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A Sound Named Jessica

Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

EssayPart of Issue #12: Young Critics Workshop 2021

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty—their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty—that it will lead to something respectable. […] They have “devoured” everything, both “culture and people,” and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them.

 Walter Benjamin, ‘Poverty and Experience’

Sound is a vaporous genie; an insubstantial actuality that nests inside of us, a skinless touch. In Memoria, it is also the link between past and present, here and there, the flickering light that amounts to a movie, the constellation of cells and visceral memories that make up a body. At a time when skin to skin contact is hazardous and limited, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest feature film plunges audiences into a curiously insubstantial form of connection/transmission: sonic waves that reverberate across distances, but — unsettlingly — originate from nowhere. The elusiveness of the film’s soundscape is enhanced by images that bear no referent, memories that cannot be retrieved, the vanishment of people and a malady whose only diagnosis is the name of the one who suffers. Thickened with insubstantiality, Memoria sends its protagonist and audiences off to grope at thin air, suggesting and withdrawing attempts to pin down what nonetheless eludes the grasp.

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is an expat who lives in Colombia. She works as an orchid trader, who exports fragile specimens all over the world. As such, she is the most recent link in a historic lineage of Europeans who roam the tropics for the rarest and most beautiful of these flowers… and sometimes went slightly mad in the process, as Susan Orlean describes in her nonfiction book The Orchid Thief (New York: Random House, 1998), which Spike Jonze  adapted into the movie Adaptation (2002). The orchid also connects Weerasethakul’s home country, Thailand, to Colombia. While the former was, at least when Orlean wrote her book, the world’s largest exporter of the flowers, the latter has adopted the so-called cattleya trianae orchid as its national flower.. On a trip to the countryside, Jessica meets Hernán (Elkin Diaz) who claims to remember everything, even occurrences beyond his lifetime. At his cabin, she opens a single pane window, allowing the ebb and flow of distant sounds to travel into the modest room. She cocks her head and moves her right ear closer to the world outside, tuning into the chatter of the Colombian rain forest as it blends with the cacophony of memory shards collected and dispersed by Hernán. Tension grows incrementally as the cinema audience listens along, casting an invisible net across the theater in an attempt to filter every decibel from the surrounding darkness. As Jessica listens to memories and the noises of the rainforest, sonic waves fill the cinema, stirring in permanent unrest; they float, hover, shoot through space. The difficulty of articulating such sounds through something other than themselves is a challenge that Jessica struggles with at the beginning of the film. To recreate the sudden bang that haunts her with increasing frequency, she seeks out a young sound engineer, who, like the stranger she encounters in the rainforest village, is also called Hernán. Her descriptive skills and his ability to listen while navigating the sound studio’s spaceship-like drawing board eventually result in an accurate version of Jessica’s brainchild that can be heard by others and replayed, again and again. Getting a hold of this sound necessarily involves its becoming an image, a steep hill of Hertz levels that Hernán eventually crops at the top to meet Jessica’s description: “De pronto algo más redondo.” The resulting sound stupefies her. For an extended moment, she seems to have drifted off, remains unresponsive when asked what her name is. “Jessica”, she eventually replies, still absent-minded. Hernán types it in, saves the file.

So now the sound bears her name, has an image, can be replayed at will and experienced by others. But it still lacks a source; there is no reason for its sporadic, sudden explosion into the usual chitchat of the world. A proposal for the origin of the loud bang is not put forth until the final minutes of the film: the camera looks out from the dense underbrush of the rain forest, an opening reveals the sky, thick with low hanging clouds whose illusionary weight presses down on the lushness of the world below. There are two round, rock-like heaps with portholes that resemble eyes, and which emit the robot-like noises, reminiscent of R2D2’s friendly shrieks, that become more and more pronounced. After a few seconds the heaps begin to move, revealing themselves to be part of a single structure, something that resembles a whale, a shell, or a primeval crustacean. The thing (“a spaceship”, I conclude) is heaving its mass off the ground, releasing a few sudden bangs before it reaches full levitation. The pointed stern lights up, the surrounding air brims with heat, and then—another bang—a circle of blue light is released into the air. It swells, hovers, dissolves as the spaceship floats off toward the mountain range on the horizon and eventually disappears beyond the clouds.

During Jessica’s extended session with Hernán at the studio, viewer-listeners are trained to recognize the sound that haunts her, like a violin student learning to lean her index finger a little more this way, a little more that way, until the note is just right. This sensitization to the almost imperceptible differences between one tone and another hones an awareness that leaves me, for one, unable to confidently map the spaceship’s sound onto the noise that prevents Jessica from sleeping. Even though the sound is, at least by association, connected to the supernatural, it ultimately remains an unfettered signifier.

Weerasethakul’s teasing allusion to the origins of the sound without securing its source is mirrored on the level of the image. The difference between the long take of the spaceship scene and the remainder of the film first registers on a level of feeling rather than conscious perception. Something about the glistening richness of the banana tree, the way the wind rustles through the leaves, calls the realness of the image into doubt. Unlike all other parts of Memoria, this scene is not shot on film but rather a product of CGI animation and as such made up entirely of zeros and ones.Which is not to say that CGI creates ideal, dematerialized images. Ann-Sophie Lehmann argues for a recognition of the materiality of digital images in her article ‘Taking the Lid Off the Utah Teapot. Towards a Material Analysis of Computer Graphics’, in Lorenz Engell and Bernhard Siegert (eds.), Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung 1/2012, 157-172. Lehmann includes the hand-drawn sketches that were made in preparation for the digital rendering of the Utah teapot, tangible precedents of the intangible image and as such similar to the scrapbook-like publication—full of handwritten notes, sketches etc.—that accompanied the release of Memoria. The image is not a representation of something that has actually occurred in front of the camera. It does not have an indexical relationship to reality and therefore remains, like the sound, without knowable origins. Even if one throws all mistrust in hearing overboard and accepts the spaceship as the cause of the bang, that cause itself ultimately dissolves into unspoken language programmed by a team of animators. Like other onomatopoeic expressions, the bang only refers to itself, it enacts rather than stands for a meaning. There is a circular logic to it that resembles the naming of the sound as “Jessica”, which proposes the maddening diagnosis that the one who hears the sound is also its source. The bang is just that: a bang. As such it can be “like a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well surrounded by seawater” (Jessica’s words, emphasis mine), but that only means there is a similarity between event and sound, not that the sound originates in the event or that its significance is somehow connected to it.

Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

In an essay on ‘Technologies of the Self’, Foucault writes about the role of listening in stoicist philosophy and pedagogy. Listening in silence and remembering what one has heard emerges as “the positive condition for acquiring truth”, both about the world at large and one’s own position within it.Michel Foucault, ‘Technologies of Self’, in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, transl. Robert Hurley et. al. (New York: The New Press, 1997),  236. Foucault is reflecting on listening to words, especially the utterances of an authority. Memoria, by contrast, is concerned not with listening to a voice that points back to the immediate presence of a body from which it originates, but rather with what it means to tune into cacophonous, ambient noises. Human voices are just one part of the film’s soundscape, which is equally composed of car sirens, rustling leaves, changing weather, fish being scaled. Contra Foucault’s reading of ancient philosophy, intent listening does not turn Jessica into a more centered, assured subject, but rather contributes to the exhausting dispersal of her sense of self. We often see her sitting or standing somewhat listlessly, body sinking into itself—as if she were waiting for something that never arrives, hung up on a world that does not address her, attempting to articulate that which cannot be referred to in bumpy bits of Spanish. Hernán, the sound designer who helped her reproduce the noise, eventually disappears as if he had never existed, leaving her behind, diagnosed with a sound that bears her name but that only a computer can articulate and reproduce for her.

Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

Shortly after Hernán’s vanishment, Jessica strolls through the corridors of the conservatoire where she had expected to find him. Muffled sounds of instruments seep through the thick glass of rehearsal cubicles. She follows the improvised melodies of a jazz ensemble that lead her to a nearby studio. For a few minutes, the cinema fills with full-bodied music and images of musicians and listeners who are equally immersed in the performance. On the final chord, the scene cuts to a minimalist courtyard, walled by black concrete and window panes to which neither doors nor windows grant access. Rocks are scattered throughout the unkempt enclosure, making it look like an accidental, abandoned Zen garden that exists in an eerie vacuum. Jessica stops to look at this architectural idiosyncrasy, whose silence rings all the louder because its cubic shape mirrors the rehearsal room that mere seconds before had been filled with music. Walking out of the frame, she types something on her phone’s touchscreen.

Early in the 20th century, when such screens were far in the future, but architects already imagined and created fantastical forms made of glass, Walter Benjamin believed that the “cold and sober material […] created rooms in which it is hard to leave traces.”Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’, published in Selected Writings, Vol. 2, 1927-1934, translated by Rodney Livingstone, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 734. This essay was inspired by Bruno Taut‘s ‘Glashaus’, which in turn was a product of the exchange between the architect and the writer Paul Scheerbart. For him, glass architecture suggested the obliteration of the “traces of [human] days on earth”ibid. Benjamin recontextualizes a quote from Goethe’s Faust. or at least entailed an utter transformation of humanity in a world in which “nature and technology […] have completely merged.”ibid., 735. Benjamin’s remarks prefigure Memoria’s affiliation of traceless absences—of people, memories, narrative thrust, sense of self, referentiality—with the genre of science fiction. In a year that has also brought us Dune, a blockbuster that puts SciFi at the service of an allegorical, highly referential tale of colonialism and resource extraction, Weerasethakul inserts the genre into a world that functions according to familiar laws of physics. The science-fictional plane of the film is not an allegorical stand-in, but rather locates the enigma of otherworldliness in entirely worldly spaces such as a half-built tunnel, where abandoned trucks resemble lunar vehicles, or a modernist courtyard that conflates inside and outside in a way that resembles the subsistence garden Matt Damon’s character cultivates in The Martian (2015).

The most deeply felt absence of Memoria are the two subjects which Dune seeks to grasp by way of outsourcing them to a different world: colonialism and resource extraction haunt Weerasethakul’s film like the bang that cannot be referred to as anything other than itself. It revolves around these themes, a planet on an elliptical orbit. The avoidance of collision is the avoidance of metaphor in favor of a just that-ness that does not explain and is therefore all the more alienating to bear.