Film Poster for Terrence Malick’s Badlands — Tomer Hanuka

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Trailer for Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups

Vorspiel/Landing (Malick)

Polish Film Poster for Days of Heaven — Wiktor Sadowski

Polish Poster

“The water’s gonna rise in flame” (Days of Heaven)

Sometimes I think Days of Heaven is my favorite film.

A Short Riff on Shane Carruth’s Film Upstream Color

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1. I managed to avoid reading anything about Shane Carruth’s new film Upstream Color before I saw it.

I just knew that this was the guy who did Primer, this was his new film, and I wanted to see it because Primer was so strange and engaging.

2. Two immediate responses after viewing Upstream Color:

i). The desire to see Upstream Color again and

ii). The desire to read what other people thought about Upstream Color.

3. (My wife and I, reading the credits, pausing the credits, reassessing the film against the backdrop of the credits, arguing about the film, discussing the film, etc.).

4. I think it’s better that if you have any interest at all in Upstream Color that you just see it cold [update/warning: the comments section of this post is full of spoilers]. But I know that 100 minutes is an investment of time, so maybe you’d like some kind of précis or at least description. So, a loose attempt, which surely will devolve into fragments and references:

Upstream Color is a sci-film, sort of.

Or maybe its a mystery film about ethics and biology.

Maybe a nature film, sort of.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Worms—parasites.

Theft.

Pigs.

Shades of Philip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, Terence Malick, but also something utterly original.

Mind control.

Trauma.

Ambient music.

Orchids.

Sampling nature.

Memory.

Swimming.

Drowning.

Creation: knitting, paper chains, music, seeds, life, children, etc.

A film that can and should be described as poetic.

It’s a love story, too.

5. It occurs to me that there’s a trailer for the film. I haven’t seen it yet. Should we watch it?

6. Does that do it for you? I don’t know how to do this anymore. Recommend things. I don’t know, the trailer makes the film perhaps look more pretentious than it is. It isn’t pretentious. It isn’t even confusing—just perplexing, haunting, troubling.

7. (Wanted: Quinoa Valley Record Co., complete discography).

8. My take on Upstream Color, spoiler-free, supporting-detail-free:

The film is about agency, about drive, about how the characters (and, implicitly, uswe, the audience, who identify with the characters on the screen) may be driven by something beyond us, something controlling us like a parasite (internal) or from afar like a ventriloquist (external). That even when we do assert agency the effect, the fallout, the shape lays beyond us, upstream.

9. (This morning, my wife telling me about her dream, a nightmare that our young daughter had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms, clearly a response to the film).

10. I haven’t done a good job of really saying anything about the film. So, lazily:

I think Caleb Crain provides a perceptive and persuasive reading of the film in his essay “The Thoreau Poison.” He reads the film through the American transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, of course, but also Emerson and Hawthorne. 

There’s also a piece at Slate by Forrest Wickman that perhaps over-explicates but nonetheless offers perspective, including elements of Carruth’s own take.

11. (I will avoid Carruth’s explanation of the film until I’ve seen it a second time. Maybe I’ll avoid his explanation forever).

12. A take on Upstream Color that I don’t quite buy into (the take is my own): The film perhaps invites us to find metaphysical entities in two of its secondary characters, both of whom exert influence (creative and destructive) over the primary characters. Something something godlike, something something devillike.

I like that the film offers this simple duality and then crushes it, shows something far more complicated, suggests a cycle far more strange.

13. (White orchid. Blue orchid. Yellow orchid).

14. Upstream Color features minimal dialogue and nothing approaching traditional exposition, but we still learn about its characters, come to feel for them, feel their desires and traumas. The film is cerebral and philosophical, but it’s also emotional, offering an aesthetic that sublimely overwhelms the viewer.

15. Carruth wrote, produced, directed, scored, photographed, cast and starred in Upstream Color. (I’m sure he did a lot of other stuff too). He also distributed the film himself. The entire filmmaking process was untouched by the Hollywood system. There’s so much hope for film as an art form in this knowledge.

16. Parting thoughts: See Upstream Color. Resist imposing whatever film grammar you usually bring with you to the movies. Resist the temptation to see the film as a puzzle to figure out. See Upstream Color.

Terence Malick’s Editor Billy Weber on the Art of Voiceover