I watched two wildly experimental films this year. First was Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), a movie about bodies, water, sound, theft, memory, embodied parasites, love, experiments, Thoreau, and overall, emotion. The second, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), was about, well, I’m still not quite sure (although I’ve been thinking about it incessantly for the last several days). Upstream Color offers the engaged viewer several narrative options, all equally plausible, and none more unconvincing than the other. Holy Motors, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself well to story lines, though the film itself is replete with them. To say the movie is polysemous might just constitute the understatement of the year. The film’s French absurdism notwithstanding, however, Holy Motors defies genre and feel. I remember having a similar emotional response to Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bending Synecdoche New York (2008) and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), but in terms of genre or substance, the movie is more akin to Michel Hazanavicius’s meta-critical The Artist. The movie is a dizzying film about film, art, voyeurism, and audience. Carax has no regard for convention. His surrealism is as gorgeous in some segments as it’s stomach-churning in others.
Carruth’s Upstream Color is also quasi-absurdist in points, but it manipulates the emotions more consistently and evenhandedly than Holy Motors. The movie flows like one of Terrence Malick’s filmic elegies, but one postured in a vein of dark existentialism. Carruth blends Mallick’s highly emotive theo-philosophy with the cynical brilliance of a Frederich Nietzsche. Upstream Color is profoundly banal in certain points (piglets, Carruth, really? Why pigs?), yet it was probably my favorite film of 2013. There’s a scene early in the film that I found to be perhaps the most titillatingly primal, viscerally disturbing (not sure this is quite the word I’m looking for) ever experienced while watching a movie. I won’t try to explain fully, here, but the strange and unforgettable scene involves a strange man who summons one of the film’s protagonists by driving to the middle of an open field, placing several large base speakers face down on the dirt, and emitting a low, guttural, series of musical notes into the ground from his truck’s sound system. In this scene, Upstream Color‘s rich texture is at its fullest. Carruth brilliantly exploits color, sound, and through them, the emotions.
Both films place their directors in the realm of the avant-guard, establishing them as filmic visionaries. Both films deserve multiple viewings.