Friday, May 17, 2013

Upstream Color & Kieslowski’s Blue

Shane Carruth’s fantastic Upstream Color is a film that all but demands cogitation. After watching it, one can’t help thinking about it, and the great thing is that it not only holds up to scrutiny but rewards those willing to give it further consideration. Carruth constructed the movie with the precision of a Swiss watch (as he did with his first feature Primer) while at the same time using a suggestive and oblique storytelling style that does not provide fast answers. This combination makes for a very pleasurable viewing experience. Concepts and themes, meaning and import are all initially elusive, but we sense the order behind everything and are confident that the more we think about the film, the more little bits of it will suddenly make sense, like a blurry picture racking into focus. The insights we get from these moments of clarity feel strikingly personal, like we’ve made our own private discoveries, which endear us to the movie even more.

Much has been written about Upstream Color since its screening at Sundance this year. Plot summaries, guides, and analyses have all been part of an audience reaction that feels participatory and of a piece with Carruth’s DIY approach to both the making and marketing of his movie. (A couple good write-ups are here and here.) With a film that fosters so much legitimately interesting conversation, it’s only natural to want to put in one’s two cents, so this is my attempt to add to the discussion.

At a certain point after my first viewing of UC, I somehow got it in my mind that it had a lot of similarities to the film Blue, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski. Following that train of thought, I came up with what seemed like interesting connections, enough to try to write about. It’s really just an excuse to talk out some of my thoughts about UC, while also directing more attention to what I think is my favorite Kieslowski feature film. (I prefer it over the excellent Double Life of Véronique and also Red, which a lot of people choose as the best Kieslowski, but if we’re including the entire Decalogue as one work then I think it’s pretty clear that that tops everything.)

Also, it’ll probably be necessary for you to have seen both movies because I’m not really going to describe what happens in each one and will probably refer to scenes or plot points in a shorthandish sort of way. So, here we go, starting with:

1) The Protagonist

While it may have made more sense to start with point 2, the thing that really began to connect the two films for me was Amy Seimetz. This was the first time I’d seen her and I thought her performance greatly contributed to UC’s power and resonance. Her role required someone who could demonstrate vulnerability but also a determination and resolve that should feel almost primal, something that feels innate instead of acted. It’s hard to think of many other American actresses in Seimetz’s age group that can pull off something like that, and so it was easier to think of a younger Juliette Binoche. They seem to share many traits. Both are preternatural beauties with high cheekbones, stylishly cropped hair, and soulful chestnut eyes (while completely lacking the cold supermodelish quality of a lot of other actresses). Besides zygomatics, they share the quality of being utterly watchable, even—or rather, especially—when they aren’t doing anything onscreen. That they both project intelligence is indisputable, but this intelligence seems augmented by something akin to an immemorial wisdom. (They are both what you’d call “old souls.”) There are a lot of actors who are compelling when they feel or emote; Binoche and Seimetz are compelling when they are just sitting there thinking. It’s as if in their quiescence they are revealing something intrinsic about being human that we’ve forgotten, some prelapsarian knowledge that would benefit us greatly were we to possess it. You feel like you might actually learn something about yourself, watching them in their silence.

From that connection it was easy to think of Blue. It’s interesting to think of the arc of Binoche’s character (“Julie”) in Blue and how it parallels the story of Seimetz’s character (“Kris”) in UC. Both suffer a traumatic event early and spend the rest of the movie trying to recover from it. In Blue, Julie loses her husband and daughter in a car crash; in UC, Kris suffers the complete decimation of self and is left little more than a husk of a person without a job or money. They both struggle to find some way to reinvent themselves as they attempt to move on with their lives, but for the bulk of both movies they are thwarted in their endeavors.

Kris can’t get over a nagging feeling of connection to a pig harboring a parasitic worm extracted from her body. In Blue, it seems that everything around Julie is conspiring to remind her of the accident she so desperately wants to forget and put behind her. (Her husband was a widely regarded composer who was in the middle of working on an important symphonic piece for “the unification of Europe.” Lots of people understandably want to see this piece completed. (It is revealed later that Julie is the one who actually wrote her husband’s compositions, and so she is subject to an inner turmoil that wouldn’t have existed had she not been the true author.))

Both movies introduce a love interest who has some connection to the protagonist’s traumatic event: It’s pretty clear early on that Carruth’s character went through the same thing as Kris, and Julie is pursued by the former assistant of her late husband. (It’s interesting that neither Kris nor Julie have close friends to help them through their ordeals, as would typically be the case. Neither movie addresses this curious absence of friends, though there are enough suggestions that point to possible explanations (they both seem to have been pretty wedded to their work, for example).)

There are also small intriguing echoes in what happens to both characters. They both purposely injure their right hand at some point—Julie by running it against a stone wall, Kris by putting it through a glass window. Both hear sounds and music that no one else around them hears. Both “give birth” to surrogate/metaphoric children in animal form, which are subsequently killed (Kris: pigs, Julie: mice). (There’s probably a more literal connection between protagonist and newborns in Upstream Color, whereas in Blue (and other movies), Kieslowski made ample use of metaphor.)

Both characters are also drawn to pools. It is there where they seem most affected by previous events (Kris retrieves bits of stone from the bottom of the pool and recites Walden; Julie hears the music most strongly while swimming). It’s as if the water facilitates the connection between character and previous events, and the pool itself seems like an incubator for each movie’s themes, waiting for the protagonist to return to it for further exploration.

2) The Color Blue

This one is a no-brainer. The color blue features prominently in Upstream Color, and every occurrence seems tied to the mysterious substance that allows for the mind-connection or symbiosis that occurs in the movie. The dead pig babies emit plumes of blue material, which turns the nearby flowers blue, then blue powder precipitate forms on these plants, and this somehow gets into the worms, giving them blue vein-like streaks. The characters are unconsciously drawn to the color blue, with Carruth’s character picking out everything blue in a snack tray at a bar, and Kris’s new workplace has streaks of blue in it.

Kieslowski’s Blue is also filled with a ton of blue (obviously). There are blue clothes, blue folders, blue lollipops, and blue pen markings. Julie experiences visible bursts of blue without warning (out of the blue, even). In Kieslowski’s film, blue seems to symbolize the past, something that she can’t escape (and maybe doesn’t even want to: after moving out of the house that holds too many painful associations for her to stay, she decorates her new apartment with a blue chandelier that was originally in her daughter’s room). In Upstream Color, blue seems to be an important part of an ongoing chain, alluding to the movie’s themes of fate and choice. (Kieslowski said that Blue was about the concept of liberty, and the film clearly explores the notions of freedom and imprisonment albeit in an emotional sense rather than a physical one.)

Some have astutely noted that in Upstream Color there is an eventual shift to the color yellow, possibly as a way of symbolizing the characters escape from the “blue” chain of fate (which adds a healthy dose of irony to the fact that they end up painting the bars of the pigs’ enclosure yellow). There is a color shift in Blue as well, but its counterpuntal color is green, which shows up in places like Julie’s new apartment. It definitely represents something in direct opposition to what blue represents, though blue predictably remains the film’s dominant color. (Julie eventually completes the “unification” composition and addresses all the loose ends of the life she had wanted to abandon.)

3) The Filmmaking

Both Carruth and Kieslowski employ similar techniques to tell their stories. Both films start in a clipped way, with a series of contextless, “uninflected” images (as Mamet would call them) and it is up to the viewer to make sense of them. The movies also end in similar fashion, with an extended dialogueless montage set to soaring music.

And then there’s the ubiquitous shallow depth of field. Carruth takes it to an extreme, as I believe every single shot in Upstream Color is done with a long lens. There are parts in Blue that appear to use a wider lens, but there are plenty of shots that have just a sliver of focus.

Both movies are designed to be somewhat ambiguous and they both encourage individual interpretation. They are also more rewarding with subsequent viewings. Next time you want to give one or the other a re-watch, think about making it a double-feature with both of these excellent, subtly affined movies in tandem.


Friday, May 10, 2013

My Bookshelves Part 2

My bookshelves actually don’t look all that different than they do when I posted pictures of them last year. But I have made some notable additions to it, which I thought I’d share with everyone. Despite the rise of ebooks and my own personal buying habits (which usually involve buying new books in electronic format), I do still have some affection for good old tangible books. And they are undeniably more photogenic, that’s for sure.

This is the aftermath of my month of reading nothing but Carol DeChellis Hill. I basically snagged every halfway-interesting copy of her books on the internet. From left to right, back to front, we have 3 copies of Let’s Fall in Love (hardcover (signed), UK hardcover, paperback), 3 copies of Jeremiah 8:20 (2 signed), Subsistence USA (hardcover), 2 copies of Henry James’ Midnight Song (An ARC and paperback), signed epistolary correspondence, 4 copies of The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer (ARC, 2 copies of uncorrected proof (blue & green), paperback), 2 copies of An Unmarried Woman (Uncorrected proof and paperback), magazines containing CDH short stories (Playboy, two issues of Viva), and two promotional photos included with advance copies of her work. Biggest private collection of CDH memorabilia? Probably not, but it’s still…ample.
This is a first edition of Gain inscribed by Richard Powers. The thing about Powers is that it’s been a policy of his since the beginning that he never signs an actual book. The best he will do during rare public appearances is sign a postcard or a bookplate or something like that. A lot of people then affix what he signed to the first page of one of his books. It’s not the best arrangement, but these sorts of improvised signed editions still sell for hundreds of dollars. I got this copy on eBay for a ridiculously small sum when nobody else was paying attention. Even came with a bonus Saul Bellow quotation.
I found one volume of The Last Tycoon manuscript, which complements my Great Gatsby manuscript facsimile. It’s actually part of a three-volume set. The one I have, part 2, is half handwritten manuscript, half corrected typescript. Pretty endlessly fascinating stuff.
I’ve always wanted one of those Ulysses manuscript facsimiles, and finally found one on eBay for less than $100 (they usually go for two or three hundred). It’s cool, but Joyce’s scrawl is borderline illegible. Luckily the third volume prints the entire novel and notes all the differences from the manuscript. It’ll be useful in the future when I drop everything and spend 6 months reading nothing but Joyce. That’s the plan, anyway.
Not really part of my bookshelf but I put this frame up next to it. It’s a few of the clippings I collected about David Foster Wallace. There’s stuff from The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly. The guy tends to haunt my reading habits, so it seemed like an appropriate tribute. That black and white photo is my favorite picture of him, by the way. It was taken when he was in the middle of writing Infinite Jest and you can see the mountainous IJ manuscript in the foreground as well as all his books behind him (Nabokov, 2-volume OED). It’s always interesting when you can take a peek at an author’s library. I assume he’s working on IJ as the picture is being taken, and I love the small smile of quiet amusement on his face; I like to think that he had just written something that even he found clever or interesting or funny, maybe a moment during the Eschaton sequence (“Pemulis tells Lord he cannot believe his fucking eyes. He tells Lord how dare he don the dreaded red beanie over such an obvious instance of map-not-territory equivocationary horseshit as Ingersoll’s trying to foist”). RIP DFW.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Just Like the Movies

NB: This will be an exercise in spontaneity. I’m just going to jot all this out and not revise endlessly and hope it comes out semi-coherent. I know I should probably do more blog entries, but I have a propensity to work on massive pieces instead of a bunch of little ones. This will be a littler one, I think. It’s also about movies, which I swore I was going to go cold turkey on writing about, since I feel I write about them too much. But hopefully it will be about enough other things to be interesting to people who don’t care all that much about movies.

A couple things piqued my interest recently. One was the review of Iron Man 3 I read in the NYTimes on Friday. The reviewer, Manohla Dargis, doesn’t really review the movie so much as ruminate on its place in the world we inhabit. Or, more accurately, she judges its appropriateness. For her, the action scenes of the movie too readily recall the recent tragedy in Boston, and the villains perpetrating acts of domestic terrorism are too similar to real-life counterparts for the movie to work as the piece of pop escapism it so clearly wants to be. (In all fairness to Ms. Dargis, the movie didn’t seem to interest her much on a very basic level, so she had to find something to write about.) One gets the sense that Ms. Dargis has been offended on multiple levels; she starts out by complaining about the excessive explosions and gunfire, then criticizes what she interprets as the movie’s cavalier approach to the events of 9/11 (she mentions the infamous date no fewer than six times in the review). This blasé attitude toward such a traumatic event is borderline unconscionable to her. While Ms. Dargis doesn’t completely abjure the use of “9/11 evocations” (or whatever) in movies, she just doesn’t want the events used all willy-nilly, without thought or consideration. The review seems to be a rallying cry of sorts: If a movie refers to 9/11, Ms. Dargis propounds, the events that took place should be explored, addressed directly and truthfully and significantly, and not just “exploited.” (There’s actually a certain pathos to her plea, because what she’s really saying is “Why can’t they just make good art?”)

Ms. Dargis also mentions something that I finally decided to look up: A couple weeks ago Steven Soderbergh gave a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival that has been generating a fair amount of buzz. It’s basically a “State of the Union” address about the film industry. He starts out by relating an anecdote about this guy he saw during a flight who watched nothing but the action scenes of a bunch of movies, skipping ahead to the “good” parts: the car chases, the climactic gunfight, etc. Mr. Soderbergh is understandably disturbed at what he is witnessing, which is basically the desecration of an art form he has dedicated most of his life to. He then half-rues, half-accepts the current reality of Hollywood funding, which is that they feel more comfortable bankrolling a $200 million movie with costumed superheroes than they are funding a “mid-level” $35 million feature about real human beings (viz. exactly the kind of movie Mr. Soderbergh makes). You can see why Ms. Dargis brought this speech up, since her own points dovetail nicely with Mr. Soderbergh’s (“Why can’t they just make good art?”).

I’m not without sympathy for the arguments of Mr. Soderbergh (it really does seem that movies like Being John Malkovich, for instance, would never get funded today) and Ms. Dargis (the terrorist videos in IM3 had a chilling and arguably unnecessary verisimilitude that was perhaps a little out of place), and I do think something’s been up since 9/11. But I think they might both be missing the mark a little. Putting aside the fact that terrorists and explosions and toppling structures and falling bodies have been around in summer popcorn movies for a while now, way before 9/11 (e.g. go ahead and Youtube the opening scenes of Armageddon), I don’t think the problem lies in disturbing imagery or violent content in movies. The problem lies with narrative and our relation to it.

During and immediately after the events of 9/11, there was a general consensus on what the day looked/felt like. You heard it over and over: “It was like a movie.” That always struck me as odd. After all, nothing I saw on TV that day looked like something from the movies I really love and respond to, movies like My Dinner with Andre or Annie Hall or Before Sunrise. I know that’s not what people were talking about, but without adding a qualifier (“action movie,” “summer movie”) it did make crystal clear the benighted level at which most people considered something to be “a movie.” (Experiment: After your next magical date, turn to the other person and say the night was “just like a movie.” If the blank stare lasts longer than 5 seconds, escape while you can.)

But so if after 9/11 we were stuck in a movie brought to life, it seems important to ask what kind of movie. Well, the only type of movie where that level of destruction and devastation occurs is the mega-blockbuster. We weren’t in a quiet little chamber piece. This was a prototypical big-budget disaster movie. And all mega-blockbusters have common elements: a dramatic opening scene, clearly delineated heroes and villains, obstacles ultimately overcome through perseverance and innate ability, and a final and all-encompassing triumph over evil. And we quickly accepted that this was the story we were in, largely because it offered solace when nothing else made much sense. If we were in a narrative where the World Trade Center towers came down, so be it, but we would see that the rest of the story unfolded as these kinds of stories always do: with struggle, retribution, and eventual victory.

There have not been a lot of good pieces of art that have directly “taken on” the events of 9/11. I can think of only two. One, the movie United 93, is a pretty straight-forward reenactment of what actually happened; the filmmakers realized that the truth held more than enough power without adding anything to it. The second is Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man. It’s about a man and a woman who escape the towers on that fateful day and cross paths in the subsequent weeks. One of the major points of the novel, delivered with consummate subtlety and skill, is something I think we all realize but find it hard to articulate: 9/11 imposed narrative on us, where before there was none. There was not just the overarching narrative involving our fight against the enemies of Freedom, but it also affected our quotidian narratives in the small ways it impinged on our daily low-key existence. From that point on our lives were inextricably wrapped up in a story not of our choosing. We were in that movie where bad guys were out there, blowing stuff up, killing our fellow citizens. A world where there were clearly defined good guys (us) and clearly defined bad guys (them). This was our collective narrative, whether we liked it or not. Some of us embraced it, but a fair number of us were deeply unsettled. And I don’t think we were disturbed solely by our internal debate about the morality of war, or the abuse of national power, or things like that. We were, on a deeper level, really unsettled at living in a narrative that traditionally had ironclad concepts of right and wrong, good and bad—a world where everything is black and white, just like a summer movie. We were unsettled because we know the world is never black and white, that things are never that simple. There are shades of gray, ambiguities, confusion, uncertainties, doubt—all the things anathema to a big-budget popcorn movie.

Now, we know we are not in a movie, even if the post-9/11 world seems like one (and some, scarily, have been convinced it is). Most of us know that the last thing the world resembles is a straight narrative. That’s where Ms. Dargis’s view starts to fall apart. It shouldn’t matter how many explosions are in a movie or how many times 9/11 is supposedly evoked, we know it’s not reality. And we know this not because there’s a guy with an iron suit flying around, but rather because credits pop up, a story is told, and more credits roll. This is not particularly faithful to how life is, particularly the ultimate beginning and ultimate end parts. (Sure, we as individuals experience beginnings and endings, but life goes on before and after, plus we don’t have the luxury of analyzing how it went after we reach our ending, sitting in a coffee shop with friends, teasing out themes, arguing about the plot.) Narrative is faker than any fantastic alien a CGI artist can come up with. We impose it on our selves, or other events do, if they’re big enough. But it is not how the world works. In a way, that guy on the plane was watching something much closer to reality than narrative features depict (for what is the 21st Century so far but a series of contextless explosions?).

I’m not saying narrative is worthless. Nor am I advocating a proliferation of non-narrative films. (Besides, even the most “non-narrative” film has a beginning and ending and something inbetween, which ultimately constitutes narrative, no matter how scrambled up it may seem when the lights go down. (As Jean-Luc Godard is purported to say, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”)) And I’m certainly not saying we should be the guy that just watches explosions. There are ways for art to engage meaningfully with these big concerns that both Ms. Dargis and Mr. Soderbergh seem to want movies to address, and something with a strong narrative will most likely turn out to be the artwork that does it. But we should probably stop expecting our art to be mimetic of the real world, or regarding a kind of simulacrumness as some gold standard for art. To paraphrase David Mamet, the goal of art shouldn’t be to recreate the conversation two people had on a bus this morning, the goal should be to have them say something better. Narrative is our chance to write, draw, film something better. Narrative can be edifying, illuminating, vital, important. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for life, and vice versa. Our lives are our own, and art resides outside, whether it’s an important cinematic masterpiece or just a dumb summer superhero flick. In the end, it’s all escapism.