09 November 2010

Notes on Enter the Void.

Ben Hervey in Night of the Living Dead, BFI Film Classics: "But the midnight movie phenomenon celebrated youth and rebellion: it was about staying up past bedtime, roaming the streets while regular citizens slept, and, usually, about defying good taste … The idea of the midnight 'cult' took shape with El Topo: the 'bearded and be-jeaned set' came ritually … memorizing the lines and bringing new 'initiates.' … The repeated viewings are all about 'getting' El Topo, interpreting its metaphors. Long conversations in cafes afterwards were part of the experience. Night [of the Living Dead] lacks El Topo's metaphysical pretensions and overly psychedelic visuals, but it was a surprisingly logical follow-up … Both, despite fantasy elements, felt shockingly 'real,' 'totally convincing' … Both films were made outside Hollywood and the 'system.' And, like El Topo, Night was perceived to demand analysis, to work beneath the surface. Word had spread that it was an important, meaningful film, an urgent coded message on the state of America."

An e-mail I'd sent to a local theater owner even before reading Hervey's description: "My friends and I have each seen Enter the Void multiple times at your theater and are huge fans of the movie.  The extended week thrills us, thank you.  Is a midnight screening possible for either Friday or Saturday????  That would really make our year.  The movie screams out for a midnight screening, please consider."

The film begins on a yellow neon sign: ENTER. The camera pulls out and below this sign is a 24 hr DVD sign, and then in a POV shot we look upward, over the city skyline, at a plane in the night sky. Immediately the movie answers the question where am I, Tokyo, and gives two questions: who am I and who is Linda? With such a beautiful diaphanous dress on, and with such beauty in the environment, Linda is the character's girlfriend is a good first guess. This is mostly wrong, Linda is the character's sister. I (Oscar, though I don't know it yet) ask Linda to come onto the balcony to look at the plane, which she does, but Linda doesn't care about the plane. She doesn't want to be in it because it might crash and she would die and enter the void. I (Oscar) say: "They say you fly or you die." There are many coincidental moments in the movie, and many present in the first scene, some of the coincidences seem dramatically intentional, some have greater repercussions, and some maintain ambiguity. I'd like to go through each one but that would require working through every moment of the film.

When the movie first begins, my sixth time seeing it, I know every moment to come. The lines, the transitions, the shapes of the sequences, etc, I even know when I want to lie on the ground in front of the screen (which I do). When I make my way back to my computer I do my best, but my best isn't perfect, and there's a lot to know about Enter the Void. For example the last time I wrote about it I tried to describe the scene with Linda receiving the voice message from Alex: how much I left out! The sequence truly begins all the way back at The Void. The camera follows Alex through an alley as he flees the cops. He approaches Sex Money Power but panics and runs elsewhere; the camera, however, enters above the SMP sign, glides down the strip pole, onto the floor, pokes around, then enters a hallway to intersect Linda. Mario slyly leads her into the dressing room. They begin to make out, her phone rings. She reaches for it but this annoys lustful Mario, so she ignores the call. Within the foreplay, or perhaps as they first begin to fuck on the couch, the camera makes an astral journey to find Alex as he leaves the phone message for Linda, then returns to Linda and Mario. As they fuck the camera enters Mario's head, and there is a POV of Linda's face. THEN begins the long take (probably with invisible cuts but maybe not): Mario cums, an employee hilariously yells through the door, Mario yells back, Linda reties her panties, Mario cleans his penis with a tissue and lights a cigarette, Linda gets up, Mario leaves the room, Linda picks up her phone, the camera begins to sorta pulse and quiver, the message begins, Linda sits on the couch, the camera pushes in on her, then pulls back, sometime about now going slightly out of focus, Linda cries on the couch, and the distressed camera-spirit POV enters the red light on the table in front of her, the first temporal journey since Oscar's death, the first peeling of a layer.

My point is there's an incredible amount of detail and texture. Also, though emotionally it's one of the simpler scenes in the movie, technically it's still very sophisticated. The soundscape is textured too: voices play lowly in the background (repetitions of moments from within the movie), mixing with the music and Linda's sobbing. I have seen the movie so many times because sometimes I am so amazed by what's happening on the audio track I forget about the visual track, or I'll be so ensnared by a line or character detail or something that I'll miss something else, etc, I think the experience of watching the film is perfectly prefigured by the opening credits, which I also try to pluck every detail from but always become consumed by several interesting features, usually new features I'd never noticed but also sometimes the same ones again and again because they're so great (I always look forward to Nathaniel Brown's name).

This texture has a great deal of meaning if you are the type of person who allows yourself to become curious and/or sympathetic about a film's characters. I am that type of person (are we alike)? Here now I highlight several of the more interesting details, questions, and textures that are fascinating to me.

Though, as I begin, it's good to keep in mind what Gary Indiana says about Bresson in the Criterion essay for Pickpocket: "Since I hadn't absorbed the truisms about Bresson that even then encased his work in a gelatin of spiritually heroic cliches, I was, after Pickpocket, skeptical about the thematic platitudes critics and film writers routinely and confidently attached to Bresson. Some of them were plausible, some undoubtedly true, but many just sounded convincing; once art becomes a religion, you can say any high-minded nonsense about it with utter impunity." So, plausibilities, some truths, and some nonsense:

The teddy bear Linda carries with her when Oscar meets her at the airport is a cheap way of emphasizing innocence in her personality. It's a flag, a signal, telling the audience she hasn't let go out the past. The way she kisses her brother in the next scene is less than innocent. It's easy to make judgements about the things she does, but I find it difficult to say what type of person she is. Couldn't her continual nudity, especially around Oscar, be perceived as a type of innocence? Even if so it seems naive to extend this to her stripping job and her relationship with Mario. It is significant that Oscar excitedly shows Linda the flyer for the club Maniac party because it suggests at that point club life for Linda is a departure from her ordinary routine, and this is reinforced in the Maniac scene when Oscar offers her ecstasy and she tells him she's never taken the drug before. "They're like vitamins," he tells her. She takes it. She lacks street smarts and the hard-edged personality typically used as short hand for world weary and downtrodden. She's far from demonstrating experience generated cynicism, her speech pattern is slow and mumbled, and you almost wonder how she's even grown to be an adult, who's taken care of her.

Mario is either the manager or proprietor of Sex Money Power, or maybe simply the talent scout. In a post-pregnancy scene a distraught Linda dances and the camera strays to listen, for just a moment, to a conversation between Bruno and Mario. It's assumable that Mario is attempting to buy cocaine from Bruno. This means that Mario uses or deals cocaine, and suggests at least minor hypocrisy when you consider an earlier scene when an irate Mario chastised Oscar for dealing drugs to his strippers. It's easy to see Mario himself as a symbol of sex, money, power, and the movie offers few insights into his personality. Is it significant that Linda aborts his child, and does it suggest their relationship is loveless? I understand that a significant scene between Linda and Mario is in the 7th reel of the film, the reel not being shown in American theaters, that further illuminates his relationship with Linda. I believe he moves in with Linda; in the American release he is present in the Tokyo apartment only when Victor comes to apologize. What does it mean that she calls him, among others, evil, and does she really mean he is evil, or is her anguish magnifying the scope of her outburst? What does it mean that he moved in with her, or at least visits her to support her? Is he selfish or compassionate? He seems mostly selfish, for example he defends his relationship with Linda to a stripper who accuses him of being used, he says "She want to have my baby," and then attempts physical intimacy with said stripper. Mario is likely a cad, but I feel reluctant to call him such because faced with only certain aspects of Oscar's life I could easily call him just a fuck-up junkie. I wonder the extent of Mario's feelings for Linda - and there is too always the aspect of someone you love being in a relationship with someone you don't necessarily like yourself. You keep wanting to give the person a chance.

It is Victor who suggests to Oscar that Oscar meet his mom. She was a go-go dancer before she met my father, she's an amazing woman, you should really meet her, he says, followed immediately by a dinner scene in which Victor's father relates the same tale of go-go dancing, which always makes me laugh. There's a hint of projected redemption in the way father and son gloat about her past wantonness, as if they feel certain there's no link between her former and present self, or as if their fear of such a link forces them to compensate with manly boasting. She is our creature of beauty and sexual fascination, they seem to be saying. It's significant that the only time (excepting Love Hotel) Victor appears in a scene without a major character is in a pre-abortion scene: Victor confronts his mother about her infidelity and betrayal, in the kitchen, and when his father intervenes Victor confronts him too, accusing him of not being the man of the house. Victor's father slaps him, another instance of masculine vanity. They both leave the room and the mother is left alone with her sorrows; the camera enters the stovetop flame, and from here the abortion scene begins. An earlier scene cuts into Oscar entering the kitchen to see Linda with Oscar entering the living room while wrapping a towel around his waist. Victor is in the room and glances at Oscar's penis. Victor is a background presence in many club scenes, and in one instance asks to meet Bruno, an attempt to enter the private realms of Oscar's life.

Not only does Oscar first introduce Linda to ecstasy, but there is also the post-Victor's mom sex scene, with the girl at the club. There may even be two different girls, if the girl on the balcony he interrogates about drugs is a different girl. In that conversation the girl says she has never done drugs but likes alcohol, to which Oscar replies approximately "Yeah, you like alcohol, you like drugs. It's one step, then the next." Oscar then gives either that girl or a different girl drugs before sex. It seems that not only is Oscar on drugs, but he wants everyone else to be on drugs; while such behavior seems foundational to a drug dealer, it's important to ask whether Oscar operates predominantly as a dealer or an addict and the meaning of this division. Nothing infuriates me more than the critics who dismiss Oscar's death scene as solely an instance of stupidity - as if stupidity doesn't have its meaning, and as if people are never stupid in real life. I've never understood the type of person who believes a poor choice committed by a character in a movie automatically equals either the writer's or the character's stupidity. Yelling at the cops through the door about the gun is one of a series of fatal mistakes Oscar makes within The Void sequence: the first being traveling to The Void, the second being his failure to notice Victor's behavior (though would he have blamed it on their falling out?), and the third being his inability to flush the drugs. The rift between Oscar and Victor is caused by Oscar being fucked by his mom, which was proposed to him by her as a way of making the money he needed to begin dealing drugs.

Oscar, Linda, Alex, Victor, and Bruno are all foreigners feeding off the energy of Tokyo; the largest local character is Mario, whom Oscar and Alex disdain for being involved with Linda. More than anything else Enter the Void is about relationships (mainly the relationship between Oscar and Linda). It's a slick, pop art, psychedelic midnight movie character study, and as such, all characters major and minor are part of the film's fabric. Oscar's drug dealer, Bruno, never becomes more than a drug dealer to Oscar, as drug dealers tend to remain, but as a drug dealer we know him fairly well. We know his sexual proclivities and aberrations, his choice of pet, where he lives and what he's like as he deals, and that he's paranoid. He's in the movie as an agent of destiny, but also because he's likable. He is given secondary status in the film as he is never seen alone, he's always an additional component to scenes about central characters. When Oscar smokes DMT at the beginning of the movie he knows it's the good shit because Bruno gave it to him, and he wonders if Bruno wants to give him a blow job and what Bruno thinks of him. He wonders. He doesn't really know the guy. Alex's roommate never becomes more than Alex's roommate, and Linda's friend never becomes more than Linda's friend. This is who they are to Oscar, and the movie doesn't force a greater bond between them for the sake of dramatic stimulus.

Alex is the best friend Oscar has: he gives Oscar advice, listens to him, hangs out with him, and has a crush on his sister. Alex is hunted by the cops for being the friend who introduced Oscar to Bruno, and though he exhibits signs of genuine tenderness toward Oscar and Linda, he is truly at the roots of the film's drama. Linda is right to express skepticism about his influence in the first scene. Her words are mostly accurate: Alex changes Oscar, as friends change friends, and it's Alex, who truly cares, who sets in motion the death of Oscar. There is some truth to Victor's failed apology to Linda: both Linda and Alex were motivating factors for Oscar beginning to deal drugs (but I feel it was wrong for him to say this because he really is most responsible as he tipped off the cops and that wasn't inevitable).

One person I saw the movie with looked at me when it ended and said, "That's not what my trip was like," and it was then, my third viewing, that I remembered drugs were real and the movie was meant to convey a drug trip. Noé has stated a non-belief in reincarnation and says the second part of the film is the final moments of Oscar's life and his drug addled mind structures a reality-based fantasy based on prior knowledge of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The film works best from this perspective, but I think, within the film, Noé isn't entirely dismissive of a true mystical reading, based on the other Tibetan guidelines followed through the film and his structuring of the final scene. There are at least two curious intercuts in the Love Hotel sequence. The first is an out of focus shot of a couple on a bed with a small child, and on the floor by them an older child in a dress walks with what seems to be Linda's teddy bear. The camera floats out the window and it's the NYC skyline with a plane in the air and the Twin Towers on the horizon. Those are the Twin Towers, right? If so the scene can't be a future scene and must be a scene from Linda's past - perhaps a vision of the family that adopted her. But why was the scene placed there, and doesn't the male on the bed kind of resemble Alex? The ambiguity is compounded by the insemination scene - it is first clearly Alex and Linda making love, but when the camera enters Alex's head for a POV shot it becomes Oscar's mother we see, then a child at the door, then back to the girl who transforms back into Linda. After the insemination there is a birth, and Noé is adamant that the out of focus face is Oscar's mother. Then why place the scene there, and why have her face out of focus? I think it's as simple as Noé, as with other aspects of the film, wants to allow your curiosity and imagination to wander, he wants to allow you to believe the film has an instance of reincarnation if you so desire. For example, the film's currency for me is purely emotional, and I like the idea of reincarnation because it creates an infinite loop of love between Linda and Oscar; if he's simply dying and dreaming, I like that his dreams are mainly about Linda.

I love, love the shot in the Maniac club when Oscar is framed to the center and on his left is Victor, whom he's discussing drug dealing with, and on his right is Alex's roommate and his date AND further to the right is Mario buying drinks for Linda.

If Linda and Mario had a loveless relationship, is it better that the baby was not born, because it might have experienced the fissures of broken love its entire life? It's a relevant question that fails to encapsulate a full view of the situation. I wonder if Noé was attempting to signal the dramatic significance of the abortion by displaying it so forthright. That's the best possibility for the scene in Enter the Void that is the hardest and most uncomfortable scene to watch, and the worst possibility is that Noé showed it to be confrontational. One linking line at the beginning of the movie is Oscar telling Alex that if Mario and Linda have a baby together he'll kill it - and I think a literal interpretation of this line is plagued by issues of malice and ill-will, unless the final or penultimate scene is interpreted as Oscar choosing to reincarnate himself in the womb of Linda, inseminated by Alex. Then there's some real tangled feelings. Or, what if it's just an abortion, what if Linda doesn't want the baby and she aborts it and that's all there is to it? We see it because it happens to her, and Oscar watches it in astral form exactly because it is so emotionally and physically damaging to her - he doesn't leave or look away in order to be there for her, to comfort her as he can, to share the pain.

Does Linda die twice, and are they nightmare experiences as Alex described to Oscar from the book of the dead? There is first the instance which occurs in a sequence of death - Oscar's death is revisited and a series of scenes begin: a person scrubs Oscar's blood from the floor, Oscar's body is identified at the morgue by Linda and Mario, and Linda lies in a Tokyo (?) playground, twitching by a spilled bottle of pills. It's curious that Noé drops this scene into the sequence without relevant juxtaposition. Conspicuously jarring is the scene when Linda enters Alex's cab and they talk intimately for a moment until she screams look out and the childhood car crash is re-experienced. Is it a memory, a present moment, or a Tibetan nightmare?

This scene, except for a couple bizarre intercuts, reinforces the concept of the film as Oscar's death fantasy. In a flashback moment Oscar first sees the Love Hotel in neon model form in Alex's roommate's room, and he remarks approximately, "Wouldn't it be cool if the walls were invisible and you could see inside? All your friends were fucking … and there were giant orgies." This is what happens at the end of the film, in an ecstatic and gorgeous sequence. When the camera astral journeys during this sequence we find that Tokyo has become a lot brighter, there's tons more neon, and the soul leaves the building only to directly reenter. Many characters from the movie are inside fucking, and also I believe some people not otherwise in the movie. Different types of lovemaking for the different personalities, and spectral light emanates from the genitals of all. Bruno, curiously, is the only one not having sex (excepting the other man waiting for Victor in the elevator), but he's content enough watching straight sex and smoking drugs.

The structure of the film parallels the reality of getting to know two people: the experience is somewhat indefinite, cumbersome, mysterious, obsessive. The narrative's questions have mainly specific answers and their specificity weds them to the particulars of my life, which too is its own special drama. Knowing Enter the Void is like knowing a person, or getting to know a person. Because the texture of the storytelling shifts so drastically between the first and second sections I'm not sure it could have been told linearly, and even if it could have been, it doesn't mean the nonlinear structure can't be both fascinating in its depiction of elements of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and interesting as a metaphor for a relationship shared by two people. It might have been more difficult to leave out certain things if it had been told linearly, it might have been even more confusing and fractured. Plus, it's a carpet of emotions we ride in the second half, and I love that.

I can't see the movie again for a first time, though I wish I could. And someday it'll be 2011 and so on, and I'll be able to better see how Enter the Void fits into the filmworld continuum. There is in the present a noticeable shift toward immersive filmmaking technique, on technological and narrative levels, and I have been telling people that I believe this movie belongs to the future. I might be right or wrong. I'm definitely being vague. What I know is that the movie deploys highly sophisticated digital alteration that serves only to enhance the experience of the story: the effects erase the camera, bring you closer to the character (sometimes literally enter into his wounds). The effects aren't to replace reality, but to help the audience feel its beauty.

Popular opinion seems to be that Enter the Void is too long. I have asked people how they liked the movie and some have told me "I kept wanting it to end," and sometimes that is even the nicest thing they say about the movie! A sect of these people believe that the film is supposed to mirror the experience of a drug trip - the purpose is for the film to drag on so you want it to end even though you know you can't make it end. That may be true, but it's not how I experience the movie. Tell you the truth, my favorite astral journey is both a long one and a later one. It immediately follows the scene of Victor's apology to Linda: the camera leaves the apartment and travels through Tokyo as usual, but doesn't head to any of the usual locations, instead roaming sky-high down a major road, up over the streets of Tokyo, over the Tokyo Tower, into the clouds, and into a plane with a baby Oscar being breast fed by his mother. That's one of my favorite moments in the movie, and I'm not at all waiting for the movie to end when it occurs. I think it's beautiful and moving. One reason I don't mind the astral journeys is because I interpret them as emotional responses from Oscar; another is because I like to observe the streets as they pass by.

Inside the lightbulb bar, directly following Linda and Oscar's exit from Maniac. It's eye-scorchingly beautiful, and their words are so romantic and tragic that I sigh and swoon each time. A drugged and drunken Linda emphasizes the fun she's having, and that she feels free, very, very free, and doesn't she look like a woman now? She asks Oscar to promise they'll always be together and he agrees, saying he'll never die. Never? Never. We're immortal? Yes.


  1. AHHH!! I just watched this the other night (after having eaten a black magic brownie) and I am going to rewatch it right now and reread this. I am so glad you took the time to type this out because I have been hoping I would find something intelligent written about it.

    Thank you. Again! Always!

  2. Hey I just finished my second viewing of this and can't get it out of my head.

    I like your review. A few things in reading it:
    1) Her kisses on Oscar are supposed to be part of innocence, they are what a 6 year old girl would think was normal.
    2) Everything that happens after Oscar's shooting is imagined by him, so might not exactly fit reality.
    3) I think it's plausible that the Mario/Linda relationship is entirely imagined by Oscar as a worst-case scenario. He clearly thinks of Mario as a sleazeball. Before the shooting he directly implies she was with Mario, and she says 'it wasn't Mario'. She is believable there in delivery and because innocence is her character.
    4) Alex is a father figure to Oscar. This is clear because:
    a) Oscar's flashback to his parents having sex is overlaid on Alex having sex with the stripper in the same way.
    b) Alex is ultimately Linda's choice for partner to have a child (this is what is hoped for by Oscar -- he is creating this future in his mind)
    c) In that scene, Alex becomes his father literally and Linda his mother. Of course, all through out the movie Linda, his mother, and Victor's mother are interchanged particularly their almost precisely identical breasts.
    d) And of course Alex is always dispensing fatherly advice like 'get a job', 'don't be a drugdealer', 'read this philosophy book', etc. and is also older.

  3. just one thing, can you help me with the part that looks that oscar seems to walk beside's Mario in the hospital, and in the cab, Linda says "that thing is not my brother".

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