On Psychotronic Breakup Movies
A conversation between Noah Segan and Adam Egypt Mortimer.
Full disclosure: Adam and I, after braving the cold and the heat and the sweat and, at least in one of our cases, many other bodily fluids, recently worked together on Some Kind of Hate. We fell madly in love and have a new film in preparation. Before we had a title, or even a script, Adam coined the term "Psychotronic Breakup Movie" to describe what we were working on. Because we are lazy egomaniacs, we thought it would be more fun to write an article about this secret sub-genre using the format of a recorded conversation, rather than a straightforward, and probably more informative piece. While we are excited to share our entry into the sub-genre with y'all soon enough, please don't consider this shameless self-promotion for our upcoming film. There will be plenty of that in 2016. - N.
ADAM EGYPT MORTIMER: I was driving back to LA from Vancouver. Driving angry. I’d been in Canada with (my wife and producing partner) Amanda for two months prepping my movie Some Kind of Hate. We had it cast, rehearsed, crewed up, all our stunts and effects in place, everything. And the financing fell apart completely. And so I was on this long dark drive of the soul, thinking about heartbreak and about how to shoot a movie in my back yard. If you are extremely angry, you can do that drive in one night.
NOAH SEGAN: And you’re connecting the heartbreak of the film to your concept of actual heartbreak. Romantic heartbreak.
AEM: Yeah. So the day after I got back into town I met you for coffee. I said "Here’s this movie about this crazy breakup." I had two sentences of story, that’s all I had. And you were like, “I am in.”
NS: Because of my existential heartbreak, because I understood loss in a similar way under different circumstance. Did you come to me with that because you knew I was going through an existential breakup crisis at the time?
AEM: It was more because you were the actor I wanted to work with. I had gone to Vancouver like, "I'll see you in Vancouver when I fly you out and you make this movie with me.” And then you couldn’t come and then the movie didn’t happen but then three months later I was back in town saying you are the actor who I know, who is inspiring to me, here’s this idea.
NS: Do you think it was just serendipity that I happened to be in a place of great existential romantic grief and loss?
AEM: Yes, serendipity. I wasn’t like, "Who do I know who has the most broken heart right now?" I was like, "Who do I know who’s the actor that I want to work with?" Even on Some Kind of Hate, I had become obsessed with breakups, using them as the driving metaphor whenever I talked to actors about what any scene was about. Because I was drawing from some super traumatic breakup experiences I’d had. I was realizing that horrific breakups were kind of a goldmine of emotional trauma for me, and therefore of inspiration. And I was thinking about, what kind of movies really express that?
NS: It happened to be purely by coincidence that I was coming at it entirely from an emotional perspective. You are conceptualizing a vision intellectually. You are talking about a concept you have studied and meditated on and you present that to someone in a tremendously vulnerable place for whom that becomes a connection.
AEM: I wasn’t driving in Vancouver thinking “I want to do a Psychotronic Breakup movie.” I was thinking, "I want to do a breakup movie." And then once we started talking about it, it emerged. I don’t think I said the phrase “psychotronic breakup” until we started talking about what the movie was, and then I was like, “Hey Noah, I think we’re making a Psychotronic Breakup movie” and you were like, “What’s that"?” and I was like “Well... let’s find out!”
NS: Did that come from time that you and I spent together?
AEM: Yeah, exactly, I was like, "Let’s watch Possession!" and “Have you seen Habit?” That would start to form the foundation of understanding the genre.
NS: So what is a Psychotronic Breakup Movie?
AEM: It’s a movie that uses dream imagery, paranormal ideas, or the horror genre to express the emotional drama of heartbreak. So in the contemporary era, since the '80s, you could trace what the awesome movies in that are. Like Habit, Possession, Lost Highway, The Brood. These are the ones that really stand out. But, and this is sort of key, it goes all the way back to the story of Orpheus. Entire mystery cults came about because this poet-musician’s wife dies and he travels all the way into Hell playing his music to find her. But once he finds her they are separated again and he goes insane. Those feelings of going into the underworld, chasing love, never being able to get it, fighting three-headed dogs in Hell because you’re trying to solve your heartbreak.
NS: It’s about trying to solve and reconcile your feelings. This is the way I’ve looked at our Psychotronic Breakup movie, and this process. And it’s the way I’ve felt these last five months, that the end of my relationship makes such little sense to me that the only way to explain it is through the insane, surreal hyperbole of horror. It’s not as easy to say we had nothing in common or we grew apart or I found myself attracted to someone else. None of those things make sense. None of them were true. I was in the truest deepest absolute of love. The most intimates of intimates was my regular life and I believed the same thing for her. So the only thing that could have broken us up was fucking Satan. It has to be Satan. Satan is the only explanation for this, the greatest of tragedies.
AEM: That’s literally what happens in Possession. “There’s something going on in this relationship beyond just you not liking me. Oh, it’s that you are fucking a five-dimensional tentacled Satan being. I see now. It all makes sense.”
NS: Do you think healing or catharsis is an important part of Psychotronic Breakup movies?
AEM: They come to resolutions. They can be quite strange resolutions. Sometimes they can be resolutions of realization. They usually end with people dying. Melancholia ends with the entire planet being destroyed, so there’s a good resolution right there for heartbreak. In Possession it ends with him becoming a doppelgänger of himself, and when it ends she’s holding his dying doppelgänger and they’re in love again and then she shoots herself. The doppelgänger thing happens in psychotronic breakup movies a lot. In Lost Highway, Bill Pullman turns into Balthazar Getty, after he kills his wife, and then he meets the same wife again but now she’s blond.
NS: Everything keeps going back to a juxtaposition about hating oneself? "I’m not the one who I want to be, I’m not the one who’s lovable?"
AEM: Yeah. It’s saying, “You’re not the person I thought you were. My true self and the self I’m trying to be for you are not the same. Or maybe I need to turn myself into someone else.”
NS: The concept of this is about our narrative not going the way we thought it was going to go but we can’t deal with it. People trying to reconcile a situation that they thought was one thing and turned out to be another. And it is so unfaceable, it is so unbelievable. I still sit around for hours every day going, "I can’t believe the thing I thought was true is not true."
AEM: You’re thinking, "I’m in this relationship that makes me happy, and the thing that makes me happy is that I know this person so well." And then they’re like, "Nope, I'm doing the unthinkable." And you’re like, "How’s that possible? You’ve now transformed into your opposite."
NS: The universal idea of the breakup is, breaking up because things became the opposite of what they were. We were in love and the only reason to break up is because the opposite happened. So the opposite thing happened and is it just such a powerful emotion that it becomes unbelievable and you lose your mind?
AEM: It fractures your consciousness. You remember The Swimmer? He is living in a world that is literally the exact opposite of the reality. Through that whole movie he’s like “Oh yeah, me and the kids, we’re going to go do that thing” and everyone is looking at him like that’s crazy because he is a crazy homeless person who broke up with his wife years ago, and he’s like “Oh, I’m just headed back to the house to have a gin and tonic" and everyone is like "... uh, ok.” It starts with him looking so majestic, like a Greek hero, in the biggest mansion in the neighborhood, and then it ends with him back at his house which is like the fucking "Fall of the House of Usher." And it ends there and it’s like an opposite, it’s a doppelgänger.
NS: I sit around, to this day, staring at a door, waiting for my ex-girlfriend to walk through. And if I stop feeling that way I will not be able to connect to the material. Because the minute there’s a sense of catharsis or healing, you no longer need to reconcile it.
AEM: I showed our script to a German man and he said “I don’t really get the heartbreak thing, it seems to me like brain damage.” Yeah, it is. It’s a brain damage that most people go through and I guess some people don’t.
NS: I’m in my existential malaise, waiting for death to come and sweep me off my feet, my last love, the only love that I can’t have, because it is the only love.
AEM: There’s a line from Cocteau’s Orpheus, which is the ur-text. He’s traveling in Hell to find his wife Eurydice and the character says to him, “Is it your wife you wish to find, or death?” And that’s the whole premise. He’s going into Hell to find the woman he’s in love with. So there’s a constant confusion between looking for the woman you love and looking for death. Is that the same thing? Is the horror of life that it turns out to be the same thing? Habit is about a guy that falls in love with a girl who turns out to be a vampire. And he’s getting really sick, addictive and fucked up and it turns out the thing he is in love with is literally a blood-sucking undead vestige of the morbid world. So there's movies about love that aren’t about death, or love is just an event that makes you cry, but in Psychotronic Breakup cinema, the goal of love and the goal of death become the same thing and that’s where the confusion is, that’s where the doppelgänger is.
NS: In this genre is there an inherent conceit that love will kill you? Are these stories about saying "fuck you" to love? Are they anti-love? Are they anti-romance?
AEM: No I think they are more complicated than being pro-love or anti-love. They are about the horrific and confusing connection between love and death. It’s not anti-something. Antichrist is a pretty "anti" movie, but I don’t know if it’s anti-love. It says that love is a violent psychosis.
NS: Are there Psychotronic Breakup movies where the people end up together at the end?
AEM: It’s always about a breakup.
NS: These movies are all about trying to work through why you feel so horrible about your breakup. You’ve lost something and it’s the thing you thought was "the thing" and now it’s not the thing and you can’t deal with that and so now you have to invite in the darkest of the darkness to explain it. As a result, you explain it with devils, a vampire, a ghost. It was so unbelievable that it is unknowable and unexplainable and now I might feel better because that’s something I can blame.
AEM: That’s what makes it Psychotronic Breakup, not some monster movie, the difficulty in explaining. You can’t explain what’s happening in Possession. Yeah, there is a revelation that she is having sex with a demonic tentacle being, but that is not an explanation of anything. It’s just a fact that’s happening and it makes the world much more dangerous and difficult to comprehend. The thing that’s interesting about the Psychotronic Breakup movies is the inexplicable and nightmarish aspect. In Mulholland Drive, there is an aspect where she used to have a relationship with this woman, and then they broke up, but very little after that makes purely logical sense because it’s such a nightmare. You keep asking about the resolution or reconciliation. It’s a tenant of the genre that what you reconcile with is the unknown, the darkness, the death.
NS: Even that is a resolution. I made a movie, I told this story about how horrible I felt, and at the end of it, I realized that I simply felt horrible. So I just chalked it up to the universe or Satan.
AEM: Yeah, that’s what art is for. It’s not to solve it.
NS: Are there examples where people go through that and say, “I realized I was just a petulant asshole”?
AEM: Yeah, but those are not “psychotronic”. If The Invitation ended a few minutes earlier, it would be hewing more closely to a traditional resolution, a man coming through the horror and now having a stronger self of being. But then that final image... apocalypse. Love is a fucking apocalypse. A movie I keep coming back to is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There’s something about that movie that’s so crackling and insane, which is about insane people who are torturing each other using the tools of love. Ultimately, in the weirdest way possible, it’s a romantic movie. They end that story together just as they began that story. They end with some level of reconciliation. But tomorrow they’re going to do the same thing again, they’re going to get drunk and do it again!
NS: A movie I’ve been watching a lot recently is Modern Romance. It is not a Psychotronic Breakup movie but it lives in a world just off reality. Albert Brooks is a film editor in 1980 working on B-movies and he’s in love with a woman and they keep on breaking up and every time they get back together it’s for some really unhealthy reason. There’s some neurosis, some jealousy, some fear and it keeps bringing them back together and once they’re back together of course he feels horrible about it. It’s surreal. I think the difference between a Psychotronic Breakup movie and any other kind of breakup movie is that the Psychotronic Movie pits your breakup against death.
AEM: Totally. And death personified into a creature or a world. The shadowy underworld comes to life. It goes back to Orpheus. Guy whose heart is broken takes his electric guitar to Hell to get his love back and it just gets worse
NS: Like Bukowski said, “If there are junk yards in Hell, love is the dog that guards its gates."
AEM: Annie Hall is not psychotronic. It’s about a breakup and it has surrealist elements but it is in no way a Psychotronic Breakup movie. It’s just an awesome movie.
NS: One of the greatest movies about gender dynamics and love is That Obscure Object of Desire. A guy falls in love with a beautiful ingenue and she gives him the runaround and every other scene she switches actresses, two actresses playing the role. It expresses the absurdity of love, the power dynamic, but at no point do you feel like there is an existential issue. Same thing with Woody Allen or Albert Brooks. You’re not feeling that at any point your answer is, “How about I just fucking kill myself?” I personally wake up every morning feeling that way. Fuck this, fuck you, fuck the world, I’m just going to die. I don’t think those are part of the conceit of the relationship dramas. Nobody’s going to die! Whereas the horror movie version of that is that you are absolutely going to die, or at least kill someone.
AEM: We tend to feel as humans that love is the thing standing between us and the abyss. I’m going to die, I’m going to die alone, but love will save me. But a Psychotronic Breakup movie says, love is the abyss. You are fucked.
NS: You have to consider the constituency. The kind of people who like these movies and make these movies. Usually they are the same. They tend to be intellectuals. Whether you want to call it nerd culture, geek culture. They're who have valued art and education above many personal relationships. I wasn’t a popular kid when I discovered horror movies and left-of-center Counter Culture cinema. I was unpopular. I didn’t want to be anyone's friend, nobody wanted to be my friend. I wanted to listen to Punk Rock records watch crazy ass movies, sit in my room and hate on everyone who didn’t want to hang out with me. So what did that create? Did it create a sense of putting interpersonal and romantic relationships on some kind of pedestal? Are these stories being told by people who, by their nature, believe this shit is unknowable because it wasn’t part of their life growing up? Is there anyone who made a movie like this who got laid when they were a teenager?
AEM: I don’t know the teen biographies of David Lynch and Lars von Trier and David Cronenberg and Karyn Kusama. What’s obvious and what they are all willing to talk about is that the movies are based on the breakups they had in real life. I remember reading an interview with Cronenberg where he talked about The Brood and he said that movie is based on a really brutal divorce he went through. When I read that it blew my mind. Previous to that I hadn’t realized that an insane sci-fi movie about killer children clones would be about someone’s divorce. I asked myself, “You can do that, you can express it that way?” That’s why it’s one of the movies that’s a key to the subgenre because it’s so transparently that. The strength in all these films is the artist wanting to express the truth of the thing they went through. Antichrist was about his break up. Melancholia was about his depression. I don’t know whether or not they got laid in high school. But they got laid before they stopped getting laid and then they made the movie about death.
NS: A lot of these stories are coming from a place of a certain naiveté towards love.
AEM: I see what you’re saying. As opposed to Nora Ephron who probably thought so much about interpersonal relationships and what it means to be in a relationships, that when she writes a movie about a breakup there’s something a little more concrete. "Here’s a problem and here’s how you’re going to work through it." But to a guy like Lars von Trier he’s like, "It's as if a fucking planet crashed into the earth."
NS: Mike Nichols seems like a really reasonable guy. He’s saying, “It just didn’t work out, but let me tell you, it was pretty funny how it went down. I could give you a couple really good jokes about that!" There is obviously an incredible overlap between how the audience and the filmmaker must feel. I’m wondering what this says that’s different than what you could explain away with a joke. Whether it’s Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron or Nichols running that gamut or Rob Reiner, how are they dealing with this shit? Are these people healthy and we are unhealthy? Or are we just the people who are attracted to these films and this genre?
AEM: I have a hard time wanting to judge anyone about it. I think that you’re looking at something that’s in the difference between the approach, but you can’t go too far into a question of whether you would rather be dating David Lynch or Nora Ephron because one or the other may be more insane. I don’t know. I don’t want to judge somebody based on their work like that. But as far as the sub-genre goes, it seems to be that Psychotronic Breakup movies are personal experiences presented as something with an unknowable quality.
NS: Are Paul Mazurksy and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and Penny Marshall waking up in the morning months after their breakup going “Sweet death come and take me”?
AEM: I have a hard time saying if they do or not. Their movies don’t. So they may wake up and think, "This is a terrible way to feel, let me express the opposite of this feeling by -"
NS: "- making you laugh."
AEM: Yeah. We all know some of the funniest people are the most miserable. So I don’t want to judge Nora Ephron’s ability to feel heartbreak. Her parents wrote some of the most heartbreaking movies. But they don’t present love as if it is a dog from Hell. The dog from Hell thing is particular.
NS: What do we think is attracting us and our like-minded friends and colleagues to talking about love in movies as if planets are colliding?
AEM: The really heavy great genre movies that are very dark express your unceasing, reasonable but impossible-to-handle fear of death. I think all horror movies, if they are any good, have an aspect that’s about that. Death is coming, it’s not stopping, it is going to keep on coming at you whether it’s Mike Myers or It Follows or the fucking Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Death is going to get you, there’s nothing you can do about it and the best you can hope for is to share that horror with other people. The best you can hope for is to be presented with that abysmal scream of terror in a movie that you can enjoy as a personal experience or enjoy with other people.
NS: What’s worse than death? Dying alone?
AEM: You only die alone.
NS: You are talking about this idea of "What I’m truly afraid of is death, death is the ultimate loneliness.” So in order to stave off that feeling, you share it with other people.
AEM: You enter into this artistic contract where you share those feelings, either with the characters or the artist responsible or the audience around you. That is my general theory of what horror is for. If you want to experience a break up experience in a story, you might not feel comfortable with a story that does not acknowledge the abyss.
NS: Is the horror genre about trying to face the ultimate loneliness of death by sharing that with people?
AEM: Which is impossible and psychotic and you can never do that.
NS: That’s a losing battle no matter how you cut it. And then you apply the exact opposite of loneliness, being in love. You have a partner, you are married, you have someone that you are ostensibly going to be with forever, who is going to have your back and you theirs. Then you take that away. Is that not... I think we defined love as a horror movie. The idea that love could stave off death, which is impossible and insane thinking.
AEM: You can be in the happiest relationship in the world. You still know without question that one of you is going to die. First. Unless you both die in a horrible car wreck together or get murdered in your sleep. But without question one of you is going to die. There is no possible other end to the happiest possible outcome. If you don’t break up, which is heartbreaking and miserable, one of you is going to fucking die. One of you is going to be holding a dead body, that will never come back, despite how good you were at being in a relationship. That’s absolutely 100% accurate to what will definitely happen to you without question. Unless some other horrible thing happens. So that’s it. That’s love.
NS: The most horrific movie you can watch is about two people in love.
AEM: That’s the thing. Happy endings depend on when the movie ends. If it goes on long enough, every movie becomes a horror movie.
NS: On a long enough timeline, everyone’s survival rate drops to zero.
A PARTIAL PSYCHOTRONIC BREAKUP MOVIE GUIDE:
POSSESSION (1981): To grapple with Psychotronic Breakup cinema is to watch Possession and understand that despite how formally insane and boldly unique its storytelling, it has a Rosetta Stone for the sub-genre. Patterns created here reappear throughout the realm of head-shattering heartbreak stories. This is what it feels like. Isabelle Adjani channels cosmic hysteria in a freakout routine that's like a ballet of domestic psychosis, smashing up her groceries and writhing on the goopy subway floor as blood and other mysterious fluids pour out of her body. This is just what it feels like. Doppelgängers abound, from the school teacher inexplicably played also by Adjani to the dual Sam Neils, presumably one of whom was born from the bleeding, tentacled monster that is at the center of the affair. (AEM)
VAMPIRE'S KISS (1989): The Big Bang of Nic Cage meme-worthy performances, Vampire's Kiss is the primordial ooze from which countless YouTube clips were born. Unlike many of the genre, Vampire's Kiss does not presuppose the supernatural or paranormal, but instead pits it against our hero’s sanity. Is he crazy because he’s become a vampire or a vampire because he’s crazy? All the while explaining it to himself as a byproduct of his own seduction and manipulation, the film and Cage’s performance achieve a unique level of humor and absurdity. He manages to fool himself, but the audience is in on it from the start, making it a particularly self-aware example for the genre. (NS)
HABIT (1997): Fessenden's film is like the Velvet Underground of indie horror, inspiring an entire new generation of freaks to get personal with their horror. Like a vampire Cassavetes movie, Habit is very clear in its metaphorical connections between addiction, love and undead bloodsuckers, but it’s the gritty, grainy execution and the all-too-real performances that let us see our own insanity reflected in the relationship death spiral. (AEM)
THE BROOD (1979): Cronenberg specifically talks about this movie as being his Kramer vs. Kramer. The premise of the film is that a married woman’s emotional trauma takes the form of killer children who target anyone responsible for her pain. This is also the premise of Psychotronic Breakup cinema as a whole, the psychoplasmic embodiment of heartbreak in the form of death-wielding monsters. Uncannily, the scene in which Oliver Reed meets his son’s school teacher not only shares a similar theme and story moment to the one in Possession, it is quite visually similar. Although these films take different approaches to metaphor - Possession is a glorious and hysterical mess while The Brood is a calculated, angular science fiction puzzle - they live together as the perfect '80s psychotronic couple. (AEM)
REPULSION (1965) and THE TENANT (1976): Many refer to Repulsion, The Tenant and Rosemary's Baby as Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”. While Mrs. Woodhouse often dominates the conversation, the bookends serve as perfect prototypes of the genre. Both are films inherently about losing one’s identity, within urbanity, due to loss and loneliness. Deneuve’s “Carol” and Polanski’s own “Trelkovsky” share a persona, first as a young woman trying to reconcile loneliness with her own sexual identity and expectations and then as a man bereft, lost, after the very real death of his wife. From myriad hands bursting through the walls to molest Deneuve, Polanski’s story evolves into a man searching a wall for a semblance of humanity, only to find but a tooth. (NS)
AUDITION (1999): What begins as a beautiful and restrained love story about awkward people builds with dread until it suddenly snaps with a psychic break. The movie itself seems to go insane, through both its visual language and the ultra-extreme torture and violence it depicts. Like all the other entries here, the extremity is an externalization of one character’s smashed desire. Asami desperately needs to be the single only person loved, with a love that is beyond impossible. Among many searing images in the film, Asami puking into a dog bowl to feed her crippled ex-lover stands out as this movie’s stance on what romantic love really means. (AEM)
Cocteau's ORPHEUS (1950): Setting the the myth in contemporary 1950s Paris, Cocteau imagines the story using handsome young brawling poets, motorcycle gangs, ethereal poetry beamed through a limousine radio and an entryway into the underworld that involves surgical gloves. In the ancient version of the story, Orpheus travels to the underworld and makes a deal with the devil to get his love Euridice back from the dead. Here, Orpheus falls in love with death, who reigns in the underworld but also poses as a beautiful princess on Earth. With this move, Cocteau makes clear the connection between love and death while also spinning a wildly complex head fuck that makes an ancient story into confounding modern art. (AEM)
TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001): Nothing creates more obsession than a lost love still lingering in the past. It's like a bloodthirsty seductress in a locked room and the only way to let it out is to burn the whole house down. TROUBLE EVERY DAY is negative-romance. Every relationship is a cold study in emotional or physical brutality. The best shot at consummation it gives us is Vincent Gallo jerking off in the bathroom while his wife bangs on the door. (AEM)
THE INVITATION (2015): Karyn Kusama’s recent masterpiece, soon to released by this site’s parent company, Drafthouse, is a slow-burn of the genre. It is a success, claustrophobic and terse, to describe the lengths we go to rid ourselves from the guilt and distress of loss. The Invitation attacks two tenets of the genre, the end of a relationship and the loss of a child, not by questioning whether they are real, but how to assuage the pain, and whether that’s a realistic expectation. Practically a set of escalating dares within our hero’s head, The Invitation continues to ask whether we dig ourselves deeper into our own fears by facing them, or if there can be some catharsis, even if that means everyone fucking dies. Many questions within the genre are consistently answered with death being the final outcome, but it’s The Invitation which asks if death is even an option. (NS)
LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001): Lynch is the king of metaphysical emotions. When asked why he’s been divorced so many times (three divorces plus a painful breakup with Isabella Rossalini), Lynch answered “Well, we live in a field of relativity. Things change.” In Lost Highway, things change a lot. Specifically, Bill Pullman changes into Balthazar Getty after killing and mutilating his wife Patricia Arquette, who changes from dark-haired disinterested housewife to blond porn star gun moll. The breakup is charged with arcane mysteries and violence. Lynch has clearly stated that this movie is his interpretation of the O.J. Simpson case, presumably suggesting that the divorce between guilt and action can break reality. Mulholland Drive realizes a hysterical breakup as a film noir fever dream. To many people, this is the most transparent of Lynch’s “weird” movies, possibly because the dissolve from emotional intensity to living nightmare feels the most relateable. (AEM)
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008): It began as an investigation between Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman about what a horror movie would be for them. It became a harrowing story about the passage of time and realizing that the person you thought loved you doesn’t. There no more epic a doppelgänger than Philip Seymour Hoffman building a living full-scale model of his own life and everyone in it. Synecdoche, New York features one of the most intense direct addresses to the audience in the form of a “you are going to die” funeral speech. What makes it psychotronic? A permanently burning house, futuristic blimps and an increasingly paranoid sense that we are watching a life from an entirely metaphysical or even god’s eye point-of-view. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it simulates through tone and mystery a lonely but awe-inspiring version of the death experience. (AEM)
THE ONE I LOVE (2014): The theme of the doppelgänger recurs frequently in the genre, often representing something we thought we knew, someone we thought we were or someone we believed we loved, to be different. The One I Love is a contemporary commentary of those dynamics, spearheaded by the Duplass Brothers, the genre-twisting voices of compact, micro-budget filmmaking. The film is truly psychotronic in that all those niggling and nagging relationship feelings we get about not being ourselves, or not trusting your partner, are not presented in a roundabout way. There is no dilly, no dally. It is quite literally about the difference between who we are with and who we expect to be with, whether they look, smell, taste and feel like exactly the same person. (NS)
ANTICHRIST (2009) & MELANCHOLIA (2011): A woman’s failure to accept the smiling status quo of a marriage to the hottest man on Earth (Alexander Skarsgård) coincides with an extinction-level planetary collision. A couple’s grief escalates into a satanically driven sadomasochistic one-way trip to the woods. In both films, shattered emotions are the messengers of vast horrors, whether they are galactic or demonic. The feeling of heartbreak is represented not just by interpersonal horror, but by the inescapable fact that the entire human species is at the mercy of forces that lack any shred of love. (AEM)
DON'T LOOK NOW (1973): Like a handful of other films in this list, Don't Look Now articulates the unknowable grief and irreconcilable damage that the loss of a loved one can have on a relationship. Renowned for one of the most graphic sex scenes in a mainstream film, like Antichrist and Possession, it goes through supernatural lengths to try and find some healing factor in the pain between its characters. The convolution of sex and the paranormal, leading to paranoia, issues of trust and disconnection from reality are presented through a warped, jagged edit, often twisting the viewer’s perspective. Predating many of its brethren, and anchored by a lion of the genre, Nicholas Roeg, Don't Look Now is a primer for the genre, an early patient in the ward. (NS)
HONEYMOON (2014): Sexual and reproductive anxiety combines with the fear that a partner could become a stranger. Rather than finding out that his wife is fucking a mysterious alien entity, as in Possession, this story depicts a newly married husband realizing the wife he’s fucking has now herself become a mysterious alien entity. The movie begins with a focus on the couple’s sexual hunger, illustrating that such desire can become even more catastrophically repulsion and fear. A brilliant moment in which she privately rehearses her identity may reflect the conflict we all feel between our personal self and the self we enact within the theater of our relationships. (AEM)