White Epilipesy and the 21st Century Problem

Leos Carax was back in New York not only ago, in discussion with Richard Brody about his movies. If anyone can offer an atmosphere condusive to Carax's interview phobia it's Brody. Both men appear to be on the same wavelength, defined by a reverence for cinema unrivaled by most. Across town at Lincoln Center a few days prior Carax's evil twin Philippe Grandrieux was in town with a new experiment to lay on our unprepared brains. I've written before that I think that Grandrieux is the best filmmaker alive; his last four features standing as testament not only to his unique powers as a director, but the very boundaries of cinema and a cinematic experience. Since the start of his feature filmmaking career, his work has just gotten stranger and more beautiful. He's slowly evaporated his narratives, turning them more and more elemental and bare; just enough to get from one end of a sensory journey to the other.  His latest and second in the span of a year is his aesthetic purified of all narrative. The beguiling White Epilepsy has no plot to speak of. It's a straight-up experiment and thus doesn't fit so neatly in his ouevre. His previous work, the documentary Perhaps Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve - Masao Adachi was very clearly his work, even if it told someone else's story. No one else sees the world the way he does. And as he now always holds the camera himself he is presenting a view of the world that is as close to how he sees things/how his brain translates the relationship people have to their environment as possible. The world may not appear as washed out mini-dv with high grain and contrast, but I have no doubt that this is what his brain makes of it. His films seem projected from the very recesses of his sensory perception. If it fails, as it has to many, it's because there is no reprieve from his vision this time out. No story of character to comfort a viewer adrift in this hopeless, dark landscape of primal instincts. I can't say I enjoyed this as much as his other work (it stands just above his debut doc Retour à Sarajevo, another journey with no parameters), but I wager few other films will occupy my mind the way this does.

It's purely an immersion, after your eyes, ears and unconscious mind. It doesn't go for the tactile the way Tom Tykwer might, or touch, smell and taste like only Cate Shortland can seem to. It's about presenting visions that seem to want you to look away. The motion of the bodies on display, already deliberate before being slowed in post, is there to play games with your perception of what's really in front of you. Their shapes merge like optical illusions. Strange designs and patterns appear in their skin as if drawn on by computers. Their fists seem to seamlessly penetrate their skin as if merging into the same form. But is any of that imagined shapeshifting real? Can't be, right? Grandrieux doesn't use digital post. Or anyway, he hasn't in the past. There's something pure about his vision (an acceptable purity I associate with Tsai Ming-Liang) that precludes the thought or even the notion that he'd fuck around with green screens. He tricks you the hard way, by simply showing you images, faces and bodies in the most extreme conditions imaginable. He shows them in forms so abject and close-up, they're barely recognizable. And he's playing the same game here, so it doesn't seem right that he'd deliberately write something in the veins of his actors. Not when they've gone so far into character; they've committed to their very bones. Yet it also seems wrong that I saw his female performer's navel appear to invert before my very eyes, but the image below confirms that I didn't imagine it. But is it real simply because it's there? As a work of hypnosis, something akin to Nolan's shared dreaming or the audience gathering to sleep in the opening moments of Carax's Holy Motors, it works splendidly. Indeed my perception of the film has shifted so much since watching it that I feel as though it put a spell on me and the effects still linger. Manoel De Oliveira and Alain Resnais produce this same effect, especially in their latest works, Gebo and the Shadow and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which tellingly do manipulate their environs through digital effects. Their characters and spaces are frequently unflinching, forcing our brains to move them and see more in them. But I believe they encourage viewers to drift off, to sleep and let dreams enter the equation. My girlfriend and I both nodded off for a brief second during Gebo, which only intensified the experience, and allowed us to leave the confines of the set and into the unreal world outside that Oliveira created. One of my greatest cinematic memories is of seeing Resnais' tricksy epic Stavisky at the Harvard Film Archive, a place I have the fondest memories of (I saw the bulk of Grandrieux's films there). My friend Laura and I went on a frigid night in January and as Resnais began holding up more and more mirrors to the story and its characters, beautiful streams of information flying all around us, we both drifted off and began dreaming along with the movie. We both woke up a few minutes later. It was more like communion than a simple viewing. It's more than a film and more than a dream. I fell asleep during my first viewing of David Lynch's sublime, final film Inland Empire, and upon awakening couldn't determine what was real and what was in my head. I can't help thinking this would please the man. It felt like tapping into the film's dreams. Takashi Miike says his favourite films are often the ones that put you to sleep. I think he's got something there. What are films but dreams we're awake for? Awake in the dark, as Roger Ebert put it.

The devilish thing about film now in the hands of masters like Resnais and Oliveira is that they've had time to consider the change. They put great deals of energy into how to use digital to their advantage, rather than simply adopt it. In their latest films, they go out of their way to prove that environments can become anything through digital manipulation; their landscapes are imaginary, as deep in the brain as memories. In Gebo and the Shadow we see a young man imagined by his family, standing alone in an imagined tableaux. Nothing but the boy is real. Similarly once the characters in You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet begin taking part in the drama they see onscreen, suddenly the world they actually inhabit becomes a green screen-aided studio set where a train can come by at any moment, killing an offscreen character. Anything becomes possible. When we dream, we can suddenly not imagine anything outside the realm of possibility, because they've taken away the safety of the concrete image. Grandrieux and Carax do the same but through rather less obvious means. In Holy Motors, Carax deliberately goes into a green screen studio to pull back the fabric of reality and admit that nothing could be real, but then sticks to the truth of an image he can actually provide. The trickery from then on is all in make-up and practical effects. Carax believes in the image's power, but knows it can be tainted, brings us right to the brink of the uncanny valley showing us its grotesque imitation and abandonment of the reality of the image and then retreats. Cinema and the purity of the image can no longer be trusted and so Carax's brand of cinema (frames so carefully chosen that they burn into your memory, as if your brain were celluloid and silver halide crystals) is now up against the challenges of the 21st century. Anything can be faked, so what's real? What was ever real? Grandrieux, Resnais and Oliveira are all masters at imprinting memories outside of the image in the mind of their viewers. They confront the 21st century problem by figuring out ways to say more than can be written. Is White Epilepsy really as simple as I recall the experience being? Or is it a devastating treatise on the conflicting instincts of the body vs the mind's search for order? It's probably both and if success is measured in what we make of the piece after it's done, it should be called one, even if I have no aching desire to rewatch and better understand the thing anytime soon, a first since Sarajevo.

 Weirdly, the film that I couldn't help thinking of a sort of analog, at least presentationally, was Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the sort of thing Carax so eloquently dismisses in Holy Motors. The facts of their creation: The Hobbit was shot in 3D at an unprecedented 48 Frames per second, a most unusual and supposedly groundbreaking format. White Epilepsy is shot in the same kind of lowlight that 3D unintentionally produces and in the slender frame usually associated with videos shot on an iPhone. These are two different acceptances of modern technology. The Hobbit came after an unsuccessful attempt at a new genre and was viewed by most critics and fans of the director's past work (though not necessarily fans of the idea) as a major comedown from the remarkable achievement of the first films in the series. White Epilepsy is a return to the experimental form of its director's three greatest successes after a diversion into documentary, and is seen by many as something of a comedown. The difference is that The Hobbit's changes have zero to do with the skills of its director, and everything to do with how we view them. Peter Jackson shows no overt signs of being a better director because his juggling of elements than when he took on the original Lord of the Rings films, so The Hobbit will play as stagnation to those who expected progress. In fact, to some it was viewed as devolution. By contrast, White Epilepsy is purposefully a devolution from narrative to simply a single event. So it is engineered as a comedown, in essence, even if I'm sure Grandrieux didn't make Epilepsy to be compared unfavourably to his other films, he was also very clearly following his mind to a place where his entire toolkit as a director was not needed or entirely welcome. The question that most interests me most now: which of these artists was taking the greater risk?

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