Despite winning *only* the jury prize at Cannes, Memoria was the critical hit of the festival. Directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the movie takes place in Colombia and stars Tilda Swinton as a woman who is woken up in the middle of the night by a loud, mysterious thud. Throughout the movie she tries to discover the nature of this unidentifiable noise, often failing to put into words – not least because her mastery of Spanish is limited – the one the thing that she can’t get out of her head. It is one of the most transportive experiences I’ve had in a movie theater, which is even more appreciated after a year of being stuck watching movies in my apartment. While Memoria is the kind of art house movie where the experience of watching it is more important than any plot details, I wouldn’t want to spoil some of the surprises that await in the film’s latter half. For the purposes of this essay I will only say that late into the movie, we are presented with the possibility that the answers that the main character has been seeking could come from both the past and the future simultaneously.
I thought of this contradiction while watching Plan 9 from Outer Space last night. Both the movies and the experience of watching them couldn’t have been more different. I saw Memoria at the New York Film Festival’s Alice Tully Hall – which may very well be the biggest non-IMAX screen in New York. Both Apichatpong and Swinton were in attendance, and answered questions for a raptured audience after the screening. In comparison, I watched Plan 9 in the comfort of my bed, in a standard definition transfer, for free, on Tubi, where its 70 minute run time was sporadically interrupted by commercial breaks. Still, I thought of Memoria almost as soon as the movie started, when the Amazing Criswell (a celebrity psychic of the fifties) addresses the audience and gives a convoluted, borderline nonsensical monologue that makes it impossible to decipher if what we’re about to see is a re-enactment of events that took place in the past, or a prediction of events that will take place in the future. And so, I found myself watching a movie by one of the most ridiculed filmmakers of the 20th century, and thinking of it as a distant relative to a movie by one of the most revered filmmakers of the 21st.
For those unfamiliar, Plan 9 from Outer Space was directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. – also known as Ed Wood and immortalized in the Tim Burton movie of the same name. Wood is most famous for having been canonized as the worst filmmaker of all time and Plan 9 – which was also canonized as the worst film of all time- is his “masterpiece.” The movie’s plot, as far as there is one, centers around an alien invasion of earth that seeks to destroy humanity by re-animating corpses (the film’s original title was Grave Robbers from Outer Space.) Most of the movie takes place in a cheap cemetery set where the tombstones are made of thin cardboard, but it occasionally cuts to scenes of plastic alien saucers showing their strings as they fly over Los Angeles, or to stock footage of the late Bella Lugosi walking around and looking sad. Anyone who watches the movie will find the craftsmanship to be nakedly amateurish. There is no continuity of space, time, or action in any of the scenes. The sheer ineptitude of the filmmaking made the movie a “so bad it’s good classic,” but there are some, like me, who find a strange, hypnotic beauty in it.
One such person is film critic Will Sloan, who in a recent episode of this podcast Michael & Us, describes the movie as embodying a distorted dream version of Hollywood. Ed Wood, a bottom-feeder who could barely scrape a budget together to make movies so inept even B-level producers looked down upon them, directs a cast made of has-beens and wannabes who, like him, are both adjacent and far remove from Hollywood glamour. The cheapness, ineptitude, and strangeness gives the movie a “boulevard of broken dreams” aesthetic that provides the best embodiment of Hollywood’s dark subconscious this side of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. In that same podcast, Sloan praises Wood and his movie for upending certain expectations. A fifties B-movie about an alien invasion could be a simple heroes and villains proposition, but Wood complicates the alien villains by revealing they have come to Earth in order to prevent humanity from inventing a bomb that will detonate the sun itself and destroy the entire universe (the details of how such a bomb could work are laid out incomprehensibly in one of the films most delightful sequences). Tellingly, when confronted by this fact, the rugged army pilot who’s been serving as the hero of the story cannot see how this wouldn’t make America an even more powerful Nation, then punches the alien leader for calling him stupid. Throughout the movie, the everyday Americans encounter a number of unprecedented manifestations. Flying saucers, yes, but also light beams made up of a force that is neither hot nor cold, and a type of metal that makes a sound unlike anything they’ve ever heard. Instead of being curious about these otherworldly novelties, they can only think of them as threatening their own American superiority. In a way, they’re not so distant from the people who watch Plan 9 and cannot see past the clumsy cardboard sets and shoddy editing.
The canonization of Plan 9 and Ed Wood started with a 1980 book titled The Golden Turkey Awards. It was written by the Medved brothers, who in the late 70s and early 80s, made a career for themselves by talking about and ridiculing what they thought were the worst movies ever made. Their books are, by all accounts, pretty terrible. Their understanding of what makes a good or bad movie is, as Will Sloan wrote in an essay, “stubbornly middlebrow and middle-class.” In their list of the worst movies ever made, you are as likely to find cheap ineptitudes like Plan 9 as you are revered masterpieces like Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad or Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. It is not hard to imagine a Medved book in which Memoria, as obtuse an arthouse film as they get, is included. This makes me think that my connection between the two movies isn’t as far-fetched as I initially thought. What is so frustrating about people like the Mevdeds (like those who run the Razzie awards or many who host “bad movie” podcasts) is that they reject anything that feels different, new, or weird. Plan 9 might have been canonized by people who wanted only to make fun of it, but it only got to that place after being discovered by young kids who caught it on late night television and didn’t know quite what to make of its bizarre otherworldliness. People who didn’t feel their own superiority threatened when they encountered a movie that looked and sounded like no other.
Memoria, like Plan 9, is surprising and ridiculous, often at the same time. This is one of the qualities I love most about Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a director. While his movies deal with life, and death, and the mysteries of the world in meditative, often profound, fashion, they are also pretty funny. His masterpiece Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives features both a hairy big-foot type creature and a princess who has sex with a fish, and that doesn’t stop it from being a transcendent meditation on Thailand’s violent past. Similarly, Memoria is imbued with the dark history of South America and bizarre jokes in equal measure. One of the film’s best scenes, in which the protagonist struggles to describe the exact nature of the sound she keeps hearing, is a not-so-distant relative of the scenes in Plan 9 where the foolish protagonists try to describe their encounter with alien force, or the aforementioned ridiculous description of how this mythical solar bomb works. Apichatpong seems to understand that profundity and absurdity are basically the same thing. With this in mind, I leave you with Plan 9‘s opening narration, delivered by the Amazing Criswell, and the first indication that what I was about to watch would be something special…
Greetings, my friends! We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friends; future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable; that is why you are here. And now for the first time we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that faithful day. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places, my friends, we can not keep this a secret any longer; let us punish the guilty, let us reward the innocent. My friends, can your heart stand the shocking facts about the grave robbers from outer space?