Sunday, April 28, 2013

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

The three best films I’ve seen so far this year (Spring Breakers, To the Wonder, and Upstream Color) all strive to exist as pure cinema, expressions so heavily dependent on the interplay of sound and image for their emotional effect that it is impossible to imagine their survival in any medium other than film. This places them in direct opposition to the other great film I saw this year, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, which—while undoubtedly cinematic—could easily be conceived as a thoroughly effective short story. The term frequently applied to films like Spring Breakers and Upstream Color (and even To the Wonder) is Malickian, or Malicky, or some derivation thereof. Sure, all these films rely more heavily on emotional than narrative logic a la The Tree of Life, but Spring Breakers is more heavily indebted to Michael Mann, Upstream Color to Cronenberg and Resnais.

Upstream Color is a genuinely beguiling film. On the surface, the plot is relatively straightforward, but the details serve (perhaps unnecessarily) to complicate things. This creates a unique effect. At the same time that you’re being seduced by the sublimely edited sequences, these details nag at you, making you question whether or not the whole enterprise is bullshit. On a thematic level this works, as the characters are being forced to reconsider their identities, the narratives they’ve constructed for themselves. This is Carruth’s primary focus, the frailty of our identities and the degree to which they are shaped by other people and the relationships in our lives.

The growth Carruth has shown as a filmmaker since Primer is astonishing. The direction in that film was not without the occasional flourish, but it was primarily functional, existing in service of the script. Seldom a moment passed that wasn’t driven by dialogue. Conversely, Upstream Color is driven by its direction—the sounds and images and the emotions they convey, and the way they relate to other sounds and images via montage. Large swaths of time flow by with nary a word spoken. The script sometimes gets in the way, serving as the source of the cognitive dissonance described above.

Carruth didn’t doubt the intelligence of his audience in Primer, but in Upstream Color he places a remarkable amount of faith in our visual literacy. Like a painter or a poet, he takes for granted his audience’s ability to piece together a meaning without the artist connecting the dots. It’s not unique so much for what he does as how he does it. Elliptical plots are nothing new, we can point again to Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, but Kiarostami gives us text to build upon, Carruth assumes the foundation is already there. Rather than a puzzle box like Primer demanding to be solved, Upstream Color is content to wash over you, trusting that if the plot eludes you the feelings won’t. And in art, the feelings are what’s  important, are they not?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2013)

“Other people direct movies. Terrence Malick builds cathedrals”

These words, from Matt Zoller Seitz, occur to me every time I watch a Terrence Malick film. They inevitably contain several moments that are transcendent to a degree that can only be described as religious, so removed from what conventions have taught us to approach as cinema that the moniker of “movie” seems somehow to diminish them. Where the majority of movies are inherently theatrical, Malick consistently rises above such constraints. He writes symphonies, directs ballets; he paints with light. Malick may not be my favorite director, but, in a person, he represents cinema’s innate potential to be the apotheosis of all art.

Despite what audiences at Toronto and Venice may have led you to believe, To the Wonder possesses several such moments. I watched it once before going to bed last night and again upon awaking this morning. There are surely many moments that eluded me, but among those that are still circling in my mind: Ben Affleck approaching Olga Kurylenko across ground that gives way like a trampoline as the tide rolls in around Mont St. Michel, a man’s hand grasping for a woman’s in a manner that recalls Michelangelo, a jet carving the path of a parabola around the sun, the woman peering through a hole in a fence as the sun shines through, a man’s hand running down a woman’s unclothed back, the woman dancing through the aisles of a fluorescent supermarket.

I could go on and on. It’s worth noting that the majority of these moments center on the performance of Olga Kurylenko. Prior to watching To the Wonder, I only knew she had been a Bond girl in a film I hadn’t watched. Now I know her every emotion, every curve of her face, as intimately as I would that of a lover’s. While Affleck is clearly Malick’s surrogate, often positioned at the edge of the frame with the camera looking over his shoulder, Kurylenko is undoubtedly the film’s heart. She commands every shot she is in, pirouetting with the grace of a ballerina, the ballerina she aspired to be. The camera soaks in every inch of her beauty.

The beauty is not there solely because Kurylenko is a beautiful woman, but because Malick knows where to find it. He shows it to us in the unlikeliest of places: a Sonic parking lot, a Laundromat, in water draining into a sewer grate. The potential to transcend is everywhere, but we are often too caught up in ourselves, and the lives of those around us, to reach out and touch it, to approach the wonder that surrounds us. The Christian prayer intoned by Bardem that serves as the film’s climax embodies this idea.

I come back to the idea that Terrence Malick builds cathedrals. It occurs to me that Rothko Chapel is in Texas. I picture Malick walking in and being transported, classical music playing in his head as his internal monologue conducts itself in something analogous to hushed voiceover. The Chapel’s Wikipedia page features a quote describing it as “a holy place open to all religions and belonging to none.” Is there any better evocation of the feeling one gets from Malick’s films? As someone who identifies as an agnostic one day and an atheist the next, his films are emblematic of the metaphysical truth I search for in art.

I could go on about the imperfections I found in the film such as Bardem’s performance and character feeling a bit out of place until the climactic sequence. I could talk about how beguiling I found the shot of a sea turtle. I could extemporize upon the ways in which To the Wonder and The Tree of Life see a famously reclusive director branching out into autobiography. There may be time for that in the future, but for now these things would only serve to impose themselves between Malick and your soul. At worst, they would dissuade you from seeing the film. Whatever you ultimately make of To the Wonder, it’s an artistic expression so wholly unique it deserves to be approached on its own terms.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956)

A Man Escaped opens with a shot of two hands that seem to be in awe of their freedom.  Their initial movements are modest. They acclimate themselves with their newfound agency. They twist. They turn. And then, deliberately, they begin to strive for something more. Reaching for the handle and unlatching the door, they wait. When the moment presents itself, they burst into action. They throw the door open. They run. They attempt to escape. Moments later, they are returned to captivity.

It is the film in miniature. The final shot of the film echoes the first, the hands replaced by people. We know they aren’t caught, the narration clearly emanates from the present, but the parallel is there. The hands’ eagerness to liberate themselves and their subsequent capture is echoed by Orsini’s impetuous escape attempt later in the film.  Roger Ebert saw the film as Sisyphean, Bresson admiring man’s ability to persevere in the face of certain failure. It’s an apt analogy for the majority of Bresson’s work, but also lurking within A Man Escaped is the idea that careful observation is necessary for proper preparation and that without it we are doomed to repeat our failures. Running parallel is the idea that abandoning all caution and taking the initial plunge is often the most difficult part of achieving anything, being able to identify the moment when preparation gives way to procrastination.

It has taken me four films to come fully to terms with Bresson’s cinema. It is indeed a cinema of careful observation, a cinema of austerity that makes Ozu seem frivolous and Tarr ostentatious by comparison.  Ebert claims that he “can’t think of a single unnecessary shot in A Man Escaped.” I would go one further. There are no unnecessary camera moves, no unnecessary edits, no unnecessary adornments or emotions. It is a cinema as economical as it is ecumenical. The initial effect can be alienating, gone are the concessions to the audience we’ve grown accustomed to even in foreign and art house cinema. But as you spend time with Bresson you learn he doesn’t so much eschew these things as transcend them. Casting aside all that is unnecessary to connect directly with the basic truths of human experience. With A Man Escaped, I was able to free myself from my preconceptions of what I wanted, or expected, Bresson to be and love him for who he is. I am eager to revisit Pickpocket and Balthazar. Like the hand reaching for the door, I desire more.