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Sunday 28 April 2013

UPSTREAM COLOR And My Unexpected Revelation

It's one of those films. A woman gets duped into giving her money away. Then there are shots of pigs walking around. Then a woman meets a guy but the camera is out of focus. Then the guy and woman talk but not in sync with the images. We see water flowing down a river. A guy stands over the pigs while frowning. 

I don't mean any offence to the director of this or the many films like it, but my word for these types of films is: boring.

But then, that's the word I would use for most Hollywood films these days.

That realisation hit me during 'Upstream Color', right around the time a pig was trundling in and out of focus. This artsy, nonsensical gibberish was no less boring than most movies that come out of the Hollywood system.

I found myself relaxing into the experience. For once feeling the joy of not watching a predictably linear, in-focus movie. Suddenly, there were no rules. And freed from the idea that a film should make sense or offer any kind of story, I began to enjoy the experience for what it was. 

And what is that? It's a nicely shot film, seemingly on a low budget, which captures some beautiful moments of pigs walking around and humans struggling with strange circumstances that, admittedly, I didn't understand.

And I don't mean to give big spoilers, but at the end of the film, the lead character holds a pig, they share a moment, it's poignant.

I'm so tired of what passes for movies these days. Bloated biopics in moody tones, caffeinated indie films set in LA and superheroes saving the world in a predictable way but only after two hours and forty minutes of witty banter.

This film had me intrigued, purely because it was different. Don't read too much into that, I was still mostly bored. Yet rather than flick my phone on to see if time was moving at all, I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the screen. I persisted.

It was good to see a movie doing something in its own way, at its own pace. Most movies in cinemas at the moment are cut together so fast and furious, with the plot jumping around like crazy, desperate to seem edgy, desperate to keep us consuming salty and sugary heart disease boosters. But I'm growing tired of it -- and so are many people. And although I don't think 'Upstream Color' was particularly good, I am not dismissive of it, like I perhaps would have been a year or two ago. I'm glad it exists, I'm glad it's different.

With TV getting so good, and streaming services producing their own content, the cinema is in desperate need of renewal. It will survive, it always does, but right now it struggles for relevancy. The Hollywood films all obvious and brain dead, the indie films obscure and slow. 

Of course I'm generalising, of course you could name ten films you liked from the last year. But still, the game is changing, and people only want to give up two hours for a flick if it's going to be exceptional.

To be honest with you, I am going through a stage of resisting the cinema. It's so rare that you see something great. 'Upstream Color' is not exceptional, but then why does it need to be? Cinema hasn't set the bar high for years. 

Here's some perspective from a guy called Matthew Milam, whose quote was published on The Lefsetz Letter:

"In the 80s, you had 15 - 20 movie studios each putting out 20 pictures a year. When you need to produce 400 films, you've sometimes just got to give a kid 10 million bucks and tell him to come back with something great. At the same time, you had 3 (4 if you count Fox) TV networks who had to play it safe. They were the only game in town and they were putting out content that had to attract advertisers.

Cut to 2013 and the roles have been flipped. You've got 10 studios each putting out a diminishing number of pictures every year. They've got to play it safe because they're taking fewer bites at the apple. Innovation has ceased in the pursuit of the sure dollar - an oxymoron if there ever was one.
Then, in TV, you've got God knows how many channels all clamoring for content. A day doesn't pass where you don't hear about some network jumping into the scripted TV game." 

We assume, because we're fans, that cinema is meant to be great. We assume that the innovators and artists will arise, eventually, and we assume they'll make stuff we'll relate to.

But the film studios make their money by packing stars and predictability. That doesn't always work, but it's the best the studios have come up with. And in the current era, it's no longer about the director. Only Nolan and Tarantino can pack a cinema, and that's because the power is no longer with the creatives.

Not that it ever was, really, but they used to always break through - now it's harder than ever. When scripts get sold in pitch meetings, when executives come up with the ideas, when sequels are constantly green-lit purely because of box office, what happens to art? What happens to original ideas?

Nobody knows. It's a mystery. I think it has something to do with pigs walking in and out of focus. 


  1. I love this post, so much. Thank you for this. I wish I had something intellectual to add, but I think you've said it all.

  2. Did you happen to see what Steven Soderbergh said over the weekend? You echo a lot of his sentiments here (or he echoes yours? Chicken or egg?):

  3. My friends recommended Oblivion over the weekend, so my husband and I went and saw it. It was an okay movie, probably a little bit too much Tom Cruise for my taste, but what stood out to me was that my friends who had recommended it seemed to love it because it was "original." "Define original," I replied after I'd seen it, because it was a little predictable, and they ended up explaining that because it wasn't a remake, prequel, or sequel, that they had to consider those factors while grading the movie.

    So sad, what this industry has become. The original stories I loved as a kid are all tropes now, and no one wants to try anything new in film.