Intolerable Silence or Uncanny Attention? Memoria and the Nature of Existence
A few hours before my wife and I went to see Memoria, she spoke to me of attention. She’d been reading an essay on the topic from L.M. Sacasas’s excellent The Convivial Society newsletter on the distorted forms of attention that machines give to us and thereby shape us with. It had been a rushed day after a rushed weekend, and with a movie screening later that night, our conversation, too, was rushed and partial.
We made our way to the theater and found our seats, bracing for this unknown encounter. We knew fittingly little of the movie. We had only a glancing plot description—a Scottish woman (Tilda Swinton) living in Colombia hears a mysterious metallic noise—and an expectation that the film would be quite slow. But in the end, our anticipation did little for us. Memoria dislodged us from our rushing, rushed world from the start.
The film opened with a ten minute stretch of silence as stills from the film’s shoot were overlaid with notes and sketches by the director, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Coming full speed out of the day’s work, a concatenated dinner, and a hunt for ever-elusive parking in Capitol Hill, the forced silence hit us like a provocation. Even with my excitement to see this movie, even though I claim to enjoy silence, my first response was, You’re kidding me. I don’t want this; this sounds intolerable. Just sit here?
Just sit there.
Ten minutes of structured silence is a far longer time than ten minutes of plot and action and dialogue. It really was a provocation. It was unsettling. But it was also a needed lesson in attention.
For some stretches I closed my eyes, and gradually I felt my mind become calm. As my senses slowly attuned, I more fully encountered the room. I heard the throb of the air conditioning and little else. When the image switched, the change in brightness and hue of light moved me to open my eyes and see something new. Small coughs occasionally punctuated the quiet, accompanied by the unambiguous embarrassment of those who’d tried, and failed, to mute them.
It was a participatory silence, a strange group practice, near mystic.
And so, slowly, begrudgingly, my frustration waned, and by the end of the ten minutes, I felt present (though still unsure what I was present for). In hindsight, I needed to be disrupted from my day to be ready for this experience.
Weerasethakul’s Memoria is a shapeless film: much like the irrupting sound itself, it’s a bit “more round” than we expect. And if my descriptions are flailing, that’s partly because it’s elusive in more ways than one: Memoria isn’t available to watch at home, and it’s hardly available to watch in a theater. Instead of a wide (or even limited) release, Weerasethakul’s film is playing in one city for one week at a time, playing a minimal run before moving to the next city. It opened in New York toward the end of 2021; I heard mere rumblings of it until it popped up in Seattle in early April. Two days after sitting in that hushed theater, it was gone.
This means that even the very experience of seeing the film became like recalling a dream. I have fragments, a loose grasp of the sense of it more than the actual details of scenes. I can’t go back and confirm my ideas, nor can I tell anyone to go watch it. All I have is a slippery memory of a single weeknight that makes little sense in comparison to any other. It’s a memory that doesn’t fit, but I know it happened. At least, I’m pretty sure.
Weerasethakul has crafted a movie that’s preternaturally tough to describe, and while its plot is paper thin, its themes are cosmically grand: the price that decay wrings out of beauty; the difficulty of connection to others in our technologically mediated world; the inevitability of loss and death; the inexpressible gulfs of existence; the vague, not even hoped-for possibility of rebirth. Construction, excavation; destruction, remembrance. Memoria obliquely considers all of these things.
But at its foundation, Memoria is about feeling alien in this world where connection is ephemeral and slipping away from us—life, too. It’s about a world where the singular gift (or burden) of our existence has to be achingly communicated across barriers of language and barriers of experience itself. How do we express our fears, our thoughts, our very beings to one another, to any other? What if our anxieties aren’t understood, aren’t felt by the other? (If they aren’t felt, can they be truly understood?)
In his essay titled “The Image of Proust,” Walter Benjamin described the author as “homesick for the world distorted in the state of resemblance, a world in which the true surrealist face of existence breaks through.” It’s a remarkably apt description of Memoria, too. Between its existential weight and its uprooted sense of experience, the word that forms most solidly in my reflection is uncanny. So much of the movie is quiet and mundane, but there’s an attendant dread lurking, knowing that something inexplicable may pierce and shatter the calm at any second.
Through its careful, extended frames, the film slowly draws the audience into the practice of attention. The vast, open plains of silence bring a strange, double-edged focus: an awareness of every sound in the theater, the creaking of old seats, the constant thrumming of the air conditioning high above, the muffled coughs of other watchers fearful of trespassing on this experience; and conversely, a raptness on the screen, on every subtle movement of the frame, on Swinton’s slow stunned expressions.
But even in the treasured act of attention, there’s a sense of uncanniness. For Memoria is attuned to the fact that our attention is not an unqualified good. Memoria’s subterranean dread comes from confronting the possibility that our attention may alight on things unexpected, unwanted, and unwelcome. Sometimes we don’t want to be aware of reality. Sometimes the giving of attention becomes a disturbing act.
Fittingly, this sense is carried most predominantly in the sound design. In the first few minutes, the only sounds heard are the confounding metallic crash that Swinton’s Jessica hears and a cacophony of car alarms blaring in the silent grey dawn of Bogotá. As Memoria stretches on, clangs of construction and the whirring of machines form a spare soundscape, such that even a brief inburst of song feels transcendent.
At different times throughout the movie, my mind wandered back—and Memoria allows plenty of time for wandering—to the question of technology and attention. I felt uneasy; I felt anxiety for how the tenor of our human world has become one of engines, alarms, keyboards, and digital chimes. What do we lose of our humanity when the fabric of our lives is increasingly of a technological nature? Replace birdsong and rustling breeze with hydraulic hums and engines revving. Drown out the silent spaces with incessant beeps and buzzing alerts. Insert our ear buds so that we can fend off noise with different noise. It all coalesces to dull the senses to our more lasting, primeval reality. The power of Memoria is its very uncanniness—it throws us back into our world.
It’s no surprise that silence unsettles us or that the uninterrupted attention begins to feel disturbing. We have made this world into something else by texturing it with an omnipresent digital sheen, and now that world is reshaping us. Memoria, more than nearly any other movie I’ve seen, made me feel alien in this world, as though I was being confronted with that surrealist face of existence.
But it’s not just technology—that alien feeling creeps lower into the foundation of existence itself. Even though I share the texture of this world with everyone around me, communicating my experience never ceases to be a terrible endeavor. I struggle to find the right words. I thank God for the slow, distilling act of writing, but even then. And if I do manage to express myself, there’s no guarantee that the person I’m talking to will understand what I mean. If they then understand my words, there’s no assurance that they will relate to me in a way that connects our experiences.
How can I truly share my experiences with others—not only the events I encounter, but also my interior response to them? (Reader, I can only stutteringly describe this movie to you.) As we move further into those feelings and experiences we guard most closely, the question becomes a maw of an abyss. How do I help my wife understand my reluctance toward conflict when it flows from inarticulate childhood fears and family dynamics? And as with fears, so with hopes: I’m an engineer who envisions life as a film critic—a dream to which a typical response is polite, if visible, confusion.
When we pay it enough attention, this world makes us feel uncanny. Our existence feels more isolated than we like to acknowledge. Our lives are suffused with specificity, but that can also make us feel disconnected, limited. Alien.
The strange, inexplicable dream that is Memoria manifests that sensation, planting Jessica’s soft paranoia within its audience. When shaken from our technological daze, we are thrown back into the world of our existence. While Memoria isn’t prescriptive about how we move forward, it does present some encounters worth considering.
To me, the crucial moment is delivered by a Colombian doctor. Jessica once more tries to describe the experience of this haunting sound, and she reveals that it has driven her to insomnia. She asks for a Xanax prescription to help her sleep, but the doctor denies her request, claiming that taking drugs may seem like a solution, but that they “will make [her] lose empathy.”
The doctor is more right than she knows (even as she’s very wrong about other things). Faced with the inexpressible dread of this sound, Jessica wishes to numb herself. Faced with our incommunicable existence, we do much the same. Sometimes this takes the form of medication, but just as often it comes through the distractions of the internet. Or we close our world within the limits of our career, focusing our attention on the steady accumulation of success, ignoring the pains around and within us. But as we grow numb, we lose our empathy toward others.
It’s terrifying, but confronting our dread is a vital step to living fully. When we find ourselves facing the abyss of existence, it’s easy to turn away and withdraw, but we can also look around and see everyone else standing on that edge alongside us. As we recognize the sheer difficulty of being understood, we can respond with a deeper compassion for others, a stronger desire to seek to understand.
But even here, empathy isn’t the final step. Realizing we’re on the edge of an abyss doesn’t remove the abyss. The question of how to bridge these gaps remains uncertain. And once more, Memoria refuses to comfort us. We are left with the question, and we are left to our individual selves to try and find an answer.
Here, at the edge of existence and understanding, there is new wonder in the incarnation of Christ. Beyond the shock of the infinite manifest in the physical, there’s another shock: the exaltation of the specific. As James K.A. Smith writes in The Nicene Option, it is through the incarnation that “otherness is revealed.” Located in the singular person of Christ, the incarnation manifests a particular gift of “real presence” that unfolds the possibility that we can be present with all others.
In that incarnation there is a radical uplifting of the singular experience. Jesus is an expression—a revelation—of the divine within the limited frame of the human. None could be so other to us as God; yet now, none could be so near.
In our existence, we find ourselves frighteningly disconnected, uprooted from those around us. But the incarnation is an event which grounds us again, rooting our particularity in that which is beyond us—not only in God, but in our very world and the people we share it with. As Smith quotes from Emmanuel Lévinas’ Otherwise than Being: “‘Thanks be to God,’ I am an other for the others.”
Somehow there is limitless grace captured within the finite. There is a presence that brings mercy into the spaces that understanding can’t cross. And in that presence, we are called to be an other for others: to seek understanding, to care for others in their desires and fears and experiences, to act with compassion and grace and mercy, to give shape to the world beyond our machines, and to reach across the uncanny and grasp the humanity of that other, to give them our fullest attention, our selves.
Memoria uprooted me from my distraction by throwing me back into the uncanny world. The incarnation roots me in that world once more.