“Upstream Color

FILM: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Director behind the new indie film makes art out of entertainment, genre tropes

SAINTS

Lead actors Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”

All too often genre films are disregarded by serious cinemagoers as slight, immature and of a certain artlessness. David Lowery disagrees.

The young writer and director of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” opening in Portland this Friday for an exclusive run at Cinema 21, grew up loving the genre movies of his youth. When I spoke with him on the phone last week about his latest film, a revisionist western/crime story starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, he ruminated on the endless possibilities genre films offer a filmmaker.

“Genre is the most pliable way to tell a personal story and get it out into the world,” he said. “It’s a really exciting way to explore things that are deep and hopefully rich and thoughtful and still have the movie appeal to a wider audience.”

The most impressive thing about “Saints,” beyond the gorgeous cinematography by Bradford Young and the highly original, perfectly-pitched score by Daniel Hart (the film demands to be seen and heard on the big screen), is the way in which Lowery manipulates the genre elements of this story into something grander, almost mythological. He does so in service to an emotional, intimate story about two lovers who long for each other but whose time may have sadly passed.

The opening text has a fairytale quality: “This was in Texas…” There’s something so right, simple and fresh about these four words, eschewing the now overused once-upon-a-time text scrawl. It clues the audience into the film’s familiar aspects and the ways in which it veers off, carves its own path.

“That phrasing, I wanted to take a different, more-open ended approach,” Lowery said. “I wanted to let people know that this is a movie where the story has come to its end already, and we’re going back to revisit it. The way it’s phrased speaks to the tone of the movie in the same way the title does.”

Ben Foster, David Lowery, Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

Ben Foster, David Lowery, Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

Mara and Affleck are both excellent as the Bonnie and Clyde-like Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon. Their first scene together, lit and captured like a Terrence Malick film, establishes so much with so little screen time. They fight, flirt playfully, confess secrets and make up. We get a sense of the history between these two, they’re flesh and blood, seemingly as real as their bond. They’re so clearly in love, hopeful and full of promise.

Their story begins where most movies of its ilk conclude. They pull of a big heist, off-camera. The next scene has them battling against the cops in a dilapidated farm house. They’re caught, Bob is arrested and Ruth, pregnant, essentially goes free. The film then leaps forward some four years or so. Ruth is raising their daughter, and Bob, who writes her every day, is planning a prison break to reunite with his lost love. The rest of the film uses crime and western genre tropes, motifs and archetypes as background and set dressing, revealing Lowery’s main concern: What do you do when the world keeps giving you clues that a love, no matter how strong, is fated to end badly?

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a dream film, the kind that just aren’t made enough these days, but were commonplace in ‘70s American cinema. It stands alongside other great films from this year—”Mud,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Spring Breakers,” “Upstream Color”—as shining examples of American films that find the sweet spot between art and entertainment, embracing genre but also messing with audience expectations. If you’ve seen the films “Saints” is referencing and playing off of (“Badlands,” “Sugarland Express,” “McCabe and Ms. Miller”), you’ll have a great experience. But this is a film that works just as it is, without footnotes.

Upstream Color,” it should be noted, was edited by Lowery, so he’s having quite a year. For anyone who’s seen it, it’s hard to deny the brilliance of his and Shane Carruth’s cutting work on that film. For Lowery, “Upstream Color,” with its multi-layered match cuts and dense editing, couldn’t have been made even ten years ago, nor does he think audiences could even watch a film like it then: “I love the way storytelling evolves with our brain’s ability to perceive information and you’re always finding these artists who push their storytelling a little bit further that way in which we process information. That helps us take a leap forward.”

Don’t sleep on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It may not play in theaters for long in Portland, as the fall season gets crowded with awards bait and even more blockbusters. I hope it has legs and plays in town for the rest of the year. Word of mouth could build an audience for it, not unlike the ‘70s era in American movies it recalls, when a movie had a chance to gain steam.

In a line near the end of “American History X,”  Edward Furlong talks about ending an essay with a quote: “Someone else has already said it best. So if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong.”

That rule applies here. From Mr. Lowery: “I’m using storytelling devices that are time-honored and well-tested. They’re incredibly enjoyable to audiences and to me as a filmmaker. You get to have fun using these tropes that have been around for awhile, and using them to your own advantage so you can dig in and do something that means a lot to you and hopefully to other people as well.”

****

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #77, features the full interview with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery along with a review of the film.

Movie Time: It’s not about the plot in ‘Upstream Color’ and ‘To the Wonder’

Subverting plot conventions sometimes works, sometimes not...

By ERIK McCLANAHAN

“If somebody were to ask me if I want to watch a movie about a college graduate who has an affair with an older woman, I would say no thank you, absolutely not, I’m not interested in that as a plot. And yet ‘The Graduate’ is one of my favorite movies, because it has nothing to do with the plot. It’s how the information is conveyed. Is there something richer on its mind?”

Most moviegoers today are way too concerned with plot. It clouds their judgment. What Shane Carruth’s quote (from an interview on Bullseye With Jesse Thorn) gets at is an old maxim from Roger Ebert: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” The nuts and bolts of a story are only a small part of the cinematic experience, merely a granule of a much larger, more exciting sandbox.

“Upstream Color,” directed by Carruth and now showing at the Hollywood Theatre, is not an easy film to describe. It doesn’t lend itself to tidy plot breakdowns. The story beats don’t just avoid the traditional A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C narrative structure, it throws tradition out of the window, abandoning context and nearly every rule of screenwriting and editing.

When a filmmaker breaks the rules, it can be exciting, because there’s an inherent danger in the experiment. “Upstream Color” may be difficult to synopsize, but it’s a haunting, ethereal, beautiful experience you probably won’t necessarily “understand” in terms of what actually happens, but if you give yourself over to its idiosyncratic mood and tone, attempt to get on its peculiar wavelength or just fall under its trance, you’ll be rewarded, maybe even tortured by it, unable to forget certain moments. What more could you ask for?

****

The impulse for rule-breaking filmmakers (Jean-Luc Godard and other French New Wave members come to mind), most often seems to come from a love for cinema that morphs into a frustration with all its tropes and cliches. Genre and convention will always have its place in film, but the narcotic-like rush that comes from a movie that plays by its own rules is unparalleled.

A scene from Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color"

A scene from Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color”

Since most people go to the movies simply to be entertained, it’s important to stress that “Upstream Color,” challenging though it may be, aims to put the audience under a spell not unlike any Hollywood blockbuster. If I may quote again from the late, great Roger Ebert: “When I go to the movies, for two hours at least, I have an out of body experience. If the movie is working for me, to some degree I am that person on the screen. I forget my social security number, I don’t know where I parked the car. I am having vicariously an experience that happened to someone else.” Though Carruth’s tactics seem bizarre—his style compared to most movies is akin to a student making gourmet meals instead of eating homogenized cafeteria food—he ultimately wants to make the audience feel something. He’s just going for a more nutritious experience.

The most surprising element of “Upstream Color,” beyond it’s bold narrative techniques, hypnotic music and gorgeous digital cinematography (all done by Carruth, a true cinematic multi-hyphenate), is its visceral emotions. For a former software engineer, the guy is awesomely in tune to what makes us human. He knows how to capture real moments that break through the more obtuse, confusing parts. In short, it has nothing to do with plot.

****

While “Upstream Color” is a great example of a modern, accessible movie with experimental, sometimes avant-garde stylistics and techniques, it saddens me to say that watching Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” which opened Friday for a weeklong run at Cinema 21, as admirable as it is for its formal ambition and visual awe, is one of my most frustrating movie experiences of the year.

Malick takes a very simple story about a guy (Ben Affleck), adrift in a modern world where he must come to terms with… like, love in a modern society, man, and makes a film that feels like a parody of the director’s worst tendencies. In the opening moments, Affleck is with Olga Kurylenko (“Oblivion,” “Quantum of Solace”), seemingly happy in France. He takes her and her daughter back to live with him in Texas. Almost instantly he’s thinking that it was a bad idea, she hightails it out of there, and Affleck starts up with a former flame, played by Rachel McAdams. For some reason, Javier Bardem is a priest in the same town, also adrift and wandering, literally, at mostly random moments in the film. He gets a whispery, cloying voice-over, as do the two leading ladies.

This is true auteurism taken to a level of near-unbearable transmogrification. As happens in pretty much all Malick films, actors originally cast in the film—Jessica Chastain, Barry Pepper, etc.—do not make the final cut. Those who made it past the editor’s merciful scissors, look lost on camera. “Well, that’s the point!” you may counter. Sorry, not buying it. Even if Malick was so successful at portraying his protagonists’ wandering psyches and their yearning for connection, that doesn’t mean watching it is any more bearable.

To-The-Wonder

Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Kurylenko and McAdams—making up the other part of this love triangle—weren’t shot stunningly. True to form, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki conjures beautiful, poetic imagery, proving he’s the best in the biz yet to win a cinematography Oscar (after Roger Deakins). But, you know, the light shining through tree leaves; all the frollicking in the fields and grocery stores; the jagged, twirling camera moves; and the jeez-will-it-just-please-stop-already spinning and staring through curtains… All of this—as apt a distillation of what happens in the film as a rundown of its threadbare narrative—all serves to weaken the power of those pretty pictures, until by the end I just couldn’t help it anymore and started laughing uncontrollably.

A lot of this could be construed as hyperbole or even obvious when it comes to knocking Malick for being Malick. But I stand by this as being a truly bad film, regardless of whose name is under the director credit. My disdain goes deeper than simply making fun of this pretentious wank fest.

With all of the talented, well-known actors cut from the film, why the decision to keep Bardem’s priest character in it? I mean, really, what’s he doing here, besides wandering around in decrepit parts of Texas and talking with damaged and unfortunate, poor folks. These scenes often come off as queasily exploitative, making “Gummo” seem even more impressive by comparison (at least director Harmony Korine took on a more empathetic approach, whereas Malick, who comes off as bizarrely confused that some people in life are, gasp(!), poor and unfortunate, apparently just wants us to feel bad for these folks).

And Malick’s obsession with the idealized female truly does reach parodic levels here and actually undermines the potential for two talented actresses to chew into rare meaty roles for women. “To the Wonder” renders its female leads as childlike, manic-pixie, crazy people who are so consumed by their love, it’s apparently all they think and talk about. Affleck is such a frustrating cipher of a character that his indecision left me feeling that Malick wants us to be annoyed not with him, as we should, but with McAdams and Kurylenko, each can’t stop telling Affleck how much they love him (there is such a thing as unhealthy obsession, which would actually make a better title than “To the Wonder”).

Beyond the unintentional hilarity—how anyone can keep a straight face when McAdams, rope tied around her wrists, gazing at Affleck, declares “I trust you” is beyond me—it’s hard to deny that ‘Wonder’ is in its own way as shallow, immature and bloated as a Michael Bay movie. Even the plot rundown—guy struggles to choose between two girls—fits the high Hollywood concept mold, except this is arthouse indulgence at its worst, not Hollywood. The thing is, I still consider Malick to be a gifted filmmaker. I’ll see anything he puts out. This time out though, perhaps because he’s sped up his pace of late, his swing and ultimate miss is as epic as Casey at the Bat.

****

So why do we care so much about story? It’s hard and probably impossible to pinpoint exactly. Maybe it’s just that we’ve been trained by Hollywood products that tell us plot and story mean everything.

But maybe we’re learning. Just in the last few years we’ve seen many bold, distinctive and experimental approaches to narrative—“The Master,” “The Tree of Life,” “Blue Valentine,” “Black Swan,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Kill List,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Holy Motors,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “127 Hours.” Both “Upstream Color” and “To the Wonder,” two films with strikingly similar storytelling approaches regardless of their success as entertainment and/or art, belong to this subversion of Plot Primacy. And they prove this principle to be false, and even a little bit silly.

NOTE

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #62, features comparative reviews of “Upstream Color” and “To the Wonder.”