“What a Way to Run a Railroad”—Nothing is Real, not even Cinema, in Tulapop Saenjaroen’s ‘Squish!’

by Ruairí McCann

“I am an innate wreckage. I am a pressure transplanted. I am a past future imperfect continuous tense. I am neither a representation nor a replacement. I’ve never been ‘real’ but I do exist.”

Over the last decade, filmmaker and video artist Tulapop Saenjaroen has been stretching cinema and the short form. Exploring some of the fundamental quandaries of experience: work, play and freedom with a sharp and puckish sense of their history within this long century of moving images. A Room with a Coconut View (2018) takes a most often ignored, never mind maligned, genre: of the hotel informational video, and pushes it to satiric and surreal limits. Its counterfeit love story, between an automated hotel rep and equally robotic tourist, asks whether free will, truth and love is sustainable in a world that’s a scrubbed and overdetermined hall of vanity mirrors. Where pleasure and exploration are all transactional.

People on Sunday (2020) is a reflexive restaging of People on Sunday (1930), an independent German production whose use of non-actors, real locations and de-emphasis on narrative makes it a major, early work in cinematic realism and modernism. It can be also seen as a particularly impressive and unique showreel, as many of its major architects (Robert & Curt Siodmack, Edgar G. Ulmer, Eugen Schüfftan, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman) would go onto significant careers as writers, cinematographers, and directors in various strata of the Hollywood machine. In hindsight, it’s like many a great film, a wandered on the crossroads joining cinema as a medium driven by artistic expression and as a business economics, which Tulapop disentangles and reshapes for his 21st century reflection. 

His latest movie, Squish! (2021) doubles down on this long-running concern with metaphysics, and moving images as a framing, distorting facet. On this occasion however, his chosen, primary prism is neither corporate video nor realism but animation. Taking place mainly in a shared studio space, a sunlit, white surfaced room occupied by a few young people, a dog, and an artist’s flotsam and jetsam, and in other, more abstract dimensions. It begins with a weird genesis. The birth of an animation in a process of creation which exemplifies the film’s potent swither between materiality and abstraction. The drawing of a human ear, done with a pencil on paper, is suddenly rendered digitally, with ‘the animation’ (the voice of Sunny Lola, layered over with many effects) describing their embodiment as an act of the pencil’s intestines being transmuted into a new form. But what is this new form? Does this ‘being’ even have a ‘body’? Do they possess an autonomy beyond their status as a drawing employed for creative purposes, or perhaps purely for profit. 

The animation ponders these interrelated questions to a breaking point, in what sounds like an absurdist, post-human aping of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. A self-interrogation delivered with a tangible and taffy-like diction and mounting derangement—like many artists filed under the PC Music, Hyperpop and Trap labels, Tulapop is a keen and creative manipulator of that often discredited yet boundless form, the digitized voice. The animation tries describing themselves in physical, though half-complete terms, claiming they are a body but only one ear, one eye and one leg, or as a purely economic entity. A ‘free sample’ to be used up and tossed away. Their analysis deteriorates, careening between torment and ecstasy; a yearning for ‘obscenity’, to spit and to die with eruptions of mad laughter and bouts of onomatopoeia and gibberish overwhelming cogent deliberation. 

This building and tearing down of an identity is presented visually in a range of forms; live-action, digital animation, drawing, practical special effects and hybrids that collide and transmogrify each other. For instance, the eye, our way out of our own teeming brain pans, the vestibule of consciousness, is depicted through a close-up of an actual human-eye being soaked with eye drops. Being prepped, so to speak, for then a cell is placed over it and a two-dimensional copy is traced over with black marker. This is the onset of one of the film’s most potent examples of its virtuoso muddle of forms, and therefore interpretations and possibilities of being, as this transfiguration, from a 3D, alert and fleshy eye to a 2D, drawn and static one, is followed by a further mutation. The drawn opal suddenly animates, comes alive and weeps away the eye-drop run-off. It’s a moment of transformation yet on the aural plane, Tulapop presents it as not a straight continuum but an awkward, discontinuous process, with the animated eye’s man-made, rather than biological, nature betrayed by the harsh, mechanical sound-effects accompanying the last few drops. 

In his 2012 piece ‘Trapped in the Total Cinema’, J. Hoberman speculated that, with the increasingly status quo use of CGI and digitization of mainstream and other cinemas, the history of cinema would be but a prologue, the catalyst but an evolutionary dead end, to a future history of animation. Tulapop teasingly goes a step further, not only cinema but philosophy and history can be subsumed and re-imagined. There’s a scene where history is rendered not as a linear process, bound in a book, but as a non-linear, scattering of colourful fragments, like pieces of a child’s jigsaw puzzle, arranged on a flat surface. A hand reaches into the frame and lifts a few pieces, one by one. Each time an audio sample is triggered, most of which are brief, bright eruptions of barely comprehensible sound effects. Until we hear a spoken excerpt from an essay on Sanae Klaikluen, an artist and Thai animation’s curtailed Geppetto. In 1949, he set out to establish Thai animation with a government-sponsored short film, but his maiden voyage into a new form was cut short when the project was deemed not worthwhile and funding was pulled. An actual, historical case of different conceptions of cinema and its use, and where those in power will out and win the right to definition, which bolsters Tulapop’s animation’s fraught identity crisis.  

In the film’s final movement, Tulapop’s seems to take something like Hoberman’s premonition as a challenge, to envision different ways out for cinema as a medium with no future. The prompt is the animation’s ‘suicide’. A geometric and sonic big bang and an act of modal regeneration, represented by a cycle of ‘remix’ YouTube videos, depicting the suicide wtih different visual and/or musical theme. Tulapop not only pulls on and explores one, very 21st century, and possibly utopian, evolution of moving images; the folk, remix culture that has been fostered by the internet. In a final, eerie stroke, he drifts into the more restrictive, corporate-owned and dystopian medium of ‘the app’. 

Following the animation’s proliferating afterlife, there’s a return to the workshop. Tulapop’s slow survey of this now unnervingly empty space is suddenly, and then periodically, punctuated by voiced reviews of a fictional wellness app, accompanied by tiny superimpositions of the customer in question, positioned in different yoga-like poses. It’s a funny and ambiguous halt to the film’s hyperactive self-deformation and testing out of formal possibilities, concluding with one of the by-products of that marriage from hell, rampant capitalism armed with the destabilizing power of new image and information technology. The endless struggle of the self that we all (Tulapop’s animation included) go through, along with its many potential outcomes, can now be more easily marketed, bought, and therefore dictated by whoever’s selling. Inner discovery and self-actualization, once a pesky, lifelong pursuit, is now within your grasp, bite-sized and with a star rating.

Squish! will screen on May 8th at the Maysles Documentary Center, New York, as part of ‘Wave 13’ at the Prismatic Ground Festival 2022. It also available to view online at the Prismatic Ground website, from the 4th to the 8th.

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and has written for photogénie, Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]

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