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 too much LSD without knowing it (which if you can't control the dosage, the unscrupulous doser you can easily slip you Monarch 7 levels). It's unbelievably cruel.  With the right set and setting, and--most importantly--dosage-- a big LSD dance party can be a great life-changing thing. But at the wrong time, when one is not prepared, and in the wrong company, on the very much too wrong/strong dosage (one drop on your tongue = bliss; a whole dropper full = a face-clawing nightmare from which you can't awake without massive amounts of thorazine or benzos, and/or hospitalizaton.) Yeesh - so important to know and trust your dealer, bro. And when in doubt, feel it out. 

This is the takeaway moral of Gaspar Noé's latest masterpiece, CLIMAX (2019), the story of a dance troupe undone by some dissident member's spiking their post-rehearsal sangria with a massive amount of liquid acid. And what a rehearsal it is! The whole first half of the film is more less all dancing, only after that key is turned, does things spin out of control and then out of out of control, the dancing never stops--these people are dancers, after all, and the music keeps throbbing (the DJ never changes tempo)

Noé' shows he knows how to film dance properly (as opposed to the disorienting hyper-cutting of Guadagino's Suspiria [1]). He films it MGM-style, i.e. in long take medium shots, allowing us to soak in the speed-of-light movements to the ripping techno bass-drenched beat and to appreciate the entire body of the actor/dancer within their environment (and turning their navigations around each other into improvisatory art). Even during the after party Noé stays with the long take medium shot approach, and the movements keep going in variants, signifying in a sense that--much as some of the company would like it to--the dancing never stops--an techno The Red Shoes with half the cast cutting their own feet off, and the rest having sex.

Mostly the POV embodies the persona of an invisible mingler, following one dancer to their next interaction, then leaving with another person as they walk across the floor, before following the next, and so on, i.e. the average restless mingling where you don't really know anyone but the music keeps it from being awkward. The result is a long arm elliptical pacing, like slow motion whirl-a-gig tentacles at an amusement park. Gradually, but gradually, but grad...ually the movements begin to resemble some kind of coked-up frenzied ritual repetition, an invisible time-space lash spurring these damned souls on as their most repressed unconscious rending desires spill out like a gravity free Exxon Valdez. In a way their slow, metered movement from just engaged mingling dancers full of excitement about the tour ahead to chaotic savagery reminds me of certain Mingus compositions like "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Daughter are some Jive Ass Slippers" or any of the group dances from The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady album, the way Mingus takes a kind of Duke Ellington melody and walks it around and around in tightening circles until it suddenly realizes it's captured in a suffocating clinch. 

 Adding to the frisson, the space they're in, an off-semester dance school/dorm building, looks suspiciously Suspiria's Tanz Dance Academy-like anyway, with its psychedelic dark green and red lights, and its strange wall hangings. "I don't like that flag, man," one of the dancers says as the drugs make things paranoid and werid, "I don't like that flag."

 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. By then 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 a kind of lynch mob mass hysteria takes over, especially in those dancers from the violent world of the banlieus. Those who haven't drunk anything are suspect and persecuted, sometimes horrifically, as possible suspects. Old grievances flare up, and forbidden taboos--incest, etc.--are no longer able to stay submerged. Not being believed about an early stage pregnancy results in perhaps the peak horror of the scene, though there's more to come. 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 seething with a sudden surge of nasty-looking meth-and-coke townies, the smell of menthol and diesel, of death and evil, choking the frigid air they bring in with them.

Naturally I remember nights like this too well: forced to listen to Dave Matthews and Jamiroquai while trying to find my coat, shoes, friends, drink, a space to stand and get my head together in my own damned room, and been unable to so much as dispel a single invisible cop or paisley air-pattern and every time I try to tell people to get out of my room it just comes out garbled and insane. They laugh, then ask -where's the drugs, Erich! They want some, but I'm like no way man, you're not ready. My 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, sober as a 'hic' judge. 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! 

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 the relentlessly prowling camera regularly checks in on the various fates of various poor damned souls. 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 or worse by the brother of a girl he likes, etc. Another noticeable memorable character is '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 Red Shoe-maker, 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 from this dosage, 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 dancing's flow from organized normalcy (if their wild-but-controlled arcane dancing style, a mix of modern and street filmed--in the longest take--from above, like a zonked Busby Berkley can be called normal) 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. It seems almost 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, rather than a film shot piece-by-piece according to a pre-set script. 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. It feels too real to be fiction, or even, in the end, reality of the day-to-day. It's the reality that we spend our day-to-day lives avoiding.

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 and flowed amidst the speakers, creating the feeling of blood changing its pressure inside the head, flooding from the usual mix to a kind of woozy 4-dimensional binaural sound sphere. Voices seemed to slowly flow from the front of the room to the back, to deepen and widen, as the drugs kicked in. As the screams and madness increase the incessant throbbing beat moves 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 escape-seeker to the next room, or down the hall, looking for some kind of oasis from the needy gathering, the impossible nowness, 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. When the music shorts out the effect is like being suddenly thrown out of a warm 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 in Las Vegas) or naive (Revolution). While 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 are able to include a validation of the genuine mystical experience offered by the psychedelic solution without getting naive and Aquarian, self-important, or preachy. And if it's the other, the condemnation, there is usually ample proof they're totally inexperienced, writing through fear. The only people qualified to condemn would be, in my view, the ER nurses at a 1967 San Francisco hospital on a Saturday night, as one hippie after another comes in terrified they're dying or worse, got too high on acid and fell off a roof or out a window, or drank bleach by mistake or something. I don't know the numbers on that, it's impossible to believe anyone who wasn't there. But Gaspar - he breaks the rules by knowing them. You can feel the lysergic emanations from this film, and there's no guide to stand in for reality (ala Charles Haid in Altered States, or Willem Dafoe in Antichrist).

Only a fool follows his death drive over a 'literal' edge. The rest of us can feel the splat of the concrete without ever even opening the window.

Gaspar Noé's film hears the voices and goes over, but also is wise to the set-up. He's going to 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, he captures, 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 Martel often wind up working and living 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 ones able to accurately hurl a mirrored dagger into the illusion-loving eye of today's world are the artists 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. 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" inter-titles, 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 to you 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. At least if you lose enough blood maybe you can just go to sleep and escape the overbearing 'nowness.' Unless we're schizophrenic, we have blinders to screen out all the extraneous nowness so we can get on with it. We only become aware for example (this was my thing when having a bad trip) that there was so much blood inside human bodies, that only a flimsy human skin holds it all in. I could see it rushing behind the epidermises of my friends, myself, the whole world a sea of endlessly pulsing blood held in place by these ridiculously thin membranes. 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 it's reliance on gut punch extremism it cultivates 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 (I'm looking at you, Eli Roth) and are not the least bit transgressive. And then 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 nerves! 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.


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 he knows, eventually, even if time has ceased to function, he will be 'down' and 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 tripper needs drugs to access this state while 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 - 

All that said, it's colossally racist. A few exceptions aside, there's a pretty clear color line who reverts to brutalizing savagery and who just wants to hook up and/or get high.

PPS - 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. It will explain the journey and how to surf instead of drown. The rest of the music 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  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 if not for the heat that lets you rise like heavenly smoke. So switch that burner on!

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!