Comic book = tragedy + time?

There’s a scene roughly halfway into X-Men: Days of Future Past that is a great example of CGI used to do a setpiece scene that is witty, exhilarating and tells us something about the character involved. It is definitely one of the best standout scenes in all the X-Men films and a contender for the top spot. It also sadly highlights how perfunctory the rest of the film is – it’d stand out even in a good X-Men movie, but in a humdrum one it’s almost sad to see.

I was prepared to like Days of Future Past. I’d had a tiring day and was looking forward to some action and excitement with charm and likeable characters. While Marvel’s mutant chronicles aren’t at the top of my list of favourite superhero movies, it’s usually been fun visiting with Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and the gang, not least because of the cast these films have. When has it ever not been enjoyable watching Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen playing off of each other? I was also a surprise fan of First Class, which, while still a disposable popcorn movie, upped the charm and personality with the likes of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. McAvoy can be too smug by half, but in the right role he is charming – and Fassbender is one of the most interesting actors of his generation, capable of immense charm too but always with an intensity coiled just underneath the surface, ready to explode. In First Class, he took a character we’d seen many times before and made him scary, something that McKellen’s Magneto, for all of McKellen’s acting chops, had never been.

"Charles, you've got something... on your face..."

You’d think that Days of Future Past would have it made: not just those crazy kids Stewart and McKellen, but also McAvoy, Fassbender – and, as a trump up their sleeve, Peter Dinklage. Has there ever been more personality, charm and charisma in a superhero movie that didn’t star Robert Downey Jr.? However, charm is worth little with a script as leaden as that of Days of Future Past. The plot would be fine – it’s overblown and complicated-yet-simple in the way that superhero stories often are, but that can work well enough – but the dialogues are dull, clunky and preachy. There’s always been the latter element to X-Men, but usually they made it work (as in X-Men 2‘s “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” scene), but in the latest film in the series it never feels like there’s much of an underlying reality to be preachy about. The result of anti-mutant bigotry in Days of Future Past is one of those generic, bland yet tacky post-apocalyptic scenarios that feels like bargain-store Terminator. The executors of this future, the Sentinels that apparently are a mainstay of the comic books, are ominous enough in their design and animation, but watching them kill their way through a bunch of C-list mutants that we haven’t established any relationship with feels utterly empty.

As the film’s subtitle suggests, Days of Future Past uses that most overused of sci-fi tropes, time travel, and soon we’ve got Wolverine in the funky ’70s. That should make for a sense of personality, no? Sadly, that’s exactly the answer: no. The film does pick up somewhat, but a number of decisions by the writers that could be interesting work against the film: young Professor Xavier, played by McAvoy, is deep in a depression, Fassbender’s Magneto has lost the intensity that was constantly lurking under the surface in First Class – and Wolverine has become the most balanced, mature character on the screen. Yes, he still has a number of fights and quips, but they’re subdued. All of these could work as character development, but they don’t: Wolverine comes across more as apathetic than as reasonable, Professor X is dreary much of the time, and Fassbender tries to imitate McKellen, which may work in a talkshow but doesn’t work for the character – Fassbender and McKellen both have very different energies and performing styles, and neither the script, the director nor the performer manage to make Days of Future Past‘s Magneto into a very interesting missing link between the young Erik Lehnsherr and the old one. And Peter Dinklage, that master of smart snark? It’s nice that his role is not just a different take on, say, Tyrion Lannister, only in a suit and with a moustache, nor is he cast in any way for his stature, which is commendable. However, his part is underwritten and lacking in personality, making one of the main antagonists of the film pretty much a non-entity. There’s also the usually reliable Jennifer Lawrence, and her performance is fine, making her the one character who’s visibly got a stake in the events of the film, but there’s little here that we haven’t seen in First Class, making her scenes suffer due to diminishing returns.

"Mutants in the White House! Aroo! Get me the headless body of Agnew!"

I won’t fault any of the actors: to my mind, it’s clearly the script that is lacking. The characters are written so flatly that they practically rely on audiences bringing their feelings based on the earlier films and the comics to the table – which means that Days of Future Past may work for the fans who care deeply about Wolverine & Co, but other than that there’s little here that is engaging. It’s not the inherent silliness of the proceedings, nor is it the seriousness that the real-world context and doom’n’gloom of the scenes set in the post-apocalypse try to invest the film with: both of these can work, as they did in, say, Iron Man (which embraces the silly, adolescent energy that superhero comics can have) or The Dark Knight (which makes the grimdark grittiness work). What this film needs is someone with the skills of a Joss Whedon at writing the self-awarely operatic dialogues that the most enjoyable superhero comics have, at balancing the grandiose and the intimate, at injecting much-needed personality and wit. There’s little of that to be found in Days of Future Past, and the wittiest scene is the aforementioned CGI setpiece that works entirely without dialogue.

As it is, I’ve never been enthusiastic about the X-Men films. I’ve liked a number of them well enough. However, in principle I could be a fan; I very much love Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men arc, and while his own contribution to the X-Men movies hasn’t exactly been great, someone with his sensitivities could make a huge difference to the films. I hear that Brian K. Vaughan is done working on the Under the Dome TV series – perhaps he could take the potential in this big, crazy, dysfunctional family of mutants and misfits and make their dialogue crackle with wit and energy? In any case, I hope that the makers of X-Men: Apocalypse watch the “Time in a Bottle” scene and understand why it sparkles, while too much of the rest of the film is dull.

"I am the very model of a/Modern mutant general..."

The Leftovers, S1E1 – Pilot

One fine October day, two percent of the world’s population disappear. There are no warnings, no explanations. One moment, people go about their daily business, and the next second, beds, chairs and cradles are suddenly empty, orphaned shopping trollies trundle downhill in the parking lot, and driverless cars cut into oncoming traffic. This is the starting point of HBO’s new series The Leftovers. Everything else follows from there.

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Three years later, no-one is the wiser, but society has changed profoundly. Everybody is looking for answers: politicians instrumentalize the disappearances, cults have sprung up, scientists are bewildered. Was it an act of God? If so, what did God intend? Can we know what that intention is? Some people try to rationalize the event by repeating that two percent are not that much, at least compared to an epidemic, and while this is mathematically true, it is still almost a lie. People are missing. They are gone. Where the hell are they? Fuck math. The numbers aren’t the point – not knowing is.

Ironically, we see life now through the eyes of the Garvey family from Mapleton, who haven’t lost anyone, except maybe each other. We meet Kevin Garvey, captain of the local police force, played by Justin Theroux, an actor who is really good at playing unstable. The police have their work cut out for them: the Mayor has declared that the third anniversary of the disappearance is called Heroes Day, with a meeting in the town park and the unveiling of a statue, but some people are against that meeting because some of the disappeared were said to be idiots, not heroes. Garvey is also against the meeting because he can foresee clashes between townsfolk who want to mourn their losses, and the cult of the Guilty Remnants.

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The GR are a piece of work. They dress in white, never speak and constantly smoke as a proclamation of their faith, which seems to consist of feeling guilty and humble. The picture frames at their headquarters are eerily empty. Their only activity seems to be silently standing in your driveway, smoking, as a means of recruiting you. In this pilot episode, they are trying to get at Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler), without much initial success.
The storyline of the daughter, Jill Garvey, is not exactly a disappointment, but she does the usual teenage stuff: staying out too long and going slightly too far with the wrong boys. Tom Garvey, on the other hand, is trapped as the left hand of a slick, violent cult leader called Wayne (Paterson Joseph). This is an intriguing storyline. Wayne has a reputation of being able to “take your pain away,” whatever that means. We have yet to see how he does that, but even an out-of-state Congressman comes to see him and feels unburdened afterwards. Tom Garvey starts out as the driver for Wayne’s, erm, customers, but gets, erm, promoted to being Christine’s bodyguard because she is very important to Wayne. Christine is a 13-year-old teenager. Wayne is a creep, and I don’t care what his method is, he is a phoney, and nothing healthy can come from him. The fact that Christine loves him makes him even creepier.

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I could criticize the series for introducing not just one, but two cults, but at least they differ vastly from each other. The GR are essentially humble and repentant, while Wayne is a rapist and abuser. Both seem to have their origins in October 14.

These are trying, painful times. Watch how Nora Durst is holding her speech on Heroes Day. She has lost her husband and her two kids. That’s 75 percent – don’t even think about talking to her about how two percent are almost nothing. And then the GR interrupt Heroes Day – they can be outspoken if they want. There is a bloody scuffle, and the GR lose because they seem to renounce violence. Somewhere in the throng, there is Christopher Eccleston telling people that this wasn’t a rapture, and distributing leaflets about a woman who deserved to disappear because she beat her kids. Is he talking about someone we already know? There are many open questions, but this is a pilot, and so the answers must wait.
I am impressed with the pilot. I am mainly cast-driven, and there are a lot of names in this series that are on my wish list: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman (more of her next time), Ann Dowd, Paterson Joseph. One other plus is the list of celebrity disappearances on the TV in the pub where Garvey drinks his beer. Who would want to live in a world without Bonnie Raitt? How am I ever going to listen to Nick of Time without thinking she has left this world? And I like that bartender – he is the only one who is still able to quip about the disappearance.
There are two weak spots in these 72 minutes: Meg Abbott is mainly just sad without knowing why, and I really need something more here than just Liv Tyler looking sad. The second is Jill Garvey’s storyline, which, at the moment, is not much more than generic teenage drama.

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The pilot ends with Garvey changing his mind. I like the roughness of the scene, and there is the underlying thought that just when you think you are trying to protect and to serve one way, you might just as well do the opposite and still do your job. And protect you must, because the opposite is unthinkable to you. The mourners on Heroes Day, the GR, everyone who has lost anyone has some kind of point, according to you. How do you stay just and neutral? How don’t you let your personal worries get in the way of the law, or in the way of justice? Here, in Mapleton, as anywhere else, protection or justice is hard to come by, and sometimes both, or all, sides need protection. Another homepage has called this series post-apocalyptic. That’s true in a way – it’s just that you can’t see the devastation. There are no smouldering ruins, no conspirators, no trials, no nuclear fallout, no peace treaty. It’s been three years, and nobody is anywhere near getting better in any way.

Fake history will teach us even less

Confession time: even though I’ve a degree in History, I’m actually pretty okay with films, books and games that aren’t above playing around with historical facts. I quite enjoyed how the Assassin’s Creed games gave the Middle Ages, the Renaissane and revolutionary America the Dan Brown treatment, pretty much deciding that everything’s better with a healthy dollop of conspiracy theory. If you’re telling a story, don’t let history get in the way too much of what works and what doesn’t work in storytelling. Let’s face it, more often than not history has pretty bad plotting, even if there may be good overall ideas.

Bang, bang... or: Everybody's got the right to their dream.

Nevertheless, Das Attentat: Sarajevo 1914 the TV movie produced and shown by the ZDF, one of Germany’s two national public-service broadcasters, made me angry. It didn’t help that the film mistook having an earnest tone for having something to say, and that it became duller as it tried to ratchet up the tension. What bothered me most, though, was this: here we’ve got a film shown on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the act that triggered the First World War. It’s produced by national television, which comes at least with an implicit stamp of officiality. Its tone suggests that it purports to be important. Yet, and that’s the thing that stings, it’s largely a fabrication, a piece of historical revisionism. The set dressing is nicely historical, but the story that claims the assassination to have been orchestrated by German and Austrian military, government and, most importantly, industrials is silly hogwash.

It’s also unnecessary hogwash: the European elites by and large were rearing to have a go at their enemies after a century that was rife with conflict over nations, resources and colonies. Did the German government want the war? Very likely yes, but that is true for pretty much every major government at the time. Yet the film’s writers decided they wanted a different story, one of the fin de siècle Military-Industrial complex, though only the German one, manipulating things to their own capitalist ends. While I sympathise with the politics, what bothers me is this: the film was placed to look like an officially endorsed rendition of historical events in good faith. I don’t think the ZDF or the film makers consciously wanted to mislead people, but history syllabi being what they are I doubt that most people in the audience know, or care, enough to question Sarajevo 1914‘s version of what happened to see it as a “What if?” scenario.

Historical Revisionism

And that, to me, makes this different from many other examples of historical fiction that takes liberties with the source material. Games of “What if?” are most fun if you know how they change history to tell a different story, they pretty much depend on the historical foil. Alternatively, history is full of question marks, and there’s a lot of space to present different takes on what happened – I’m by no means looking for an official, monolithical History, seeing as I’m a big believer in multiple lower-case histories that form capital-H History with all their gaps, contradictions and ambiguities. But presenting utter invention with the veneer of authenticity and official truth? Perhaps I’m not the only one who finds this problematic, actually – the ZDF followed the premiere of Sarajevo 1914 with a documentary that looked at the causes and motivations behind the assassination, and they were presented to be considerably more murky and less black-and-white than the fictional version suggested. Still, realistically speaking: how many people stuck around to watch the documentary, which didn’t even contain a completely made up, generic love story to spice up the tale of murder and intrigue?

Then again, while I’m being jaded and cynical: how many people watched the first minute of Sarajevo 1914 and thought they’d rather watch something modern – where 90% of the men don’t wear big, bushy moustaches?

As that noted philosopher once said...

From Brighton to Croydon

Here’s a question for you: Do you think that movies can thrive on their limitations? I think they can. The series 24 takes place in real time – Jack Bauer is very aware of the tick-tock of the clock. The movie Buried is set entirely in a coffin. The movie Russian Ark consists of one single 99-minute shot. These limitations are technical, wilfully compressing their stories in temporal or spatial ways and also in the way they get made. It’s a risk: if you don’t like watching a man lying in a coffin for feature lenght, then you won’t like the whole movie. There is no B-story here.

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Of course, there can also be dramatic limitations. The movie Compliance is about the staff of a fast-food restaurant where the shift manager gets a phone call from a cop who tells her to detain one of her employees because she might have stolen the purse of one of their patrons. The cop asks more and more of the manager, the employee keeps insisting that she is innocent. It’s basically two women in a backroom, one of them receiving orders over the phone. The movie loses all tension when the cop is made a visible character in the film. 

Movies with such huis clos situations need perfect casting. Robert Redford is great in All is Lost. Jack Bauer is saving London, and it’s his ninth day. Buried is a good enough movie, but I don’t think Ryan Reynolds is the right choice for the role. Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker are fantastic in Compliance as long as the cop is only a voice over a phone.

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If you like Tom Hardy, then Locke might be a movie for you. It shows you a character by the name of Ivan Locke, probably named after the syndrome, because he is the only visible character you are going to see in the next 85 minutes. He is a construction manager, driving in his car from Brighton to Croydon. The only communication he has is over his carphone. On a very basic level, that is all that happens: a bloke driving and talking over the phone. It’s Tom Hardy’s acting that turns Locke into a really good movie.

Locke seems very detached at first, almost distant. He backs out of his job, takes care of the woman he got pregnant and then tells his wife about his affair. All in his car, all over the phone. It sounds pretentious, and in about 38 ways, it could all be handled the wrong way. Tom Hardy finds the right mood; I never got tired of looking at him or listening to the conversations he has. I wanted to know what he did next. Some people think that the plot is too thin and everyday. I disagree. The movie does not push your credibility, but it leaves you to think about what you would do were you behind the wheel.

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There’s another thing Locke made me aware of. Going in, I knew that Olivia Colman would be one of the voices I was going to hear. I thought she would play Locke’s wife. I was wrong. I was also surprised by who played Katrina, Donal, and Gareth, and Eddie, and Cassidy. I only realized whose voice I had been listening to when I read their names in the end credits. Which just goes to show that we mostly rely on someone’s looks first, and their voice second.

If Locke has a flaw, it’s that it shows us slightly too many blurred traffic lights and half-lit cityscapes, but that’s a minor thing for a movie that decides to use very few resources and does a lot with it.

J’ai une âme Lynchian

Wow, Bob, wow. I’ve posted in the past on Twin Peaks, especially in the early days of this blog, but darn it, if it isn’t that time of the year when you just need a post on Lynch’s special slice of pie, with or without a damn fine cup of coffee. The occasion? The imminent release of Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery Blu-ray. I’d heard about this one before, and so far I hadn’t even been on the fence: I am the proud owner of the slightly tacky-looking complete Twin Peaks TV series on DVD, so why upgrade an early ’90s series shot for television to a storage medium that, more likely than not, wouldn’t make it look or sound all that much better?

Cue this preview for The Missing Pieces, which is exclusive to the new release. Now, the following may not be particularly exciting or indeed mean anything much to non-fans of the series, but I remember in the early days of internet coming upon a newsgroup FAQ of Twin Peaks, and that FAQ outlined the many, many scenes that had been cut from Lynch’s follow-up/prequel to the series, Fire Walk With Me. When the film came out, many fans complained that there wasn’t enough of, well, Twin Peaks in it: many series favourites were relegated to mere cameo appearances, if indeed they were in Fire Walk With Me at all. The Missing Pieces doesn’t completely remedy that, but it comes close: it consists of 90 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes from the film, edited by the mad man himself.

If anyone had asked me a month ago if I was excited for the show’s Blu-ray release, I would have found it difficult to muster more than a profound “Meh.” I like the series, but with more than twenty years since it originally came out (and with absolutely packed DVD/Blu-ray shelves covering 1 1/2 walls of our living room), I thought that I’m absolutely okay with what I have on DVD. And then came the preview video, and it hit me right in the talking log. The circle of sycamores. Leland Palmer stomping through his living room like an ogre. The Little Man jiving it up. Agent Dale Cooper blowing someone (his eternally unseen assistant Diane, perhaps?) a kiss.

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The funny thing is, there are things about Twin Peaks that is deeply iffy, first and foremost the acting. Some of it works in that stylised, surreal way that Lynch’s characters have. Some of it is middling at best. And some of it is downright painful. Yet somehow, to Pavlovian me, that doesn’t even matter so much, and that is probably exemplified best by Laura Palmer. When the series came out and I first watched it in my late teens, was I in love with poor, doomed Laura? Quite possibly a bit, as much as one can be in love with a character who is dead by the time the series begins. Not for me the lure of sexy Audrey Horne, the all-American beauty of Shelly Johnson or the more mature charms of Norma Jennings: no, for me it was all about the girl wrapped in plastic – which may explain a thing or two about my romantic history.

I don’t know what exactly I’m expecting from The Missing Pieces, and it’s unlikely the added pixels will reveal anything more about what exactly Bob is or what fate has in store for Agent Dale Cooper. Twin Peaks, even in HD, is the opposite of high definition: it gets blurrier the closer you look at it… but in the static, you may just see the sycamores swaying in the wind. And you may just see me in the branches that blow.

The Limits of Detection

This blog entry is partly a reply to Emily Nussbaum’s article Cool Story, Bro. The Shallow Deep Talk on True Detective, which appeared in the New Yorker on March 3, 2014. That artice can be found here: http://nyr.kr/1eosEyD

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I would really, really like to see a series that takes stuff from the film noir genre – the lies, the sex, the crimes, the shadows – and then casts two female detectives in the lead roles. It could be written and directed by women so we are spared the male gaze. That would be a new thing. If it already exists, then I don’t know about it. Maybe the second season of True Detective will bring us something like that. Jessica Chastain’s name is attached to the project, and I personally could see Michelle Forbes as the other lead.

Meanwhile, we have the first season of True Detective to watch. To me, TD is not a police procedural or a whodunit, but a character study of Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew MacConaughey), two guys who might cross the street or the state line to avoid each other in everyday life. It took me half the series to see that it is not about the Yellow King or Carcosa, but about their relationship. If anyone keeps watching it as a whodunit, prepare for disappointment: the last episode is by far the weakest one. I restarted the series and watched all of it as the study of two very different guys. And while it won’t ever pass the Bechdel test, it worked very well. It’s certainly flawed , but there are only a couple of other series I liked better these last few months.

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I disagree with Nussbaum’s label of the series as macho nonsense. Marty Hart has a strong tendency to rule over his family and often tells women what’s what. While that is certainly macho, he is also a horrible liar and a pathetic adulterer. He is weak, but instead of accepting his weakness, he pleads with his wife for more credibility, and as soon as he has it, he delves into that self-styled schizophrenia that lets him believe that if he lets off steam with some anonymous pussy, he can be much more caring and loving at home. For Marty, sublimation won’t work for much longer. His wife sees through him every time. To be clear: It’s the character that has macho tendencies, not the series.

Rust Cohle, on the other hand, is nowhere near a macho. He uses work as self-harm, and may be very close to do some real harm to himself. There is that nihilistic stuff he mutters forth, and these monologues are actually the highlight of the series for me. Unlike Marty, he does not have any defense mechanism. He knows exactly what is wrong with him, but he cannot climb out of his black hole, and so he blames the whole world. Those monologues are sometimes wafer-thin, but they often need to be. Can there be any grand-standing, any redeeming speech from a guy who could jump from a bridge at any moment? Rust doesn’t have to make sense because he doesn’t have to make sense to himself, either. It is to his credit that sometimes, he really does make sense, which renders his existence that much worse. With that guy, the wiring shows. As with Marty, life does not go on for much longer like this.

Rusty can come across as an arrogant asshole by the time Gilbough and Papania come around asking questions. That could be interpreted as macho, but to me, it is all self-protection. Rust the nihilist is still in there somewhere, preserved in a barrel of cheap beer.

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Yes, the victims in True Detective are all female. But they all die off-screen, and there is very little violence going on in real time. Compare that to The Fall, and then tell me that the latter series does not make you cringe for all the stuff done to women. (I can’t shake the impression that Helen Mirren referred to The Fall when she criticised the fact that most victims in film and TV these days are girls and women.) The Fall shows you women alive and well, then being assaulted, bound, gagged, raped, dying, dead, and disposed of. Repeatedly. And all is made well by that one phone call between that brilliant female police detective and the male killer in the very last minute of the last episode? Does Nussbaum really think that this is any consolation for those people in the audience who cannot take the immediate violence of the episodes before that last scene?

The women of True Detective are not paper-thin. It is true, however, that the most prominent woman, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) could be much better written, and given more of an active role to play. What I don’t get is that Nussbaum can say that the betrayal of Maggie sleeping with Rust has no weight. Rust is thrown off balance, while Maggie sees it as the mistake it is, but not entirely. There is something new about her afterwards, something empowering. Maybe it is not so much the sex, but the fact that she has slept with him, not him with her.

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The other women are far from thin, too. Marty’s fling Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) could bring down his marriage and his job with just two anonymous phone calls. For a long time, I thought that something like that has happened to Marty in the missing years. Lisa has legal training, so she is one of the best educated characters in the show. And those memorable scenes with Tess Harper? Ann Dowd? Come on. While the men are still trying to figure out stuff, the women already seem to know something.

What I don’t get is that Nussbaum can describe a series initially as stylish and complex and let some sort of reluctant admiration shine through, and then makes a U-turn and uses the rest of the article for telling us how it’s full of macho nonsense and that it’s really the female asses and the nice bouncy racks telling the real story. The whole season contains maybe four or five nude scenes, and brief ones at that. That may not even be average. So what is it going to be – deplorable macho nonsense or likeable lady parts? You can’t have both.

Arthouse oinks

I was expecting to like Upstream Color. I like cerebral sci-fi with an emotional core, I like elliptic storytelling and filmmaking, I love the film’s look and atmosphere.

Yet I came away from the film, Shane Carruth’s follow-up to his headscratcher Primer, feeling sort of aggravated. I didn’t hate Upstream Color, but seeing how critics loved it I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Carruth is a skilled craftsman, he appears to have his very own vision of what he wants to do with the medium, and that’s something I respect. However, I don’t think that Upstream Color is as smart – or as affecting – as it sets out to be, and that’s because to my mind the pieces don’t really fit together very well.

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The story is weird and complicated to follow but not as complex as it might appear at first: there are these grubs that seem to allow for some sort of mental synchronisation between people. An identity thief uses these grubs to steal people’s identities and brainwash them into transferring their entire wealth to him, after which he leaves them unaware of what exactly has happened. Meanwhile, another man (called the Sampler in the film’s credits) finds the people who have been grubbed thus, extracts the parasites from the Thief’s victims and puts them in pigs, which allows them to mentally tune into the people the grubs originally came from, seeing, hearing and feeling what they are experiencing. So far, so huh. One of the Thief’s victims, a woman called Kris, loses her job and emotional stability after having been abducted and ruined by his machinations. A man named Jeff (played by Carruth himself) finds himself attracted to Kris and starts pursuing her romantically; it turns out that he’s also been grubbed and that the two of them are somehow in sync, to the extent that they cannot keep their thoughts and memories separate.

There is more that happens, involving porcine pregnancies, blue flowers and Inception-style murder, but the bulk of the film is about Kris and Jeff’s relationship. The sci-fi angle could skew this in intriguing ways, but my main problem with Upstream Color is this: the two stories (grubs, identity theft and telepathy vs. relationships, blurring boundaries and questions of identity) don’t end up working well with each other. Some ideas are either underdeveloped or appear arbitrary: why can the Thief use the grubs to program his victims, in effect hypnotising them like a cheesy silent movie villain? Yes, we see identities blur and thoughts and feelings wander from one being to the next, but that’s because the grub link has been established. The Thief’s powers seem something entirely different. Similarly, the film pulls a plot element out of thin air: Kris is suddenly revealed to be unable to have children, which her doctors attribute to cancer, though which may be due to the worms – whichever it is, the film doesn’t care to make this particularly coherent.

Upstream Color

As viewers, we’re asked to fill in many blanks. That’s fine, but filling in the blanks should add to a better understanding or stronger engagement in the film. Instead, here it feels like busywork: plugging the gaps in a story that, at least in the form it takes on screen, is underdeveloped. Individual elements are interesting, but they pull the film into different directions, and other parts of Upstream Color seem too designed to come across as meaningful – when, to my mind, meaning isn’t something that should be signalled and symbols rarely work best when they’re overtly insisted on.

The script has potential, and Carruth is a highly skilled filmmaker. In this case, though, it feels like he was too much in love with his ideas. The Sampler and his farm of telepathic pigs could be intriguing, but it distracts from the rest of the story. When Kris ends up enacting revenge against him, although the person who ruined her life was the Thief, it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t read as dramatic irony: instead, it comes across as, again, arbitrary. Given a rewrite, Upstream Color could have been a film I like or even love – instead, I can’t help but see it as too much of a disappointing mess.

And, for a film that makes it harder for the viewer to follow than is justified by what it seems to be aiming at, it’s probably par for the course that there are no subtitle options whatsoever. I guess that deep meaning is most effectively conveyed by unsubtitled actors mumbling and muttering their dialogues.