Saturday, February 12, 2011

Is the afterlife inane? and other questions about Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void

1) With Enter the Void, did writer/director Gaspar Noe intend to make the afterlife inane? After 20-year old Oscar dies when a drug deal goes bad early in the movie, Oscar's spirit (?) point of view (?) drifts about, then floats over the Tokyo cityscape (usually at roughly ceiling level) with invisible wipe cuts as he moves through walls (somewhat like the way Orson Welles used wipe cuts as the camera rose above the opera scene in Citizen Kane). Oscar's spirit also gravitates towards lights like a moth, views himself dead on the bathroom floor, revisits various memories of his brief life, and hangs around his sister, friends, dealers, and former lovers, all of whom are unaware of his presence. Even though the film is beautifully, mesmerizingly photographed, the ghostly hovering gets tiresome after awhile, so Noe jazzes up this somnambulistic tour with strip bars, police interrogations, streaming 3-D tendrilly DMT hallucinations, and voyeuristic visits to a Love Hotel. After much drifting about, Oscar's ghost (?) casts around for a possible reincarnation. What else does he (it?) have to do?

2) In an interview with Noe, James Marsh describes the characters of Enter the Void as "pretty irresponsible," and I agree. Oscar deals drugs in part because a regular job does not appeal to him. When he raises enough money to fly his sister Linda over from the States, he introduces her to shady characters who eventually hire her as a stripper. Given his childhood blood vow to always be with her, couldn't he have thought of something else for her to do? Since Oscar and Linda are so blank, affectless, and passive, it's hard to get worked up over their plight, especially after Oscar's death.

3) How does Enter the Void concern The Tibetan Book of the Dead (which frequently shows up in the movie)? In an interview, Noe makes it clear that he does not believe in an afterlife, although his movie definitely plays with received ideas about just that. As he says:

"I read books on reincarnation and many books about out-of-body experiences. Actually, the movie is not so much about reincarnation. It's more about someone who gets shot while on acid and DMT [Dimethyltryptamine], and trips out about his own death and dreams about his soul escaping from his flesh, because he wants to keep this promise to his sister that he'll never leave her, even after death.

I don't believe in life after death. But I still enjoyed the idea of doing a movie that would portray that collective dream, that collective need. Like flying saucers are a collective need for people who need to believe in flying saucers. You don't need to believe in flying saucers to do a movie about Martians or flying saucers.

You just say, well, it's in literature and books and people need to believe there's something after [death] because otherwise life is too short. It's better to tell people that, don't worry, life is short but you get to have a second chance. You can survive and always rearrange things that happened in your lifetime."

So, in essence, Noe provides the viewer with a nonbeliever's vision of the afterlife. That still begs the question: what's the point of being a ghost? Do the dead suffer from existential angst? Do they then get reincarnated out of boredom?

4) How much does Noe deliberately provoke the viewer, and why? In one interview, Noe appears tickled by the negative attention:

"Some people say, `This should have lasted five minutes. Five minutes was enough.' Or in the newspaper that my father read in Argentina, he was offended because the journalist said, `This was the worst movie ever shown in the Cannes Festival. Everybody agrees, at the Palais, in the streets, in the bar. It’s the worst movie.' I say, `Dad, it’s good news. The worst ever—you realize what the competition is to get the worst movie ever?'”

5) Did Noe include all of the titillating provocations to make up for the weaknesses of Enter the Void's story and characterization? In one scene, Oscar's ghost dives into an aborted fetus lying on a tray. While such a fearless point of view has its aesthetic interest, the ultimate effect is that everything in Enter the Void's neon soup attains the same flat, jaded (one can say deadened) anesthetized level.

6) How much does Enter the Void really mean Join Me in My Aimless Nihilistic Stupor?


9 comments:

claude said...

my feelings regarding 'enter the void':
http://claude101.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/one-note-on-gaspar-noe-enter-the-void/

claude said...

l.e.
i've kept another note written while i was watching 'enter the void':
'there was a time when showing a train entering a tunnel was enough to suggest a sexual encounter. those times are gone.'

FilmDr said...

Thanks, claude,

A bit of humor could've definitely helped. Given that both Enter the Void and Lost in Translation had scenes in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, I kept hoping Bill Murray would show up randomly in some of the later, duller stretches of Void.

JeanRZEJ said...

'While such a fearless point of view has its aesthetic interest, the ultimate effect is that everything in Enter the Void's neon soup attains the same flat, jaded (one can say deadened) anesthetized level.'

I agree entirely - it has the anesthetized feel of unrelenting lament. Amazing film. I don't know what you mean about the weaknesses in story and characterization, though - to what standard are they judged? I haven't died while tripping, so I don't really know what the story and characterization of an after-death hallucination are supposed to be like, but I figured since it's a realm allowing for imagination that I'd take whatever came. Either way - amazing film.

Dan North said...

These are excellent questions, Doc. You've kindly linked to my thoughts on this film, and one thing I would add is that, since watching it and writing about it, I've seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which offers a very different approach to end-of-life experiences. While Noe's approach is blatantly obvious (history will record it, I believe, as a failed experiment in cinematic subjectivity alongside The Lady in the Lake - total POV is not the same as total subjective experience), Apichatpong's is tender, elusive, mystical and impossible to reconcile. But Uncle Boonmee doesn't have abortions and dick in it, so it doesn't pull the same crowds of devotees. While Noe managed to make an orgy in a love hotel seem a bit tiresome, Apichatpong made cunnilingus from a catfish seem erotic. A much greater achievement.

That said, I'd be interested to see Noe have another go at the subjective camera approach without resorting to the easy shock-tactics he deploys here to convince us of the significance of the whole enterprise. He should've outgrown that stuff by now.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, JeanRZEJ,

I was bothered by the way both Oscar and Linda never evolve beyond a type (drug dealer/devoted brother, devoted sister). I understand that the story will necessarily have limitations when it is largely told from a spirit presence, but the living never get anywhere either. Oscar's listlessness affects everyone. I like to see at least one character surmount his or her passivity.

Thanks, Dan,

I appreciated the way your post summarized the major critical views of the film, and I agree with you about the limitations of Noe's shock-tactics (I will look out for Uncle Boonmee.)

Ultimately, I like the idea of a bleak, pointless, existential afterlife. It reminds me a little of the bureaucratic Kafkaesque beyond depicted in Burton's Beetle Juice. There's no floating down a tunnel toward some transcendental light. Instead, Oscar just inhabits a lamp before moving on. His spirit becomes banal. When he hopelessly imagines that he has a body again, Enter the Void becomes both oddly life-affirming and ghoulish.

JeanRZEJ said...

'I was bothered by the way both Oscar and Linda never evolve beyond a type (drug dealer/devoted brother, devoted sister). I understand that the story will necessarily have limitations when it is largely told from a spirit presence, but the living never get anywhere either. Oscar's listlessness affects everyone. I like to see at least one character surmount his or her passivity.'

Well, I would have liked everyone in the film to have lived a happy and wonderful life, but then the film could not exist. In the first section, when the protagonist is alive, it is a very limited picture of the world and there's nothing bad going on - he's working for subsistence (illegally, sure, but not uncommon among youth) and hanging out with his friend. After that point he is dead, and what is shown informs the viewer of the protagonist's state of mind. If he shows you good things - then it says that he is looking back on the good times. What is shown on the screen informs you about the character's state of mind, so showing someone doing well seems to be antithetical to what his mind seems occupied on, namely the shortcomings of his life which he, through his own passivity, did not change. And there is certainly the possibility that everything that is shown is exaggerated, because, again, what is shown informs his state of mind much moreso than the facts, so there may be some proactive action in fact that his mind covers up in contemplation. I don't agree that the setting limits what can be shown, because anything can be shown, but it makes what is shown of absolute importance because it directly relates to the character's state of mind. Thus, what you are asking to show in the film would entirely alter the implications of his state of mind and thus change the film from a highly subjective lamentation of a life poorly lived to an objective look at a life with some good and some bad in it. You can postulate for years on what could have been in the film, but there is a very important reason why nobody is shown overcoming their passivity - either because it is true of their case, in which case he is simply accurately lamenting reality, or because there is absolutely no reason for his mind to consider those moments. To alter the content in the film completely alters what the film represents, so talking about it seems to be beside the point, to me.

FilmDr said...

JeanRZEJ,

I hadn't really thought about the way the ghost's perspective may distort what happens in the movie. How can one talk of a spirit's "state of mind"? Yet, the film does return to the scene of his parents' death with a grim, repetitive fascination, so I'll grant you that point.

My problem with the movie is that often writers end up creating unnecessarily passive characters (especially when they write on variations of themselves), and, quite often, people in real life are not like that. Real people show a resilience, a strength that writers sometimes miss, and that's what I thought Noe's problem was with the characterization in the film, and the reason for so many scenes that appear to reach for shock value instead of character development. It's almost as if Noe felt obliged to make Oscar super-passive so that he can kill him off easier, so he can drift about afterward without much consequence. Enter the Void suggests that there's not much difference if he's alive or dead. Perhaps James Franco watched Enter the Void right before hosting the Oscars.

JeanRZEJ said...

I don't think it's a ghost. I think it's a dying person tripping on DMT. There is nothing to insinuate that the film is about a soul, and a lot to insinuate that it is about a person tripping on a massive does of DMT issued at their death, as he trips on DMT earlier in the film and talks about how your brain releases DMT as you die. When you dream your brain really does factor in recent information, which is why the 'exposition' in the film's earlier part is so essential. It's not just that the film is following what his friend said, it is important to note that whatever his friend said is pretty much what will happen in the film, aside from any departures his brain (with the aid of Noé making literary alterations) takes. If Alex had talked about going back in time, you can bet that his brain would have begun associating things with dinosaurs, because that's what brains do, and Noé would have no choice but to follow.

As for your point, I actually think that people in films are far too often depicted as proactive and having very visible character arcs in small time frames, where instead people shift very subtly and very slowly over time, and even if they changed dramatically it would be difficult to tell because they don't voice their state of mind in exposition every two seconds. However, none of that is relevant to this particular film because a.) each particular film can't rectify greater concerns in your view of the state of film as a whole b.) what is shown is not reality, it is a dying brain's creation. Of real life you see 30 minutes, not possibly enough time for any character development to take place. As for character development displayed in his hallucinations, if it's there then the character developed, if not then he didn't. Some people don't change much. I'd rather look at the film as the film is rather than the film as I see it in the grand scheme of films. After all, you can't change the film now, and you already know what your problem with the grand scheme is, so there's no point in crying over spilt milk, as it were. If the character development issue is a problem for you, I think you can just say, "OK, this isn't my ideal film, but what is it?" In fact, I think this film, as a lamentation on the characters' passivity, is at least speaking against that trait in people - it is the opposite of the stoner comedy, where we sit around and enjoy the passivity, so it may be the exception to the rule from within rather than without. I don't know, I don't really see your problem. To me, stoner comedies more closely map the lives of people I know than, say, The Social Network - especially my friend who is a very successful and hardworking computer scientist. On the other hand, I saw Broadcast News recently and that's essentially the opposite of a stoner comedy, and I enjoyed that, too, so I don't know what to tell you. What would be the paradigm of a film that accurately portrays what people are really like, for you?