracted. One reason why Hitchcock could generate great shock in the viewer by killing off Madeleine in Vertigo and especially Marion in Psycho was that he could take the habits of viewing and disturb them. Of course, we assume a romance will develop between Scottie and Madeleine; of course, we expect Marion to remain our central character as we wonder if she will escape with the money and be joined by her lover. And, of course, Hitchcock offers the shattered: the habit abruptly broken.
The sort of breaks Weerasethakul offers are not those of habit but of morphogenic quizzicality. Think of the scene in Syndromes and a Century where we see the doctor introduced by a colleague in the basement of the hospital where veterans are kept. There is a point to the scene and continuity in its mapping, but there is also a feeling that the sequence cannot be contained by its story. The scene opens with a slow-moving shot on a modern statue of a dignitary with the camera moving from left to right and then cuts to a Buddha statue with the camera moving right to left. As the film cuts to a shot of a long corridor within the hospital we see people walking along the corridor and in two shots see a nurse falling behind her group to tie her shoelaces, and then a kid doing the same with his group. The shots are all part of the same continuity (the two groups then pass each other on the corridor) but don't feel at all like they are pushing the story. Only the few shots with the doctor do this. What would seem to interest the director much more is the question of self and other that reincarnation offers at its most extreme, and that Hitchcock and Lynch offer as extreme - as Hitchcock shocks and Lynch traumatizes. Weerasethakul wants more to muse gently over what separates one thing from another, as though he is surprised by the individuality of things rather than dismayed by their separation. This is evident in his comment on reincarnation and the cinema. "I believe in the transmigration of souls between humans, plants, animals, and ghosts. Uncle Boonmee's story shows the relationship between man and animal and at the same time destroys the line dividing them. When the events are represented through cinema, they become shared memories of the crew, the cast, and the public. A new layer of (simulated) memory is augmented in the audience's experience. In this regard, filmmaking is like creating, synthetic past lives." (Uncle Boonmee Press Book)
We here hit upon a useful paradox concerning the shock we feel when identification is abruptly curtailed: haven't we already shifted identification in the process of watching the film as we become involved in a leading character's life? Any strangeness we experience is a by-product of the strangeness of relating so closely to the lives of others on screen. There has always been this dimension to art, of course, with the theatre and the novel expecting us to share in the faults and foibles of characters and the notion of catharsis would be of little value if we didn't feel for Oedipus or Medea's predicament. But cinema seems to take this much further and subsequently the shock generated in its shift is all the more pronounced. Hitchcock and Lynch want the shock; Antonioni and Weerasethakul seek instead surprise. In the examples we have given from L'avventura and Syndromes and a Century, the camera does not always follow the character but frequently deviates from it, suggesting that character is a secondary element to the mise-en-scene in which characters are contained. The films do not shock us chiefly with the removal of a character and a replacement with another, they surprise us, asking us to wonder about the nature of character and situation, subjects and objects. If Weerasethakul can say that he believes in the transmigration of souls, Antonioni would appear to believe in the dissolution of subjects and objects. How often do we see in an Antonioni film a figure small against a building, or entering a shot that shows them small within it? We cannot take for granted the centrality of the human let alone the centrality of a central character, most famously exemplified in The Eclipse when neither Monica Vitti nor Alain Delon turn up for a rendezvous, with the camera in a series of shots acknowledging their absence.
Reincarnative narration needn't have us believing in reincarnation at all, despite Weerasethakul's comments, and indeed an excellent Marina Warner essay on Lost Highway in Sight and Sound where she draws upon voodoo and reincarnation to make sense of the film but does not expect voodoo to work equally well in making sense of our lives. No, all we need to accept is that certain films work to undermine our notion of the centrality of the human being and the consistency of either identification or identity. In this sense whether a film shocks or surprises, it might be more inclined to suggest identification over identity, identity over identification. Hitchcock and Antonioni believe in identity, rationalists who nevertheless call into question the story's close link to character. Lynch and Weerasethakul are more inclined to the irrational, indicating ways of being that go beyond our ready perceptual faculties. However, whether rational or irrational, shocking, or surprising, what all the films have here is an interest in what we have called, very speculatively, reincarnative narrative.
© Tony McKibbin