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Abstracts of two romances

April 28, 2013

I’d been looking forward to this April for some time; two of my favorite directors, Shane Carruth and Terrence Malick, were both releasing new movies. I saw Carruth’s Upstream Color two weeks ago [1], and Malick’s To the Wonder last weekend. Both are well worth seeing. That I’m sure of. But I’m not sure of much else–and with both of these movies, I suspect, that’s part of the point.

M.C. Escher - "Waterfall"

I’m somewhat surprised to find myself talking about these films together. I know of Carruth as the self-taught writer/director/actor/composer of the time-travel movie Primer. Everyone admits Primer is impressive, especially for being shot on a budget of $7,000, but for most people it’s an intriguing and confusing puzzle-box: “Christopher Nolan’s Inception only pretends to be complicated, but this movie actually is.” Fewer people realize that the film’s emotional arc is just as laconic and just as tightly knit. (For more on Primer, see this earlier post.) Still, nothing in Primer prepared me for Upstream Color. If Primer cuts an emotion into puzzle pieces and rearranges them, Upstream Color blurs an emotion into an impressionist painting, while retaining that analytic coolness. Less like M.C. Escher and more like early Mondrian.

Piet Mondrian - "Avond (Evening): The Red Tree"

With Primer, Carruth was most easily compared with Christopher Nolan; with Upstream Color, the director he’s most like may well be Terrence Malick (a comparison made easier by the Malick-like eight-year silence between Carruth’s first and second films). Or half-Malick, half-David Lynch; but the Malick is closer to the heart of the film. (I should mention Andrei Tarkovsky too; Upstream Color reminds me in several ways of Solaris, about which movie see this post.) Upstream Color still evokes Primer’s science-inflected sense of sublime curiosity and narrative confusion (though unlike in Primer, the “how?” questions may not really have answers), and adds in a layer of horrific surrealism, but its central concern is sensuous display of emotion. Hands moving slowly along and across surfaces, couples standing together and looking up at the sky. Thoughts are conveyed without words (in fact the last third of the movie has none). If it’s hard to say what the movie is about, that’s partly because the movie is about emotion stripped of narrative content.

“Emotion stripped of narrative content” would be a good way to describe Malick’s entire oevre. I first learned of Malick from his amazing 2011 film The Tree of Life (brief thoughts on that film here; if you haven’t seen it, do so now), and later I saw most of his others. All of them have fairly minimalist, straightforward narratives, which serve mainly as a trellis for Malick to bedeck with the ivy of luscious scenery, sensuous bodies, and drawn-out sidelong glances. All of it comes together to communicate something intangible about the connection between human loves and love of God. In the kind of human love under consideration To the Wonder return to form; The Tree of Life deals with the relationship between children and parents, but most of Malick’s other films (all but The Thin Red Line, really) are about romantic love, its dangers, its promises.

To the Wonder

To the Wonder deals particularly with the sterility that results from a failure to commit to love fully. (First Things has a good article about this.) A side plot looks at a lonely Catholic priest who cannot feel the love of God, but who brings himself to return both to prayer and to the community, and finds there a kind of peace. The film centers on a romance between a sensuous Frenchwoman and an aloof American, and on how the romance fails because both refuse to let it grow into what it must if it is to survive, he by refusing commitment through marriage, she by refusing to have children once they are married. Love mean almost nothing unless it brings something into the world. But–and this is the strange thing about the film–nothing isn’t quite right. The Catholic Frenchwoman’s Protestant American rival says, when the man refuses to marry her, that he’s made their love into something filthy, but the main character, we sense, feels something more complex. Her marriage fails, but something remains, something that has been recovered, that had been missing when the story began. What that is, though, may be impossible to articulate. It may be nothing more than a sense of peace–and I wonder if that peace is not meant to be akin to the peace the priest feels when he prayerfully reenters the world. The priest, too, can only be at peace once he prepares to leave town, having been reassigned to another parish.

Upstream Color

This is the deeper point of connection with Upstream Color. To the Wonder explores romantic love and its potential for fecundity, but also the loss of that love, and what takes its place when it goes away. Upstream Color (and now I’ve finally come to what that movie’s about) deals with romantic love as both a response to loss and as itself a kind of loss, again a loss of fertility. Upstream Color is about people who have lost their sense of who they are, who have had the story of their lives destroyed by Something and who come together and fall in love only because they have both suffered the same fate. This Something has been described in press releases as a superhuman organism, and the more-than-man who controls it is named in the credits as the Sampler, but it’s almost impossible to pin down what either is, literally or figuratively. If we take him to be God, the movies become about how God makes closeness possible, but in a way that makes us think we would be better off without him. [2]

It might be more interesting to see him as the Artist. If we do, we can attach new meaning to my earlier description of the film as about emotion stripped of narrative content. None of Malick’s films are about that. In To the Wonder the specifics of how the couple fell in love do not matter, but that failure to matter itself does not matter. Abstraction has no consequences. In Upstream Color, it is as if there is no story there to tell, as if those conversations the film skips over did not in fact happen, and the characters know it, and it begins to terrify them. Both films are about both the fecundity of romantic love and its destructive power, but Upstream Color takes the destructive power one step further. For this reason, while To the Wonder relies heavily on classical music overlaid on beautiful shots of the horizon, Upstream Color is an amazingly claustrophobic movie, full of blurred-out backgrounds and dominated by the beautiful, haunting, droning vibrations of its soundtrack.

More remains to be said about both movies, but no matter how much is said, could it resolve the dissonance these movies leave us with? I don’t think so. These movies don’t lead somewhere so much as they immerse us in the feeling of romance, of unfulfilled longing and unstable tension and people prevented from bridging those gaps by no fate or force outside themselves. Upstream Color does it better, I think, and not just because of its willingness to imagine an objective correlative (i.e. to introduce fantastical elements) and its amazing soundtrack; To the Wonder feels formulaic at times, as if Terrence Malick is just doing his Terrence Malick beautiful-cinematography-little-plot thing, almost to the point of parody, while Upstream Color really feels like something new, the way Primer felt like something new when I first saw it. Like Primer, and like The Tree of Life, but perhaps unlike To the Wonder, I would watch Upstream Color again. But unlike Primer and The Tree of Life, however many times I watched Upstream Color, I doubt I could bring my thoughts about the film to a satisfactory resolution.

I don’t mean by this that my thoughts on Primer and The Tree of Life are settled in a bad way. Rather, they manage an intellectual catharsis: they build a bridge from “thinking about the movie” to “thinking about what the movie is thinking about.” All of these movies, even Primer, are about something like “the metaphysics of love”: the relationship between an instance of a kind of love and Love itself. Primer is about friendship; watching it brings us to contemplate the connection between friendship, rivalry, power, and the sublime. The Tree of Life is about family; watching it brings us to contemplate the connection between parenthood, sin, death, and theodicy. Upstream Color and To the Wonder are about romance; watching both, I do have thoughts about eros, and distance, and loss, and fulfillment, but I also can’t stop thinking of how the films fail to satisfy.

If this is true of both of these movies, might it be a difficulty inherent in their subject matter, and the attempt to abstract its metaphysical essence away from mundane concerns? I’m not convinced it does, but perhaps. The familial relationship contains its own subject matter, and so lends itself well to such abstraction: the parent brings the child into the world, and so bears responsibility for everything the child experiences, in a way that colors their entire relationship. Thus The Tree of Life needn’t be about anything specific because it’s about literally everything. Similarly, friendship, as is often said, means two people looking in the same direction, at one thing, and to portray it is to show what they’re looking at. Thus Primer doesn’t need to be explicitly about the relationship between the engineers, because by being about their invention of time travel, it’s already about them. But erotic love is two people looking at each other; it has no subject matter besides their interactions and the fruit they bear. Cut out their apparently meaningless mundane interactions and you make it impossible for love to flourish; you’re left with Upstream Color and To the Wonder’s achingly beautiful ephemera. [3]

These films aren’t about erotic love, they’re about the lack of it. Which may be what modern romance, the romance of Romanticism, really is. I’ve heard it so argued. On some level both films know this; both films are very much about fertility and what happens when you subtract it from eros. But I think only Upstream Color makes the connection between the mundane and the procreative, and in doing so again proves itself the better film, though still a flawed one. As the Sampler is responsible for the lovers’ loss, the filmmaker is responsible for ours; he has abstracted romantic love away from mundane life, and so made it unbearable.

Well, maybe. I don’t know that I buy that. That’s part of what makes these movies so frustrating.

[1] Immediately after Upstream Color was screened Shane Carruth came out on stage and answered a few questions. Some of what I say here is based on his answers. The questions were for the most part not very good, but I quite liked his demeanor in answering them.

[2] The Sampler-God connection is not one Carruth himself mentioned. I have no idea whether Carruth has any religious beliefs or even any interest in religious concepts. There is some Christian symbolism in Upstream Color but it may be accidental. I do wonder–I know Terrence Malick does, and that certainly influences how I view his films–but I’m also not sure how much it matters.

[3] Everything, something, nothing; this is getting fairly metaphysical. To line up the psychological, metaphysical, and theological triads: family/eros/friendship is everything/nothing/something is Father/Son/Holy Spirit. Now that’s a set of concepts that you can turn around in your head almost endlessly.


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