Saturday, March 12, 2011

Enter the Void: That The Dead Do Not Improve

The good news is that I gave Enter the Void 4 stars out of 5 on Netflix. In this I departed pretty sharply from Anthony Lane:
All of this is exhausting, not to say repetitive, and the actors are much less dynamic than the camera, but there is a proud, bloody-minded majesty in the trip. Even if you can’t face the rest of the movie, go for the astonishing opening credits, which look like an explosion in a font factory, and then walk out.
I hated the opening credits, but liked more and more of what I saw thereafter. The bad news is that I am not sure I shouldn't have given it one or zero stars rather than four.

I credit it for keeping my interest for 2-1/2 hours despite my continuous dread that it would lose me; and for some genuinely interesting mise-en-scène -- the scene early on in which the protagonist's friend describes the Tibetan Book of the Dead while descending a spiral staircase is, alone, a more evocatively arranged scene than many directors have managed over long careers; and for assembling a narrative in a way that requires -- gasp! -- the full attention of the viewer for the duration.

On the level of meaning, however, it just begs too many questions. To wit:

Why are these the scenes the dead consciousness revisits over and over? How does the consciousness know -- if he does know -- where and when to go to experience a significant moment from the past or present? For example, he's there several minutes before his sister learns of his death and still present when she learns of it; he's there when his sister identifies his body; he's there when his former lover, her son, and her husband have a loud dispute about him; he's there when the angry son decides to set him up for the police sting that leads directly to his death in a filthy night-club toilet.

We are there, again and again, as he watches people having sex -- people he knows and people he doesn't know alike. Whereas the only mourners we see are people who are mourning his death or the deaths he himself has mourned -- an interestingly narrow sample compared with the fairly broad survey of people fucking in Tokyo.

We are there when he descends to a microscopic vantage point to witness events that are impossible to see with normal human eyesight. Are these anatomical close-ups he sees within the scope of the biological knowledge he attained while still alive? This is not an idle question -- on it turns whether we can plausibly see these visions as dream-like, subconscious projections or take them as novel insights gained at the expense of death.

Does he in some way choose these destinations in time and space? If not, what agency is being proposed as having chosen them, and according to what rules, principles, guidelines, powers?

Granted, reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and studying the larger tradition to which it belongs might well fill in some of these blanks. To be crass: who gives a shit? I am asking questions raised within the frame of the film and calling out the film's apparent unwillingness to answer them. Inasmuch as the film is saying something about Buddhist cosmology, it needs to show it and say it. Suggestions for further reading can be had elsewhere.

There's an interesting-enough story here, and a good deal of artfulness in assembling and presenting it, but in the end, according to this movie, we are in death much as we are in life -- self-regarding, sex-obsessed voyeurs who aren't quite healed from the traumas that shaped us, but given -- whether we want them or not -- opportunities to repeat the same old cycles that took us where we are. In the words of "Tennessee," the great Silver Jews song, "the dead do not improve" (lyrics; song).

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