Friday, 19 July 2013

You can force your story's shape, but the colo(u)r will always bloom.

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This year's cinema landscape – to this point – has been a dry, arid wasteland of disappointing blockbusters, unfunny broad comedies and paint-by-numbers horror films. Pretty much like every year to be honest. For people who love and want to see intelligent, creative, original filmmaking that isn't risk-averse and tries to show audiences something they haven't seen before, the wait has been long and unsatisfying. Until now.

Writer director Shane Carruth's new film 'Upstream Colour' is an improvement in almost every single way over his dizzyingly confusing time travel stroy 'Primer' (shot for a reported $9000) and the leap from Carruth's debut feature to this  9 years later, is the kind of exhilarating jump you only see from a very select group of filmmakers. Where 'Primer' was cold, confusing, calculating and distant (all intentional on some level, and could never overcome its own desire to keep the viewer at arm's length) it ultimately felt like an exercise in filmmaking rather than a full-blooded film, more interested in constructing and showing off its Rubik's Cube-like time-travel logic than in creating a work of art (or entertainment) which is why 'Primer' remains a little-seen cult favorite exactly because of those flaws, 'Upstream Color' is luscious, cinematic, engaging. Where 'Primer' felt like it was trying to fry your brain and stay three steps ahead of you, nothing about this film feels thick of puzzle obsessed.

In fact, one of the beauties of Carruth's direction, editing and script is that it treats its audience with an abundance of respect. It neither dumbs itself down, nor does it sacrifice its rhythms and pacing to make sure everything is spelled out. Scenes flow almost unevenly, starting later and concluding sooner than audiences are traditionally used to seeing. This isn't sloppiness or cuteness, but a trust on the part of Carruth that if you are watching his film, you are intelligent enough to decipher and understand what's going on in a given scene and that you can put two-and-two together. That doesn't sound revolutionary, but the film's elliptical, yet concise nature isn't something one generally finds in most mainstream pictures. Sure, unanswered questions remain and linger, but they add to the film's enigmatic nature instead of becoming the foundation for a frustrating, irritating viewing.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don't really want to tell you much more about it. I want everyone's first viewing to be as unencumbered by foreknowledge as mine was and I believe the less you know or think about it before and while you're watching it, the better, more entrancing that experience will be.

Much of the film almost entirely eschews dialogue, opting instead for a confident, rapid editing process marked by beautiful digital photography and an auditory combination of sounds and music that play a huge part not only in our watching of the movie, but of what's going on in the film itself. Even though the dialogue ebbs towards the end and things occur (starting with a climax featuring piglets) that cannot be readily explained, it never threatens to slide into absurdity or parody (a charge even Malick has not fully escaped with his latest work). It's not boring. It's not frustrating. It's not amateurish. What it is, is a film that uncomfortably pokes away at our conceptions of identity, commitment, control, relationships, loss and love. It invokes the power of nature, relishes in the explainable, while complexly but confidently moving with elegance and effortlessness towards its almost tragic grand finale. It's not a puzzle film designed to confuse, stump or trick you. It wants you to go along with it and immerse yourself – maybe hypnotically on some level – into its world and this existential story about the things that make us human (life, love, loss, broken beings and uncovered redemption) and beings of nature we know only a little about.

Carruth's primary theme and interpretation revolves around identity and 'whether we control our identity or whether our identity controls us.' As if that wasn't heady enough stuff to touch, there are other ways of looking at the film, including a notable subtext of drug culture and addiction and how it affects individuals, relationships and society at large. Upstream Color feels like a new kind of film and Carruth seems to be at the vanguard of a brave new generation of American auteurs. It is the kind of art that results in the best kind of life cycle for movie lovers and audiences: curiosity, investigation, analysis, obsession.
In summation, this really is extraordinary.


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