As far as gigantic, sprawling festivals go, SXSW generally has their shit together, with an army of volunteers and the full backing of an entire city. Which unfortunately makes their missteps a bit more visible. SXSW 2013 has yet to have a "DFA1979 RIOT" level of fuck-up, but one of this year's problems has been the haphazard way some of the film showings have been scheduled, in particular the attempt to put heavily hyped features like Shane Carruth's Upstream Color in a tiny venue like the Violet Crown theatre.
Carruth is of course the mastermind behind Primer and Upstream Color is his much anticipated follow-up to that debut; the reaction at Sundance to Upstream Color was one of utter bafflement, which only served to encourage the crowds at SXSW to be more determined to catch a screening. And since the Violet Crown houses theatres that can hold dozens not hundreds, I made a point of getting to theatre three hours before the film's scheduled start time because I figured it would be packed quickly. My prediction proved to be accurate, but I was still surprised by the chaos that unfolded before Upstream Color started.
That's mostly because the Violet Crown was secretly housing what seemed to be half of SXSW's volunteers. Despite being one of if not the smallest theatres participating in SXSW, Violet Crowned appeared to have more volunteers than the entirety of the Austin Convention Center, and worse, none of them really seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing. And then some clowns showed up and really made things confusing.
Other than the clowns (still don't know what the fuck they were doing there), that air of restlessness and chaos before Upstream Color wound up fitting the film itself pretty well. Carruth's follow-up to Primer feels like more of a debut feature than his actual debut feature was, marked by equal doses of uncertainty and awe inspiring ambition. Upstream Color has a plot that is essentially impossible to adequately describe in brief, but the gist of it is that some people's lives are thrown into disarray after they've been exposed to a special kind of nematode. But the film is only a narrative work in certain moments and for much of its run time it has more in common with musique concrete, both in regards to the actual content of its story and in regards to the execution of its structure and style.
Though there's no denying that in Upstream Color Carruth has made one of the more adventurous and gorgeous works of cinematic art in recent years, there's similarly no denying that it emphasizes style over substance and your enjoyment of it will depend on how willing you are to strictly pay attention to its assets over its staggering deficits. Taken as an art piece, Upstream Color is easy to celebrate, particularly since Carruth as a technician juggles so many disparate elements so well; functioning not only as the director and writer but also the star, composer and editor, Carruth is an auteur in the truest sense and his voice is dominant in every piece of this production. But as a film, it's harder to claim that Upstream Color is a success, because it is so cluttered with ideas and ambition that it never has a chance to breathe and reveal its own identity.
That's clearest in the division between the film's two halves, where the first side of the film is a disjointed but mostly legible psychological thriller with a brainwashing cult of some sort at its core, while the second half of the film is a nearly surreal exercise in post-traumatic stress disorder and amnesia. Granted, that utter confusion and hallucinatory sensation imposed by the latter half of the film is almost certainly a conscious decision on Carruth's end but the way he chooses to make that clear is disappointing. Specifically, his overuse of black out cuts and repetitive imagery feels almost amateur, while the stunted dialogue he gives his cast comes across as nearly alien. If you reversed his ouevre, then Upstream Color would be a dazzling debut feature that signalled tremendous potential in a young director, while Primer would be the more streamlined and efficient follow-up to that ambitious opening salvo. Still, the level of ambition in Upstream Color is nearly enough to warrant a high recommendation; there are simply no films like this out there right now, and Carruth's only real peer on this front is the likes of Tree of Life and Enter the Void.
By contrast, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight is film at its most basic, beautifully simplistic and superbly constructed. As the third instalment in a melancholic romance trilogy that began with Before Sunrise, Before Midnight shows a director and a cast in perfect synchronicity, confident in each other and fully trusting. If Sunrise was the brash bravado of youth and its successor Before Sunset was the promise of adulthood, then Midnight is the midlife crisis, a time of conflicting emotions and expectations tempered by a gorgeous Greek backdrop and a rich supporting cast of new vacation friends.
Before Midnight picks up nine years after Sunset, showing Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in what appears to be happily married mode, with twins in tow, all on an ideal vacation. As is the case with the first two, Linklater is happy to let his actors take the spotlight, giving them ample time to live in their characters, speaking without interruption. This trilogy has been notable for how well developed the characters are despite the compressed timeline and Hawke and Delpy have been in peak form in all three films. Each entry has shown the chemistry between the two blooming and this film puts that most to the test, as we're now treated to a glimpse of these characters after they've lived with one another rather than romanticized each other. The result is a masterpiece of maturation, an expertly crafted autopsy of a truly adult relationship, with all its foibles and fights and unrealized eroticism.
Jesse and Celine have never been a traditional cinematic couple, but Before Midnight takes that in a different direction as Linklater allows this classic coupling to be depicted in a newly unflattering light. That's not to say there isn't love from the director for the characters, but that there is a trust that allows the audience, the actors and the director to all be completely frank with one another and in the process provide an illuminating and thoughtful profile of what it really means to be in love and to grow old with someone. It's brave but it's never showy, instead there is an inspired humor and sensitivity that keeps the film from being unbearably tense or awkward.
At the Q and A afterward, Linklater was asked if he planned on creating a fourth instalment and he answered that he didn't even want to think about that for five years, but he did offer a joke he told at Sundance, where he responded to a similar question by saying that they planned to skip the next four instalments and would instead go straight to remaking Amour. But Linklater's answer nonetheless conveyed a sense that the director was fully aware that Jesse and Celine were no longer normal characters, but an intimate part of him and his collaborators that essentially possess them every nine years in order to give the world a peek at how they had developed in that time. There's something inherently special about these two that makes them worth revisiting every near decade and it's easy to see why Linklater has a hard time saying no when they call for him to tell their story again. That's the beauty of stories, sometimes they overpower their creators and fans alike and develop lives of their own.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.