Monday, August 13, 2012

36 Images

I took a train to a remote area of East Bangkok to go to a movie. 36, a new Thai experimental film directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. The theater stood at the wrong end of RCA, in a half-demolished shopping center surrounded by low-slung '70s brutalist concrete.

The film is a series of long takes, occurring chronologically but seemingly without pattern. Two movie studio employees, Oom and Sai, take photographs of odd places around Bangkok-- an apartment building, an abandoned love motel, a vacant lot where a clinic once stood. As Sai looks through her old hard drives, she finds her photos destroyed, with only a few oblique shots remaining. She returns to the places, and finds what has changed and what has disappeared. Oom has long since disappeared. At the end, we see the desktop of Oom's computer, with one photo of the two of them still there.

Over the past few months, my phone has periodically had trouble receiving text messages. So many phone calls have started with "Did you get my text?"

As I left the theater and turned on my phone, my inbox was suddenly flooded with messages. Here were all of the parties I hadn't attended, all of the reminders to bring something somewhere. I'd been relying on this little device to mediate my social life, and, in sequence, were all of the mechanical failures that had translated to personal inaction.

Digital memory supersedes organic memory. Our digital memory is supposed to be a metaphor for human memory. But unlike human memory, digital memory is but an imprint, stripped of any subjectivity, rendered in bright plasma screen colors and encoded in countless binary digits.

And while this digital memory is more visually and auditorily perfect than our own, it is equally immaterial, easily replicated and easily deleted. We may hold on fast to our personal recollections, constantly replay them in our heads over the course of our lifetimes, hunt down the photographs and souvenirs and albums that reflect those memories. By comparison, digital records are as fleeting and ephemeral as cicada shells.

Somehow the old forms of recording-- cassette tape, Polaroid film-- become objects of nostalgia. These devices that, at mid-century, seemed so cutting edge and blatantly positivist, now seem quaint. We use lo-fi recording and photo alteration techniques to smear the digital memory with Vaseline.

Because we're yearning for subjectivity, for some notion of authenticity and humanity. We stare at the screen, and it might as well be a void. Walter Benjamin was correct in that the age of mechanical reproduction, the work of art would be stripped of its ritual meaning. But that didn't mean that the artistic endeavor was married to the high-minded ideology Benjamin envisioned-- rather, it became far more of a commercial enterprise than he could ever have imagined.

The title of the movie comes from each of its consisting of 36 unmoving shots, each meant to represent one photo on a film roll. Digital representation trumps mechanical representation, old places are destroyed. But somewhere in there, we can still find sentiment.

I walk back to the canal boat pier through Makkasan past the ruins of old houses and offices, over train tracks, below freeways, beneath billboards and vinyl banners for new condo developments. I take a shortcut across what was once someone's tile floor. A spirit house is surrounded by climbing vines. Inside, a pudgy ceramic god guards over the people that left years ago.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


How perplexing it is to revisit a city you visited before, trying to identify the places you remember. What street runs parallel to the river bank? What was the name of the cafe where I met Natalie for a beer? Which bus was it that ran to the monument visible from the other side of the center city?

The city in question is Vientiane, a minute capital of a minute nation. It is overwhelmed by the turbid brown Mekong that separates it from Thailand. Under the heavy sky of the monsoon season, the city is perpetually drowsy. Only a handful of people are on the street, a couple of bearded backpackers and a few local girls in embroidered silk sarongs. The launderettes and restaurants are lifeless, and the masseuses that normally tout their shops stare dejectedly at the walkway.

A handful of temples grace the riverbank, the sole remnant of pre-colonial Vientiane. Surrounding them, the old city is French: mango trees shade narrow streets, heavy teakwood shutters adorn shophouses, restaurants are named L'Alsace and La Côte d'Azur. The new city to the east is Soviet: massive arches stand alongside dusty concrete boulevards with Communist names: Kaysone Phomvihane (the first Secretary-General of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party), 13 Singhakhom (or August 13th, the date of decolonization). A ten minute walk from center to periphery traverses the complete spectrum of history and ideology.

As I walked into the Musée Nationale, that spectrum is reflected in the exhibits. The history of Laos is a complete reversal of Marx's conception of progress. Tribal and feudal society is suddenly transformed into Marxism-Leninism. Marxism-Leninism rapidly becomes authoritarian capitalism in the Deng Xiaoping mode. Rather than proceeding dialectically, time becomes a chaotic set of accordion folds. We see Lahu fabrics decorated with images of bombs and helicopters, Buddha statuettes carved from the aluminum of downed American fighter planes.

My country played no small part in this process. The poorly blown up photos of Lao intellectuals holding up signs reading "À bas Monsieur McNamara" speak for themselves. And the Mekong River, the artery that gives life to Laos and her neighbor states, is a name associated in the American imagination with bloodshed and atrocity and the slow decline of our national dream.

Slowly, the wounds are healing. The guns have fallen silent in the hills. Laos is still a ragged landscape, marred with landmines. The local people in Xiengkhouang Province have taken to using rusted bomb casings as fenceposts. Vines curl around them now, obscuring the flaking instructions written in English, Russian, and Vietnamese.

I went for one last long walk along the quay at dusk. As clothing stands and food stalls were set up, I found myself walking out beyond the lights to the back alleys in the west of the city.

Beyond the edge of town, a thin veil of mist obscures a set of low mountains that straddles the border. Behind me, I can hear the sound of children playing, the screech of an electric guitar through cheap speakers in the introduction to a mournful luk thung song. Before me is the dark swirl of the Mekong River, a vast volume of water bearing masses of foliage fallen from the jungles that lie upstream. As the sun sets, I turn back, walking alone among the big families congregated around the noodle shops.

As I trudge back to the hotel, I walk past a shop called "Douangdeuane." Roughly translated, it means "Astral Weeks." I get back to my hotel room, and I put on the first track of the album: "To lay me down / In silence easy / To be born again / From the far side of the ocean."