Connections and Artistic Mechanics: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century as a Subversive Film
by Shaun Terry
“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” — Leo Tolstoy, from War and Peace (1869)
What makes any art subversive?
Perhaps it is safe to say that our age extends from the Enlightenment, with capitalism being a dominant force in determining how societies and their institutions are organized, how we view one another and ourselves, and how we relate to the world more broadly (Althusser). As such, I would argue that any art that alters these understandings of the world in such a way as to slow the propagation of capitalistic ideologies could be thought of as subversive. In the case of film, the subversion of classic Hollywood’s aesthetics, forms, contents, styles, symbolisms, affects, and effects can be subversive. This subversion applies to capitalism more broadly insofar as such films might subvert film’s general tendency to propagate ideas and feelings that are useful to capitalism. I would argue that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century is one such film.
Instead of a formal, easy-to-follow narrative plot, the film acts through abbreviated chunks of stories and interactions that set a tone without telling much of a cohesive story. There are romance, confrontations with mortality, career angst, and other common dramatic events throughout Apichatpong’s film, but its effectiveness comes more by way of unresolved tensions and by its identification with different characters than it does through any dramatic story arc.
Syndromes and a Century is organized into two halves (“Syndromes and a Century”). The two halves of the film deal with different contemporary tensions being felt in Thailand—Buddhism vs. capitalism, rurality vs. urbanity, immanence vs. transcendence, and connection vs. alienation—which we will later inspect more closely (Tangwisutijit). It tells the stories of various commonplace characters—doctors, Buddhist monks, and other nondescript personages—following them through the two distinct halves of the film and drawing out the tensions listed above without truly resolving anything.
But, is Apichatpong’s film subversive? In this paper, I argue that it is. On one hand, one might look to arguments made in Fredric Jameson’s 1979 paper, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” and rightly point out that Syndromes and a Century operates under capitalism, ensuring that it must play under some of the rules set forth under capitalism (it still benefits the wealthy executives of the companies that distribute the film, it must be approved by managers in the distribution company, it has to appeal to a likely already defined market, it might have made a lot of money for Apichatpong, etc.). However, taking the stance that this alone means that the film can in no way undermine capitalism does not seem correct, either.
Taking up Gilles Deleuze’s conception of the “time-image,” articulated in his 1985 book, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Apichatpong’s film embodies a style sometimes regarded as “slow cinema,” which is juxtaposed against classic Hollywood’s “movement-image.” The movement-image is full of the well-established tropes and symbolisms that we see from most films in general, but especially in those from before WWII (Deleuze 1985). Conversely, Deleuze’s time-image operates through the use of “opsigns” and “sonsigns” (optical symbols and sonic symbols) that are meant to call attention to recognizable phenomena in our lives (1985). Instead of taking advantage of the drama in fantastically dramatic stories, with heavy-handed narratives and incredible story arcs, the time-image tends to focus on the potency of unresolved tensions and tragedies in our lived experiences. Syndromes and a Century, then, shares with the modern time-image a decreased reliance on narrative, as well as a decreased reliance on resolution of tension, showing preference for greater realism and deeper expositions of issues being confronted in the film. Largely, Apichatpong accomplishes this through careful attention to the affect produced by his audio-visual spectacle.
Apichatpong’s film relies heavily on background aesthetics and ambient sounds to envelop the spectator and place them in particular spaces and places. Later in this paper, I will describe how we might think of the worlds formed by each half of the film as reflective of Buddhistic ontologies (i.e. Buddhistic ways of being) and capitalistic ontologies (Tangwisutijit). The first half of the film is Buddhistic and the film begins with the sights and sounds of trees swaying in the wind, like a drunken nature waltz at quarter-speed. The nature sounds carry seamlessly across the cut from the nature images to the next scene: a slow, mundane psychological screening, apparently shot in natural lighting. The first couple minutes of the interview are presented in one take that avoids the typical shot-countershot style that often accompanies similar scenes. The shot then cuts from the seemingly bored face of the interviewee to a wide shot of the office such that we see both interlocutors in front of the large panel windows. Two of the windowpanes stand ajar, allowing in the outside noises, and we see the trees and sky in the background. We cut to a scene facing the opposite door so that we see the interviewee casually bowing in the general direction of the doctor as he leaves, displaying the kind of commonplace reverence for Buddhistic ritual by a perhaps unenthusiastic practitioner. A couple minutes later, the scene ends with the doctor making her way outside and carrying on a conversation, but the camera gradually loses them. Initially, it tracks them through the door before they turn to walk and the camera pans in the opposite direction, tracking down a semi-open corridor, toward a broad field with trees in the background. The camera stops at the end of a ledge, leaving us to watch the wind blow over the grass or grain or whatever vegetation it is in the field as credits roll. The sounds of nature continue beneath the sound of the conversation being had elsewhere. In a somewhat strange, reflexive move, the conversation helps to explain the disjuncture between the audio and the visual as one of the speakers says that they forgot to turn off their microphone. The scene ends and the camera cuts to two Buddhist monks meeting with the aforementioned mental health professional.
While much of this certainly seems to undermine classic Hollywood norms, does it somehow subvert capitalism (Bazin)? After all, what does capitalism have to do with cinematic conventions, cinematic subject matter, or cinematic forms? We can begin by assessing the beginning of the opening scene: the trees waving in the wind, leading to the interview. Under the classic Hollywood continuity editing system, music might serve to set the tone and the use of montage might help to grab the spectator’s attention through the blunt bombardment of visual spectacle, the point being that Apichatpong’s film is slower and more subdued than what would be expected in classic Hollywood cinema, allowing for a different understanding than that which might be produced by classic Hollywood cinema (Bazin).
The expectation of film is often that it should often arouse excitement and intense emotions. Classic Hollywood cinema is sold to us as a distraction from the banality of life (Benjamin). As Jameson underscores, in the same paper referenced above, the function of cinema is often to provide spectators with a vision of utopia so as to repress the dissatisfactions that we encounter in our capitalistic lives: the unfair boss is overcome in a triumph of the ingenuous, ingenious worker; the hapless romantic eventually finds companionship in an unexpected place; the disgruntled commonperson eventually finds their True Calling™ in life; after a great struggle, external threats are expunged; etc. Films give us images (Jameson’s paper uses the shark in Jaws [Spielberg 1975] and the gangster in a few gangster films [particularly, Coppola’s first two Godfather films from the 1970s, among others] as examples) onto which we can project the fears and anxieties of our daily lives. The overcoming of those struggles allows us to feel some sense of vicarious satisfaction and to more easily go through the routine slogs of our existences.
Instead, in this scene, we are made to simply identify closely with nature and with the interviewed subject. We are surrounded by the sounds that Earth produces far from capitalistic edifices, with their constant buzzings and chatterings. We sense the odd discomfort and raw, awkward mystery that comes from being subjected to such interrogations, especially while trying to force a congenial appearance and attitude. Instead of inundating us with sights and mood music, the scene slowly lopes, seemingly to nowhere in particular, focusing on the mundanity and naturalism of our daily lived lives. Instead of flashing from one speaker to the other, we focus on the experience of a single subjectivity, further highlighting the unexciting reality experienced by most of us in general. This allows us to focus deep attention on the experience of this one person and to feel more connected to that person’s perspective (Hayles). We more closely identify with that person, rather than having our attention divided, enabling more closely connected identification. This deep attention helps to create a more immanent and immersive experience without all the spectacular distraction of action that tends to pervade so much of Hollywood cinema (Deleuze 1985).
The role of nature here is also one of immanence—an important idea in Buddhism: we are not, in fact, separate from nature (Loy). We live in nature, through nature, and we help to constitute nature. This is a point that is easy to miss under a post-Enlightenment culture that, for various reasons, emphasizes the separations of mind from body, person from God, person from person, person from themselves, and specific aspects of ourselves from all the other constituent aspects of ourselves. In the course of the last half-century or so, we have seen a loose progression through different forms of these kinds of separations. In barbarian transcendentalism, salvation and grace come from outside ourselves (and generally implies that people are inherently evil). Enlightenment atomization discredits the concept of the community, replacing it with that of individuals (and masses of individuals). Under capitalism, labor is divided, such that workers operate separately from one another. Foucault’s “micro-power” conceives of social norms as diffuse, opaque, and unofficial (that is, not legitimated by the state or by law) means of controlling people in highly specific and varied ways (Foucault). And, Deleuze’s “control society” views particular information (exchange rates; secret passwords; divisive cultural codes and cultural informations) as subtly dividing up societies and isolating groups of people from one another, capacitizing some and decapacitizing others (Foucault; Deleuze 1992). In essence, and to oversimplify, the last several centuries have been characterized by the divisions and specializations of both the means of power (the processes) and the objects of power (the people and behaviors being controlled). Power has become more diffuse in its bearers, more diverse in its processes, more ubiquitous, more specific in its intentions, more divisive, more invisible, and less contested. We might think of transcendence as a precursor to the rest of these kinds of divisions, and as such, we might conceive of the logic of transcendence as being a thread that holds together these forms of separations. However, immanence describes another logic. Instead of finding meaning in some aspect of the world that is external to ourselves, the world might be thought of as a kind of (mostly) self-contained multiplicity (Deleuze and Guattari). Put another way, there are not necessarily separations between objects that seem to be juxtaposed; instead, such oppositions make up parts of larger systems or bodies, depending on your vantage point. Everything could be thought of as making up some greater whole that is only visible when being viewed from a high enough level, or a far enough distance, to see the sum of these parts. This all calls into question the Enlightenment’s proposed separations.
Already, we see some subtler ways by which Apichatpong’s film could be thought of as subverting capitalism. Instead of fully commodifying the film experience by packaging it as disinterested entertainment like so much other cinema, this film seems to serve another function (Jameson). The immanent, slow, immersive, “hot” media experience of witnessing the long, unmoving take of the interviewed subject demands deep attention and forces the spectator to connect with the subject on the screen in a way that is not generally necessary in Hollywood cinema (McLuhan; Deleuze 1985; Hayles). This sets up a juxtaposition of the first, Buddhistic, half of the film against the faster pace in the second, capitalistic, half of the film, which we will get to later. Still, by encouraging connections between subjectivities, Apichatpong, if only for a moment, forces us to reverse the course of cultural indoctrination by which we perpetually divide processes and people for the sakes of greater efficiency and of more easily controlling outcomes (Jameson; Foucault; Deleuze 1992). By focusing on more and more specific aspects of processes and people, capitalism can more easily and more precisely tailor behaviors to produce particular outcomes.
Under capitalism, what seems to be clear—and can seem difficult to explain—is how there are dual, seemingly opposed, crises. On one hand, the essential identity of the individual seems lost, as seen in the inherent conflicts in existentialistic literature, films about finding oneself, pins and stickers as symbols of essential aspects of ourselves, and so on (Benjamin). On the other hand, the dissolution of the sense of community is also a well-covered subject matter, as evidenced by much contemporary popular psychology literature, like in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone. What Jameson (as well as Marx before him) seems to propose is that, through commodity fetishism, our identities are largely found in the products and brands that we buy. Instead of feeling connected to our most authentic selves, our identities are found in layers upon layers of consumer choices that we make—those consumer choices all having been made by countless other people, as well. There is nothing deeply personal or essential to wearing the same shirt as someone or buying the same electronic device or preferring the same movie; at the same time, with all these layers of differences between others and ourselves, we are further and further distanced from everyone else (Marx). That is, we never reach any true sense of self, and in further and further estranging us from one another, this process ensures the elusion of both the individual and the community (Marx).
However, Syndromes and a Century seems to manage to avoid at least some of the problems of these alienations and perhaps even suggests some countermeasures to them. The first scene encases us in a world rife with subversions of these separations. By connecting to someone in a fuller way, at least in relation to film in general, we begin to reintegrate the community. The seemingly genuine, gentle, caring interactions between the characters in this part of the film help to support this reintegration, as do the associations with nature and with Buddhism that pervade the scene and more fully buttress either end of the interview. But, what about the reflexive moves?
The reflexive move of the camera drifting away from the conversation, as well as the reflexivity of the conversation, itself, help to remind the viewer that this is only a film and that it has its own subjectivity. In some sense, this seemingly obviously undermines norms: the point of a fictional film is often to escape into another world—not to be reminded that you are watching a film. In reminding us that this is a film, Apichatpong foregrounds that conversations take place in particular contexts and that any message (including his own) is given from a particular perspective. This might encourage us to be mindful of the messages that are thrust upon us. If all art and communication are produced by particular subjectivities, then it may serve us well to keep those subjectivities in mind and to be cautious of the effects produced (in us, in others, and in societies) by these rhetorics, as opposed to allowing ourselves to be effectively inculcated by pervasive capitalistic ideology.
To be clear, Jameson makes a strong point in response to this, too. Setting aside that Jameson views reflexivity in films to be reactive to the simulacratic nature of film (as in all art), what seems more important here is that the performative aspect of foregrounding one’s subjectivity speaks to the emancipatory limitations of film or any other medium. That is, while the film might suggest reintegrations (as opposed to separations) and suggest subversions of capitalism, the film is not the same as real life. There certainly seems to be something different in expressing revolution and subversion through the body than consuming revolutionary or subversive art. As addressed earlier, the film is still a commodity being consumed under capitalism, even if it elucidates problems under capitalism and pushes against capitalism in its subversions of social norms and through its suggestions for what we might do to combat problems under capitalism, which leads us to the capitalistic second half of the film.
We will now shift our focus to a scene from the more capitalistic half of the film. In terms of the plot, the scenes that precede this scene seem unrelated. This scene starts with a wide shot of the doctor who was being interviewed in the aforementioned-scene in the beginning of the film. He wears a labcoat as he sits across from an older, business suit-wearing woman at a metallic-topped table. He looks down as he writes, and she begins speaking to him. In the background of the frame are office chairs, an uncovered electrical outlet and its wiring, along with odd (indeed, inexplicable) tubes and prosthetic legs—literally the techno-scientific, divided, commodified substitutes for parts of humans. Perhaps, that is unsubtle. They make idle chitchat and it becomes clear that they know each other from when the doctor was a child. Another elderly woman in a business suit and glasses walks into the frame, turns on additional lighting and rolls a piece of luggage behind her as she joins the table and the conversation. She appears to be friends with the other lady and they all seem to be doctors of different sorts. The first female doctor walks over toward the pile of fake legs and grabs one of them. In a kind of postmodern move (that is, an unexpected and irreverent one), she pulls a bottle of liquor from the opening in the top of the prosthetic. The male doctor from the beginning of the film smiles and asks, “Isn’t it a bit early for that?” They grab some glasses and begin to drink, as the camera slowly tracks and pans toward the male doctor and the first female doctor. Another male doctor and his young male patient join the table. The patient suffers from carbon monoxide poisoning (and mental health issues, as we will learn in the immediately subsequent scene). The first female doctor offers to look at the patient and she begins to perform chakra healing. As she performs this ritual, the camera tracks back out and pans slightly toward the other female doctor, who is staring directly into the camera, tracking it with her eyes as the camera continues its move. Apart from the female doctors (one performing a healing ritual and the other moving her eyes to follow the camera), the rest of the room (including the male doctors and the younger man) remains perfectly still. Then, the second female doctor turns her head toward the chakra healing taking place before the first female doctor finishes the ritual. The second male doctor quibbles with the first female doctor over the ritual and the young man asks to leave the room before the conversation shifts. “Are you selling Red Cross t-shirts?” the second male doctor asks of the second female doctor. She informs him that there are two styles and that the t-shirts cost 200 baht each, and the scene ends.
In the scenes of the second half of the film, the varied colors of nature are replaced by the monochromatic whites and greys and metallic colors of the industrial world, while the background sounds of wind and insects are replaced by buzzings and drones, marking a shift in the film’s opsigns and sonsigns (1985). Similarly, the male doctor goes from wearing an olive drab military uniform in the first half of the film to a labcoat in the second half, while the women’s business suits have no equivalent in the first half of the film. Put another way, signs of science and industry appear where they had not before. The appearance of the electrical infrastructure of the building and the prosthetic limbs help to foreground the emergence of technology and the separatenesses of our bodies and of the objects external to us that are meant to make us whole (if not figuratively, then at least literally). But, we are not only alienated from our most essential selves and our happiness—we are alienated from one another, as well.
Instead of the deeply personal, long, slow anecdotes that pervade much of the first half of the film, shallow, pointless chatter make up much of the dialogue in the second half of the film, just as it does in this scene. In accordance with another shift in the film, alcohol appears (from the prosthetic leg, no less). In the beginning of the film, people move slowly, intentionally, and with a sense of authenticity, whereas fakeness and distractedness appear in the demeanors and bodily actions of people in the second half of the film. In the first half of the film, joy appears in some characters, whereas in the second half of the film, there is no authentic joy. Instead, listlessness and depression are unique characteristics that appear in the second half of the film. Inauthenticity appears when people make small talk and wear strange smiles, and distractedness appears when people absent-mindedly stare off into nothingness for long periods. People in the second half seem dissatisfied, helping to explain the mid-day drinking that appears in the capitalistic half of the film (perhaps, sometimes, the opiate of the masses is just the opiate [or depressant, as is appropriate] of the masses). Dissatisfaction might also help to explain the mental health issues and carbon monoxide poisoning (assuming that it might be from a suicide attempt) that crop up in the film’s second half.
The rest of the scene serves as an exemplar for the weirdness that Apichatpong associates with the capitalistic ontology of the second half of his film. In addition to foregrounding the film’s subjectivity, the reflexive move of the woman’s persistent staring into the moving camera contributes a weirdness that does not appear in just the same way in the first half of the film. The first half has its awkwardnesses, but they are not as pervasive as the second half’s weirdness is and they do not contribute discomfort to the first half of the film. Something about those awkwardnesses (their context? their natures?) feels more comfortable and more authentic to the characters. The move toward discomfort might suggest that capitalism alienates us from that which we find fulfilling and gratifying: community, self-actualization, and connection to nature. This is further understood by inspecting the role of nature and the medical industry in the two halves of the film. While the first half sees medicine take place in a context of nature and unvarnished religious reverence, its obverse appears in the chakra healing ritual’s appearance within the modern industrial hospital. Some of the alienation in the scene is distilled, if oversimplified, in the last lines of the scene, as they refer to the sale of mass produced commodities by a humanitarian organization (in this case, the Red Cross). Under capitalism, even the most “well-meaning” entities participate in a system that alienates us from that which can give us fulfillment and contentment.
As we see in this paper, Syndromes and a Century does, in fact, operate under capitalism and cannot fully avoid all of the problems that might be produced under capitalism. However, the film’s reflexive moments are not merely ironic or entertaining—they serve the purpose of foregrounding the problems that the commodification of art produces. In this way, they encourage critical awareness of film’s problems as a subversive intervention. That aside, Apichatpong’s uses of opsigns and sonsigns help to demonstrate the conflicts between Buddhism and capitalism and how Buddhistic ontologies might provide greater potential for fulfillment and contentment than might capitalistic ontologies (Deleuze 1985). By subverting classic Hollywood aesthetics, forms, contents, styles, symbolisms, affects, and effects, Apichatpong creates a work of art that takes direct aim at many of the problems that capitalism produces, even if Jameson is right to be skeptical of any film’s potential to initiate the overthrow capitalism. While falling short of such a lofty goal as revolution, Syndromes and a Century seems potent in its ability to cause us to rethink the syndromes produced by capitalism over Thailand’s past century.
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