Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth’s mind control sci-fi whatsit Upstream Color was my favorite film I saw in a movie theater in 2013, back when I used to only make it out to the megaplex a few times a year (as opposed to a few times a month). In an effort to encourage other people to experience the film in a proper theatrical environment, I posted the following cringe-inducing paragraph on Facebook, which I am transcribing verbatim here as a vicious self-own: “playing one last time tuesday (tomorrow) night at the chalmette movies, 7:30pm; this movie is terrifying. truly horrific. if you are irritated by expressionistic directors like miranda july, harmony korine & whoever made ‘we need to talk about kevin’ you should skip out on this one; if you find those ppl/movies exciting and you like to be scared/confused/nervous go see it.” Woof. I like to think that my writing skills and frames of reference have both expanded greatly since starting this film blog in 2015 (please don’t report that you feel otherwise) and I’ve just revisited Upstream Color for the first time since that theatrical release, so I’d like to take a second crack at praising its merits here. Maybe I can even pull it off without insulting the great Lynne Ramsay this time. We’ll see.

While my initial “review” of the film was essentially the online equivalent of shitting my pants in public, I do maintain that a few key adjectives in that paragraph genuinely apply to Upstream Color – mainly “terrifying,” “expressionistic,” and “confused.” Shane Carruth still only has two feature films to his name but has earned great notoriety in film nerd circles for executing astonishingly complex sci-fi ideas on meager micro-budgets. His debut feature (2004’s Primer) was notoriously scraped together with a mere $7,000 behind it and yet has inspired entire websites dedicated to parsing out the A-B story of its complex time travel narrative. Although Upstream Color operated with a relatively massive $50,000 budget (still chump change even in indie filmmaking terms), it’s somehow even more stubborn in accommodating its audience narratively, especially since it opts for a sci-fi subgenre much less culturally familiar than time travel: mind control. Over time, Upstream Color sketches out in both macro & microscopic terms the life cycle of a mysterious parasite that, when ingested, leaves its hosts vulnerably suggestible (and inexplicably, inextricably connected to anyone else infected). It’s a closed loop of human connection and subhuman exploitation that makes for a legendarily weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell. It’s just also an uninviting one that doesn’t reveal its true shape until you’ve made it all the way through the loop yourself. And even then, you’re bound to walk away with more questions than explanations.

While their relationship to each other is deliberately obscured from scene to scene, the individual players of this sordid tale are at least distinct & well defined. We open with a nameless thief who harvests a mysterious blue chemical from orchids that he then injects into grubs and force-feeds to unsuspecting victims. This starts as a story of severe & total exploitation, with seemingly the one player with a full grasp on what these parasites can do abusing their mind-control properties for cheap financial gain. We then shift to his victims’ post-trauma haze as they try to piece together exactly what happened to them and why they feel subconsciously connected to each other. Also in play are a pig farmer, his cattle, and nearby orchid salesmen who unknowingly complete the life cycle of this phenomenal parasitic grub – each to their own selfish gain. The bulk of the story’s pathos is rooted in the search for connection & meaning among the traumatized victims of the parasite’s harvester, but making sense of exactly what they’re going through from minute to minute requires a complete understanding of how all these disparate players are connected – something you don’t fully acquire until you follow the entire life cycle to completion. Until then, the film plays like a half-remembered nightmare, with the logical reasoning of what’s happening in the moment making just enough sense to carry you through to the next disorienting crisis.

If any of the directors’ work I foolishly compared Upstream Color to in my initial “review” stands, it’s the only one I didn’t cite by name. If you’re being generous, I suppose there’s a stubborn obfuscation the film shares with Korine and its everyone-is-connected plot structure could be seen as a sci-fi mutation of July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. I don’t deserve that generosity, though. The Lynne Ramsay comparison is at least slightly interesting in retrospect, though, in that Upstream Color‘s greatest feat is surely in its editing (a task Carruth took on himself in addition to writing, directing, producing, scoring, shooting, and starring in the film as its over-achieving auteur). Upstream Color & We Need to Talk About Kevin are connected in that they’re clearly the most impressively edited films of the decade, considering how they communicate complex, internal narratives through a jumble of disjointed imagery and yet their basic outlines are crystal clear if you afforded them your full attention from start to finish. Either film would be doomed to confuse anyone who allows them to compete with a smartphone or tablet at home, as every image onscreen in an essential context clue as to what’s being communicated at large. An occasional special effect or microscopic science lab footage insert will help Upstream Color overcome its limited financial means, but its true spectacle is its editing room alchemy – a purposefully disorienting, alienating terror. In that way (and in that way only) it’s outright Ramsayesque.

Given Upstream Color‘s stubbornness to provide upfront explanations for what its isolated images, characters, and even sounds signify in the larger picture, it’s the kind of film that demands your full attention from start to end, completing its closed loop for yourself. As hard as I cringe over the word choice of my seven-years-stale plea that more people experience it in a proper theater, I can at least stand by the sentiment that full, undistracted immersion in that environment was its best shot of wholly winning over an audience. The best you can do to recreate that experience now is locking your smartphone away in another room and burying your ears in some high-end headphones. Hopefully this better-elaborated reasoning on why this film is worth that effort will convince someone new to experience this low-budget, high-ambition sci-fi chiller for themselves. Either way, I should probably cut myself some slack for my shortcomings in singing its praises – both now and in 2013. It’s an exceedingly difficult film to describe to anyone who hasn’t already fallen under its spell themselves. However, I do feel an eerie, soul-deep connection to those who’ve been a defender of it as one of the decade’s great works, as it could have easily been one of the many great 2010s indies to slip into total obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Primer (2004)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

In some ways Primer is the film The Martian was only pretending to be. The Matt Damon sci-fi action “comedy” (well, comedy by the Golden Globes’ measurement, anyway) was a hit last year that had people praising its supposedly ultra-scientific nerd-speak for not talking down to its audience & constructing a plot around basic old-fashioned problem-solving. Personally, I had a hard time seeing The Martian as much more than a crowd-pleaser balanced between a rescue mission drama & a big budget disaster pic, maybe with a little found footage thriller tossed in for flavor. Shane Carruth’s dirt cheap time travel paradox Primer, on the other hand, feels like truly authentic problem-solving nerd-speak. I can tell it’s authentic because I have no idea what’s going on and will probably need several more viewings & a notepad to catch up. The Martian may have charmed audiences into thinking they were getting the pure, uncut nerdy goods, but Primer was the real deal primo shit. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a better or more admirable movie for not speaking to a wide audience in a more toned-down, accessible version of nerd-speak, but I do think it was much closer to the intricate, intelligent movie a lot of people seemed to think they watched when they describe the much more audience-friendly The Martian.

Shane Carruth writes, directs, produces, scores, edits, and stars in this cerebral sci-fi cheapie about two tech world bros who accidentally discover a closed circuit version of time travel that allows them to loop into the future & back into their temporal starting point. It’s a little like a microwave that makes an instant, self-contained Groundhog Day experience. Before they realize what they’re even working on (it’s initially referred to as “the thing” & “the device”) the film pokes a little insider fun at the in-the-garage tech startup world of properties like Steve Jobs & Silicon Valley. Ancient analog equipment & other corner-cutting attempts to save money are played for subtle humor. All tech bros wear a Mormon-like uniform of a white dress shirt & striped tie. Corporate lingo is casually tossed around in a condescending tone. Carruth obviously knows this world intimately & it shows on the screen, but Primer doesn’t really come alive until it leaves the tech startup world behind & dives head first into the unknown. It’s about 30min into the film’s very slim runtime when mutliple timeline paradox versions of our unreliable narrator bros start constructing a mind puzzle for the audience to tinker with as they pull rugs, reveal betrayals, and get too comfy with a powerful force of nature they have no business manipulating in the first place: time.

I haven’t seen Carruth’s sophomore film, Upstream Color, since it left the theater in 2012, but I found that work to be an unmitigated masterpiece, one I mentally return to often just to mull over its many cerebral pleasures. In that context Primer feels like a young director with a limited budget just getting his legs. Much like Patrick Brice’s dual 2015 releases Creep & The Overnight, Primer is an exciting example of just how much a filmmaker can accomplish with a great script & a near-nonexistent budget (reportedly $7000 in Primer‘s case). The acting isn’t quite up to snuff with the writing here. The leads have a tendency to read their lines in a mumbled, stabby attack that often makes them difficult to decipher, especially in early scenes when they’re constructing & tweaking “the device.” However, the film has a lot of fun both tangling up a plot that would take hundreds of viewings to fully unravel & in delivering weird time travel one-liners like “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon,” and “It’s going to be a long day,” (meant literally). Primer makes a virtue out of telling, not showing and I feel like a lot of true-nerd science geeks probably would get the most out of its paradoxical conundrums & moral dilemmas.

Personally, I enjoyed & appreciated the film’s small-scale, verbal pleasures, but found a whole lot more to unpack in Carruth’s followup that was a hell of a lot more interesting than just mapping out what transpired plot-wise (which apparently is a thing entire fan sites Primer has inspired to do). Folks who enjoyed the nerdy step-by-step problem solving of The Martian would probably get even more out of it than I did. However, be forewarned. This movie is actually the real deal.

-Brandon Ledet

Swiss Army Man (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

The art of the tagline can sometimes outshine even the movie it’s trying to sell. For instance, this summer’s Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson buddy cop comedy Central Intelligence boasts the tagline, “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson.” That is such a beautifully constructed one-liner that it’s difficult to believe the film it’s selling could possibly ever live up to it. The gallows humor flatulence comedy Swiss Army Man presents a similar conundrum in its two-sentence elevator pitch the director team Daniels employed to convince actor Paul Dano to star in their debut feature: “The first fart will make you laugh. The last fart will make you cry.” There’s an audacious ambition in trying to make an audience cry at a fart that I greatly respect (and, of course, find very amusing). I don’t think Swiss Army Man quite lives up to that promise (the first fart made me laugh and the last fart also made me laugh), but I admire the Daniels for trying to get me to find genuine heart in a dead body’s flatulence. It was a lofty goal.

Paul Dano begins Swiss Army Man as a lonely shipwreck survivor attempting to hang himself in order to escape the horrors of boredom & dehydration. The film takes its gallows humor quite literally as he’s hanging from a noose and is saved from his lonely island nightmare by a farting corpse that washes ashore before him. Daniel Radcliffe plays this gaseous corpse with dead-eyed deadpan, at first silently filling the role of Wilson in this indie pop version of Cast Away, but eventually holding his own against Dano’s troubled protagonist. Dano seemingly continues his unhinged Brian Wilson impression in an alternate universe where his Love & Mercy character makes friends with a flatulent corpse instead of turning into John Cusack. He fights through personal neuroses & sings sweetly to himself as a way to cope with a world he finds cruel & a body (or two) he finds embarrassing. Much of the film’s journey is in learning about Dano’s broken heart protagonist as he bounces his skewed, dysfunctional ideas about the world off of Radcliffe’s lifeless body. The other part of that journey is in learning just what that lifeless body can do. Besides producing violent, body-shaking farts, Radcliffe’s corpse can also start fires, produce water, ride like a jetski, fire like a gun, etc. Although dead, he’s a verifiable Swiss Army man, or as the characters put it in the film, a “multi-purpose tool guy,” one with a magical, boner-driven navigation system that helps Dano find his way home. He also finds the ability to speak, despite being very dead, and because he has no recollection of his life before he was a rotting sack of farts, Dano spends much of the film teaching him how the world works (as filtered through is own hangups & neuroses). More importantly, he teaches his undead buddy about the value of love.

Did I mention that Swiss Army Man is a heartfelt love story? Did I mention that it’s also a road trip buddy comedy? Did I mention that it’s also, improbably, a musical? The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style indie pop soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. They’re unfortunately a lot less confident on where to take the romantic implications stirring at the movie’s core, a very exciting, unexpected turn that unfortunately peaks early & fizzles out before any meaningful destination is reached in the final act. I don’t want to fault this farting corpse buddy comedy too much for losing track of its emotional core, but it does feel as if the film were flirting with a line of romantic ambiguity it simply didn’t have the nerve to follow through on, which was admittedly disappointing even though I enjoyed the film as a whole. Swiss Army Man is overly ambitious in so many ways. Not least of all, the film tries to answer the question, “What is life?” with a full-hearted sincerity that erratically alternates between optimism & pessimism at the flip of a switch. The undead half of the central duo is essentially a child, curiously admitting, “I have a lot of questions about all the things you just said,” while the neurotic, living half explains his personal philosophy about the way things work through a depressing adherence to societal norms, fear of embarrassment, and the Law of Diminished Returns, a special cocktail that leaves him forever lonely and more than a little bit creepy. It’s possible that Swiss Army Man didn’t follow through on all of its thematic inquiries because it bit off more than it could chew, but there’s certainly no shame in that kind of wide scope ambition.

I don’t think the Daniels’ promise of a climactic fart that could make me cry ever came close to being fulfilled, but Swiss Army Man is mostly successful anyway. There may be an emotionally-distancing dedication to absurdity & artificiality at the film’s core that might’ve prevented me from connecting too closely with its central relationship, similar to the arm’s-length scholarly absurdism of this year’s equally ambitious The Lobster. Swiss Army Man has something The Lobster doesn’t, though, and it mostly takes the form of violent, body-shaking farts. The movie is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies. Daniel Radcliffe puts in a solidly entertaining performance as the film’s undead catalyst, somehow finding weird energy in a character who resembles the Frankenstein monster after a hearty dose of heroin. (Speaking of which, after Victor Frankenstein this makes two films in a row where the actor participates in a vaguely homoerotic zombie comedy, right? Weird.) His body is also solidly entertaining as it spits, shoots, ignites, launches and, duh, farts its path through an escalating gauntlet of minute-to-minute obstacles. Paul Dano also holds his own here with a mentally/spiritually broken weirdo archetype he’s become very comfortable portraying and the always-welcome Shane Carruth & Mary Elizabeth Winstead both briefly poke their heads in just to remind you that they’re always getting involved in weird outlier projects and that you love them for it.

The Daniels also toss in a handful of reverent references to Jurassic Park & other Spielbergian fare (the Spielberg-produced Cast Away obviously among them) in a way that hammers home the idea that they love the movies & they’re giddy that they got away with making one about a farting corpse with a magical boner. They also nearly got away with making said farting corpse picture a teary-eyed romantic journey, but fell just short of that distinction. Overall, though, Swiss Army Man is far more memorable for its humor & ambition than its third act narrative shortcomings. I really enjoyed their debut, but I’m convinced the Daniels will have even better films coming down the pipeline once they learn to listen to their hearts the same way they ask the audience to listen to their farts. In the mean time, it just feels good to laugh along the scatological bleakness & divine absurdity they’ve constructed here. It’s okay that both farts made me laugh. I like to laugh.

-Brandon Ledet