This week at Portland State’s 5th Avenue Cinema—Portland’s only student-run theater—our film curators have chosen to screen an experimental documentary by Apichatpong Weerasethakul titled Mysterious Object at Noon.
The 83-minute film was released in Thailand cinemas back in 2000. Due to the lack of experience Thai theaters had with experimental films like this, the film received very little attention from the public. When Weerasethakul started bringing the documentary elsewhere to international film festivals, film critics began giving it the positive attention it deserved.
Mysterious Object at Noon’s film crew traveled across Thailand talking to the locals and filming in 16mm. The crew went into this documentary film without a script. They first asked someone to tell a story, then they would go to another unrelated person and ask them to continue where the last person left off, without telling them any of the story’s details except its ending. The final film shows these made-up stories interpreted on the screen.
This documentary was chosen for screening by 5th Avenue Cinema’s projectionist Cadie Godula. She pointed out that this is the third film they are showing in a row that is experimental. Both of the other experimental films—Decasia and In the Mirror of Maya Deren—were also chosen by Godula.
“[Mysterious Object at Noon] is a documentary in some regards, but it’s also this weird pseudo-narrative as well,” Godula said. “This director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this is his first feature—he did some shorts before, but this is the first feature-length—and he does a lot of experimental stuff, to say the least.”
Godula mentioned that his most recent film, Memoria, another experimental film that came out less than a year ago, earned great reviews and ratings. “It’s just a lot of slower films that kind of have a very strangely constructed narrative,” she said. “To an extent, I would call them all experimental—some more than others, but at the heart of it, a lot of them are pretty experimental in more construction, form and technique than visuals.”
“I would say this is the director’s most experimental film, from form alone—I mean, the content is innately experimental because the form is completely improvised,” Godula said. “They didn’t have a script going into this, so it’s very like ‘run and gun,’ and in that way, there’s no way it can’t be experimental.”
Godula explained that the making of Mysterious Object at Noon spanned three years in the late ‘90s, using the story-gathering game to create a story in an improvised and surrealist way. “It’s either a drawing game or a writing game, and somebody starts with one thing, and the next person doesn’t see that first thing, it’s covered, and they draw or write something else that’s kind of connected to it, continuing on without knowing what happened before,” Godula said.
“In the time of the surrealist, in the ‘20s or whatever, they did this as a game to build trust with another person and create something that everyone is a part of, but no one really knows what it is,” Godula said. “It’s kinda a strange esoteric situation—it’s fun!” The film follows that concept but has non-actors participating while being filmed.
She further explained how the film isn’t just a person standing there telling a story. “They have some people reenacting the story, so that’s what you see,” she said. “Instead of people talking, you see sort of what’s happening.”
Godula said she had not seen a movie like this despite being a frequent movie viewer. “It’s constructed in a unique way, and I think it’s a very cool way to experiment with storytelling in a way that’s not coherent but still a narrative,” she said.
There are very few movies that can compare to this one, but Godula said it resembles slow cinema. “You can compare this one to a lot of other meandering films where there’s really no plot, but the story kinda stretches out a lot,” Godula said, going on to compare it to the films of Jim Jarmusch. “It’s like Stranger than Paradise, maybe, but if Stranger than Paradise was structured as a weird, surreal game. It’s hard to think of a similar movie because this is a very unique film.”
A film such as Mysterious Object at Noon caters to amateurs in film—those who appreciate the art of film. “Filmmakers would appreciate this film a whole lot because it really has that spirit of ‘we have one camera and like two other people, and we’re just not going to have a script and just film and figure it out when we edit later,’” Godula said. “Because really, this film came together later when it was edited.”
Godula sees many people who are into film but prefer films to stay in the classical narrative form. “People kind of get stuck if you’re a filmmaker—even as a film viewer—you get stuck in this narrative tunnel—where narrative starts like this, you have the rising action, the dip, the up, the happy ending, the sad ending, whatever—but then people, I think, get scared when it doesn’t follow that format and decide they don’t like it,” she said. “That’s fine because most films being made right now are very narrative-focused, and all follow a direct path from point A to point B—it’s the regular construction of a film.”
“With all that being said, it’s cool to see films that stray away from that completely but still make sense to some degree,” Godula said. “Even if it’s not a coherent narrative but still makes sense as a piece of work, I think it’s important to watch films like this, or else you’re going to be stuck in that tunnel forever, but there are so many things outside of that tunnel!”
If you’ve been to 5th Avenue Cinema these last couple of weeks, you may have seen a new trailer showing all of the films featured during the term. Usually, you can expect a silent slide show of the term’s films before a screening, but thanks to Godula’s creation, you can see a more dynamic visual preview of the movies offered by the theater.
“When I started working at Hollywood Theatre—because I work there part-time—I was always very impressed with the trailers they have before their screenings,” Godula said. “They have like a monthly little trailer that’s just clips of whatever movies they’re showing, and I thought it was really cool, so I decided I wanted to do something similar.” The new trailer lets audiences see what else they can expect from 5th Avenue and gets them excited about future showings. “I’m proud of it,” Godula said. “In terms of the past, we just had a slide show going in silence, so it’s nice—we’re moving on up—we’ve got an actual trailer to play before movies.”
On Mysterious Object at Noon, Godula concluded by saying, “Films like this can really help you to think in a different way, not even just when you’re viewing media.” She said that you usually are guessing what will happen next in a movie and getting that satisfaction of seeing it unfold the way you expect, but movies like this one don’t want you to do that. “This is just a very genuine experimental film in my eyes,” she said. “I think it’s very important as a person to get your brain on a different path every once in a while.”
You can catch a showing of Mysterious Object at Noon this weekend only at 5th Avenue Cinema. Showings are Friday–Saturday at 7 p.m and 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.