Classics Get Genred: ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Enter The Void’ Reconfigure Cinema’s Past

The most prominent and flattering quote on the promo materials for maverick-Frenchman Gaspar Noe’s latest film, Enter The Void, comes from the New York Times who exclaim: “Exceptional…this is the work of an artist who’s trying to show us something we haven’t seen before.”

I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly, although if I were to write that blurb I’d probably have included an asterisk. You see, from my perspective, Enter The Void fits nicely on the shelf with another of this year’s great films: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Both are in part an attempt to forge something new and original out of the spirit of an already great film. Sitting in Cambridge’s lovely Brattle Theater and watching Noe’s film I found it nearly impossible to not think of another three-hour headtrip I had previously seen at the same venue, nearly in the same seat: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

2001 is one of those films that tests the mettle of young film fans. From my experience, it’s the film that you watch first when you’re too naive to handle it and therefore you despise it. The contrarian nature of your younger self condemns it as self-indulgent and boring (both phrases that your younger self has probably not yet acquired). Later, maybe in college, or maybe the summer before: you see it again. This time it clicks. Not just the iconic music and memorable sequences (“I can feel it Dave”) but the little things: i.e. the methodology behind Pan-Am’s future in-flight meals. From then on you’re hooked, you might as well get Hal-9000’s name tattooed on your bicep. I bet that something similar happened to Gaspar Noe, because Enter the Void, for all of its inventiveness (and, believe me, it has that in spades) is just a filmmaker’s thoughtful reconfiguring of the movie he so clearly loves.

A character in Enter the Void remarks that “dying is the ultimate trip” how ironic that “The Ultimate Trip” happens to be the tagline used on one of the posters for 2001. This is not to say that fans of Kubrick’s film will love (0r even recognize the similarities in) Enter the Void, but the film does deliberately make structural, tonal and (in some cases) visual, callbacks to Kubrick’s zonked-out space epic. I’m not the first person to note this (in fact, in the Times article quoted on the poster, Dargis does single-out such similarities) but it does leave me asking questions about what exactly these filmic echoes mean.

In the age of remakes, reimaginings and other requels, Enter the Void stands out as a wonderful, unique exception. A first person film that is actually shot “first-soul” for the bulk of its runtime, you say?

Noe’s inclusion of such obvious parallels to 2001, a seminal film text, are less sophomoric “homage” than they are the result of fully mature “remixing” of classical elements. In short: Enter the Void is NOT a flashy and morally-bankrupt remake akin to LaBute’s The Wicker Man, but is closer in execution to the way Shakespeare borrowed, condensed, and sensationalized many different sources to write his plays.

I know, Kubrick’s film is about a future astronaut’s metaphysical sojourn and Enter the Void is about a dead drug dealer’s journey through his highly-stylized, intensely sexualized, and uber-cinematrick-laden afterlife. Both films carry very different log-lines, but intersect in some amazingly provocative ways, take my word for it and seek out the film if you have not already.

Like any modern day movie geek, I worship at the alter of Darren Aronofsky. The mustachioed virtuoso has yet to strike out in my book. From his esoteric flops like The Fountain to his more straightforward award-bait like The Wrestler, I love (or at least respect) it all. The filmmaker that made himself known with Pi and Requiem for a Dream has sought a middle ground with his latest effort, Black Swan. The movie is accessible enough to fit into the genre of “commercial thriller” but carries enough bizarre flourishes to placate the arthouse crowd (I’m one of the few ‘horror folk’ that rejects the idea of claiming Black Swan as one of our own. I don’t deny its horrific tendencies but I do feel the need to note that it has more in common with the traditional Hollywood thriller than it does with Argento, De Palma, et al.). Aside from plot, structure and visual ques, Black Swan borrows entire shots from The Red Shoes (1948). Sure, Pressburger and Powell’s visually groundbreaking 1940’s musical didn’t have any lesbian sex or a scene of maternally interrupted masturbation, but that stuff is just window dressing anyway. At their core both films are about the high cost of perfection in the pressure-filled world of the Ballet.

What we have here in both films is a remix in ever sense of the word, with the exception of the ubiquitous deep0voice found in contemporary music that shouts the word “Remix!” at every spare moment. The films stand on their own (and are often much more extreme than their predecessors), but offer that little extra something to the viewer that knows his/her history.

What does all this mean? Well, if the 90’s were the dawn of [annoying] self-referentialism and the 2000’s were the age of “homage” and pastiche, then maybe the 2k10’s are going to be the era where filmmakers learn to both embrace and depart from the films that built the canon they love and respect. A geek can dream, can’t he?

3 thoughts on “Classics Get Genred: ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Enter The Void’ Reconfigure Cinema’s Past

  1. Very cool. I caught a teaser for Enter the Void a week ago, then noticed my library was adding a copy of the DVD to their inventory. Sufficed to say this smalltown boy put in a request.

  2. Great article. I actually haven't seen either movie yet, but I just added Enter the Void to my queue (it's on instant viewing), so I'll have a watch tonight. I can't wait to finally see Black Swan as well.

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