All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




O somma luce (Jean-Marie Straub, France) [v/s]*

There's no denying that the late work of Jean-Marie Straub can be highly forbidding, even by the tough-minded, rigorous standards established throughout his career with his late partner Daniéle Huillet. Ironically, one of the aspects of Straub-Huillet work that has made it so challenging, so seemingly resistant to immediate viewing comprehension as well as closer analysis, is the fact that on its surface it often appears quite simple. The Straubian method entails shooting with direct sound, minimal camera movement, and a highly focused, almost declamatory performance style that foregrounds the text being presented rather than any actorly or theatrical values. There is almost a "readers' theatre" quality to Straub's films. But if one were forced to generalize about this highly developed method, it would probably be most correct to say that it stakes out a territory between two kinds of modernism.. On the one hand, the modernism of Clement Greenberg is present, in that these films insist upon the separation of their elements and the maintenance of each contributing artform in its irreducible specificity. Writing remains writing, not theatre; music is music; and film, film. On the other hand, Straub employs the modernist intransigence of Theodor Adorno's "negative dialectic." The films exist as aesthetic objects, in a relative autonomy. But they simultaneously gesture outward, into the material specificity of the landscape they occupy, the concrete visual and soundworld that envelops the filmic act, but does not transform it into fiction (or vice versa). Straub's method maintains a tension between a documentary foundation -- that which is recorded in the profilmic scene -- and a rehearsal or reconstitution of the creative energies of a previous moment in history -- the instantiation of a text or set of texts not from the "now." From an Adornian standpoint, these two times might one day be reconciled in a utopian social form as yet unformulated. For now, their irreconcilability indicates the work we still have before us.


In some ways, O somma luce is the most satisfying of Straub's landscape based works, although I hesitate to say so. I tend to find it the most open and inviting of his films since Huillet's passing. But I don't entirely trust this impression, and even as I articulate it I wonder if perhaps I missed some complicating nuances. Here, the separation of aesthetic elements is made nearly absolute, and while Straub has mined this terrain before, O somma luce's use of stark sensory contrast is more explicitly bolstered through the film's own thematics. The first eight or so minutes of the film are imageless black digital video. Inside this "video void" (to borrow David Larcher's term), we hear one of the most distinctive works in the modern repertoire, Déserts (first movement) by Edgard Varèse. This 1954 chamber work, which includes electronic elements on tape, is notable for its wide ranging dynamics -- piercing horns, pealing bells, a substantial percussion variance at the base, and generally a great deal of sonic space throughout. In a sense, Déserts is a logical extension of the explorations one finds in Mahler (a Straub favorite), while Varèse has clearly abandoned tonality for clusters of sound that, for lack of the technical expertise to describe them, I would have to call primal in their sense of generative force. This could be said to rhyme, in a broad sense, with Straub's cinematic use of space and landscape. There is a radical particularity in the land formations Straub commits to film or video; in using the camera to register a place's sonic existence, or its reflected light, Straub is also giving us a concrete segment of its accumulated physical history, practically a core sample. So in that regard, Déserts is music that hints at pure sound, the sound between sounds, and the molecular level of deep listening.


The final few notes of the movement are heard in a "sound bleed," a (literally) pivotal moment in O somma luce. This half-second, which takes us from darkness to light, is so out of character with Straub's customary insistence on separation, and on unadulterated straight cuts, that it is quite shocking indeed. Of course, in the context of another filmmaker's work, it wouldn't register as anything strange at all. But there is something in the explicit themes of O somma luce which could explain why such an uncharacteristic transition seemed like Straub's best choice. This pivot, after all, gives us a moment of "total cinema," of music, text, performance, and conventional editing -- an Adornian utopia, if you will -- which then slips away. Afterward, we are in a rustic but nondescript Italian landscape, rocky hills in the background, as actor Giorgio Passerone reads Canto XXXIII from Dante's Paradiso. This Canto is the story of the creation and recognition of Light. In fact, in its description of moving from darkness to illumination, ignorance to knowledge, Canto III clearly prefigures the "Untutored Eye" doctrine of Stan Brakhage's Metaphors on Vision. Dante was an obvious influence of Brakhage, and just as Brakhage posited a pre- and post-lapsarian narrative of light-bathed sensation and the subsequent fall into language, so O somma luce presents an unexpected "knot" of confluence (the music / image union) which is instantly thrown into the past the minute its existence is even recognized. This desire to reclaim the moment of Light's epiphany, while recognizing its impossibility, is encapsulated in lines 67 through 75 of Dante's Canto: "O Light exalted beyond mortal thought, / grant that in memory I see again / but one small part of how you then appeared / and grant my tongue sufficient power / that it may leave behind a single spark / of glory for the people yet to come, / since, if you return but briefly to my mind / and then resound but softly in these lines, / the better will your victory be conceived."


It is, interestingly, at this point in O somma luce that Passerone pauses, picks his script up from the ground, adjusts his glasses, and continues reading. The film then cuts to a left to right tracking shot of the skyline above the landscape, with mountains in the background. The shot ends on a thicket of brush tangled in a ragged fence. Straub repeats this arc (Heideggerian earth and sky, down to the banal ground of private property) twice, with slightly different qualities of sunlight. During this segment, Passerone reads the following lines: "substances, accidents, and the interplay between them, / as though they were conflated in such ways / that what I tell is but a simple light. / I believe I understood the universal form / of this dense knot because I feel my joy expand, / rejoicing as I speak of it." That is to say, Dante believes that he can extract the sense of Holy Light from the ordinary, profane illuminations surrounding him. O soma luce clearly agrees, but from the same sort of standpoint that, once upon a time, "stood Hegel on his head." "Exalted Light" is the close, sensual appreciation of this world, the only one within which we're privileged to exist, the one we are charged with stewarding. For Straub, this is the materialist reading of Dante. It's Canto XXXIII, refracted through the window of "Feuerbach" Thesis 11.


The White Meadows (Mohmammad Rasoulof, Iran)

You can scroll down to the bottom of my Cinema Scope piece and read my fairly comprehensive discussion of The White Meadows. I don't have a great deal to add. However I do think that, had I given myself more time, I would have liked to have elaborated on Rasoulof's visual motifs in the film. Although I specifically did not want to get into elaborate stylistic analyses in the longer essay (too much to cover as it was), I find that the expansiveness of The White Meadows really introduces certain broad, painterly modes of staging that I would associate with Theo Angelopoulos. This isn't to say that Rasoulof's approach doesn't bear the traces of a long line of Iranian magic realists or allegorists. For example, there's also a sparse, black-clad-figure-on-the-white-sands motif that one finds recurring through many works that have emerged from the Makhmalbaf Film House, such as Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman and Samira's Blackboards. Still, it's hard to ignore the similarity between The White Meadows's most striking recurring images and those of, say, Angelopoulos's The Weeping Meadow, or the Greek auteur's earlier, stronger work such as Voyage to Cythera. Just a thought, one that would require more careful elaboration in another context.




Another Year (Mike Leigh, U.K.)

[NOTE: This is the rare instance when I prefer my own, rambling edit to the Nashville Scene abbrieviation, so I'm going to take advantage of my limitless bandwidth. The link to the tighter version is on my lead page.]


When it comes to the legendary British social realist Mike Leigh, there is a stark difference between the man and his art. As Leigh has traveled the festival circuit with his films over the course of his career, he has garnered a reputation as something of a prick when it comes to Q&A sessions, shooting down moronic questions with sharp, unbridled retorts. (As someone who hates watching intelligent filmmakers feel as though they have to make nice with an often-uninformed public, I applaud Leigh’s smackdown policy.) But in recent films such as Vera Drake (2004), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and his latest, A

Another Year, Leigh displays a very different attitude toward the less articulate and socially adept among us. These are films that cannot be reduced to a single theme, but one of their major sociopolitical intentions, absolutely, is to militate against the faith in snap judgments. From an artistic standpoint, this can be a good and a bad thing. Another Year, while not achieving the critical acuity of Vera Drake, does represent a bounceback after the disappointing schematism of Happy-Go-Lucky. Although Leigh’s films are the result of improv workshops with his stable of regular actors, the final products have a definitive shape to them, but only recently has that shape begun to seem overtly rhetorical. H-G-L was deliberately designed to introduce us to Poppy (Sally Hawkins) as an irksome, frivolous creature, so that when we get to know her (and discover that her cheery disposition is a reasonable response to the ugly world around her), Leigh has effectively pulled the rug out from under us. Instructive, but too calculated by half.


The title of Another Year refers to one more year in the lives of longtime marrieds Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), whose easy compatibility and solid upper-middle-class life seem like precisely what all “people of a certain age” have been told they / we ought to be aiming for. It’s a normal but somewhat eventful year, which Leigh’s film breaks up into season-designated segments. But perhaps we can also think about the title, “another year,” as referring to another go, another assay on Leigh’s part of some of the same ethical themes he broached in H-G-L. We are indeed meant to warm immediately to Tom and Gerri. We see them on the job, navigating the social world with the wisdom of accumulated years. (Gerri is an NHS counselor; Tom is an engineering geologist.) They’ve raised a kind, productive, handsome adult son (Oliver Maltman). Despite sharing the names of a cartoon cat and mouse prone to visiting medieval tortures upon one another, they’re pretty goddamned perfect. Another Year’s skillful, often agonizing central procedure is to show how Gerri and Tom become, or passive-aggressively install themselves as, an anchor couple around whom numerous sad-sack friends and family members orbit in their abject misery. Tom’s old school chum Ken (Peter Wight) is cripplingly lonely and self-loathing. Tom’s older brother Ronnie (David Bradley) is a stoic, inward man of the old school who never made it out of the lower class, for which his drifter son Carl (Martin Savage) clearly despises him. But above all, we have Mary (Leslie Manville), a secretary in Gerri’s office who has glommed onto the couple long-term as a kind of surrogate family member.


But it is with the character of Mary that Another Year performs most of its critical and emotional heavy lifting, since she is, from start to finish, a human embarrassment, almost impossible to watch as she willfully ignores social cues, tells stories that go on too long, and makes cringe-inducing, unwanted passes at utterly inappropriate targets. Manville thoroughly embodies everyone’s sad, awkward aunt from an earlier generation (non-lesbian division), the person who was passed over for a fully formed adult life. But, as with Poppy, what we discover through the depiction of Mary, and Another Year’s rare insistence that we spend a good deal of time really trying to understand such a character, rather than brush her off our pant leg, is that she merely represents our greatest fears. What if everything we said came out needy and wrong? What if we’d been severely unlucky in love? Or – a major point that finally throws “perfect” Tom and Gerri into dialectical relief against the people they pity – what if we were stuck in a different set of class opportunities? In the end, Mike Leigh may be a cranky old bastard, but Another Year – a humanist film through and through – shows that he’s really interested in giving the world some much-needed tough love.


Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield)

Here's my piece for the Nashville Scene. A bit on the truncated side, I suppose (I actually came in at the word-limit for once), but I think I would have had to had performed an elaborate formal analysis of Putty Hill in order to do much more with the piece, and that simply wasn't an option. Besides, this is a film that has been pretty capably reviewed elsewhere. Porterfield's best sequences, from the standpoint of cinematic construction, are those with Spike the tattoo artist / estranged dad (Charles Sauers), talking about prison in subtitles (since we cannot hear over his ink gun), and the placid, reflective interview with Cory's cellmate (Dustin Ray), which entails patient close-ups as well as an attention to the basic procedure of a delicate, recovering man preparing for a particularly difficult day. But what is interesting is that while these sequences stand out (along with the now-excised "Wild Horses" karaoke number; I have not seen the new version with "Amazing Grace"), and they are focused on the emotions of men, Putty Hill's overall emotional fabric, its greater total impact, clearly comes from the plights of its young women characters. Cory's cousin Jenny (Sky Ferreira) narrowly skirts cliché and hits the mark as the bewildered, displaced late adolescent, forced by distant family death to commune with the father who clearly cannot and will not parent. She is where she clearly doesn't belong, expected to pretend that it's a home of some sort. Zoe (Zoe Vance), likewise, is the "one who got out," who has to schlep back from Delaware and deal with the Ghost World of a home town that doesn't recognize her or vice versa. Although Jenny and Zoe aren't given showcase scenes, they exemplify Porterfield's themes and his overall tone in more thoroughgoing ways. Even the ways that Putty Hill depicts landscapes -- cracked dirt, grassless, strewn with rusted detritus -- are indicative of these young women's emotional states upon returning.


One other thing: While I did not write the headline about Porterfield being an emerging master, I had the chance to change it and did not. In this case, I decided that there was nothing wrong with getting behind Putty Hill with a little bit of (possible) hyperbole. This is a fine, fine film, although certainly it is not without its flaws. I am of course acutely aware that any writer or critic dilutes his / her good name when he / she doles out praise like Halloween candy. In fact, I find myself in the awkward position of hoping that 2011's releases will stop being so darned good. Nevertheless, no sense in being stingy just for stinginess's sake. The hardass persona only counts if it's not a pose.


Winnebago Man (Ben Steinbauer)

In certain respects, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about Winnebago Man. It is conducted, like so many recent documentaries of the past seven to ten years, as a quirky character study, and I've already addressed my general problems with this trend before, in my (positive) review of Marwencol. An oversimplified understanding of what Errol Morris does, combined with the rise of Sundance and especially SXSW as the primary launching pads for English-language doc fare, have colluded to produce a kind of mentality wherein (a) documentaries are judged and valued based on their story arc; (b) character-driven docs accomplish the requirements of this aesthetic far more easily than other types of subject matter; and (c) filmmakers, perceiving themselves as having to break through the multimedia "noise," gravitate toward colorful weirdoes, thereby making American documentary film the high-minded end of an entertainment spectrum that encompasses reality TV and viral Internet / YouTube culture, rather than serving as an alternative public sphere. (You can see why I don't have my PhD. I could write my manifestos on matchbook covers.) At any rate, while Winnebago Man is neither formally adventurous nor intentionally deviant from this norm, it does have two things going for it that make it exceptional: its subject and its director. And yes, I do mean for that to sound a bit glib, since what two elements could possibly set any film apart from the pack more than its maker and its subject?


But it's the relationship between the two that allows Winnebago Man to become significantly more than it initially sets out to be. Ben Steinbauer is in fact interested in viral videos and Internet fame, and decides to pursue one particular Internet phenom, Jack Rebney, "the angry Winnebago salesman," whose frustrated outbursts during outtakes from a Winnebago industrial film were posted online to the pleasure of millions. Steinbauer's plan is to see how Internet "fame" has affected this hard-to-find private citizen, in order to demonstrate some pre-cooked thesis or other about the Web and irony and a networked cyberculture circulating around this oblivious old man, etc. And at first, Rebney plays Steinbauer like a fiddle, giving him exactly what he thinks he wants. But before long it's clear that Rebney is much savvier than he lets on, knows all too well about his Internet fame, and wants to hijack the film for his own political purposes. Steinbauer, for his part, doesn't find Jack's anti-consumer, anti-Bush/Cheney leftism compelling enough, so they split, for a time. To Ben's credit, he cools off and allows Winnebago Man to evolve. He has to step back and realize that his subject is not a naive anthropological specimen, but an active collaborator. Jack resists psychologization and cheap autobiography; he won't be a fetish. And, in the long pause in production, Jack comes to terms with his functional blindness, which makes him both that much more resolute in his prickly resolve, and a bit more willing to let others in, including Ben. Once the filmmaker allows Jack more control over Winnebago Man, it becomes a portrait of a fascinating, complex man whose breakout into the public eye, pungently funny though it was ("I don't want anymore bullshit any time during the day from anyone . . . and that includes me."), is but one facet of his being. And, once Ben earns Jack's trust, he is able to venture out and explore the unseen world that has embraced his Internet persona, and he too is surprised. By the end, both men have indeed done each other a kindness.




Caterpillar (Koji Wakamatsu, Japan)

In most respects, Caterpillar is a strange way for Wakamatsu to capitalize on the substantial comeback he achieved with his previous film, the magisterial United Red Army. That film was an epic examination of the complex dynamics and doctrinal stringency that tore the Japanese far left apart from the inside out -- a post mortem undertaken, crucially, by one of Japanese Marxism's true believers. In this regard it shares a certain kinship with Oshima's classic Night and Fog in Japan, which was more expressionistic and mired in the confusion of the moment (it was made in 1960!), but of course unquestionably prescient in its trajectory. On the contemporary scene, United Red Army has few peers; only Marco Bellocchio's very fine Good Morning, Night comes to mind. But Bellocchio's film issues forth from a position of ex-radicalism, the melancholy of disillusionment. (Not to say Bellocchio has moved rightward by any means; he is simply less Marxist and more Social-Democratic in his leanings.) Wakamatsu, meanwhile, seems to have softened very little. This makes Caterpillar's narrow historical vision all the more irksome. On the one hand, aesthetic considerations aside, Wakamatsu may have done a good job of taking the temperature of international arthouse cinema and its shibboleths. After all, United Red Army premiered in the 2008 Berlinale's Forum and was very slow to build a head of steam in terms of festival exposure. A good part of this was no doubt tactical, since URA's next stop was the New York Asian Film Festival / Subway Cinema, not the best place for an "official" North American premiere. (Considering the substantial public support both J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim gave the film, a slot at the New York Film Festival was pretty much a dead certainty, had Wakamatsu and his sales agents held back.) Clearly, Wakamatsu had been off the international radar for decades, URA put him back on the map, and Caterpillar, a less ambitious film in every way, would serve to solidify his reestablished position as a Japanese Master ("Outlaw" tag optional). It's working: Caterpillar premiered at the Berlinale in Competition, and has been picked up for commercial release by Kino Lorber. URA is even receiving a belated, piggyback release. Advantage Wakamatsu.


Trouble is, Caterpillar's small-scale drama is not only more in keeping with the character-centered, psychological (as opposed to sociological) orientations that tend to govern arthouse and festival fare. It is claustrophobic to the point of thematic and conceptual redundancy. This type of filmmaking -- the domestic sphere / the couple as dead-end, cyclical prison -- can be deeply evocative when employed as a formalist strategy. But Caterpillar is merely stuck in a rut along with its heroine, leading to a sense that Wakamatsu tried to make an character-driven film with broader political ramifications and butted up against his own limitations as a director of (non-sexual) intimate human interaction. Without his broad canvas, Wakamatsu just feels stuck. This is at heart an anti-militaristic screed, set in the 1940s during the second Sino-Japanese War. Lt. Tadashi Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya) is horribly maimed in a frontal attack, having lost all four limbs and the ability to speak clearly. His sacrifice to the Emperor and the Nation has made him a hero; in fact his village has anointed him the War God. After a brief prologue during which his other living relatives comment in semi-private about his uselessness, glad that they don't have to schlep him around and wipe his heroic ass, they leave him to the care of his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima). From the War God's homecoming parade, to the initial discussions with the worthless relatives, to the random admonitions of the clucking ladies in the street, Shigeko receives the same message loud and clear: taking care of the infirm Lieutenant is her service to the State, her feminine, homefront-oriented way to give greater glory to the Emperor. Needless to say, the task is grueling and thankless, especially since Tadashi's frustration at his condition only intensifies the nasty temper and abuse that, we soon learn, permeated this marriage long before he went off to war. Wakamatsu's point is clear as crystal: Shigeko is the true face of wartime suffering, since archaic sex and gender roles are merely heightened, making her typical imprisonment all the more thoroughgoing. As for Tadashi, Wakamatsu's depiction of him, as a man whose fanatical dedication to Imperial Japan cost him everything, is uncannily similar to the one Shohei Imamura devised for his evocative contribution to the 11'9''01 omnibus. Wakamatsu's "contribution" to the visual discourse, not surprisingly, is raw sex. Tadashi expects intercourse on demand from Shigeko, as part of her wifely sacrifices, and although the sex between these two would have undoubtedly been ugly prior to the war injuries (if he had hands, he'd most likely be slapping her), it's rather obvious that Caterpillar intends to trade on the presumed vulgarity of an attractive woman copulating with a writhing, moaning quadruple amputee. This seems less of a striking metaphor for war's unconscionable waste than a cheap play on ablist prejudices. "The Empire takes would-be porn and makes it putrid." The fact that Caterpillar has so little to offer aside from a tedious, obsessive replay of this scenario says much more about its director, and an imaginative impasse with respect to meaningfully articulating politics and desire. This is bothersome, since for so long, that ability is precisely what set Wakamatsu apart.




Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico / Spain)

Well, what do you know? It turns out that the only thing worse than collaborations between Iñárritu and former screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga is an Arriaga-less Iñárritu. All of those meaningless scrambled-chronology shell games that the two of them played in what I like to call the Trilogy of Diminishing Returns (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel) at least served the purpose (we can see this now) of giving the formalist-minded cinephile a kind of internal foil, a place (or really, more of a moving target) at which we could vent our frustration with these pretentious, half-baked films. By contrast, Biutiful just feels like a depressed, downtrodden puppy, something you want to put out of its misery as soon as possible. A three-ring circus of improbable suffering organized around a decent but ultimately empty performance by Javier Bardem, Biutiful is like a telenovela on quaaludes, teeming with plot points and incidents (it's tough to keep track of them) but trudging through them like wet Spanish moss. So much drama surrounds Uxbal (Bardem), his impending death from cancer, his deeply unstable, manic depressive ex-wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), her wanton neglect of their two children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella), Uxbal's work as a fixer-for-hire for shady Chinese "businessmen" in Spain, and his ethical quandaries in serving as the overseer for illegal immigrant sweatshop laborers, that about 2/3 through the film, I honestly forgot that (oh yeah!) Uxbal also has the power to commune with the deceased. Lest my description sound glib, I am trying to make a key point in why Biutiful is such a failure. It's an exercise in anal-expulsive miserablism. In Iñárritu's almost comically noble effort to highlight the plight of just about everybody in the Age of Late Capitalism, he sacrifices not only character specificity, but emotional plausibility. Each "individual" on screen is little more than a violin. Some, like Uxbal, quaver ruefully; others, like Marambra, screech and howl. But no one adheres to the recognizable tempo of life.


Enter The Void (Gaspar Noé, France / Germany / Italy / Canada / Japan)

To this day, I will defend Gaspar Noé's much-maligned 2002 film Irreversible, even while many of the critics I respect most in the world consider it not just an unworthy film but utter garbage. (As one such film writer put it, he was "less inclined to denounce the movie than scrape the bottom of [his] shoe.") Needless to say, I don't feel nearly as strongly about Noé's disappointing follow-up. (Some folks, however, took the occasion of the Cannes premiere to get off some good lines, such as "Enter the void between Gaspar's ears" and whatnot.) But I do find myself in the odd position of seeing the "void" on display, the gaping lack in Noé's talent and intellect that so many others saw all along in Irreversible. It's not often that we get the chance to see something or someone through other people's eyes, and only the preternaturally stubborn, or the clinically unself-reflective, could fail to wonder whether he or she had been hoodwinked. The problem, however, is one of concepts, language versus raw cinematic power. While Irreversible managed to convey its concepts, such as they were, through primarily visceral means, so that even if "time destroys everything" isn't an especially original or profound koan, Noé's formal maneuvers -- the backwards construction, the roving, disembodied camerawork, the unblinking gaze at brutal violence -- generated an unmediated, secondary level of horror semiotics.


By contrast, Enter the Void finds Noé losing his touch, and his nerve. It's a grinding slog of a film, one that continually telegraphs the director's lack of faith in his viewership, which is odd, given that by now we are certainly a self-selected bunch. Following what is admittedly a stunning opening credits sequence (I can't recall typefaces seeming that gangsta outside one of So-Me's videos), we meet two singularly bland individuals: drug dealer Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his stripper sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). They share a cramped apartment in a red-light district of Tokyo; neon floods their room every night. (Atmospheric!) Standing out on the balcony, they mutter to each other about the beauty of the cityscape, the moon against the lights, and their promise to each other. Before long, Linda's gone to work, Oscar meets his buddy Alex (Cyril Roy) en route to a drug drop at The Void, the club his bosses run. The real-time walk from the apartment to the club allows Noé to stage an extended dialogue between Oscar and Alex about the tenets of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In retrospect, we could compare this crucial passage of Enter the Void to the opening moments of Kiarostami's masterpiece Certified Copy, wherein James Miller (William Shimell) articulates his theory that copies and reproductions are as meaningful as originals. That is, here we have two films that essentially open with frank exegeses of their master concepts, rather than allowing those ideas to bubble up organically through the course of the film. But clearly there's a huge difference. Kiarostami can lay his film's cards on the table because he spends the remainder of Certified Copy exploring every last permutation and implication of the initial concept, so that by the end it is virtually unrecognizable. Noé, by contrast, is laying out a single idea that governs his film, offering an interpretive crutch for those who might otherwise find it too off-the-wall. (Oscar is killed, his spirit hovers around the earth "protecting,' or at least watching over, his sister, whom he promised never to abandon.)


In fact, I would go so far as to say that Noé is doing more than throwing his viewers an unnecessary lifeline for "understanding" Enter the Void. It's almost as though this turgid hooey is an excuse or a proleptic apology for the film's formal explorations. If we are compelled to think of Void as the first-person head trip of a disembodied spirit, restless and roving in a fit of para-incestuous pique, we are presumably more apt to accept the long takes, the anti-humanist camera-eye which, in its own way, identifies only with itself, and with Noé's continued fascination with the plasticity and anti-gravitational possibilities of cinematic space. Not unlike those sad "researchers" who attempt to prove, for example, that Van Gogh had cataracts, and so he "really saw the world that way," Noé uses the death of Oscar, and a lot of unconvincing Eastern mysticism, to sell his avant-garde nightclub act to the mundanes. And it works -- Enter the Void, despite having much more protracted longeurs, and providing far less in the way of formal or intellectual stimulation, than Irreversible or I Stand Alone for that matter, is fast becoming a cult sensation, a 21st century head-shop movie for the bourgeois collegiate narco-set. Granted, some of this is by Noé's own design. The truly ugly, ambivalent (and spectator-implicating) critique of violence that ran amuck through his previous work has been replaced here with trance techno, stripper poles, and a lot of blank space where the drugs can really come on for you, I suppose. For the sake of signifying artistry, Noé shatters the grinding flatline tone with car-crash flashbacks and, finally, a comedy version of Irreversible's "origin of the world." (Monica Bellucci's world-annihilating fecundity here becomes a computer-generated trip up Paz de la Huerta's sugar walls -- from Paul Sharits to Grand Theft Gyno.) In the final analysis, Enter the Void has its moments of pure, bracing, arche-textual cinema, the kind of zero-degree sound / image sensations that few filmmakers outside the materialist avant-garde even think to deliver. But those moments are diluted, not just by the film's long, thin slog of sameness (although there's that), but by Noé's unwillingness to trust his audience to follow him into the zone of pure cinema, without compromise or undue narrative excuses. It's possible he really does want to be the bastard lovechild of Abel Ferrara and Michael Snow, to finally produce an epic statement along the lines of La Région Tittybar, but this isn't it. Noé is at a crossroads. It's him, not us, who must leap into the void.