Summer Hours (2008) — On the Meanings of Stuff

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece in which I commented upon the extent to which our impressions of films are coloured by a lifetime’s worth of experiences. While all critical responses may be anchored in a shared humanity, there is no such thing as a clean or dispassionate read and what you think of a text is likely to be as much a product of your bullshit as it is of the inherent qualities of the text itself.

I wrote that piece and immediately sat down to watch Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas, a film that so closely matches my own personal experiences that it is at times quite uncanny.

A number of years ago, my mother died leaving quite a complicated estate. While I had been serving as my mother’s carer for a number of years, her death put me in a situation where I was legally involved with my much older half-siblings. While these siblings had always been a presence in my life, they had all left home by the time I was about 10 and their subsequent visits became increasingly sporadic and tense as my mother’s emotional stability declined. By the time I was legally manacled to them by my mother’s estate, I was effectively a complete stranger who had been parachuted into their existing group dynamic. While the stress of the situation meant that we all found a way to more-or-less cooperate, it rapidly became quite clear that my siblings and I had very different attitudes towards my mother’s possessions.

As someone who had been in the firing line of my mother’s emotional instability for my entire life, I viewed my mother’s things as a burden in need of lifting… I wanted to be rid of the stuff because I wanted to be rid of my mother and every item that went out the door brought a tangible sense of relief. Though my siblings expressed a number of different attitudes towards my mother’s stuff, one prevailing attitude seemed to be that the stuff was almost sacred in that it allowed one of my siblings in particular to reconnect with his (seemingly far more pleasant) childhood without the person my mother became getting in the way and spoiling his feelings of nostalgia. To this day, I could not tell you which of these two attitudes was the more ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ but we not only saw the objects in very different lights, we were also using them as props in what turned out to be very different psychodramas, which is precisely the theme of Summer Hours.

 

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Leviathan (2014) — Dismay Goes Before Him

We would like to believe that our critical faculties are impartial and that our impressions of the media we consume are a direct result of its inherent quality. We would like to believe that we can sense aesthetic excellence in the same way as we smell burning or taste strawberries but the truth is a good deal more complex. While our culture and neurological make-up certainly train us to expect certain aesthetic benchmarks, much of our reaction comes not from the text but the stuff around it.

At a very basic physiological level, it is quite hard to enjoy a 3D film when you arrive at the cinema with a head-ache only to discover that the cinema’s sound-system is malfunctioning along with its air-conditioning. As we progress past childhood, we learn to make allowances for things likely to affect our moods but it is still incredibly easy to sit through a bad screening of a film and conclude that the film itself is to blame. Conversely, go to see a stupid movie with a bunch of friends who respond to every beat with gales of laughter and you are just as likely to praise the film for that evening’s entertainment as you are your friends.

At a more psychological level, we seldom enter a cinema without baggage. We carry with us a lifetime’s worth of ideas and learned emotional responses that cannot help but influence how we respond to depictions of fictional events. Indeed, the very concept of a Trigger Warning assumes that exposure to images and situations will produce similar emotional responses regardless of whether those situations are real or fictional. We often talk about children becoming ‘desensitised’ to media portrayals of violence and a normal suite of emotional reactions does include the capacity to distinguish between real and fictional contexts but lines are often blurry, slopes are often slippery and the emotions we choose to police are largely a question of cultural norms and individual tastes. For example, while we may learn to endure the unpleasant imagery of horror films in the same way as we learn to endure the sting of spicy food, we are not generally in the habit of distancing ourselves from the emotional payload of comedies or conventional dramas. In fact, some of our most enjoyable artistic experiences happen when an author whose experiences resemble our own manages to connect to the emotional baggage we carry around with us by virtue of being human. Some art is well made, and some just happens to speak directly to us.

It is hardly controversial to suggest that our emotional reaction to a work of art is likely to be coloured by factors external to the text but the same could also be said of more complex critical judgements and the formation of our own interpretations. An excellent (fictional) example of this process can be found in an early episode of The Sopranos when Tony visits his therapist only to accuse her of deliberately planting a picture of a rotting tree. Of course, there is nothing in the painting that would lead us to conclude that the tree is rotten and so we are invited to conclude that it is Tony’s emotional baggage that is encouraging him to ‘see’ a generic painting as somehow inherently bleak. The bleed between our own personal experiences and our interpretation of texts is one of the reasons why I see criticism as a creative rather than a reactive form but the process of interpretation can be ‘gamed’ or deliberately influenced.

The great French director Claude Chabrol began his career as a film critic and so stepped behind the camera with an excellent idea of how critics formed judgements about the films they reviewed. This insight encouraged Chabrol to ‘embellish’ the text of his film by including references to other books and works of art. As Chabrol would later admit, these references were rarely thought-through but Chabrol realised that if he allowed the camera to linger on the cover of a book then some bright critic would invariably take the bait, assume a link between the two texts, and produce a more involved (and flattering) interpretation of his film. This anecdote may paint Chabrol as something of a rogue, but priming audiences for particular interpretations is now absolutely central to the PR process and Hollywood blockbusters will often contain under-developed references to important events (such as 9/11 in the case of J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, the Occupy movement in the case of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Afghanistan in the case of Favreau’s Iron Man) in an effort to create the illusion of thematic depth.

Where you stand on these types of interpretative games will, in part, be a function on where you stand on issues such as a the Death of the Author and whether you see works as the sole responsibility of an auteur or something that artist and audience create together as part of a symbiotic relationship. Personally, I tend to shuffle back and forth between the two extremes but I generally think that if a director and a film are to be credited with a particular set of ideas then considerable effort needs to go into developing those ideas within the text of the film. This brings us to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, a Golden Globe-winning Russian film whose title contains almost the entirety of its thematic substance.

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Exhibition (2013) – Little Boxes

Joanna Hogg is one of the most exciting film directors working in Britain today. A graduate of the National Film and Television School, Hogg spent the 1990s working in British television on series such as Casualty, London’s Burning and an Eastenders spin-off exploring the wartime exploits of a young Dot Cotton. While a decade behind the cameras of soap operas and disposable dramas does not usually herald the arrival of a major directing talent, it is worth remembering that British soap operas have a long history of social realism meaning that every year Hogg spent on Casualty and London’s Burning was a year in which she got better at observing people and the worlds they inhabit.

Hogg’s eye for social rituals and group dynamics was evident even in her debut feature Unrelated. The film revolves around a woman who joins her friends on holiday as an excuse to spend some time away from her partner. Upon arriving in Italy, the woman finds herself in a house that is already split down the middle along generational lines and decides to hang out with her friends’ hedonistic teenaged children rather than the people she came to visit. This yields a splendid holiday until a failed attempt at seduction sends the woman scurrying back to the grown-up side of the house and the grown-up life she left in Britain. While Unrelated is a recognisably British film about recognisably British characters who behave in a recognisably British way, the film’s treatment of its subject matter evokes European rather than British cinema. Aside from a southern climate and an interest in middle-aged sexuality that recalls works like Ozon’s Swimming Pool, Unrelated is defined by its emotional ambiguities and a fondness for long dialogue-free scenes and palate-cleansing landscape photography that are common in European cinema but almost entirely absent from British film.

Much like Unrelated, Hogg’s Archipelago is best understood as an attempt to explore the products of British social realism using the language of French art house drama. However, where Hogg’s first film seemed to go out of its way to retain such European topoi as sun-drenched holiday homes and illicit affairs, her second film is far more recognisably British thanks to its focus on wind-blasted landscapes and awkward family holidays. Shot on the isles of Scilly off the South-West coast of Cornwall, Archipelago features a pair of grown-up children who decide to go on holiday with their mother. The family’s unhappiness is manifest right from the start as disagreements escalate into arguments with a speed that suggests the presence of unaddressed problems. However, despite numerous elephants in the room, the family never sit down to discuss their feelings… they simply evade and deflect them by choosing to blow up over ridiculous things such as choice of bathroom and whether or not a piece of food has been properly cooked. Elegantly reserved when it comes to its characters’ actual inner lives, Archipelago is a magnificent study of the British middle-classes and how taboos surrounding direct confrontation and talking about one’s feelings have encouraged people to become emotionally self-contained. The film suggests that while this system of self-containment may be completely unreliable, it is supported by a cultural tolerance of passive-aggressive venting and the kind of extreme emotional projection that would probably be regarded as psychotic in a more emotionally-expansive culture. Like Unrelated, Archipelago explores these ideas in a quintessentially European manner by forcing the audience to observe only to then pull back and provide them with evocative imagery that will encourage them to draw their own conclusions about the things they have just been shown. This willingness to use European cinematic techniques to explore British emotional landscapes not only made for an incredibly fresh cinematic experience, it also served as a timely reminder of how staid, unadventurous and lacking in diversity European art house film can be.

Archipelago is not only a perfect fusion of British social realism and European cinematic vocabulary but also the completion of an experimental journey that began with Unrelated. This posed an interesting question: if Archipelago was everything that Unrelated wanted to be, where would their director go next?

Joanna Hogg’s third film Exhibition is also her most ambitious. Like its predecessors, the film uses a European cinematic vocabulary to explore the emotional dynamics of British middle-class life. However, whereas Unrelated and Archipelago both revolved around relatable characters who were really quite easy to understand, Exhibition concerns itself with a couple whose inner lives are so bizarre and complex that they can only be expressed artistically.

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5×2 (2004) – The Space around Love

Characterisation is a funny thing. Characters obviously have no inner lives and no existence beyond the indentations they leave on a text and yet a well-drawn character can seem human enough to warrant an emotional response from the audience. Characterisation works by tapping into the various short-cuts humans use in social interaction; As humans, we can never know what another person is thinking or feeling but we can infer their emotional state by considering their behaviour and comparing it to what feelings we think might prompt us to act in a similar fashion. Characterisation can thus be thought of as the art of building an evocative human shape from a series of descriptive passages. Strike the right poses at the right moments and a character will leap off the page but fail to make a character’s poses recognisable or fail to make those poses coherent and you will be left with a character that seems lifeless and inhuman.

Different cinematic traditions have different standards of characterisation. For example, travel back to 1930s Hollywood and it was still quite common for directors to use voice-overs and have their characters tell the audience what they were thinking. Fast-forward to contemporary Hollywood blockbusters and you find directors relying quite heavily on audience-recognisable character types whose inner lives are made accessible through a combination of unambiguous musical cues and absurd theatrical gestures including sinking to their knees and bellowing ‘Nooo’ into a rain-filled sky. Thankfully, not all cinematic traditions are as heavy-handed; Cinema originating in cultures with low-levels of emotional disclosure is far more subtle in its emotional topography and so audiences are forced to pay closer attention and approach scenes in different ways in order to catch the poses that might allow them to infer the presence of an internal state or collective vibe. The subtlety of character beats in Japanese film also explains its long-standing relationship with a European art house tradition in which directors seek to deliberately attenuate their characterisation in a bid to create characters that seem more complex and ambiguous. However, despite European film’s desire to keep its characters aloof, the last fifty years have still seen the emergence of not just stock characters but stock poses that serve as short-cuts in films that should not be about the easy answers. How many times have you seen art house films in which characters stare into the middle-distance impassively? How many times have you seen art house films in which a character fails to react to some devastating event and yet winds up over-reacting to some seemingly unrelated incident? As a general rule of thumb, if you are an art house director and your characterisation techniques are showing up on Mad Men then it is time to get yourself some new techniques… which is where François Ozon’s 5×2 comes in.

 

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REVIEW – Ida (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Pawel Pawlikovski’s Ida, a starkly beautiful but terrifyingly under-written film about 1960s Poland.

The film is set in a starkly shot 1960s Poland where an young orphan woman prepares to take orders and become a nun. Worried that this young woman has never experienced life outside of a convent, her abbess orders her to visit with a woman who claims to be her lone surviving relative. Reluctant at first, the young woman travels across Poland to meet with a woman who turns out to be a hard-drinking socialist prosecutor with a fondness for younger men and a Jewish name. Confronted with the fact that she is actually Jewish, the young novice follows her aunt as they travel back to their family’s home town in order to confront the people who killed their family and forced them off their land.

When Ida was released back in 2013, it was received with as much warmth and submissive zeal as the second coming. Not only did it win the Grand Prize at the BFI London Film Festival but reviewers seemed to fall over themselves to declare it a masterpiece while blisteringly high Rotten Tomato and Metacritic scores made it something of a cross-over hit at the American box office. This depresses me a great deal as Ida is a desperately mediocre piece of cinema.

My review blames Pawlikovski’s script for failing to unpack either the emotions or the ideas touched on by the film:

A script with an interest in Polish religious history might have unpacked the implications for Anna’s late-blooming Judaism and explained why discovering that you are Jewish might want to make you think twice about becoming a nun. Similarly, a script with an interest in Polish political history might have noted that Jewish people were purged from the Communist party a few years after the events of the film and explored the way in which a rising tide of anti-Semitism would have forced a respected political prosecutor into near-exile for the crime of being Jewish. By choosing to gloss over the cultural, political and social context of Ida’s journey of discovery, Pawlikovsky ensures that the events of her life are forever lacking in emotional charge.

With hindsight, I now realise that the problem is far more basic.  Consider what I said about one of Pawlikowski’s earlier films The Woman in the Fifth:

There was a time when European art house film wanted to blow shit up. There was a time when values were confounded and new ground was broken both in terms of what could be said and how people could say it. European art house film used to shock the world… now it merely puts bums on seats by engaging with the same old themes in the same old ways. In the land of artistic sterility, competence is king and Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman In The Fifth is an eminently competent film.

Ida is another supremely competent piece of film making that looks a lot like a serious work of cinematic art despite being little more than a hollow vessel with nothing to say. Pawel Pawlikovsky is a miserable hack who makes cynical, unadventurous and boring films that degrade the language and sully the reputation of art house film. In a more enlightened age, critics would have called him out and exposed his cynicism but now they hail him as a genius. According to his wikipedia page, Pawlikovski teaches direction and screenwriting at the National Film School in the UK and this saddens me even more than this film’s undeserved success. Art house film should be about more than competence but that is ultimately all that Pawlikowski has to offer us.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW – Breaking the Waves (1996)

FilmJuice have my review of Lars von Trier’s Palme D’Or-winning tragedy Breaking the Waves.

Breaking the Waves tells of a rather innocent young woman from an isolated Scottish religious community who decides to marry a man who is employed on one of the local oil rigs. At first, the couple (played by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgaard) seem perfectly matched as their sex life is nothing short of epic. So profound is the young woman’s passion for her husband that when he has to go back to the oil rig to work, she pines terribly. In fact, she pines so much that she prays for God to return her husband to her side. God appears to answer the young woman’s prayers when a hideous industrial accident paralyses her husband. Unfortunately, because the couple’s relationship is almost exclusively physical, the husband’s inability to have sex with his wife comes to represent a failure of their love and so he encourages her to have sex with other men.

Breaking the Waves is a film about faith. Bess uses her faith in God as a template for her relationship with Jan and because her relationship with God is one of blind, unquestioning and passionate submission, she does not have it in her to deny her heavily-medicated husband when he begins making perverse requests. Bess’s faith in God and Jan is so pronounced that when Jan’s condition deteriorates, she believes that it is because of her lack of faith and so she begins to seek out increasingly violent and degrading men with whom to have sex. The end of the film is gut-wrenching because it proves that Bess was right all along but it also leaves you wondering what kind of God/Husband would demand such blind and self-destructive obedience from those they claim to love?

I very much enjoyed Breaking the Waves and — incredibly rarely for me — I actually teared up at the end of it but my enjoyment of the film in no way diminishes the fact that I regard it as somewhat problematic.

We would all like to believe that art house film provides a viable alternative to the generic and politically dubious output of Hollywood but the truth is that European art film has its own set of well-rehearsed and problematic narratives. Narratives favoured simply by virtue of the fact that most of the people making European art house films come from a particular gender, a particular class and a particular ethnicity. One of the more oppressively ugly stock narratives in art house film involves a beautiful and engaging young woman who winds up getting beaten, humiliated, raped and forced into sex work so that the pathos of her downfall may help the director point an accusing finger at the horrors of the world. Breaking the Waves uses this narrative as does Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Bigas Lunas’ The Ages of Lulu and it also resurfaces (albeit in a more critical and self-aware form) in films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie. How many times do we have to revisit this narrative before people start to realise that it’s rather long in the tooth? How frequently do you see a film in which a man’s descent into sex work mirrors their existential collapse? How many films are there in which a female character sees the horror of the world and responds by becoming a cold-eyed murderer or ruthless business woman? As I say in my review, Breaking the Waves is a brilliantly made and deeply affecting film but the reason it works so well is that there have been literally dozens of films made using the exact same storyline.

Having re-watched Antichrist since watching Breaking the Waves, I am struck by how many of von Trier’s works seem to walk the line between casual prejudice and critical self-analysis. Indeed, many critics of Antichrist accused it of being profoundly misogynistic as the plot revolves around a woman who goes insane after internalising some misogynistic texts she had been studying as part of a PhD. I certainly agree that Antichrist (much like Breaking the Waves) is in dialogue with a western tradition of misogynistic attitudes towards women but both films make it quite clear that misogyny enters the world of the film through the actions of patriarchal men who coerce their wives into acting out misogynistic  life scripts (the deranged screeching harpy in Antichrist and the saintly victim in Breaking the Waves).

It is always tempting to invoke authorial intent in order to collapse the wave function and deposit von Trier’s work on one side or another of the fence but what keeps me returning to his work is precisely this ambiguity, his recognition that horrible attitudes lie buried just below the surface and that it is often incredibly difficult to work out whether one is doing the right thing or perpetuating blind privilege and prejudice. I have long been of the opinion that the art house film scene needs a groundswell of popular feminist criticism to challenge the out-dated attitudes and tropes that are blindly reproduced in film after film but I genuinely have no idea what the social justice movement would make of a filmmaker like von Trier.

 

Top of the Lake (2014) – #NoDads #NoMums #NoDrama

Funded by the BBC and directed by the only woman to win a Cannes Palme D’Or in the modern era, Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is a complete dramatic failure. Beautiful to look at thanks to its New Zealand location, the series follows a detective’s attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who goes missing after it is discovered that she is five months pregnant.

What makes this series a failure is foreground stuff like plot and character; things which we are encouraged to see as being the entire point of film and TV dramas. The plot does not work as it is poorly written and poorly paced. Having introduced us to the figure of a young girl who has manifestly been raped, the series forgets her existence for two or three episodes before suddenly remembering that finding the girl and revealing the identity of her rapist is the over-arching narrative that is supposed to provide this baggy and ill-disciplined mess with the illusion of structure. Having placed their main plot on the back burner, the writers set about weighting down the characters with an overabundance of backstory that serves only to let the writers off the hook when they decide to write themselves out of trouble by having one of their characters behave in an entirely irrational and uncharacteristic fashion: Need a ruthless patriarch and criminal mastermind to get outwitted by a terrified child? Well… it turns out that he has mummy issues and family-related plot point X caused him to have a convenient mental breakdown. Need an incredibly professional police officer to randomly shoot someone? Well… it turns out that she’s not only a rape survivor but also someone dealing with the aftermath of grief and other incest-related problems.

The novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat and rounded characters on the basis that rounded characters are intrinsically knowable. They seem real to us because the author shows how one event triggers an internal change that results in different behaviour patterns. According to Forster, we cannot ever really understand real people but we can understand a rounded character and see not only the different aspects of their personality but also how those different aspects interact and propel the character along a particular course of action. The characters in Top of the Lake are like planets in that they are so painstakingly rounded that they appear completely flat. Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee provide their characters with so much traumatic backstory that they become unknowable; their melodramatic irrationality so pronounced that they are just as likely to save the day, as they are to put guns in their mouths. Unknowable and unaccountable, they are pools of unreasoning expediency that flow wherever the plot demands. Even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to relate to such creations… they are too convenient to be real.

While the main plotline of Top of the Lake may be dull and its main characters completely devoid of interest, the series does take place in an absolutely fascinating world, one that highlights the problematic aspects of gender and our perpetual need for some notional adult to come along and sort out our problems. Though Top of the Lake may not work as a police procedural, it does stumble across some fascinating ideas.

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Jeune et Jolie (2013) – Taking Your Sexuality Off-Grid

JJ1Art house film has always had a problematic relationship with female sexuality. Though art house directors are far more likely to construct their films around strong female characters than their Hollywood counterparts, their engagement with these characters’ sexualities is often limited to stripping an actress naked and posing her in a series of titillating tableaux such as those found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Colour. The further a female character ventures from the realms of male fantasy, the more likely it is that her sexuality will be turned against her and used as a sign of encroaching madness, alienation or spiritual collapse. In art house film, sad men may become murderers but sad women will always become prostitutes.

The tragedy of problematic narratives is that they frequently outlive the social attitudes that first informed them. For example, while the films of Luis Bunuel may have been informed by the remnants of his Jesuitical education, the phrases and characters he helped to develop in films like Belle de Jour passed into common usage and came to form part of the basic vocabulary of art house film. Used and revisited for decade after decade, the character of the fallen woman is now so familiar to art house audiences that directors no longer feel the need to spell out why promiscuous women are sad women… they just show us a female character having loads of sex and allow us to fill in the blanks. We have been trained through repetition and this training followed us out of the cinema and into our daily lives meaning that, without ever having been subjected to an argument about the evils of promiscuity, our first reaction to promiscuous women is to assume that there is something terribly wrong with them.

The alternative to allowing our culture to train us is to question the values embedded in stock cinematic phrases and champion works that set out to subvert stock phrases and use them to draw our attention to the sexism and racism that is perpetuated by our own intellectual laziness. Thankfully, while the 2013 Cannes jury was content to give the biggest prize in art house film to a work that presented sexually empowered women as hollow vessels and childlike victims, another director in competition set out to pick a fight with the myth of the fallen woman. The director in question is Francois Ozon and his film is Jeune et Jolie.

 

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The Yellow Sea (2010) – A Rising Tide of Gonzo

TYSWhile people are prone to getting sentimental about the power of story, the truth is that narrative is nothing more than a means of providing structure to a series of disconnected things. Thus, rather than delivering their ideas in the form of bullet points, artists use stories as a means of linking different ideas and providing an emotional context that will shape how a particular work makes you feel about those ideas. On the crudest possible level, having all the bad guys smoke while all the good guys drink Pepsi is a pretty good way of encouraging your audience to gain a good impression of Pepsi and a bad impression of smokers. However, while narrative is one of humanity’s most enduring and effective methods of structuring information, it is far from the only means at our disposal.

Literary culture has long resented the cultural primacy of narrative and so many literary types are prone to treating the ability to read for style and subtext rather than plot as a sign of intellectual sophistication. One way of approaching the history of art house film is to date its creation to the point in the 1960s when European directors stopped trying to tell mere stories and began making art. In fact, one could push this analysis even further and suggest that European art house film was born amidst the boos that echoed round the cinema during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film that begins as a missing person story only to rapidly lose interest and set about trying to recreate the emotional texture of feckless upper-class Italian lives.

Just as literature has experimented with alternate means of ordering information, film has developed techniques that allow directors to structure their ideas around such abstract principles as character, theme or mood. An excellent example of this type of filmmaking is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life where a series of incredibly disparate vistas including family drama and warring dinosaurs are held together by the concept of ‘grace’ or (as I argued in my review) the pointlessness of seeking to impose narrative order on disparate lives. For those people not used to using principles other than narrative to make sense of a film, Tree of Life was a mess of incoherent and portentous ideas. For those people well versed in the techniques that Malick chose to deploy, Tree of Life was as beautiful as it was transparent. There is nothing inherently better about building a work around a theme rather than a story but our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us how to make sense of stories and so works built around moods and themes have acquired a touch of exclusivity. If you can make sense of The Tree of Life then it’s a sign that you’ve put in the effort of watching difficult films rather than just filling your headspace with Doctor Who and rolling news.

The problem with experimental techniques is that the good ones inspire imitation and the more a technique is imitated, the more likely it is that it will enter the mainstream and lose that hint of exclusivity. What many people now think of as the Golden Age of TV is really just a rather grandiose way of talking about the fact that art house techniques have escaped the cinema and begun turning up in TV dramas. Indeed, people who have watched more than a single season of Mad Men will find themselves perfectly capable of making sense of a film like L’Avventura as both works put a lot of effort into emotional texture whilst refusing to provide narrative closure and stressing the existential void that lurks at the heart of every character. Aside from depriving art house film of its much-valued hint of exclusivity, the democratisation of post-narrative techniques also speaks to a growing conservatism and intellectual exhaustion at the heart of art house film. If Millions of people tune in to watch Don Draper wander around an existential wasteland of mild-depression and meaningless sex, then how experimental is a film that makes use of precisely those techniques and subjects? Clearly, art house film is getting old and it’s time for something new… something like Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea.

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REVIEW – Upstream Color (2013)

Upstream-Color-PosterFilmJuice have my review of Seth Carruth’s art house SF film Upstream Color, which came out this week on DVD and Blu-ray. I loved the film but it also made me intensely aware of the limitations of certain styles of cinematic storytelling.

At the heart of Upstream Color is a very conventional relationship movie: Two fragile people struggling to overcome life-threatening traumas meet on public transport and immediately recognise themselves in each other. Initially quite tentative, the two fragile people orbit around each other; feeling the attraction but afraid of getting too close lest they get sucked in. When the pair do eventually commit to each other they connect on such a profound level that the lines where one person stops and another person begins begin to blur. Whose memories are these? Whose emotions are these? Am I me? Are you me? Told in a way that emphasises visual storytelling over verbal exposition, Upstream Color looks and feels very much like the type of film that European art house cinema has been churning out for the last fifty years. World cinema is a very different cinematic tradition to that of Hollywood but the techniques and themes favoured by that tradition mean that Carruth can quite easily pick up their tools and tell yet another story about alienated people undergoing the ambivalent process of change associated with love and the construction of a couple’s subjectivity. This cinematic vocabulary is a mature system and Carruth is a talented-enough director to use those tools to tell a really effective if ultimately unchallenging relationship story. However, Upstream Color is a lot more besides…

Halfway through watching the film, I pointed out on Twitter that Upstream Color felt a lot like someone using an iPad to make scrambled eggs. What I meant by this was that while the core story was really quite mundane and unadventurous, Carruth tells his story using one of the richest and most complex metaphorical infrastructures in recent cinematic history. Yes, this film is all about empathy and Carruth uses an explicitly Science Fictional device to explore how empathy can open us up to good as well as bad experiences, Carruth’s device is actually a lot more complex than a traditional relationship drama would require. Indeed, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer trod similar ground by making Buffy temporarily telepathic, Carruth cracks the egg of human relationships with the genre equivalent of a sledgehammer. A worm that, when consumed, puts people in state of such psychological vulnerability that someone can effectively clean out their bank account, destroy their life and order them to forget the whole thing. Even more conceptually lavish, Carruth explores the life-cycle of these worms and how, once removed from a human host, they allow people who understand the technology to ‘check in’ and watch the people that were once infected. Frankly, there are enough ideas and story-hooks in these worms to support and entire film festival but Carruth only really begins to exploit the thematic potential of his device at the end of the film:

Aware that his genre tropes can probably handle a lot more than a simple relationship story, Carruth devotes the final act to pushing the limits of his metaphorical infrastructure and so we are treated to an absolutely beautiful sequence in which the life-cycle of the worms is revealed and a further sequence in which Jeff and Kris confront their shared trauma and tentatively begin edging towards a less isolated way of living. Carruth handles both of these expansions quite well but the combination of oblique storytelling techniques and limited space means that much of their thematic and dramatic potential must remain untapped. Indeed, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life spends over two hours wrestling with ideas far less substantial than the ones that Carruth rushes through in less than ten minutes!

In an age when both art house and mainstream directors are making films based on tired and insubstantial ideas, it is both refreshing and slightly overwhelming to encounter a film that could easily have been a trilogy or a series. Upstream Color is not just an incredibly beautiful and well-told story, it is a film so full of ideas and thematic resonances that it is almost too frustrating to watch. Sitting through Upstream Color I was struck by the extent to which art house cinematic techniques struggle to convey new types of information. Watch enough art house films about alienated people trying to get their lives back on track and those techniques are incredibly effective at conveying mood and theme but ask those techniques to explore the psychic fallout of discovering that you are only one of hundreds of people who have been secretly observed by shadowy figures and those techniques begin to struggle. Upstream Color could have been about the NSA and Google dismantling privacy, it could have been about post-traumatic stress or it could have been about the psychic fallout from being involved in a mass event like a terrorist atrocity or a religious cult. It could have been about any of these things and yet the film ended too soon.