Day Five at Sundance is all about the perplexing, overwhelming, heart-stoppingly beautiful Upstream Color

Day Five at Sundance is all about the perplexing, overwhelming, heart-stoppingly beautiful Upstream Color

Given that yesterday’s post occasioned some discussion about spoilers, a brief preamble to my review of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (A): If you want to preserve the experience of seeing the film cold, with no idea what’s in store, I suggest you read no further. In fact, I recommend it, since having the movie wash over me was one of the most transcendent experiences of my moviegoing life.

That said, Upstream Color is virtually impossible to spoil, insofar as revealing its plot would involve understanding it, a circumstance from which I am at least several hundred words and more likely several viewings removed. Upstream isn't a puzzle movie like Carruth's Primer; I expect no elaborate charts reassembling its fragmented narratives, filling in its plot holes and plastering over its deliberate lacunae. (It’s also several orders of magnitude more lyrical and emotional than Carruth’s first film.) It’s not a movie to be solved but pondered, reconstructed and torn apart and built up again.

The easiest place to start with Upstream Color is, naturally, in the middle, when Amy Seimetz’s former visual effects supervisor—or maybe she’s in advertising, or something else that involves reviewing stop-motion footage and giving notes to animators—meets Carruth’s disgraced broker. She’s a (probably) recent victim of a scam in which she ingested a parasitic worm that made her susceptible to hypnotic suggestion; he’s a recovering drug addict who stole from his brokerage’s clients and has been kept as an off-the-books employee. How they understand each other, the way they come to terms with their own and each others' pasts, sorting through life events they don't remember or can't understand, is the heart of Upstream Color. Or at least I think it is.

Using rapid editing, off-center framing, and shallow depth of field, Carruth stages the movie’s first third as a series of perpetual head-shakes, held together by thin threads of dialogue—or rather monologue, since in this section no character responds verbally to another. It’s utterly perplexing, and heart-stoppingly beautiful, quite literally overwhelming, in a manner I can only compare to the creation sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. There will be more—much more—to say about Upstream Color, but for now, mark your calendar for April 5, when Carruth’s self-distribution scheme kicks in.

Amazingly, Upstream Color was only the second-most puzzling movie of the day, although the head-scratching on Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (B-) has more to  do with directorial intent than untangling its mysteries. At first, the movie presents a light-hearted faux documentary on the early days of computer programming, shot in smeary black-and-white video at a tournament pitting chess programs, and their creators, against each other. (The year is never identified, but it’s close to and not after 1984, which given that computer programming as such goes back to the 1960s, is not technically “early,” but it’s hard to think otherwise looking at a computer that resembles a large electric typewriter with an analog telephone handset planted on top.) After the film, Bujalski explained that the roles of programmers were filled almost entirely with non-actors, some programmers, some editors, some filmmakers, and film critic Gerald Peary as the tournament’s host, on-camera guide, and final objective, as he is also a chess grandmaster who will challenge the winning program to a match.

After that initial setup, the movie goes off the rails in several directions at once, detouring into a couples’ encounter group in an adjacent conference room whose rituals resemble the first hour of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, and frequently revealing a fluffy stray cat ominously prowling the hotel’s halls. Although he couldn’t pinpoint an exact starting point, Bujalski chalked Computer Chess’s origins up to two factors: One, he grew tired of people asking when the 16mm devotee would switch to video, and wanted to come up with a story that would justify shooting in this anti-HD format; and two, the project began after a larger film, with, to use his words, “real actors,” fell apart, and in response he made something as uncommercial as possible. On the way out, my colleague Tim Grierson compared Computer Chess to Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, a far more acute point of reference than the Waiting for Guffmans that have been floating around, but it’s Schizopolis without the underlying anger—or, to be frank, its boundless inspiration. Computer Chess is often hilarious, its unwieldy medium perfectly matched to its subjects’ social awkwardness, but for Bujalski, it feels like the start of a new direction and more like an abrasive palate cleanser.

Sadly, I only saw half of one of my most anticipated Sundance films, not because I came late or left early, but because after 45 minutes trying to get Charlie Victor Romeo (B) to play in 3D, the festival threw in the towel and showed the two-dimensional version—an acute irritation for the audience, but a true nightmare for the filmmakers, especially since the film isn’t being separately screened for press. One review opined that it was “hard to see what 3D would add,” given that the film consists of a stage play filmed on its own minimalist sets, invariably a cockpit mockup surrounded by blackness. But I submit that 1) One has no way of knowing what unseen aspects of a film might or might not add, and 2) The nature of its source material is precisely what makes the decision to use 3D so interesting. Rather than be confined by the proscenium or go the obvious route of “opening up” the play, the members of the Collective: Unconscious theater group chose to film the performance space in depth, in a manner congruent with Wim Wenders’ Pina. I can only hope some bold distributor gives people, including those who couldn’t last night, a chance to see Charlie Victor Romeo in its truest form.

The text of Charlie Victor comes, with only a few alterations, from transcripts taken from the black boxes of crashed planes. (The title is the NATO alphabet acronym for “cockpit voice recorder.”) As such, it’s almost unbearably tense, even when the anxious exchanges between pilot and copilot devolve into shouted technical jargon that starts to resemble a Firesign Theatre routine. Grappling with audience members who wanted more onscreen explication or photos of the crash site—you know, like on CNN—co-director Karlyn Michelson said they wanted to focus on “human drama” rather than mechanics, but the upshot is more unsettling and less clear-cut than that. Drama comes through to a point, but we know these planes are going down, if not when or how many will die (the death toll is revealed only after the transcripts end). The haiku-like descriptions of the crash causes—“catastrophic aft breach”; “static ports left taped over by maintenance crew”—do little to clarify why the planes crashed or why they were chosen: Only a post-film Google revealed that one is the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history. But then, the men and women in the cockpit usually don’t know what’s gone wrong either. I’m still not sure what to take away from the film, but being trapped with them in the agony of the present tense is not an experience I’ll forget before the plane ride home.

Tomorrow: A lyrical drama inspired by the Beltway Sniper case, and Michael Cera and Sebastían Silva’s second act.

 

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