Using the disaster film as an index to analyse disasterful concepts in contemporary moving image works I want to consider Memoria (2021), the newest film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul through the lens of Non-hyperbolic disaster. As a young filmmaker growing up in rural Thailand, Weerasethakul liked to watch disaster films.11 His latest film Memoria12 follows a Scottish expat living in Colombia. Jessica, played by Tilda Swinton, is an uprooted character planted in a place that she appears to move through as an alien. She does not appear to “have” anything, her job is ambiguous, the only reference to it is a scene in which she is shopping for industrial refrigerators for orchids, to slow/ freeze/ preserve time, and even her memories seem to belong to another body – The film begins with Jessica waking to a noise, but not just any noise, a rumble from the earth. The story follows Jessica’s investigation into the noise, as she questions whether or not she is the only one to experience it. Jessica begins by seeking out a sound engineer who was recommended by a friend, to try and re-enact the noise. Sitting in the recording studio it becomes apparent that the sound was not made by a human, and it can not be recreated. The film continues with a series of slow and static long shots. The search for the source of the sound moves beyond the metropolis of Medellin to the countryside where Jessica meets a ranchero, Hernan. While he scales fish, they begin to converse, Hernan claims that he remembers everything, alluding to times before his own birth.
She watches Hernan sleep with his eyes open by a running stream, and he sleeps so still that he might be dead. These shots in Memoria are so slow that they become an environment, in the sense that the environment is more alive with motion than the people that traverse them. Traditionally in disaster films and adjacent genres like science fiction, the location and landscape, such as the rarely-still metropolis, become scenery for the event, the action, the spectacle and the human experience. Weerasethakul transgresses this trope by “letting the camera roll for irregularly framed long takes that revivify Antonioni’s ‘dead time’, [and] creating leaky and unstable sound spaces.”13
The long shot allows our eye to wander. While we are fixated on Hernan’s dead sleep we also become acutely aware of how un-still everything around him is, his stillness draws attention to the wind through the grass, the rush of the stream, a fly buzzing around. Entering Hernans home Jessica begins to remember the space, as if she had been there before, as if she has tapped into Hernan’s boundless memories.
Memoria (2021) Official Trailer
I would argue that Memoria can be categorised as a disaster film, as the residues of disaster are present in Jessica's interactions with the environment, with humans, and with the earthly sound that moves her. Jessica exists almost ambiently, like the sound she follows, which perhaps is the only thing to which she truly belongs. The environment around Jessica is as much a story to be excavated as the excavation site at which the sound source is revealed. The film challenges the continuity of time and conventions of memory. Each character brings their own perspective, biases, and conventions, which contribute to the multiplicity of meanings and interpretation surrounding the events. Ultimately the encounter with the inexplicable sound acts as a disaster event, disrupting Jessica’s understanding of reality. Derrida describes the Event as an encounter with the unknown, it can never be fully captured, fixed, represented or defined. The sound Jessica hears us an event that completely alters her perception of space and time, but evades all representation.