Memoria, the latest film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe), starts with a noise, a tangible noise. A ball has been pulled through space and the sedimental layers of our planet, and crashes irrevocably in our collective consciousness. From the beginning, we are grounded in an unplaceable ominous mood, with darkness and a bang.
Set in Colombia – a country ravaged by physical exploitation; petroleum and coffee are some of the biggest exports – Jessica is an expat visiting estranged family. Jessica experiences these recurring noises, akin to a bang. Human/geo-trauma manifests itself in rocks, rivers and humans. Memory and the language of memory is inscribed in our surroundings. Sensuously we become an antenna to these stories. For me this recalls the theory of Anamnesis, a recalling to past lives that are ever present. The noise is sonic suffering of the planet voiced in the character of Jessica, Weerasethakul lets the landscapes speak to us with his long shots.
Stimmung in German can translate as mood, atmosphere or attunement, Lotte H. Eisner in her book The Haunted Screen says “In fact this Stimmung hovers around objects as well as people: it is a ‘Metaphysical accord,’ a mystical and singular harmony amid the chaos of things, a kind of sorrowful nostalgia.” Memoria discloses this to us, syncopating our mood with the earths. Mood is carried forward by the sound design which takes precedence over; narrative and character. We are grounded in that unplaceable ominous mood, opening with darkness and a bang.
A river directs Jessica to Hernan; he lives in a village on the outskirts of “civilization.” He doesn’t watch television or listen to music as he recalls everything. This surely would lead to a sensory overload, a violent constant stimulation, we are subject to this daily sustained information offloading. Media implements a planet wide memory of a week long. The seemingly never-ending concession of events has left us with a memory-hole.
Trepanning is the act of drilling a hole in to the human skull–usually this would be for releasing building blood pressure. But it wasn’t only just used for medical reasons alone, if someone were to act in an abnormal manner, trepanation would be used to release demonic possession. Trepanning is considered one of the oldest forms of surgery alongside amputation, evidence of trepanning has been recorded as far back as the Neolithic. In the 1960s trepanning had a resurgence, coinciding with the LSD, mescaline and other hallucinogenic related experimentation to “open the mind” or “third eye awakening.” Hugo Bart Hughes successfully trepanned himself with an electric drill in 1965 and attested to the mystical and psychological benefits, saying it expanded his consciousness and his neuroses were relieved.
Jessica befriends an archaeologist, who eventually shows her a girl’s skull with evidence of trepanning, telling her that it’s over 6000 years old – I assume it might be a part of the Muisca Confederation – and she had the procedure to release evil spirits. These spirits haunt us today. Memoria crafts a sequence of lowly lit long shots in a tunnel, with construction works going on, eventually an archaeology excavation team is shown working measuring skeletons. The tunnel is one giant hole in the cranium of the earth. We are trepanning the planet, releasing the trauma-ridden spirits within, and sucking whatever we deem materially holy to us.
At the end, Jessica and Hernan are in his house beyond the windows in his room the forest breathes. Jessica tentatively places her hand on Hernan’s. Slowly a cacophony of sounds, memories and stories percolate through both of their bodies. In a Joycean epiphany Jessica is awakened and is seemingly harmonized with the vibrations of the earth’s orchestral movements.
Memory has the ability to act as a phantom limb, we are aware of memory but it loses its embodiment. Cinema can rearrange this temporality, we re-live memory.
Memoria, Weerasethakul’s latest film, retraces some familiar territory in unfamiliar ways. There’s talk of it never having a VOD or DVD release–it will be traveling around in cinemas as a museum piece. This will frame Memoria as a never-ending moving-image art exhibition, roaming from city to city.
— Tom is a poet and filmmaker and occasional essayist based in London