Psychedelic Journeys into The Abyss

 

Artwork by Eszti Jászfalvi

Film viewing is by nature rooted in the psychedelic. Whether through experimental visuals, bold use of sound, or (usually, in this medium) some interplay of the two, projections of light on a screen call our faculties to attention and demand immersion. Some movies are so confrontational–so irrepressibly cinematic–that we can’t help but love them, regardless of initial viewing circumstances.

 

Menilmontant & Natural Born Killers

Menilmontant

Two of these films immediately sprung to mind as I considered this particular exercise in psychedelic film writing–Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 silent film Menilmontant and Oliver Stone’s decidedly noisier Natural Born Killers. On the surface, on a purely formal level, I’d say they’re quite similar; both Kirsanoff and Stone were drawn to impressionist techniques to portray the interior lives of their characters. Techniques such as filters, superimposition, out of focus images, and slow motion camera movements.

I had a fever the first time I watched each of these films, and it’s linked them forever in my mind. I saw Menilmontant at 20 and had trekked from my dormitory to the university screening room despite sickness. There was snow on the ground and I felt a bit stupid on arrival for pushing myself to go, but in retrospect I wouldn’t have missed it for the world: seeing Menilmontant as a feverish kid in that dark screening room was the first beatific, sublime, honestly nearly religious experience with film I’d ever had at that point (and though I’m attributing maybe 50% of my wording to the fever, the rest is genuine).

Have you seen Menilmontant? Do yourself a favour if not- quick, look it up. It’s on Youtube and you can hold me personally accountable if it doesn’t mesmerise you. It opens with an axe murder, and only gets more compelling from there. The film’s rapid-fire editing paired with dreamy double exposure later on perfectly suit its content; the story of two women growing up under harsh circumstances in the French title town.

I won’t lie, I didn’t understand the events of Menilmontant’s plot after that first viewing (and here the fever gets full credit). Having experienced it countless times since, however, that first impression remains, and has been matched by just one other film: Natural Born Killers. This experience came five or so years later. I’d been obsessed since I was maybe fifteen with one particular still of the film (plucked from a book I’d found in an older brother’s room and incorporated into a collage on my own bedroom wall) but I’d never actually seen the film until another feverish evening in winter. I should probably watch more movies when I’m sick.

Natural Born Killers

This one you’ve seen, right? Isn’t it breathtaking? On a purely formal level Natural Born Killers is one of the most beautiful things I think I’ve ever seen, the same mix of brutal and delicate that charmed me in Menilmontant fills nearly every frame. I’ll admit, Mallory charms me infinitely more than Mickey, and the way the film frames Mallory likewise, but all of it offers something- not new, necessarily, but bravely accomplished.

As with Menilmontant, I don’t know that I was able to hold onto everything I experienced in watching Natural Born Killers the first time. Do people usually remember the details of a hallucination? Each of these insanely trippy films do more than get in your head, they force you into their own. I’m hoping at some future point to dive a bit deeper into the potential connections between these two works, but doing so will no doubt require additional viewings. Here’s hoping I’m sick again soon. – Juliette Faraone

 

Legion (2017)

Legion

This mind-bending series is a window into the mind of a powerful telepath, Professor X’s son, who is misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalised. Noah Hawley’s Legion delivers a unique experience, transcending the plot-driven grounding of other Marvel television.

The story begins when David falls in love with a girl who can’t be touched, their simple romance becomes complicated when she reveals she’s there to rescue him. Chaos reigns, with friends and foes descending from all sides, compelling him to believe in the untold depths of his abilities. Suddenly, he must listen to the deafening cacophony of voices calling his name and to believe the impossibilities that he considered hallucinations.

At Summerland, David Haller enters the dangerous territory of considering himself sane, going through his life with Ptonomy, a memory mutant who leads them through a fragmented maze of familiar places, trying to discover the cause of his loss of control. What transpires is the ultimate unreliable, non-linear narrative, a cerebral deconstruction of the consciousness.

Like David, we lose sense of the difference between the dreams of dancing and destruction, the reality of the other characters and the astral plane, the malleable, twinkling space in-between. Within the dizzying haze of this vibrant, retro landscape, series 1 explores a traumatic past, its present-day consequences and if you know where to look, provides glimpses of the future. The nightmares that permeate David’s childhood are guises of one being, a mutant of many faces known as the Shadow King, who has been influencing him towards self-destruction, stealing his power.

The brightness of the colour palette akin to Pushing Daisies cannot be mistaken for optimism. In one subversive episode, the mutants that orbit David become trapped by the Shadow King in a constructed version of the asylum Clockworks. There they are led to believe their powers are all signs of mental illness, lectured on their fixations and detachments, their co-dependency or isolationist tendencies etc. To free them, David must wage a war within himself, a spectacle that blurs the lines between heroism and villainy, revelling in the anarchy that comes with great power. – Fatima Sheriff

 

Belladonna of Sadness

Belladonna of Sadness

Belladonna of Sadness is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, I can promise you that. A water colour Japanese animation flick from the 70s, Eiichi Yamamoto’s morbid brainchild is the definition of psychedelic. Each moment offers something  singularly disturbing, images, that will stay with you long after you’ve finished watching it.

Turning the possession movie plot on its head, our heroine, Jeanne does in fact gets possessed by Satan himself, but it ends up empowering her instead of causing total destruction. It hands her the key to her freedom, to do whatever she desires, which ultimately happens to be a better life for everyone around her.

The terrors and wonders of Belladonna, along with its haunting score are incomparably unique, terrifying, shocking, yet very feminine and breathtaking.

Despite Jeanne’s fate and everything tragic that happens to her, the film also showcases its feminist undertones at the end, though it can traced back to the entirety of it. It’s at the very end, that we get to see Joan of Arc, and her fight for freedom. It throws us back into the reality, with the feeling of unexpected inspiration and motivation. –Eszti Jászfalvi 

 

Annihilation

Annihilation

Despite a relatively cool critical reception, one film that has stayed with me throughout 2018 and until now is Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The film tells a quiet, enigmatic, but deeply affecting story of a team of scientists who venture in to Area X, to source the biological phenomenon that has cast an impermeable shimmer over the terrain. Although science-fiction in premise, Annihilation’s power lies in its existential themes; as the women explore the wilderness, the inexplicable phenomena that surround them lead them to question their very humanity. The knowledge that they are on a likely suicide mission isn’t played for melodrama; the women each have their private reasons for volunteering, and these begin to seep through their cavalier facades as they venture deeper into the shimmer. The mutating wilderness around them is at once beautiful and terrifying, capturing a disturbing sensation I can only truly describe as sublime. Time is suspended in Area X; days pass without the team even realising, the only indication being their dwindling rations. Watching Annihilation, particularly on the big screen, was like making a passage into another world, whose effect roots itself in your gut and expands outwards with chilling inevitability.

The narrative’s discordant structure aids this disparity with the premature knowledge that Lena, the biologist, is the only one who has returned from the mission. She recounts her experience in the shimmer in a dim interview room, and the question becomes not one of who survived, but how Lena possibly made it out alive. The narrative is agonisingly well-paced, sowing the seeds of fear as the scientists find their very own biology slowly altering before their eyes. This is perhaps the greatest enigma of Annihilation. Lena is apparently alive and sitting in front of us, but as the film progresses to its haunting climax in which Lena faces her mesmerising doppelganger, it becomes less and less certain that the Lena that left Area X is the same one who entered. As much as Garland’s film left me with burning questions and a disturbing sense of detachment from my body, the film’s very essence is in its incomprehensibility. To seek to answer the questions of Annihilation is to interrogate the very nature of being human, and that is a problem perhaps left best unsolved for our own sanity. – Megan Wilson

 

Article compiled by Eszti Jaszfalvi

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