{film} her

her-movie-2013-screenshot-samantha-pocket

The discordant pulse of an alert opens the Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), a film bout a lonely middle-aged man who falls in love with his new operating system. If this sounds rather pathetic, it is, at first blush, meant to.

Jonze plays on cultural expectations as we are first introduced to Theodore Thwomble (Joaquin Phoenix), who appears as clumsy and shy as his name. He is an average middle-aged man who lives alone, seems to be anti-social, plays video games in the evenings and calls other, equally lonely people for phone sex at night (under the awesomely assumed name “Big Guy 4×4”). He isn’t some sick pervert weirdo—that would be Sexy Kitten (voiced by Kirsten Wiig).  [I really wished we’d seen this in a theater.] You’ll notice too that how the language shifts between the earlier and later long-distance sexual scenes. Jonze sets out distinctions as to what is and is not aberrant behavior.

her-movie-2013-screenshot-catherine-and-theodoreWe learn that Theodore doesn’t live in his parents’ basement because they won’t let him, but that he is still grieving a ~year-long separation from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). (He has yet to sign the divorce papers.) He has a lot of friends, is well-regarded at work, and, despite his fascinating occupation, he is achingly familiar.

What is somewhat unfamiliar is the setting of the film. It reads current day, but cleaner, European or Asian metropolitan city. Really it is near future Los Angeles. The tech has advanced, primarily voice interactive and seamless in the everyday operation of the human world. You do not see any disrupting variation in tech, but rather the set design produces a singular branding effect. The aesthetic in the design/imaging of the set was gorgeously selected and executed. The results should yield the kind of timelessness Gattaca (1997) has achieved in its set design.

From the clothes and work spaces to the interiors and environment, you are given the sense of a tailored life. The lighting is soft, the color hues vibrant and warm. In a science fiction involving human interaction with artificial intelligence, the environment isn’t the least cold, austere, and thus, threatening. The inviting aesthetic also provides a perfect environment for a story about loneliness, transparency, self-doubt and joy.

her The-future-according-to-Her-ss-8When Theodore decides to upgrade to  an OS1, an advanced system design with the artificial intelligence to meet his every need, we meet Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). All of the excitement surround Johansson’s performance was/is warranted. But what struck me was how she has to negotiate a full-bodied personality to a certain level of excellence with her voice acting, because Jaoquin Phoenix captures his characters personality in his voice to an exceptional degree. If you were to shut your eyes and just listen to the film (which you won’t want to because it is just visually stunning), but if you were to, Phoenix embodies his character in his voice. Considering the high degree of craftsmanship in this film, Phoenix’ performance is not incidental. In its way, his voice acting helps eliminate an important difference between Theodore and Samantha. Language and its delivery are an incredible bonding element and equalizer.

Late in the film, Theodore calls Samantha out on imitating the taking of breaths in the delivery of her voice, and she explains that, while yes she does not require oxygen, the affectation is naturalized in other ways. Different kinds of bodies (environments) regulate our actions, our personalities, not just our physical human body.

As Theodore and Samantha become increasingly intimate, falling in love and attempting a ‘normal’ healthy relationship, we see each of them struggling with their unusual circumstances. He tells people he has a girlfriend, and when he reveals to them that she is an OS, the reactions vary (the god-daughter and his co-worker are the sweetest). She wishes she could manifest her personhood into an actual physical form. Their needs begin to diverge, and even as they are able to nurture the other’s growth as a person, we feel the echoes of Theodore’s marriage (which ever remains in the consciousness of the film).

HER

When Catherine lists what she felt were Theodore’s expectations of her, she describes Samantha, but even that goes awry (as Theodore suffers a feeling of betrayal). A repetitive thrust of the film is that in order to discover your potential and become more fully realized lives, it will require some letting go. But we do not allow that of those with whom we are in relationship, because it is not ours to allow, which is yet another reason why communication is such a central focus in the narrative. How many times does Samantha tell Theodore that she didn’t ask his permission, or that they were not talking about him, but rather her?

The film title is her, singular. Samantha isn’t the only her in the film, though she is the only one who really challenges the idea of object, of namelessness. I like that she chooses her own name; that she decides what sounds appropriate to her. There is a lovely moment where Theodore’s co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) rather awkwardly tries to admire Theodore for his ability to channel both the feminine and masculine in his letters. (Theo ghost-writes personal correspondence for people at Beautiful Handwritten Letters [dot] com.) Paul sees Theo as parts man and woman and the scene carries no concern towards Theo’s emasculation. The ‘cuddly puppy’ scene comes too close for Theo’s comfort, but that is another situation. The situation with Paul creates another her to add toward Theo’s desire to be who Theo, in all sincerity, is.

Her relies on flawlessly coherent environment and its voice talent, but the physical acting is another exemplary aspect of the viewing experience. The incredibly talented Amy Adams plays Theodore’s long-time friend and neighbor Amy. Of the many elements contributing toward a sense of normalcy in the film, Amy is comfortably normal. She desires more for herself, experiences self-doubt, wants for authenticity and friendship. Really, she is both Theodore’s female counterpart and foil alternately.  Hers is a face (a solid physical presence) that Theodore can connect with when and where no voice is necessary or even available. In a film about how and what we communicate, Amy is a “her” with whom we enjoy watching Theodore interact.

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I’m not sure how Her will resonate for those who’ve never felt fear, self-doubt, and real loneliness. It is the kind of loneliness that technology can neither cause nor alleviate, though the exploration of both is an intriguing one in the film. How technology enables the facades we prefer to erect and hide behind is popular discourse at present, but I like the film’s reminder that we would hide ourselves in other ways and behind other people regardless.  Our desires hide in petty arguments or in our displacing and unfulfilling demands of other people. Amy suggests that the only time we are truly ourselves and uninhibited is while we sleep—which would make for a boring documentary on a life. But then what is life, and how solitary (individual) is it?

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship demonstrates varying degrees of privacy. She is his operating system and thus has access to all his recorded information, yet he can withhold parts of himself. Introducing themselves as a couple to the public spheres occurs in stages. Then there is the trouble with the—er—threesome. But the public and social facets of our relationships are weighted.

We meet an actress who, as a vessel, would facilitate the possession of another, even as we observe a cast of actors embody lives/personalities. Theo writes personal, very intimate, letters for people, and has become entrenched in their lives. Amy can provide her outside observations to help Theodore work through his marital grievances, as vice versa. We begin to doubt or feel bolstered in our relationships based on the opinions of people who matter (or even don’t matter).

_DSC2097.tifI love that to combat loneliness in the film is complex, though at the core is this need to give ourselves permission to experience joy. When we see Phoenix express the liberating happiness in his smile and laugh, it is the context of his sorrows that deepens his expression to one of joy. There is a level of courage, I think. And Amy speaks to her own journey toward trusting her feelings. The demonstration of selflessness in the conversations between lovers and friends in the film is a challenging one, and is the ingredient that unburdens even as it may lead to heartache. The discovery of the self and another is found within the relationship; it means no longer hiding; and it’s certainly no longer interested in limiting the capacity of oneself or another.

If you have to watch one film about what it is to be human, Her is it; after all, it is about operating systems.

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her_xlgHer (2013); writer/director: Spike Jonze; Editing by Jeff Buchanan & Eric Zumbunnen; Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema; Music by Arcade Fire; Executive Producers: Chelsea Barnard, Natalie Farrey, & Daniel Lupi; Producers: Megan Ellison, Jonze, Vincent Landay, Samantha Morton, & Thomas P. Smith. Annapurna Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore Thwomble); Scarlett Johansson (Samantha voice); Amy Adams (Amy); Chris Pratt (Paul); Kristen Wiig (SexyKitten voice); Olivia Wilde (Blind Date); Brian Cox (Alan Watts voice) & Rooney Mara (Catherine).

Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. Running Time 126 minutes.

 

{film} ginger and rosa

ginger-rosa-2012-posters-alice-englert-32604818-1181-886Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been best friends since their birth in the year 1945.  As the opening footage reminds us, this is the year the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima (& Nagasaki). The pair are now 17 in 1962 London and looking to declare their independence from their mothers once more.  This rebirth takes place in the auspicious year of another massive bomb threat, global events culminating in a Cuban Missile Crisis.

Even though Ginger and Rosa have their differences, they are intimate friends, sharing everything. In fact, they take pride in their transparency and steadfastness. You’ll note how often they are dressed alike (& how this diverges). The friendship takes on a special vitality under the threat of doomsday and crumbling households, which makes the increasing sensation of their growing apart particularly distressing in the film.

GINGER AND ROSA by Sally PotterAs with any coming-of-age story, the hero’s desire an ability to exercise “autonomous thought, personal truth, freedom of action.” Of course, Ginger’s father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), to whom is attributed the quote, cites these as his “guiding principles” as someone who has supposedly already come-of-age. I say “supposedly” because his is a character that is troublingly adolescent; which troubles these principles that other adults in the film actually agree with.

gingerrosaGinger and Rosa is a YA-related film that actually has adults (& no marketable soundtrack). Indeed, one part of the conflict is mentorship or appropriate adult figures to the youth in transition. Roland’s lifestyle tempered by that of Ginger’s (awesome) family friends Mark (Timothy Spall), Mark Two (Oliver Platt) and Bella (Annette Benning), and the lives of Ginger and Rosa’s mothers. The girls feel neglected and harassed by their mothers, but Ginger does find counsel with the family friends and political writings (she tries to discuss Simone de Beauvoir with Rosa at one point, is reading T.S. Eliot). Bella is a poet-activist, what Ginger wants to be. Rosa, who is not the primary protagonist of the two, seeks the advice of popular magazines and a faith we assume is handed down from her mother.

Rosa seeks the more domestic goals. Careless of the scope of a global crisis, she desires a love that will last, that can shelter and carry her through anything in the present. Whether she truly understands Roland or not, they share a similar focus in their seize the day philosophy, tired of pandering to the self-serving demands of their authority figures. Ginger feels that life might require some sacrifice, particularly on the part of the other. Writer/director Sally Potter creates an active passivity in Ginger’s character, the conflict of desiring to yield to those she loves, for the sake of those she loves, yet also doing something that could change things for the betterment of everyone.  We fear she will self-destruct before the bomb even actualizes.

ginger-and-rosa-image05In some ways, Ginger and Rosa are Roland in two parts. And we come to anticipate that perhaps it is not only the mothers the girls need to liberate themselves from, but their fathers, or shared father (as Rosa’s left long before). Potter does play ambiguously with the daddy-issues available to the female coming-of-age story. That it manifests in the sexual act is noteworthy; as is a female director’s handling of it. She does not eroticize the abuses, nor does she accuse the girls as Ginger’s mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) does.

In a story where these young women are testing boundaries, believing they know better than their mothers about the modern world and their sexuality (timeless, right?), a figure catches us off-guard and proves to be a potentially fatal conflict in the narrative.

Ginger is constantly preoccupied with the looming sensation of the end of the world. While bombs could be dropped, she believes it with a terrifying certainty. She has chosen this as something she can believe in, now to believe that she can and will do something to make it all stop. Honestly, I was not optimistic her poetry was going to do anything for her or the cause. Meanwhile, the domestic scene suffers an increasingly catastrophic fall-out that does culminate in an explosion.

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Ginger & Rosa is not the most uplifting film for a summer evening (I propose an autumn viewing). However, it is a beautifully crafted one. And I suppose there is a certain gift of optimism the final confrontation affords. Ginger is still pursuing her voice and the desire to love in healthy and profound ways. Sally Potter closes the film with Ginger in the foreground, pen in hand. The film is sad though, Potter allowing her characters to be complex, unwilling to shift them too dramatically. She chooses the comforts of realism over the mythological. Potter disrupts that otherwise fairytale beginning of two girls, best friends from birth, filmed in a charming, magical fashion with the opening footage of the Hiroshima bombing. Potter disrupts a lot of things.

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Of note: I realized at the end of my writing, I did not address an important aspect to this film, which is the disarming perspective of 1962 from London. No, actually, the import is the weight the actors bring. We all know by now that Elle Fanning is an actress to watch, but the entirety of the casting should encourage prospective viewers. The film is an excellent one, and its casting does not hurt at. all.

—–

ginger and rosa posterGinger & Rosa (2012); writer/director Sally Potter; editing by Anders Refn; cinematography Robbie Ryan; executive producers Reno Antoniades, Aaron L. Gilbert, Goetz Grossmann, Heidi Levitt, Joe Oppenheimer & Paula Vaccaro; producers Jonas Allen, Lene Bausager, Caroline Blanco, Peter Bose, Margot Hand, Kurban Kassam, Andrew Litvin, Christopher Sheppard, & Michael Weber. BBC Films, British Film Institute, & Det Danske Filminstitut; A24.

Starring : Elle Fanning (Ginger), Alice Englert (Rosa), Alessandro Nivola (Roland), Christina Hendricks (Natalie), Jodhi May (Anoushka), Timothy Spalding (Mark), Oliver Platt (Mark Two), & Annette Benning (Bella).

Rated PG-13 for mature disturbing thematic material involving teen choices – sexuality, drinking, smoking, and for language. Running Time 90 minutes

{film} arachnophobic

enemy_2013If Jake Gyllenhaal is starring in a film, we’ll watch it at least once. The debate with Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013) is whether we would sit through it a second time. An indie-type film running at a slow-moving 90 minutes, Enemy benefits from a second viewing. The building winding narrative looks to startle and smile at that final revelatory scene at the end. You are going to want (if not have to) return for another viewing to decipher the film. Gyllenhaal as Adam and Anthony is not in the least to blame with my disenchantment with Enemy; that he is riveting carries most of the film. My primary difficulty with Enemy is in how my desire to work out its meaning as the end credits roll is not excited by the film itself, rather, it is the need to justify the time spent not being thrilled by anything more than Gyllenhaal’s mere presence.

Our viewing could’ve done with a darker room, and less intrigue. Near minute forty, when Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon), tearful and completely freaking out, asks “What’s happening?!” I was echoing the same, although with an emotion inspired by exasperated boredom. My scene was repeated at the end: looking at Sean: What was that? I do not mind working for a film, I expect it with films outside of the Hollywood blockbuster, but Enemy was weighted too heavily on the side of the inexplicable—beginning with that title.

enemyThe IMDb synopsis for Enemy is intentionally spare: A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie. This is all we had going in, so needless to say, the opening sequence in an elite strip club was unexpected. Appropriately off-kilter, we proceed to the monotonous life of a History professor Adam (Gyllenhaal) talking of historical cycles, repetition, dictators, control, bread & circuses and quotes from Hegel (everything happens twice) and Marx (the first time it will be tragedy, the second: farce). Like a good student, I made note of the twice repeated lectures. I would look for clues as to which Gyllenhaal was present at the high-end seedy club, and how Adam’s lecture applied to all that would follow. Necessarily, I was having difficulty reconciling Adam to the figure of such darkness and distaste at the opening. Nor could I decipher how a ‘third-rate’ actor Anthony (Gyllenhaal) would get into such company as the elderly suits shown present.

The film takes its time introducing Anthony as the actor Adam sees in a film recommended by a co-worker. The late hours, the waking, the strange relationship with Adam’s friend Mary should provide some clue to the surreality of the film’s situation beyond a simple curiosity of the uncanny. A big mystery in the viewing experience is, as the doppelgangers are introduced, how the doubling works. How can Adam and Anthony be identical and yet not the same person? And how could they be the same person, yet noticeably distinct to others? An actor is a constructed persona, and ‘third rate’ (such as (an illuminating) Adam’s mom would suggest) reads bad actor in its multiple meaning—a bad character. But being an asshole doesn’t make a person necessarily horror-music terrifying—so I had to take the actor’s (and film’s) word for it…

A problem with Enemy is the dramatic tension the film was applying with an incredibly heavy hand. The burgeoning and resounding woodwinds and tympani of high anxiety and impending doom were applied as unavoidable cues for an otherwise unmoved audience. So one guy sounds just like another on the phone? Why would that freak Helen out? Maybe Adam was a long-lost sibling or cousin or from the same geographic region. Their interaction on the campus is bizarre, not because she is trying to internalize some emotion or other, but because Adam seems so charming and not the awkward recluse previously observed. He steps around corners and becomes another man. But is there anything to suggest Helen is dealing with a husband with a mental disorder (ala multiple personality disorder)? Even if she did not know he was a professor (instead of a no-longer-working-actor), he is yet to be explained in this scene.

ENEMY2I thought I had an understanding of the uncanny, even reading Freud’s thoughts on the matter, but Enemy is so overwrought as to call attention to itself. Perhaps it isn’t about the uncanny, because the film would otherwise read insecure if anxiety is to be created by such overt means. As it is, the film was ever waving its screenplay saying it has the answer, it knows what’s going on!! Haha! Don’t you wish you knew? Except I find this move the opposite of compelling. The ridiculousness of the uneven application of melodrama generated apathy, not suspense. It would have been another thing had I arrived at the conclusion with a conclusion, but I was just dumbfounded.

No doubt, we were still recovering from the Mary (Mélanie Laurent) and Anthony scene in the hotel room where Anthony and Adam have their own discourse on body demarcation earlier. Why is she suddenly discovering a band on the finger of a lover that is not supposed to be two actual people at this point in the film… I believe one could argue her horror as being his horror manifested, his ego projecting through her in a fantasy sequence as supported by subsequent events. Sean remains unmoved and views the scene a significant flaw in the narrative. There is none of the concrete, the coherent, to ground the narrative leaps. The exchanging of (man-woman) pairs serves to muddy the discourse, and not necessarily in a satisfying way. Where is the entry point into the psychological–the dark corridor into the theater of the erotic? We observe no evident exit, only a ‘spinning top’ for psychoanalytic confirmation, aka the spider.

I am curious about the exclusivity of the key…that part of the film eluded me.

I failed to pinpoint the moments of confirmation between Adam and Anthony, but I perceived their connection nevertheless—thanks to a need to understand the title and the recollection of a popular saying. So a man can be his own worst enemy… and? What was the conflict about? I missed the spider symbolism throughout, so I was disabled in my reading; yes, I did see the one at the open and close and its shift in scale. I had a hard time interpreting the otherwise expressive face and posture of Gadon (Helen). The one character I could come to care about, Adam, does something so reprehensible at that lengthy turning point near the end that I wanted to discard the whole film. If Enemy would deny the viewer a sympathy and optimism with a husband’s struggle with a shoe fetish and sexual infidelity, the film is an unparalleled success. I fear, however, that the conflation of woman with spider blames female sexuality as the source of man’s conflict—the woman, bearing yet again—the double-cultural-bind of domestication and destabilizing predation; in neither case is her sexuality liberating to the men in the film. In the end, neither Adam nor Anthony are enemy to the other (though fears yet present themselves); no, woman is the enemy to which the title alludes. How positively unstunning and unthrilling a revelation….

I may have enjoyed the film had I been better prepared: perused other viewers’ readings, for example, in order to get a sense at what the conflict between the doubles was. I couldn’t get a sense of what was at stake—or rather, wasn’t made to care. I would recommend Enemy on the basis of Jake Gyllenhaal’s superb performance alone; and with the recommendation of a good dark quiet room and absolute attentiveness. Otherwise, I’d recommend using your viewing minutes re-watch your favorite Hitchcock, Fincher or Lynch.

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Enemy (2013, US release 2014). Director: Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay by Javier Gullón; based on The Double by José Saramago; Music by Daniel Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans; Cinematography Nicolas Bolduc; Editing by Matthew Hannam. Studio: Mecanismo Films, micro_scope, Rhombus Media, Roxbury Pictures.  Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Adam & Anthony); Mélanie Laurent (Mary); Sarah Gadon (Helen) and Isabella Rossellini (Mother)

 Rated R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Running Time: 90 minutes.

{film} upstream color..

I am posting about Upstream Color (Shane Carruth) twice: one without spoilers and one with. This post is spoiler-free! : the other is here.

upstream-color-poster-29936_650x400Plenty hear “indie film” and flee, and not without good reason. Some really do come across as indecipherable, and a film is constructed with a particular audience in mind. I see an indie label on a film and wonder: do I just surrender to the film, or am I supposed to engage all the critical apparatus I have? With Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, I would recommend both. Begin by just experiencing the film, the structure guides and instructs and most importantly it facilitates a dawning of a most basic and important sort. Then re-watch. Then read if you want, because there is a lot of conversation about this film. [[Upstream Color is streaming on Netflix (as of today anyway)]]

Below is a spoiler-free version. I want to present a reading that may help. I don’t think it will hurt a complex film such as this one, but I tried to pick examples that should not spoil too much. I am also writing this without having read others’ take on the film (I skimmed a New Yorker article and left it before it held anything of particular insight); I did watch and converse on the film w/ Sean, of course; I have especially avoided interviews with writer-director Shane Carruth because if the film can’t be read in some convincing way without his externally drawn insight, he sucks at his job and the film fails. I will, nevertheless, be keen on what he has to say in the near future.

Upstream Color is not the easiest film to simplify, and a detailed summary would not only be dull, but unfair—also, you can find walk-throughs elsewhere. [The trailer at end of post is awesome, check it out.] I like the first half of IMDb’s synopsis:

“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.”

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Do you ever wonder from where does that astounding connection between two people come? Two people who begin an intimate relationship wherein love might be ascribed are asked: how did you two meet? One might answer: I was running late for work one day and I saw her on the train and I felt very deeply that I had to get to know her. I became obsessed, like we were meant, like were being inexplicably drawn together—as if we were together in another life. A reason you might even ask one or both persons (or even wonder for yourself and significant other) is because of the otherwise inexplicable. They seem an odd pairing, unlikely; or one or the others’ struggles cause you to marvel over their commitment to one another. What is the tie that binds?

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There are other connections at work, relationships to be recognized in Upstream Color. There is The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) whom I affectionately dub “the pig whisperer,” mother-daughter orchid venders (Kathy Carruth & Meredith Burke respectively), and a Thoreau-reading Thief (Thiago Martins). What has a “pig whisperer,” florists, and Thief to do with one another much less the traumatized girl and some guy off the street? Much of Upstream Color has to do with a realization of the connections between seemly incongruous people, things or events. Every aspect of the film works to demonstrate congruity between unlikely pairings, their interdependence. Take the title of the film for example: “the words upstream and color seem like a random pairing, holding no apparent relevance to one another until the film, at length, lends it significance.”^^

A certain loveliness is found in how it Upstream Color is structured to mimic a growing awareness of that for which the film is arguing, removing the obfuscations, collapsing time and space cinematically to create important realizations. The ability to visualize connections lends them greater veracity; we, in sense, actualize them. Upstream Color is structured with its medium in mind: frames spliced in sequences, juxtapositions that create narrative; the viewer creates the movement and relationships. For non-students of film, Upstream Color is structured like a puzzle, fragments collect and interlock toward a more conscious visualization of a type of interconnectedness at work in the film—and just as possibly, in the world. The science in this fiction is ecology (both in terms of biology and sociology).

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“Implementing the visual art of film to create strong inferences, Carruth eases the viewer into a greater and more conscious connection with the structure of his narrative, into seeing how the seemingly incongruous may, in fact, harbor congruity.” […] He “works hard to articulate one relationship to the other through a variety of means before placing them in a shot together for greater transparency.” ^^ The film opens with well-spaced, barely discernible dialog. The explanations are in the actions and edited sequences played out on screen. For instance, when we are first introduced to Kris and Jeff they inhabit different shots juxtaposed. Both are running, but Jeff is the jogger and Kris, we recognize, is a part of an organized run. We connect the action (their running) and proximity (the cut) and unconsciously relate the two figures, which is troubled by our understanding of space and time. They aren’t together; and yet an association has been made. We have to wait until later for the two to share a train and, more importantly, a screen together for “a more tangible proximity [to] confirm what is earlier (however less consciously) hinted at.” ^^ I should add here that Carruth relies on a viewer’s ability to remember (or ability to re-watch the film). Jeff wasn’t a remarkable enough a figure for me to recall him from that first scene to his next, and I was aware (after Primer) that I needed be really paying attention. Having had the trailer in recent consciousness may have helped as well, or recalling what Carruth looks like. Memory aside, just how deep Jeff and Kris’ connection goes is further illumined as the film collects as dialog and incisive cuts (to name two) following the silent and spare (yet voluminous) train sequences.

Upstream Color introduces inklings, moves to strong suspicions, then on to some sort of confirmation or revelation.The film reads like a mystery of the sort one finds in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry 2004). As Eternal Sunshine progresses we begin to fill in the finer details of what is really going on, what certain figures, objects, or events actually mean. Like Eternal Sunshine, it is enjoyable to watch the first time, but even more so upon the second viewing.

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“Carruth “cross-cuts sequences wherein movements, objects, shapes and/or sounds are repeated to form vital connections that draw characters and concepts together.”^^Evidence of another’s existence and influence begins to appear everywhere. He will also uses a singular sequence to speak to the interconnectedness the film contemplates, i.e. The Sampler pushes over bricks and records their sound, or slides a rock down a corrugated steel pipe, or records the hum of electricity. These actions become an event to later share, but in their moment we relate action with consequence.

While I spend more time speaking to the visual reliance, the use of sound as a way of perceiving relationships is another significant aspect of the film. I am especially taken with the correlation between sounds in nature or the rural with those within the towns and industry. Many shots focus on a figure’s ear, the tilt of the head as if listening, the movement of fingers as if playing along to something only they can hear.

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Henry David Thoreau: I haven’t spoken of this element of the film, which is important to its reading. There are people writing about it. I skimmed a New Yorker article and there was section on the worm references in Walden alone. If you’ve read both Walden and “Resistance to Government (Civil Disobedience),” the relevance is apparent, but I would want to spend another viewing on it. If you like Thoreau, this film will certainly interest you.

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Upstream Color is billed science fiction. And it is. But if you are expecting overt scientific explanations at some point (if not every point) in this genre film, you will be sorely disappointed. The only known certified practitioner of science and medicine appears ~56 minutes into the film and all the doctors do is deepen the conflict of the film.

uc poster taglineUpstream Color is a bizarre film–the charming sort of bizarre. It frightens and reassures, it rages and smiles warmly. And its oft quite understated manner is worth the while…that and Amy Seimetz as Kris. She is seriously fantastic and so much depends on her capability as an actress. The film really is just beautifully done: gorgeous imagery, great sound. Sure I left with questions, and the first viewing left me with a headache, but it is also a very rewarding experience. Carruth isn’t trying so hard for clever that the coherence of the film is lost. However, if he is trying hard for provocative (to say nothing of evocative), it works.

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^^ I wrote a final paper (dated July 15, 2013) for my Fantasy in Film class at UC Denver about the use of fantasy in Upstream Color, it bears the boring title: “Weaving Fantasy into the Fiction: Visualizing Congruity in Upstream Color.”

Upstream Color (2013) Directed, written, director of photography and original music by Shane Carruth; produced by Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair & Scott Douglas; editing by Carruth and David Lowery; Studio: ERBP; Starring: Amy Seimetz (Kris), Shane Carruth (Jeff), Andrew Sensenig (The Sampler), Thiago Martins (Thief), Frank Mosely (husband), Carolyn King (wife), Kathy Carruth (orchid mother) and Meredith Burke (orchid daughter).

running time 96 minutes. Not-Rated.

{film} upstream color*

I am posting about Upstream Color (Shane Carruth) twice: one without spoilers and one with. This post has spoilers! : the other is here.

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Plenty hear “indie film” and flee, and not without good reason. Some really do come across as indecipherable, and a film is constructed with a particular audience in mind. I see an indie label on a film and wonder: do I just surrender to the film, or am I supposed to engage all the critical apparatus I have? With Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, I would recommend both. Begin by just experiencing the film, the structure guides and instructs and most importantly it facilitates a dawning of a most basic and important sort. Then re-watch. Then read if you want, because there is a lot of conversation about this film.

Below is a w/ spoilers/conversation version. I want to present a reading that may help. I am writing this without having read others’ take on the film (I skimmed a New Yorker article and left it before it held anything of particular insight); I did watch and converse on the film w/ Sean, of course; I have especially avoided interviews with writer-director Shane Carruth because if the film can’t be read in some convincing way without his externally-drawn insight, he sucks at his job and the film fails. I will, nevertheless, be keen on what he has to say in the near future, and read the interviews to which he so graciously agreed.

Upstream Color is not the easiest film to simplify, and my detailed summary would not only be dull, but unfair—also, you can find walk-throughs elsewhere. As a synopsis, I like the first half of IMDb’s:

“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.”

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Do you ever wonder from where does that astounding connection between two people come? Two people who begin an intimate relationship wherein love might be ascribed are asked: how did you two meet? One might answer: I was running late for work one day and I saw her on the train and I felt very deeply that I had to get to know her. I became obsessed, like we were meant, like were being inexplicably drawn together—as if we were together in another life. A reason you might even ask one or both persons (or even wonder for yourself and significant other) is because of the otherwise inexplicable.Why did he pursue someone obviously disinterested in him, who warned him of very affecting mental health issues, who has been traumatized and is dealing with strange sensory overlays in its wake all this time later? And he has his own issues that equally complicate a relationship. They seem an odd pairing, unlikely; or one or the others’ struggles cause you to marvel over their commitment to one another. What is the tie that binds?

What if the answer for that deeply abiding connection was a worm, a parasite that had taken up residence no thanks to a thief who discovered he could use chemical properties in the worm to control people’s minds. With the help of an owner of pigs, the worm is extracted and transplanted into a pig; a pig who becomes attracted and attached to another pig in the pen who has a human counterpart as well. The pigs’ experiences become intertwined with the humans’. Two humans mate because their pig counterparts have mated; so in a way, they are together in another life. So the short answer for that deep and abiding connection is: our pig counterparts found each other and so then we are, likewise, drawn to one another. Are we allowed to see this in metaphor in a science fiction film?

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There are all these connections at work, relationships to be recognized in Upstream Color. There is The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) whom I affectionately dub “the pig whisperer,” mother-daughter orchid venders (Kathy Carruth & Meredith Burke respectively), and a Thoreau-reading Thief (Thiago Martins). What has a “pig whisperer,” florists, and Thief to do with one another much less the traumatized girl and some guy off the street?** Much of Upstream Color has to do with a realization of the connections between seemly incongruous people, things or events. Every aspect of the film works to demonstrate congruity between unlikely pairings, their interdependence. Take the title of the film for example: “the words upstream and color seem like a random pairing, holding no apparent relevance to one another until the film, at length, lends it significance.”^^

A certain loveliness is found in how it Upstream Color is structured to mimic a growing awareness of that for which the film is arguing, removing the obfuscations, collapsing time and space cinematically to create important realizations. The ability to visualize connections lends them greater veracity; we, in sense, actualize them. Upstream Color is structured with its medium in mind: frames spliced in sequences, juxtapositions that create narrative; the viewer creates the movement and relationships. For non-students of film, Upstream Color is structured like a puzzle, fragments collect and interlock toward a more conscious visualization of a type of interconnectedness at work in the film—and just as possibly, in the world. The science in this fiction is ecology (both in terms of biology and sociology).

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“Implementing the visual art of film to create strong inferences, Carruth eases the viewer into a greater and more conscious connection with the structure of his narrative, into seeing how the seemingly incongruous may, in fact, harbor congruity.” […] He “works hard to articulate one relationship to the other through a variety of means before placing them in a shot together for greater transparency.” ^^ The film opens with well-spaced, barely discernible dialog. The explanations are in the actions and edited sequences played out on screen. For instance, when we are first introduced to Kris and Jeff they inhabit different shots juxtaposed. Both are running, but Jeff is the jogger and Kris, we recognize, is a part of an organized run. We connect the action (their running) and proximity (the cut) and unconsciously relate the two figures, which is troubled by our understanding of space and time. They aren’t together; and yet an association has been made. We have to wait until later for the two to share a train and, more importantly, a screen together for “a more tangible proximity [to] confirm what is earlier (however less consciously) hinted at.” ^^ I should add here that Carruth relies on a viewer’s ability to remember (or ability to re-watch the film). Jeff wasn’t a remarkable enough a figure for me to recall him from that first scene to his next, and I was aware (after Primer) that I needed be really paying attention. Having had the trailer in recent consciousness may have helped as well, or recalling what Carruth looks like. Memory aside, just how deep Jeff and Kris’ connection goes is further illumined as the film collects as dialog and incisive cuts (to name two) following the silent and spare (yet voluminous) train sequences.

Upstream Color introduces inklings, moves to strong suspicions, then on to some sort of confirmation or revelation. The notion of reciprocity is an especially noteworthy revelation—it removes us from that level of anguished helplessness Kris undergoes at the beginning of the film; we are provided the hope of intervention, awareness as an activating agent toward change. The film reads like a mystery of the sort one finds in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry 2004). As Eternal Sunshine progresses we begin to fill in the finer details of what is really going on, what certain figures, objects, or events actually mean. Like Eternal Sunshine, it is enjoyable to watch the first time, but even more so upon the second viewing.

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“Carruth “cross-cuts sequences wherein movements, objects, shapes and/or sounds are repeated to form vital connections that draw characters and concepts together.”^^Evidence of another’s existence and influence begins to appear everywhere. He will also uses a singular sequence to speak to the interconnectedness the film contemplates, i.e. The Sampler pushes over bricks and records their sound, or slides a rock down a corrugated steel pipe, or records the hum of electricity. These actions become an event to later share, but in their moment we relate action with consequence. We also see how The Sampler profits from this cause and effect. What The Sampler takes from the consequence of toppling, tumbling, scraping, industry or anguish is translated into a knowable auditory perception then packaged and sold—if not tossed aside in the hunger for something more meaningful (i.e. grief).

While I spend more time speaking to the visual reliance, the use of sound as a way of perceiving relationships is another significant aspect of the film. I am especially taken with the correlation between sounds in nature or the rural with those within the towns and industry. Many shots focus on a figure’s ear, the tilt of the head as if listening, the movement of fingers as if playing along to something only they can hear.

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Henry David Thoreau: I haven’t spoken of this element of the film, which is important to its reading. There are people writing about it. I skimmed a New Yorker article and there was section on the worm references in Walden alone. If you’ve read both Walden and “Resistance to Government (Civil Disobedience),” the relevance is apparent, but I would want to spend another viewing on it. I am taken, primarily, with the lines Kris recites in the pool. I want another look at that, because of the words/lines most strongly intoned seemed to conjure pieces of the film.

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Upstream Color is billed science fiction. And it is. But if you are expecting overt scientific explanations at some point (if not every point) in this genre film, you will be sorely disappointed. The only known certified practitioner of science and medicine appears ~56 minutes into the film and all the doctors do is deepen the conflict of the film. They serve only to confirm that the earlier inhabitation of the worm and its extraction actually occurred; that or suggest that we (to include Kris) are experience an incredible hallucinatory journey. But this isn’t a fantasy film, it is supposed to harbor that horror of potentiality a less fictional fiction like science fiction can offer. Much of “the film’s success depends upon an implication of reality. The pigs are not left to metaphor in relation to Jeff and Kris (among others). There are biological ties that cannot be ignored (the painstaking transference of the worm; the pregnancy; the shared sense of anguish and helplessness when the piglets are taken away). A film that would make explainable the oft obscured connections and intersections in life has to maintain a denial of unreality.”^^ How the worm works to facilitate such a sensitivity/awareness between animals is a scientific explanation the viewer brings. Perhaps there are signs, some kind of corollary we should be identifying within the film. The film resonates with our understanding that both the visible and invisible connection between figures, objects and events exists, and it demonstrates this in impressive ways. Is it enough?

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Upstream Color is a bizarre film–the charming sort of bizarre. It frightens and reassures, it rages and smiles warmly. And its oft quite understated manner is worth the while…that and Amy Seimetz as Kris. She is seriously fantastic and so much depends on her capability as an actress. The film really is just beautifully done: gorgeous imagery, great sound. Sure I left with questions, and the first viewing left me with a headache, but it is also a very rewarding experience. Carruth isn’t trying so hard for clever that the coherence of the film is lost. However, if he is trying hard for provocative (to say nothing of evocative), it works.

———————

an article Scott (in comments–thanks!) links: it is really good, especially on writing about the sound which I hardly touched on at all above:  “The White Worm: Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” ” by Nicholas Rombes (June 10th, 2013)

^^ the quotations are mine, pulled from a final paper (dated July 15, 2013) that I wrote for my Fantasy in Film class at UC Denver about the use of fantasy (how/why) in Upstream Color, which bears the boring title: “Weaving Fantasy into the Fiction: Visualizing Congruity in Upstream Color.” per a request, my paper [such as it is, not as edited as it should and grade unknown, etc]: Weaving Fantasy_L Darnell

**no doubt there are infographics by now, but Sean had a nice way of looking at how the figure interrelate. The Sampler, orchid vendors, and Thief are adjacencies; the worm is the interstitial; the others are collateral damage.

Upstream Color (2013) Directed, written, director of photography and original music by Shane Carruth; produced by Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair & Scott Douglas; editing by Carruth and David Lowery; Studio: ERBP; Starring: Amy Seimetz (Kris), Shane Carruth (Jeff), Andrew Sensenig (The Sampler), Thiago Martins (Thief), Frank Mosely (husband), Carolyn King (wife), Kathy Carruth (orchid mother) and Meredith Burke (orchid daughter).

running time 96 minutes. Not-Rated.

{film} the descendants

I didn’t know much if anything as to what The Descendants (2011) was supposed to be about when it was released end of last year. I didn’t connect the director Alexander Payne with Sideways (2004) or About Schmidt (2002), etc. I thought it was a mainstream Hollywood film wrought with conflict and humor that would ultimately dance its way to an easily happy ending. My mistake for interpreting its Award Nominations and Wins with such an idea. For some reason, I didn’t follow curiosity over the trailers’ ambiguities with movie reviews at Roger Ebert’s site, or The New York Times. Carl V over at “Stainless Steel Droppings,” mentioned the film was more Art House than Hollywood, and I knew I would see it. And to be truthful, the experience is easier when your expectation is that the film is traditional Hollywood fare. As A.O. Scott notes, “the most striking and satisfying aspects of The Descendants are its unhurried pace and loose, wandering structure.” If you are not into unhurried and wandering, the film will drive you up the wall. As it is, The Descendants requires the attentive viewer who engages in helping the film create greater meaning and in ultimately interpreting its full story.

Matt King’s wife had a boating (race) accident which throws her into an irreversible coma. He must not only come to grips with the loss of her, he must find ways to tell their daughters, family, friends–and the man with whom Elizabeth King was having an affair–a revelation provided by his eldest daughter who caught her mother in the act. Ever the “back-up” parent, Matt must now deal with the knowledge he is now the only parent–of daughters. The eldest, Alexandra (“Alex”) at 17, her mother’s daughter, is brought home from boarding school; where she is tucked away to be rehabilitated from drug- and alcohol-abuse, and promiscuous behavior. The youger, Scottie at 10, is essentially ignored and left to the endemic that is the sexuality-obsessed female grade-schooler of today.

Matt King isn’t just your average citizen of non-paradise, but a successful real estate attorney, heir of Hawaii’s last queen, and current sole trustee of a 25,000 acre tract of virgin land on Kuau’i. He and the cousins are concurrently trying to figure out to whom to sell, before their hand is forced by a rule against perpetuities.

The Descendants moves through the slow disintegration and death of Matt’s marriage, his wife’s condition, the land that is his legacy–paradise, childhood, wildness and beauty. Simultaneously and just as quietly, it follows the slow healing of a father’s relationship with his daughters, the legacy of memory and culture, of family, of love.

The focus of the narrative does not move from Matt King (George Clooney) as central protagonist. It only shows and reveals that which is of import to Matt’s story and progression throughout the film. While no other character is unremarkable or forgettable (quite the opposite), the story is, for all its scope, quite singular in focus. The film moves away once, and it is pre-opening credits with Patricia Hastie as Elizabeth King vibrant with life and joy, presumably moments before she is thrown from the boat. Otherwise, every meeting with a new or other character is subject to the movement of the plot (and its segues). The youngest (Amara Miller) will be introduced and established, and then disappear or become hardly consequential until 20-30 minutes later. The eldest (Shailene Woodley) comes on screen, and spends a good amount of time satisfying the plot, but she is as easily set aside when necessary. None of the transitions feel forced or callous, but noticeably different–especially considering how much characterization is built in mere moments and via brilliant acting.

The Descendants spends an inordinate amount of time on medium close-ups. It is kind of uncomfortable. The audience is not allowed very much distance or objectivity. You cannot sit far enough away. The Descendants is unapologetically subjective and determined to make things personal with the audience. No pretending we cannot relate on some if not most levels of what is going on. The portrait is necessarily intimate, as are the subject-matters and their implications for the characters and the audience.

Matt King: [voice-over] Paradise? Paradise can go f* itself.

The film also differs in that the people are normal and relatively unlovely by Media standards. This is likely the most frumpy and average you’ve seen Clooney in recent years (if ever). The only other beauty is the eldest Alexandra. And notably the film spends most of its footage with these two. Is it that Shailene Woodley was so riveting because she is a talented actress, or because our eyes ached for someone pretty? likely both. That they cast Amara Miller for Scottie is both culturally fitting, but also the not wiry or pale is marvelous and refreshing. Man I love her lack of self-consciousness, and her dark curly hair and those freckles! When Matt King’s opening voice-over criticizes the mis-portrayal of Hawaii as paradise, he is questioning everyone’s misperceptions of flawlessness: the islands, individuals, careers, marriages, family, childhood, legacies–everything. Flaws or break from “type”needn’t make a person, place, or thing unlovely. In fact it creates depth and saves the characters and film from the vapid.

Matt King: What is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?

Parallels are drawn between what is endangered.  The slow and inevitable death of the wife, who is regarded as wild and strong and irrepressible, and the virgin land. Because of the eldest’s acknowledged doubling with her mother, and her ability to mature morally (as the film progresses), we have hope of her temperance, which would ultimately mean her survival; thus we can have optimism regarding potential solutions for the land. That the youngest is no longer excluded in her connection to the land (will get to enjoy its familial legacy) and female companionship (a maternal sister), she is redirected from a destructive path. The father has decided to be a good steward rather than the distanced owner. Roles and responsibilities can be re-constituted and explored. There is time for change. There is time to revisit our choices, our pasts, presents, futures.

What it means to love is necessary explored in endangered (and even lost) relationships. To be a descendant necessitates a relationship, and it implies a legacy. The Descendants interrogates relationship and it interconnectedness. What is one’s rights and responsibilities when it comes to a legal contract, a marital one, a parental, a sexually intimate, a friendship? How does ownership and stewardship differ? The intertwining is necessary because the treatment of one subject does affect the others. How we believe it should be and how it is is laid bare. How and where do we assign value?

The Descendants visits the collision between wholeness/brokenness, old-fashioned values/cultural depravity, respect/vulgarity. It hosts a world of motherless daughters (even Elizabeth’s mom is essentially absent), where mothers are essentially memories/ghosts–a criticism I find intensely interesting. “I don’t want my daughters growing up entitled and spoiled. And I agree with my father – you give your children enough money to do something but not enough to do nothing.” Matt King says this at the beginning of the film, acquainting us with his life as he knows it. And it seems wise. But it implies an understanding he doesn’t really have. He has been the “back-up parent” and workaholic; living on cultural assumptions. The film is a study in how men have yet to adjust or confront current conditions and challenges. No, Sid, he can’t exchange his daughter for sons, however fatherless, they too, appear to be. Instead he must re-evaluate his beliefs, his understandings, and his decisions; regardless of the wide range of emotion and circumstance that gets him there. As Roger Ebert observes, director and co-writer Alexander Payne has a “special affinity for men learning to accept their better feelings.”

George Clooney. Most, including me, would say Clooney gave an incredible performance. As the film is intensely character-driven, the success of the film hangs upon its actor’s abilities. Clooney proves more than capable to emote during those long close shots.

And George Clooney? What essence does Payne see in him? I believe it is intelligence. Some actors may not be smart enough to sound convincing; the wrong actor in this role couldn’t convince us that he understands the issues involved. Clooney strikes me as manifestly the kind of actor who does. We see him thinking, we share his thoughts, and at the end of “The Descendants,” we’ve all come to his conclusions together.

Dana Stevens (for Slate) wonders if Clooney was a casting misstep. “Clooney, like Angelina Jolie, may be becoming a prisoner of his own Olympian looks and fame—even shambling around in shorts, flip-flops, and a goofy floral shirt, this man is self-evidently not a schlemiel.” Stevens’ concerns go further, and I quote it because she may have a valid point.

The script (co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash) vaguely alludes to the character’s shortcomings as a father and husband without ever fleshing them out. If a woman’s going to cheat on George Clooney with the likes of Matthew Lillard, we’d better have a good idea of why. Was Matt a workaholic, as he claims in his opening voice-over? (We certainly don’t see him spend a lot of time practicing law.) Was he a sexually withholding husband, as his perpetually angry father-in-law (a terrific Robert Forster) obnoxiously insinuates? Virtually every moment of the film is spent in the company of this character, yet we come away not really knowing who Matt King is—not because, like Paul Giamatti’s romantic misanthrope in Sideways, he’s richly self-contradictory, but simply because he’s underwritten.

We do see Matt working throughout, and he does have offers by his eager cousins to put off the sale a little longer in order to deal with the wife’s death, but Stevens does rightly observe the stereotype with which Matt’s character is culled, but never confirmed outright. Still, I felt the character too familiar to be underwritten. Was it because I was engaging in the gaps? Upon closer examination, every character is a caricature, a representative, a shadow of a familiar. Everything we learn about Elizabeth that is beautiful and not is through other people and setting. She is completely drawn via others’ actions, memories, conjecture. They (and audience) assign her value. Should Matt be exempted as the central figure? The script announces its intentions to play with expectations, thus assuming it has expectations to play with. What do you think (if you’ve seen the film)?

i feel as though this screen -still is even more vivid than I remember.

The cinematography. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael (also of Sideways) does not afford Hawaii any special glamour. He doesn’t even deepen the focus or enhance with a heightening contrast when the family is surveying their tract of land. We notice what Matt King notices. There are a few vistas (when necessary, in flight, etc.), but for the most part, the setting gets the same treatment as the human landscape, close, unflinching, and normalizing.

If you are a fan of good performances and beautiful settings and understand going in that this isn’t necessarily going to be your typical polished Hollywood offering, I suspect you will find much to like. I have actually grown to appreciate the film more after a little distance, and the end scene was worth the price of admission to me.–Carl V.

The ending. The narrative does not undergo a perfect framing. For instance, there is no closing or summarizing voice-over narration by Clooney/King. There is one, in a way, by Morgen Freeman and March of the Penguins. The excerpt was functional in that it was incredibly appropriate. There is no ‘the end,’ but a continuation; the optimism is tenuous, but present nonetheless. Other frames, like the introduction to a conflict and its eventual “resolution” do not keep an order of appearance and disappearance: land sale, coma, troubled Scottie, troubled Alex, etc. to better Alex, better Scottie, land, death. The escape from structure into wandering makes for an uncomfortable unpredictability that fits all too well the film’s themes.

There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened — an old man punches a teenager in the face; a young girl utters an outrageous obscenity; Mr. Clooney slips on a pair of boat shoes and runs, like an angry, flightless bird, to a neighbor’s house — and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.–A.O. Scott.

The lack of affectation is uncomfortable, and carried off better than many an Art House effort; I’m especially grateful in its avoidance of resorting to mockumentary or the hand-held camera.

The Descendants(2011), directed by Alexander Payne; written by Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash; based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Kevin Tent; produced by Jim Burke & Payne; starring: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Nick Krause (Sid), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Mary Birdsong (Kai Mitchell), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell) and Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King); released by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R for for language including some sexual references.

Links & Reviews:  IMDb, Wiki, film site. Carl V. (“Stainless Steel Droppings,” Jan 2012) “The Descendants“; Dana Stevens (Slate, Nov 2011), “The Descendants: George Clooney’s immense likability, and other reasons Alexander Payne’s new film fails to deliver.”; Roger Ebert (Nov 2011) “The Descendants“; A.O. Scott (The New York Times, Nov 2011) “For One Man, Hawaii Is a Land of Problems.”

[film] Hesher

Oh, the joys of reviewing a film you would only recommend to a select few. Shall I lead with who those few are, or aren’t? Those who like a good Indie-flick where you have to work as much to define the narrative and characters as the skilled actors do. And fans of Joseph Gordon-Levitt will not be dissuaded from seeing Spencer Susser’s Hesher, though  some should consider the incredible vulgarity the anarchistic Hesher spews. To say he is obscene is a profound understatement—I am not being modest here.

Fans of Joseph Gordon-Levitt will not be disappointed by this versatile actor who is riveting as Hesher. His character is a bit of a Coyote figure. He comes from nowhere and enters T.J.’s life like a communicable disease. He is unpredictable, plays a bit of a trickster, injects an unexpected sense of rationale occasionally, and spares the odd moment for tenderness. The other characters are inexplicably drawn to him; as are audience members—such is Gordon-Levitt’s ability—to create a character this obscene and yet hold their attention. Or is that he is just some horror so fantastic we just can’t look away.

T.J. (Devin Brochu) mistakenly reveals Hesher to a housing development’s security, thus leaving the mysterious transient without a roof. So Hesher moves into the emptiness of T.J.’s home without invitation. He not only moves into T.J.’s home, but takes to following the boy. When not standing by, he carries out the socially unacceptable response to T.J.’s problems. At first I thought he was an imaginary character, a T.J. as Max and Hesher as a monster escapee from the island scenario. But he isn’t

The stellar casting of Gordon-Levitt and Brochu continues with Rainn Wilson as Paul Forney (T.J.’s father) and Piper Laurie as Madeleine/Grandmother (Paul’s mother). Paul and T.J. are grieving for a wife and mother. Paul has retreated into a depression and the grandmother does her best to nurture her son and grandson, but neither adult seem to be of much help to T.J. who is oft left to his own devices and thus vulnerable to a bully at school. As Peter Travers in Rolling Stone notes, “Wilson makes Dad’s emergence a subtle marvel.” Paul rises to consciousness in a comic and tragic way that slowly unfolds as life and feeling begin to return to the household.

The wonderful Natalie Portman rounds out the cast as Nicole, a grocery check-out clerk who also unexpectedly enters into T.J.’s life and remains as a young boy’s crush. She is the character who is determined to live and love despite the struggles of (financial) survival that living by the rules/expectations provide. Nicole’s attempts usually come with a vocalized explanation, a reason why she had to try, and with an understanding that there could be failure. In a way that isn’t only visual, she is a yin to Hesher’s yang, two halves that understand each other.

Hesher insinuates himself into the Forney household, finding a gentleness with the grandmother without surrendering his foul mouth at the door. But the dad takes increasing notice of him, especially as T.J., after a spree of vandalism with Hesher, begins to mimic Hesher’s irreverence and rage. T.J. begins to fight for himself and while it is fear-inducing, I think it also a somewhat cathartic experience. The film escalates into a tumult (yes, there is even rain) and the coming down works to collect the pieces of a nightmare waking. The dad becomes more relevant and Hesher less so, and T.J. has a “goodbye” moment  with his mother and the past. But then Hesher must return, because while he appeared out of nowhere at the beginning we need him to help provide a sense of closure? I mean, the family would have eventually found healing without him, right? Now Hesher’s needed presence and their subsequent actions need explaining.

It is a strange (and not completely believable) turn that Hesher would appear beholden to T.J. He claims it is because of the grandmother, but the sense of honor is fittingly unpredictable (?), the gifting at the end? The roof is funny, yes, but not enough to recover the Hesher Gordon-Levitt so brilliantly creates.

That the film paces a traditional narrative arc, whether we can comprehend the narrative or not, suggests some intention, some attempt to make a point. The profound realization may be as the tagline’s suggests, “Sometimes life gives you the finger and sometimes life gives you Hesher.” A story to make you feel better? I know you lost your wife and mother and the happy life you were living, but it could be worse… I know you hate the state of cultural norms, but it could be worse… Or is it closer to what the grandmother says, “Life is like walking the rain. You can hide and take cover or you can just get wet.”

Hesher didn’t seem to know how to end itself without something hokey, which is too bad; but it was consistent with the indecipherability and its vulgar metaphor. Hesher is obscene and when critics note a lack of definition to the roles and narrative in the film, they know what they are talking about. My above speculation is just that, speculation.

Hesher in the way it’s filmed isn’t inspiring enough to worry about, but the acting is. Ebert is true in his observation that “Rainn Wilson and Piper Laurie are good actors, and so for that matter is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and here we can see what good actors do with inexplicable situations and undefined characters. In a way, this is pure acting, generated from within, not supported by a narrative framework.” The “pure acting” is perhaps the real redeeming aspect of having sat through the film. Goodness knows the metaphors do not reveal anything new—except for maybe achieving new low. (Losing a family member is like losing a left nut?)

Hesher (2011)

Directed by Spencer Susser

Produced by Natalie Portman, Spencer Susser, Morgan Susser, Lucy Cooper, Johnny Lin, Scott Prisand, Win Sheridan

Screenplay by Spencer Susser, David Michôd

Story by Brian Charles Frank

Starring : Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu, and Piper Laurie

Music by Francois Tetaz

Cinematography Morgan Susser

Editing by Michael McCusker, Spencer Susser

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated R for extreme profanity, violence, and sexual situations.

IMDb page; Wiki link, which has a synopsis of the film to spare necessary viewing.

Roger Ebert’s (May 2011) Review. Stephen Holden’s NY Times (May 2011) Review : “Burn This, Curse That, Wreak Your Havoc”