Escape Reality: Enter the Void

Introduction

Ever since cinema was invented in 1895, many film theorists have attempted to definitively answer the question: “What is cinema?” The prominent film theorist André Bazin has connected cinema with the medium of photography and emphasized cinema’s operating as “twenty-four photographic frames that flit by each second.”[1] This account corresponds with an understanding of cinema in terms of an indexical sign which assumes not mediated and direct representation of reality.[2] According to Daniel Morgan, this interpretation directly impacts cinematic aesthetics because “the realism of cinema follows from [a] photographic base.”[3] However, this particular definition became challenged after film developed and shifted from analogue to digital technology in the 1990s, causing theorists like Morgan to question whether digitally manipulated films can still be defined as merely indexical. Instead, the medium’s iconographic qualities have been highlighted,[4] which has enabled Morgan to distance himself from this account of cinema as a strictly photographic medium. He uses the cinematography of Jean-Luc Godard to propose an account of cinema as an impure medium where photography is conceived of in relation to other artistic media.[5]

One example of an impure film is Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009). In this work, the viewer is presented with incredibly intimate and abstract streams of thought through vivid representations of the effects of drugs on one’s state of mind, sexual overindulgence and a traumatic car crash. The film was shot in Tokyo where the flickering neon lights and busy city life enhanced this overwhelming imagery to distort reality. In order to further elaborate on Morgan’s conception of an impure cinema, this essay aims to answer the question: How can Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) – through its relation to surrealism and gaseous cinema – challenge cinema’s definition as merely indexical?

The essay begins with an introduction to the intellectual debate regarding the ontology of cinema, specifically discussing the academic texts written by Bazin, Gunning and Morgan that serve as a theoretical framework to approach Enter the Void. Hence, the second section focuses on the film’s impure qualities and links it to surrealism through the analysis of one such painting. The third section elaborates on Noé’s editing of the film and concentrates on the shifting perspectives and the execution of cuts which are linked to Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of montrage and gaseous cinema. These sections serve to demonstrate how the above-mentioned aspects of the film contribute to an understanding of cinema as an impure medium, heightening viewers’ awareness of cinema’s ecology with its various artistic media and urging for a more dynamic and open approach to cinema.

[1] Morgan, 2012, 158.

[2] Bazin, 2005 [1967], 13-14.

[3] Morgan 2012, 158.

[4] The famous semiotician Charles Sander Peirce identified three kinds of signs. In his text What is a Sign? (1894), he argues that “firstly, there are likenesses, or icons; which serve to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them. Secondly, there are indications, or indices; which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them. […] Thirdly, there are symbols, or general signs, which have become associated with their meanings by usage” (5). In this essay, I will focus only on Peirce’s concepts “icon” and “index” as they closely connect to the academic discussions surrounding the medium of film.

[5] Morgan 2012, 156.

CINEMA AND PAINTING

In alignment with Morgan, the film historian Tom Gunning not only questions cinema’s strict relation to photography but also traditional photography’s truth claim and its assigned indexicality.[1] Gunning additionally stresses the importance of not considering the terms “digital” and “indexical” to be polar opposites since such an understanding would then perpetuate the myth of a transparent photographic process where the role of the lens and film choice, exposure rate, shutter and the processes of developing and printing are neglected.[2] Gunning’s argument demonstrates that the photograph’s assumed indexicality is already problematic, which points towards the ambiguity of defining cinema in connection to photography based on its indexical sign. He concludes that the digital revolution will change the process through which photographs are made and used, although they still remain photographs in essence.[3] Therefore, he despises the term “post-photograph” and its connotations in relation to digital technology. This development also corresponds with the adoption of digital techniques in cinema from the 1990s onwards, where film theorists questioned the very nature of film and started to use the term “post-film” to mark this change. Hence, the same logic Gunning uses for photography can be applied to film where even after the digital revolution, we can still consider it as the same medium.

Similarly, Morgan outlines cinema’s close relationship with paintings, consequently highlighting the medium’s iconographic qualities. He proposes that Godard’s impure films challenge traditional assumptions about what cinema is, which is usually defined using the characteristics of photography.[4] This account of cinema contradicts that of Bazin, whose theory of cinema clings to the notion of an indexical sign whereby a reference is strictly and directly related to its source, hence operating in opposition to the art form of painting.[5] As a consequence, Morgan interprets Bazin’s approach to mean that “a film should not impose a style on reality.”[6] Instead, Morgan states that this conception of cinema is no longer as relevant since contemporary cinema uses digital technology to highlight the appearance of an image together with one’s experience of it.[7] In this way, Morgan does not rely on a referential relation to the world but rather the mode of its presentation. This indicates a shift from concern about what is shown in a film to how it is shown and therefore, a transformation from indexicality to iconography. Consequently, cinema is no longer concerned with recording and photographing truth but is instead interested in using digital technology “to explore the pictorial capacities of cinema.”[8] On this note, I would like to use Morgan’s and Gunning’s conception of cinema as a useful framework to analyze Enter the Void since the film’s close entanglement with media types other than photography is clearly visible.

ENTER THE VOID & SURREALISM

Enter the Void encourages viewers to experience drug-altered states of consciousness, death and the afterlife through the main character Oscar. These events which attempt to detach the viewer from reality, would be extremely difficult to capture without the use of digital effects and computer graphics. The movie’s aesthetics and overall process of production strongly corresponds with the concept of surrealism where the relationship between the dream state and reality is highlighted. A principal theorist of surrealism, André Breton, defines surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express […] the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”[9] This definition indicates that surrealism is not a style but a method which suggests a new way of seeing the world that mirrors our own thinking.

Similar to the 1920s and 1930s when surrealists put themselves into a trance during surrealist séances or practiced the psychoanalytic phenomenon of “hypnotic sleep,”[10] Noé traveled to a Peruvian forest where he drank ayahuasca and smoked DMT (dimethyltryptamine) prior to shooting Enter the Void. This served as a kind of research and inspiration for creating the film while strongly influencing its aesthetics and editing process.[11] Furthermore, since there is no clear distinction between reality and dreams or hallucinations, the film equally emphasizes their importance.[12] As a result, Enter the Void can be analyzed from a surrealist perspective because it attempts to draw in viewers and encourages them to experience different states of consciousness by constantly fluctuating between the dream or hallucinatory state and reality. This blurred distinction between reality and fantasy is one of the main tenets of surrealism and is strongly reflected in the film through the use of digital technology.

 

Figure 1 (up) – Oscar’s Hallucinations, Enter the Void (2009) film still

Figure 2 (down) – Space Organism (2010-2014), De Es Schwertberger, painting (oil on canvas)

As Brown argues, surrealism highlights “ambiguity, mystery, absurdity and the irrational” whereas the irrational encompasses “altered states of mind, such as dream, drug experiences, madness, extreme hunger and also love.”[1] Enter the Void mainly focuses on drug and dream states which is particularly apparent in the opening scene of Enter the Void when Oscar is seen smoking DMT from a pipe, after which his room suddenly transforms into colorful moving webs that mirror his hallucinations. The visual depiction of Oscar’s hallucination (Figure 1) through the use of digital technology can be said to directly “affect our mechanisms of perception prior to the search for “meaning.””[2] Furthermore, Anna Powell, the author of the book Deleuze, Altered States and Film (2007), discusses films in connection to their depiction of altered states and argues that digital technology projects on the screen “a purely technological hallucinatory display disrupting norms of perspective by affective bombardment.”[3] Therefore, the scene directs the viewer through the spectacle of light, color and movement towards an aesthetic experience of an altered state of human perception. Simultaneously, the use of sound which blends ethereal music representing the trip together with familiar sounds from reality, as for instance, a phone ringtone creates a smooth bridge between hallucination and reality and hence, further intensifies this aesthetic experience. This is strongly linked to Morgan’s argument that in contemporary cinema, the appearance of an image and diverse means of presentation have become more important than a referential relation to the real world.

The digital imagery shown in the film still of Figure 1 can be said to resemble surrealist paintings such as that of De Es Schwertberger in Figure 2. The abstract structures, vivid color transitions and psychedelic atmosphere can be traced in both Noé’s and Schwertberger’s work as both focus on the unconscious and signify a departure from this world through which they attempt to broaden the horizons of the viewer. This connects to Michael Richardson’s argument that “surrealism is always about departures rather than arrivals.”[4] In an interview for Art Contraire, Schwertberger stated that he wants to depict inner connections and reveal basic patterns in his paintings.[5] Similarly, by highlighting the interconnectedness between humans, states and objects through the visual depiction of DMT-induced psychedelic shapes, Noé aesthetically visualizes and actualizes the void described in the film’s title. As Noé in an interview with Sam Adams explains, DMT is a chemical substance naturally present in our brain and it is released when we are dreaming or dying.[6] Hence, the void is realized through the drug-induced state and Oscar’s experience of death where the representation of the two events fuses the boundary between subject and object. In this way, the film does not present its viewers with objects but rather shows what exists between these objects, “that from which all objects and matter are woven – namely the void itself.”[7] By exposing what a person can experience in their altered states of consciousness, the void can be said to represent the unknown and hence, having a strong relation to Brown’s principles of surrealism – ambiguity, absurdity and the irrational. Therefore, digital technology not only allowed Noé to remove the influence of arbitrary elements in the film, but it also gave him total control over the movie’s production process just as if he were creating a painting from scratch. Thus, Noé’s use of digital technology achieved visual effects that are similar to those caused by surrealist paintings in his attempt to visually represent the impact of DMT on a person’s mental state and more importantly the void.

At the same time, this scene is arguably realistic since it is based on Noé’s own experience of DMT, which he attempted to re-create on camera by using vivid graphics and real-time which usually takes around six minutes.[8] Consequently, the scene can be understood as an index of Noé’s real experience of smoking DMT, hence directly connected to Gunning’s argument that digital technology and indexicality are not diametrically opposed to one another. As a result, the scene functions as a trace of a DMT state regardless of whether the viewer has any prior experience with this drug. Therefore, this analysis of the opening scene indicates that both indexicality and iconicity are interchangeable in Enter the Void and further supports Morgan’s argument pertaining to cinema’s impurity.

This section has demonstrated that Enter the Void is closely related to surrealism, especially surrealist paintings such as the one depicted in Figure 2. Hence, by exposing its iconographic aspects, the film opposes the theorization of cinema as a purely indexical medium. Through his use of digital technology, Noé visualizes surreal states that are strongly connected to “out of this world” experiences while grounding them in real-life experiences. As a result, the director provides viewers with a liberating experience that allows them to imagine these states and think about philosophical questions regarding life and death. In this way, digital cinema can be understood as a subversive tool that challenges our way of thinking and opens the door for new possibilities regarding this medium.

TOWARDS A TRANSITION TO GASEOUS CINEMA

Figure 3 – Alternating perspectives, Enter the Void (2009) film stills

Besides surrealism, Enter the Void can be also connected to the post-war shift in cinema from montage to montrage.[1] In his book Cinema 2 (2005), Deleuze observes that post-war cinema can no longer be characterized by clearly defined cuts (montage) but rather “by continuity, by showing (“montrer” in French).”[2] The two philosophers of film, David Fleming and William Brown, argue that digital technology further intensifies the notion of montrage or continuity.[3] Aside from the dynamic opening scene that precedes the moment that Oscar is shot, Enter the Void develops in a lengthy and stretched-out manner. It is precisely due to the use of montrage that the film gives the impression that it is a single continuous three-hour long shot.

What is interesting and unusual in the movie is Noé’s shifting between the first, second and voided perspectives through which we see Oscar or through Oscar. The first perspective (Figure 3a) can be regarded as a point of view or POV shot where viewers see Oscar’s interactions with the environment and other characters through his own eyes. This notion of seeing through Oscar is further highlighted by the use of short black frames that indicate when Oscar blinks. From the second perspective (Figure 3b), viewers can see the back of Oscar’s head during the same interactions which can be understood as a form of self-perception.[4] And lastly, after Oscar’s death, viewers watch his soul as it escapes from his body and then wanders throughout the city to observe from above the effect of his death on other characters (Figure 3c). Even though this voided perspective does not show Oscar’s face, his presence is evident within the scenes.[5] This particular transition was presented without a cut and illustrated Oscar’s progression into the void.[6] Therefore, the shift between different perspectives and the decision not to use cuts points towards a fluid temporal continuity that externalizes the void.

From the voided perspective, the notion of montrage can be taken even further and connected to the Deleuzian model of a “gaseous cinema.” This model can be related to the perspective provided by a virtual camera that is moving in “digitally rendered filmic spaces.”[7] In Enter the Void, Oscar is floating through Tokyo and his spirit passes through buildings, walls and even people, which enables him to see from their perspective. In such a scenario, “cinematic space and time are understood to be traversed and viewed by a purely digitally composed perspective” where the viewer is looking at “flowing perceptual passages” going through solid objects and their surrounding space.[8] Due to the free movement through digital time and space in gaseous cinema, the cuts are replaced “by a continuous flowing mode of spatial and temporal perception.”[9] Even though this perspective does not show Oscar anymore due to the absence of cuts, viewers are still aware of the main character’s presence on screen.[10] Hence, this “absent” perspective provides a trace of Oscar’s voided subjectivity and operates on an indexical level.

However, Noé’s overall visualization of the void functions as an icon because it conveys a notion at a higher level of abstraction than is actually portrayed. According to Deleuze in Cinema 1, the concept of “the void” can be aligned with something that is “out-of-field,” which is understood to have surpassed the frame.[11] He argues that this “testifies to a more disturbing presence, one which cannot be said even to exist, but rather to ‘insist’ or ‘subsist.’”[12] However in Cinema 2, Deleuze argues that the void becomes a more immediate concept and hence turns from the invisible into something visible.[13] He perceives there to be an important shift from a movement-image to a time-image.[14] In the movement-image, the void can be visualized through cuts and movement from the inside to the outside of the frame. However, within the time-image, the void becomes internalized within the frame, which consequently suggests a movement from the outside to the inside of the frame.[15] In alignment with Deleuze, Fleming and Brown argue that the voided perspective in Enter the Void stretches the time-image even further since it operates in the form of “outside-within” and hence “becomes increasingly aligned and folded into the void itself.”[16] As a result, this perspective not only challenges our traditional understanding of the presence of a physical camera but also provides us with Noé’s abstract visualization of the void, something that is otherwise invisible to the human eye. Therefore, the use of digital technology through the avoidance of cuts and gaseous cinema shows the latter’s power to envision states like the void that could not be visually presented before since they were cut or designated as “out-of-field.”

Consequently, Enter the Void “gaseously passes through matter and memory/fantasy” and re-molds itself as a single continuum.[17] Thereby, Noé’s use of digital technology frees the cinema from the traditional “indexical” camera and clearly defined cuts. The film itself offers a cinema that allows viewers to question this fixed understanding of the human psyche and explore their interconnectedness with all other things. Hence, the use of digital technology is crucial as it stresses Noé’s complete control over the cutting and editing process in order to shape what and how people see things on screen. It directs viewers towards a philosophical conclusion that involves the re-evaluation of the definition of cinema from one that emphasizes a fixed indexical essence towards one that perceives cinema to be a fluid medium of possibility.

CONCLUSION

The essay has explored the extent through which the definition of cinema, as founded on a photographic base and hence, indexicality, can be obscured, namely through analysis of the use of digital technology in the film Enter the Void. The assessment of the opening scene has demonstrated that the abstract visualization of the effects of using DMT can be connected to the method of surrealism and surrealist paintings, such as that of Schwertberger. The scene’s connection to the painting corresponds with an iconic representation whereas Noé’s real experience with DMT also functions on an indexical level. Therefore, this occurrence has demonstrated the interchangeability of both iconic and indexical signs in Enter the Void and pointed towards the cinematic medium’s impurity.

The later section has showed that Noé’s complete control over the editing process can be connected to Deleuze’s concepts of montrage and gaseous cinema. Not only does Noé unusually shift between three different perspectives but he also edits the scenes in such a way so as to create the impression that the film completely lacks cuts. This technique together with the virtually flowing camera allows viewers to imagine the void (that is previously represented by the cut) as a flowing entity in-between time and space through the visualization of Oscar’s drug states and afterlife. This provides for a more fluid and flexible understanding of cinema which highlights the relatedness of objects, subjects and matter as if they were posited on the same continuum. Hence, through Noé’s use of digital technology, display of possible and impossible perspectives and the fluctuation between different temporalities without using cuts, he is able to represent something that had previously been visually nonsensical. As such, Noé was ultimately able to achieve a digital effect that further challenges people’s traditional understanding of cinema.

In conclusion, Enter the Void points to cinema’s impurity, containing many elements from various media, streams of thoughts and cultures while simultaneously reflecting not only the film’s uniqueness but mainly the impossibility of formulating a generic definition of what film is. Thereby, the movie is not only an aesthetic landmark piece that tests the pictorial qualities of cinema but also a call to reconceptualize cinema in the digital era by presenting the medium as one that is dynamic and fluid. Therefore, instead of futilely attempting to answer the question of “what is cinema,” digital technology has underlined the importance of stretching the limits of what actually can be done in cinematography as a powerful tool of subversion.

 

 Thank you Janaan Farhat for your editorial remarks regarding this essay.

 

REFERENCES

Adams, Sam. 2010. “Gaspar Noé.” AV Film. August 23. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://film.avclub.com/gaspar-noe-1798221764.

Bazin, André. 2005 [1967]. What Is Cinema? (volume 1). Estados Unidos: University of California Press.

Bauduin, T. M. 2012. “The Occultation of Surrealism: A Study of the Relationship between Bretonian Surrealism and Western Esotericism.” Surrealism and the Occult, 61-103.

Breton, André. 1924. Manifesto of Surrealism. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://tcf.ua.edu/Classes/Jbutler/T340/SurManifesto/ManifestoOfSurrealism.htm.

Brown, William. 2009. “Contemporary Mainstream Cinema Is Good for You: Connections between Surrealism and Todays Digital Blockbusters.” Studies in European Cinema 6. 1: 17-30.

“De Es Schwertberger.” 2016. Art Contraire. Accessed March 10, 2019. https://www.artcontraire.com/artists/de-es-schwertberger/.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2005a [1983]. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, London: Continuum.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2005b [1985]. Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, London: Continuum.

Fleming, David H. and William Brown. 2015a. “FCJ-176 A Skeuomorphic Cinema: Film Form, Content and Criticism in the ‘Post-Analogue’ Era.” The Fibreculture Journal, 24: 81-105.

Fleming, David H. and William Brown. 2015b. “Voiding Cinema: Subjectivity Beside Itself, or Unbecoming Cinema in Enter the Void.” Film-Philosophy, 19.1: 124-45.

Gunning, Tom. 2008. “What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs.” In Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, edited by Karen Beckman and Jean Ma. Durham: Duke University Press, 23-40.

Lapoujade, Robert. 1971. “Du montage au montrage.” L’Arc. Fellini 45.

Morgan, Daniel. 2012. “Cinema without Photography.” In Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema. London: University of California Press. 155-202.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1998 [1894]. What is a sign? In Pierce Edition Project (Eds.), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2 (1893-1913). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 4-10.

Powell, Anna. 2007. Deleuze, Altered States and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Richardson, Michael. 2006. Surrealism and Cinema. Oxford: Berg.

Rodowick, D. N. 1997. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. London: Duke University Press.

Rose, Steve. 2010. “Gaspar Noé: ‘What’s the Problem?'” The Guardian. September 16. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/sep/16/gaspar-noe-enter-the-void.

 

APPENDIX 1: List of Images

Figure 0 (cover image) – Enter the Void (2009) film still………………………………………………………………………0
Figure 1 (left) – Oscar’s Hallucinations, Enter the Void (2009) film still 4

Figure 2 (right) – Space Organism (2010-2014), De Es Schwertberger, painting (oil on canvas) 4
Source: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/space-organism-de-es-schwertberger.html

Figure 3 – Alternating perspectives, Enter the Void (2009) film stills. 6

Notes

[1] Originally, the term montrage was introduced by Robert Lapoujade in his text Du Montage au Montrage (1971) and Deleuze articulates on it further in Cinema 2 (2005b) [1985].

[2] Deleuze 2005b, 40; Fleming and Brown 2015a, 95.

[3] Fleming and Brown 2015a, 95.

[4] Fleming and Brown 2015b, 128.

[5] Fleming and Brown 2015b, 128.

[6] Fleming and Brown 2015b, 129.

[7] Fleming and Brown 2015a, 95.

[8] Fleming and Brown 2015a, 95; Deleuze 2005a, 84.

[9] Fleming and Brown 2015a, 95.

[10] Fleming and Brown 2015b, 129.

[11] Deleuze 2005a, 18.

[12] Deleuze 2005a, 18.

[13] Fleming and Brown 2015b, 129.

[14] The movement-image already departs from the understanding of cinema as a mere succession of twenty-four frames per second. Instead, it highlights the continuity of movement, contributing to “the production of the new” by opening itself up to chance and failure. An ideal example of a movement-image is Charlie Chaplin’s short films (Deleuze, 2005a, 5-7). According to Deleuze, the time-image relates to cinematic works produced after the Second World War and corresponds with an understanding of cinema as an impure medium due to its new conception of cutting (Rodowick, 1997, 80). Since Deleuze does not provide a singular definition of the time-image, David N. Rodowick attempts to summarize it as a fluctuation and distortion between real and virtual time. The time-image often deals with memory and is highlighted by incommensurable temporal and spatial relations between shots (1997, 79-118).

[15] Deleuze 2005b, 180; Fleming and Brown 2015b, 129-30.

[16] Fleming and Brown 2015b, 130.

[17] Fleming and Brown 2015a, 95-96.

[1] Brown 2014, 19.

[2] Powel 2007, 71.

[3] Powel 2007, 73.

[4] Richardson 2006, 3.

[5] Art Contraire, 2016.

[6] Adams, 2010.

[7] Fleming and Brown, 2015b, 137.

[8] Rose 2010.

[1] Gunning 2008, 39.

[2] Gunning 2008, 40.

[3] Gunning 2008, 48.

[4] Morgan 2012, 158.

[5] Morgan 2012, 158; Bazin 2005 [1967], 14-15.

[6] Morgan 2012, 159.

[7] Morgan 2012, 159.

[8] Morgan 2012, 160.

[9] Breton 1924, 26.

[10] Bauduin 2012, 62.

[11] Both of these drugs are extremely powerful and psychoactive, resulting in vivid hallucinations and spiritual journeys. Ayahuasca is a brew made of Banisteriopsis caapi by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. The effects of ayahuasca can last up to 12 hours whereas with DMT, the experience is much shorter and lasts a maximum of 20 minutes (Rose, 2010).

[12] Brown 2014, 17; Richardson, 2006, 10.

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