Immersion: Public Speaking (2010) and Enter the Void (2009)

The basic element of cinema, running through it from its tiniest cell, is observation.” -Andrei Tarkovsky

Two films this week grabbed me by the shoulder, eased me into a sitting position, and held me there – sometimes against my will, sometimes just to keep me from floating away.  They’re completely different films on every level except one: their willingness to establish a firm immersive style and stick with it all the way, narrative clarity be damned.  Neither is really about a story anyway, but about the act of watching – a wholly different intent, and one that demands not your ability to piece the strands together or follow character arc, but to let yourself be submerged in your own powers of observation.  In the hands of commanding filmmakers, the reward therein is an infinitely stronger cinematic experience, because it allows for your own responses while you’re watching.  When these kinds of films are over, there’s no discussion of what happened, or what it all meant; if you’ve got any sensitivity to cinematic flow at all, you made little discoveries of your own the whole time.

That said, the two films in question couldn’t possibly operate with more divergent mechanisms.  Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking – a series of interlaced interviews with Fran Lebowitz – is about wit and language; both wash over you at breakneck speed, and not always simultaneously.  Comprised purposefully of talking heads, it lets Lebowitz’ frizzy dowager face do most of the visual work, turning it into a glacial landscape we watch as from a great height, her lacerating speech spilling off like walls of ice into her ever-present glass of water.  Coming from a filmmaker so noted for his visual deftness, Public Speaking has a startling stillness to it, but little by little the efficacy of Lebowitz’ jolting wit – often made with the right, few, words; just as frequently made with their total absence – takes over, its breathless trajectory a fountain of pure linguistic dexterity that carries you along with or without your consent.  That she so frequently articulates truths we feel, in the moment she says them, that of course we knew – that Obama’s presidency, to paraphrase for example, needs to happen so that it can become a belated part of our history instead of our present – sparks the sort of self-aware amusement that causes us to miss the next two or three things she says.  Scorsese plays on that, building a film of bewildering accumulative profundity we can’t keep up with, and shouldn’t.  To paraphrase Altman, it’d be awfully disappointing if we got everything out of this film the first time we saw it – it’d mute the joy of experiencing it again.

Scorsese knows there’s nothing stylistic he can bring to Public Speaking that won’t distract from Lebowitz; aside from its whitewater rush of a pace, dictated and propelled by Lebowitz’s own delivery, there’s nothing distinct about it as a film.  But it’s light years ahead of something like Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s ambitious but cinematically puerile agitprop, which seems pointlessly stuck, as a film, in 1988 (I think it’s reaching for a Wall Street-era feel…silly shame).  And for the first time since No Direction Home, Scorsese seems back on track as an artist, after a decade of tepid fiction work that belies his stunning oeuvre of the previous three decades.  He knows to engage Lebowitz as a subject at her own level, to let her do the talking, to let the film be about nothing but her performance (it is a performance, as the President’s public persona is also a performance).  Perhaps to highlight this, as well as to nod at Lebowitz the New York loner-philosopher, he includes clips from his own Taxi Driver (she owns and operates the same model car, albeit white).  He often frames her interviews with a listener – usually himself – at the edge of the shot, providing Lebowitz with an audience inside the film; he also cuts to alternate angles on the same interview to complement her ever-shifting tone.  But this is basic stuff.  Scorsese made the film for HBO – it airs Monday night at 10 – and lets it be, as a film, quite beautifully basic.

Gaspar Noe, on the other hand, seems unable to let an uninflected shot exist in his films; Enter the Void washes over you with the patient flow of drugged consciousness, the smallest details as crystalline as the largest.  It snatches you by the throat in its opening credits, which snap and smash across the screen with little attention to whether you can actually read them, and launches you into the film’s relentless point-of-view subjectivity, half-cracked on visual stimulus.  That the film spends its first few minutes watching the walls of a Tokyo apartment through the stoned eyes of its expat protagonist – including an extensive deep-sea-ish heroin high, complete with swarming tentacles of pure light – tells you right away what Noe cares about as a communicator: uninhibited sensation.  You realize very quickly that as a narrative vehicle, Enter the Void won’t give you much of a roadmap; it’s designed to plunge you straight into the sluggish, half-functioning mind of a very wrung-out young man who, as it turns out, doesn’t have very long to live – and then the film takes off.

The Tokyo setting has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with light: neons, strobes, fluorescents: reflected, refracted, dim, and blinding.  Noe’s control element is the human optic nerve.  It’s the one thing you can count on, the filter by which the rest of this film makes sense, and his fidelity to it is astounding.  You’re usually watching a direct point of view, the camera substituting for human vision (including quick dips to black, simulating a blink), but a few minutes in to the film, we’re shot through the chest, crumple on the floor of a filthy toilet stall, and die, the light gradually fading to nothing.  Thereafter, Noe pulls up and away from the dead body, and the film runs the risk of becoming obvious in its floating-ghost perspective, but Noe thinks further: he starts to alternate these with a shot taken from immediately behind his protagonist’s head, as we watch scenes from his short life play out in front of him.  The device is sort of heartbreakingly felt out – when you think about your life, you do place yourself in your memories, if not as an actual figure then as a shapeless specter looming over them.  Noe just visualizes the specter; the perspective is unfailingly consistent.

This stuff is pure cinema, endlessly able to communicate with image alone.  But Noe stumbles here as well, sticking so closely to his visual strategy that he winds up writing dully obvious fragments of dialogue to fill in the plot, lines that have no business in a film this ambitious.  And in delineating a childhood whose innocence was to be irrevocably lost, Noe resorts to dead-and-buried clichés of familial happiness: on the beach with dad, in the bath with mom.  It’s also clear that English isn’t his first language – his lead actor suffers from tone-deaf verbal delivery.  But his lead actress, Paz de la Huerta, who plays the man’s sister, is a relevation to me.  Noe demands unreasonably physical and emotional nakedness from his actors, and that he’s willing to take his film just as far is the only reason it isn’t, in this case, gratuitous.  De la Huerta shows no fear, as she’s all but raped by her boss and then told of her brother’s death in the same scene.  Her vulnerability in these scenes and others is sort of terrifying, and it lets the film float past its latent corniness (the brother’s specter at one point sinks straight into the head of a man fucking her; for a few moments he’s fucking his sister).  Noe’s craftsmanship is immaculate and usually original, but he badly needed de la Huerta’s grounding performance to lend it the emotional core it might have otherwise lacked.

His last film had me deeply worried about his future as a filmmaker.  2002’s Irreversible is as aggressive as anything I’ve ever seen, purporting to be about the deep romantic bond between its leads but pummeling them, and us, with astonishing physical and emotional brutality.  A rape scene lasts a solid, uncut ten minutes; another character has his arm broken backward at the elbow.  Noe lays an almost imperceptibly high-pitched tone over the first half hour of the film, an effect that leads to nausea.  He does all of this with great purpose and flawless technique, but I’m not sure there’s a sound point to it – at some juncture along a narrative this volatile, the sensual excess overwhelms any subtlety the rest of the film may be striving for.  What I got out of it is that nothing beats love quite as viciously as a fire extinguisher to the head in a fit of vengeful rage.  Thankfully, Enter the Void is a very different beast.  It has a similar attitude to graphic frankness – at one point we are subject to sex from the inside out – but Noe takes this stuff seriously as valid cinematic subject matter, and lets sequences play with loving attention to duration for its own experiential sake.  He also laces the film with a roiling, interminable soundscape; the film is an intoxicating thing to behold.

In a classical sense, neither Public Speaking nor Enter the Void amounts to much of a film.  The former has little arc, no dramatic tension, and no character development that leads anywhere, and it’s got a relatively specious approach to its own social value – but then, so does its subject.  Enter the Void would probably be a better film if it had abandoned its classical pretenses.  They’re not its strongest attributes, and only distract from its ultra-immersive narrative style.  What I love about both films is their willingness to ignore what must have occurred to someone in their respective productions as reliable storytelling – if not also good business sense – in favor of a bolder aspiration to pull you into your own consciousness for a while, and let you wander in whatever’s down there.  In an odd way, I’ve spent little time since either screening reflecting on it.  Both are absorbing original works full of new wonders for me.  They left me ample room to think as I watched; I left the theater already changed by them, and in recent days have been wallowing in their ether.  One cold truth is that not many films can do that.

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