The Indivisible Forest

We live in a medial reality. All modern experience is mediated: via technology, the media, language and even thought. Our processed diets and sterile environments promote dissociation from our bodies and from nature. We enter a forest only to find a meta-forest of signs that warn us, identify local flora and fauna, and mark out predictable paths. And the same syndrome afflicts fiction that sells well, films that fill mainstream cinemas: recognisable stories safely signposted. Nowadays we can’t cross town, let alone an ocean, without intervention from satellites; can’t survive a day without updating our Facebook status. And the moving image that began as miraculous entertainment now doubles as an omnipresent tool of surveillance. The more we just want to watch, to be mere passive spectators, the more we find ourselves actively watched, monitored and data-mined, our rhythms reduced to algorithms in the program of capitalism.

A century ago, the surrealists sought to bypass conscious thought. Yet art is a form of mediation too. Originally mediating between matter and spirit, it holds no numinous power now (unless you’re schizoid). It’s a rare piece of work indeed that offers immediacy. Starved for it as a young art student, I dwelt on abstract expressionism, art brut and painters like Francis Bacon who courted chance and accident. Then I discovered dramatist Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) and his essays in The Theatre and its Double (1938). And Artaud’s ideas – or the idea of Artaud – inspired me more than those of pioneers in my own field. It wasn’t just his inner demons in extremis that appealed. I had enough martyrs for art (Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Plath) to revere. It was Artaud’s fierce desire to destroy bourgeois boundaries between art and life.

Words failed Artaud. And, likewise, paint failed me. Within a year, I’d begun to explore the creative force of ritual magic; within two, I’d plunged (like most of my idols) into psychosis. A decade later, I made ritual theatre from personal themes: let my madness unravel into improvised dance narratives – a stage in a journey that eventually led to words.

But Artaud’s words, though failing him, inspired some great trailblazers. Visionary theatre director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999) sought to bridge the divide between performers and audience. And his paratheatrical work (circa ’70s) rates a mention in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), a groundbreaking dinner-length film about seeking and finding meaning in life.

Wally (Wallace Shawn) meets Andre (Andre Gregory) at a restaurant. And as their dialogue (monologue for the film’s first half) unfolds, the plot thickens; not in the rambling story Andre tells, but on a meta-level: are these two old friends playing themselves? Not just actors, they co-wrote the script. How much of it is factual? The ambiguity generates tension.

Aware that insomniac Andre’s been having personal problems, Wally falls into the role of asking questions and listening attentively. In effect, he plays therapist. And, on the wild side of the dialectic, Andre recalls with delight an experiment in which his real-life friend Grotowski involved him (though we never see Andre in a Polish forest with actors who don’t speak his language, just a black-and-white snap he shows Wally, which could have been taken anywhere, his words evoke vivid impressions).

Yet a series of peak experiences has left Andre disenchanted with life. And Wally responds to Andre’s bleak view of humanity like a psychiatrist, his version of sanity making Andre sound mad. In fact, Andre sounds prophetic thirty-six years later. But Wally ridicules his estrangement from the quotidian. Is Wally’s professed contentment with his compartmentalised lifestyle (where theatre, like film, exists just to entertain) an implied critique not only of Andre but also of his mentor, Grotowski? The line between artist and critic is like the line between love and hate: debatable. In an essay on Artaud, ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself’ (1967), Grotowski writes:

When an eminent creator with an achieved style and personality, like Peter Brook, turns to Artaud, it’s not to hide his own weaknesses, or to ape the man. It just happens that at a given point of his development he finds himself in agreement with Artaud, feels the need of a confrontation, tests Artaud, and retains whatever stands up to this test. He remains himself.

Antero Alli’s eighth feature film, The Invisible Forest (2008), a nod to Artaud’s influence on his work in theatre, reminded me of Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967), adapted from Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade (1963), which tests Artaud against Brecht. But Alli’s film also conjured up Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991). Theatre, cinema, literature… All the arts partake in one vast, unending conversation. And, à la Woody Allen, indie auteur Alli stars as an edgy theatre director haunted by the ghost of Artaud. How could a hardcore avant-gardist not be? But in director Alex’s dreams, Artaud is a frenzied French female. No wonder Alex doubts his own sanity.

So, like a Woody Allen hero, Alex seeks professional help, which on the laid-back West Coast is not psychoanalysis, but psychotherapy. The ghost (Clody Cates) is more psychedelic than East Coast intellectual. Her frizzed hair and stylised makeup don’t recall Artaud’s era, but the glam-rock ’70s when I guess Alli first read Artaud – from whose writings choice lines inform the ghost’s sometimes subtitled provocations. But is she taunting Alex or the audience? Is Alli subjecting the film medium (not just the theatre it depicts) to Artaud’s revolutionary edicts?

‘No matter how loudly you clamour for magic in your life,’ the ghost tells Alex telepathically, ‘you have been afraid to pursue an existence entirely under its influence and sign.’ Such fears don’t limit Alli, nor the spirited actors with whom he’s spent forty years pioneering his own brand of paratheatre – the practice of which lies behind this film’s surface like an interior world for which the forest might be a metaphor. Did I get that on my first viewing? Not quite. Though Alex sometimes seemed self-conscious to me, I didn’t consider that Alli might be improvising, let alone why. But I likewise wondered what possessed Sally Potter to dare play herself when I first watched The Tango Lesson (1997), one of the most exciting films I saw late last century. And does Alli play himself? Or is that an irrelevant question?

‘I don’t have a fucken self-image,’ Alex assures Dr Phil (Garret Dailey). Which could be a symptom of depression (or pick your own DSM-V label). But Alex qualifies his disclosure: ‘It’s not a problem, I like being nothing.’ Sleep deprivation aside, this implies an expanded mind. To be nothing in the straitjacket of our narrow consensus reality is to suffer intolerable ego deflation (witness the narcissistic excesses of futile mass resistance to the truth). But beyond the corporate-driven matrix blanketing our planet, nothingness equals freedom: a recurring theme in Alli’s work and an attitude he affects; not for him the formal rigours of Brook’s Brecht/Artaud dialectic, nor the five-act structure of Shakespeare, from whose scripts The Invisible Forest’s borrows. And none of the strands in its loose yet layered quest narrative dominates. Like members of an ensemble cast, they make the whole more than the sum of its parts (some of which I may have missed; nor is this list in order):

1. Alex keeping a (black-and-white) video diary while fearing he’s losing his mind during a forest sojourn with his theatre troupe. This comic yet driven persona seems close enough to Alli’s own that, as in My Dinner with Andre, the ambiguity teases the viewer.

2. Alex in therapy (colour) after staying awake for three days in a counterintuitive bid to stop hallucinating.

3. The troupe enacting scenes from two Shakespeare plays in wild locations (the Super 8 grain and filtered hues suggestive of other times or dimensions). Knowing of Alli’s ongoing theatre project (akin to if distinct from Grotowski’s), in which performance doubles as initiatory ritual, I took these dreamlike sequences for pre-existing documentation.

4. The flame-haired ghost haranguing Alex, whose dreams, under hypnosis, unspool with the lurid intensity of Alli’s trademark trippy effects. While such sequences frequently feel authentic and work well, despite (or because of?) overt symbolism, the busyness of Alli’s cinematic vision – a mild version of horror vacui – seems incongruous in someone so hip to transcendent emptiness.

5. An actor, his bald dome starred with hieroglyphs, waxing joyful about the void from a tree (mostly black and white).

The latter two strands draw on Artaud’s texts. And while Alli’s instinctual writing style typically offers relief from the Bob McKee ‘Story Seminar’ logic that’s colonised Hollywood screenplays, he and his cast improvised much of this script. Stories (as process, not content) wield awesome power in a culture as emptied of meaning as ours. Yet story doesn’t appear to be Alli’s raison d’être, serving the purpose of exploration rather than the reverse.

The thing about stories that audiences crave is total emotional engagement, from the first manipulative hook, through rising suspense, to a contrived resolution. And the more a viewer/reader identifies with a hero/heroine, the better. Could I identify with Alex? Sometimes. But maybe that’s not Alli’s intention. Alex’s lack of self-image points to otherness. And what else can take us beyond that which we already know?

In fact, the hypnotist guides Alex beyond what he already knows: facilitating a deeper engagement with forces he’d resisted – a contrast to the dialectic underpinning My Dinner with Andre. While Wally and Andre function as opposites, Alex and Phil face the same direction – just at different stages, from different perspectives. Less straight than he seems, Dr Phil alludes to Australian Aboriginal mysteries (though stalking movements from dreams sounds more like Alli’s style to me); he might even be a 21st-century West Coast answer to RD Laing. Not that a lot of viewers would notice, since maverick Laing’s approach (mediatory vs. repressive) has long been outmoded by corporate-sponsored medical models of madness (oops, ‘mental illness’). So, for any viewers who’ve stayed wide awake, Alex undertakes an antiheroic journey through a subconscious wilderness, challenged – or challenging us – to see the forest for the trees. And the ending, such as it is, feels like we’ve reached a beginning.

So, when making art isn’t just a profession but essential to psycho-spiritual survival, can film maybe not just entertain but mediate, like Dr Phil – offering guidance without the obligatory trappings of morality? Far easier to swallow a Hollywood pill, or even a PC indie prescription, as long as the remedy works – what patient or spectator cares to exert themselves? Just as leisure and pleasure go together, work implies suffering in our culture. Yet creative and/or intellectual effort can be its own reward. Or so I thought when I lived alone in a garret, painting and reading Artaud – compelled, though his ideas electrified me, by his raw passion, his lucid madness.

But, watching The Invisible Forest, I never believed, despite visible signs, that Alex risked losing his mind. Nor could I feel it. And Clody Cates, for all her fiery ferocity, didn’t shock me; her fairytale quirkiness rendered Artaud’s words benign. The Artaud I once imagined I knew, inventor of a Theatre of Cruelty, needed his audience to bleed, burn, gnash its teeth and wail with him. Might he have dug the extremity of Gaspar Noé’s superb Irréversible? Or can film simply never achieve what Artaud dreamed of – is it too medial? Just as a photo can’t elicit the body identification that absorbs me when I stand facing a massive abstract expressionist canvas, the immediacy of avant-garde theatre doesn’t, for me, translate to the screen. But maybe it becomes something else no less potent, albeit less tangible.

Is that why The Invisible Forest somehow worked for… or on me? The discordant threads would make less sense without such a spellbinding soundtrack. Most notably, Sylvi Alli’s ravishing music and emotive vocals merge with her husband’s ideas into a coherent experience. So, despite his shoestring budget and the odd lapse of subtlety, Alli gives Malle a run for his money with regard to keeping the viewer awake. My Dinner with Andre took thrilling risks thirty-six years ago. But is breaking new cinematic ground still possible? Less, I’m guessing, in terms of form and content (and I hope I’m wrong) than through process. Like his arboreal actor, Alli may have touched the unknown.

At the end, I asked my partner what he thought Alli’s film was about. ‘Death,’ he said without hesitation. ‘Yeah?’ I said, slightly surprised. But then, in Malle’s film, Andre observes that awareness of death necessarily comes with knowing you’re truly alive.

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