On the Release of Memoria

3 July 2022

I wanted to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Memoria. It was showing an hour away from where I live, so I decided to wait and see if it would come to a theater closer to me. Unfortunately for me, the week the film would be showing is the same week I would be on vacation. I then decided to google where I could stream or rent the film. That is when I learned to my dismay that Memoria is not only not available for home video, but that the plan is to never release it anywhere other than in theaters, and only in one theater at a time, like a traveling art exhibit.

This is of course disappointing to me, but I don’t begrudge them this decision. In many ways the release of Memoria is much closer to how films used to seen and distributed. Major commercial films before VHS tapes were shown once during a release window, and then never again. If you were lucky they may be shown again later on, either during a retrospective at your local cinematheque (if you were lucky to live near a cinematheque) or rebroadcast on television. Many classic films were for their admirers only memories, that they may never get to reëxperience. The current age of global cinephilia, where you can be exposed to a little bit of everything at your leisure through streaming services or through home video, is a fairly recent phenomenon.

There is a lot to dislike about this release strategy. I think of the many people who can’t visit their local cinemas because they have a weakened immune system and don’t want to needlessly risk catching covid. I also think of the millions of people living with no cinema near them at all. Perhaps Joe’s people could bring back the traveling guerrilla tactics of the independent filmmakers of old, traveling from one town to the next, screening their films in the open air in makeshift theaters, and moving on to the next town.

Of course you don’t have to go see Memoria. It is just one movie. There are thousands of great movies I still haven’t seen. Many of them I have access to through the streaming services I am already subscribed to, through my local library, or I can buy online either digitally or on disc. It doesn’t make it sting any less that I may miss out of seeing a film I was genuinely looking forward to seeing, that I may have to wait to return like a comet as it makes its way around the world.

One obvious point of comparison is that infamous Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which had only one copy made. The album was planned to travel from venue to venue, like a retrospective of a famous painter. In the case of this album, as much as I love the Wu’s music and the many solo projects it spawned (Supreme Clientele is my favorite Wu-Tang member solo album in case you were wondering) I think Memoria has certain merits as a traveling theater-only release that Wu-Tang’s music doesn’t. It offers a new way of experiencing film, an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which films are produced, distributed, the whole political economy of cinema

In many ways this approach to film distribution hasn’t really disappeared. Most of the films I go and see in theaters I never see again. Even just knowing I could rewatch them in the future is comforting, even if I have no plan to revisit them in the future. There is a certain illusion of complete ownership and knowledge that the eclectic streaming services available give us. There are so many films, and works of art in general that were lost to history, many that I will never know that I didn’t get to experience. Memoria’s themes of human prehistory stretching out into the unknowable past is something that lends itself well to the unique experience of only catching the film once.

There is of course always piracy. I used to pirate movies all the time when I didn’t have money for films and din’t know I could. I think I will skip this one for now. Maybe they’ll cave and bring the movie to blu ray or streaming in a couple years, or it might just return to a theater near me. Even so, I think I’d be happy skipping this one. There are so many other great films I want to watch. Memoria can wait.