by Nicholas Rombes

X’ed Out Trilogy (2010-14),
by Charles Burns,
Jonathan Cape

Vivarium (2019),
dir Lorcan Finnegan,
Vertigo Releasing

Seemingly disconnected, there are—in the spirit of Lawrence Weschler’s book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences—gentle and strange convergences between the feeling and the imagery of both these unconnected works. The alien symbols dredged from some dark imagination, leaking into the “real” world. Stories that can’t be reduced to plot summaries, as plot summaries can’t capture the weird, uncanny experience of, well, experiencing them.

Both X’ed Out and Vivarium assume an other world that leaks into the main frame world where most of the action happens, a world that, for the most part, remains off-screen and off page. Is this other world internal? Or is it really out there?

Now double these questions by setting these two works side-by-side and navigating not only within them but between them. In Vivarium the only real glimpses we get of this other world are from the young boy (Senan Jennings) who watches the TV with its unsourced, Keith Haring-like, indecipherable pulsing, expanding mazes and the cryptic book or manual he brings home one day and leaves for his “mother” Gemma (Imogen Poots) to read.

And in the X’ed Out trilogy Nitnit (alter ego of the protagonist Doug) the alien-ish language symbols and signage appear in dialogue balloons and on tattered posters, completely obscure to Nitnit as well as to us. Neither Vivarium nor the Burns trilogy allow for any compromises with viewers or readers: the other world hinted at is assumed to be whole, functional, and meaningful, but none of that is available to us.

Watching Vivarium felt like falling into the pages of X’ed out, and then reading X’ed Out pushed me back into Vivarium.

Where am I now?

Where are you?


Images from X’ed Out and screenshots from Vivarium

About the Author:

Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age (Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.