The sound of cicadas can have a tranquilizing effect, the ebb and flow of their sharp high-pitched sounds can sometimes lull the listener into oblivion. According to Socrates, in his dialogue with Phaedrus, cicadas went through a quit interesting reincarnation (in this excerpt they are translated as grasshoppers):

A lover of music like yourself ought surely to have heard the story of the grasshoppers, who are said to have been human beings in an age before the Muses. And when the Muses came and song appeared they were ravished with delight; and singing always, never thought of eating and drinking, until at last in their forgetfulness they died. And now they live again in the grasshoppers; and this is the return which the Muses make to them – they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking; and when they die they go and inform the Muses in heaven who honours them on earth.

The migration of souls and the sound of grasshoppers and cicadas also plays an important role in the films of Apichatpong Weerasthakul. His latest film “Uncle Bonmee who can recall his past lives” won last years Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival. In the film Bonmee travels to the countryside to spend the last days of his life with his family. In the  farmhouse close to the jungle ghosts appear: first his former wife Huay and later his dead son in form of an ape-like red-eyed monster. At the end of the film Uncle Bonmee visits the cave in which he was supposedly born in one of his former lifes. Like the old Greek myth of the transformed cicadas, the film deals with recollection and dying, but it is not only the story of Uncle Bonmee, Thailand as well is in a rapid process of transformation and, as Weerasthakul stated, Cinema itself.

The first time I saw the film I fell asleep from the soft-spoken Thai dialogue and the constant drone of cicadas in the background (check this interview with Sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanmitr about his work on the soundtrack for Uncle Bonmee). This already happened to me during the second half of “Tropical Malady”, an earlier film of Weerasthakul, situated in a rain forest with the constant chirping of insects. I was convinced I was hearing sounds of strange insects I knew from a CD release called “Broken Hearted Dragonflies” by Tucker Martine. Here is an excerpt:



These recordings are supposedly not processed (I remember David Toop doubting this in his review in The Wire) and are associated with so-called broken-hearted dragonflies, as the producer Alan Bishop explains in the liner notes: “When the male is finishing mating, they make this crazy sound and their chests explode and they drop dead to the ground. The Burmese say that the dragonflies are so heart-broken for their mate, that they explode their chests and die from the crying sound they make.” Ironically the second part of the liner notes is implemented by anarchist thinker Hakim Bey (“temporary autonomous zones”) who, in a twisted philosophical way, puts Beethoven and the dragonfly into the same artistic catagory and ends musing: “The earth is a living being. We’re all talking in her sleep. Or making music.”

The Burmese folk tale might sound poetic but it seems it has lulled the minds of these writers. Think of it: the dragonfly has no apparatus to produce any kind of stridulation sounds like grashoppers and cicadas, the only sounds dragonflies emit are their buzzing wing flaps {UPDATE: cicadas actually don’t use sound-producing stridulation but fast tympal movements causing fast clicks, see Jonathan Benhams comment below}. So what we hear on the CD are in fact cicadas. Where do these strange alien-like sounds come from? My guess from what I have experienced being very close to singing cicadas is that they can get, first, very loud and, second, have two wings to stridulate and to produce simultanous tones, which means that these sounds are what we know as combination tones. Sum or difference tones can impose a third (mostly deeper) tone in the listeners ear when the frequencies of two tones are quiet close to each other. The strange sounds in the recording represent the difference in frequencies between the two wings of the cicada, that is also the reason for the modulation of the tone. I also suspect that those particular cicadas of Burma and North-Thailand produce a certain amount of ultrasounds of which we are only able to perceive the deeper combination tone, in a sense some kind of natural aliasing effect.

But maybe my mundane response to the “broken-hearted” cicadas is only too scientific, maybe I should integrate the culturally loaded perception the people in that region have of those insects. In Weerasthakul’s films, tigers, cows and apes carry the double meaning of also being a migrating soul captured in their body only for this soon ending life. In “Tropical Malady” there is a fire fly passing by the main character which appears to speak like a radio voice:

So is my Western view of those insects the same as the one of Jean-Henri Fabre, who dissected and catagorized animals and put them into a scientific context? There is a legendary conversation between cinéma vérité pioneer  Jean Rouch and African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène in 1965, in which this question also resonates in a certain way. Jean Rouch is famous for his visual anthropology, the documentary style of observing tribal african life in a scientific manner, while Ousmane Sembènes persepective here is the one of Third Cinema, a cinematic movement that tried to disinguish itself from the commercial and escapist Hollywood  film industry as well as the European Second Cinema of the auteur. The passage in this conversation about in which way Africa should be represented goes like this:

Jean Rouch: I would like you to tell me why you don’t like my purely ethnographic films, those in which we show, for instance, traditional life?

Ousmane Sembène: Because you show, you fix a reality without seeing the evolution. What I hold against you and the Africanists is that you look at us as if we were insects.

Jean Rouch: As Fabre would have done. I will defend the Africanists. They are men that can certainly be accused of looking at black men as if they were insects. But there might be Fabres out there who, when examining ants, discover a similar culture, one that is as meaningful as their own.

Ousmane Sembène: Ethnographic films have often done us a disservice.

(alternative translation here)

Could we think of Weerasthakul as a valid successor of Sembènes confident Third Cinema representing a contemporary way of observing local conflicts and social disruptions? Not everybody is convinced about that. In an article a couple of years ago in the German newspaper TAZ, Simon Rothöhler critized the funding system of western film festivals and film funds that have somehow contributed to a world cinema that is shaped by the taste of the artsy-fartsy film avantgarde of the West and has led to the dissappearance of the Third Cinema movement. Thomas Elsaesser compared the international film festival scene as a network of directors, producers, film fund managers and critics that moves from festival to festival like a swarm and builds a power center comparable and antagonistic to the Hollywood system which is able to virtually commission film projects around the world. The results are too often films that exactly reflect the taste of the western film avantgarde but are not able to survive outside of the festival system. Apichatpong Weerasthakul as the momentary darling of the western film auteur scene represents this system in a perfect way, as Rothöhler counts the enlisted film companies from France, UK, Holland and Germany involved in financing Weerasthakul’s former film “Tropical Malady” (the same is true for “Uncle Bonmee…”).

Elsaesser’s comparison of the international film festival scene with swarms of birds or fish reminded me of Jussi Parikka’s book “Insect Media” which I have browsed through recently. For him insects are themself a form of medium (something Socrates already informed us about, remember: they were reporting to the muses), but they are also a metaphor for describing human behaviour, social interaction and technological developments. Are we acting like being insects, or are we already an insect-like phenomenon? I don’t know but thinking like this can lead us to the notion of Weerasthakul’s films being only a chirp in the constant stridulation buzz produced by the arthouse film scene, nevertheless a pretty loud chirp, I suppose. “Uncle Bonmee” might give the art critics everything they are looking for but I think it is also a genuine artistic achievement, if you can handle the slow pace of the film and the lack of drama. I would doubt, though, that it is a political statement in the sense of the long gone Third Cinema movement, for that the esoteric contemplations about ghosts and the formalistic approach are too far removed from a direct address to the audience. As I said, I fell asleep and had to watch the movie a second time, the insects were just too tranquilizing.