At the New Zealand International Film Festival, JACOB POWELL on Shane Carruth’s belated follow-up to Primer; and ALICE MAY CONNOLLY on Theo Taylor’s honest portrait of escalating anxiety.
Beginning with a frenzy of quick cut editing and equally frenetic sound design, Shane Carruth’s long awaited Upstream Color lays down its challenge right out of the gate: can you both let the cinematic experience envelop you and simultaneously keep your head enough to decode the story being told?
While not composed of the labyrinthine layers of plot complexity that helped make Primer (2004) a cult favourite, Upstream Color retains Carruth’s recognisable narrative obliqueness. Driven equally by the aforementioned editing and sound design—the latter perhaps a little too much for the liking of this viewer—the film traces a lifecycle of events as seen intersecting the lives of a young lady, Kris (a paranoia-edged Amy Seimetz), and the man Jeff (played by Carruth) who she meets and shares an inexplicable (to the characters) bond with. It’s my feeling that Upstream Color would work quite nicely as a science fiction novella or short story. Indeed, the story of a mysterious narcotic harnessed for the purposes of behavioural control is not uncommon but certainly not an over-exploited premise—Philip K. Dick’s stories come to mind, foremost A Scanner Darkly—and Carruth’s thematic explorations are quite interesting. The central thematic line of external forces controlling our lives, culminating in its ‘taking control of one’s own destiny’ climax, manages to stand out despite being purposefully shrouded in the mechanics of the film’s presentation. The pre-eminence of these obfuscatory techniques, though enjoyable in doses, became a bit tiresome for me, eventually detracting from a generally pleasant viewing experience. I was perhaps not helped in my assessment by reasonably high expectations going into Upstream Color and the fact that I came into the screening straight off the back of excellently constructed slow burn Kazakh drama Harmony Lessons. Yet upon some reflection, Carruth’s film still feels like a capable exercise in storytelling that ended up sabotaging itself. Despite these feelings, I should acknowledge Carruth’s gifted use of light and generally exceptional production values with an independently produced feature on which he performed as the ultimate multi-hyphenate (he wrote, directed, starred, produced, co-edited, scored, and co-shot the film at the very least!). And on account of this ambition, Upstream Color makes most other science fiction movies look decidedly average.—Jacob Powell
Theo Taylor’s low-budget feature film, Scenes in My Head, which shares similar filmmaking values with directors like John Cassavetes, Andrew Bujalski, and Jay Duplass, follows Hadley (Simon Haren), Chris (Joseph Baxter), and Chris’s girlfriend, Lucy (Isobel Mackinnon), on a weekend trip to a picturesque, and isolated holiday home up North at Lake Tarawera. The story is told from Chris’s point of view; it explores his paranoia that Lucy will cheat on him with Hadley following a night of drugs and alcohol. The narrative is a recollection of memories built on Taylor’s own paranoid feelings. Taylor emphasised the impetus for ‘honesty’ in his film, and he achieves it through a cinéma-vérité approach. The party scene is reminiscent of Cassavetes’s Faces—the handheld camera, long takes, extreme close-ups, and out-of-focus image—and yet unlike the heavily scripted Faces, Scenes in My Head is largely improvised. Haren, Baxter, and Mackinnon are skilful in their delivery of humorous naturalistic dialogue in the first half-hour of the film—a gift that was unfortunately neglected for the remainder.
Despite the improvised dialogue, modest budget, and low-quality aesthetics, the editing is traditional—establishing shots of nature in a new setting acknowledge the passing of time, and cuts back and forth to extreme close-ups on eyes/faces evoke suspense and propel the story in a linear and engaging way. The jazz track that accompanies the uneasy party scene offers thematic resolution at the end of the film when Chris was finally able to stand up on the wakeboard.
Taylor has successfully emulated his humble idols; Scenes in My Head is a perfectly flawed film that achieves its goal to visually recreate an honest portrait of escalating anxiety. I just wish it had (literally) more to say.—Alice May Connolly