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Friday, May 10, 2013

The Worms Crawl In: Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color"

“The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I don’t know what it means that the two most beautiful films I’ve seen so far this year, To The Wonder and Upstream Color, are premiering on iTunes and Video-On-Demand at roughly the same time they’ve hit theaters. Both are gorgeously shot and edited, with a symphonic rhythm calling out to each other as cinematic brethren, as if DIY directors old and young, Terrence Malick and Shane Carruth, were content to be mutually accelerating on this new celestial sphere with the camera eye registering the various phenomena of nature, drawing from the forgotten gospel of Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye philosophy of the 1920s, life “caught unawares” by omniscient lenses canvasing the totality of space, offering a gesture of the soul. The Kino Eye references something transparently religious in Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but Carruth’s more secular sensibilities, while hinting at the sci-fi conceptualism of David Cronenberg, also bend to something Transcendental, as both filmmakers are engaged with “cosmic loops”: Malick’s “God” whose “seeing” the director’s boyhood alter-ego yearns to identify with in The Tree of Life, and Carruth’s pig-farming “Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig), recording sounds, creating (analog?) synth melodies, and, so it seems, associated with the invasive trickster “deity,” the malevolent “Thief” (Thiago Martins), the two of them manipulating and reformatting the “narratives” – and so identities – of their clueless victims.

To The Wonder and Upstream Color are already notorious for their narrative obliqueness. They’re destined for limited audiences who will likewise debate the merits and debits of both films. The masterly control that strings both pictures together, though, not only in images but in two extraordinary sound designs, demands the sanctuary of the theatre, of an imposing and overhanging flux of flickering images. Shuffled on to immediate streaming access, To The Wonder and Upstream Color are the efforts of two filmmakers  who, in addition to those “large questions” we always hear about in reviews, are wondering where their vocation of cinema is going: a vocation they’ve both mastered, yet have been seemingly reluctant to embrace at full-force: six films over forty years for Malick, while Upstream Color is only Carruth’s second picture, coming almost 10 years after the startling, $7,000 cult time-travel marvel Primer.


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