Seats where audiences once gathered to thrill to colorful adventures now huddle in orgiastic collapse, their bare wooden backs scarred with the fan-traceries of furtive spiders. Rusting projectors stand sentry above over a fading fantasy of better days. In a more fortunate example, an auditorium of still erect seats are cloaked in individual white coverings, summoning what appears to be an audience of ghosts. Elsewhere, a marquee extends the full length of a city block but only five or six letters remain to identify the last film ever to play there, in Cinerama no less, and the lettering is Thai.
"Welcome to the Architecture of Ruins," reads the back cover of ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET: WHERE CINEMA RULES HEARTS AND HOUSES OF FILMS IN THAILAND (FilmVirus, 1500 THB), a 516-page volume by Sonthaya Subyen and Morimart Raden-Ahmad, to heroic historians who decided to photograph the modern-day remnants of Thailand's dying movie palace culture while its peeling but still-evocative façades were yet standing. In addition to the impressive photo-documentation, the book includes a number of guest essays by such international luminaries as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES), Fred Kelemen (THE MAN FROM LONDON, THE TURIN HORSE) and Prabda Yoon (MOTEL MIST), and the award-winning writers Daenaran-Saengthong (SEA Write Award, Officiers de l’ordre des arts et des lettres in 2008), Suchart Sawasdsria (Thai National Artist of Literature, 2011), and Uthis Haemamool (SEA Write Writer Award 2009), all reminiscing about their formative experiences as young movie-goers. ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET also includes sidebars documenting Thailand's approaches to advertising film, via billboards, advertisements on wheels and bus ads.
While nostalgia obviously had a great deal to do with what motivated Subyen, Raden-Ahmad and their guest authors, it plays a more abstract role in how the book is absorbed by someone outside Thai culture. The accompanying texts are rich with descriptions of what it was like to inhabit these derelict structures when they were still vital, including reminiscences of the films that played there. However, one's first impulse upon opening this book is to page through it, cover to cover, an experience which for me conveyed an eerily Ballardian charge with its peeling parade of long-vacated sensoriums. The text, which carefully and affectionately places the images in context, is all that prevents ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET from seeming like an advanced, poetical work of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And its images carry a bitter punchline, appropriate to such science fiction, in that many of the abandoned structures profiled herein were built in the 1980s.
I was grateful to receive a gift copy of this remarkable book some months ago from Sonthaya Subyen, and I would have reviewed it promptly had there been any point to doing so. He informed me in separate correspondence that it had been published in a limited edition of fewer than 1,000 copies, of which only a few copies then remained. But I'm happy to report that this bilingual book - ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET - a bilingual book, in Thai and English - is now available in a new slipcased "Black Box" edition. (I should mention that the images accompanying this report were photographed from the book on my iPad and imported to the blog; the originals are much brighter, sharper and more colorful in the book.)
This is a unique book and one you will be proud to own. The retail price of the Black Box edition is at 95 $US, and some copies yet remain of the standard white cover edition (without any box) at 85 $US (included shipping and handling anywhere in the world). For further information, send email inquiries to email@example.com, or message them on their Facebook page ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET.