Posts Tagged ‘****ed if I know’

Day One (October 12th)

As you may be aware, I’m never averse to a bit of a chat and maybe even some badinage with the people I buy my cinema tickets from; it helps me to sustain the delusion that going to the pictures eighty times a year is somehow a valid substitute for a conventional social life. Still, it comes as a shock when one of these conversations concludes with the person selling the tickets saying ‘Good luck!’ – and this is what happened on this particular occasion.

I half turned back to them and possibly cocked an eyebrow. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Well, it’s a bit long, isn’t it,’ he said with a grin.

Well, maybe he had a point: there are not many films which you buy your ticket for in instalments, let alone ones where you get a discount for undertaking to watch the whole thing. But we were in the curious world of Mariano Llinas’ La Flor (Spanish for The Flower), where things are very, very different from the form they usually take.

There are lots of unusual figures associated with La Flor – for instance, the film was nine years in the making, more or less – but the key one is 808. 808 what? you may be wondering. Well, friends, 808 minutes, which is a) about thirteen and a half hours and b) the amount of your finite and precious lifespan you will have to commit, if you want to watch La Flor in its entirety. Yes, the mind boggles, does it not (and this is far from the last time, should you decide to go for the full La Flor experience).

Why would anyone want to go and see a thirteen and a half hour long movie? Well, I guess for the same reason they always used to climb Mount Everest: because it’s there. Also, I suspect, out of a sort of misguided cinematic machismo – are you really serious about all forms of cinema? Really serious? You may think so, but have you actually watched La Flor? Oh, well then…

As regular visitors will know, I’ll go and see most things at the cinema, but even I was given pause by the sheer scale of the commitment required here – La Flor is not so much a movie, more a sort of lifestyle choice: the full experience involved turning out for four Saturday afternoons in a row. In the end, though, sheer curiosity won out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UPP was not packed to bursting when the projectionist finally got things underway: only half a dozen or so brave souls had turned out (one of whom appears to have a form of Tourette’s, which could lead to frayed tempers before we reach November). Will everyone last the course? Will friendships bloom amongst La Flor devotees? Shall we have a commemorative medal struck for everyone who makes it to the end?

La Flor opens with a shot of generous duration depicting some scaffolding at the side of the road and traffic going past. Once this has sunk in, the director and his dog turn up to introduce the film and explain the structure of it, with the aid of some diagrams he draws in felt tip. The structure of the film is rather like that of a flower, hence the title, but already a big question was forming in my head – this isn’t so much a massive thirteen hour movie as just six regular-length films bolted together, linked by the same lead performers. Why not just release the component episodes individually? Is there something special to be gained from watching the whole thing, other than a deep-vein thrombosis? Oh well. We were already committed by this point.

The first episode of La Flor‘s six is a horror B-movie concerning some archaeologists (Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, and Laura Paredes) who find themselves stuck in a remote office building over the Easter weekend, keeping an eye on an Inca mummy which has unexpectedly been foisted upon them. Low-key creepiness ensues, as first the institute cat and then one of the women begins to behave extremely strangely, eventually violently so. Are supernatural forces at work? Another woman who is essentially a government-employed exorcist (Pilar Gamboa) turns up to try and deal with the situation, before making a disturbing discovery…

This is, according to Llinas anyway, ‘the kind of B-movie that Americans can’t seem to make any more’, but I’m not entirely sure the torch has been cleanly passed – at least, not to Argentina. Episode 1 of La Flor isn’t scary enough to work as a full-blooded horror movie, but not knowing or funny enough to really succeed as a pastiche or a spoof of the genre. Or so it seemed to me: we all got up to stretch our legs during the interval (only two and three quarter hours in) and I overheard some of the other voyagers enthusiastically discussing how creepy the bit with the mummy had been. (Then again I suspect they are art-house lovers and haven’t seen as many schlocky genre movies as I have.) In the end… well, the thing is that the story is not resolved – a big revelation seems imminent, and then the story is abruptly abandoned as we move on to Episode 2.

This is, naturally, a complete change of pace, and is basically the story recounted in the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, or maybe yet another version of A Star is Born – a singing duo is on the verge of breaking up, and are preparing to record a song apparently inspired by their collapsing relationship. The setting is a little obscure (it’s mostly done in close-up, often in unusually long takes). Gamboa makes up for her late arrival in Episode 1 by making all the early running here, giving a very impressive acting and vocal performance. The lead-up to the actual performance of the duo’s duet (Hector Diaz plays the male singer) is cleverly managed, leading up to a terrific moment when the individual elements come together.

However, this is La Flor, and the quasi-musical story appears to have got tangled up with a peculiar tale about a cult attempting to find the secret of eternal youth through experimentation with the venom of a rare scorpion – this is linked, one might almost say spuriously, by Gamboa’s PA (Paredes) being mixed up with the cult, and her emotional involvement with the singers’ situation is interfering with their experiments. The tonal mismatch of the two plot threads is hugely jarring, and the two threads come together at the cliffhanger which marks the end of the first instalment of La Flor. Is there to be some resolution, or (as indicated by the director) have we reached the point where the film once again abruptly switches to a new quasi-narrative?


Day Two (October 19th)

Some more numbers, while we’re at it: Episode 3 of La Flor apparently lasts for five-and-a-half hours, occupying all of Day Two and overspilling into Day Three. I have heard rumours that the closing credits alone last for forty minutes (I can’t confirm this yet, as I’m writing the review a week at a time). Perhaps the most pertinent figure relating to Day Two of this voyage into art-house cinema at its most impenetrable is a meagre three, which is the number of people who turned up.

Yes, that’s half the number from Day One, which was a bit dispiriting, although at least the chap with Tourette’s syndrome was one of the no-shows this time around. Apparently the evening screenings are proving more popular, as more people are more willing to give up four weekday evenings than a month’s worth of Saturday afternoons. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Having laid in a supply of doughnuts and chocolate-coated spherical honeycomb biscuits, I was prepared for this latest encounter with La Flor, and almost at once the burning question in my mind was answered: the cliffhanger from the end of Day One was destined never to be resolved, as we were straight into Episode 3 and another new genre and storyline. This opens with another one of those extraordinary moments unique to this film – a bad guy out of stock casting, complete with dark glasses, cigarette, and submachine gun, patrols in front of a field of blossoms, managing not to notice someone sneaking up on him within the flowers until he is killed by a knife-thrower.

Yes, only in La Flor. For (I think) the first time in the film so far, all four of the leads share the screen for an extended period, as we embark upon an existential spy thriller set in the 1980s. The quartet play black-clad intelligence operatives on a mission to kidnap a scientist from a secure location. But is there something else going on? It transpires their handler is conspiring against them and another team (also of four women) has been sent to assassinate them. It all becomes a bit bleak and fatalistic, some amusingly cack-handed martial arts choreography notwithstanding, as the four leads settle in and prepare to do battle for their lives.

At this point Llinas pops up again, rather unexpectedly, and pretty much the first thing he does is apologise for the fact that this is not yet the latest intermission. He also reveals Episode 3 has another three-and-a-half hours to go, most of which will be flashbacks. He also has a go at indicating where we’ve reached in the structure of the film, not that this really means very much. Then we’re back to the story.

One thing that has already become very clear is that La Flor is not a movie gripped by a great sense of urgency. Everything happens at a very languid pace, to the point of seeming rather self-indulgent. It’s almost as if they’ve decided that, as this film is going to run for an absurdly long time anyway, there’s no need to cut anything at all – the sheer, ridiculous duration of the thing has become its raison d’etre. If you released Episode 3 on its own, without the rest of the movie around it, it would still be vastly longer than most conventional films. Never mind a lifestyle choice or a mini-film festival, you almost start to suspect La Flor is some kind of absurd situationist prank.

And then it comes along and does something genuinely accomplished and involving, like the first two flashbacks to the past lives of the agents in the main story of Episode 3. First off is the tale of Gamboa’s character, who is a mute Englishwoman (I’m not sure whether playing a mute character in a five hour narrative counts as a smart career move or not). Lots of voice-over here (it’s a bit of a feature of this episode) but the story is, as noted, a very involving one, and Gamboa continues to give eye-catching performances.

That said, the film’s attempt to capture the British idiom of speaking is hilariously misjudged, and there’s a mind-boggling sequence where Gamboa’s character is taken to meet a senior figure of the British establishment. This turns out to be a bizarre, horse-riding, cigar-smoking version of Margaret Thatcher (played by Susana Pampin), who is addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’ by those around her. Is this a deliberate, Comic Strip-style send up, or is the film as genuinely off its medication as it seems? It’s impossible to tell.

The final mini-narrative of the day concerns the prior history of Valeria Correa’s character, a violently psychotic warrior-woman raised as a soldier by Colombian revolutionaries. This is another very strong segment in terms of its storytelling and central performance, let down once again by the film’s attempt at using the American idiom and perhaps some of the supporting turns.

Frankly, three-and-a-half-hours of the same (not exactly action-packed) story, with no sign of resolution in sight, was a draining experience, but at least it peaked late on in the afternoon, when I was running short of doughnuts. With three and a bit more episodes to come, split over the last two days of the La Flor experience, there should at least be a bit more variety from this point on. Will there be anyone else there watching it with your correspondent? We shall have to wait and see.


Day Three (October 26th)

Well, to my total astonishment the number of Floristas turning up for the third day of the screening was actually up on that of Day Two: four, rather than three. In addition to your correspondent, there was a Spanish guy (who hadn’t actually come to Day One), a woman from the same neck of the woods, and an Australian woman. I had to wonder why anyone would turn up to watch only the second half of La Flor, and (making full use of the camaraderie born of collective adversity that a situation like this engenders) managed to chat with both the women during the intervals.

It turned out the Australian was only really interested in seeing Episode 6 (showing on Day Four) and had turned up a week early by mistake, while the Spanish lady was watching the evening showings of Days One, Two, and Four, but couldn’t make the third night and had decided to catch it in the afternoon instead. Quirks of scheduling meant that not only had she committed to watching a thirteen and a half hour movie, she was cheerfully watching it out of sequence.

I was honestly starting to wonder if La Flor was not just a mini-film festival or a baffling prank, but actually some kind of celluloid equivalent of The King in Yellow, a fiendish construct intended to ensnare innocent cinema-goers and reduce them to a state of obsessive dementation. In an attempt to make sense of it all, in the week I had managed to track down an interview with Llanos where he explained his vision for the movie.

I gather the idea was – well, when you see a movie like (for example) Unforgiven or The Shootist, the emotional impact of the piece isn’t just derived from the script and performances. The whole past career of the main actor and your pre-existing relationship with them informs your response to the film. La Flor is apparently an attempt to create a similar effect with respect to the leading quartet – you spend so long watching them in a variety of roles that a special bond is forged with them over the course of the (very, very long) film. It’s an interesting idea, but if bonding with audiences is what these actresses are looking to achieve, I wonder if they might not have been better off going out and having conventional careers rather than just spending the best part of a decade working on La Flor.

Day Three of the movie kicks off with what may very well be a knowingly self-deprecating gag (and by no means the last) – seven hours into the movie, we are treated to a lengthy interlude of someone snoring. Soon enough, however, we are back in the depths of Episode 3, exploring the back-stories of the four lead characters.

These really are one of the highlights of the film, and Laura Paredes’ episode is possibly the best of them. She brings an irresistible soulfulness to an understated tale of assassins silently falling in love with each other between assignments – the particular stylistic quirk of this segment is that none of the four have any significant dialogue, most of the exposition being handled by a poetic, if somewhat verbose, voice-over.

The back-stories conclude with that of Elisa Carricajo, who plays a Soviet bureaucrat who finds herself tasked with finding an infiltrator intent only on causing chaos and disrupting the state (he is known only as Boris, and you can insert your own joke at this point if you really must). We are back in existential territory, as the search for the mole consumes Carricajo’s life and she finds herself roaming the endless ‘sad and filthy’ hinterlands of Soviet Russia via its railway network. When she eventually catches up with Boris the mole, he is played by Llinas himself, although by this point the film has to work much harder than that to be surprising.

Needless to say, Episode 3 concludes before any of this is properly resolved, but this too is hardly a surprise. What did take me a little off-guard was the fact that the Spanish Florista, who’d missed Day One, left the cinema during the interval and never returned. Clearly he was only interested in Episode 3, although I’ve no idea why.

It was somewhat comforting to know we were now definitely half-way through the La Flor experience, and it was just a question of what Episode 4 had in store for us. Courtesy of the kind of narrative shift that could leave the unprepared with whiplash, we go from a spy thriller genre movie to metafictional self-parody: Episode 4 concerns the travails of a frazzled film director (not actually played by Llinas himself, but there’s a deliberate resemblance), who’s bogged down six years into making an insanely ambitious art-house movie entitled The Spider, so-called because the structure of the film, when shown as a diagram, resembles one.

The main problem is his relationship with the four actresses in the movie is disintegrating; they have become difficult and demanding, complaining about the lack of a script and the fact they have to keep learning different languages for each new episode. The director realises he’d much rather go off and film trees than deal with these four, and slowly comes to believe they are actually witches intent on destroying his life.

Rather to my astonishment, this turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the film yet – it’s clever, and very funny, and really rewards anyone who’s sat through the preceding nine hours or so to get to it. The humour varies from the off-beat (there’s an extended sequence where the director records his feelings about the film in his diary, rather incoherently, while the bemused crew stand around eating bananas) to the actually absurd (the witches are of the pointy-hat-wearing, broomstick-riding kind), but the in-jokes and meta stuff hit the mark – the director decides he doesn’t want to work with the (fictional) four actresses, with the result that this is a segment in which the (real) four actresses don’t get much screen-time. What exactly is La Flor doing, sending itself up so energetically? I’m not entirely sure, but this has been the strongest day yet.


Day Four (November 2nd)

I was half-expecting it to be a full-on battle to the finish just between me and the movie from this point on, but the Spanish chap who missed Day One entirely and then went home at the interval of Day Three reappeared for this final encounter. I must admit to feeling vaguely disappointed by this, but even so: I can proudly claim my medal for being the only one there throughout the Saturday afternoon screenings of this movie (they will have to pry said medal from my hand in order to get the straightjacket on me).

To be honest, I was also expecting to go straight into Episode 5 today, but this just shows my dodgy grasp of mathematics – I knew that Episodes 5 and 6 are considerably shorter than the others (put together, they’re still probably shorter than any of the other episodes), and yet today’s screening was the longest yet, at over three and three quarter hours. Something else had to be in the mix, and part of that was the second half of Episode 4.

Well, I suppose it qualifies as such, but the story goes off at a weird tangent (to be honest, from this point you may as well insert the adjective ‘weird’ at any point you wish). The protagonist is suddenly Gatto, a character who briefly appeared last week, when he seemed to be a character in the B-movie the director of the film-within-the-film was working on. Either this is not the case, or the fictional realms of La Flor have begun to collapse into each other. Gatto is some sort of paranormal investigator, who is called in when a car is found up a tree. Close by are a group of madmen, whom we recognise as the film crew from the start of the episode.

This leads Gatto into investigating the disappearance of the film director, mainly through reading his diary. I am making this all sound much more straightforward and coherent than it actually is. It really does feel like we’ve shifted into yet another story, or perhaps a collection of them, jostling together without much in the way of structure. There’s the story of Gatto, told mostly through his letters to a colleague, Smith. There’s a very peculiar subplot about a psychiatric colony which has fallen under the strange, almost supernatural erotic thrall of a mysterious Italian-speaking inmate. There’s a long scene in which a woman just stares into the camera while the director declaims poetry. There’s a bit about the director collecting early 20th-century weird fiction, with a particular namecheck going out to Arthur Machen – had they bigged up Robert Chambers I would have been convinced that my theory about La Flor really being The King in Yellow was on the money. There is a segment about Casanova falling under the sway of four different women (guess who) and becoming convinced they are members of an ancient secret society.

It goes on and on like this, almost overwhelmingly so. (Is the mysteriously alluring Italian inmate supposed to be Casanova, time-slipped to the present day?) In the end it dissolves into a montage tribute to the four lead actresses. Can this be it? Is the film actually finishing nearly two hours ahead of schedule?

No, of course it isn’t. After another interval we find ourselves back at the truck stop from which the director has been making his occasional, shambolic interventions. The sense of the film being essentially finished, though, persists, as he casually sets up Episode 5 and 6. ‘The girls aren’t in Episode 5,’ he confesses, ‘which is a bit strange, but it seemed like an interesting idea at the time.’ Few film directors apologise for their own work, but Mariano Llinas may be unique for doing it within the film in question. He gets his stuff together, clambers into his car, and is off.

What is the point of Episode 5? It’s a remake of Jean Renoir’s (unfinished) A Day in the Country, about two likely lads who have a bit of fun with the wife and daughter of a wealthy bourgeois businessman on a day out. It’s made in black and white and is almost totally silent, except for a sequence at one point which abandons the ongoing plot in favour of showing highlights of an aerobatic display at a provincial air show. (Twelve hours into La Flor, you almost come to expect this sort of thing.) Telling a story without any kind of sound takes a degree of skill, and the episode is impressive on these terms if no others, but even so. I guess it’s the equivalent of that pause at the end of a concert where there’s no-one on stage, giving the crowd a chance to call for the stars to do their encore, or curtain call.


Which is, I suppose, what Episode 6 is. Uniquely, it has an end but no beginning, and is a nominally historical drama concerning four women who’ve escaped from native captivity making their way back to civilisation (the fact this is the end of a long and strange journey is obviously resonant at this point). Only the leading quartet appear (two of them appear to be pregnant at this point), but the only dialogue comes from a voice-over accompanying deliberately primitive inter-titles. ‘Primal’ perhaps would be a better word: the whole episode appears to have been filmed through a camera obscura, with an intentionally grainy, distorted image. It is a strange and unsettling experience.

And then we are done, it is all over bar the closing credits. Of course, this being La Flor, the credits last over forty minutes and accompany upside-down footage of cast and crew celebrating the final wrap on the movie, then packing everything up, getting into their cars and driving off into the sunset. In the end a solitary film-maker is left, enjoying a cigarette from the comfort of a deckchair. And then it’s all over.

Friends, I did stay for the whole of the credits, even though not very much happens. My thought process was essentially, ‘Well, I’ve stayed this long…’, and I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which the film is playing mind-games with you. Certainly it lures you in by starting relatively conventionally, only to raise the stakes in its own unique brand of strangeness as it goes on – genres bang into each other, stories multiply, narratives expand to extraordinary length, and so on. Much of Day Four felt like the film was losing any real sense of itself as a single entity, and becoming completely unravelled (not that it was ever especially ravelled to begin with).

Is watching the whole of La Flor actually justified? Well, as an act of endurance, it’s certainly something of a feat, but as a piece of art I’m not sure. The relative absence of the leading quartet for much of the second half is really at odds with Llinas’ stated aims for the piece, and it is the performances of the actresses that really lift the best sections of the film. There are parts of Episodes 2, 3, and 4 I would unreservedly recommend as terrific pieces of cinema – but there’s also a lot here which is very indifferent, and even some parts which are actively frustrating and annoying. This was certainly a unique experience – I’m just not sure I’d call it a uniquely rewarding one.

Read Full Post »

Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind adding a bit of significance to blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. Problem is that Out of Blue fluffs police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

Read Full Post »

We have again reached that time of the year when the flow of interesting new releases seems to have slowed down somewhat, although we are still a few weeks away from the onset of proper blockbuster season: mid-budget genre movies seem to be the standard release at the moment. This is just a very long-winded way of saying that there wasn’t anything showing at the multiplex this weekend that caught my interest but that I hadn’t seen or didn’t have plans to see (I am aware this explanation itself is not notably short-winded; sorry).

Normally on these occasions I see what’s on at the two niche cinemas in the area, which can usually be relied upon for an interesting revival now and then. Well, it turned out that the Phoenix was showing The Wild Bunch, which I saw just the other month and didn’t really fancy seeing again so soon (it’s the Phoenix’s turn to be doing a classic western season). Meanwhile, the frequently-surprising Ultimate Picture Palace was launching their latest season with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror (Zerkalo in the original Russian; The Mirror when it’s in the USA, apparently).

In the UK, at least, Tarkovsky is best known for Solaris (all together now – ‘the Russian answer to 2001‘) and – to a lesser degree – Stalker (a film once described by one of our more low-brow TV listing magazines as ‘three men messing about on a building site for nearly three hours’). Mirror is a different kettle of fish. It may not be a kettle, however. And whatever is in it, they may not be fish. This is that sort of film.

I am always very curious to see what kind of turn-out these various revivals attract – Breakfast at Tiffany’s had a very healthy crowd last month, while a few years ago I went to a showing of Touch of Evil that was practically sold out – showings of Robocop and Plague of the Zombies around the same time were sadly under-populated, on the other hand. Given it was the first really nice weekend of the year, and that Mirror is a little-known foreign-language piece of experimental cinema, I was expecting there to be plenty of space inside the UPP – well, in the end I think there were somewhere around fifteen punters present, although as a whisper of ‘Oh, is it in Russian?’ went round the auditorium as the film began, I suspect some of the people there were friends of the volunteers who run the place.

So. Andrei Tarkovsky. Mirror. Voted one of the ten greatest films ever made in a poll of directors, yet largely unknown to western audiences. How can I begin to impart to you the nature of this remarkable film? Well: an adolescent boy receives hypnotherapy for his speech impediment. A country doctor takes a wrong turn on the way home. A shed burns down. An emigre bullfighter now living in Russia loses his temper. There is a potential slip-up at the print works, but it turns out to be a false alarm. Someone kills a chicken. There are fun and games at the firing range where the boys are training during the Great Patriotic War. Other things happen too.

You know, writing down a synopsis for a film is very much a kind of left-brain activity, a question of cause and effect and logical, material connections between things. Mirror is probably one of the worst films possible to try and summarise in this way, as it is really a right-brain movie, almost a kind of waking dream that attempts to draw the viewer into a kind of complicit trance with it. In the past I have written about how difficult it is to remember any details of experiences you don’t actually understand – the occasion was another impenetrable art-house foreign film, The Assassin, which didn’t so much put the audience into a trance as send some of them to sleep – but it’s not quite the case in this instance, for it’s clear what the film is about: recollections of growing up in the USSR in the middle part of the 20th century. It seems like a safe bet that some elements of this film are at least partly autobiographical, given that various members of the Tarkovsky clan turn up in different roles: the director’s father Arseny provides the voice of the narrator, his wife Larisa plays the main character’s neighbour, and his daughter Olga also has a small role. (While we’re getting all genealogical, we should also note that father and son actors Oleg and Filipp Yankovsky also appear.)

The twist that makes the film that little bit more unusual, and potentially baffling, is that while it concerns itself with two generations of the same family – the main character, Ignat, and his father, Alexei – multiple key roles are played by the same actors: so both Ignat and Alexei are portrayed by Ignat Daniltsev, while both of their mothers are played in their youth by Margarita Terekhova. This is in no way elucidated or exposited, only becoming apparent through the accumulation of tiny details and the fact the same people are addressed by different names in different scenes (the film’s events naturally unfold out of strict chronological order). If you were not in the know or expecting something like this, it might pass you by entirely and just leave you more bemused (as it did me).

On the other hand, it does suggest a reason for the title of the film, which is otherwise not obvious (well, a mirror does appear at a number of moments). The mirror of the title is the way in which Alexei’s life reflects and echoes that of Ignat, and the similarities are emphasised by the casting decisions. As I say, I didn’t actually figure this out while watching the film, which probably did have an impact on my appreciation of it, but that is not to say that I found this film to be a baffling or frustrating experience. Nor was I particularly aware of the very long takes peppering the film (the reason for its appearance in the current UPP season entitled ‘Long Shots’, including films with famously long single takes such as – here’s a coincidence – Touch of Evil). Perhaps I was in that zen state of simply enjoying the film as a piece of art, with some beautifully composed shots and sequences, and some very striking pieces of sound design. I’m not sure this film is transcendentally beautiful in quite the same way as some others I could name, but there is clearly an artistic sensibility at work.

In the end I’m a bit at a loss to really give a coherent opinion about Mirror, given that it seems very likely that there are whole swathes and levels of meaning and significance to this film which I completely missed the first time around. It is a challenging watch; you really have to go with the film and let it sweep you along in its dreamlike way. Fortunately it is well-enough made that surrendering to it is quite easy to do.



Read Full Post »

As a person who has been looking at and listening to things with my eyes and ears for quite a while now, I am no stranger to the concept of absurd hyperbole. That said, absurd hyperbole is not what it used to be – the revelation that Jonathan Ross’s review of Batman Forever described it as ‘one of the greatest films ever made’ solely in order to win a bet arguably debased the whole notion of saying something ridiculously overblown about a film simply to make yourself noticed. In other words, it takes a bit to get my attention these days.

But here comes the New York Observer (a reasonably well-established and respectable news source, even if it did used to be published by one of the Trump clan), proudly announcing that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is ‘the worst film of the century’. Crikey, now that’s a bold claim, even if you accept they’re not actually making predictions about the next 83 years. Let us not forget that this is the same century which has given the world Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Paul Anderson’s butchery of The Three Musketeers, A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, and many other really poor films. One might even say that it would take something quite unusual to beat Hampstead to the position of Worst Film of 2017, before even starting to look further afield.

Well, anyway, such a claim had to be investigated, and as a colleague is a confirmed Aronofsky fan (‘He is incapable of making a bad movie,’ he declared, which just prompted me to ask ‘Have you seen Noah?’), off we trotted to the very small cinema which was showing mother! (regular readers can have fun imagining the intonation I used on the title when asking for our tickets).

It’s not just the Observer, by the way: the reputable market-research firm CinemaScore has given mother! its rare and very (not) coveted F rating, indicating a film which audiences are likely to react violently against – other recipients include the remakes of Solaris, which isn’t that bad, and The Wicker Man, which most certainly is. So what’s going on with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?

Hmmm. Well. Popular and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living in a beautiful house in the countryside, along with her husband (played by Javier Bardem). She is slowly renovating the house, he is a writer contending with a bout of the dreaded block, and all initially seems very nearly idyllic.

But then an older man (Ed Harris) turns up, claiming to have been sent there in the erroneous belief they run a hotel, and Lawrence is just a little irked when he invites the vaguely sinister Harris to spend the night without checking with her. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), who is rather given to inappropriate behaviour. Is there something going on between Bardem and this couple? Or is Lawrence simply overreacting and being a bit paranoid?

While all this is unfolding, various other oddities and enigmas are floating around at the edge of the story – why does the structure of the house seem to dissolve when blood is spilled on it? (Don’t ask.) What is the obscurely disgusting object Lawrence finds clogging up the toilet? What is in the mysterious potion she finds herself compelled to glug when the stress all gets a bit too much for her? Will any of these things be explained before the closing credits finally roll?

Um, well, probably not. Watching mother! really brought it home to me that the two kinds of people with the greatest creative freedom in the movie industry are completely unknown directors, whose films are made on micro-budgets and so whom no-one really cares about, and those who have a strong track record of both popular and critical success, who as a result are granted a certain degree of latitude to do something a bit different on a lavish scale (though this only lasts as long as their films continue to turn a profit, as a quick look at the careers of M Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski siblings will attest to).

Darren Aronofsky currently seems to be in this state of grace, making distinctive, generally well-received films. I went to see Black Swan (‘unlike anything else I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time’) and Noah (‘engrossingly strange’), both films which ended up making over $300 million. A similar achievement for mother! does not appear to be on the cards, however, not that this is especially surprising when you consider that this is an example of the historically-unpopular ‘surreal bat’s-ass-insane psychological art-house horror’ genre.

I suspect this is why many people have taken against what is, by any standards, a superbly crafted film – it is unafraid to go rather a long way out there. In fact, just as a thought experiment, imagine yourself going really quite a long way out, to the very fringes of your comfort zone. Now imagine a faint speck on the horizon, even further out. This speck is a house equipped with a very strong telescope, and through this you would just about be able to make out mother!, hurling itself about and howling at the sky. This is how way-out-there Aronofsky’s film is, especially in its closing stages.

Luckily, I figured out very early on that we were not in the realm of a traditionally naturalistic narrative here, which probably helped – there’s almost a sense in which the fractured dream-logic of mother!, in which events pile up wildly on top of one another in a totally irrational way, reminded me of some of the weirder short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, although that would require Lovecraft to have been capable of writing for a female protagonist. There is certainly a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film’s various conjuring tricks, and perhaps also a little of Peter Greenaway in its more gleefully gory excesses.

Aronofsky has gone on record and attempted to explain what mother! is actually supposed to be about – I won’t trouble you with that here, not least because it’s really a spoiler. I can’t help suspecting that this was a movie where the surreal, nightmarish style and tone came first, anyway, and it was just a question of coming up with a premise that would justify them.

Why, somebody asked me, would an actress like Jennifer Lawrence choose to appear in a film as strange as this one? The prosaic answer would have something to do with the (presumably significant) portion of the $30 million budget going home with her, but at the same time you can see why this film would appeal, if only as a technical challenge – it largely fails or succeeds by her performance, for she is on-screen virtually non-stop throughout, frequently in close-up. She is, needless to say, very good, but then so is everyone else – Bardem’s Iberian inscrutability is well-employed, and in addition to Harris and Pfieffer, there are somewhat unexpected cameos by the likes of the Gleeson brothers and Kristen Wiig.

Mainly, however, the film is a triumph of direction and editing, with the pace and mood of the film always expertly controlled. It is obviously the case that some of the subject matter will repel many people from this film – there are some nauseatingly nasty moments, none of them really suggested by the film’s (arguably misleading) advertising. Others will not be able to get on board with the peculiar stream-of-consciousness flow of the narrative, its lack of conventional story or characterisation. And this is fair enough – but I have to say I hugely enjoyed the film’s sheer audacity and willingness to do something unusual and different. This did mean I was laughing in some rather inappropriate places (my colleague feared I was laughing out of scorn rather than appreciation), but my enjoyment of the skill and innovation that clearly went into this movie was genuine.

The chances are that mother! is a movie which will not appeal to you. There’s quite a good chance its excesses will actively appal or disgust you. I suspect it may prove to be the cinematic equivalent of Marmite (a proverbially-divisive, rather foul yeast-based spread, in case you’re wondering). I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of strong response to it, but the minority that get it, will probably really, really like it. Certainly not the worst film of the century, anyway, even if it’s highly unlikely to make much of a profit. Pretty much a dead cert to become a cult favourite for decades to come.

Read Full Post »

I think it is reasonably well-known now that at one point in the late 1970s Tom Baker was trying very hard to make a Doctor Who movie, to co-star Vincent Price, but struggled to get the funding (as Baker co-wrote the script himself, it is perhaps for the best that the thing never got produced). At one point, he jokingly suggested his adoring public should send him five pound notes so that he could pay for the film that way. The result was, of course, that Baker had to spend even more money posting all the fivers back, as this was not an approved method of film finance. These days, of course, this sort of thing is all the rage, we just call it Kickstarter, and there are indeed people financing their films by asking people to send them money. One of them – and the first one I have seen – is Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.


On paper, the plot of Anomalisa sounds deceptively straightforward for a Charlie Kaufman movie. David Thewlis plays Mike Stone, a customer service expert due to address a conference in Cincinatti. He is not a happy man, with all sorts of emotional issues weighing heavy on his mind, and an attempt to reconnect with an old flame concludes disastrously. Then he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman planning on attending his presentation the next day, and the two of them shuffle towards the sort of intimacy perhaps only found by strangers who have very little in common but their choice of hotel.

However, the first thing you notice about Anomalisa is that it is an animation, not a live-action movie: and not just CGI, either, but painstaking stop-frame animation using miniature puppets. Whatever else you think of this movie – and I can imagine a wide range of responses, to be perfectly honest – the level of technical skill and attention to detail on display is more than a little mind-boggling. The film-makers never seem to be taking the easy option, with anything up to a dozen puppets on screen at any given moment, all fully animated.

There is of course a sort of instant disjunct between the film’s medium and its message, as two strangers having a brief encounter of dubious wisdom in a hotel suite is not exactly the stuff of your typical animated movie, and to begin with I thought that the film had hit upon a new way of making people think about the small details of life – things you wouldn’t think twice about in a live-action movie do take on a whole new cast when you see them being done by puppets. I thought this was actually the point of the film, because the significance of its most important conceit – the fact that every other character apart from Mike and Lisa has the same face and voice (that of Tom Noonan) – took a while to sink in.

Before that, I just found myself slightly bemused by the spectacle of puppets going to the bathroom, ordering room service, smoking cigarettes, and so on: there’s a sort of studied insignificance to a lot of Anomalisa. And then… well, I was put somewhat in mind of my trip to the bunraku in Japan – a traditional Japanese puppet show, rather distinguished by its high quotient of misery and ritual suicide amongst the puppets. You don’t expect ritual suicide from puppets, but then neither do you really expect a fairly graphic depiction of oral sex, and yet this is where the film ends up going.

Some things in life do not make great spectator activities, I would argue, and this is one of them, whether it’s being done by puppets or not. But opinions clearly differ on this topic, as Anomalisa won the (presumably much coveted) (wait for it) ‘Best Depiction of Nudity, Sexuality, or Seduction’ gong from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Hmm. Charlie Kaufman’s films are usually stuffed with odd moments but they don’t normally feel quite as self-conscious as this one. You can almost feel the film-makers’ sense of delight at doing something so bold and unexpected with this mode of film-making – but it’s almost as if they’re setting out to shock, which is never a very impressive ambition. Plus, I can’t help thinking that if Nick Park set out to make a stop-motion blue movie it would probably have better gags than this one.

Well, as you can probably tell, this is a fairly weird film in many different ways, and it’s not one that wears its weirdness lightly: it’s clear virtually from the start that this is going to be a film of Significance and Substance. This is not a lightweight or disposable film: if anything it is a gravitic Anomalisa (I feel obliged to apologise for that much-more-than-typically contrived and obscure pun), and not especially easy going. A lot of the drama seemed to me to be a bit short on the old objective correlative, too: at one point we’re clearly supposed to be delighted and moved by the burgeoning emotion and tenderness between the characters, but all that’s happening is someone singing ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ a capella. For the contrast between the style and the substance of the film to really work, the drama has to be convincingly naturalistic, and it just isn’t. (And in places it’s hard to tell whether it’s being intentionally odd or not: Lisa’s friend tells her that Mike is ‘gorgeous’, which is somewhat odd as the nature of the puppet means he looks rather like a cross between Commander Data and Jacob Rees-Mogg.)

That said, other than a brief interlude of typically Kaufmanic institutional absurdity – a visit to a functionary whose office is so huge he’s laid on a golf cart to ferry visitors from the door to his desk – this is a tightly focused story, even if the subject of that focus isn’t immediately obvious. Things which look like just being odd stylistic conceits actually turn out to be rather important to the message of the film, which is something to do with how we interact with each other as human beings.

I don’t think Anomalisa is quite as clever or profound as it thinks it is, and the film remains peppered with odd little moments and creative decisions which are ultimately rather obscure and often a bit baffling, but it’s still one of the smartest films I’ve seen recently, made with obvious care and attention to detail, and the central metaphor carries considerable power and emotional truth. I can’t honestly call this a great movie, but it’s never less than interesting to watch.

Read Full Post »

You know me (perhaps): I’m not someone to let a little thing like subtitles or a different cultural sensibility get in the way of my checking out a new movie. Especially at an awkward time of year like this one, with the Oscar bait still floating around but the big crowd-pleasers of the year still firmly under wraps (first off the blocks looks to be hmm-well-let’s-see Zach Snyder’s attempt to not mess up multiple classic characters simultaneously in Batman Vs Superman). Honestly, this is the second week in a row I’ve ended up going to see a subtitled Asian movie simply because there was nothing else on that seemed interesting (the annoying absence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from central Oxford cinemas persists).

However, where The Monkey King 2 was a rare example of a mainstream Chinese blockbuster landing a British release, Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s The Assassin is the kind of film you’re more like to come across: which is to say that it’s a Chinese-Taiwanese co-production, much feted by film festivals, and very comfortable in the world cinema/arthouse slot it’s currently showing in.


I have to say that the various accolades The Assassin has picked up were less interesting to me than the fact this is on some level a kung fu movie, and even that was secondary to the appearance in the title role of the actress Shu Qi, who is of course best known in the west for her unforgettable (and that’s putting it mildly) English-language performance in the timeless classic that is The Transporter (she is the one of ‘He brew up your car! He brooned down your house!’ fame).

So, along we trotted to the arthouse cinema where The Assassin was showing, arriving very early to be sure of getting good seats (no allocated ticketing), feeling oddly reassured by how popular the showing proved to be (well, the movie only showed once all week, and even then the small screen at the Phoenix wasn’t full up).

The film started – lovely, black and white photography to start with. A brief set of captions explaining the details of Chinese internal politics at the time when the film is set. Two women talking, one of them instructs the other (it is Shu Qi) to kill a man of low character and despicable history. She obliges, but refuses a second killing as there were children in the vicinity. Her mentor is obviously displeased.

And at this point I’m just going to give up and confess that for most of the rest of the film I did not have the slightest clue what was going on. All right: so the story is about a young noblewoman named Yinniang, who has been trained by a nun-princess (according to the subtitles, anyway) to become the most lethal killer in the land. Tensions are high between the Imperial Court and the semi-autonomous province of Weibo, possibly because someone is stirring up trouble between them.

But that is literally all I can tell you with any confidence. The film is meticulous in its composition, its cinematography, its production values, and its art direction. But it is also meticulous in not going out of its way to let the audience know what’s going on, how the various different characters are connected, what anyone’s agenda is, and what it all means.

As a result I found the film totally baffling (but still quite gorgeous to look at). Fight scenes come and go, characters appear and disappear, but for me it was never in danger of resolving into anything resembling a coherent narrative. I’m sure there was one – there are bits of what are clearly important exposition, but bereft of a meaningful context they are even more perplexing than the rest of the movie. At one point we see a new character practising martial arts while wearing a golden mask. This seems to have no connection to the rest of the plot. Later on the same character turns up to fight Yinniang: they clash briefly, then abruptly walk away from each other and – as far as I could tell – the masked fighter doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie. Some odd Chinese voodoo features near the end, seemingly out of a clear sky.

I suppose it may just be that this film is based on a story as famous in China as, say, that of Robin Hood is in the UK, and the film assumes a level of familiarity which I simply don’t possess. It doesn’t alter the result, though, which is utter mystification.

You know how it’s much, much easier to remember even quite a long phrase in your own language, than even a short one in one you don’t speak at all? Without the benefit of comprehension, it’s much harder to engage with and remember something. Well, it’s the same with The Assassin: totally unable to follow the story, I found myself slipping into something rather like a Zen trance, enjoying the craftsmanship of the film but not intellectually connecting with the story at all. This was maybe not the film to see at the end of a heavy week, because I had to struggle quite hard to stay awake. At least I succeeded: snores were drifting around the cinema before the end as one of my fellow audience members failed in their own struggle with Morpheus.

I feel I should point out that this doesn’t even feel much like a traditional kung fu film: there are various fights, and they are as impeccably staged as the rest of the film, but they are also brief and understated: you don’t get the big set piece battles of, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in this film.

Do I have to reserve judgement on The Assassin? Well, partly, I expect. It’s a lovely looking film, the acting is not obviously awful, and it has clearly been made with enormous care and skill. But, as I said, I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on throughout. I’m not sure if that was my fault or the script’s, or simply the result of cultural differences, but it did impact on my enjoyment of the film. So there you go. It looks nice, but my favourite Shu Qi movie hasn’t changed.


Read Full Post »

Every now and then a movie comes along which really makes you pause and scratch your head, not necessarily because it’s bad, but because it’s just so utterly unlike anything else on release. The same goes double when a movie of this kind manages to snag what looks very much like an A-list cast. Are they trying to show their credentials as serious artists? Is it perhaps some kind of situationist statement? Or does the director just have a fistful of incriminating photographs?


Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is exactly this kind of film. Apparently set in what looks very much like the real world, Colin Farrell plays David, a middle-aged architect whose wife has left him. Under the rules of the odd society which is in charge, he is required to check into a special hotel for single people, where he is given 45 days to find a partner and fall in love with them. Should he fail to do so, he will be turned into an animal of his choice: quite naturally, he wants to be turned into a lobster. (David is accompanied by a dog, who it transpires is his brother, following an unsuccessful previous stay at the hotel.)

David soon settles in and adapts to the kindly-yet-terrifying regime of the hotel manager (Olivia Colman), making friends with some of the other singles there (including John C Reilly and Ben Whishaw – this may not be the biggest hit Whishaw appears in this month). As well as being indoctrinated in all the various advantages that being in couple brings, on a regular basis all the inmates of the hotel are bussed down to the local woods, where they hunt and tranquilise ‘Loners’, people who have opted to defy the conventions of society.

However, life at the hotel does not really work out for David, and he eventually becomes a Loner himself, managing to win the confidence of their leader (Lea Seydoux – this may not be the biggest hit Seydoux appears in this month). Ironically, of course, no sooner has he won his place in this most antisocial of societies than he finds romance blossoming between himself and one of the others (Rachel Weisz – this may not be the biggest hit a member of her household appears in this month). Will true love conquer all?

Well, the question presupposes that the words ‘true love’ actually mean something. I suspect the makers of The Lobster wouldn’t necessarily agree with this, for this film has one of the dourest, most cynical views of relationships I can remember seeing. There is hardly a hint of genuine affection between any of the couples at the hotel – their relationships are not romantic but simply transactional, a necessity which is more-or-less forced upon them. No-one questions the necessity for being part of a couple, it’s just accepted as an essential part of living.

The Lobster is widely being dubbed a comedy in reviews and promotional material, and it may be that this doesn’t sound to you like particularly fertile ground for big laughs. I would tend to agree, and in fact I suspect the whole ‘comedy’ label has come from the fact that it isn’t obviously anything else, and the central idea of people being turned into animals is quite a silly one. On the whole the film defies the concept of genre, or at least refuses to be bound by it – there are some blackly comic moments, all of them utterly deadpan (Farrell trying to take his trousers off with one hand cuffed behind his back, for instance), but also a fair amount of graphic material, and sections bordering on the horrific (this isn’t a film for animal lovers, either).

I can only presume that the big-name cast are doing this just to show that they are artists as well as stars. All of the performances are, well, game, with Farrell and Weisz in particular coming out with dialogue of the most affectless inanity with utter conviction (this is yet another of the film’s stylistic quirks). If they never quite manage to sell you on the idea that this film is set in a coherent other-world, well, that’s because it’s just too weird an idea to work in those terms.

It’s not as if the metaphor underpinning The Lobster is exactly difficult to decipher, either: the film is an ironic comment on the importance society places on being part of a couple (and anyone who tells you this doesn’t make a difference has clearly never had to contend with the dreaded single supplement on a package holiday). This extends to an implicit criticism of the lengths that people will go to in order to establish or maintain a connection with someone, although once again this is grotesquely exaggerated in the film.

Fair enough, there’s material for a film there, but The Lobster seems to run out of new ways of discussing it quite quickly. You get a strong sense of where the film is coming from quite quickly, but by the second half it’s starting to feel like they’ve run out of ideas and are just indulging themselves in arbitrary weirdness to pad out the film.

This is certainly an original movie, well-made, and with some serious talent involved – and it does contain some funny moments and interesting ideas. But in the end, it does feel a little bit self-indulgent, and it’s often not the easiest of films to watch. Nice to see something quite so weird getting a relatively big release, but I suspect that has more to do with the cast list than anything else.

Read Full Post »

It was with a notable degree of gleeful delight that I told a friend that one of the films I was considering seeing this week was Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. ‘I can’t wait to see you explain that plot,’ is the phrase that particularly sticks in my memory. Well, he’s a very cultured guy who is capable of talking intelligently with German words about opera and suchlike, and Upstream Color is clearly the sort of thing which is up his street. I would have thought it would have been up mine too, as – whatever else Upstream Color is – it’s definitely an SF movie too.


However, the house of SF has never been more arty than in the case of Upstream Color. This film is aimed at the kind of punter for whom Inception was just a bit too mainstream and obvious a piece of film-making. This is usually the point at which I would launch into a brief outline of the plot and how the story gets under way. Unfortunately – and here’s where you may faintly be able to hear distant laughter – Upstream Color has a peculiar relationship with conventional notions of plot and story.

I am absolutely not saying that Upstream Color doesn’t have a plot or a story. But where most films take their responsibilities quite seriously when it comes to things like setting up a scenario, introducing characters, and developing a plot, with Carruth it is much more a case of a journey to the centre of ‘what the…?’ What Carruth does as writer, director and editor is construct little moments of incident, which he then floats past the viewer bereft of all the usual connective tissue in terms of understanding how they relate to one another.

I knew very little about Upstream Color‘s plot before I went to see it (the temptation is to add that, having seen it, I still know very little about the film’s plot), but I suspect that much of the film’s special charm derives from the oblique unfolding of events as it progresses. So, bearing all of this in mind and not wanting to spoil the experience of watching it, this film is primarily the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz – by no means a very famous performer, but one with a prodigious work ethic), a woman who is the victim of a rather exotic type of extortion which effectively destroys her life. Recovering from the fallout of this, she meets and begins a somewhat fraught relationship with Jeff (Carruth himself), a broker. Intimately connected with all of this are the activities of a pig farmer who also enjoys making some slightly peculiar recordings.

Or so it seemed to me, anyway: the film is very much a puzzle (there are long stretches which are almost entirely dialogue-free) and I think the challenge of trying to work out how the different strands fit together is what has endeared this film to so many critics. Bits of it wander off in different directions and narrative roles shuffle around unexpectedly; I myself emerged with a vague sense of what had been going on but would by no means claim to have completely understood it.

I expect that many people who prefer films where you don’t need to be a savant to work out what’s going on would accuse Upstream Color of being incredibly pretentious. I have some sympathy for this view: the film is artfully shot and convincingly played, but does this particular story demand to be told in such a cryptic way? The obvious comparison is with Carruth’s previous film, Primer. Highly abstruse and erudite academic articles have been written trying to tease out the full details of Primer‘s intensely convoluted plot, but there’s an argument to be made that Primer is about about an inherently deeply confusing situation and so the film itself is justified in deliberately being confusing too.

I’m not sure the same argument can be made for Upstream Color – the plot isn’t exactly complex, but its telling is so disarticulated that it almost feels like it is – but of course in order to be sure I would have to be certain exactly what the film is supposed to be about. In the end, I suspect that Shane Carruth gets away with it, but to say more would – yet again – risk spoiling the film.

This has been an unusually difficult and slightly frustrating review to write, which is interesting because watching the film itself was a genuine pleasure (although a slightly bemusing one). Carruth is turning into one of the most interesting film-makers working today, taking what looks like standard genre material and producing films quite unlike anyone else. Careful thought and artistry have clearly gone into the making of Upstream Color and it’s my respect for this which makes me unwilling to crack the story open here and delve about inside it in too much detail. It’s a very, very unconventional film, and I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone I didn’t know quite well. But it offer many subtle pleasures.

Read Full Post »