Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Broken Mirror Dagger in the High of The Beholder: CLIMAX

Numerous and horrific, indeed, are the woes that can result when one is dosed with way too much LSD without knowing it, in the wrong company, at the wrong time, and to the wrong music. This is the takeaway moral of Gaspar Noé's latest masterpiece, CLIMAX (2019), the story of a dance troupe undone by an unknown dissident's spiking their post-rehearsal sangria with a massive amount of liquid acid. And what a rehearsal it is! Noé' shows he knows how to film dance properly (as opposed to the hyper-cutting of Guadagino's Suspiria [1]) and it's a great start. This mix of French and English-speaking dancers are staggeringly talented, and hot. And hey, by the time the shit kicks in they're already on their third or so glass, their laughter and conversations getting progressively more deranged until it's far too late to even stop drinking. The best they can do is try and hide the choreographer's young kid, locking him in storage so no one can accidentally rip him apart or put him in the oven thinking he's a turkey (his screams to be let out joining the general cacophony underneath the endless propulsive beat). There's not even time to hide the sharp objects! And then, as the misery grows, a kind of lynch mob mass hysteria takes over. Those who haven't drunk anything are suspect and persecuted, sometimes horrifically. Old grievances flare up, and forbidden taboos--incest, etc.--are no longer able to stay submerged. This is the nightmare of anyone who's ever done way too much acid and tried to find their coat and their friends at a crowded party, forced to listen to Dave Matthews and Jamiroquai while you try to find your coat, shoes, friends, drink, a space to stand and get your head together, and been unable to so much as dispel a single invisible cop or paisley air-pattern. Or worse, the party is at your house; your own room is overrun with strangers, stepping all over your shit and rummaging through your stuff like it's a yard sale. You try to order them to leave but all that comes out of your mouth is gobbledigook. They laugh, then ask you where's the drugs, Erich! They want some, but you're like no way man, you're not ready. Your widening pupils should be enough to send them running. But they just get creepier, pleading, needier... their skin like the thinnest of bags holding gallons of racing red blood.

Sound terrifying? Don't worry, you've got me as your guide this time. And I'm better than Bruce Dern ever was in Roger Corman's 1967 opus, The Trip. Hell, this whole blog is designed as a kind of guide, waiting for just this moment!  Play the mix below and never hear surf music again (-Jimi Hendrix). When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro (- Hunter S. Thompson). So get yourself 'experienced' and follow me... follow me down (- Jim Morrison).

Sofia Boutella (center above), the lush sinuous Algerian dancer/actress (she was the latest incarnation of The Mummy and a cute alien in Star Trek: Beyond, etc.) stars, or is the most recognizable and sympathetic of the gathered dancers, though we only follow her about 1/3 or so of the time as we regularly check in on the various fates of various poor damned souls. I'm not even sure what happens to her character, Selva, by the end, but she is certainly lovely and can certainly dance. She's the coolest, along with some willowy brunette I swooned for (top, middle) and when they dance together we're pretty into it. So is this horny, pawing sexually ravenous bisexual white guy David (Romain Guillermic), who winds up badly beaten up by the brother of a girl he likes, etc. Other noticeable memorable characters include 'Daddy' (Kiddy Smile), the DJ responsible for keeping the beat so relentless and propulsive, driving these characters ever onward like he's a reincarnation of the evil shoemaker played by Robert Helpmann in The Red Shoes except he's the one totally sweet character in the film, and he never loses his giddy glow. I wanted to list some of the atrocities that result, but one is better off not knowing beforehand, nor the actor's amount of neurochemical 'preparation' for their roles. Their ferocity is so convincing and the flow from organized normalcy to insane madness so organic that--being dancers all--even in their wracked state their bodies never cease moving and twisting to the throbbing incessant music, blurring the lines between this as an 'acid test' tragedy horror film and a kind of extended 90 minute dance performance. Even so, with  those lines so blurred it seems impossible this isn't cinema verité from some weird circle of Hell, capturing a very real experience with some magic invisible camera, the floating soul eye from Noé's 2009 masterpiece, Enter the Void meets an impromptu Panic Theater happening down at Aronofsky's Chilean basement, or something. Since we barely see anything of the outdoors, or any 'sane' perspective after a certain period in the film, we lose contact with the real world as much as the actors, leaving us lost in the same weird cabin fever collective break.

As for hallucinations, we don't see trails or distorted imagery but the sound mixing takes us there. When I saw it at the Alamo, I could feel the drugs kicking in just through the way the sound subtly changed from the usual mix to a kind of woozy 4-dimensional binaural sound sphere, voices seeming to slowly flow from the front of the room to the back, to deepen and widen. As the screams and madness increase the incessant throbbing beat seems to incorporate them and in the sound mix you can hear every detail, all growing louder and quieter as the camera follows Boutella or some other dilated-eyed peace-seeker to the next room, or down the hall, looking for some kind of oasis from the needy gathering, the music and screaming fading or building according to proximity, but also whooshing in the mix as if our inner ASMR headspace is constantly readjusting itself as blood flows through the inner ear. When the music shorts out the effect is like being suddenly thrown out of bed onto a busy winter street, a feeling of sudden nakedness and vulnerability that has them scrambling for a battery operated boombox, to keep the beat alive --at the very least, it structures, and leavens out, their never-ceasing flow of unbearable existential nowness.

With LSD's appearance in recent festival favorites like Mandy, Good Time(subtextually at least) Mother- and Rick and Morty,-, our current 'cool' media landscape is connecting to older LSD-era films like 1969's The Big CubeThe Trip, and other films reviewed on this site in the "Great Acid Cinema" series (see the Lysergic Canon collection in the sidebar to the right, bro). In other words, what I was hoping for when I started this site back in 2003, out in the desert like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West, has come to pass. So this site is finally au currant, but be careful what you wish for with such a dangerous substance. The overall mission of this blog has always been to help situate these experiences, however surreal and nightmarish, in a less-demonized or ridiculed context, academically, to incorporate the expanded consciousness of the psychedelic experience into mainstream academic parlance. Too often these experiences have been depicted in fashions either condemning and prudish (Go Ask Alice), too literal (the transformation into an actual ape in Altered States), self-important (Fear and Loathing..) or naive (Revolution). Trying to chronicle the psychedelic experience, filmmakers have the knee-jerk habit of running back from the lip of the void like nervous seagulls in the surf. Few filmmakers outside Europe are able to include a validation of the genuine mystical experience offered by the psychedelic solution, and to do so without getting naive and Aquarian, self-important. overly academic, or any other easy way out. These filmmakers choose the right exit, to claw through their fleshy disguises and emerge as glistening butterflies from out their ravaged pupae! There's no guide to stand in for reality (ala Charles Haid in Altered States, or Willem Dafoe in Antichrist) But in film, dude, not in the real. Thinking about it is doing it is enough; only a fool has to follow the voice over the edge. The rest of us can feel the splat of the concrete without ever even opening the window.

Gaspar Noé's film is, however, is a movie, so people can follow that voice over the edge all they want. That's what movies are for, to go the deep and genuinely disturbing places (4) on our behalf. Picking up where Aronofsky's Mother! left off,  bringing it all back home to Zulawski, Von Trier, and Bunuel,  capture, in a vivid gut-punch sense, the quickness with which sanity can be shed like a loose garment. That thousands of years of socialization can be stripped away with a few eyedropper-loads slipped into a punch bowl hints that the natural state of man may well be a kind of group madness, a collective insanity, where uninhibited carnality and sudden, brutal violence, incest, auto-abortive violence and self-immolation all occur naturally in a desperate bid to escape the terrifying totality of the unpartitioned self. As in very few films made outside France (naturalmente), we're exploring a very hard to find area of the psychedelic experience, the second and third stages of Stanislav Grof's Prenatal Birth Model, the feeling being trapped in the canal, the sadomasochistic horror of raw experience. The falling from blissful amniotic union with the mother to the trauma, kicking and screaming, of raw unencumbered consciousness, where pain and pleasure are intertwined in the yawning chasm of unfiltered, unpartitioned 'experience' of pre-egoic consciousness.

Why only in France? Directors like American Abel Ferrara, the Polish Zulawski, Spanish Bunuel, and the Argentine Noé often wind up there, maybe because that's where they're 'understood'? As one of the dancers says before the shit goes down, (I paraphrase) only in Paris (and maybe Belgium) do they respect the true artist. And baby, the only one able to accurately hurl a mirrored dagger into the illusion-loving eye of today's world is the artist so batshit crazy they're all but booted out of their native lands, spiritually-speaking. America, simply, has no thousands of years of socialization to shed, so when we strip off our socialized paradigm, all that remains is a frozen-stiff Nicholson.

I can't spoil the coherent acoustic mood of Climax, the organic flow from dance to total madness, the sudden eruption of "is he for serious" intertitles, but I can try to tell you about the feeling of tripping harder than you could have prepared for, totally not being in the right mindset, having it done without your knowledge, and being totally unable to react, to tell how much is what and how, and how you'll ever come down, so that--when you're that fucked up--even getting a coat to get outside into the snowy evening seems all but impossible. (5)  When you're that far out, there's suddenly no frame of reference to the past: all links between signifiers and direct experience are removed. Everything is so strange that cutting your own arm or stabbing yourself is no more difficult than putting on your shoes. Indeed, it seems perhaps the only way out. At least if you lose enough blood maybe you can just go to sleep and escape the overbearing 'nowness.' For most of us, we only think that - only become aware for example (this was my thing when having a bad trip) that there was so much blood all around me inside human bodies, separated from the air by only a flimsy human skin. I could see it rushing behind the epidermises of my friends, myself, the whole world a sea of endlessly pulsing blood. How could hearts and lungs keep beating and breathing so relentlessly, year after year?

CLIMAX has been called part of the noveau-giallo, post-giallo or what I called darionioni nouveau only it wouldn't quite fit that as it lacks the Antonioni component, there's no metatextual collapse of signifier aspect to the film itself and its signifier chains (as there is in Berberian Sound StudioAmer or Magic Magic, it just duplicates the gut punch sensation of when those signifier chains collapse; in that sense it relies more on gut punch extremism, a kind of intensity as its own reward aspect. There's people who don't like this movie, but I'd say the are either scared, "inexperienced," or seeing it in the wrong situation, on the wrong drugs, at the wrong time of day or not on on the big screen with a big intoxicating surround sound and thudding bass. Noé's detractors will accuse him of being shocking just for press, but really -when hasn't this been true of any artist? Yet there are those who are merely shocking for shock's sake but not actually transgressive at all (I'm looking at you, Eli Roth) and there are those who can be transgressive without resorting to shocks (Antonioni, Godard), but meanwhile, anyone with any sense recognizes the value of capturing this kind of insanity, that it can be a tool for breaking the conventional imaginary/symbolic signifier boundary and approaching the unendurable real. This is what the shocks should deliver! One can't feel without nerve! Sensation to most people reaches its zenith with the orgasm, or the roller coaster, but that kind of 'thrill' is just a glimpse, the difference between the way the ladies ride and the cowboys ride in that old bouncy knee thing. It's so transgressive a lot of people can't handle it.

If you're reading this, though, I bet you can. So get thee to the theater, get thee unto the druggist, get thee to the church, and exult in the arrival of pure madness onto the screen. There may never be a better time than right now to see the fate awaiting us all if we don't get right with God. I'm not saying guzzling half a bottle of tasty DXM-rich Robotussin DM beforehand to cure a bad sniffle won't give the whole film, enjoyed best on a big loud screen like my birthday viewing at Alamo this past Saturday, a certain extra energetic unctuousness. I'm just saying get thee to the theater, and unto the druggist, and exult in the arrival of pure madness onto the screen that is CLIMAX. The chance to experience it with a kicking surround sound system and a screen big enough to create the feeling the dance space is literally right in front of you, the actors your same size, that you could crawl into its red and blue light-tinged darkness, is a chance to experience full on madness, the full totality of the yawning I AM, and then walk away without even needing a sleeping pill to come down.


As tests in the day proved, the difference between Jesus, a tripper and a schizophrenic is that, usually, the tripper is in that state intentionally, to seek wisdom, and they know, eventually, even if time has ceased to function, they will be 'down' hopefully none the worse for wear. Jesus need not come down for the burden of the ego, the need for the split of the great I AM into duality and judgmental divisions, space, time, etc. has been sacrificed, along with all possessions, attachments, concerns. The schizophrenic must rely on drugs not to be in this state. For the schizophrenic, the ride never ends, there is only the salve of temporary deliverance.  ("The mystic swims where the schizophrenic drowns").

PS - In case madness or a Climax situation happens with you, play the Spotify list below. The JC intro stuff may be skipped if it's too late to understand English. The rest will lift, the rest will anchor. Play it in order, for analog flow like an old school Erich mix. Don't worry. Salvation shall lift thee when thou art lost, God as the current construct of you understands God shall find thee when thou art low. The bottom is the only place to 'touch off' from. What did God make Hell for in the first place? It is the heat that lets you rise like heavenly smoke. So switch up!

For Further Reading (relevelalant)

1. By which I mean, as in the terrible CHICAGO, SUSPIRIA succumbs to the irresistible urge to constantly crosscut to parallel actions, viewers, close-ups, varying angles, etc. so that it's impossible to enjoy dance in its ideal form, the type for example Gene Kelly, Stanley Donnen, Berkely, Powell, Fosse and Vincent Minnelli. In other words, for dance you hang back and let the dancers do the work in a medium shot, so the whole body, head to toe, is visible in extended single takes. You don't constantly crosscut to parallel actions, the eyes of those watching, close-ups, dutch angles, different camera placements, etc. That smacks of covering up due to either filmmaker flop sweat or lackluster choreography.
4. As opposed to faux-disturbing, i.e. Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Michael Hanecke, where the urge to shock comes with no genuine soul or originality, any true crazy behind it. There's no love, no genuine vision, that the shocks serve. It's all just to provoke a feeling of shock, to take us back to the first time we saw R-rated movies as a kid, before we were insufferably jaded. 
5. It's happened to me, a few times, mainly via some joints going around in a circle via some dirtbag who then when it's finished, announces it was laced with PCP. Burn! Now just try to drive home in time for dinner with the folks!


  1. Good. I was hoping for the next big step from Gaspar Noe. After von Trier and Noe both hit us with their soft porn films a couple years back, I was concerned. This looks more along the lines of what I'm yearning for!

    1. It definitely is. Harry, I think you will love it.

  2. Happy belated Birthday Erich!
    Its always exciting when a NEW film comes out that's worth an Acidemic write-up.
    Love your observations about your own work (i.e. "purpose of the blog" stuff), I agree.
    These act as the "call to action" as well as the "return home" for a lot of these trips, filmic or otherwise!

    1. Thanks Soren! Yeah, it's definitely worth a write-up. Perhaps our time has come again!


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