The Movie Club

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color: I don’t know what it was about, but I loved it.

Entry 4: Her isn’t an indictment of beta-male wussiness—it’s about men and women who’ve forgotten how to be intimate.

Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s one man band of an indie is about … um … Drug dealers? Pig farming? Worms? Hypnosis? Thoreau?

Film still courtesy erbp

Dear Smart Ones and fellow movie-lovers,

This all started so pleasantly. Dana, perhaps out of sensitivity to the fact that I’m a Movie Club rookie and an only occasional critic, you gave me a lovely and benign assignment—to make my case for Upstream Color, the tiny, strange, little-seen alien seed-pod of a movie that is perhaps slightly too proud of its impenetrable outer husk. But then along came Wolf of Wall Street and Her, two films that are bound to take us all onto WWE turf in no time flat. In the distance, I can hear the ground shaking and see huge hordes of people, all painstakingly digitized by Zack Snyder, shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!

So let’s destroy one another until a million CGI residents of Metropolis have breathed their last. But let me start by saying I’m honored to join you! And Dana, I want to fulfill your request and give Upstream Color its moment, since the Movie Club is a place where we don’t let big, divisive films obliterate smaller objects worthy of fine-grained appreciation. (At least, not in Round 1.) Director-writer-co-editor-cinematographer-composer-star Shane Carruth’s one man band of an indie is about … um … dammit, I knew this would happen. Drug dealers? Pig farming? Worms? Hypnosis? Thoreau? Anyway, whatever it was, after 20 minutes, you started to feel that it wasn’t all that, whereas I was only beginning to get a tether on whatever the hell it was. I’ll concede that acting is something Carruth treats as little more than a necessary evil, and I realize that at the end of Upstream Color, it’s legitimate to ask if its narrative would be half as interesting had it not been presented with such dreamy, withholding, willfully enigmatic grace. But for me, the puzzling nature of the ride was its own reward. Upstream Color reminded me of those language classes I’ve never had the nerve to take that promise an instructor who will never speak a word of English to you and in seven weeks you will be fluent in conversational Mandarin. I was happy to spend time learning Carruth’s language, which felt to me like no other filmmaker’s. (I know that claiming a director has a completely unique way of telling a story is often just a polite way of saying he’s ripping off Terrence Malick, but I really do think Carruth is one of a kind and I would happily, you know, ingest his particular flavor of roundworm any day.)

Speaking of unusual combinations of sci-fi and romantic obsession: Stephanie! I do not recommend that you date Theodore Twombly, but I want to try to make the case that Spike Jonze’s Her—my favorite film of 2013, today anyway—is not at all intended as a brief in favor of beta-male wussiness or as a case for men as adorably slow learners. I’ll confess some bias here, not only as an ardent admirer of Jonze’s work but as a reporter who followed the movie for a couple of years, which almost always makes you lose your balance a little and is therefore an experience I wish on every critic at least once.

I don’t think Her is a justification of any kind of male romantic (mis)behavior. Jonze isn’t aggressive or noisy about his world-building, but it’s present, and throughout Her, he offers us gentle indications that the milieu he’s created is not one in which men have withdrawn from flesh-and-blood human connection, but in which people have. Human-OS relations are alluded to as an ongoing thing, a somewhat humdrum fact of connection in the tweaked, tactile but frictionless world that he has created. Presumably there are women involved in romances with male OSes, and same-sex OS “relationships” as well.

Moreover, in Her, that relationship is not the only form of withdrawal from intimacy; Theodore’s whole profession as a surrogate correspondent is predicated on monetizing the inability or unwillingness of both men and women to translate feelings into language; Theodore and the movie’s girl-next-door (Amy Adams) both escape, in different ways, into artificialized gaming universes; and even the arrival of the sexual surrogate in the most uncomfortable three-way I’ve ever witnessed suggests that there’s a whole Craiglisty world of people, male and female, looking not for no-strings sex but for no-strings intimacy. You can look at Theodore and yell “Man up!” and I guess that might be fair, but you’d be just as justified yelling it at Her’s women. It might come down to that miserable date scene between Phoenix and Olivia Wilde. I don’t read it as a “sensitive” man shrinking away from a woman who comes on too strong but as a sad dance between two people, both of whom have forgotten how to reveal themselves to another human being gradually, if they ever knew it at all.

In any case, if you don’t like Theodore, please don’t dump him for Jordan Belfort. You say you’d rather watch him blow cocaine into 100 women’s butt cracks? Have I got the movie for you! In The Wolf of Wall Street, anything we watch Belfort do, we watch him do 100 times. I understand overkill as an aesthetic up to a point, but I believe that point is generally reached well before the 179-minute mark. You’re probably all tired of chewing over this movie, but if we can tug the discussion off of the axes labeled Moral/Amoral/Immoral and Condemnation/ Depiction/Endorsement, I’d like to raise one query about Wolf on artistic grounds, which is, why did there have to be, to use the movie’s preferred syntax, so fucking much of it? I can’t remember the last time I sat in a theater so completely, fully understanding something the filmmakers were still dead certain I wouldn’t be able to grasp unless they shouted it at me a dozen more times. (I’m pluralizing filmmakers because, to my eyes, the movie is a product not just of Scorsese’s sensibility but of screenwriter Terrence Winter’s.) To quote Kate Winslet’s joke about Holocaust movies in Ricky Gervais’ Extras, “We get it. It was grim. Move on.”

For all of that, Wesley, we might find bipartisan ground on some of this. I won’t disagree that long stretches of Wolf of Wall Street are tremendous fun, that DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Joanna Lumley (!), Margot Robbie, and Kyle Chandler are terrific, and that great strides have clearly been made over the last 10 years in the field of Brazilian waxing. In fact, until about the 90-minute mark, I pretty much loved what I was seeing. But I may have been anticipating that structurally, Wolf would take a more interesting turn than it did, and that it would come in the form of a real second act, not just a hasty we-gotta-get-this-thing-under-three-hours coda. Kinetic energy doesn’t do it for me when it’s presented without peaks, valleys, lulls, tonal variations, character development, or occasional changes of perspective. I have a sixteen-month-old dog who, as we speak, is tearing around my apartment as if somebody stuck a candle up her butt and then ignored her safe word. In googling, I found that it’s something called FRAP, which stands for Frenetic Random Activity Pattern. FRAP is defined as nonstop explosions of repetitive hysterical activity to no particular end, after which the puppy will often look very pleased with itself. Can someone take The Wolf of Wall Street to a veterinarian and have this checked out?

For the record, I would not date Theodore Twombly or Jordan Belfort. But if Richie DiMaso wants to take me to the disco, I’ll be happy to bust out my white three-piece and a primal scream of delight that would rival Amy Adams’.