Death Tripping Tibetan Style With Gaspar Noé's 'Enter the Void'
Reaching for the ultimate psychedelic experience, director Gaspar Noé found The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but did he know what he found when he crafted Enter the Void?
Just as a fountain cannot spring forth from empty sky,
So virtue and vice are de-objectified in voidness.
-- from Identifying Intelligence, Natural Liberation Through Naked Vision
Mankind has been taking hallucinogenic foodstuffs for millennia to reach altered states of consciousness. Given the power of these hallucinations, the resulting psychedelic "trip" was often yoked to spiritual journeys akin to meditative trances. The drugs were one of many methods to change perception; others included extended mediation, chanting or dancing sessions sometimes coupled with prolonged fasting or sleeplessness or pain or other means of extreme physical exertion. Often these altered perceptions were yoked to spiritual experiences.
However, it was not until the 20th century that hallucinogenic drugs began to be used in earnest purely for recreational purposes. It didn't take long for filmmakers to attempt to recreate the experience of tripping for audiences.
Most discussions on this topic trace the trip-out scene in a New Orleans cemetery in 1969's paean to American hippie culture, Easy Rider as the point of departure for the psychedelic cinematic experience. There were technical precedences for depicting altered states in dream-sequences, and director Dennis Hopper used most of these techniques in his film. They include fast jump cuts and zooms; fisheye lenses; close-up shots of flowers with color filters and strobe lights. In addition, the actors behave strangely. Some get naked. At one point, there's a shot of Peter Fonda holding an open umbrella even though it isn't raining.
From the distance of nearly half-a-century, the Easy Rider scene looks remarkably contrived and corny. Technically, the scene falls far short of recreating for the audience the sensations of being on LSD. It mostly looks made to freak out the straights, Hey, adults in suits! Your kids are dropping acid and waving umbrellas around in cemeteries! Hopper was hardly the last filmmaker to attempt to film such an experience, though the techniques he used remained standard for his successors.
With the rise of computer-generated imagery (CGI), filmmakers were given another tool in their kit for depicting hallucinogenic experiences. Terry Gilliam's 1998 adaption of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas features a memorable scene when the main character drops acid and watches the vegetable-like patterns in a carpet wriggle and writhe. The concept of "morphing" was not particularly new (Terminator 2: Judgement Day's molten metal shape-shifting T-1000 had made its appearance in 1991), but as far as I know, Gilliam was the first to use it to accurately recreate the visual experience of an acid trip.
I remember watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when it premiered at a midnight showing in San Diego and this moving carpet special effect got a round of applause. That most of the audience was at least half-baked is a solid recommendation of it's veracity.
With the advent of fully digital filmmaking, however, producers and directors began to use the old bag of tricks to new affect, sometimes even eschewing special effects altogether.
A Field in England, the 2013 period-drama by British director Ben Wheatley, was shot and edited entirely in digital format, and even though it's black and white, it features a psychedelic scene that rivals the best. After consuming mushrooms, the characters go through a trip-out that turns the balance of the plot. Watch carefully, and you realize that there is no CGI used. The cinematographer Laurie Rose used some bespoke lenses, but otherwise, the techniques of mirror images, extreme close-ups, slowing the frame rate, and reversing the images (plus actors behaving strangely) are all there from Easy Rider. The big difference is in the editing.
The super fine cutting that digital editing allows is used here to remarkable effect. Wheatley worked closely with editor Amy Jump and the mushroom scene is undeniably the film's showpiece. The flashing juxtapositions of the images are something that would have been almost impossible with the old cut and splice methods used for film. The mushroom scene needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Director Gaspar Noé has also embraced the power of digital filmmaking to create a psychedelic effect on his audience. His 2009 effort, Enter the Void, employs every trick they've used since Easy Rider. Along with digital editing and state-of-the-art motion graphics and CGI plus a holographic neon color palette that ceaselessly swirls and blurs and strobes while the camera floats through walls and hovers above the action, the film actually gives the viewer a physical response similar to taking drugs. It's almost as if the film's disorienting effects are a narcotic.
It'is the only film, at least that I know of, that claims the point-of-view of a ghost for nearly the entire run-time. This frees Noé's camera from nearly all laws of physical space and time. Yet, it's here that the intentional psychedelic experience Noé crafts gets sticky with spiritual elements that led many critics to deride the film as both brilliant and vapid.
The film is admittedly thin on plot. A young American drug-dealing orphan named Oscar, who lives in Tokyo with his really sexy stripper sister named Linda, with whom he may have an incestuous relationship, is shot and dies. His spirit then floats around watching his companions in the immediate days after his death; remembering in vivid flashbacks his youth and the violent death of his parents; and hallucinating within this hallucination about the next life. At the end of the film he's reincarnated as the child of his sister and his French drug buddy named Alex. The word "Void" flashes on the screen. The end.
So is the film about reincarnation? As Noé told Den of Geek:
I read books on reincarnation and many books about out-of-body experiences. Actually, the movie is not so much about reincarnation. It's more about someone who gets shot while on acid and DMT [Dimethyltryptamine], and trips out about his own death and dreams about his soul escaping from his flesh, because he wants to keep this promise to his sister that he'll never leave her, even after death.
Despite this caveat, Noé makes a point of prominently placing a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in front of the audience. Alex explains to Oscar (and to us) the concepts of the book, thus cleverly providing the exposition dialogue of the first act and the "rules" of this film. Alex explains:
Basically, when you die, your spirit leaves your body… actually first, you can see all your life like reflected in a magic mirror then you start floating like a ghost and you can see anything that's happening around you… you can hear everything, but you can't communicate with the world of the living. And then, you see these lights, all these different lights, of all different colors. These lights are the doors that pull you into any place in existence… but most people actually… actually like this world so much that they don't want to be taken away, so that's when the whole thing turns into a bad trip. The only way out is to get reincarnated. […] Basically, you do this forever and ever until you manage to break the circle.
This framework sets up the narrative for the audience and gives us some orientation once Oscar's spirit begins its peregrinations across the dark wonderland of Tokyo's nightlife. But what were Noé's intentions in specially using The Tibetan Book of the Dead?