Sunday, April 14, 2013

Streams of Unconsciousness: Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder

Both Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder move through their stories, if you can call them stories, in a dreamlike stream of consciousness - or stream of unconsciousness.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color involves a career woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) abducted by a thief who uses mind control induced by a parasitic worm to get Kris to sign over her assets to him while he keeps her under his power, copying pages of Walden, turning her written sheets into paper chains, and taking nourishment from water and ice. When she gets away from the thief, she is drawn by amplified sounds to a sound editor/pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who transfers her parasitic worm to a pig. Later, she meets a lonely divorced man named Jeff (Shane Carruth), who shares memories with Kris and has most likely undergone the same worm-mind-control scam.

In this tale, or non-tale, of paranoia, conspiracy, love, and the interconnectivity between humans and the natural world, Carruth links vignettes and dreamlike images: colorful exotic flowers in a stream, pigs, worms, a flock of birds, Kris diving for rocks in a swimming pool, passages from Walden, all of which constitutes a world in which love and unity are crucial in the face of man’s misuse of nature. Perhaps. As a love story, Upstream Color is touching, as when Jeff and Kris watch a flock of birds at twilight or when they hold onto each other protectively in a bathtub. Sometimes Carruth seems self-conscious in his performance, as he does directing himself in Primer as well, but Seimetz is intriguing in the role of the enigmatic Kris, and she, along with Carruth, establish the relationship of Kris and Jeff as a desperate effort to find solace and resolution in a threatening world of pigs and paranoia.

With much less of a story than the extremely fascinating time-travel head-twister Primer, which I consider fairly straightforward in comparison, Upstream Color provides a lot for you to scratch your head over. I was engrossed by a few scenes in particular - the one involving Walden and diving for rocks as well as the initial mind-control scenes. Still, Upstream Color doesn’t have the compelling, driving force of Primer, as befuddling as that film might be.

Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder also explores the theme of love as it follows the seesaw relationship between a man named Neil (Ben Affleck) and a French divorcee named Marina (Olga Kurylenko). In dreamlike fashion, this non-story follows man and woman visiting Paris and Mont Saint-Michel; man and woman moving with Marina’s daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), to a sterile tract home in Texas; man and woman in love; man and woman drawing bitterly apart; Marina returning to Paris; man falling in love with a former sweetheart, Jane (Rachel McAdams); man leaving Jane when Marina returns to America.

Meanwhile, throughout these visual movements, a Mexican-American Catholic priest (Javier Bardem), suffering from a deep sadness, ponders the concepts of love and God and the meaning of life. As is typical with a Malick film, the story is more about imagery than conflict and dialogue. In a dreamlike stream we see the tidal flats of Mont Saint-Michel; the inexorable tide flowing in; romantic shots of Paris; a Texas small-town parade; magic-hour shots of fields, bison, grass, horses, flowers, playing children, houses, and streets; rippling water, the sky, trees, rivers, empty rooms, curtains, the aisles of a supermarket; as well as contrasting images of derelict homes and their forlorn residents, machines digging up the earth, oil drills, and a polluted stream.

As a Malickian central female persona, Kurylenko as Marina, much like Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life, has a talent for moving gracefully, lyrically, through Malick’s imagist world. It takes a certain talent to stand around or move wordlessly through one of Malick’s shots and still be able to emote what the character is feeling. All five performers playing the members of the 1950s family in The Tree of Life had that talent. In To the Wonder, however, Affleck is often out of place and unexpressive. He seems very uncomfortable stepping through Malick’s signature choreography of related characters moving toward each other and then away from each other within the frame. Perhaps Affleck was directed to move stiffly to suggest that he, like John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Father (Brad Pitt), are unable to connect completely with the Woman in their lives and the natural world, but Affleck never fits himself into Malick’s poetic movements as smoothly as Farrell and Pitt, both of whom exuded feeling even amidst inertia. As Marina’s daughter, Tatiana Chiline also has a talent for being a Malickian nymph interacting expressively like a ballet dancer with her setting. On the other hand, Rachel McAdams as Jane seems as uncomfortable and awkward as Affleck. Their scenes together are the least effective, and shots of bison on a twilit prairie are wasted on them.

To the Wonder is full of voice-over ruminations about love and God as well as soft, magic-hour shots of nature, but the film sets up compelling contrasts as well. As the priest (Bardem) visits the sick and the forsaken, he feels people’s pain, and we feel it too. The wonderful world is full of the ignorant and the outcast as well. The priest is sad, and it is unclear if he, in true Malickian style, can “see the wonder.” In contrast, in the film’s final images, Marina seems to connect with the natural world as poetically as Pocahantas (Kilcher) and Mother (Chastain). Still, there is no heavenly group epiphany as in The Tree of Life. Love is sacred to Malick, but even his world is not perfect. The destitute outcasts in To the Wonder and the shots of Neil collecting samples of polluted earth and water are unsettling. In addition, I could swear the shot of the emaciated woman pressing her hands on the window of the rundown house is set in the same house used so idyllically in The Tree of Life. Whether or not it is, it is still a sad, ironic allusion to that film.

The poetic impact of To the Wonder is not nearly as powerful as that of The New World or The Tree of Life, but Malick transmits enough magic for my appreciation of this film. Affleck and McAdams are misplaced, but there is still a thrill to the way Malick brings the camera into a room or how he moves it around lost or longing or outcast characters trying to connect with the wonder.


Sam Juliano said...

"The poetic impact of To the Wonder is not nearly as powerful as that of The New World or The Tree of Life, but Malick transmits enough magic for my appreciation of this film."

Hokahey, I fell for this film hook, line and sinker and much appreciate this superlative assessment. Romantic and Christian devotion converge in an impressionist and rapturous film that is predominantly interested in conveying a smoldering anxiety and fleeting ecstasy through faces and vistas evoking a style Malick has certainly used before, but one that in another sense opens new windows. Arco Part, Wagner, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky give Malick’s vision defining aural majesty and allow for what might be termed an an emotional epiphany. I am convinced that time will vindicate this film, and it will rightly be seen as one of Malick's masterpieces.

Great review!

Hokahey said...

Sam, thanks very much for the kind comment. I'm glad you "saw the wonder." You reference "a smoldering anxiety and fleeting ecstasy" - that's well said. Thanks again for reading.

Jason Bellamy said...

"Marina seems to connect with the natural world as poetically as Pocahantas (Kilcher) and Mother (Chastain)"

A line like that one really gets to the heart of the matter with this film: We would both agree (well, who would disagree) that Malick is a "poetic" filmmaker -- even without the free verse narration he provides free verse images that shoot for the profound. So from that standpoint, TO THE WONDER is undoubtedly poetic.

Then again, we also use "poetic" to describe not just an artistic approach but also an artistic RESULT. Which is to say that not all poetry is "poetic." And that's the way I feel about this film: it's poetry everywhere but it's all so flat -- it isn't actually poetic.

Follow me?

There were obvious comparisons between Kilcher and Chastain's characters before, and yet they both seemed like distinct individuals, too. Of the same general spirit, but not simply two iterations of the same thing. But now enter Kurylenko's character and now it feels like indeed there is just one mold that Malick is working from, and he's using different actresses but not actually developing different characters.

For that reason, I'm not sure I ever want to see TO THE WONDER again: I'm afraid it will erode my enjoyment of THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE but creating a rift in my ability to believe in Malick's grace and awe.

Hokahey said...

Jason - thanks. I totally follow you in regards to whether or not this film is "poetic." And, in my opinion, this is not Malick's best poetry.

As for Malick's female characters, they are a variation on a theme, but they also have distinctly different attributes. I see Chastain's Mother as being quite different than Kurylenko's character.