On Soundtrack: Laos, Weerapong Wimuktalop, Beat Happening



Tomorrow evening I will ride a train to the Northeastern edge of Thailand where I will cross over into Laos the following morning. While I’m thinking about what sort of music I’ll listen to on the way there, to “score” the landscape from the window, I’m thinking of an article posted today by my friend/office mate Alvin Lim, on how contemporary film soundtracks inspired by IPOD playlists mask the aural reality of the landscape—a point once made by Theodor Adorno. This relationship between a train ride without a musical soundtrack or film score, is central to Weeraphong Wimuktalop’s short film “Colours On the Streets” (2009) that made the final round in this past year’s Thai Short Film Festival. As a cinematic contrast, the video for Beat Happening’s “Tiger Trap” makes me think about how soundtracks restore something to an otherwise “masked” and deceptive landscape.

First, the article I’m referring to is called The Politics of Soundtrack by Nina Power, published in Mute magazine. Basically, she states that there are a variety of directors/sound designer collaborations in the past few decades who have put depth into the interplay between soundtrack and world (non-diegetic and diegetic convergence). For example, David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti or so and so plus Vangelis, Phillip Glass or Ennio Morricone. Today 3-D technologies signal a return of visual dominance over the overall sound design, which means that sound is merely thrown together according to the studio and economic demands of creating a fantasy world. This is the IPOD world she’s referring to.

But what if the sounds were more real, carefully considering the relationship between sound and image by passively placing a camera at one point and recording the on-location noise? Weeraphong Wimuktalop’s “Colours On the Streets” (2009) is an hour long succession of image juxtapositions, ranging between interior and exterior shots, rural and urban landscapes, and a variety of shots orchestrated through modes of transportation. celinejulie’s blog has great background on this project. The three most common shots are comprised of tracking longshots from a moving train, the camera eye of a walking pedestrian, and a stationary camera placed inside rooms and hallways of abandoned urban buildings. In terms of landscape, the film contrasts the horizontal nature of viewing from the provincial train ride with the rising vertical infrastructure that impedes horizontal viewing as the passenger arrives in the city. The shots, as a whole, comprise the transition from idealistic rural landscape to the vertical purgatory of urban Bangkok. We here the noise of the train, echoes inside rectangular and hollowed-out buildings, instead of non-diegetic sounds edited in later.

Finally I arrive here, at the Beat Happening video for Tiger Trap, as available from YouTube. The video demonstrates the ways in which sound and image combine in the same sense that travel and time converge. So for example, the entire video is a passive camera tracking the landscape from the window of a train with lyrics like “What’s forbidden, is a treasure hidden, I got a clue, on the trail of finding all about you.” The track of movement toward truth is exactly what Weeraphong’s film finds in the city, a type of alienation that reaches its destination in the emptiness of abandoned buildings. It is a collective experience, where as the soundtrack of Tiger Trap, that uses shots quite similar to Weeraphong’s film, is about unmasking a subjective myth based on the fantasy of a hidden treasure. But this is the reality of travel, that most contemporary train-based excursions are moving toward some promised land—so well expressed in a short story called “Sacred Smoke” by Anusorn Tipayanon. In that story, a young Brit obsessed with the backpacker world projected in Leonardo DeCaprio’s The Beach (1999), makes his way to “off the beaten path” weed haven of Vang Vieng, Laos. Like that character, I’m going to Laos, but for the fantasy of getting away from noise, and this is precisely the noise that music, my IPOD, will be masking. Reality is about time. Weeraphong’s reality wasn’t about a subjective experience but about what would happen (as in a laboratory) if a camera was left in a space (i.e., near a window of a moving train, or an abandoned building). How would the extended reflection on space and landscape, otherwise eliminated by the fast pace of capitalist modernity, restore our critical capacity to examine its existence? First, someone might take that camera when you are not looking, as Celine Julie cites as Weeraphong’s actual experience in making this film. And second, what appears in the present is temporary. A playlist is as close to a truth about the present as trains and rail noise are about the 19th century.

Here’s my current Playlist: “You Turn Me On”, Beat Happening (entire album)
“Fire”, Supreme Love Gods
“The Traveller”, Flock of Seagulls
“Blueprint”, Fugazi
“This Time”, INXS
“Green Mind”, Dinosaur Jr.
“Moment of Truth”, Gang Staar
“Paint Out the Light”, Jawbox
“You Can Have it All”, Yo La Tengo
“Hyperballad”, Twilight Singers

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