A friend posted on Facebook that “Iron Man 3” was “a religious experience,” and if that’s enough praise to sell you on the movie, then you should go see it. I can’t say myself. I haven’t seen “Iron Man 3” yet. But religious experiences at the movies, well, I’ve had a few, including this week, and you won’t find these epiphanies at just any street pulpit.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Upstream Color” can’t be found in Galesburg. They wait for you in Peoria, Moline and Chicago. Each film is a mini-Mecca anticipating your pilgrimage, a concept that must sound hokey in the age of instant streaming and On Demand. Driving 40 miles for one movie? Taking the train into the city just to see a film one month before DVD release? But is it worth it? Both are worth it. Even more, they might be transcendent.
With show times in Peoria and Moline, “The Place Beyond the Pines” may look foreign set against central Illinois’s cornfield sprawl. It plants us firmly amongst the New England evergreens in a version of Schenectady, New York much different from the one Charlie Kaufman allegorized as the heartland of existential dread: much warmer and more nostalgic, as if its suburbs had been built by Johnny Appleseed.
We begin with a motorcycle stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who quits his job in a traveling circus and becomes a bank robber to support a son he can’t raise, whose mother (Eva Mendes) he met and loved for one night but who has since found another man to steady her fortunes. We continue with an officer (Bradley Cooper) who shoots the bad guy and gets shot back, who becomes a hero in a police force seething with corruption he has only begun to uncover. We end with the two men’s sons together in high school: the cop’s the mumbly doped-up sweet talker, the driver’s a vagrant by design, and when they meet history repeats.
The film is not a story about fate like these multigenerational sagas tend to be. Instead, it conjures up images of Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, of “East of Eden” and two families whose destinies interwove, of a father’s actions becoming his son’s, of circumstance wrestling with determination to create echoes of humanity’s worst, bravest and most feisty reverberating through the years.
“The Place Beyond The Pines” asks a very literary question: “Can we save our children?” And rather than erupt, like “Stoker” or “Mama,” into a genre distillment of the answer, it believes in the issue’s profundity and treats it tenderly. The film’s affection sent tremors through me, as I saw it with my dad and felt shadows of our relationship sewn through the movie’s lining. How many movies speak of family and care what that word means, to itself and its audience?
Director Derek Cianfrance has assembled a family of sorts to run his film. On top of a heavy-hitting cast, with Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper especially playing their A-game, director of photography Sean Bobbit blends the look of cinèma verité with a stylized intensity that set apart his avant-garde compositions on “Hunger” and “Shame,” only this time suited to a more traditional narrative. Mike Patton, former lead singer of Faith No More, crafts a soundtrack that’s as ghostly and resigned as the world it accompanies, and Ben Coccio — Ben Coccio! — resurfaces a long time after he dissected the Columbine killers for humanity in the painfully under-seen “Zero Day,” bringing that film’s honesty to his work as co-writer on “The Place Beyond the Pines,” especially in its teen-centric third act.
It’s harder to describe “Upstream Color,” which is currently only showing in Illinois at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, although next month it will see online and DVD release. It may warrant a trip to the theater, though, to celebrate its radical vision and its innovations in how we distribute film.
Experimental, avant-garde, obtuse, “Upstream Color” plays up director Shane Carruth’s image as the impenetrable genius, but it’s a feint. What makes his films matter aren’t their obsession with layered storytelling and a thick, technical language both in dialogue and structure, but their insatiable thirst for an emotional truth that hides outside literal narrative, and a belief that we will find that truth if film nudges us in the right direction.
We decode “Upstream Color” insofar as we know there is a woman Kris (indie filmmaker Amy Seimetz) who is kidnapped by a man claiming to be the Sun God. He force-feeds her a type of maggot that seems to reprogram her body, and when he frees her she reawakens to find herself infertile, moody, prone to reciting Thoreau’s “Walden” and psychically connected to a pen of genetically altered pigs.
She enters a relationship with Jeff (Shane Carruth himself), a man who has had same procedure done to him. They suffer under an invisible strain even as it grants them insight into the tiny seams holding the world together. All of nature’s noises pop out at them, conducted by Carruth’s unparalleled sound design, so a leaf crumbled in a character’s hand sifts breathlessly and a rock scrapes down the wall of a sewer pipe. Have you ever seen a film that you felt, like you were touching it? “Upstream Color” dares to be tactile and engage senses you never knew a film could engage.
It’s a love story and a treatise on life, no more a “thinking man’s” film than a tree full of starlings. This film comes into the world from a deep, thoughtful place, but it crackles with a passion that enlivens the urge to create art in all who see it. Carruth not only handled the film in nearly every capacity (directing, writing, starring in, producing, composing), he has set a game-changing example by distributing the film himself without a studio deal. Today, for the artist with a vision, it has become possible to convey their message to the world without distortion, exactly as they tell it.
“Iron Man 3” may be a religious experience, but these two films are a total paradigm shift. Should you see them in theaters? I’ll just say: after both “The Place Beyond the Hills” and “Upstream Color,” I stepped out of the theater and drove home noticing a lot more about the streets I passed. Everything seemed brighter, more florid, and the slightest minutiae popped out at me. What else do we ask for from film, but that they give us something new to look at in the world?