Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Enter the Void with me and Chris
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Twitter serves all kinds of wonderful purposes in my life; the biggest and best of those is introducing me to amazingly cool people who I would've never crossed paths with otherwise. One of those individuals is Chris. Like me, he's a cinephile who loves a lively film discussion. When he saw my tweeted praise for Gaspar Noé's new film Enter the Void, he raised a 140-character eyebrow and asked me to explain what I saw in the film. What follows is our email exchange on the topic. Spoilers occur. You should also know that Chris saw the long version of the film followed by a Q&A with the director and two leads. I saw the short version.
Thanks again for initiating a conversation about Enter the Void and being willing to hear my thoughts on it.
I'm glad we can agree on the opening credits being remarkable. By the time those wrapped, my heart was pounding and my feet were tapping. I was ready to go clubbing, which isn't something I'd normally be craving -- not that that's how I judge a film's quality, mind you.
Anyway, onto the discussion. As you pointed out with Noé's Q&A quote, one of his intentions was to recreate the feeling of being high. Not the noblest of intentions, I dare say, and it's certainly been done before (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes to mind), but he did achieve a mind-altering sensation with Enter the Void. So one point for Noé.
Along the same lines, but with a more substantial bent: I recently read that he is interested in cinema as a physical experience. A few months back I read a Tilda Swinton interview in which she said the same thing about her film I Am Love. At that point, the thought seemed downright dumb to me. What, are we doing scratch-and-sniff movies next? Thing is, I did find I Am Love to be a physical experience. The filmmaker really did evoke sense memories with his imagery.
Because of that positive experience, I walked into Enter the Void with an open mind. I was ready to succumb to the experience, even if the storyline, etc. was weak or even silly. My expectations were low, which can be a good thing at the movies. Leaves room for pleasant surprises, which this film definitely was.
I can actually understand where your "irredeemably full of shit" complaint comes from. Taken at a glance, Enter the Void doesn't have much substance outside of the rollercoaster ride of visuals. The dialogue is utilitarian and the acting of the two leads is really weak, especially the guy, Oscar, but I think that was intended. As the director said in one interview about Oscar's character: "The guy's inconsequential. He's not a loser and he's certainly not a winner." I think Noé wanted these characters to feel stunted in their development, as if the childhood trauma lingered and kept them childlike and vulnerable -- bumping around the world in confusion and seeking the impulsive pleasures in life as a child would.
OK, but getting more to the point of what worked. Cinema experience-wise, I was pretty much riveted to my seat. At one point, my legs fell asleep and at another my arms did because I was sitting frozen in fascination. The slipstream editing created a really dreamlike experience as did the "flyover" transitions when we whizzed over the buildings. Even though that flyover stuff got redundant by the end of the film, it helped maintain a swoony, inner ear imbalance that I relished. Even in scenes where it was clear we were flying through a model of Tokyo, the "fakeness" of those visuals was appealing.
Now for the major themes. Noé touches on a range of Big Life Topics in Enter the Void: sex, death, love, power, violence, birth. None of those represent new territory, of course, and he could be accused of oversimplifying it all to the point of dumbing it down, but I appreciated that feeling that I was consuming the essence of those ideas in a really elemental form -- almost like swallowing pills or shooting right into a vein.
And I have to say I loved the ending (after the blurry just-born baby POV footage) when the giant words THE VOID (instead of THE END) fill the screen. That bluntly, Gaspar sends us out of the theater to enter the void of the real world like newborn babies -- where car accidents and orgasms and drug deals and flashing lights surround us -- a world just as overstimulating, confusing and mind-altering as his film.
So I think that's it for my first round. I look forward to your response.
Dear Nic --
Let me just say first that I agree with many of the things you've said about Enter the Void, and that I, too, walked into it with a very open mind. In fact, my enthusiasm and expectations were quite high. One of the things I find myself talking about a lot with other cinephiles is the question of whether directors have a responsibility to their audiences and the characters they create, and if so, what can be justified in terms of what they put us through. Although, as you know, I detest Lars von Trier because I find his ideas generally far too facile to justify the atrocities he piles relentlessly upon his characters and audience, I almost always bring up Noé's Irreversible as an example of extreme abuse that I feel is thoroughly justified by what the director manages to illuminate through the experience.
And apart from all that, Noé's just a goddamned prodigiously talented filmmaker. There are few directors this side of Godard who remind me so thrillingly of the nearly limitless possibility of cinema in the hands of provocateurs willing to tweak its conventions and push its limits as far as they can in order, as Manohla Dargis put it in her initial review of Enter the Void, to show us something we have not seen before. Who better, I thought, to take on such an audacious project? Who else would have even the faintest chance of succeeding?
This is why I felt so let down. There is certainly a lot of brilliance on display in Enter the Void. It is a towering achievement on purely technical grounds. Noé does succeed in showing us things we haven't seen before, and he creates a wealth of truly novel images that have tremendous visceral power, alternately (and often simultaneously) brutalizing and surpassingly beautiful. He does evoke both physical sensation and something fairly close to what it's like to experience drastically altered states. (I love, by the way, the line of inquiry you open about film as physical experience. I recently read a post by the wonderful Jonah Lehrer about the neuroscience of film viewing that cites research suggesting that what happens in our brains as we immerse ourselves in a cinematic experience is very much like what happens when we dream; the parts of our nervous system that govern our senses are hyperactivated while our self-awareness is suppressed, enabling us to "feel" what's happening in startlingly palpable ways. Noé has amply demonstrated his capability in exploiting this sort of reaction in the past; I experienced the mirrored assault scenes in Irreversible so physically that they made me feel quite literally ill.)
But in this instance, all of this technical brilliance has been put into the service of ideas and aims that, to me, seem juvenile at best. The idea of a first-person immersive exploration of a person's consciousness is interesting only insofar as the person himself or herself is interesting. Oscar is about as far from interesting as I can imagine -- as Noé himself says, he's inconsequential, neither a loser nor a winner. I found myself thinking of Bill Cosby's classic bit about drug use in which he responds to someone's claim that drugs heighten one's personality by asking flatly, "Yes, but what if you're an asshole?"
I'll admit that my impression of this aspect of the film was further dimmed by the Q&A that followed the screening I saw, at which not only Noé but also Nathaniel Brown and Paz de la Huerta were present. I found what Noé had to say about the film dispiriting, but at least it was clear that there's a fierce intelligence at work inside his head. Brown and de la Huerta, on the other hand, were as inconsequential and petulant, respectively, as they were onscreen. I might even go so far as to say that Paz de la Huerta is possibly the single most irritating person I have ever encountered. There just isn't any there there in either of their cases, so I found it no wonder that the film itself felt pretty vapid and puerile once the thrill of the stunning visuals began to wear off.
It's not entirely fair to allow such extratextual concerns to color judgment of a film, but I saw the movie before the Q&A and had already reached essentially the same conclusion. I saw the full, 180-minute version -- a very long time to be trapped in the heads of people whose heads don't have so much of interest inside. Yes, the childhood trauma was compelling, at least from a visual and visceral standpoint; I felt the impact of that car crash and its aftermath every time Noé slammed that truck into our faces. And I work with foster kids, so god knows I don't need to be convinced of the horrible trauma inflicted upon children who get ripped away from their families at a young age. But there wasn't much about the way the characters of Oscar or Linda were written or portrayed that got at any of the important, interesting, and worthwhile areas for exploration in people who have been through what they're supposed to have experienced. And I found the film's handling of its existential and philosophical concerns, such as they were, to be similarly dull. Really, Gaspar? After all that build-up, you're going to end on what is by now the most trite and obvious representation known to cinema of the persistence of life?
But even in weighing these concerns, I can't help but feel I'm barking up the wrong tree -- that I'm getting played by Noé, who has been telling everyone who'll listen that he never gave half a shit about any of this stuff to begin with. He wanted to recreate the experience of being high, he tells us. That' s it and that's all. At the Q&A I saw, in response to an audience member's question about the Buddhist overtones of the film, Noé came right out and said they have no meaning -- that all you're seeing is Oscar's increasingly unreliable thoughts as he dies, that he's not reborn, that the only reason for the Buddhist references are that Oscar was reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead when he was shot.
Again, I don't want to let Noé's remarks outside the text of the film itself influence my opinion too much; great films need not be built upon the noblest of intentions, and certainly some great films have resulted from dubious aims. But in this case, what he said at the Q&A and in the interviews I've read subsequently only served to confirm what I already suspected: that all of the stuff of this film -- the horrific trauma of the car crash and the violent loss of Oscar and Linda's parents and the sex and the drugs and the abortion and the references to Buddhism and everything else -- were just trifles, toys, props for Noé to play around with in a film that ultimately turns out to be very much like the psychedelic experience he sought to recreate. At first it's exhilarating, wild, and new; then increasingly tiresome and tedious; and when it's finally over you feel exhausted, relieved, a little dirty, and more than a little empty -- back in the same world in which you started, having seen a few new things but gained precious little real insight into things that truly matter.
That, in my view, is a fairly egregious betrayal of the filmmaker's responsibility to his art and his audience -- though I suspect Mr. Noé would be every bit as derisive of that notion as well.
All the best,