Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Moments of Silence

Moments of Silence
Thongchai Winichakul’s Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976 Massacre in Bangkok, published this month, is equal parts memoir and academic analysis. Thongchai, one of Thailand’s leading historians, is a survivor of the 6th October massacre, and the book begins with his personal account of that day and its aftermath. The massacre was swept under the carpet for decades and, in fact, it’s primarily due to Thongchai’s efforts that it’s still commemorated at all: he organised an exhibition marking the twentieth anniversary in 1996. This book now serves as a permanent reminder of the inexplicably savage event.

Forty-six people were killed on 6th October, when militia groups and state forces stormed Thammasat University, though there has been no accountability and the attackers have never been prosecuted. Instead, the massacre remains officially whitewashed, conspicuously absent from the national history curriculum. As Thongchai explains, “the silence about the massacre speaks loudly about Thai society in ways that go beyond the incident itself: about truth and justice, how Thai society copes with conflict and its ugly past, about ideas of reconciliation, the culture of impunity, and rights, and about the rule of law in the country.”

Thongchai has interviewed relatives of the victims, including Jinda and Lim Thongsin, whose son Jaruphong was killed. The chapter on the Thongsin family’s long search for closure is truly heartbreaking. He also sought out some of the perpetrators, such as Lieutenant Colonel Salang Bunnag (who was photographed aiming his gun while nonchanlently smoking a cigarette) and General Uthan Sandivongse (in charge of anti-Communist radio propaganda, and described in the book as the “most infamous propagandist in modern Thai history”). Thongchai’s encounters with “the Wolf who devoured the Lamb” recall the documentary The Look of Silence, in which a survivor of the Indonesian Communist purge confronts those responsible for the atrocities.

Moments of Silence is notable as the first commercial book to reproduce the incendiary Dao Siam (ดาวสยาม) front page that sparked the massacre. (The front page was included in an art book published last year, though it was given only to participants in a research study.) For that reason, and for Thongchai’s discussion of “the biggest elephant in the room and the most troubling question for Thai society”, the book is highly unlikely to be distributed in Thailand.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Cultures at War

Cultures at War
Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast Asia, edited by Tony Day and Maya H.T. Liem, was published in 2010. The anthology includes ten essays that examine how Southeast Asian popular culture embraced independence and modernity in response to Cold War ideologies and geopolitics.

The cover depicts Mitr Chaibancha as the Red Eagle, and in one chapter Rachel V. Harrison discusses the character’s political subtext. In Mitr’s final film, he vanquishes a Red Eagle imposter—“his heroic guise has been commandeered by leftists”—and is transformed into the Golden Eagle, “epitomizing Thailand’s Cold War struggle with the communist enemy.”

Other Thai films of the Cold War era featured more pernicious anti-Communist messages. Harrison’s essay includes a close reading of หนักแผ่นดิน (‘scum of the earth’), a notorious propaganda film that glorifies the royalist paramilitary Village Scout movement.

Thailand’s anti-Communist purge ultimately led to the ‘red barrel’ killings and the 6th October 1976 massacre. The Moonhunter (14 ตุลา สงครามประชาชน) and Pirab (พิราบ) dramatise the decisions of radical students to join the Communist insurgency. Santikhiri Sonata (สันติคีรี โซนาตา), A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (จดหมายถึงลุงบุญมี), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ), and the exhibition Anatomy of Silence (กายวิภาคของความเงียบ) interrogate northern Thailand’s violent anti-Communist legacy.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Apichatpong Weerasethakul


Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Yuthlert Sippapak

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Kubrick by Kubrick

Kubrick by Kubrick
Grégory Monro’s documentary Kubrick by Kubrick (Kubrick par Kubrick) premiered on the French Arte channel on 12th April. The film is largely comprised of audio clips from Kubrick interviews recorded by Michel Ciment in 1975, 1980, and 1987, and begins with Kubrick’s admission that “I’ve never found it meaningful, or even possible, to talk about film aesthetics in terms of my own films. I also don’t particularly enjoy the interviews.” Most of his thirteen films are covered, with three exceptions (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Lolita).

Much more extensive extracts from Ciment’s recordings were broadcast on French radio in 2011, though the material in the documentary has improved sound quality (thanks to noise reduction). Some extracts also appeared in Making Barry Lyndon. Extended interviews with Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut) and Orson Welles (The Lost Tapes of Orson Welles; This Is Orson Welles) have also been released in audio format.

If your main source material is an audio tape, how can you make a visually appealing documentary film? Monro follows the pattern previously adopted by other documentaries built around audio recordings: as in Marlene and Listen to Me Marlon, a tape recorder plays while the camera prowls around a set. In this case, the set is a recreation of the bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the audio is supplemented with vintage talking-head clips, shown on an old CRT television (just like the TV playing Summer of ’42 in The Shining).

Other Kubrick interview recordings have also been released in recent years. The collector’s edition of The Stanley Kubrick Archives included a CD featuring a 1966 Kubrick interview by Jeremy Bernstein for The New Yorker. A 1987 Kubrick interview by Tim Cahill for Rolling Stone was issued as an episode of The Kubrick Series podcast. Japanese TV producer Jun’ichi Yaoi interviewed Kubrick by telephone in 1980, and VHS video footage of the interview was released online in 2018.

Monday, 20 April 2020

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth
In 1933, Cary Grant appeared in supporting roles alongside Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, but it was The Awful Truth, released four years later, that made him a star. Grant and Irene Dunne (who received top billing) play a mutually distrustful—and mutually unfaithful—married couple who decide to divorce, yet are unable to stop themselves from sabotaging each other’s new romances.

The Awful Truth established the suave persona that would become synonymous with Grant for the remainder of his career. It’s one of the greatest screwball comedies, a subgenre that emphasised farcical action, fast-paced delivery, witty repartee, and battle-of-the-sexes humour.

Leo McCarey’s direction is a notch below that of Howard Hawks, who made the screwball classics Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday (both also starring Grant), though The Awful Truth is a more satisfying film. In Bringing Up Baby, Grant’s character is absent-minded and ineffectual, and the havoc wreaked on him is rather exasperating. His Girl Friday’s frenetic pace is impressive though exhausting. In contrast, The Awful Truth feels more sophisticated, and its satirical swipes at the institution of marriage are as sharp as ever.

The film ends with a touching scene clearly modelled on the Walls of Jericho sequence from the popular romantic comedy It Happened One Night (which is sometimes—incorrectly, I would argue—described as the first screwball comedy). In turn, The Awful Truth’s essential premise—Cary Grant jeopardising his (ex) wife’s engagement to a rube played by Ralph Bellamy—was repeated in His Girl Friday.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

The Criterion Collection
Dr Strangelove

Dr Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove was first released by the Criterion Collection on laserdisc, in 1992. That transfer was supervised by Kubrick himself, and he even designed the front cover, though the disc was swiftly withdrawn from sale after Kubrick complained about the unauthorised inclusion of a screenplay draft among the supplementary features. (The draft script opened with a segment titled The Dead Worlds of Antiquity, told from the perspective of an alien civilisation.)

The Criterion laserdisc presented Dr Strangelove “in its original split-format aspect ratio for the first time.” The film alternated between 1.66:1 and 1.33:1, as it had on its original theatrical release. (Criterion’s Lolita laserdisc also featured these alternating ratios.) When Dr Strangelove was released on DVD for the first time, in 1999, the split-format was retained, though all subsequent releases have been matted to 1.66:1. Sadly, the Criterion blu-ray, released in 2016, is also framed at 1.66:1, though it does have an uncompressed mono soundtrack.

The blu-ray’s supplementary features include an extraordinary new discovery: an exhibitor’s trailer of highlights from the film, narrated by Kubrick himself (“Please remember, as you watch this, that the material is uncut”). The disc also includes an interview with Mick Broderick, author of the excellent Reconstructing Strangelove. The packaging is equally impressive, with reproductions of the “miniature combination Russian phrasebook and Bible” and the “Plan R” dossier.