Some of the memorable films I saw in 2013.

I’m not a conversationalist. It’s just not a strength of mine. I’m good at questions though and have a far more enjoyable time listening to conversations flow as opposed to initiating them. More often than not, I end up second guessing all of my input. It’s a funny trait to have when you’re an interviewer though, because the interview depends on you starting discussion. It takes a lot of preparation to start an interview and if I have that foundation, I’ve found fascinating elements that *I* need answers too.

It’s very hard for me to do that spontaneously.

Since film critiquing, I find myself often confronted with this question during social situations: “What films do you recommend?” or especially right now, “What are your favourite films of 2013?”

My brain immediately freezes and I can’t even remember the last thing I saw or if I even have eyes. It’s ridiculous. My theory is that I’m both paralyzed that someone asked me a question in the middle of parsing people’s conversation, and a huge influx of information temporarily floods my brain, “What if I forget about that movie that I think everyone should see? How many films did I see this year?” And so on and so forth.

This is the first year, as a reviewer, that I’m voting for film awards. This time it’s for Next Projection. As I parse my library for selections, I’m going to jot a few down here as my personally memorable ones. Hopefully, people will see them, or at the very least will help me as I’m faced with the year end questions.

(Keep in mind, these are SOME of the memorable films I saw in 2013, which means they are either from this year or made in 2012, but I saw them this year regardless.) As of today, I will be watching Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Philomena, Prisoners, and The Wolf Of Wall Street.

(Note: Linked reviews below either by me or some of the very talented critics I enjoy.)

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Upstream Color: Trailer

You HAVE to see Upstream Color! Shane Carruth is one of the few filmmakers that has the guts to still push the envelope. Much of the film is a snippet compilation of images and occurrences. Our main characters search for a mutual truth within their obscured memories. In that search is a world of a new kind of science fiction, a new perspective on the search for meaning, and most of all, the most subtle cinematic film catharsis I’ve ever experienced. You will be rendered. You will be sampled and find yourself upstream.

Amy Seimetz  is fascinating to look at. Her character’s anxieties surface as quirks, but the fact that this is Carruth’s second feature film ever after Primer, and he had no film or classical film making experience before that (he was a math major and worked on flight simulation software), makes this masterpiece even more intriguing.

My non-spoiler review: http://lemonhound.com/2013/06/13/jacqueline-valencia-two-short-takes/  My spoiler laden analysis: http://jacquelinevalencia.com/2013/05/23/upstream-color-my-impression-analysis/

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Only God Forgives: Trailer

Nicholas Winding Refn is a master at visuals. After the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, I could just watch any of his films with no dialogue. Actually, Only God Forgives is like that. However, there is story, and much like Upstream Color, it’s a bit of a maze to decipher. The film itself is infused with great tableau vivants that allow the audience digest the hyper aware emotional settings and colors coming out of the screen.

Ryan Gosling is a blank canvas for Refn and I’m totally ok with that in this film. We’re looking at provocative images and the tale of someone finding the possible monsters within himself. Whether that is Refn’s search, I’m not entirely sure, but the film is a feast for the eyes. Only God Forgives gives us the creepiest karaoke singing villain (maybe the only one) ever in Vithaya Pansringarm . If you miss Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch at their finest, then watch Only God Forgives.

Alan Jones‘ defense of the film (thank you!):  http://torontostandard.com/culture/only-god-forgives-and-the-merits-of-pushing-at-the-edges-of-acceptability

My spoiler laden analysis: http://jacquelinevalencia.com/2013/07/23/only-god-forgives-my-analysisreview/

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Amour: Trailer

This film came out at the very end of last year and I saw it then as well, so I’m cheating. My blog. My choice. The reason I include it is because it is a film that affected me in many ways.

First off, the month that this film came out, my grandmother has passed away. I needed to get out of the house and joined my friend at the last minute to see this film. I had no idea what it was about. Oh it was a devastating reveal.

My grandfather died of complications from Alzheimer’s a few years before my grandmother. We saw him go from being an extremely active man to just a shell of a person at the very end. We were lucky to get glimmers in his eyes in his last few hours. My grandmother watched as the love of her life (they’d been together since they were kids), fade away. My grandmother died of heart complications. She’d suffered long, but clung on until she saw all of her great grandchildren. These two deaths deeply imprinted me with how fleeting a life is and the cruel finality of death. Thus, after watching this film, I both mourned the loss of my grandparents, but saw the beauty in the end of it all. I couldn’t review it then because it was just too much. As it is, this little write up elicits the same emotions I felt then.

Amour is the portrayal of a couple who love each other deeply. One day, one them starts to fade into senility. The film is mostly set in the rooms of one apartment and in its claustrophobic way, it gives us the true horror of how it is to lose someone you love. Michael Haneke lets Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play out the sparse script creating a palpable portrayal of romance, friendship, and touching partnered rituals. Quiet moments seem so real that it may seem that they are left open to interpretation, but upon closer look at scenes, there is no hidden meaning; things are what the characters produce them to be in their reactions. Shots of Anne sitting in her living room looking at her unused piano or Georges looking lovingly into his wife’s unfocused eyes, they’re all too intimate views of unsurmountable situations.

I want to recommend this film, but I warn that you’ll feel like you’ve just seen a horror film, so take a close friend or loved one. It’s a must see for it’s superb realism.

Chris Knight’s review:  http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/01/10/amour-reviewed-love-hurts-those-in-michael-hanekes-film-and-those-watching/  

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Manakamana: Trailer

Not everybody loved this film, but I found so much charm in watching travellers go back and forth in the sky car. Some of them reminisce about the times when they had to travel several days to get to their temple, others sat in silence looking at the lush views that surround them, and sometimes the animals had more to say than the humans.

If you love documentaries and if you love true everyday stories, explore Manakamana. It’s nothing more than a silent commute in the sky, but then again, don’t we silently commute every day?

My spoiler free review: http://nextprojection.com/2013/09/13/tiff-2013-review-manakamana-2013-np-approved/

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Berberian Sound Studio: Trailer

At first, I was more intrigued with the soundtrack to this film than I was to what the film was giving me. The workings of film sound engineering are so vast and complex and that’s not even scratching the surface at all of the production that goes into making a film. I’ve never wanted to be filmmaker and I’ve never been trained for it because the amount of project management that goes into a film is way too much for this already insane multi-tasker. Peter Strickland offers up a tribute to sound engineering, but also an audio retrospective of old giallo films.

I love giallo flicks for the sinister sets and visceral portrayals of slasher gore. I was never big into the slashing and dicing of women in it, but stylistically, the genre is an archetypal foundation to many of the films that came after it to this day. Sound effects featured hugely in the unseen, the world of the film in the mind can only be created fully with sound and setting. You can create entire feature with just set and sound. This film attempts that and it’s my opinion that it succeeds in its task. Much credit is due to Toby Jones touching work as a man on edge.

My spoiler free review: http://nextprojection.com/2013/06/13/review-berberian-sound-studio-2012/

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I’m a big fan of Claire Denis. Chocolat is in my top films that I’ve ever seen. It’s a simple film, but one that visually connects personal recollections a part of history itself. Denis is an expert at painting emotive visuals that are nuanced in their delivery. With Bastards, Denis takes all of her skills and gives us a sensually provocative image collage that gets under your skin.

I’m not going to lie, I’ll rewind and re-watch Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni bumping bodies together. It has been one of the highlights of this movie season. The film is markedly complimented by the Tindersticks soundtrack that seeps into the film as if it were another character itself.

Bastards is disturbing and gorgeous. I now require all of the Tindersticks I can possibly consume.

José Teodoro‘s Bastards review and interview with Claire Denis: http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-online/sanctuary-claire-denis-bastards/

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MV5BMTQxNTc3NDM2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ5NTQ3OQ@@._V1._CR28,28.649993896484375,1271,1991.0000305175781_SX640_SY720_ Don Jon: Trailer

Is it Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s smug face that keeps my friends from watching this movie? I know the trailer doesn’t do this film justice. It was a pleasant surprise to me overall at how much I enjoyed it.

It’s a smart and charismatic take on romantic comedies. Don Jon is addicted to porn. Are the ladies addicted to rom com? This is either an uncomfortably hilarious date movie or a good conversation starter.

Sabrina Maddeaux‘s review: http://www.torontostandard.com/culture/tiff-13-review-don-jon

 

 

 

 

 

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MV5BMTQ1MjQwMTE5OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjk3MTcyMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_ Frozen: Trailer

I didn’t want to see this movie. I mean, *stomps feet* I didn’t want to see this movie. The trailer made it unappealing in the same “this all that Disney can offer now” way. We had an icestorm here in Toronto which left my family without power for a couple of days so we had to find something to do to keep the kids entertained. It was a gamble because my youngest will not sit still for long in a theatre. It takes a lot preparation, a keen interest on her part for the film, and sometimes her autistic tics aren’t conducive to a quiet theatre crowd. Luckily, she was in the mood for anything new that day. We headed into the theatre with our huge boxes of popcorn and candy and I was ready to focus on keeping my daughter in her seat for almost two hours.

Thank you for the surprise Disney. This in no way redeems previous features where the plot depended on women hating each other and tacky plots to make us believe that life is so hard for the privileged (I know, IT’S JUST A DISNEY MOVIE. A CARTOON!), but when you have a kid and you have a conscience, you have to think about the candy floss you put before impressionable minds.

Frozen has two strong female characters who are sisters that love each other immensely. Men come to save them, but in the end, it doesn’t work out that way. The charm and clever subplots earns this film a top spot in my memorable picks because who knew that Disney could renew itself? And who’d a thought a snowman singing about summer would be so touching?

Linda Barnard’s review:  http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2013/11/27/animated_frozen_will_warm_your_heart_movie_review.html

Special mentions (links to reviews):The Oxbow CureBlackfish, Call Girl, Pepper’s Ghost, La Ultima Pelicula, Big Bad Wolves, A Field In England, and Beyond the Black Rainbow. Oh and Short Term 12! (That Kiva Reardon review parses it with good bite).

Favourite interview conducted:Pirjo Honkasalo

Movies I disliked and bear mention because they were so awful (links to reviews):

The Canyons, Hammer of The Gods, and Passion.

As for shows, I got nothing much because I’m still catching up with everyone else, however, I’ve suddenly become a huge Dr. Who fan because of my son.

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Happy Holidays movie watching folks. Keep warm and stay safe.

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These Girls On Film and Beyond Borderlands

My sister, Jennifer Valencia, and I have started a new side site project called The Girls On Film.

these girls on film

http://thesegirlsonfilm.wordpress.com/

This week we feature analysis on the following films: No Country For Old Men, Do The Right Thing, Blade Runner, and 8 1/2. Check us out and follow us on twitter: https://twitter.com/TheseGirlsFilm

I’ve also taken on the assistant editor role at Beyond Borderlands:

beyond borderlands

“Beyond Borderlands is an open access journal and a forum for the interdisciplinary, artistic, and critical exploration of topics relating to esotericism, paranormality, and the culturally weird. Within our pages we hope to foster a conversation between more traditional scholarly approaches, contemporary practitioners, and artists and writers exploring these themes. Furthermore, we seek to create a shared space for these divergent approaches, without compromising the methodological integrity or free creativity appropriate to each.”

We are seeking submissions!: http://www.beyondborderlands.com/index.php/submissions 

A few thoughts on The Coen Bros. No Country For Old Men

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I’ve heard that once you finish writing a book and set it out into the world, it ceases to become yours and it becomes the work of the reader. I understand that somewhat.

Sometimes I’ve had people give me feedback on a poem, short story, or piece and tell me what they got out of it. I find the process of authorial transference to reader consciousness fascinating. It’s like coming up with an idea and watching people riff on that, eventually the idea becomes an independent entity this way. I find the same thing happens with film.

When screenwriters give their scripts to filmmakers, they release the visual interpretation of their words to the director. As in the case with No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy wrote the novel, Scott Rudin bought the rights to the film, the Coen brothers then adapted it into a screenplay to make into a film. The film is seen by audiences to parse in their minds. I haven’t read much criticism on this film and I’ve seen it many times though and know that there are a few books out there that are dedicated to the critical parsing of it.

For me, I’ve enjoyed its silence, its in depth character study in that silence, the epic scenery, and the realization that it’s actually a visually loud film in all that muteness. There is also a huge difference between watching a film like this on the small screen and seeing it loom large on the big screen. I’ve made it a point to watch as many films on a big screen as much as I can purely for the fact that I notice so much more in it’s re-watching in a theatre. No Country For Old Men last night was a new experience for me upon its re-watch at the Lightbox.

For the purposes of time (I have to go put up the Xmas tree and work on some overdue poems), and a lack of brain cells (I stayed up way too late), I’d like to jot some things down and share with you before the steam train leaves my head station (and pardon the quick no grammar/spell check. I’ll come back and edit if necessary later).:

  • There’s definitely music in the film. When I got home I immediately wiki’d and imdb’d the hell out of it and besides the ambient noise, there are instruments being played at times. That’s one of the things I couldn’t really discern on the dvd. I mean, I cop it to being possessed by the film; for the film subtly gets under your skin. Besides the ones I’ve seen pointed out (the first coin toss – humming, the buddhist bells in the desert scene), there are natural sounds and that’s something I’ve paid attention to before. My favourite on the re-watch is the great street shootout between Llewelyn and Chigurh. As Llewelyn gets up, he fires a series of shots at a car where Chigurh is supposedly hiding. We hear the car tires deflate and the bullets ricochet from all over. Llewelyn is right by the car, picks up a rifle, and we hear the faint, but definite chug of a train trundling in the near vicinity.

Of course, setting this film in the western genre, a train is very symbolic. However, in the context of the film, it takes this symbolism in a variety of analytic levers.

  1. Trains were a symbol of the industrial revolution in the time the classic western was usually set.
  2. In No Country For Old Men, it’s a reminder of that, but also part of the recurring “something is coming” theme. Fate plays a big part in the film (If things are meant to be, they work out, if they don’t, you’ll get killed). The trundle of a train is steady and you can’t really run away from its set path. It’s either doom or be doomed.
  • A few scenes caught my eye that reminded me of the way Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock used to set up single person shots. It’s kind of a short tableau vivant (something directors Alain Resnais & Claire Denis drag out, as do the Coen brothers usually) and/or rather more like watching a moving graphic novel.

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The above being one of my favourite scenes for that. There’s something very clean and OCD about it. The lines around Wells frame him in his absurdity. A veteran who is, in every sense of the definition, the embodiment of the western hit man: he’s got an omniscient knowledge of things beyond the scope of the viewer or the people he deals with. He’s smooth and calm, even when confronting his possible end. Yet there he is clean-cut in a power suit, but he’s wearing a white cowboy hat. He is the corporate cowboy. A contemptible notion, but when you think of a cowboy going from veteran to fighting for the power that drives the money, it makes ridiculous sense. Yes, this is a Texan fashion (having seen it when I lived in Dallas myself), but in the context of the film, he’s the only one wearing a power suit and a cowboy hat.

Just before Wells leaves the office, he asks about the missing floor. I may be wrong, but he might be referring to the missing “13.” In the line of work that he is in, he notices these things. It’s also a way of his pointing out that even in the buildings that house the money, old school superstitions still come into play, thus alluding to an assumed lack of control over fate.

In the realm of symbolism and impending doom, this is the one that sticks out:

As Chigurh approaches the windowed door, his shadow transforms into a black triangle comprised of circles. There’s something very esoteric in that symbol. It very well mean nothing, but if we can delve into an occult meaning of light, all seeing eyes, and the figures of light and power, that scene pretty much shows elements to that effect. The women at the counter refuses to give Chigurh the information he demands, even challenging him with her expressions. The totally utilitarian Chigurh can easily kill this woman, but the fact that someone is in the other room, and that she has agency over him with the information she holds, would have made her death illogical. The man that can kill indiscriminately (God), leaves the room a bit emasculated in the moment. It’s a hilarious scene for that.

  • I think this is my last one I can think of at the moment. I love love love LOOOOOOOVE the settings in this film. They’re so palpable, they remind me of travelling desert country as a kid. For its running themes of fate, decay, doom, the old hat handing over the goblet to the new, this scene is a beauty:

One can assume that cats are used as symbols of death and evil (the cat drinking the overturned milk in an implied death scene, Ellis’s home overrun with cats as him and Bell converse about death). However, in the cinematic frame of filmmaking, a cat is a quiet observer. It offers comfort of place in a world of chaos. Anton Chigurh is chaos. As the old time cowboy faces an unknowable foe (for the trick of the western was in the respect of knowing one’s enemy), he feels impending doom for the first time. Chigurh is not a knowable enemy or one that you can just work over in a classic show down. Chigurh is a force of nature, bred in an alien world as the world of consumer culture and corporate war isolates the cowboys (the original superheroes), and brings them down to level ground. The cowboy now fears the darkness and waits for the fire in the night to guide him to a familiar home (think of Lord of Rings where the mythical world hands over the universe to the time of Men). In the last scene, Bell talks about the dream of his father holding a horn with fire guiding his way to camp in the desert. He’ll always be waiting there for him.

I’m reminded of how filmmaker Chris Marker adored his cat Guillaume. Cats were super-human and empathetic to him. In the scene above, the cats just hang around Ellis, either wild or domesticated, but they stick around the old man. They are his eyes when someone walks in, and they are his old country companions; reassurances that things will always be the same no matter how much they change.

Ellis: Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity. 
And it’s true. Down here, in this time, cowboy, you’re just like everyone else. So this is they way I saw the film. Like a book, a film becomes a viewer’s work even if that interpretation is different than the maker’s. We can never be unbiased about what we view or read, nor can what we read or view be unbiased about the mind of its consumer.
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Ok, I gotta have a brunch, I guess. I let the time fly. But feel free to comment if you agree or disagree or if you’ve got other ideas on the film. I’d love hear them before I start reading up on it and the book.

Beyond The Black Rainbow: my analysis

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This is an analysis and not a review per se. THERE ARE SPOILERS EVERYWHERE HERE so THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT! A SPOILER ALERT!  DANGER, WIL ROBINSON! I recommend you watch the trailer, go see the film, then come back here if you’d like an interpretation or analysis.

David once said to me, “I can’t wait until Dead Ringers opens so critics can tell me what it’s about.” – Jeremy Irons talking about David Cronenberg, 2013.

A common thread I’ve seen among Canadian horror film directors is that they never assume that the audience is dumb. Many of them, like Cronenberg, are keenly attuned to the idea that there are untapped layers in the human brain; there’s a whole other film in the mind. Films like My Bloody Valentine, The Changeling, Cube, Dead of Night, and the seminal Black Christmas ***, are interpretable story allusions.

I watched Panos Cosmatos‘s Beyond The Black Rainbow this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The first time I saw it was at home. I was on two hours of sleep and dozed off while watching it. I was intrigued, but tired and the great visual/musical combo was just right thing to sleep to. This last time I was on maybe three hours of sleep, but luckily still had enough caffeine to appreciate the film. And how. I’ll most likely watch it a few times, it was that good.

I think a plot rehash may be a little too much for it, so I’ll post up the trailer and let go:

 

I look at Arboria as kind of naïve.  He had the best of intentions of wanting to expand human consciousness, but I think his ego got in the way of that and ultimately it turned into a poisonous, destructive thing.  Because Arboria is trying to control consciousness and control the mind.  There is a moment of truth in the film where the whole thing starts to disintegrate because it’s stops being about their humanity and becomes about an unattainable goal.  The idea of letting your humanity suffer to achieve some unattainable goal…like making a movie [laughs].  That is the “Black Rainbow”: trying to achieve some kind of unattainable state that is ultimately, probably destructive.  – Cosmatos, 2011.

Let’s start with Mercurio Arborio. He’s an 80s new age visionary who uses a combination of benign therapies, pharmacology, herbal therapies, naturopathy, and neuropsychology to help humanity attain happiness and inner peace. In the commercial that starts the film, the Arboria Institute is described with phrases like “A New State of Mind: A New Way of Being,” and “A Practical Application of An Abstract Ideal.” The most telling of these is: “Born Of A Dream: To Create A Reality.” This one kind of stuck with me and I will talk about it in a bit.

Mercurio Arboria’s name is an interesting new age-y made up entity. Mercury is a Greek god that can travel between the worlds of gods, human, and the dead. The word mercurial means flighty or constantly changing. Breaking down Arboria as a word, it brings to mind trees. My thoughts veer toward Dr. Arboria representing someone from the 80s new age movement. Luckily (or unluckily), I was born in 1973, and a lot of the visual and religious shopping aesthetic of the early 80s resonates strongly. These were the times when drugs and spirituality were mixed freely as a reaction against the political oppressive environment that surrounded the world back then. I grew up watching doomsday clocks and tv films like The Day After, that continually plugged the notion that the end was near. Constant mass anxiety is a means of control, ie. cold war era propaganda and sensationalism. In turn, some would experiment with religion the same way they would experiment with drugs to release themselves from that anxious reality. Aleister CrowleyHelena Blatvasky retro-inspired cults (Jim Jones) flourished in these sorts of environments. The new age movement provided alternatives to their already repressed lifestyle. Unbeknownst to them though, they were leaving institutions for other institutions wrapped up in esoteric terminologies.

Harken back to the word Arboria = trees. This is an integral advertence to archaic religious and societal structures based on hierarchy.

Deleuze explains in a very concise manner the difference between the dominant western thought idea of “the tree” and his rhizome concept by stating: “the tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of rhizome is the conjunction ‘and…and…and…’” (Deleuze, 1987, p. 25). 

While Dr. Arboria presents the Arboria Institute as a “new way of being,” it has evolved into another regulating entity. Thus, we have Dr. Arboria at the top with his assistant/prodigy, Dr. Barry Nyle, below him or at his side. His “customer(s)” are imprisoned in this giant compound with “award winning gardens.”

After the Arboria Institute advertisement (which have visuals reminiscent of Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight and Dog Star Man, much to my delight), we are given low-angle shots of Nyle. He looks dominating, meancing, and cold.

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He’s also the only one that interrogates Elena, the heroine of our story. 

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The only people in the institute seem to be:

1. Dr. Mercurio Arboria (played by Scott Hylands)
2. Dr. Barry Nyle (played amazingly by Michael Rogers – creepy and sort of delicious to a freak like me)

3. Margo (nurse/secretary – played by Rondel Reynoldson)

4. Elena (Dr. Mercurio Arboria and his late wife’s daughter- expertly played by Eva Bourne)

5. Sentionaut (Roy Campsall)

6. A mutant (Geoffrey Conder)

Elena has special powers….or does she? Since the Arboria Institute experiments with drugs and spirituality which is “born of a dream to create a new reality,” I suspect here that there is way more than meets the eye. I posit that there are a multitude of ways interpreting Beyond the Black Rainbow, but one of the theories that sticks to me is that the otherworldly aesthetics and supernatural abilities seen are merely perceptions built upon drug fuelled visions of an actual truth.

In a flashback, the audience is given clues to the Nyle’s true character. In 1966 (the heady days of drug experimentation and acid trips), Nyle is young, looks doe-eyed up at his teacher (Arboria), and gazes lovingly at Mrs. Arboria before his big transcendental drug trip. “Bring home the mother load, Barry,” Arboria says as Nyle goes into black pit (a black eye is drawn on his forehead, referencing the new age movement’s appropriation of the Hindu third eye). Somehow the journey turns sour. Images of Nyle’s face burning and being melted away in lava lamp like sequences fade in and out of the screen. Whatever good facade Nyle has had up is stripped away and obliterated. As Nyle emerges from the pit, an overhead shot reveals the black liquid pool as the iris of a giant eye.

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Out of the spiritual realm, Nyle comes out a psychopath and inexplicably kills Mrs. Arboria. Soon after, Elena is born, her mother’s death, Dr. Arboria says, shall “not be in vain.” “Let the new age of enlightenment begin,” he proclaims as a masked Nyle quietly looks on.

There is nothing but menacingly masochistic dominance left in Nyle. He must wear a false veneer with a wig and contacts, for his true face is monstrous. Every scene has him either orgasmically high on control or holding back a constant disgust for others. As he goes in to visit a highly sedated and senile Dr. Arboria, he rolls his eyes at his textbook new age phrases. Only a hint of the old Nyle comes out in a regretful glance at his mentor while injecting him with a fatal drug overdose.

Throughout the film Nyle pops drugs into his system and in one scene, even smiles at his reflection after downing several of them. His supposed control is artificial. His alienation/alien-ness is an alternative reality concocted from a continual hallucinogenic state. As he picks up the phone he hears static combined with radio white noise. There’s a robotic voice somewhere in there, but it sounds more like someone changing radio channels. While no actual words are discerned, Nyle perceives a conversation that elevates his paranoid state, possibly triggering the deadly events that are soon to follow. Elena, in turn, kills Margo with her brain and talks to Nyle telepathically. But does she really?

“Well I wanted to make a film that’s like a trance film, like Apocalypse Now or Last Year at Marienbad. So I wanted it to feel very dreamlike, but I also wanted it to feel like…in a way, the structure of the film is actually very episodic. But I wanted an episode to sort of fluidly merge into the next one.” – Cosmatos. See more at: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/interview-panos-cosmatos-beyond-the-black-rainbow.php#sthash.U0zkrj6S.dpuf

Cosmatos has presented us with a trance film, therefore putting us in a trance-like state (hence the overly long pacing and the slow moving characters. I will also point out that there are such things such as hallucinogen videos that exist. If they actually work, I do not know.). The camera becomes an unreliable narrator giving us hints of real vs unreal worlds through Nyle’s or Elena’s perspectives. When Elena moves, it’s unstable and slow, and since she’s been drugged all of her life, it makes perfect sense. However, her view of reality can possibly be skewed in such a state. As she escapes her jail, she travels from weird room to another weird room, encounters a mutant, and a Sentionaut, and finally comes face to face with the unmasked Nyle. As Nyle pleads to Elena, his foot catches on a branch and he falls, hitting his head on a rock and dies. Elena might also assume she has pushed Nyle telekinetically, because she smiles, and a great sense of relief comes over her face at that moment. This, however, is questionable. I first thought that Nyle’s death was abrupt considering the time it took to get to that point in the film, but if you think of it as something that occurs outside of their mutual drug fueled states, it makes the death far more meaningful.

Another possible theory I’ve been parsing in my head is one of the film as a story continually played out by a comatose Elena, (This is where I release my feminist slash philosophical view on the film). Elena is a young girl in a coma. She’s probably been there since before adolescence, maybe placed there due to a car crash (Nyle drives with purpose on long roads with no traffic), where her father was driving in a drug induced haze. Her mother dies and she survives only to end up in the coma. Dr. Arboria and Dr. Nyle are the same person: her father (a young drugged sinister figure and an old weak one that eventually succumbs to his addictions). Perhaps her father was a scientist who dabbled with drugs and, in turn, a comatose Elena creates this dark Elena in Wonderland world.

An infinite world of possibilities can occur in Elena’s mind due to the ever evolving world of the subconscious. In the “interrogation room,” hospital/video game-like noises occur every time Dr. Nyle makes a provocative statement at Elena. She might recall video games or the unique sounds of a modem (ie. the noises in Nyle’s telephone).

The mise en scene is a sampler from various 60s-80s movies aesthetics: Kubrick’s 2001 (interrogation rooms and flashing buttons); Trumbull’s Silent Running (the domed indoor gardens); Cronenberg’s early works (dispassionate tone and repressed scientist); and Lucas’s THX-1138 (the hallways and Sentionaut). I’m sure there are more references, particularly towards the end when we stumble upon two heavy metal drunks in the field (one of them being Chris Gauthier who’s in John Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns” from the Masters of Horror Series – the mutant on the floor we see in the middle of the film is similar to the imprisoned angel in that episode). That scene could have been plucked from a variety of horror movie tropes. My point being that these are scenes and settings out of film driven archetypes. Elena could either have been exposed to them as a child before her coma or subconsciously in her hospital room while in her coma. Furthermore, we continually see Elena in a hospital room-like bed in a white surgical gown. She is immaculately kept, but there’s no bathroom in sight. The only thing in her room besides her bed are the tiny televisions that change channels on their own, or we can believe that she changes the channels with her mind, (Note: in the channels shown, one of them shows a karate tournament, another shows a police chase, and the last one is a cartoon man being pulled apart. At the end of the cartoon man’s story, a wolf comes out of nowhere, transforms him into a medicine bottle, swallowing him whole. These can also be images she uses in empowering herself in her eventual escape).

Nyle represents the male imposition of desire on a young woman who is “coming of age” ( I loathe those terms because they are generalizations, but they fit this theory to describe this phase in Elena’s life). The only figures she can emulate or have archetypes for, are male (with the exception of the very stoic nurse and a perceived “soft dead mother” trope). Her father is absent and the only male she truly encounters is the psychopathic Nyle who’s obsessed with her and her “abilities.” Nyle can be a collection of male voices (doctors, father figures, sounds from her hospital television). Elena envisions a world made up of those media driven voices without the context, discerning a reality that can be ultimately terrifying to a girl.

Keep in mind that Elena in a coma is extremely vulnerable, naive, and scared of the world outside of her head, especially if she’s going through puberty at the same time. For all we know, she’s only been exposed to a fake corporeality via drugs or the television in her room. Turn on the tv for any length of time and close your eyes. Imagine fashioning a reality or a dream state with the visuals that come to mind from the audio you hear. Then try to parse that through the mind of a teenage girl reaching womanhood. I’m sorry, but when I was in that phase, it was chaotic, confusing, and extraordinarily hard to navigate the real world in that sort of environment.The Sentionaut is revealed to have a childlike face with a perpetual catatonic expression, maybe representative of Elena’s frozen age existence. It is perceived to assist her and aiding her in her release from that phase.

That mirror shot with the multitudes of Sentionauts is both an aesthetically pleasing scene of assuredness in Elena’s visions. Mirror images are a way that her 2-D experienced mine can parse the 3-D world, thus alluding to her creation of various dualities (there are two Nyles- the masked controlling villain and the unmasked unhinged villain; there are two Elenas – the one that is still asleep and the one that awaken; there are two mothers – the dead mother and the passive and fragile Mrs. Rosemary Nyle –rosemary the herb is a symbol of remembrance, love, and loyalty).

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Elena’s slow movements imply her moving through sluggish dreams. As she ventures out from room to room, she marvels at her surroundings, seemingly knowing where she is supposed to go. As she reaches the “outside” her sensory perceptions peak. Elena smiles as her feet hit the soft ground and her eyes marvel at the starry world above her. Sensual and climatic in expression, her reaction comes from a newfound experience of the true present. Meanwhile, Nyle (like many horror movie villains of the 80s can only kill if the heroine’s virginity is threatened.”You fucked her,” Nyle accuses the drunk before he kills him in classic horror movie fashion (of note here is the excessive spraying of blood; a sensational body horror tactic from the 70s).

Skipping to Nyle again at the moment, while it’s still fresh in my brain: the leather suit he puts on is made by a company called Noriega Leathers. Now with references to Ronald Reagan and the famous Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, one can posit that these are things she most likely would have heard in her hospital room. The weapon Nyle uses is called the Devil’s Teardrop. Keeping in mind that there are a ton of videotapes in Dr. Arboria’s room, and he watches a lot of nature shows. The last scene we see him in, he’s watches a documentary on Molokai which is an island created out of ancient volcanoes. Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock. The devil’s teardrop is also a nickname for obsidian. Elena could have put the two facts together out of the nature shows her father watches in her room.

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Elena, fresh from her escape, walks towards the blue lights of the televisions coming from suburbia. She’s flown from one controlled environment into another. After the credits, an action figure Sentionaut is seen on a carpet. A voice similar to the one Nyle heard on the phone can be heard repeatedly asking, “Do you read me?”

Is someone trying to wake Elena up? Does she relive an escape every day? Is the Sentionaut a combined archetype of the action figure craze of the 70s and 80s?

If we go back to the Deleuzian-Guattari rhizome theory I mentioned above (you can click on the quotes to get a small summary on their theories):

We live today in the age of partial objects, bricks that have been shattered to bits, and leftovers… We no longer believe in a primordial totality that once existed, or in a final totality that awaits us at some future date (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: p.42)

A theory does not totalize; it is an instrument for multiplication and it also multiplies itself… It is in the nature of power to totalize and … theory is by nature opposed to power (Deleuze 1977a: p.208)

By Dr. Arboria’s attempt to bring a new state of mind and a new state of being beyond the tree-like hierarchy that the 80s future world follows, his alternative solution is built upon a rhizome-like artifice. It ironically ends up being the same tree-like tower (hello controlling prism), with the same oedipal structured branches. Elena can never truly escape the maze and her stories until she wakes up to her true reality.

(These theories are just theories and may be not the vision that the director intended. However, as with all film, like poetry, it’s reader/viewer that ultimately experiences the film in their own way.)

After my dad passed away [in 2005], I started to really have these really vivid memories of the past, and as I was sort of exploring ways to approach this story, I recalled that memory being inside the Video Attic and looking at all of these VHS boxes of R-rated horror and science fictions films and how I would just daydream about the covers and the plot descriptions on the back. I just decided to use that as the foundation for the whole thing. – Cosmatos, 2012

Taking out any interpretation beyond the director’s own words of it being about control, trance like film states, and his horror film cover exposure, one can gather that Beyond the Black Rainbow is something out of the dreams of Panos Cosmatos. Like many directors, Cosmatos manifests horror, sci-fi, and suspense influences and renders them into an extraordinary film journey. It is highlighted by an amazing cinematographic vision by Norm Li (whose previous exposure on Battlestar Galactica can easily be seen in the lens work in this film), and a minimalist analog score by Jeremy Schmidt.**

**(As an aside, I’m huge fan of Mellotron use in film scores and that black and white contrast scene before Nyle’s drug trip was extremely eerie and satisfying. Kind of TMI, but as a kid I used to dream in mostly black and white and it was contrasted heavily like that; at least that’s how I perceive it now looking back. The television my family first owned was a black and white one that I’d spend a long time watching and changing channels to 0 just to see and hear the white noise. Parts of Beyond the Black Rainbow reminded me of this and enhanced my already enthralled state in the watching of it.)

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** I’m a bit of a Bob Clark fan. I think his reputation for directing A Christmas Story and Porky’s largely overshadows his work in creating one of the foundations to modern slasher film, which was Black Christmas. He’s both an underrated director and BC is an underrated film, (and, admittedly, he also made forgettable movies as well).

* Too many times I found myself typing out Nye (as in Bill Nye the Science Guy) instead of Nyle.

Barry Nyle’s pills are from Benway’s Pharmacy. Dr. Benway is a recurring character in the works of William S. Burroughs. Cosmatos partly picked up these themes (the ones of control) by reading the science fiction works of Beat novellist William S. Burroughs, books by and large dealing with societal control.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity: my review/analysis

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http://www.scified.com/movie-posters/gravity-movie-poster.jpg

Like most of my reviews that are basically analysis’s of the film, THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT! A SPOILER ALERT!  DANGER, WIL ROBINSON! My analysis is based mostly on my own readings and my own film critical viewing background. 

If you want reasons you should see Gravity without a spoiler alert, I will tell you now that I LOVED GRAVITY, but I had problems with it, which are illustrated below. If you want a preliminary review without spoilers go here or here

Do go see Gravity in the theatre if you can. Watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiTiKOy59o4

Once again there are spoilers down below due to my analytic nature, so go see the film and then come back to this page and see if you agree or not. SPOILERS BELOW. 

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I got really excited when I read this: http://www.theverge.com/2013/7/21/4542974/gravity-director-alfonso-cuaron-defends-casting-sandra-bullock-female-lead-sci-fi

Readers of this blog can see why:  http://jacquelinevalencia.com/tag/reworking-with-women/

As part of some conceptual work, I’ve been taken excerpts from scripts with male lead roles and changed their gender. It’s been an interesting experiment and I’m still reworking some and gathering info on reader’s reactions to them.

What first struck me about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity before even seeing Gravity was the fact that there was a possibility of an actress taking over the lead role in a space flick. For that, I am satisfied and Sandra Bullock is to be commended for her performance in it (although I think they could have utilized her better and will attempt to explain why below).

Bio-mechanical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who is on his last command mission. While doing their last space walk to repair the Hubble telescope, a Russian anti-satellite test causes space debris to imperil the mission. The team is asked to abort, it gets lambasted with the catastrophic detritus, hurtling the pair into a perilous situation.

Gravity is a technically brilliant disaster movie. I am impressed by directors who envision not just scenes, but entire films in their heads, without regard to how they can techically make them happen.

“I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler,” Cuarón says. “Yes, I knew it would require a certain amount of tricks, but it was not until we started trying conventional techniques that I realized in order to do the film the way I wanted to do it, we were going to have to create something entirely new.” – Alfonso Cuarón

Cuarón has accomplished quite a feat by visualizing long tracking shots set in space and making them a cinematic reality. We don’t just see the illusion of a long tracking shot, but the combination of depth of frame perspectives creating a unique “possible” 4th wall view. As the camera pans back from a two dimensional view of earth, Stone and Hubble are revealed. Earth becomes a background, Stone is our centrepiece until Kowalski appears floating by stealing our focus from Stone and places the audience back in space again. Moments later, the shuttle becomes the background while Kowalski continues to charge our view becoming bigger and smaller as he space walks. Plopping himself next to Stone, the pair frames Hubble making it the focus while Earth continues to be the backdrop. The viewer witnesses the astronauts interactions, listens in as Mission Control interjects, and we are placed back in our seats in the theatre, hovering over the impending action: a bolt escapes Stone’s hands, Kowalski rescues it right at the tip of the audiences’s noses: we are cast back in  three dimensional space as part of the scene. This technique repeats itself throughout the film: from beyond the calm until disaster strikes where we are thrown from viewer to participant. Cuarón places the viewer into a point of view perspective from inside Stone’s helmet, then cutaways to space or Kowalski, and then back to extreme close ups of Stone’s reactions.

It’s something akin to an IMAX science centre 3-D presentation with thrills and drama looming around the viewer. It’s a sui generis in film techniques to be able to make the audience part of the action in a  very attenuated way: generating dynamic white-knuckle environments while still reassuring the filmmaker’s audience that they are merely spectators to an event. If cinema is the visual materializer of dreams, then to wake up is to see the magic within its emotional evocations. Cuarón takes the idea of the lucid dream in space and plays with it rather well here. I will reiterate though that Gravity will merit a few more re-watchings for me to declare it anything more than just a stepping stone in filmmaking (I’ve seen it two times).

I’ve read many opinions comparing it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 . From my view, I can see how technologically it may start something new in blockbuster film. Using a combination of art film techniques (depth of view, Hitchcock-esque long tracking shots, etc.), with big budget frameworks in a film is not a revolutionary action. You can see art house in blockbuster films such as Inception or Titanic. However, utilizing the same suspense genre art shots in Titanic doesn’t make it new Psycho. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was visionary and stands alone as one of the best science fiction films out there because Kubrick envisioned a new way of looking at science fiction: as a prophetically introspective possibility. Philosophically, Kubrick took Nietzschean views of the superman, mixed them with Eastern philosophies, and molded them into a otherworldly story set in our solar system. In Gravity, Cuarón  has taken the story of a space disaster and used it to chronicle one person’s desperate struggle to get back home. There’s no philosophy here and there’s nothing grandiose in its premise.  Stone’s isolation from those that can save her down at Mission Control is a very palpable situation. Without her connections to Earth she is entirely left to her own devices to survive.

Is this then basis for comparison to 2001: as a simpler version of 2001? Not even close; the similarities stop with both subjects being astronauts. . Although he is a big fan of Kubrick, Cuarón hasn’t made Kubrick a focus. What Cuarón presents here is a portrait of disconnect, loss, fleeting interactions with others, and the meanings one can find within the short moments in the present. Stone grieves the loss of a child. Kowalski and the Earth (home) provide an anchor (where she has none) for her to hold on to. She goes from endeavouring to subsist, to suicidal defeat, and then to a full blown yearning to fully live again. Kubrick’s 2001 didn’t have these themes and had way more symbolically (in its colour schemes, visual metaphors and film processes), than Gravity did from beginning to end. The story in Gravity is in its continual action which makes it more of a modern redemptive spectacle instead of a symbolic tale; which is quite alright though. Not everything we enjoy and marvel at can be both ingenious in technique and in narrative, but I digress.

The story: I had issues here with the film. Casting a female lead for this film was ballsy enough of Cuarón and I am so glad he fought against the grain for it. My issues lie with the female empowering trope placed by popular culture which the director might have subconsciously fallen for: Stone only finds meaning in her life in remembrance of her lost child. I think this part of the plot could have been thrown out. She could have found value in her life’s work as a bio-mechanical engineer, or to have a life outside of work, for instance. If it had been Kowalski in her shoes, he would have wanted to get back home because he just wanted to. His observations of the things back home from space, made him think about how small he was in comparison. He sacrifices his life for Stone because he inherently believes in living, his last moments are filled with meaningful views of his place in space. Stone’s character is someone who has gone through thorough training to get to be in NASA, yet we don’t see her acknowledge her awareness of her unique situation. She’s a person in space! Maybe this fact could have given her a purpose to pause, but instead Cuaron goes for the easy route, that familiar female trope: she has to be a mother for her to have meaning in her own world. This is not a small issue; it’s a rather grand issue for female heroines’ future in film: one that needs to be acknowledged, discussed, and remedied.

(This isn’t just the mothering trope, but the parenting trope that storytelling has fallen into. If Kowalski had been the focus, I would have pointed out how it would have been more of a red herring for the plot. Humans find meaning in their lives beyond the need to procreate and to connect besides romance. If we are to forecast a future of true equality, we must begin to think of ourselves as varied individuals and not just these traditional goals or needs from family and marriage. Not everyone aims to be a parent or to be married and there’s nothing wrong with striving for anything but either.)

There’s a scene where Stone connects with a Chinese man on Earth. There’s a huge language barrier, but they manage to exchange names. She tries desperately to connect to him more. This was another way Cuarón could have established Stone’s agency for survival. Instead, as she listens to the man sing a lullaby to his child, it’s then that she gives up and prepares to die. She can’t live without her motherly connection. It’s only until the spectre of Kowalski appears to reason her out of suicide that she wake up: she must continue on for the sake of her lost (her child), redeeming her in the eyes of the audience, and opening up a continuation to her narrative. Understanding that these moments are imparted within the span of a just few minutes (suicide, stay alive, redemption through her need to live on for her child), thus making Stone’s “awakening” feel quick, empty, and hastily tacked on.

The Kubrick reference where Stone throws off her spacesuit (which in reality would not find her in her underwear, but a rather involved inner suit of wires and tubes), floating like the giant space embryo from 2001, feels manipulatively placed. It is by far not a subtle image created here and one that I can’t imagine would play off well if Kowalski had been in her shoes. Cuarón is excellent at making one forget the magic used to create a movie, since it’s palpably felt in its realism. Unfortunately, what he does best is left to the film’s technical aspects and not utilized in fulfilling the true potential in its story.

It’s almost as if the film could have been more if it had more silence in it (out of the silence it already has which is awesome).  Stone could have been an astronaut doing whatever was in her power to get back to Earth (with no mention of children or possible romance), instead of the suicidal mother finding meaning in her child. Her disconnect with the grand world beyond her helmet’s view would have touched us all by it’s universal message. The grieving parent is an overused trope. I would be the first one to acknowledge Gravity as a groundbreaking film if this were the case. Instead, it is a thrill inducing, tear inducing, roller coaster and not the masterpiece that most have declared it to be. It’s not a flawless film and I’m not about to throw those flaws out the window without acknowledge the great spectacle of it.

I will acknowledge that Cuarón wasn’t afraid of making Stone’s character a bit flighty and spastic as opposed to going the other extreme: making her more manly in her reactions. Bullock’s delivery was genuine and something unique to both the actress and her previous portrayal of characters. She’s in charge, but still fallible, like any other human might be in her circumstances. I’m also not going to say the film should be discounted because of the faults I found in it. It was a great film to watch.

I would say Children of Men was superior, but Cuarón did have the story aiding device of a book to follow in making its story. Y Tu Mama Tambien is far more groundbreaking story-wise and I wish more people would go back and see that film and compare its narrative progression to Gravity’s. Cuarón  is incredibly skilled, but DaVinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa every time either (not to say his other works weren’t masterpieces. Everything stands alone with muted tones or excelled brilliance in its palettes).

My favourite part of Gravity though, besides the parts where I found myself cringing in delight my seat, was when she finally arrives on land to be reborn from out of the sea, spilling herself onto the brilliant red and green masses of Earth. There’s something Joycean in that mermaid with legs symbolism there: a human taking on a new form with newly found legs. Stone teeters, but eventually stands up strong out of her trauma, her head towards the horizon, and everything is worth living again.

See? There is meaning there for her and it could have been unsaid; left to the audience’s imagination, that fourth wall view Cuarón had been hinting at could have been given a life of its own within the audience’s mind. The audience is both naive watcher and intelligent in that naivety; an empowering set up all its own. There is continuation beyond cinematic tropes, but it its too late for the audience to grasp it as the word Gravity signals the film’s end, so does the audience’s power to enlighten within.

I’m incredibly happy the film is doing so well in the box office because the world needs more action films with female leads; especially ones that don’t play into a stereotypical female plot development (Gravity may have casted a female lead in a non-traditional role, but still confined her within thata traditional female mother trope).

Sandra Bullock, I didn’t appreciate your acting before this film (except for your work in Demolition Man), but I do now.  I will give your other works a chance again just to see the potential you could have had beyond the confines of Gravity. Kudos also goes out to Steven Price’s personal evolution in soundtrack work. Good stuff overall, Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón.

Please do it again.

Upon rewatching Upstream Color

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Just some thoughts that came up after rewatching it while writing:

(Here are my first impressions when I first saw it:

http://jacquelinevalencia.com/2013/05/23/upstream-color-my-impression-analysis/)

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color was the story of the main female character. The guy is a secondary character. Although the story may display their relationship as the main focus, it’s the woman’s discovery for truth, not their shared experience. Them finding each other isn’t the main story. Although he’s present: he’s a vehicle, not a means to an end and he’s not the hero. She is.

“For Kris and Jeff, or Kris in particular, to find him to be the culprit and seek him out and do him in, to me that really subverts the story. That means [that] she’s breaking out of her narrative, and creating a new one — but even that one is false in some way. 

And to end the way that it does… the way this film ends is, it does convey that there is some positive, peaceful resolution to her story. And everything about the film — the music, the cinematography, Amy’s performance — all of it are conveying that. But the text of what we’re looking at is probably not so positive, or at least not going to stay positive.” – Shane Carruth

The relationship as an experience, a revelation of the female character’s psyche. The male character helps with that, but his experience isn’t at the centre, nor is his eventual release shared on screen. In essence, if we find someone, a shared experience, we have companions to deal with reality. But in truth, we will always be alone in that shared joy, in that shared sadness since we each bring different histories to the taste of that catharsis. Their mixing up of histories is a great indicator of human’s search for individual identity. Very often we fall into the “we are the same person” hole and that’s when we suffocate. We can only thrive within by being without….together. We survive because relationships help us discover our separate truths. The human condition is universal already, but we are blind to it as we all swim upstream on instinct. We lose our colours to the collective journey. Relationships are not our truths; instead they’re good, nurturing schema. —->It’s a relatable, intuitive survival theme. Thus when we stop swimming (the mental breakthrough), we find that there are many directions for each person. It happens to work better when we journey together (connect) while supporting those separate directions. I’d say more, but I can talk on and on and on about the films that I love.

This is just still one of the reasons Upstream Color is so good.

1. http://io9.com/director-shane-carruth-explains-the-ending-of-upstream-475087719

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I’m covering, reviewing, and interviewing at the Toronto International Film Festival for Next Projection. You can read some of my pieces over there. Some interesting interviews and films so far:  http://nextprojection.com/author/jacqueline-valencia/

http://nextprojection.com/category/tiff-2013/

Also, this has come in SO HANDY!: http://www.hearnames.com/index.php

Only God Forgives: my analysis/review

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Much like my review of Upstream Color, I fear at this point I have to install not just a POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT, but this analysis is hopefully a thorough one with details some might just want to witness first on the big screen so THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT! A SPOILER ALERT!  DANGER, WIL ROBINSON! However, Only God Forgives is not based on any spoiler per se. My analysis is based mostly on my own readings and my own film critical viewing background. 

Watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhRKlwr1-KM

My one problem with Only God Forgives was that it was sold as a hyper violent action, kickass fight flick with an intelligent twist. It’s not. It’s hyper violent and intelligently done. There’s little fighting in it though and you’re not going to get a hero. Looking back at a history of Nicolas Winding Refn flicks, who wouldn’t expect something akin to the Pusher trilogy with a dash of Bronson and Drive? Refn is auteur who is not just an art house director, but a continual film fan/student. Therefore, like with most of the riskier directors these days (ie. Steve McQueen, Shane Carruth…I’m just thinking of films I’ve seen recently), Refn utilizes influences while still pushing boundaries within them.

More on that later.  Refn’s own explanation for the basis of this film:

The original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God. That is, of course, a very vast obstacle but when I was writing the film, I was going through some very existential times in my life – we were expecting our second child and it was a difficult pregnancy – and the idea of having a character who wants to fight God without knowing why very much appealed to me.

With that as the concept, I elaborated by adding a character who believes he is God (Chang), obviously the antagonist, with the protagonist being a gangster who is looking for religion to believe in (Julian). This itself is, of course, very existential because faith is based on the need for a higher answer but most of the time, we don’t know what the question is. When the answer comes, then, we must backtrack our lives in order to find the question. In this way, the film is conceived as an answer, with the question revealed at the end.” 1

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, but are still reading this analysis: Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American working at a boxing academy in Thailand. It’s not entirely sure if he’s a former boxer, but it’s implied in his knowledge of boxing and his mother saying, “He was never a good fighter.” His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), has a penchant for brutalizing people, especially underage girls, and  he works there too. Billy goes too far one night and murders a sixteen year old prostitute. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an inexorable chief officer, brings in the girl’s father and instructs him to kill (to put things right), Billy. Chang then amputates girl’s father arm (by an ever hidden, yet present, sword) to atone for his sins (sins being that his daughter shouldn’t have become a prostitute in the first place). Julian finds the girl’s father for revenge, but let’s him go after being told of Billy’s own deeds. Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), appears and upon hearing of Julian’s inability to deal vengeance, looks for it herself by hiring her drug goons to do it for her.

Julian is a man in search of God/religion/spirituality. His brother lacked all sense of morals, was a lowlife who beat up and murdered a child. Chang is a police official who is godlike and believes in putting things right karmically, at least in his own sword loving version of karma. So let’s start there: Julian searches for God and finds it in Chang.

Chang is an interesting character. He’s superhuman: in a scene where he uses his sword to kill a man who was hired to shoot him, he cuts right through his rib cage in one swift motion (you can see his ribs sticking out as the blood spurts from his carcass). Chang also senses when things are about to happen and has a heightened sense of perception: he feels danger before gunfire erupts at a restaurant; with one look at Julian he knows that he wasn’t the one that killed the dead girl’s father. He’s calm. He’s cool. Chang is a collected man. He’s badass evil Highlander. The biggest clue is that hidden sword. Where does he hide it? Before we ever see him pull it out, Refn gives us many shots of Chang’s back. There’s no holster. There’s no bump to see where he’s pulling it out of his shirt and jacket. There’s no way Chang can pull the sword out that cleanly through a collared shirt and the collared suit on top of it. It’s either an invisible, magical ethereal sword, or the sword doesn’t exist (which, when you think about it, maybe Chang since he’s a godlike figure, maybe doesn’t exist either).

Julian sees Chang in a vision before he even meets him. Chang appears in a black doorway (reminiscent of the all encompassing black of Kubrick’s monolith from 2001), and amputates Julian’s arm as he reaches out. Later, when Julian sees Chang in person, he watches him greet the children from the boxing academy (they bow down to him in either reverence or respect). As Chang passes Julian he says, “He isn’t the one,” and keeps walking. The camera goes right to Julian, his chest visibly heaving while his eyes open wide with a sort of wonder and admiration. He’s just met God and as he stands there in the lobby of the boxing academy the audience perceives Julian’s bellicose stance: Julian wants to fight God. In turn,  Julian gets the chance to fight God (“Wanna fight?”), he loses to him, almost on purpose, making himself humble before his God/father/circumstances.

Is Julian in hell? Maybe just a version of it. The colors of the film are saturated red, green and yellow with hints of green (Refn is somewhat color blind, but highlights natural color to give an allusion/contrast of realism versus imagination). I gave up on looking for symbolism with the colors because they were inconsistent. At first I thought that blue was a sexual situation, but then red becomes the focus more when Julian watches his prostitute/hired girlfriend, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), masturbate in front of him. I believe the colors here are mostly stylistic in nature. Cinematographer Larry Smith (was a gaffer for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, chief of lighting for Barry Lyndon, and lighting cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut, and cinematographer for Bronson and Fear X), almost pays tribute to Kubrick through the intense reds and fluid panning shots along walking subjects. The camera holds steady on focus to the characters while the background looms bright, illuminating filigree more like tarot card portraits of elementals rather than humans. These can be seen as character snapshots, but they’re meant to be more of a visual feast.

Refn is also highly influenced by Martin Scorsese:

He once stated that his greatest source of inspiration is Martin Scorsese and his films. As a salute to him, he used the main theme from Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in the opening sequence of Bleeder (1999). 2

The famous massacre scene from Taxi Driver is referenced with the spurting gore in which the red of the blood is sometimes neutralized by blue or hyper dark lighting. When the violence happens, it is alarming and abrupt. I see a lot of the Taxi Driver anti-hero in both Drive and Only God Forgives, but what most people forget are that these anti-heroes are psychopaths. This is the brilliance of both Scorsese and Refn: to make a character that is disturbingly relatable. Peripherally, Only God Forgives can be seen as a revenge flick, but in reality it’s the existential tale of a murderous psychopath in search for God. As told by Crystal, Julian killed his father with his own hands under her direction. I’m not entirely sure (maybe due to Gosling’s lack of emotion), but he does seem to express a desire for redemption. Since he can’t seem to come to terms with his existence or what he has done himself, “only God forgives” and only God can give him that absolution. He has Mai tie his hands before she masturbates for him. Julian clenches his hands continuously like a man unable to control his urges and fighting with the monster (the psychopath) within. Hints to his mother inappropriate relationship with her sons are littered throughout the film. Instead of having sex with Mai, Julian envisions himself probing her with his hand (the hand that gets cut off in the vision), and in turn uses that hand to penetrate the wound he inflicts on his dead mother. The same soft lilting music wells up during these scenes alluding to a need for love, a need for a mother, a need for a purpose beyond Julian’s inner demons.

In the end, his never ending visions become somehow true as he feels the innards of his mother/where he came from, the birth of a monster, creates a hyper real dream: he gets both of his fists amputated by a worthy god. Why? Either to keep him from becoming who he truly is or for ultimate redemption.

Well, art is an act of violence. It is about penetration, about speaking to our subconscious and our moods at different levels. – Refn 4

Many critics have complained of Gosling’s and the rest of the cast’s lack of expression. Some may see it as a blank canvas, a mask that can inhabit our own anxieties. Scary, if you enjoyed this film, is that this effect makes it more comfortable for the audience to place themselves in Julian’s shoes, then want to immediately step out, then go hide themselves in Chang shoes, and immediately run away from that too. You keep away from Crystal. You…you just do.

I usually have an issue with the Lady Macbeth trope. It’s overused and an easy way for directors or storytellers to create sympathetic beasts. However, Thomas is a relish to watch. She plays that character like she invented her and slashes and dices with words the way Chang does with his sword.3 Crystal who goes out of her way to go beyond the archetype or  trope. She’s the one who begins this mad chain of events. I’ve never cheered for such an evil character and when she spits out “cum-dumpster” at Mai, I almost leapt to my feet. I don’t know why, I just felt compelled to. Crystal got under my skin. I get what Refn was creating here with Crystal, and I’ve yet to see him “get women right.” They’re either pure evil or pure helpless waifs. I suspect Refn of misogyny.

(“It’s like pornography. I’m a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it and I’ve learned not to become obsessed with that part of it.” 5 (Read the rest of that article and tell me you don’t think he might be too.)

I have no problem with pornography (Porn is awesome!). But if we’re thinking of Refn struggling with inner demons and using women in his films to either “save” or “as emasculating bitches,” as a pornography then we can suspect what those demons may be.)

The reason I don’t have a problem with this trope here is because Thomas portrays her character as an entirely self-made person. Sure, she’s a villainous, vengeful drug dealer, but she’s her own boss. She snakes through each of her scenes like she owns the whole production and for that, it’s a commendable performance.

Magical realism is a big part of Only God Forgives and this maybe the main tribute to his friend, director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Almost every scene has a distorted reality. In some scenes, Julian wears a white shirt and then is seen with a black shirt/suit. People sometimes glide instead of walk. Characters stare at each other for extended periods of time, almost as if they are relaying intuitive messages to each other. Where Jodoroswky goes all alchemy and scatalogical, Refn goes incestual and bloody violent. Actors are merely devices to a larger picture, but the picture, although dreamlike is all too real and archetypal that it’s hard not to try find meaning within the transfixing images these directors focus on. While Julian lives in his version of hell on Earth, Chang is a supernatural being outside of the world like God would be, yet their conflicts become less about plot devices and transform into the base ideals/horrors within ourselves.

This all makes the film more like a hermetic exegesis of a tarot card reading more than a story and that’s why I loved it.

The Cliff Martinez score is rife with Wendy Carlos love, it’s not even funny; it’s amazing. Just give me scenes with any of these characters, or just even Eyes Wide Shut hallways, violins, and Kraftwerk synthesizers and I am so there forever (make sure to splice Kristen Scott Thomas saying “cum-dumpster”). I’m running out to get the soundtrack as soon as I can.

Should I touch on the infusion of karaoke? Chang sings and his minions listen attentively, almost appreciatively. The scenes are very David Lynch (another influence that is seen and is also mentioned in the credits). I don’t see it so much as a contrast or as detail to Chang’s “softer” side, but rather since besides being God and stuff, he’s also an angel of vengeance, he must sing and sing like an angel. The scenes in the karaoke bar are still. No violence occurs inside of them. It’s God’s sanctuary and all are invited, but only God can sing.

So as you can tell, I really enjoyed Only God Forgives (as I’ve seen it two times in two days). I could have hated it if I was expecting an action revenge flick, but I wasn’t. I expect risky directors to push the bar and bounce from the foundations they’ve set. I honestly would like to see Refn do something better with women. I know he was interested in doing Barbarella and Wonder Woman, but seeing as those are both seen as more sexual beings than “heroes” I hold little hope for that. I do enjoy Refn films because when I see film, I see gender as a secondary thing and in my head can easily place a woman in Julian’s shoes. I think it’s frightening for a lot of people to see a Julienne, raped by her father, become a psychopath searching for her God. She wants her hands chopped off for killing her mother and in the end, she violates her father and vision quests the demons out of herself or becomes a true killing machine.

See? It’s not so hard.  Just too risky, perhaps.

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1. http://www.firstshowing.net/2013/refns-statement-on-only-god-forgives-compares-to-his-past-films/

2. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0716347/bio

3. I admit to giggling every time I typed “his sword.” I’m not sorry.

4. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0716347/bio

5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jul/13/nicolas-winding-refn-god-forgives

Upstream Color: my impressions/analysis

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If you haven’t seen Upstream Color, it is my recommendation that you do so. Shane Carruth’s first film in nine years since Primer, is what I consider (and many critics see as), the best film of the year. I know the year isn’t over and there are plenty of films that have had praise that I’ve yet to see. But Upstream has now set a standard for me in modern filmmaking. Much like Primer, Carruth directed, produced, composed, edited, and distributed the movie himself. Oh and he stars in it too.

[I fear at this point I have to install a POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT here. Although I can’t really imagine relating any part of Upstream as a spoiler to readers, I strongly suggest watching it because my analysis is based mostly on my own readings and my own background. I’ve tried my best to keep with how other reviews have been written without spoiler alerts, however, it is an analysis as well.  The beauty of this movie is that individual interpretation is completely open to each viewer. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT regardless. But if you read, go out and see it for yourself and form your own conclusions.]

Watch the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U9KmAlrEXU and buy the movie here: http://erbpfilm.com/film/upstreamcolor#combo-film (or see it at a theatre if you find it).

Kris (played beautifully by Amy Seimetz), is a woman who has been drugged with psychotropic worms by someone called The Thief  (Thiago Martins), and is mentally controlled into giving up all her finances through the power of suggestion. He utilizes passages from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” and mindless patterned tasks to distract and control her. When The Thief is done, Kris awakens to find her life ruined and her body infested with worms. A sound designer called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), summons her with droning music to a location where she asks to get the worms removed. He extracts the worms and transplants them into a piglet, that is then tagged with the name of the subject (here Kris) and cares for it at his pig farm. Many other pigs with similar tags are seen in the pen as well. There’s a short scene where Kris envisions a room full of other mindless subjects who have met a similar fate.

The worms in turn, go on to posit their ink/color/themselves into the orchids that grow in a forest nearby the pig farm. Hikers harvest these orchids and sell them at markets where the Thief in turn buys them to make his drug.

Kris awakens from her stupor stripped of her identity, and finds herself exiled from the life she once knew. She tries to put together a semblance of a life, taking on a job she is ambivalent about, but states that she is grateful for. Kris then meets Jeff (Carruth), who seems to be another victim of The Thief (displaying the same obsessive behaviors and detachment with the rest of the world as Kris). Through various awkward encounters they find themselves attracted to one another in what seems to be a pull congruent to their pig-counterparts in The Sampler’s pen. We witness them falling in love and finding identity so much so with each other, that the lines between them blur.

I walked out of the theatre both confused, kind of knowing what I had seen, but I just couldn’t manifest it into proper words. I was struck most of all by the cinematography which was very reminiscent to one my favourite film’s, La Jetée by Chris Marker.

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Both Upstream and La Jetée are sci-fi movies. Carruth’s Primer is more aligned in that respect to Marker’s film soley due to the time travelling aspect. Yet Upstream brings, not just similar images, but a seamless narrative primarily based on visuals, little dialogue, and a haunting soundtrack. Chris Marker’s film essay (A film essay is a movie that often incorporates documentary film making styles and which focuses more on the evolution of a theme or an idea.) forms fabula and syuzhet purely through photographs, narrative, and sound. Throughout Upstream, Carruth makes the images incredibly bright and clear that it feels like a lucid dream. In La Jetée, Marker utilizes light and shadow to evoke feelings of menace and of comfort. It is only towards the end that Upstream strips away all dialogue and becomes resplendent with imagery and noise, evoking feelings of discovery and redemption. It’s analogous to La Jetée’s final moments when our subject runs towards his love, and his final fate. Both films create an amazing build up and reveal to its  audience a truth as if it were a brand new day.

From  La Jetée soundtrack:

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From Upstream Color soundtrack:

There are also similarities to Terrence Malick’s films, (philosophical, spiritual, natural scenes, and touch. I see Malick uses similar techniques as Chris Marker.). Federico Fellini also comes to mind, particularly in 8 1/2 because in many ways I see a film maker’s/writer’s process in Upstream. Carruth has stated:

“Well, once I knew I was going to be having characters wake up in a moment that they can’t quite explain what it is they’ve done and how it is they did what they did, and they have to adopt some new version of themselves, I needed a construct to make that happen.”

Carruth had a core vision of what he wanted to do, but he needed situations to put these characters in. As a writer myself, figuring that part out is a relatable dilemma. In 8 1/2,  our main character is a director that has the budget and the people ready to film his next masterpiece; however, he finds himself empty of ideas. He’s old and jaded. The director continually looks for solace in the women in his life, memories of his youth, and hedonistic fantasies. In Upstream Color, our characters become bereft of core memories, histories, and basic integrities. They find survival comfort , in one another, thus blurring the line between their individualities.  At the moment of truth, when they confront their “abuser,” they experience a kind of release, hinted at in the films lighter tones of music and color. Meanwhile, Fellini presents a similar denouement as the director sets his final scene on a vast picturesque beach where all of his characters congregate in harmonious symphony.

Many of the analytical reads I’ve encountered for Upstream mention Henry David Thoreau’s Walden’s inclusion in Upstream. For some it’s seen as a key and for others, a red herring. Walden is a novel/journal by Thoreau when he took to living like a hermit in the woods (with the help of his mother and Ralph Waldo Emmerson). It was his experiment in transcendentalism, seeking independence from society, learning more about spirituality, and himself in turn. He farmed and cultivated his own food and built his own house by Walden Pond. Many have focused on Carruth’s use of passages from the novel, mostly where Thoreau mentions the cultivation of men and worms. I see the book as a means for Carruth to guide his audience. Carruth himself is isolated from much of the film world etiquettes being D.I.Y. about everything in his films. He’s 40, without health insurance, has no permanent residence.; very punk rock. Our two characters, Kris and Jeff, are both withdrawn from the families and homes they once had. You don’t really see them interacting with anyone else, but each other.

At the same time, The Sampler, an omnipresent being can psychically see into the lives of those infected with the worms through the pigs in his farm. He seems like a bit of a loner as well. I’m not entirely sure if he’s being a voyeur to get inspiration for his sound music, or if he’s merely observing his subjects because he can. However, his recordings (Quinoa Valley Recordings) are made from aleatory noise fragments he gathers in nature. The soundtrack in Upstream is much like this, understated tones and pulses that are intuitively felt and emotionally based. I found myself almost crying in certain scenes before anything actually happened, and sure enough, seconds later an emotional scene was presented to me. I found that both spooky and ingenious.

This is the thing that I saw as the meat of the movie. Thoreau assembled a life out of nothing as a sort of Übermensch from the rest of the world. The Sampler in Upstream is apart from everything, but builds his craft out of the lives of others and the sounds of the world around him. Carruth has constructed a world around these characters and like a Sim City god has made them assemble their own story utilizing the only thing they know: each other, passages from Walden, and what they can gather of The Sampler. The whole movie subsists on circular connections, hinting at natures connections while chronicling human’s struggle for individual free will.

Identity and individuality are a central theme in Upstream. In wikipedia’s entry on Carl Jung regarding the anima and animus:

“Jung identified the anima as being the unconscious feminine component of men and the animus as the unconscious masculine component in women. However, this is rarely taken as a literal definition: many modern day Jungian practitioners believe that every person has both an anima and an animus. Jung stated that the anima and animus act as guides to the unconscious unified Self, and that forming an awareness and a connection with the anima or animus is one of the most difficult and rewarding steps in psychological growth. Jung reported that he identified his anima as she spoke to him, as an inner voice, unexpectedly one day.

Often, when people ignore the anima or animus complexes, the anima or animus vies for attention by projecting itself on others.”

As the movie progresses we come to see Kris and Jeff become almost one person. Barbara McManus states: “a peer figure of the opposite sex to the ego-bearer to whom he/she has a strong and compelling tie or bond (often a lover, brother/sister, soul-mate).

Before the worms, Kris and Jeff were successful and career driven people. After the worms, they are only able to function as semblances of themselves. It’s as if they lost their souls. Kris gets a job in a print shop while Jeff works as an under the table executive for hotels. It’s only when they find each other that they manage to function beyond the archetypal tools they use to navigate the world, thus manifesting as the anima and animus of one person. Delving in deeper, their mutual experiences with The Thief can be seen as a trauma while the worms are a repression of that trauma. The Sampler plays the role of the invisible psychoanalyst, someone who observes and tries to comprehend the motivations behind their use of schema. Of course, I’m pulling this all out of a fascination of Carl Jung, but it’s an interesting phenomena I noted in Upstream. I would go further and add the Jungian term of synchronicity due to the theme of interconnectedness and relationships, but seeing as Carruth has stopped short of slightly short of the explaining the film in fantastical terms, it suits this analysis to stay in the world of the scientific, for:

“Even the man who has succeeded in freeing himself from the dogma of the identity of the conscious self and the psyche, thus admitting the possible existence of psychic processes outside the conscious, is not justified in disputing or maintaining psychic possiblities in the unconscious.” – Carl Jung, Theory of Psychoanalysis, page 57. 

Upstream Color is not as complex of a puzzle as Primer was, but it is one that can be discovered in many ways. Carruth has been good at divulging as much as he can in interviews on the analysis of it. But it’s the mark of a good story when I can watch repeated viewings of a movie and still say to myself, “That was quite the trip.” I was curious, but didn’t find it necessary to delve deeper into a hidden meaning in the images of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent a good amount of time looking for little clues in it, but my joy in watching it is with the general feelings elicited when I watch it. It has an amazing minimalist score and the film itself has an art house feel to it that I’m prone to love. It is a clear story with a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s a film watching journey that takes you through visions, images, and the coping mechanisms/schema we all must face when trying to rebuild our lives/identity/selves anew.

“You can force a story’s shape, but the color will always bloom upstream,” says the poster tagline above. I found these two quotes telling in my research:

Shane Carruth on Primer: “I think if I was part of the filmmaking community, I would have bought into the idea that, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re all trying, but you’ve gotta pitch; you’ve gotta raise money; you’ve gotta hire a DP; you’ve gotta do all this stuff.’ I think the sheer fact that I was so naive and didn’t know any of that stuff is what made me decide to just go do it.”

You have to wonder if Carruth’s story development took different turns or ran away from him at times, then in the end he had to just let it go on its own. I can imagine that it’s a rather instinctive way to film from outside of the giant Hollywood machine. The whole do it yourself aesthetic requires a lot of commitment and dedication to an idea. It’s a process and a film that tells you to go with your gut.  Kris and Jeff must act right from the gut and when they do, it’s not really a finale either. What really happens to Kris and Jeff in the end? Do they truly know who they are? Are they happy together? Do they transcend their trauma?  I like to think that no matter what they go through that they have tools now to get on with their lives. I think of the last paragraph in Walden:
It’s all entirely open to interpretation which is given to the free will of Carruth’s audiences. I admire a film that treats its audience as its equal.
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References:

* Shane Carruth Will Have Another, Zach Baron, Grantland: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9109223/getting-drunk-upstream-color-director-shane-carruth (this is probably my favorite article so far on the movie)

* The Thoreau Poison, Caleb Crain, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/the-thoreau-poison.html (this one really delves into the Thoreau component)

* Walden by Henry David Thoreau: http://www.online-literature.com/thoreau/walden/

* Walden’s Last Paragraph: http://thoreau.eserver.org/thelast.html

* Citizen Kane, wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_Kane

* Anima and Animus, Barbara McManus: http://www2.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/anima.html

* Theory of Psychoanalysis by Carl Jung, “The Unconscious,” page 57, 2012: http://www.amazon.com/The-Theory-Psychoanalysis-Classic-Reprint/dp/1451015151

* Shane Carruth Unravels The Meaning In Upstream Color by Landon Palmer: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/interview-shane-carruth-unravels-the-meaning-of-upstream-color.php

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P.S. I’m not the only one that has seen the connections between Upstream Color and La Jetée. Alex Sayf Cummings also mentions it in his review here: http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/upstream-battle-how-a-filmmaker-makes-an-incredibly-weird-film-in-2013/

Also, take a look at this (a La Jetée trailer set to the trailer soundtrack of Upstream Color. – It totally blew my mind.).:

You can buy La Jetée  here:  http://www.criterion.com/boxsets/77-la-jetee-sans-soleil