Illustration by Jam Moreno.

Unmaking meaning: Memoria, the art of not getting it and why that’s okay

Why Memoria is so good, even while, or precisely because, it refuses to make — what we insipidly value as — sense.

Feb 7, 2022

I will not attempt to provide a reconstructive (re)view for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria (2021). I think you should see it, hear it if you can. My point is less to sketch its narrative, which is sparse to begin with and rather to consider the kinds of questions films like Memoria evoke. What sensuous mysteries does Weerasethakul sound and how do they matter?
Three works deep into Weerasethakul’s fantastical oeuvre, I was not surprised by how confused he left me. His works have a tendency to go off, wandering in lush foliage, with ailing characters waxing poetic. We burn slow, simmer to a moment of quiet tearfulness, then, gently, lilt into the credits. To riff on one outmoded critic, it is a cinema more interested in the whimpers, even [amidst the bangs] (
Some things happen, some people are moved. A story unfurls without the definite and definitive purposes. There are a series of landscapes, a frail thread of sociality and a heaviness — that intergenerational sinking feeling of no easy escape from this garden of earthly delights. But maybe, Weerasethakul asks, if we can learn to live a wider conception of what a world might be, and which of those worlds we have access to.
Where does that leave us? Slightly better attuned to the green, mildly off-kilter, with a little hum in our heads. There is a call, I think, towards our slow ecologies, beautiful and in pain — natural-anthropic, supernatural-mundane, excavatory-exoplanetary.
On the skin of the film, Weerasethakul is keen to preserve an inscrutable human capacity to feel things, thingliness, a capacity to dream, migrate and inhabit one another, in synchrony. This is nothing if not empathy, and Memoria considers the edges, or edgelessnesses, of our mutual understandings.
Presented, from the start, as an aural tale, the viewing experience is steeped in questions of how one hears, risks being rendered unsound and participates in sonic subjectivation. Weerasethakul traces a character gone, going, astray, as well as her tremors and anxieties.
We are thinking with an air of sickness and the modalities of healing, ridden by layers of class, gender and language, as well as the ever present attempts to pathologize and damn. Coterminously, Memoria is buoyed by the currents of memory. People reminisce imprecisely and half-forget, misremember and fail to recollect. Some histories can slip between bodies — do they? Can they? Should they?
Like so many of our visionaries (and auditories?), Weerasethakul’s thematic explorations are not married to linear emplotment, the grand arcs of character, or clean Marvel-ous catharsis. What he gives, what he holds out, is a fistful of fertile earth and the germ of an idea. What does it mean to wake up in the middle of a night to a bang no one else hears? What does it mean for a camera to lose a protagonist in a crowd, a man she knows to not exist, a refrigerator made in Holland to “stop” time, or, for that matter, a dog you promised to save to be abandoned?
I don’t know. And I revel in that zone of half sense. So much of Memoria confounds when you attempt to logicalize what will, most immediately, activate the bodily and the subconscious — a chain of swampy significations in an alley to the left of our critical faculties. This fact, and fiction, is part of what makes it so resonant.
To me, Weerasethakul has always been one of the great artists of superimposition. His most wonderful scenes take us to other spacetimes, extra-diegetically, while staying rooted, visually, in already familiar places. I am not trying to be difficult. This is the art of the cinematic overlay, a style that plasticizes the mind. It elicits a kind of double sense, one there and one not, adding startling poignance to a scene we can only half see. It forces us to dig deep and stay engaged in a co-created, unstable nexus of meanings.
But the superimposition also imposes, asking an audience to work for meaning. Against the feel-good commerce that reduces so much of what gets published on our platforms to formulaic, untaxing entertainment, Memoria poses open-ended questions. It belongs to a set of cinema that proposes a problem, gets you curious, prompts you to come up with possible solutions but refuses to validate the answers you concoct.
You go on to live your life, wondering what it all meant, all it could and might mean, pondering, chronically, questions that only art can get at, questions that cannot and must not be resolved, questions that Disney believes you should wrap up, neatly, in two hours of clinically mapped out sentimentality.
I believe there is great value to the slow, obscure, frustrating and disjointed. Incomplete without guilt or shame, this is the movement towards self-understanding, an “earthiness” towards care, of Weerasethakul’s cohabitation and empathy.
To conclude, while I am making an argument towards the generativity of confusion, I recognize how this stance cannot forget material facts. The world is structured to hinder flights of fancy. Most people do not have the luxury to sit with things. Race, class, caste, disability — wealth and property — the works of our united nations of inequity limits large swathes of people from enjoying the positionality of an inward contemplative, that is: someone who thinks deeply, for pleasure. And yet, people do. Every day. And though Memoria will not be for everyone, I think there is something meaningful to be found in its deceptive, inceptive folds.
Especially for us here, at NYU Abu Dhabi, where some semblance of a shared footing gets gestured toward an ethic of generative confusion that is worth exploring. The risk, the generosity, the act of galvanizing unknowing into contemplation, into knowledge partial and improvised is one of the tasks of a good education. Or, at least, it should be by my measure. So watch Memoria, see art that helps you lose your bearing. (Dis)trust the maker, (dis)trust yourself, then sink into reveries that make little sense.
Karno Dasgupta is a Columnist. Email him at
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