Words fail when it comes to talking about two movies opening this week: Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love. These are movies that need to be seen to be truly experienced, and much of that experience is deliberately beyond the capacity of words to describe.
Take plot, for instance, which is customarily the fallback tool for building even the most basic of reviews. For novice or uninspired movie writers, plot is the life preserver that always floats.
So what do you do if the plot either doesn’t make sense or is simply irrelevant to what’s really going on? In Upstream Color, it’s the former: Woman is kidnapped and forced to take a drug that renders her helpless and alienated, but then meets a guy with the same experience and they fall into, well, not love really, more like a rebirth of consciousness as kindred spirits.
Huh? Try telling that one to friends over for dinner, and then tell them that you liked it. Then try telling them why you liked it. Words will fail. “Just see it,” you’ll eventually say.
The plot for Abbas Kiarostami’s latest is much easier to reduce to words, with the operative emphasis on “reduce.” You can tell somebody that Like Someone in Love is about a young university student moonlighting as a call girl who is sent to an elderly client then harassed by her abusive boyfriend, but so what? But the plot is the merest of hooks on which to hang a world of deeper, profoundly more complex concerns: the individual’s isolation in the tech-saturated urban landscape; the struggle of the human need for connection in this state of virtual solitary confinement; the corruption of dignity by commerce; the failure of words to express what we really mean and feel. There’s a lot of talking going on but very little communicating.
Now try telling that to those dinner guests. You’ll be clearing the dishes in no time.
By insisting that it’s the experience of watching the film that is its ultimate reward, and by refusing to explain what we’re watching so that the experience remains mysterious, both Carruth and Kiarostami are honouring one of the most enduring traditions of the so-called “art” cinema – which is that mystery is one of the medium’s most powerful properties. The basic combination of moving images, recorded sound and structured arrangement of elements through editing baffle us into seeing things differently.
That this is precisely the predicament of the mind-messed couple in Upstream Color, who are rewound to a state of stage-one sensory reboot, only reveals an especially intimate connection in that movie between form and content. Carruth understands the power of suggestion movies have, and he uses it impressively. I’m betting he’s been a close observer of Kiarostami’s movies, which have been defying explanation and mesmerizing audiences for four decades. For his part, Kiarostami has cited Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Luis Bunuel as influences, but the fact is there is no history of movies without the enigmatics: Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Haneke, Chantal Akerman, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Terrence Malick.
If that list isn’t complete, I leave the blanks to you. It seems appropriate under the circumstances, because that’s the kind of cinematic art we’re talking about: the kind that creates a vacuum into which our own imaginations rush and flourish, and which must be seen to be fully experienced. Words can never do them justice.