Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Failure of Contemporary Criticism

Criticism of the arts is in a dire place right now. Never mind the penury that threatens to befall anyone who wants to do it for a living, or its cultural irrelevance when everyone with an internet connection has become a de facto critic. The truth is that a lot of film/book/music criticism is awful.

It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, in might never have been this way until recently. Criticism used to be a vital, important part of the culture. Think of Pauline Kael and the Cahiers guys before they started the French New Wave. Think of Lester Bangs and Rolling Stone. Think of Kazin and Fiedler and John Leonard.

There was a time when critics had great influence. A front page review in the NYT Book Review could launch a book to bestseller status. Now a glowing front page review of a future National Book Award winner doesn’t even power it to 40,000 copies (see The Good Lord Bird), and sometimes doesn’t even get a book over 13,000 copies (see Beautiful Children by Charles Bock). Awful.

I can’t help thinking this goes back to the main point: the criticism being written these days just isn’t very good. Why is this? Well, movie criticism has shot itself in its own foot in ways I’ve talked about before, mainly due to the cloistered and elitist film critic community. (Plus the way they insist on writing reviews within 12 hours of seeing a movie for the first time.) Music has perhaps become simultaneously a more communal and a more personal medium and is prone to an extreme subjectivity that ceases to be useful to other people. Book criticism, probably the healthiest of the three, suffers from general lack of interest.

But why should it be any surprise that contemporary criticism sucks? Ponder this: Who would become a critic these days anyway? Again, it’s more than just the bleak financial prospects of the enterprise. (Though that should be enough to dissuade anyone with any sense.) It’s also that the means to create the art they are critiquing have been completely democratized; it is easier than ever to make movies, publish books, release albums. Therefore, anyone with any real talent is making art instead of critiquing it. Consider: the most important criterion for being a good critic is being a good writer. But if you’re a good writer, if you have great insight and amazing verbal ability, why would you write criticism?

I respect the field of criticism. I think it deserves better. The same problem afflicts comic books and video games. The best writing talent is, perhaps sensibly, going elsewhere. I don’t see this trend being reversed any time soon.

Critics have to get better if they hope to do honor to their august profession. Here’s a dirty little secret: the criticism is supposed to be better than the art it critiques. This used to be true, but no longer. Think of all the shitty movies Pauline Kael reviewed and the awful bands Lester Bangs wrote about. And yet, even though bad art is forgotten, the good criticism of it lives on because the critics themselves were making art.

So an appeal to all critics: it’s not enough just to give your opinion about something. You have to make art, too. Only then will your profession become relevant in a culture dominated by real artists.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Problem With How Movies Are Released And Its Relation To Why Movie Criticism Sucks These Days

The New York Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend, and it made me realize that the current model of film distribution/presentation is at best antiquated and at worst totally stupid.

Festivals like NYFF play a lot of so-called "art-house films" (an anachronym if I've ever heard one; when's the last time you went to an "art house"?) and the way these get released to the public hasn't changed in decades: Play the festival circuit, then open in 4 theaters in NYC/LA, then maybe open in a few multiplexes, then a few more if the numbers are going in the right direction. Needless to say, unless the film is a hit, most people in the country have to wait until the video release to see these movies, which could happen a year or more after that initial festival screening.

This is dumb.

There are plenty of movies I'd like to see that were at NYFF, but I'll have to wait months for them to be available. Why are movies like this? With what other artistic medium are we prevented from experiencing the finished product for such a long time? Imagine if a novel was released and only people in New York City and LA could read it. Or if an album dropped and you could only listen to it at a certain venue at a certain time. These scenarios are preposterous, but for some reason are accepted when applied to film.


I propose a very simple idea: a movie gets one release date, and on this day it is released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and Blu-ray, and through VOD services like iTunes. This is the omnipresent release strategy every other mainstream artistic medium has adopted in the 21st century, and movies are lagging behind with a severely outdated system.

What are the plausible reasons for keeping movie distribution the way it is now? Let's tackle each one:

"Movies cost so much that a lot of hype has to be built up about its release in order to make its money back."

Ok, assuming this is true, is the "platform" strategy really the best way for films to maximize its intake of money? One of the films I really wanted to see at NYFF this year was THE WIND RISES. Disney (or Disney-owned Miramax) has been in charge of the domestic distribution of all the Miyazaki films since PRINCESS MONONOKE and they’ve always employed a platforming strategy (film festivals, limited release, bigger release). What kind of lucre has this resulted in? Take a look….

Domestic grosses:

PRINCESS MONONOKE: 2.3 million
SPIRITED AWAY: 9.9 mill
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE : 4.7 mill

PONYO actually opened "wide" (927 theaters; SPIRITED AWAY topped out at 714 at its widest) and unsurprisingly grossed the most at 15 million. These are, frankly, piss-poor results. All this strategy has done is withhold the films from Miyazaki fans while Disney desperately tries (and fails) to convince other people to see something they don’t want to see. (Can you even think of another product with a publicity strategy that does everything to entice uninterested people at the expense of its actual fans?) And I’m sorry but you can't tell me that making the movie available to everyone in the US at once—in the form of $10 movie tickets, $20 Blu-rays, $7.99 VOD rentals—wouldn't result in more money. Maybe in the past the platforming strategy was necessary, but in our broadband connected world, this is not the case anymore. The acceptance of online streaming and emphasis on consumer choice has fundamentally changed the way we watch TV, and it's time for the same change to be made for movies.


"Movies were meant to be seen in a theater."

This is another thing that was true once, but no longer. Once theaters switched to digital projectors, they could no longer claim that they were offering a unique experience, or even a "correct" one. Everyone's home set-up now deals with the same pixels as movie theaters, with the same simulated 24fps. There is no more film being run through projectors with its dreamlike shutter clicking away—a moot point anyway since most movies aren't being shot on film. And consider this: The hot tech in movie theater video projection these days is 4K, a resolution that will be standard in consumer TVs within 2 years. Home presentation of movies isn't only "just as good" as theaters these days, it’s better. Besides, think about other media again. Does the music industry demand people listen to new music in optimal conditions, to preserve the “integrity” of the experience or whatever? No, they let people buy it (or stream it) and listen to it however they want, whether it's on vinyl coming out of gorgeous speakers, or hideously compressed mp3s coming out of $5 earbuds. Not only that, but everyone has accepted any of these options as legitimate means of consumption. Only those afflicted with the most distasteful snobbery would insist that someone who had only listened to an album in mp3 form hadn't actually listened to the album yet. And speaking of snobs, we come to a final reason movie distribution is the way it is....

"It allows a bunch of people to feel superior to others and write a bunch of meaningless reviews."

This seems to be the only real reason the current system is in place. (This and each individual festival's vested financial interest in keeping it going.) All these advance screenings allow the press and those in major cities to feel really special for a few months. Having attended a handful of advance screenings, I know this feeling well. There’s no question that if I lived in NYC, I’d have seen those films at NYFF. So, ultimately, I don't hold it against people for doing something I'd partake in given the opportunity.

That is, unless they write reviews immediately afterward.

Reviews of art should be a good-faith interaction between reviewer and reader. The sometimes elusive reason for writing is crystallized when writing a review; it is abundantly clear you are writing for another person, because only a "touched" person opines to nobody, to nothing but air. (Whereas in other forms of writing this distinction is a bit hazier: one might say that writing down the truth is eo ipso "of worth," regardless whether anyone is reading it, cf. Hemingway's definition of good fiction being one true sentence after another....But I seriously digress.)

So when it comes to reviews of a movie that played at a film festival 24 hours ago, it invites the question: who could these early reviews possibly be for? When someone reviews a movie that 99% of the people who want to see the movie won't watch it for months, what's the point? What good is writing a review of HER now? The truth is that that person is writing the review solely for other film critics, trying to impress them and appear cool to everyone else. It's no wonder that film critics these days seem more cloistered and snobby than ever.

Of course, the critic can rebut that people will be able to track down his review after they've seen the movie (in 4+ months).  My response to that is: If the audience for your piece isn't going to read it for 4 months, why not write it 4 months from now? I think we’d all agree that time spent on almost anything—especially writing—makes that thing better. But the fact is your average movie critic places a premium on being first to comment on something and to make some sort of judgment, and this rush to add to the noise comes at the expense of insightful, considered writing.

A concrete example of this: I watched UPSTREAM COLOR on blu-ray, about five months after its premiere at the Sundance film festival. I was struck by the movie and wanted to write something that would contribute to the discussion. I wrote an essayish thing that concentrated on something very narrow: The similarities it shared with Kieslowski’s BLUE. Now, a quick Google search reveals that I wasn’t the first one to notice these similarities. Ray Pride, writing for Movie City News, wrote about it right after he saw the movie at Sundance. The thing is, he briefly mentioned it and moved on. My piece was 1,700 words and offered a far more detailed look.


Now maybe Mr. Pride didn’t have anything else on the subject. If I had to guess, he was just citing all the allusions he could remember as quickly as possible in order to be the first to do so, which is something that all film critics do these days. But here we are, not even a year removed from Sundance, and people looking for more information on this particular connection don’t really care about a brief mention by someone just trying to meet a deadline. My blog post is rightly at the top of the search results on the subject.

I’m not even saying my piece is particularly great. I’m not a film historian or anything. (This is not false modesty; I thought the essay would be a lot better when I first began it but quickly found that I lacked the in-depth knowledge required to make it truly incisive.) But it is a hell of a lot more developed than Mr. Pride’s cursory mention. Of course, I had many advantages that Mr. Pride didn’t: I was able to see the movie more than once, revisit certain scenes, and use screencaps to support my thesis. Having the Blu-ray as a reference was overwhelmingly useful when sitting down to write a critical piece, and I found myself with the same benefits typically afforded those who write critically about other art forms. I had the movie available to me in the same way music critics have the album they’re writing about on hand.

In a way, how silly is it that most movie reviewers watch a movie exactly once and don’t go back over it at all before writing their reviews? Imagine a music critic listening to an album exactly one time, or a book reviewer not having the book around to either quote from or double-check a reference. Put simply: how insightful can we expect film critics to be after only one viewing?

Someone arguing this might point out that critics have been operating this way since time immemorial. And some of them were quite good. Pauline Kael—who notoriously refused to see a movie more than once—wrote some of the best film criticism of all time, dropping insight that is still valuable to read today. And she did it on a weekly basis.

Well, I hate to break it to all you contemporary film critics: None of you are Pauline Kael. She was a one-of-a-kind genius, a brilliant writer who just happened to write film criticism. Kael should not be regarded as just another critic with an innate ability shared with lots of other critics, but rather as an outlier with the uncanny ability to be both perspicacious and illuminating, all under a time crunch. Not everyone can do what she did, in fact she might be the only one who could do what she did. Which is why most critics would be better served waiting a few months and really thinking about a review they will feel a lot more responsibility for, since many more people will be reading it.

The public discourse about film these days reeks of some kind of weird elitism. Upon a worthwhile movie's release, there always seems to be a sharp division between people who have already seen it months ago at some film festival or during a limited release in NYC/LA and those who are getting the opportunity to see it for the first time. For better or worse, any voice can be disseminated as easily as the next, and those who see movies first have the opportunity to not only drive the discussion but exhaust it as well, so that by the time a film is available to 99% of the population, it feels stale and stripped of relevance.


It’s because of this situation that film is no longer a cultural touchstone. For something to be important to a culture, it has to have the participation of the culture. It has to be readily available to be experienced and discussed with other people. Without that wide involvement with the general public, we are left with a small group of self-styled arbiters of taste who do nothing but make facile judgments in an attempt to seem cool to others in their group.

This is a real shame because film criticism is very important. Good criticism shows us the way to great art. The passionate critics of the Cahiers du Cinema made us see Hollywood stalwarts like Hitchcock and Ray in a new light, and critics like Kael explicated the value of the Nouvelle Vague.

With no genius critic in sight, I suppose all we can do is implore the current crop of critics to take more time to write their criticism, in the perhaps futile hope that they get better. It would also help to change the mindset that has made writing about movies nothing more than a way to advertise how cool one is. A lot of critics just need to stop writing, stop talking, and stop thinking about movies altogether. Of course, you won’t be able to tell this to the people who truly love cinema. But it’s also easy to convince yourself you love movies when in reality all you love is the feeling of talking before anyone else can get a word in. If all you care about is when review embargoes are lifted, that's a good indication of where your true interest lies. Also, I would ask all the critics or wannabe critics who attended NYFF this question: If every movie you saw was available to everyone in the country on that day, either in the theater or on a Blu-ray disc or as a download, would you still have seen it? If the answer is “no”—or even if there is the slightest hesitation on your part—then I would say you should get really introspective for a minute and be prepared to confront some truths about yourself you might not like.

DHS

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Some Things I Want To Say About David Foster Wallace

   It was a Sunday like any other. After catching up on some morning chores, I started reading the local paper. It was September 14, 2008. Despite the headlines about Sarah Palin and the escalating financial crisis, I remember being in a good mood.
   My girlfriend called. She was out and about, driving around, and we chatted about this and that as I casually flipped through the newspaper, skimming the articles. My girlfriend pulled up to a drive-thru to get something to eat and asked if I wanted anything. I told her I didn’t, and she said she’d call me back in a minute after she was done ordering. I said “Ok” and we hung up, pleasantly enough.
   I turned what little attention I had back to the newspaper. It really was a lazy Sunday, the kind of day when it’s hard to focus on anything.
   I flipped to the obituaries. Gregory Mcdonald, the writer of Fletch, had died a week earlier and for some reason was given prominent space in that day’s paper. His obit took up half the page, above the fold, and there was even a picture of him. Uninterested, I started to turn the page over. Right before the page disappeared from view, three familiar words caught my eye: “David Foster Wallace.” I stopped. I remember being momentarily confused as to why his name was in my local paper, and I think it was a half second later when I realized it was positioned below Mcdonald’s obituary, this realization hitting me while I was reading the complete headline, which stated in bold typeface: “David Foster Wallace, 46, Found Dead.”
   And then my world went black.
 

 
   It is December of 2006. I’ve made the delightful discovery that the 10th Anniversary Edition of Infinite Jest is a mere $10, cover price. This leads to a no-brainer decision: I’m going to buy this book for everyone I know for Christmas. And just like that I’m going around to all the bookstores in the area (back then there were multiple options) and cleaning them out of all their IJs. At a single Barnes & Noble, I carry an armload of four up to the register. Lugging them back home, I put them in stacks on my table, and the sight of all these IJs gives me great pleasure. I have serious doubts about whether they’ll actually be read, but it amuses me to think that I’m distributing a dangerous samizdat that will sit on people’s shelves, dormant but dangerous, ready to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting reader someday.
  I buy a packet of smiley stickers and put one on the cover of each book.


 

   I didn’t pass out or anything like that. The world went black because I had immediately shut my eyes. It was involuntary. I did not consciously make a decision to close my eyes—it just happened. I had never done anything like that before. In the past, I’d averted my eyes out of embarrassment and anger, but never horror. I think it’s something people do, though I’d never experienced it up until then. Days later, thinking about it, I realized why people shut their eyes when they’ve just seen something horrible. I think they’re trying to stop themselves from seeing what they’ve just seen. If they close their eyes fast enough (the thinking goes), the light reflected from whatever horrible thing they’ve just witnessed won’t reach their corneas, and then it’ll be like the thing never happened. I think that’s what I was attempting. I was trying to remain in a world where he was still alive—at least as far as I knew—if only momentarily.
   This attempt to insulate myself from the truth failed utterly. Water built behind my eyelids and I felt a welling-up inside me of something that started in my stomach and then enlarged like an inflating balloon, and I felt it extend upward through my chest and into my throat until finally I felt it at the back of my tongue, but it felt way too large to exit my body and before I knew it I was gasping for air. In-between taking big gulps of air, I was crying. Thinking about it later, I knew that I was sobbing—crying so hard that it was hard to breathe. This was another thing I’d never done before; I’d never been this physically affected by grief. This push-and-pull continued for many minutes, my body wanting to expel so many things at once while I gasped for enough air to keep breathing. It felt like drowning without water.
   Somewhere in this, I became aware that my phone was ringing. It was my girlfriend. I answered it. The first thing she heard was my sobs, and, instantly alarmed, she asked, frantically, what was wrong. I told her that I had just read something…I think I put it as simply as that: “I just read something.” It was obvious that it was bad, whatever it was. She said What? I told her David Foster Wallace was dead. And saying it aloud like that, of course I just broke down all over again.

 
   It is early 2005. I want to get into reading books. I’m not even sure why; I get in these moods sometimes. Anyways, I like art. I’ve been watching a lot of movies and listening to a lot of music, and now it just seems natural to get into reading books, specifically novels. It’s not that I never read. I read occasionally, a novel here and there (mostly ones that have been made into movies), but now I just really want to give them a shot on their own terms or something. I want to be aware of what is going on in the literary landscape, just like I am for movies and music.
  The problem is I know nothing about contemporary literature. So, as I often do, I turn to my friend, who is inordinately more well-versed than me in all the art forms, but especially literature. The guy devours books. He has books literally spilling out of his room.
   So I ask him, what contemporary authors are doing great stuff these days? I put it to him this way: “What author would you run out and get their book if it came out today?”
   He considers it for a moment, then tells me three names: Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace. I’ve never heard of any of them.
   After doing a little Googling, Wallace captures my attention the most. Powers and Vollmann are exceedingly prolific and it’s hard to tell where to start with them. Wallace, on the other hand, has only written two novels. And one of them, Infinite Jest, is clearly the one. It’s over a thousand pages. Even knowing nothing else about it, it looms over everything else. It is an undeniable monster, beckoning to me during a time when I found undeniability to be one of the most attractive qualities of good art.
   I circle around it a little, unsure whether to take the plunge. I do a little more research. I become fascinated by the fact that Wallace was only 34 when it was published. (He looks even younger in the author photo.) I play coy with my intentions, asking my friend about it the way you ask other people about your crush. I ask my friend one day, “What are the chances you think I could finish Infinite Jest?” (“Does she say anything about me?”) He takes a second, then says the odds are pretty good, once I get into it. (I know now he was lying; the odds of completing IJ are pretty bad for a person like I was at the time, viz. someone who didn’t read much. But the alternative is telling someone to not even bother, and I know I would never say that to anyone.)
   I wait a couple more days, then decide on the spur of the moment that I’m actually going to do it. I’m going to attempt to read Infinite Jest. I’m so caught up in the spirit of embarking on a new adventure that I don’t even want to wait the couple days it would take Amazon to send it to me. Instead, I go right to the nearest bookstore and buy an undiscounted, full-price copy.
   I start reading it that day. Over the course of the next two months, the book never leaves my nightstand and I slowly but surely make my way through it. It’s hard going at least initially, but I reach some sort of hump and get over it and I find myself on the descending side of this mountain of a book.
   My friend asks me periodically how it’s going. When I’m about 600 pages in, I tell him, You know, it doesn’t even matter how Wallace ends it. He’s built such an impressive object up to this point that the last 400 pages can be gobbledygook and it’d still be the most impressive book I’ve ever read. It’s so full and rich. Sure it might be over-stuffed but it’s one of those things that is amazing because of its excesses. You know, like Apocalypse Now. (All my references were movie-related at the time.)
   Of course, the last 400 pages were just as brilliant as the first 600, and many months later, after finding myself constantly thinking about it, I had to admit to myself that IJ was definitely my favorite novel of all time.
 

I wish there were more audio clips of him reading from Infinite Jest.

 
 

   She let me cry for a minute before gently saying, “For a second I thought something had happened to your parents.”
   Her comment pierced the grief-infused haze that I’d been mired in and I immediately saw the situation through her eyes. All she knew about David Foster Wallace was what I had told her about him. She knew he was my favorite author, but that was basically it. She’d never read any of his writing, and even if she had she wasn’t the type of person who put artists on some kind of pedestal, and she certainly wouldn’t be moved to such a display of grief as I was now evincing. She came from a tight-knit family and keening was reserved for those with whom one shared blood. (Or at least for very close friends.)
   Although I could not stop my flow of tears, I saw that her (unspoken, merely implied…or rather, inferred (by me)) position was basically correct; it was a little ridiculous that I was carrying on in such histrionic fashion about the passing of someone with whom I had never exchanged even a single word. Only someone with a somewhat charmed life—someone who’d never come within arm’s-length of true disaster, someone with no direct knowledge of tragedy—could be so moved by the death of a stranger.
   But I was that person, one of the lucky few who had never known true loss. I’d never had death enter my life; everyone I loved and cared about was alive and well. My family and friends—all alive and hale and doing well, which is how it’d always been for as long as I could remember. I’d never been shattered by the dreadful news of the passing of a loved one, and my reaction to Wallace’s obituary bespoke not only how important Wallace had been to me, but my emotional innocence as well.
   At my girlfriend’s words, I was confronted with this other subjectivity here in the midst of my anguish, and I became extremely self-conscious—something readers of Wallace know a thing or two about. I saw the blubbering mess she was picturing and I immediately began apologizing to her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, I know this is ridiculous.” I’m still crying, I can’t help it. But I’m saying “sorry” whenever I can summon up enough breath to do so.
   She assured me that it was ok, that she knew how important he was to me, but I heard the skepticism in her voice. How do I begin to tell her that he was more than just some author I liked? How to describe for her that intensely intimate voice of his that made you feel like you were close friends? His stuff was completely devoid of the pretension and bullshit flattery and condescension that infect almost everyone else’s writing, even award-winning, universally respected writing. Reading his books made you feel like an equal companion of his (though you were still in complete awe of his intimidating mind).
   Added to this, I had listened to enough interviews to know that the mesmerizing voice he used in his books was really just his default setting. He talked exactly like he wrote. Nobody else did that. Even writers of the most gorgeous prose were usually reduced to hollow shells of their writing when they were interviewed. They would pause awkwardly and use stilted language and you would usually see them struggling to find the right word before falling back on safe platitudes and general bromides about writing or whatever they were talking about. Wallace might pause when faced with a particularly tough question (they were all tough for him), but when he opened his mouth out came fully formed and oftentimes revelatory ideas, precisely articulated in an extraordinary string of sentences. You felt like you were getting direct access to his brain when he talked, which was the same feeling you got with his writing. Incredibly, he was able to recreate the intimate voice of his writing in extemporaneous conversation. It just came naturally to him. (I’m positive his first drafts were marvels, better than everyone else’s fifteenth drafts.) So, to me, it was a simple formulation: To love the writing was to love the author, to love his words was to love the man, or so it seemed in Wallace’s case.
   This was why I was so affected by his passing, but I couldn’t find a way to express this to my girlfriend, so I just said “I’m sorry,” over and over again.   


I wish I wrote to him because it’s clear now that there was a pretty good chance I would’ve gotten some sort of response.
 

 

   It’s summer of 2007. With IJ still inhabiting my mind, I decide to tackle the rest of Wallace’s oeuvre. I’m going to read everything. The short story collections, the essays, even his textbook-like thing on the subject of infinity. All the in-print stuff is a given, but I also get Signifying Rappers for $6 on the Amazon marketplace. I also want to read peripheral stuff like interviews and profiles, so I buy the 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that features his long interview with Larry McCaffery. I get curious about how IJ was presented to the world when it first came out in 1996, so I buy a hardcover. (It has a tiny bit of iridescent foil on the cover like a special edition comic book.) I see a pristine first edition hardcover of The Broom of the System for sale, but decide $300 is too much to spend (Me in 2013: Argh).
   As I plow through the books all summer long, I find myself becoming more and more enthralled. I start tracking down audio interviews, video clips of him on Charlie Rose (I actually buy the DVD ($25)). I listen to the Bookworm interviews over and over again, absolute treasures. I listen to muddy recordings of readings and Q&As he did (one of which is so staticky that he can barely be heard, but I still get through it once).
   This is not enough, so I turn to the internet and find uncollected short stories, book reviews, essays. Also print interviews, profiles, analyses of his writing. I don’t want to read all this stuff on my computer monitor so I use my roommate’s printer to create hard copies. It takes multiple days and many hours to print out everything using the good ole inkjet. My roommate shakes his head. “So you’ve decided to print out the internet?” he asks.
   I end up with hundreds of printed pages. I put it all into the biggest binder I can find and separate them by subject with multi-colored tabs: Short Stories, Interviews, Nonfiction, etc. (A year later I will add another tab: Tributes.)
   I had a blast reading that summer. The best summer of reading I’ve ever had, and probably ever will.

 
I wish he did a Bookworm interview for Oblivion (instead of doing that shallower Connection interview).
 

 

   “How did he die?” she asked. I looked down at the crumpled newspaper in front of me—another involuntary action, crumpling the newspaper into a ball (Get rid of the evidence, it never happened)—flattened it out and read the rest of the obituary, even though it was unnecessary because I was pretty sure I knew how it happened. “Found Dead” is ambiguous and could mean many things: maybe something health-related (not likely for a still youngish former athlete) or maybe something more lurid like a homicide. But those possibilities are so out-there I didn’t even entertain them. “Wallace’s wife found her husband had hanged himself,” I read to my girlfriend, confirming what I already knew.
   In the following days, much was made of the occurrence of suicide in Wallace’s books, and it’s a point with which it’s hard to argue. There is a lot of suicide in his books. And Wallace was never particularly subtle about its inclusion. (He once wrote a story called “Suicide as a Sort of Present.”) The morbid subject matter is always front and center, never in the background, and it is sometimes a key plot element in his fiction. And so of course that’s all everyone fixated on for a while.
   I, on the other hand, in the first moments after learning of his death, thought immediately of a story he did called “Octet.”
  In this story, Wallace sets up a series of short scenarios he calls “Pop Quizzes” designed to “interrogate” the reader’s reactions to various heartbreaking set-ups, usually involving a double-bind of some sort. In one of the stories, a mother gives up custody of her child to her vindictive but wealthy former husband so that the child will grow up provided for and taken care of, and the text literally asks, right there on the page, whether the reader thinks she’s a good mother or not. Another (longer) scenario involves a man who’s on the outs with his dying father-in-law, but who decides to bury any animosity he feels and give at least the appearance of being present and supportive of his wife and her whole side of the family during this ordeal, and this support extends to his father-in-law who—make no mistake about it—detests his son-in-law just as fiercely if not even more than his son-in-law does him, and by doing the “right thing” the man is placed in an extremely uncomfortable and dishonest position by the end of the story when the old father-in-law has passed and the man, who alone knows his true feelings, is now expected to issue words of praise in the father-in-law’s name during some intimate post-funeral service with the father-in-law’s entire family looking at him expectantly. And the questions at the end of this “Pop Quiz” make clear the alienation and helplessness and loneliness the man feels at being put in this situation.
   About halfway through the story, Wallace breaks some kind of fourth wall and starts talking to the reader. It’s set up as another “Pop Quiz” (“You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces…”), but it’s clear that he’s talking about himself and “interrogating” you, the reader, directly. He explains that he’s in a swivet because this piece of fiction he’s working on—the thing you are reading now—just isn’t working. In fact it’s crumbling before his very eyes. He had intended to write eight short pieces that “demonstrate some sort of weird ambient sameness in different kinds of human relationships, some nameless but inescapable ‘price’ that all human beings are faced with having to pay at some point if they ever want truly ‘to be with’ another person instead of just using that person somehow” but that “five of the eight pieces don’t work at all—meaning they don’t interrogate or palpate what you want them to, plus are too contrived or too cartoonish or too annoying or all three” and he had to throw them out. (The skeletal outlines of a couple of these “failures” are described in a long footnote.) And now he’s faced with the last resort of just coming right out and asking the reader if she feels anything like what he feels, a feeling that he considers “urgent, truly urgent, something almost worth shimmying up chimneys and shouting from roofs about.” (In a footnote he acknowledges that this sounds pious and melodramatic.) And he’s also worried that coming right out and addressing the reader like this is going to look “pathetic and desperate” in the eyes of the reader and that he’ll look like “just another manipulative pseudopomo bullshit artist who’s trying to salvage a fiasco by dropping back to a meta-dimension and commenting on the fiasco itself.” It’s framed as a hypothetical course of action, but in actuality it’s one of those hypotheticals that are actually real propositions (“Suppose I were to ask you out…”), and it’s clear that Wallace is trying to see “whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way [he does].”
   Or rather, it’s clear that that’s what he was trying to get at now. Back then, in 1999 when the story came out, all evidence points to people taking that story as an amusing little bit of “S.O.P. metatext,” even though he expressly tells you in the story that that is not what he is trying to do. But, y’know, nobody took him seriously because…well, irony, man.
   In fact, there always seemed to be some unbridgeable gap between what Wallace intended to convey with his fiction and what a lot of readers took away from it. For example, he said over and over that he considered IJ to be a sad book, and yet wave after wave of admirers extolled the book’s humor. Discussing his book of stories Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (in which “Octet” appears), he went so far to say that “everybody thought [Infinite Jest] was very funny, which was of course nice, but it was also kind of frustrating, and I designed this one so that nobody is going to escape the fact that this is sad.” Taking that into account, there is a certain sadness in reading the blurbs for BIWHM that call the book “bitingly funny” and “often funny,” with other critics proclaiming “it is fun, and often very funny” and “outrageously funny” and that it’s “damn funny stuff,” etc. There always seemed to be some misunderstanding or misinterpretation of his work, even by those who praised them.
   This is what I thought of moments after learning he had died. He was a writer who always took sadness as his subject. Always, even when people thought he was trying to be funny. But as sad and horrifying as this is to admit, it was like you couldn’t really see what he was saying until he killed himself. It was only then that you knew for sure that he really wasn’t kidding around with what he was writing about. He wasn’t doing that thing that so many other inferior writers do, trading on some general sense of “sadness” that often gets turned into cloying sentimentality in an attempt to extract a few tears from the reader, but only in the service of a crowd-pleasing redemptive ending. Sadness is also commonly deployed to elevate one’s opinion of the author: “Oh look how clever he is, pointing out all the ways the world is shit.” Both methods flatter the reader’s idea of “oh, there’s something wrong with the world, how sad,” and both end with the author and reader going their separate ways, basically happy and content, leaving the book behind, forgotten, as they go merrily on being consumers or well-adjusted citizens or whatever. Basically, it’s really easy to pay lip service to an idea of intrinsic human sadness and that’s why it’s really hard to take seriously sometimes. But Wallace was utterly serious about it. When he was making every attempt to get at an almost indefinable sadness in “Octet” and desperately querying the reader about her take on it, he wasn’t playing games. He was truly trying to describe a sadness he honestly felt. This wasn’t just some literary construction for him. And it’s impolitic to say this, and the implications are truly horrific, but we know he genuinely felt this sadness because he killed himself. We later found out about his clinical depression, the previous suicide attempts, the decades-long battle with his own biochemistry, but I know at the moment I found out about his death, it appeared that he had finally succumbed to the ineluctable sadness he had been trying to describe with nearly every word he wrote. It pained me to think of how acutely he must have felt this sadness, and it also shattered me to think of how his attempts to convey this sadness he knew so intimately had often been misconstrued, even by his most careful readers. As I sat there sobbing at news of his death, I felt all his themes of sadness and loneliness crystallize and take the form of a sharp point that proceeded to stab me in the heart.
   How could his fans not know he was suicidal? an outside observer might ask today. Considering all those stories about suicide? How could you not realize he was dangerously depressed? After all, he wrote a story called “The Depressed Person” that casually name-dropped dozens of antidepressants. How could you not see it?
   We didn’t see it. We had no idea. I don’t know why. It’s not that we didn’t believe him when he wrote about the sadness…that was something he enabled us to recognize all too clearly. Perhaps conditioned by the way other writers operate, we just didn’t think it was so firmly entrenched inside of him. Maybe we figured his books were having the same palliative effect on him that they were having on us. For those who loved his books, his prose perfectly limned the despairing sadness that was an intrinsic part of life while at the same time acting as a shield against it; by being so erudite, so insightful, so good, his books made us feel less alone and better equipped to navigate our own “skull-sized kingdoms.” But apparently, it was not enough for him.
    If we knew the ordeal he was going through, I guarantee we would’ve done something. I can picture a large contingent of his fans descending on his house in Claremont, putting themselves at his service, trying to give him some measure of comfort, holding candlelight vigils outside his home. I’m being 100% serious. Wallace fans are some of the most com-/passionate people in the world. You think we would’ve just sat back and done nothing if we knew he was in such constant pain? There’s no chance. We would’ve gone to California based on nothing more than the slim hope that we could do something for him, repay him in some small way for all he had given us. And there’s no doubt he would’ve hated it, he would’ve fucking hated it, all of us showing up unannounced like that. All that attention on him when he so eloquently made the case against solipsism and the cult of “me-me-me.” God, he would’ve hated a crowd of adoring and concerned fans outside his house. (Probably anyone would, actually.) But we wouldn’t have been able to help ourselves. Of that I am sure.

 
I wish he had felt well enough to write that piece on Obama and rhetoric.

 
   It is 2010. I am in a bus terminal, waiting for a friend due to arrive any minute. I’m passing the time by reading Understanding David Foster Wallace, recently rereleased by South Carolina Press in a new, updated edition.
   I’m sitting on one of those long benches. On the other end of the bench is a guy around my age. He’s also reading a book. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the blue cover first. I look up and see the unmistakable cinder block heft, and I recognize those all-too-familiar one thousand, seventy-nine pages.
   I must admit, I’m more than a little excited. It’s the first time I’ve seen an IJ “out in the wild.” (I live in a rural area and I hear they’re usually indigenous to NYC subways.) I don’t even consider not talking to the guy.
   I make that half-reaching gesture people use to get someone’s attention and softly say, “Hey.” The guy looks up. I nod at the book in his hands and grin. “Infinite Jest.” I hold up my own book, cementing our solidarity.
   For his part, he doesn’t look too taken aback. He asks to see my book and flips through it, gauging his own interest. I look at his copy and notice the first bookmark (there are two, of course) is about 150 pages in. I ask him if this is his first time reading it and he says it is. I tell him it’s my favorite novel by far, gushing a little. He nods soberly and hands back my book. I ask him how he’s enjoying it and he says he likes it so far. He’s obviously not yet at the evangelical stage I am about Wallace and IJ. He has not really smiled during this interaction and I get the impression he’s one of those people who takes himself way too seriously, but I don’t care because I’m just happy to finally meet a random stranger who is reading the book.
   My friend’s bus arrives and I see him disembark. I gather my things and stand up. Before I leave, I say goodbye to the guy and tell him that I hope he enjoys the rest of the book. The last image I have is of him reading IJ on that bench. I wonder whether he finished it, and, if so, what his thoughts were.

 
Some things I’ve hated about the last five years: I hate how DFW has been used as a punchline for stupid jokes or as a sort of shorthand for describing a certain kind of highly self-aware writing but in a really reductive and usually sneery way. I hate how people who haven’t read IJ think it’s just some repetitive, too-clever-by-half, overly cerebral commentary on addiction and entertainment and whatever. I’m mildly annoyed at how people have glommed onto This Is Water and seem to know little else of Wallace’s work. I’m even more annoyed that people stay away from Infinite Jest and that other fans recommend reading “around it” or “building up to it.” (Would you have someone listen to Dirty Work, Steel Wheels, and A Bigger Bang before finally giving them Exile on Main St.? Just give them the best stuff immediately, I say.) I hate the jokes (“How do you know someone’s read Infinite Jest? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you”). I hate that he’s gone.

 
Some things I’ve loved about the last five years: I love seeing all the stuff we might never have been able to see: letters, manuscript pages, syllabi. I loved getting The Pale King, even if it wasn’t quite in the form we would’ve liked. All the audio interviews that were released because of the more widespread interest. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Infinite Summer. But mainly all the posthumous writing. Though I will state what to me is the obvious: I would trade every bit of Wallace’s writing we got post-’08 for him just to still be alive and healthy again. And not necessarily because I want new work. Even if he didn’t write another word, even if no more books were published, I think I’d still derive some measure of comfort knowing that he was out in the world, just living his life.


   It’s hard to know how to end something like this. I have a strong suspicion these last few paragraphs will just trail off at some point. I’d feel uncomfortable making some grand final statement like “David Foster Wallace meant ______ to me, and always will” or something like that. It’s hard to even encapsulate how important he and his works are to me in under 6,000 words. A simple way of putting it is that he’s changed my life for the better. That’s a zero-BS declaration. Just reading Infinite Jest is like getting a solid liberal arts education. If you look up every word you don’t know and wikipedia every reference or concept you don’t understand, then Eggers is right: You will come out of it a better person. I’m not particularly intelligent, but if I hadn’t read IJ, I would be a lot dumber than I am now, that’s for sure.
   While it’s true that he’s fundamentally changed the way I look at the world, some of the ways he’s affected my life aren’t what you would call Profound or Earth-shattering. I don’t eat lobster anymore. And I’ve turned into somewhat of an amateur SNOOT. Inspired by Wallace’s passion for language, I’ve hit the books and now know much more about grammar than I used to. I mean, take a gander at that paragraph supra where I’m writing about preparing to tackle IJ. You can see how my writing was infected with solecisms and general carelessness before I read that book. There are dangling participles (“After doing a little Googling, Wallace captures my attention”), super casualisms (“Anyways”), careless placement of modifiers (“Wallace, on the other hand, has only written two novels”), noun-pronoun agreement problems (“What author would you run out and get their book if it came out today?”), s-v a.p. (“but it’s one of those things that is amazing because of its excesses”), wrongness coupled with awkwardness (“who is inordinately more well-versed than me in all the art forms”), etc. While this new-found awareness can sometimes result in a kind of writerly paralysis, I like to think that ultimately I’m better for it.
   There were some things I wanted to talk about earlier but wasn’t able to blend them into the piece in a natural way. I wanted to say how grateful I was that I read the bulk of his work—especially IJ—before 2008. Everyone reading his stuff now for the first time probably can’t stop the alarm bells going off every time suicide is mentioned, and I really don’t think that’s the ideal way to read the books. I also wanted to talk a little about the weirdness of learning about his death from a newspaper of all things, a local paper no less. This was 2008, not 1908. The internet was up and running. I guess everyone found out Saturday night…it must have been reported by various outlets. How did I miss it?
   I really don’t know how to end this. I will say I’m constantly reminded of him. I’ll see an unusual word and remember that I first encountered it in one of his books. Pynchon’s book comes out next week and I only got into Pynchon because of him. Hardly a week goes by when he isn’t mentioned in some book review or another. Nadal just won the U.S. Open, which set off an explosion of associations.
   I think I’m done for now.
 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

NIGHT FILM review


NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl is an out-and-out thriller. It starts with the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, daughter of infamous horror film director Stanislas Cordova. Scott McGrath, a forty-three-year-old investigative reporter, is convinced that her father had something to do with Ashley’s death, and proceeds to delve into the life of the reclusive filmmaker. Early on he meets two young people—Hopper and Nora—who, despite his initial reluctance, insist on helping him with the investigation. Together they edge closer and closer to the truth of what actually happened, gradually uncovering the secrets of the Cordova family.

The book’s structure is simple: McGrath follows one lead after another, each leading to the next, and after every encounter he learns incrementally more about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Ashley’s death. The plot is pretty straight-forward. It becomes clear early on that every detail McGrath uncovers will be important, every person he talks to will contribute another piece of the Cordova puzzle. There are no false leads, no dead ends. The unrelenting connectedness of everything can get a little wearying sometimes, especially considering that a lot of these connections aren’t uncovered in an overly clever way; oftentimes the people McGrath meets just tell him about some illuminating incident or chunk of biographical information about Cordova and the narrative grinds to a halt as McGrath (and, by extension, the reader) just sits there listening to them. When some of the people McGrath encounters go on pages-long monologues that amount to little more than expositional info-dumps, you begin to realize why this is a 600-page book (and question why it needs to be, a little).

McGrath is a mostly amiable guide through the novel’s proceedings. He is very well-suited to solve the story’s mysteries—the perfect person, actually. He is resourceful, tenacious, well-connected, and willing to put himself in danger. He also has a rogue-ish streak, showing no compunction about “breaking the rules” when he needs something. When he weasels his way into an acquaintance’s apartment and checks the guy’s browser history or when he has one of his police contacts illegally procure him an autopsy report, there is an understanding that it’s for the greater good. In this way, McGrath strikes me as your standard 21st-century hero: someone who is principled, but who also follows his own moral compass with little regard for propriety or the “rules” set forth by various institutions, whether it be the government or slightly less shady organizations (ha). McGrath gives us no reason to doubt his beneficent intentions (he just wants to get to the bottom of all this), so we go along with his exploits without passing judgment on him.

Which is kind of the problem with his character. In fact, it’s a problem with almost all the characters in the book. There is a certain blandness to everyone. As soon as a character arrives on the scene, you’ve immediately apprehended him or her. They are a) so obviously filling a certain role to keep the story moving forward and b) so completely and utterly themselves, with almost nothing new to discover about them later on. These one-dimensional characters can be exhaustively summed up in pithy little descriptions (eg. “The old, shrill former actress”, “the spacey mystic”, etc). This actually gets Pessl in occasional trouble when some of her characters come close to being racial stereotypes (“The uptight Asian family”, “the loquacious Jamaican cabbie”).

The main character, the guy narrating the story and whom we spend the most time with, is unfortunately no exception. McGrath’s overriding character trait is established early: He’s a good person. Even things that could paint him in a less favorable light seem to exist mainly to prove that he’s ultimately good (eg. he’s divorced with a young daughter whom he maybe doesn’t spend a lot of time with but he’s really tortured about it because he really loves her, so, you know, his intentions are in the right place). There is no ambiguity to the character, and the way the book is written obviates any possible alternative interpretation; he’s one of the good guys, the book is telling us, just accept it. And accept it we must because not only will it inform all his actions, but it seems to be the answer to very basic plot questions that remain nebulous otherwise. Like: why is he so interested in uncovering the secrets about Ashley’s death? He does have some antagonistic history with the Cordova clan, but as an impetus for his investigation it is ultimately unconvincing. The basic, real reason is that there was something sketchy about the death and he’s going to uncover the truth because that is the right thing to do.

Again, he’s not like Mr. Rogers nice or anything. He does have his share of flaws. (His biggest foible, for me, is that he has incessant quips and one-liners about everything— sometimes spoken, sometimes only in his head—though mercifully he eases up on them a little as the stakes get higher in the second half of the book.) But those flaws don’t deepen the character at all, since we know (we just know) that he’s one of the good guys. The same can be said of his sidekicks, Hopper and Nora. They both initially seem to have ulterior motives for helping out with the investigation, but it is eventually revealed that they, like McGrath, are driven out of a sense of goodness. (Pessl gets a lot of mileage out of Hopper clearly keeping a secret from the other two, although when the secret is finally divulged it is dispiritingly underwhelming.) They are the do-gooders, the three of them. That’s about as deep as they’ll get as characters.

Actually, the novel does have one interesting character: the filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. He provides the driving force of the narrative, the core around which all the other characters revolve (it sometimes feels as if McGrath and crew are stalking an elusive quarry). He's the kind of director who makes cerebral films designed to investigate or question our own preconceptions about fate, knowledge, good & evil, right & wrong. Added to this, he's a total recluse, so of course he's widely respected by the general public as well as by the cult that has sprung up in his name, full of people who endlessly dissect his films and form insular online communities. (He's not only interesting but entirely believable.) A big part of why he's interesting is that he starts out as an enigma and McGrath slowly learns more about him as the story progresses. All the rumors and misinformation about Cordova must be sifted through, along with the hyperbolic adulation, and gradually the character isn't so much described as merely adumbrated. The mystery is a big part of his appeal. He is the book's MacGuffin, and Pessl wisely keeps him "off-screen" for as long as she can (and then some). The problem she runs up against is that, at a certain point, a total explication of Cordova would be woefully inadequate—he's been built up too much. Pessl manages to come up with a solution to this, though the results are not entirely satisfying.

But truthfully none of that character stuff matters much, because having fully developed 3D characters isn't what NIGHT FILM is about. This book is about thrills and chills and just having a good time. It's got a made-for-the-big-screen premise and the story is meant to move along as frictionlessly as a night at the movies with a dozen friends. And for the most part, it succeeds. Pessl has found a writing style that keeps you turning pages; the prose is full of "Suddenly"s and momentum-sustaining absolute constructions. The set pieces, like the one where McGrath crashes a bizarre late-night party for the rich and louche, are taut and engaging. Aside from the aforementioned draggy monologues, the whole thing is a pretty brisk affair and I can't imagine having reservations about passing it along to pretty much any reader. (Which makes Random House's description of NIGHT FILM as a "literary thriller" a little confusing. Why limit the audience by throwing around that nasty L-word?) Expect lots of “Gone Girl”-type buzz from this one come August.

DHS

Friday, May 17, 2013

Upstream Color & Kieslowski’s Blue

Shane Carruth’s fantastic Upstream Color is a film that all but demands cogitation. After watching it, one can’t help thinking about it, and the great thing is that it not only holds up to scrutiny but rewards those willing to give it further consideration. Carruth constructed the movie with the precision of a Swiss watch (as he did with his first feature Primer) while at the same time using a suggestive and oblique storytelling style that does not provide fast answers. This combination makes for a very pleasurable viewing experience. Concepts and themes, meaning and import are all initially elusive, but we sense the order behind everything and are confident that the more we think about the film, the more little bits of it will suddenly make sense, like a blurry picture racking into focus. The insights we get from these moments of clarity feel strikingly personal, like we’ve made our own private discoveries, which endear us to the movie even more.

Much has been written about Upstream Color since its screening at Sundance this year. Plot summaries, guides, and analyses have all been part of an audience reaction that feels participatory and of a piece with Carruth’s DIY approach to both the making and marketing of his movie. (A couple good write-ups are here and here.) With a film that fosters so much legitimately interesting conversation, it’s only natural to want to put in one’s two cents, so this is my attempt to add to the discussion.

At a certain point after my first viewing of UC, I somehow got it in my mind that it had a lot of similarities to the film Blue, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski. Following that train of thought, I came up with what seemed like interesting connections, enough to try to write about. It’s really just an excuse to talk out some of my thoughts about UC, while also directing more attention to what I think is my favorite Kieslowski feature film. (I prefer it over the excellent Double Life of VĂ©ronique and also Red, which a lot of people choose as the best Kieslowski, but if we’re including the entire Decalogue as one work then I think it’s pretty clear that that tops everything.)

Also, it’ll probably be necessary for you to have seen both movies because I’m not really going to describe what happens in each one and will probably refer to scenes or plot points in a shorthandish sort of way. So, here we go, starting with:

1) The Protagonist

While it may have made more sense to start with point 2, the thing that really began to connect the two films for me was Amy Seimetz. This was the first time I’d seen her and I thought her performance greatly contributed to UC’s power and resonance. Her role required someone who could demonstrate vulnerability but also a determination and resolve that should feel almost primal, something that feels innate instead of acted. It’s hard to think of many other American actresses in Seimetz’s age group that can pull off something like that, and so it was easier to think of a younger Juliette Binoche. They seem to share many traits. Both are preternatural beauties with high cheekbones, stylishly cropped hair, and soulful chestnut eyes (while completely lacking the cold supermodelish quality of a lot of other actresses). Besides zygomatics, they share the quality of being utterly watchable, even—or rather, especially—when they aren’t doing anything onscreen. That they both project intelligence is indisputable, but this intelligence seems augmented by something akin to an immemorial wisdom. (They are both what you’d call “old souls.”) There are a lot of actors who are compelling when they feel or emote; Binoche and Seimetz are compelling when they are just sitting there thinking. It’s as if in their quiescence they are revealing something intrinsic about being human that we’ve forgotten, some prelapsarian knowledge that would benefit us greatly were we to possess it. You feel like you might actually learn something about yourself, watching them in their silence.

From that connection it was easy to think of Blue. It’s interesting to think of the arc of Binoche’s character (“Julie”) in Blue and how it parallels the story of Seimetz’s character (“Kris”) in UC. Both suffer a traumatic event early and spend the rest of the movie trying to recover from it. In Blue, Julie loses her husband and daughter in a car crash; in UC, Kris suffers the complete decimation of self and is left little more than a husk of a person without a job or money. They both struggle to find some way to reinvent themselves as they attempt to move on with their lives, but for the bulk of both movies they are thwarted in their endeavors.

Kris can’t get over a nagging feeling of connection to a pig harboring a parasitic worm extracted from her body. In Blue, it seems that everything around Julie is conspiring to remind her of the accident she so desperately wants to forget and put behind her. (Her husband was a widely regarded composer who was in the middle of working on an important symphonic piece for “the unification of Europe.” Lots of people understandably want to see this piece completed. (It is revealed later that Julie is the one who actually wrote her husband’s compositions, and so she is subject to an inner turmoil that wouldn’t have existed had she not been the true author.))

Both movies introduce a love interest who has some connection to the protagonist’s traumatic event: It’s pretty clear early on that Carruth’s character went through the same thing as Kris, and Julie is pursued by the former assistant of her late husband. (It’s interesting that neither Kris nor Julie have close friends to help them through their ordeals, as would typically be the case. Neither movie addresses this curious absence of friends, though there are enough suggestions that point to possible explanations (they both seem to have been pretty wedded to their work, for example).)

There are also small intriguing echoes in what happens to both characters. They both purposely injure their right hand at some point—Julie by running it against a stone wall, Kris by putting it through a glass window. Both hear sounds and music that no one else around them hears. Both “give birth” to surrogate/metaphoric children in animal form, which are subsequently killed (Kris: pigs, Julie: mice). (There’s probably a more literal connection between protagonist and newborns in Upstream Color, whereas in Blue (and other movies), Kieslowski made ample use of metaphor.)

Both characters are also drawn to pools. It is there where they seem most affected by previous events (Kris retrieves bits of stone from the bottom of the pool and recites Walden; Julie hears the music most strongly while swimming). It’s as if the water facilitates the connection between character and previous events, and the pool itself seems like an incubator for each movie’s themes, waiting for the protagonist to return to it for further exploration.

2) The Color Blue

This one is a no-brainer. The color blue features prominently in Upstream Color, and every occurrence seems tied to the mysterious substance that allows for the mind-connection or symbiosis that occurs in the movie. The dead pig babies emit plumes of blue material, which turns the nearby flowers blue, then blue powder precipitate forms on these plants, and this somehow gets into the worms, giving them blue vein-like streaks. The characters are unconsciously drawn to the color blue, with Carruth’s character picking out everything blue in a snack tray at a bar, and Kris’s new workplace has streaks of blue in it.

Kieslowski’s Blue is also filled with a ton of blue (obviously). There are blue clothes, blue folders, blue lollipops, and blue pen markings. Julie experiences visible bursts of blue without warning (out of the blue, even). In Kieslowski’s film, blue seems to symbolize the past, something that she can’t escape (and maybe doesn’t even want to: after moving out of the house that holds too many painful associations for her to stay, she decorates her new apartment with a blue chandelier that was originally in her daughter’s room). In Upstream Color, blue seems to be an important part of an ongoing chain, alluding to the movie’s themes of fate and choice. (Kieslowski said that Blue was about the concept of liberty, and the film clearly explores the notions of freedom and imprisonment albeit in an emotional sense rather than a physical one.)

Some have astutely noted that in Upstream Color there is an eventual shift to the color yellow, possibly as a way of symbolizing the characters escape from the “blue” chain of fate (which adds a healthy dose of irony to the fact that they end up painting the bars of the pigs’ enclosure yellow). There is a color shift in Blue as well, but its counterpuntal color is green, which shows up in places like Julie’s new apartment. It definitely represents something in direct opposition to what blue represents, though blue predictably remains the film’s dominant color. (Julie eventually completes the “unification” composition and addresses all the loose ends of the life she had wanted to abandon.)

3) The Filmmaking

Both Carruth and Kieslowski employ similar techniques to tell their stories. Both films start in a clipped way, with a series of contextless, “uninflected” images (as Mamet would call them) and it is up to the viewer to make sense of them. The movies also end in similar fashion, with an extended dialogueless montage set to soaring music.

And then there’s the ubiquitous shallow depth of field. Carruth takes it to an extreme, as I believe every single shot in Upstream Color is done with a long lens. There are parts in Blue that appear to use a wider lens, but there are plenty of shots that have just a sliver of focus.





Both movies are designed to be somewhat ambiguous and they both encourage individual interpretation. They are also more rewarding with subsequent viewings. Next time you want to give one or the other a re-watch, think about making it a double-feature with both of these excellent, subtly affined movies in tandem.

DHS