Monday, January 24, 2011

Enter the Void

TERRESTRIAL COMEDY

I must apologize for the existence of the above journalistic headline, but in response to the absolutely abysmal quality of the great majority of critical pieces on Enter the Void I feel it is necessary to attempt to dislodge the critics’ collective shoes from the muck those mediocre many waddled into. If they are left in the muck it’s not really my problem – I’m simply trying to walk in their shoes and get the hell out of the muck. As for the title itself, reverting to classical definitions of comedy seems necessary for a film such as this one, and for a classical comedy in the mold of Enter the Void one need look no further than Dante’s far more disturbing Divine Comedy. The second work of importance in this examination is the great Extraterrestrial Comedy created by Stanley Kubrick, a work which you may know by another equally sweet name that I can’t seem to recall. Whether it should be referred to as a Extraterrestrial Comedy or the Extraterrestrial Comedy is a decision I will leave up to others. The final work I will reference here you need not have any knowledge of at all, and that is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Perhaps if Gaspar Noé decides to make a film about death that book will be an important point of reference, but this is not that film. The film begins in the present, then delves into memories recalled, and ends by confronting all that is natural but turned perverse by a perverse society and turning it back into a fitting celebration of life. This seems as good a structure as any I can think of at the moment, so I will adopt it myself with regard to the film. If you don’t like to drudge through the dreary details, skip to the end. Note: This is not intended as a defense of the film, because I cannot see what the film would lose by being attacked, but it is written in the hopes that those reading it will gain a greater appreciation of the film and its nuances through encountering what I am able to share of my perspective.



Enter the Void‘s structure is relatively simple; there is a period of a man’s life which ends in his death, there is a period of examination of the reverberations of his life upon the world at large, reaching back into the past and across the present, and there is a final period of pure fantasy which is introduced by a journey through the skies and concludes in a shot which is implied to be the perspective of a newborn child. Without getting into the specific details of each of these sections quite yet, the overall structure of the film heavily resembles that of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with every single element of its conclusion clearly matched and altered to fit the context of Enter the Void’s subject and style. It is abundantly clear that Noé is drawing on and referencing Kubrick’s film, and I think Noé directly adopts and alters Kubrick’s structure. These alterations serve to augment the effectiveness of Noé’s themes by directly contrasting with Kubrick’s film. I will also mention those elements of Dante’s Divine Comedy which resemble Noé’s work where applicable, a resemblance either inevitable by overlap given their similar aims or intentionally on the part of Noé, as a way of gleaning understanding of Noé’s film through Dante’s poem. The choice of Dante is not to imply direct causality or an equation of quality, and whether I chose his work in order to assuage accusations of Noé being nothing more than a nihilistic provocateur by locating an example of a work depicting far more depravity written by a devout theist in the 14th century I will leave entirely unanswered. Finally, no approach of the film would be complete without considering the function of Noé’s aesthetic choices, something that I do not think will require the invocation of a demon brother to meaningfully discuss.

In order to compare and contrast the structure of Noé’s Enter the Void and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey it is important to first identify perspective: while Kubrick alternates often between the first and third person, Noé never for a moment leaves the first person. Thus, when his film assumes the perspective of a newborn baby facing his mother’s breast in the film’s final moments it is a direct parallel to Kubricks’ final frames depicting a baby facing the orb of earth, despite no child ever appearing in the frame. The contrasts between these scenes are multiple, and all of great importance in reflecting the film’s differing focuses. While Kubrick’s baby is shot in the third person, alone, set against the blackness of space facing the earth, the presence of Noé’s baby is implied by assuming its perspective inside the earthbound white room which contains his mother. A white room on earth contrasts with the blackness of space, the mother’s breast contrasts with the distant earth, the camera inhabits rather than merely observes, the depiction is literal rather than allegorical; all of these contrasts serve to emphasize Enter the Void’s focus on the terrestrial, the human, the immediate, and yet the elements are essentially the same. While Noé’s film may not be directly modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy, the structure in triplicate, complete with a third act which begins with an ascent into the skies and a final transition where Dante gains visibility of the spherical form of the holy trinity which is bathed in white light, is eerily similar. The comparisons don’t stop there, of course. Paradiso is, like all of the sections of the greater work, filled with individuals throughout history who are brought together in order to share in the presence of god among the heavens, which in no small way resembles Enter the Void’s Love Hotel sequence, with the heavens predictably altered to physically resemble a conceptual model from the protagonist's life and inhabited by people from his life enjoying the company of each other rather than a greater deity. Unlike Dante’s depiction of heaven, however, Noé’s Love Hotel does not seem to be representative of a population judged for merit; it seems to embrace all the inhabitants of his life equally and its inhabitants are plucked from his life rather than world history. This disparity is key, as Noé seems less concerned with creating his own exclusive earthly paradise and more concerned with simply envisioning a setting of pure bliss for those in each person's life (the person here is the protagonist, Oscar, but this can and should be expanded to any person reflecting on life, to every viewer). Its effect is only fully realized in contrast, though, as the scene's interpretation as little more than a hedonist orgy attests. To provide another contrast, Kubrick’s palace beyond the infinite contains Victorian era furniture set atop a white floor lit from below, with a single aging Bowman occupying a bed. Bowman's environment is sterile, alien, and uninviting, and there is little sense of the human community or the possibility of reproduction. When the film transitions to the image of the baby it is a stark, blank, black monolith which sparks the unintuitive transition to new life, apparently conceived without a mother. By contrast, Noé’s transitional element is a white discharge, something almost universally regarded as pornographic in cinematic language but is here repatriated as a simple discharge of the seed of human life. The transition to the film's final scene seems intuitive, because the transition inside the sister's body leads to an insemination which leads to her giving birth, but the appearance of the mother in the film’s finale simply shows that the intuitive inference is false. The break in intuition matches Kubrick's film, though, except with a confusion which was not apparent in Kubrick's film due to the sterility of its transitional imagery and a confusion which is noticeably present in Noé's film because its phallic symbol is also a biological one. While Kubrick’s black rectangle has always elicited light chuckles for its phallic resemblance, Noé’s frank depiction of a thrusting phallus and subsequent ejaculation produced audible laughter in the theater I was in. I chuckled to myself, I admit, because I was surprised and delighted to see someone unflinchingly depict a sexual act in the context of reproduction, a depiction that clearly fits the film’s frank approach to sexuality, reproduction, and taboo. That Noé is able to face ejaculation and impregnation so frankly is immensely important when reflecting back on his unwavering portrayal of other sexual and reproductive elements. To shy away from the process of inception after explicitly depicting an abortion and casual sex would be rather absurd, I think. In portraying the ejaculation at what I can’t help but refer to as the climax of the Love Hotel sequence Noé directly contrasts the act of conception at the film’s comic, which is to say joyful, conclusion with the film’s earlier ghastly portrayal of an abortion, a waste of life and an immensely uncomfortable sequence, at what to me was the corresponding low point of the film’s tragic earlier section. Given that the story is deliberately constructed to conclude with a focus on the important things in life, namely love, procreation, and family, it is certainly fitting to deliberately focus on the worst in procreation, family, and a lack of love. While Noé clearly models his film in many ways after Kurbrick's film, it is also clear that their intentions diverge. Noé's film converges with Kubrick's film at the end to emphasize their differences. It is at this point in the analysis where the comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey become far more skeletal and the parallels to Dante’s Divine Comedy become far more concentrated.

Despite the Divine Comedy being set in afterlife its concerns are kept close to the earth; with its broad evaluation of the highs and lows of human potential it makes a perfect comparison piece for Enter the Void. Dante’s heaven is populated with angels, but the central focus through the Divine Comedy is on the humans and the human deeds which brought them to their respective place in the afterlife. When Dante finally approaches god he has trouble describing what he sees and ends the work with a tease of enlightenment never to be substantiated in text. Kubrick, on the other hand, was more than happy to deal with apes, with hyper-intelligent machines, and with star children, those non-human elements of his work, which proves unhelpful when looking for points of comparison with Noé’s very human work. While a direct parallel between the Divine Comedy and Enter the Void would imply that the ‘stargate’ transition in Enter the Void would be preceded by the 'best' of purgatory, Enter the Void's middle section in fact ends somewhere around a dive into the aborted fetus of Oscar’s nephew. While an aborted fetus could be interpreted as the height of provocation or the deepest ring of Noé’s hell I think it can instead be understood more clearly by contemplating the contrast between Noé’s humanist themes and Dante’s theological themes. Where Dante is depicting a progressive ascent in the afterlife in his Purgatorio, Noé is instead depicting a progressive widening of understanding of the ills of life, never reaching toward the afterlife but instead deeper into life. Superficially one could say that both the first and second thirds of the film end at the worst elements of their respective sections, implying parallels inferno, but I think this is simply a lazy reading. It is important to realize that Noé’s film is continually grounded in life, in the repercussions of one life, so any juxtaposition of Dante’s conception of the afterlife will be related to life, not the afterlife. In the full cut of the film the abortion, the loss of life of the protagonist’s nephew, is directly paired with the protagonist facing his own death by facing the illusion of coming back to life and consequently being saddled with the realization that his life is truly over, that there is nothing left. With an acceptance of his own death any idea of heaven for him can only be one of bliss for those that he affected that are still alive. The glowing white orb of god in Dante's depiction of heaven is transposed against the possibilities of being a part of that blissful life. The highest good in Enter the Void is life; the deepest circle of hell, then, is that point in his life where the protagonist becomes s deeply entrenched in his life’s ills, mostly self imposed, that he cannot escape death. After his death he begins the path toward understanding the breadth of the implications of his actions and the weight of wasting life, a path which truly reaches its apex when he reaches the fullest realization of the greatest failings, a point at which the middle section of the film can be seen to mirror Dante’s Purgatorio. Through gaining a comprehensive view of his life's effects the protagonist in Enter the Void is able to begin envisioning a better possibility for life, and thus it is at the lowest point where he reaches the transitional point into the film's humanist version of Paradiso. Dante’s book is one of pure imagination, allowing him to dream up the most amusing and satisfying examples of poetic justice for each of his depicted sins. There is an element of this in Noé’s film, as well, since I can only assume that the events that the protagonist envisions after and outside of his death are the workings of his imagination. There is an element of poetic inevitability to these events, but there is no direct penitence that the protagonist is forced to endure other than becoming aware. Again, this emphasizes a crucial distinction between Noé and Dante: There is no depiction of supernatural punishment for sins because the paradise that Noé's film envisions is not an eternal afterlife but a possibility of simple human bliss. The events beyond the living perception of Enter the Void’s protagonist seem more likely to represent the worst possible outcomes in a human life, or the great tragedies of a poorly lived life, as opposed to a simple diagram of what Noé considers to be an average life. Dante’s Divine Comedy is surely a work which speaks of the benefits of virtuous life in order to avoid punishment and drudgery in the afterlife in the hopes of reaching heaven; Noé, on the other hand, seems concerned with the perils of choices which endanger one’s own life and create problems for those that one loves. These are both more immediate concerns, in that there is no deferred punishment or reward, and more selfless, as they concern the suffering that people inflict on the ones they love. You can craft all the selfless arguments you want about the benefits to others of living a virtuous life, but in Dante’s first two books of the Divine Comedy I see only retribution wrought upon the guilty, not restitution bestowed upon the victimized. In Enter the Void the retribution lies in becoming aware of damage already done to loved ones, and the possibility for restitution lies only in the possibility of avoiding those poor choices in life. Noé’s film dips into the past of its protagonist to establish the dependency that his sister has on him, it sprawls out into the hours after his death to frankly display the full effect of his negative influence, it dips into the protagonist’s desires for a better future, and it shows absolutely nothing more. That Noé’s film is a deeply humane and ethical work which emphasizes the importance of each human life was immediately apparent to me upon viewing, and I think contrasting the Divine Comedy’s depiction of a wide swathe of mostly nameless, faceless individuals suffering for their failings to live a moral life reflects those aims clearly.

Aesthetics. An avoidance of the topic in a comprehensive evaluation of Enter the Void is impossible. The first person perspective is the obvious place to start, and it serves to emphasize the singular attention of the film upon the actions of one person and the importance of his actions upon the lives of those around him. In this way the aesthetic choice is perfectly in line with the thematic aims of the film. The byproducts of this choice are not immediately obvious, but I think they are incredibly interesting when considering the film’s cinematic composition. Some people have called the first person perspective a gimmick, but this baffles me. If I am making a film about a human being the most obvious place to put the camera is from that person's perspective, because that human has a visual perspective. To put it in the third person necessitates that each and every camera placement and camera move is independent of the character, under which circumstances each camera placement requires its own justification or else I can see no term to call the placement but a gimmick, and yet this is the basis for the great majority of cinema’s language. Noé’s decision to choose what I find to be the least gimmicky cinematographic perspective eliminates the great majority of possibilities of cinematographic language. For instance, consider, the two most common methods of portraying a conversation: alternating cuts between speakers, with the possibility of a reaction shot capturing body language, and a shot which captures both speakers simultaneously. Both of these options are completely impossible in Enter the Void. The reaction shot is impossible, so only subjective camera movements can provide the body language of the protagonist’s reaction. His voice is audible, although it sounds like the way I hear my own voice, which gave me the impression that I was trapped inside the head of the protagonist. The simple thrill of experiencing this effect in Being John Malkovich I found to be a clever commentary on the thrill of experiencing even the banal aspects of another’s life, and the inhabitants of the film’s world found the experience to be extremely tantalizing. This element is magnified tenfold in Enter the Void, with the banal being sufficient to draw me into a co-opting of the protagonist’s experience and the expansive, sprawling scope effectively calling to mind the greater implications of the film’s delving into the themes explicated previously. In this case style matches substance, and indeed is inextricably tied to it. Incumbent with this involving first person perspective is not only a realignment of the viewer’s perspective but also a dramatic shift in the implication of cutting. The decision to inhabit only the first person eliminates a great deal of cinematographic options, and carries with it a host of effects which seem to align with a viewer's intuitive understanding of perspective. While a film from the third person perspective can display multiple perspectives in a single room without any person having budged, the location of the protagonist in Enter the Void is inextricably tied to the location of the camera, and the sounds heard in the film are inextricably tied to the perception of the protagonist. This means that all montage will imply a change in position, used to great effect in the film’s middle section where the protagonist travels, sometimes smoothly and sometimes abruptly, between events in his past, as viewed from just behind his head. One of my earliest memories of myself is from above and behind, which I have always found quite odd, but I immediately understood the choice to move the perspective to such a position in the film. By repeating scenes seen earlier through living eyes in the first person in the memory state shown from above and behind there is a clear representation of taking a new, more detached view of those memories which will eventually balloon into the sprawling evaluation of life itself. The repetition also highlights the importance of each moment in the character's life, how each moment reverberates within the others, and how no moment can ever be altered, all of which recalls Nietzsche's similar idea of the eternal return (an idea which would directly match the film's finale). With the implication of montage dramatically shifting in this film the continuous shot becomes far more important, thus almost forcing Noé into the use of the long take (not that he would resist), something which, combined with the restriction to diegetic sound, creates several stretches of what were for me blissful journeys through cityscapes. This is a point that is perhaps lost, the pure visceral bliss crafted by the film’s many artists, certainly not limited only to Noé himself, which stretches from the mind-blowing neon color palette to the sweeping camera moves to the subtle sound design which must fit so snugly into the protagonist’s headspace. The film is quite intentionally difficult to sit through, frankly tackling the worst in human behavior, but I think that the artistry involved in tackling such emotionally grueling material is magnificent. I have spoken of the benefits of the first person perspective in bringing the viewer into a more immediate relationship to depicted material, but this same effect also leads to the film being grueling and extremely visceral. When filming from the third person there is a cinematic convention of keeping the camera detached from gruesome events in order to avoid intimations of exploitation. When filming in the first person this element is impossible to avoid muddling with implications of character. In order for the protagonist to closely investigate the implications of his actions he must simultaneously move the camera close to those elements of the film which are difficult for the audience to watch. Thus, the most difficult scenes of the film are superficially similar in the language of cinema to far more exploitative works, but within the context of a first person narrative I do not think they are exploitative at all. Even though the meaning of the images is different, the physical experience of these images may be equally difficult regardless of context, though, and this is simply an inherent feature of the first person perspective. One element of the film which I found both stylistically satisfying and physically refreshing were the extended white screens in between segments where the protagonist and camera took on a floating perspective. These white screens work to foreshadow the bright, hopeful finale as well as provide a physical respite, and also provide a contrast from the rest of the film's color scheme. On that topic, for a film about a drug user, largely taking place in what I assume to be the DMT-loaded mind of a dying man, the neon colors accurately reflect the DMT color scheme which is established in the drug trip early in the film in the same way that his journey accurately reflects the outline of the Tibetan Book of the Dead which his brain seems to have taken as a blueprint (as the brain tends to do with recent input before a naturally DMT-influenced dream). I didn’t actually pay much attention to the explanation of the book, myself, although I heard him say something about bright colors, and he was not lying. I thought that the initial drug trip, while interesting, was certainly implying that the death experience to come, with its greatly increased load of DMT, would be far more interesting, a joke that I laughed to myself at. And I believed. And for me it came true! And while I could here indulge in a lyrical exultation of the film’s aesthetic triumphs and perhaps even pontificate on my disagreement with some people’s relegation of visceral experience to a mere accompaniment of supposedly ‘substantial’ elements, all I think I really need to say is that the totally white stretches in Enter the Void are as substantial as anything else found in the film, for me. Aesthetic triumph.

By this point the name Enter the Void is infamously associated with pornographic sex, disgusting abortions, nihilism, and, perhaps worst of all, boredom. The last point I cannot possibly dissuade someone of, but the other three are glaringly obvious instances of pieces which do not represent the whole. The sex is graphic, but if it is once pornographic it is another time simply biological, and the combination reveals each for what they are. The abortion is disgusting, but if one does not mourn the death and celebrate the later birth then there is no point in discussing either. The nihilism claim is, well, a claim of nihilism, an inherently self defeating position which I doubt any living person could actually cling to without self-contradiction, but more importantly it is indicative of a viewer choosing not to recognize the life-affirming themes borne out of the contrast between the lamentable and the laudable, between actions and intentions, between the worst imaginable and the highest of hopes. If there is no difference between the colorful DMT trip at the beginning of the film and the odyssey into the consciousness of a mind’s final frantic synaptic firings of memories turned regrets and fantasies turned nightmares and resignation becoming rebirth then I could not have written a word of this. I can’t tell what others look for in films nor would I tell them what they should, but in this film I experience a probing of the most sensitive aspects of the human experience and, though I float through the visions a mind soon demised I will fear no image, for I am alive. If a filmmaker that is bold enough to create a film that affirms life in the face of its nastiest elements is dismissed because he depicts insemination as a biological process and abortion as a scientific procedure then perhaps there’s no point in differentiating between the two at all; may all your inseminations be scientific and your biological processes be aborted. There is no room for tirades against people’s preferences, but the taste is one that reminds me that most enrichening foods often taste the worst, but I think the film makes for a wonderful meal. A meal, not a snack. All I ask is this: please don’t spit in the food. You may be hungry too, someday, and who will want to share with you?

12 comments:

  1. Good reading of the film. I should note the critical score on Rottentomatoes is 71%, which is pretty good. Anything above a 60% means the film is well liked. I would actually expect many more to not like it just because it is not your typical user-friendly film. It is long and has much more going on than meets the eye, which you have articulated well.

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  2. Well, if we were to divvy up those reactions you're sure to find a good deal of those 71% dismissing it as little more than an aesthetic experiment, I'm guessing - even if they classify it as worthy of some positive mention solely on that basis. I love aesthetic experiments, but I think the aesthetic experiments are secondary to Enter the Void. There is a segment of pure non-narrative aesthetic experimentation in the initial DMT hallucination, and that part plays to me like a tongue-in-cheek joke about how the rest of the film is NOT merely that and a promise for something far more closely related to the human experience. If the film were merely an aesthetic experiment, then it would have been 2 and a half hours of that. Note: The sequence was much longer at Cannes, apparently, which may have actually convinced people that this was exactly what was in store for them. But no! There's more! If people are interested in delving into those details, I'm just trying to provide something to springboard off of in that direction.

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  3. the most compelling reading of this film i've seen yet. thanks!

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  4. Thanks for commenting. How did the film strike you?

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  5. Dear JeanRZEJ,

    I have read your passionate and insightful review of the film and find that while there are certainly divergences in points of view and interpretation of the film (I might be more skeptical, less optimistic, vis-a-vis certain
    dimensions), we both commend pretty much the same greatness in Noe's film and art, and which so many critics completely fail to understand. The Dante parallels are excellent and compelling--even beyond the narrative, there are
    chromatic analogies to be drawn between the iconography of the film and paintings inspired by the Divine Comedy.
    Let's hope we don't stand alone in this championing, and that more can help prevent the seemingly irreversible process of cinema's decline. Apologies for the bad puns.
    Also, as you know, the 'French cut' version is now available in the US on Blu-Ray and DVD. I hope you enjoy this longer cut even better!

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  6. Thanks for the complements. I'll cut right to your ideas:

    Chromatic analogies to paintings indirectly inspired by the Divine Comedy? That sounds like a potentially fascinating study. Did you have any particular pieces in mind? I'm kind of fascinated by the chromatic makeup of the film as it is, so any parallels would surely pique my interest. I can certainly understand a more skeptical take certain dimensions of my interpretation, as I can't really be sure about how my recollections will match up with the actual text and structure once I watch it again, but we'll see. The extended version might alter things, as well. I've got a copy of that to watch that I need to go pick up.

    The critical response is puzzling, but that's nothing new for such a unique film. I don't think the initial reaction will matter much, though, because it's unlikely that this film will be forgotten any time soon. Of course, I wouldn't think that Prospero's Books would ever be forgotten, and yet it's probably Greenaway's most obscure film, so what do I know? This is why I'm always skeptical of myself.

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  7. I took your suggestion to read your take on this film and it's a well thought out and articulated piece, JeanRZEJ. As you had surmised, I still think Noe's work is uber-pretentious but it took your writing to at least give the film a context I can appreciate. Keep up the good work!

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  8. Thank you, and thanks for commenting. It's easy to reaffirm people's love for a film, I find, but it can be difficult to write something which isn't aimed at a particular response and still offer a compelling enough point of view that can help someone appreciate a film where there is room to grow. Sometimes the only thing worse than a film I can't stand is someone praising it poorly, so I hope I didn't grate on!

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  9. Fantastic analysis of this great film. I feel that Kubrick's idea of intelligence created by controlled feeling relates well to this film. Can I ask... what are your opinions on the reason for so many of the shots to disappear into circular objects? (plugholes, lamps, bullet holes etc) I have my thoughts about this, but would like to hear yours.

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  10. You can ask whatever you like... but I'm not sure that I have a concrete answer. From the standpoint of a dream/trip it simply seemed perfectly intuitive. From a structural standpoint, many of the entrance points are voids of a topical sort, from gunshot wounds to aborted fetuses. I've heard people mention Freud, as they do about everything, but I tend to treat all cigars as cigars, never as Freudian. Above and beyond that I haven't ever assigned any significance, symbolic or otherwise. When it comes to the lamps I don't see anything definitive, as they are neither voids nor topical, so they never really gelled with any lines of thought I had and I hadn't really put any additional thought into them. It has been a while since I've seen the film, though, so it's hard to recall such details. What were your thoughts?

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  11. Well I re-watched the film last night for the first time in ages, and without getting too Freudian myself it seems like this lost spirit is constantly looking for rebirth. Each scene seems to play out in this type of manner, with near enough every scene being 'born' into the next. Each shot directly after the spirit enters a hole is of a womb-like organic atmosphere. This really seems to have taken Stanley Kubrick's re-birth images and run with them. At the end of the film in the love hotel, it is as the spirit has finally found its purpose.

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  12. Well, for a man who was just hearing about reincarnation by way of the Tibetan Book of the Dead I would think that it would be awfully odd if a dying/hallucinating brain wasn't thinking of the most topical thing it encountered in the last hours of its life. The framework you build fits both the form and the content of the film, but I don't really see what point it serves beyond character motivation. Given that the camera IS the character, it follows that the camera obeys and embodies the character motivation, and thus reinforces the idea that the film's structure and aesthetic approach tells you about the psychology of the character. But Freud wasn't a scientist, so I think applying his words to reality is as good as applying the Tibetan Book of the Dead to reality - it only enhances hallucinations, nothing more.

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