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Traces of Absence: The Mnemonic Dispositive in Three Contemporary Films

Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

EssayPart of Issue #14: In Absentia

 A dispositive: let’s mean by that the twelve stations of the cross in religious paintings as well as the four seasons, the mother figure, Botero’s curves or Buffet’s straight lines. […] In literature, that’d be the exchange of letters in an epistolary novel, the moral in the last line of fables, the distance created by the chorus of Greek tragedy. In Wagner, the systematic return of the leitmotif. In cinema, we couldn’t discern such a usage until recent years.

Luc Moullet, ‘Dispositivism in Contemporary Cinema’

In a hi-tech mixing room, facing a couple of monitors over a large console, Hernán, an audio engineer, takes notes attentively on a serene musical piece. Suddenly, a woman named Jessica arrives and he kindly asks her to wait a minute. She is searching for something elusive, a specific sound. At first, we don’t know what she was inquiring after because we couldn’t picture the material echo of the sound she seeks to determine: by what it’s not (“Your sound is not a song?”, “No”), by using similes (“like an enormous concrete ball that falls into a metal well”), and geological metaphors (“it is a rumble from the core of the Earth”).

After a few more lines of dialogue, it hits. We’ve heard it before: the cold mineral thump she unexpectedly pantomimed is what had woken her up in the very first sequence of Memoria (2021), directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Over Jessica’s shadowy outline rising against the dark, that noise triggers the plot. This essay won’t inquire about the sound itself, but rather about the mnemonic process involved in recalling it: how long has it been since that first scene? Fifteen, twenty minutes? What makes us remember it?

There is a set of mechanisms that subjects—characters and spectators alike—use to recover something from the film’s past. Film mnemonics, let’s call it, is a dispositive (in Moullet’s terms) resembling the verbal techniques people sometimes use to memorize foreign information, like silly acronyms to recall passwords or names for a History exam. This process is not exclusive to Weerasethakul’s last movie. Two other 2021 films, Friends and Strangers by James Vaughan and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy create unique environments that either use or suggest specific elements to influence the spectator’s memory by elusiveness and absence of information. These mnemonic traces help reconstruct personal intimacy in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Australian historical past in Friends and Strangers, and global interactions in Memoria. Working from the particular (one-to-one relationships in Hamaguchi), passing by historical specificities (Sydney’s regional history in Vaughan) to a much wider scope (the Earth as a whole in Weerasethakul), we will follow those traces.

To know each other

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s is composed of three different short stories, all of them built upon revelation. The film’s surprises arise from discovering mistakes. This process reshapes what can be conceived as truth in the film’s past and creates intense delight, pity, grief, and joy alike. In “Magic”, the opening episode, Tsugumi is dating her best friend’s ex-boyfriend (without her realizing it). In “Door Wide Open”, an error as small as a typo in an email has fatal consequences. However, it is in “Once Again”, the last story, where the importance of mnemonics is most evident and crucial.

The episode begins with Natsuko returning to her hometown for a high school reunion. The trip is an act of remembering: retracing familiar streets to encounter people from her past. Most characters in the story have forgotten something or someone. Natsuko, who during the party behaves timidly while trying to go unnoticed, mistakes a former classmate’s name. Similarly, the ramen restaurant owner has forgotten about our protagonist. In life, it may not be a big deal when some people don’t remember us, but it is heartbreaking when a loved one is at fault.

Going up the escalators at Sendai Station, Natsuko stares at a woman with great, undefined emotion: she is the classmate she was expecting to see the night before. Fortune. They greet each other and Natsuko finds herself invited for tea at her house. Her new last name is Kobayashi; she is married and has two children. Everything about their conversation seems friendly, but an element in the mise-en-scène questions whether they really know each other or not.

There is a piano as part of the house’s decor; mnemonics start to unfold gradually from the walls and furniture of Kobayashi’s residence. The woman of the house asks Natsuko if she still plays. The look of contempt in her answer shifts the tone of the encounter: “Not at all”. Then she interjects, unexpectedly: “You keep avoiding what’s important. Even if it’s been twenty years”. At that moment, Kobayashi realizes she doesn’t know whom she is hosting: “I can’t remember your name”. She asks Natsuko if she knows hers. “Yuki Mika” is the answer; “Aya Kobayashi” is her actual name. Fantasy. They’ve mistaken each other for people from their respective pasts. Up until this moment, they had been shown walking together in smooth tracking shots or in simple shot/reverse shot fashion. In contrast, the shots in this revelatory sequence open from multiple angles, creating an atmosphere of disorientation.

Then, Aya has an idea. She suggests a role-play in which she will perform as Mika so that Natsuko can achieve some form of closure with her first love. Fantasy multiplies. After Aya plays Mika, Natsuko does the same with Aya’s former friend, a piano player. This sort of theatrical instance helps both women to sympathetically cherish their (now related) wounds. A complete healing is not realized, but the possibility that it will happen remains wide open: the encounter is a sweet palliative that relieves Aya and Natsuko, at least for a moment.

The mnemonic dispositive does not erase the misconstructed truth, but it rather adds a new layer of meaning to absent events, creating a double reading (or a parallel understanding) of the past: Aya and Natsuko are both old friends and strangers, both lovers and casual acquaintances. Our original interpretation remains somewhere in the back of our minds while the correction of events unfolds by means of role-playing. Most importantly, both characters not only create a new bond but also recognize who they really are thanks to the unexpected intimacy.

Blue right now

“There’s nothing hidden or dark, or weird”, says the owner of a house covered in, indeed, dark and weird paintings and sculptures. This deceptive mansion by the bay is the stage for Friends and Strangers’s climax, the last place Ray, our twenty-something freelance videographer hero, visits before wandering aimlessly into the ocean.

The owner tells Ray to relax on the couch after showing him around the property in a rather confusing scouting session for a wedding video shoot. When the young man first came into the living room, a painting of Queen Elizabeth II in a pink dress suit decorated one of the walls. A few scenes later, a close-up shows the queen is now wearing blue. Baffled, the videographer asks the owner if the painting wasn’t pink before, but he dismisses his question as crazy. This man is hiding something.

You can pretend that the queen wears blue and it always has been. Certainly, it’s blue right now. But even without the chance to pause and rewind this feverish encounter in Friends and Strangers, something in your memory reckons the queen’s dress was pink before and someone is trying to cover that up. Mnemonics help identify these hidden signals as traces of a subliminal state of things.

Another painting in the same sequence hints at what that state of things might be. During the house tour, Ray and the owner visit the basement, also cluttered with bizarre artworks. A small frame lies on a table behind a potted cactus. The camera glances briefly at its depiction of a British battalion raising the Union Jack while a group of Aboriginal Australians watches them.

Friends and Strangers is set in Sydney. It focuses on urban middle and upper-class’s spaces and social mishaps but, sprinkled throughout its canvases, monuments, and sculptures, there are signs of the city’s hidden configuration. For example, Captain Arthur Phillip’s statue in the Royal Botanic Gardens gets a montage that serves as a transition in the middle of the film. Between its grandiose depiction of the governor and the Greek gods that flank him, the film cuts to a modest embossing of an anonymous native at the base of the sculpture. A man with no name at the feet of a captain.

The most remarkable case of mnemonics is what bookends the film. Its opening credits are illustrated by a series of William Bradley’s watercolor landscapes of Australia circa 1788. DoP Dimitri Zaunders’s camerawork and composition after those first images rely heavily on wide shots that embolden the city’s magnitude over its ant-like citizens. Multiple levels of overpasses, ample ports, and natural reserves stand eternal, unlike its menial inhabitants. In the end, before any other credit begins to roll, a legend: “Filmed on the lands of the Eora and Ngunnawal peoples”. Not a single character in the film belongs to these communities.

Art activates a piece of reality which is otherwise absent. It tries to remind you of something lost. One of the tourists visiting a historical manor by the sea at the end of the film poignantly asks a tour guide (before being casually interrupted by the romantic awkwardness of our middle-class hero): “What about the Aborigines? Are they about here or what?”

What dog?

Apart from the sound discussed, there are other instances where the mnemonic device is employed in Memoria. In the dinner sequence, Juan, Jessica, and her sister Karen consider the possible sources of the mysterious disease that sent the latter to the hospital. The first one is a spell from the Invisible People living in the Amazon jungle where her theater company works. The second one is suggested by Jessica: “So it has nothing to do with the dog”. “What dog?”, Karen replies. And indeed, what dog? Here we have to remember, like Karen, that Jessica refers to a previous anecdote of a dog that was hit by a car. In the same scene, they mention Andrés, the dentist who took care of Karen recently. However, Jessica says that he died last year. Is he dead or alive? And what about Hernán? Did we imagine the sound engineer? All these absent characters become phantasmagoric figures that challenge our perception.

An atmosphere of sickness spreads through most of Memoria. Jessica has an orchid apparently infected by a fungus. She herself is not quite right. Her search for the sound in her head becomes desperate (replicated in our heads by mnemonics, the search makes us spectators mimic that desperation internally), and if we can tell anything by Tilda Swinton (as Jessica)’s anguish is that her quest aims for more than solving a puzzle: it proves her sanity. She visits a doctor trying to find an explanation and a cure for her insomnia. Sickness in the film makes no distinction between human, animal, and vegetal life; it’s perhaps the symptom of a broader kind of disease affecting the whole Earth. And its cure may be metaphysical.

In the film, mnemonics work as an interlude for an act of remembrance with a larger, even transcendental scope. In the middle of the jungle, Jessica meets another (or is it the same?) Hernán. She feels that she has been there before. A blue bed cover and some head movements evoke her memories which happen to be the same as Hernán’s, the human hard disk drive. Although Jessica wasn’t really there, the woman is emotionally moved. When Jessica and the new Hernán hold hands, the recollections of this invisible shared past restore the atmosphere by filling the gaps. The mnemonic process works metaphysically, giving a sense of resolution.

The present

Despite their different cultural backgrounds, these three films share a pathway to healing a wound unseen. A word for it could be trauma, but really any significant event in a lifetime leaves enough of a mark to demand recalling its existence years later. Its absence hurts, even if we can’t remember what it was anymore. With enough research, one could call this treatment of emotional bruising through memory a trend in contemporary cinema —in auteurs such as Hamaguchi, Weerasethakul, and Vaughan, but also in Hong Sang-soo’s or Matías Piñeiro’s work, for example.

What is the film’s past? Is it everything we didn’t see, indicated to us by ever-changing subjective evidence? Or is it what we actually saw on the screen, also distorted by memory? Mnemonics unravel time as the primordial dimension of cinema and fuse allusions with witnessed material. It makes the past flow in sync with the present, so that absences manifest a body once again in a reality that had pushed them away before their time.