Camera as consciousness

Gaspar Noe before introducing “Enter the void”

“Enter the void” is a wonderfully mad film, experimenting with the subjective, which could possibly be the next breakthrough in screen storytelling.

This daring experiment in visual representation of consciousness is based on three devices: camera as a point of view, compression of key emotional memories, camera floating above after death.

During the Q&A Noe brings up studies of how brain stores memories, how consciousness reacts to visual stimulus, possibilities of using 3D to better represent life experiences on the screen. One sentence from his talk particularly jumps at me: “in many respects the future is more real that the past.”

While “Irreversible” had a 3 page long script and was done on the fly, “Enter the void” was written in 103 pages during several years. Yet, the structure in “Irreversible” is stronger. There are at least two possible explanations of that:

Perhaps it was meant to be like this. For Noe (at least from what he is saying) “The Void” was to be like a trip, with all pluses and minuses of a trip including an oppressing length (‘my trips were always too long”) and certain meandering. So it is rather an exercise in a state of mind than an exploration of the flow of our lives (which seems to be the theme of “Irreversible”.)


Noe believes in spontaneity and removal of any obstacles to the “creative flow” - he is his own camera operator and insists that the energy has to come to the set at the last minute. Yet, such directorial spontaneity did not seem to translate into the writing spontaneity/freshness and so the basic structure got surprisingly predictable in the long time it took to write/prepare the film. Noe “overcooked” the storyline a bit. If his directorial freshness could be applied to designing (writing) of such technologically complex film as “Enter the void” it could mean revolution not only in screen storytelling but also perhaps a step forward in our self-understanding.


Essential cinema

“Essential Killing”, script: Ewa Piaskowska, Jerzy Skolimowski,
DP - Adam Sikora, directed by Skolimowski

Upon disappointments with “The Social Network”, “Inception” or the latest “Harry Potter” I rejoiced with “Essential killing”, almost danced upon seeing it. Cinema is not over! New paths are possible.

The other films felt tired, used up, artificially jazzed up, whereas the Skolimowski’s latest brings in zest, energy and aliveness. It displays humbleness about the events being told. The storyteller of this film does not present himself as smarter than the story. He follows it with respect, with his eyes wide open and ears ready to receive signals that are not predetermined by narrative cliches. In "Essential Killing" there are questions rather than answers. There is openness rather than arrogance. Empathy rather than pushiness. The film does not feel calculated and displays naturalness, mystery and poetry. At the same time there are moments which rise eyebrows in the plausibility department. If that’s the price for the overall energy, so be it.

Reality in Skolimowski's hands gets more penetrating treatment than in those other extravaganzas. I do not think it is only because “Essential killing” is not a Hollywood film and as such can afford to be a more genuine representation of what life feels like. (After all there are Hollywood directors who do not talk down to audiences.)

Conclusion: If a plot is unclear, muddy and or spotty (that’s the case with the four mentioned titles) it may be better to pay less attention to justification of such undercooked structures and instead focus on life and emotions contained within them. Creating scenes that (supposedly) explain psychological or plot intricacies usually reduces sequences to mechanical statements dutifully strung together. Skolimowski does not care much for that - instead he focuses on life which floats in front of the lenses. Thanks to that his screen pulsates with vitality so rare in today’s fiction cinema.



"The Social Network"
writers: Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), Ben Mezrich (book)

director: David Fincher

“The Social Network" is a nicely packaged empty shell. Here, I said it. The film upon its first viewing left me at best indifferent - surely the craftsmanship was there: scenes were wonderfully put together, each layer of the film worked by itself, the DP knew how to light a scene, the director made sure there were not empty narrative spaces, the composer felt the drive, most technicians deserved Oscar nominations for their contribution, yet all together was ... well... lame. Trite.

I felt bad since everybody on the planet went bananas over the flick. So I decided to give it a second try. My reaction was the same. My cinema screening companion at first refused to comment, then she said something to the effect that “the film cleverly puts you in the brainless state of mind similar to that which results from hanging out for a while on the net”. An intelligent remark, yet still with a negative vector, I suppose.

My biggest beef with the film was that it seemed to cheapen something that I felt was profound and truly exciting - the hero and the story of his battles. Instead of showing wide and deep dimension of the amazing technological and cultural revolution the film distilled it down to the issue of who among the players was a bigger dickhead.

Call me naive but I refuse to believe that such great thing as Facebook could be achieved by a bozo. A very gifted, even inspired computer science maverick, yet still a bozo. So I looked at some videos of the real Mark Zuckerberg. Surprise, surprise. The film critics rave about the performance of Jessie Eisenberg. I am sorry but any given beat with the real Zuckerberg brings in more zest, light, focus and drive than the entire two hours of the film. The two hours which, granted, due to the superb skills of the filmmakers, fly very quickly. Still the screen rendering of Zuckerber felt inadequate and even offensive to the spirit of the real Zuckerberg. Judging by the material on the net, the film storytellers flattened the character of the hero, flattened his motives, flattened the plot, - all in a very glossy way. (McDonald De Luxe does not make a gourmet meal.)

I felt terrible, not understanding the enthusiasm pouring from film critics I valued and liked. Being on the edge of depression I goggled for “The Social Network negative reviews” and discovered Armond White, a major New York professional film critic. He didn't like the film.
He even championed (causing wide ridicule) “Transformers 2” by Michael Bay, one of my favorite directors. “You may be thinking against the tide but you are not entirely alone.” - I prepped myself. Then I discovered that Mr. White considered my hero Gaspar Noe a fraud and a fake and that he trashed “There will be blood”, to me a true masterpiece.

I was alone again.


Science and storytelling

"Tess", screenplay by Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn,
based on the book by Thomas Hardy, directed by Polanski

Kevin Warwick from Reading University, UK, experiments with electronic enchantment of human senses. He hooks himself into a nervous system of his wife - which results in him knowing what she feels, or connects his system to a third, artificial arm which he can mentally control. He ponders how allowing our nervous systems to electronically read roentgen or ultraviolet radiation could change our perception of reality. Prof. Warwick assumes that since our inferior senses cut us off from 95% of electromagnetic radiation, for all practical reasons, we are death and blind. Furthermore, that which reaches our brains is represented via a very clumsy and primitive four dimension scheme. Thus, reality remains not-penetrable.

Enters Roman Polanski with Tess. The film uses techniques that seem to advocate a Warwick like approach to reality: throughout our lives we are subjected to huge forces which we only occasionally are aware of. In Tess these external forces present themselves in dreams, yearnings, premonitions, in sensitivities of animals and peculiarities of our fates. Those of us who are more attuned to that which is not blatantly seen and heard are weirdoes, aliens, Tesses (“sometimes we can make our souls leave our bodies”.) Society does not take liking to such creatures: Tess has to be sacrificed on the altar of Stonehenge to the god of Sun.

Polański said somewhere that for him each scene has to address more that just one element of plot, one plot point. This multidimensionality of events steams evenly during the unfolding of the story. Most beats seem to posses larger meaning than that of their immediate function in the story. We sense this via many narrative techniques: upcoming occurrences sneak themselves into events currently presented, scenes, backgrounds, actions return revealing their usually darker, tragic layers. The repetition of situations brings disaster. The second carriage - husband chasing scene throws Tess into the miserable relation with the fake d’Uberville, the second wedding night with Angel brings their capture and her death. Many key points in advancing the story - the decision to visit d’Ubervilles, a child delivery, christening of this child, his death, are not shown directly. The web of destiny is too permeating and ever present to naively zero in on its obvious singular manifestations.

Visually, characters are introduced with much delay (Tess, Angel) as if also emerging from a web of emotionality that hoovers over that which is. Emotions emanate outward into surroundings, or surroundings mess with the sensitivities of characters - the rows of maturing cheese hanging in the cellar are nothing less than the souls of young woman sleeping in the room above, the furious working of the threshing machine is the troubled and pained psyche of Tess. The forces that trash us are either social (Angel reads “das Kapital” and acts as its blind and idealistic follower) or metaphysical.

Tess gives a noble fight. Twice during her ordeal the storytellers (Polanski and the composer Phillipe Sarde) point their fingers at her struggle suggesting (inner) triumph. The same glorying music comes during her burring the child and her “burying” herself in the forrest. The second “advancement” is additionally attested by the appearance of a deer. A quite metaphysical, (
approving?) deer, as if a messenger of the gods.

Polanski subscribes to “American Science”, has a predilection for clear, rational thinking, sneers at attempts to interpret his work through some cheap spiritual lenses, is furious when journalists suggest connections between his life and subject matters of his films (particularly Rosemary’s Baby). We may therefore safely assume that his storytelling perspective displayed in Tess is not a nod to some superficial “new age” leftovers but rather is a result of analysis of the forces that shape our world, the analysis coming close to possible future extended sensory perception suggested by prof. Warwick.

The difference is in timing: Warwick works to make additional sensory perception accessible to all by technological means, Polanski suggests the possibility of knowing right now more than is given by our five senses. It can be done through a properly constructed screen tale.