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

Subverting plot conventions sometimes works, sometimes not...


“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.


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.


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.”

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