Thursday, December 23, 2010

Existential Nothingness: The Sound of Insects

A well fed corpse decays quickly. Ironically, when an anonymous suicide sets out to slowly starve himself into nothingness, his lean, dehydrated body is nicely preserved through natural mummification. It is an unfathomable way to go, agonizingly conveyed in Swiss director Peter Liechti’s cinematic essay, The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy (trailer here), which had its American theatrical premiere last night in New York at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Whoever the nameless starvation artist was, he was not missed. Though based on a Japanese novel by Shimada Masahiko, which in turn was based on real life incident, Sound is not a dramatic adaptation, per se. Rather it is an impressionistic representation of person X’s final sixty-two days, through evocative natural imagery and voice-over narration of his deathwatch diary (which comes in both English and German variations). Even in that final testament, he offers no clues to his identity or back-story, but graphically details his extreme physical deterioration.

Clearly, Sound is not a film for mass audiences, but it fits nicely with the Rubin’s current programming focus on Buddhist concepts of an all encompassing totality often translated as nothingness. Its Japanese lineage should also appeal to patrons of the Tibetan art museum, even though Liechti shifts the setting to Austria (a move that makes no practical difference, aside from some faceless crowd scenes). X also makes the occasional reference to the Buddha, but is more preoccupied with western death motifs, such as the River Styx, at least according to Masahiko’s text, as adapted by Liechti.

Though grim, there is a certain existential poetry to X’s journal for about the first fifty days or so. Unfortunately, the final two weeks become something of a forced march, with X’s writings primarily restating the “why is this taking so agonizingly long” theme. Aside from the inelegant looking digital opening, Liechti creates some striking collages, mixing POV scenes from the site of the deed, with murky archival film footage, much in the style of experimental filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. Indeed, had the overlong Sound’s running time been roughly equivalent to that of Rosenblatt’s long shorts, it would have better maintained its macabre lyricism.

While Sound is not a documentary, it has won European documentary awards. Essentially, it is experimental filmmaking with literary credentials. To say it is not for all tastes would be a crushing understatement. Indeed, Liechti’s integrity of vision engenders great respect, but also taxes the patience. Still, it is an interesting example of the Rubin’s ambitious programming, which includes first-run film screenings like Sound and Journey from Zanskar, Frederick Marx’s excellent documentary about the efforts of the indomitable Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Lobsang Yonten to bring a small group of geographically isolated children to the nearest Tibetan school. The endearing spirit and fundamental goodness of the Zanskar students really stays with you after viewing the film, so to support the Geshe’s efforts go here. Sound continues its debut engagement at the Rubin with nine further screenings on December 26th, 29th, January 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 9th.