Saturday, October 23, 2010

Death Is A Hell Of A Drug

So by some minor miracle, the new Gaspar Noe film Enter the Void made its way to sleepy San Diego yesterday and I went to see it with some loved ones.  I've never had the opportunity to see any of his films on the big screen before, so I was excited but also nervous as both Irreversible and I Stand Alone had a strong effect on me for long after I watched them.  In fact, while I've gone well out of my way to see every disturbing film I possibly can, the great grandpapa of them all to my mind is Irreversible - I consider it one of the most affecting things I've ever seen but have only seen it once and would probably only see it again in a theater.

The movie's synopsis on IMDB is pretty much a spoiler in itself, but I feel it only fair to warn you of a couple of things:I will mention some details that might be considered spoilerish, and that there isn't really much that you could know about this film before seeing it that would change the viewing experience that much.  A pretty young American dude (Oscar) has moved to Japan, and lives in a small apartment in Tokyo with his sister.  He is a smaller level drug dealer, and definitely gets high on his own supply.
The movie is all from Oscar's perspective.  He mumbles to himself, sits on his couch, fires up a pipe (with what we later learn is DMT) and trips fucking balls within the first 10 minutes of the movie, and it is easily the most hallucinatory thing I've ever seen on a movie screen.  It's profoundly beautiful and also disturbing.  I've managed not to have ever taken DMT, so I don't know how accurate a depiction it is, but it definitely made me feel not normal in a big way.  As he's bugging out, he gets a call from someone who asks him to deliver some dope to him at a bar called The Void. So he goes to the bathroom to wash up and try to compose himself when his buddy Alex shows up at this door.  Alex is a scraggly and bearded, good natured, druggy type who has loaned Oscar a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Alex notes how fucked up Oscar is, chides him gently for being more of a drug dealer now than he used to be, and accompanies Oscar to his rendezvous.  Turns out the person who arranged the transaction has ratted Oscar out (for reasons more clear later in the film) and the cops rush in.  Oscar runs into the bathroom to flush his stash, yelling "Don't come in, I've got a gun and I'll shoot!" at the police...which ends up being a pretty bad idea.
Oscar's spirit leaves his body and we then spend the next two hours or so floating through buildings, observing people, returning to old memories and reliving the events leading up to his death.  Now my brother says that the sound mix at the Ken Theater in SD was awful and practically ruined the movie.  He might be right, but Gaspar Noe is nothing if not shy about aurally assaulting his audience.  I myself thought it brilliant that during their walk to the Void, Alex offers his opinions on what the Book of the Dead is all about and you can barely hear what he's saying - for I figured Oscar is pretty fucking high and we're right there with him.  I found the movie on a whole to be a truly intense experience that defied logic much of the time, but when I sat back and let myself be mesmerized by the strobing lights and repetitive sounds it was thoroughly engaging.
Oscar and his sister Linda lost both of their parents at a pretty young age (the depiction of which shows up about 4 times and made me jump out of my seat at least twice) and have only been able to count on one another as being constants in their lives.  Actually, that's even been impossible as they've been separated to live in different foster homes - Oscar procures money from a friend's mother and begins his drug selling efforts to afford Linda's ticket to come and live with him.  There are flashbacks in which they pledge to never leave one another no matter what, so it's clear they are all the family either one of them has.  It was strange to me, then, that on her first night in town Oscar gives Linda an ecstasy pill and takes her to a club where she ends up meeting the owner of a strip bar who employs her and kindles a relationship with her.  Postmortem Oscar also spends a whole lot of time watching his sister strip and have sex, even seeming to inhabit the body of the man on top of her so as to get an extreme close up of her face while she's screwing.  Kind of creepy, as are other things each of them do - there's clearly a weird sort of closeness between them that, while it's never outright freaky or disturbing, seems kind of off. 
By the time Enter the Void was over, I had been ready for it to be over for at least 20 or 30 minutes.  It is visually extraordinary, and I have no idea how most of the shots were achieved.  It was beautiful and frightening, harrowing and thrilling.  Sometimes all at once, even.  I couldn't tell you what really happened at the end because I have no idea what was real, or hallucinated, or implied versus accurately depicted.  I was spent and confused by the end...but I wasn't bored.  Much like Irreversible, I can't honestly say that I recommend this to anyone only because I can't say whether or not the forceful and visually stunning aspects of this movie will be too unpleasant.  And of course I can't say whether or not death will be anything like what this film depicts at all, and hopefully I won't find out for a hell of a long time.  However, what Noe has done here is remarkable in my opinion - using images and sounds in such a way that one is lead to believe that they (at least in a small way) now know what death might be like. Pretty crazy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's Not About You

So I finally got cable TV for the first time in 9 years - actually, satellite TV - about 3 months ago, and it's been lots of fun catching up on stuff I've missed.  It's also pretty sweet to put in a search for whatever movie pops into my head and have it come up once in a while.  Unless it's on some network that edits them for content, otherwise known as wasting everyone's time.

Forgive me, then, for being surprised at the sheer volume of TV shows regarding the supernatural/paranormal/spooky/haunted/etc type of stuff. My wife, who really isn't into scary movies much at all, is far more into these kinds of tv shows, which is cool with me.  I try to record at least 1 or 2 episodes of each one so I can give them a shot at bringing the creeps.  Some of them succeed to varying degrees, and some are just sad.

Before we moved to San Diego in 2001, I remember watching episodes of MTV's Fear on TV and thinking they were super rad.  If you've never heard of it, I think it's fair to say they were a precursor to a lot of these paranormal shows of late.  A group of (usually) young and (kinda) dumb people are taken to a supposedly haunted location and set up in a safehouse/command center type of place.  They are each assigned a color and a computer then sends them out into the scariness in order to complete "dares" - usually involving provocation of ghosts, using a ouija board, completing some halfassed type of rite or getting in a mirror box, you name it. What really makes it work, though, is the setup that the show provides for each of the locations. There's a lot of detail about grisly events, about the ghosts that are supposed to be there, about how all these psychics who have been there practically shat themselves when they walked through in broad daylight...and then these poor saps have to go in there in pitch darkness and do some stupid dares so they can make a couple of thousand bucks. 

Uh, no thanks
Now, unless you've seen some ghost shows that I've missed up to this point, the one thing you will never see on a ghost show is a bona fide ghost.  Sure, there are shadowy figures, and things giving off heat on a FLIR camera, and people playing recordings of voices saying random shit on a Radio Shack recorder, not to mention the ever-popular "orbs", aka little spots or balls or whatever...but not a ghost.  So all I'm asking for is a campfire story, really.  Something that makes me go "no fucking WAY would I go willingly into that place, in the dark no less, and mess around looking for trouble".  Because while I haven't seen a ghost and so am disinclined to believe in them, I'm not looking to find them either...just watch other people do it.

Well, MTV's Fear came and went pretty quickly, and as cool of a show as it was, they couldn't leave well enough alone.  God forbid that they just play up the wretchedness of a locale and let people scare the poo out of themselves bumbling around saying Bloody Mary in a mirror or, they had to fake it.  Histories of locations were made up from whole cloth (as in supposed satanic rituals at Camp Spirit Lake, which was bullshit and not even the place's name - if memory serves, it was the filming location for Friday the 13th for Pete's sake), equipment was rigged to malfunction, there were production assistants making noises in the background, stuff was painted on walls and props carefully placed.  In other words, they fucked up a beautiful thing.  If they had just left well enough alone, who knows how big the show might have gotten?

It's enough to make you puke
So, fast forward to the present day.  A lot of the ghost/paranormal shows are pretty much ass.  It's almost like the more equipment they bring, the less interesting it is.  I mean, there's no meter or recording device or speak n spell type gizmo that's going to replace seeing something on film.  It's about as compelling as watching some psychic type talk about the baaaad juju they're feeling.  My imagination is better then their descriptions most of the time.  Shows that don't even bother to play up the histories of the places they're going to are lame - not everyone is going to know all about these places unless you hype it good and proper.  It's like telling a story around the campfire without the preamble about how THIS ALL HAPPENED RIGHT HERE!  They just cut to people in greenish light saying "is anyone here with me?" a bunch of times and then cutting to the OMG UNCANNY evp recordings that say "blarfle catfish nincompoop", which somehow gets translated to "I'll kill you for the devil" - not to mention there's no way to prove the timing of these recordings in terms of whether or not they could reasonably be considered to be responses to anything.

I guess it says a lot for my love of the creepy setup, though, that I watch a couple of these shows all the time because they subscribe to the concept.  Ghost Adventures and Destination:Truth probably are the most consistent when it comes to setting the stage, but what's starting to get disconcerting is that the "stars" of these shows are starting to act like they're the reason people watch their shows - which is not the case.  Speaking for myself, I'm watching it because it helps me imagine how scary it would be to do what they're doing, as in wandering around an abandoned prison/mental hospital/deserted village/Chernobyl listening for spooky shit. I'm not watching it because Josh Gates is so hilarious or Zak Bagans is so EXTREEEEEME.
which he is.
At least Destination:Truth doesn't take itself so seriously.  My favorite quote from one of the crewmembers is "No one's better at almost finding monsters than us!" - and when they keep the winking to the audience to a minimum, it's still pretty decent.  Ghost Adventures, though,  has been particularly foul lately with the forced extremity and, uh, madcap hilarity in this season's new episodes.  Watching the dudes on that show fight in a Civil War reenactment in Gettysburg was profoundly embarrassing...but nothing compared to what followed a couple of weeks later when they went to that hotel in Colorado that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining and Mr. Bagans waved an axe around shouting "Here's Zakky" (really).  The more Dippity Doo he has in his hair, the worse the show is getting.  I mean, I don't think there would be much interest in watching the dude do anything other than traipsing around haunted houses, so cut the shit already and make with the spooky back story instead of riding up to the hotel in a limo would have been cut out of House of 1000 Corpses for being too ridiculous.

I guess with a subject matter as absurd as "real life paranormal occurrences", there's an impossibly fine line between scary and stupid.