It’s been a while since the world of cinema has been shaken to its core. Every few years, critics everywhere will hail a filmmaker’s work as “groundbreaking,” or perhaps even “wildly original”⎯— but rarely is a filmmaker able to package the history of experimental cinema and re-gift it in such a way that it changes our perception of the cinematic experience itself. “Enter the Void,” by French filmmaker Gaspar Noé, just might be the most awe-inspiring film since Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a journey so unimaginable its closest analogy is death.
The self-described “psychedelic melodrama” is set in Tokyo and follows the life of an American-born drug dealer named Oscar who’s shot and killed by Tokyo police after a drug deal gone awry. Beginning with Oscar’s death, Noé delves deep into a rough chronological telling of Oscar’s life from the perspective of his ghost, which revisits his death at a Tokyo night club and continues drifting over the shoulder of his sister Linda, played by the sensual Paz de la Huerta. Filled with overtly fetishized sexual deviance, vast hallucinogen-induced periods of astral drift, and nauseating gore, “Enter the Void” is not a breezy trip to the theatre; those looking for conventional tropes like “narrative” and “character development” should be wary. Rather, what Noé offers is an out-of-body experience. From the moment Noé invokes the nether space between life and death, the camera soars effortlessly above the neon-bathed Tokyo skyline, redering the audience mesmerized and detached from the physical world — in effect, the absurd yet visceral horrors constantly barraging the audience are rendered amoral and meaningless. “Enter the Void” is simply numbing.
If you have a keen eye for fringe cinema, you could have caught “Enter the Void” at the Criterion Theater here in New Haven. Released last September under a “long tail” distribution strategy by IFC, it floated around independent theaters before riding the hype machine to the big time. Its reign was short lived, but it remained in the limelight long enough to be completely ripped off by Kanye West in his video for “All of the Lights.” What does it mean when perhaps the most polarizing and disturbing film of the last decade is ripped off by Kanye?
Reviewing the nominees for this weekend’s Academy Awards, independent cinema looks to be quite healthy. “Winter’s Bone,” a film whose distribution rights were bought by Roadside Attractions for under $500,000 at last year’s Sundance Film Festival garnered a nomination for Best Picture. Its lead, Jennifer Lawrence, is nominated for Best Actress. In what is perhaps an emerging paradigm for independent cinema, a minimalist, well made film like “Winter’s Bone” with low production costs, low distribution costs and a limited marketing scheme is essentially guaranteed at least a minimal profit. Its four Oscar nominations are merely the icing on the cake.
One of the great cultural uncertainties today is the effect of the Internet and easily accessible production technology will have on the arts. Since the mid-nineties, the number of films produced has quintupled, the number of films distributed has doubled, and the number of companies competing for distribution rights has tripled. This seems like a progression toward greater inclusion, yet cries from the fringe continue. Although distribution has widened, it lags behind overall film production. Since only a portion of the films produced can possibly be distributed, this newly tightened bottleneck paints a picture of an independent film industry in crisis.
Independent films are also seeing an unprecedented wave of competition from the Internet — a limitless tap for easily accessible, but artistically questionable, entertainment. If the audience does its part to separate the wheat from the chaff, this should only raise the quality of films that make it to theaters; it’s simple survivor of the fittest. Of course, the weight of responsibility is not solely on the audience. It takes filmmakers like Noé — who created the equivalent of a cinematic “Big Bang” — to reawaken filmmakers and their increasingly apathetic audience.
Some potential “Bangs” in 2011: Crispin Glover’s “It Is Mine,” the third and final installment in his disturbingly psychosexual “It” series, and Alejandro Jadorowsky’s long-awaited sequel to the 1970 cult western classic “El Topo,” penned “Abel Cain.”