God & Capitalism
Upstream Color by Shane Carruth - Mr. Carruth's sophomore effort is a shift from the circular time-loops of Primer to the elliptical visuals of mind-controlling worms and perilously blue orchids juxtaposed with the lives of two victims of a senseless ransacking of their lives, a trauma which connects as well as pulls them apart. To call it just an allegory of about higher powers and systems of economics would be unfair because it can be read as an allegory of depression or addiction, among many other possibilities. If one were to be inclined to distill these various interpretations to their quintessence - in modern life, the thing that fucks you up and the thing that's trying to fix your life afterwards are often in cahoots. Not getting into such barebones though, the allegorical interpretation that makes most sense to me is that Upstream Color is about Capitalism (the "Thief" in the movie) --- in the sense of a process that you cannot help but participate in (The "Thief" literally controls the bodies of his victims and forces them to perform idiosyncratic tasks for days before emptying their bank accounts and discarding them) --- dovetailing itself with a Higher Deity (The "Sampler" in the movie, who later beckons victims of the "Thief" and removes the mind-control worm from the body), to ensure that a cycle of fear, dependence and violence perpetuates itself, to the profit of both parties.
There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
There Will Be Blood is the sort of movie begging to be called a saga. The movie charts Daniel Plainview's rise to the apex of the oil business and transform into a frankly terrifying titan of American-brand frontier capitalism, while Paul Dano in a breakout role as Eli Sunday is constant fly in the ointment as a preacher of a local community who senses in Daniel Plainview's ambition, an opportunity to parlay the fervor of his community's faith into a piece of the Plainview pie. Over a gripping two and a half hour hours, what ensues is an allegorical struggle between capitalism and religion. Interpreting them as such leads one to conclude that Mr. Anderson considers both ideas locked in an internecine conflict over the human soul, despising and wishing to crush the other, jealous and contemptuous by turns of the unique power that the other wields. How the end plays out for you depends heavily on the depths of your feelings about milkshakes.
3 Women by Robert Altman - The context to know about 3 Women is that the entire movie is based off a dream Mr. Altman had while his wife was in the hospital. In a stunt unthinkable today, he pitched his "dream" to studio executives and produced 3 Women, a fable western where the women play russian roulette with feminine archetypes. The story is of Pinky, Millie and Willie - Pinky is a young woman of inane conversations of vapid interests, who finds a job at a health spa out west and ends up enamored of Millie, who is as grown up as she is not taken seriously at all. She considers herself a modern women, with an apartment and a variety of consumer goods purchased by her hard-won salary, but who is ignored by men, as her flirtatious forays often ring false and her personality comes off as superficial. In this mix, is a mysterious third woman named Willie who is pregnant and spends her days tending a local saloon and painting vast murals of chaotic, demonic looking figures -- the stuff of myth -- in scenes of lust and violence and general catastrophe. Over the course of the movie, Pinky grows up and begins to behave more like a young woman akin to Millie, which threatens Millie because she's better at it that Millie herself, who is compelled to shift roles up from a wannabe cocquette to a parental figure, burned and grieved by the actions of the child. Imagery signifying menarche (spilled ketchup on an apron) marks such transitional points and eventually there is another exchange of roles towards an final synthesis of personalities. What I find interesting about this movie is that despite its professed origins as a dream, with all the lack of logic inherent, the plot tends itself easily to an allegorical reading of women in different stages of female life, growing up, regressing, trading places. Willie, the one woman comfortable in her own skin, is involved in a crisis at the end of the film that leads to a final scene of seeming resolution - three woman living communally, perhaps all three roles and minds and bodies now merged into one. Men, lurking at the edges or otherwise bodily aggressors throughout, have been eliminated from this collective. The final scene is the Mr. Altman's comment on how he imagines this would play out.
Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer - The obtuse visuals and lack of exposition in Under The Skin throw off attempts to neatly consider it an allegory about so-and-so, but it is definitely allegorizing something. Playing an alien that has assumed the form of an attractive woman and tasked with hunting and consuming men across Scotland, Scarlett Johannson's character conducts her hunt with persistence and diligence. The conversations are spontaneous, the intentions of sex are effortlessly conveyed and the final moments of disrobing and approach play out in a hermetic mindspace and are intensely choreographed. With the eerie score pulsing through the final moments of each victim's life, the suggestion is one ritualized interplay, "kabuki theater" is the phrase that came to my mind as I first watched it. What does this movie say about the relationships between men and women, the buying and selling of sex, the pratfalls and predicaments of being a very successful sex object, the original sin of growing a heart and going under the skin? It's all rather slippery for me to say with certitude but I would still say this movie is a great one to think about.
Man vs. Nature/ The Meaning of Life
The Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara - Based on the novel of the same name by Japanese writer Kobo Abe, this is a story of amateur entomologist on a weekend excursion to a remote area of Japan near the sea, on the hunt for beetles indigenous to the sandy dunes of the region. There is a small village, the only outpost of mankind for leagues, whose denizens share a cruel secret. When forced to spend the night with them, Junpei Niki is led by the villagers to the hospitality of a woman living in a house built inside a sand quarry. Lowered down by rope ladder and offered food and care by the woman inside, he settles down to sleep through the first of many years worth of nights in that house. For the hospitality was a ruse - the villagers have assigned the woman, and now him, the Sisyphean task of endlessly digging up sand and piling it into the waiting buckets of the villagers above. The job is both menial and life-threatening. The sand becomes the third character in this two-person drama as it is their only resource - they need to keep working to receive food and water from the village -- while also being a all-consuming force of nature, violating their house, their food, their bodies, and needing constant effort to clean up after and beat back. Junpei initially resists this forced enslavement, but the sand is unclimbable, unstoppable, and starts eroding his dignity as well as his possessions if he even tries to force the villager's hand by not working. As days become weeks, the woman he now shares this fate with becomes sensually appealing and an understanding emerges. Months pass as escape attempts fail and help from Tokyo fails to materialize. Indeed there is no sign that anyone seems to know he's missing. By chance he discovers a way to condense water from the damp sand and starts obsessively perfecting his technology. At the end of the movie, a viable chance to escape presents itself but Junpei decides he can stay a while longer, because he knows he can make a yet better water condenser. A final image from the scene informs us that Junpei has been missing for over seven years. As becomes clear over the course of the story, Woman in the Dunes is a sometimes-harrowing allegory about life, what we consider to be meaningful, and how oppressive agents and forces of nature beyond our control shape our destiny. While this may sound quite disheartening, the movie offers us at the end a vision for hope - offered freedom from his prison, Junpei rejects it for a chance to keep working on the novel device he discovered. The movie suggests that even in the bleakest of life situations, a man can find a thing to own, to work upon, to improve and master, and such meaningful accomplishment can feed the soul more than the hustle and bustle of modern city life with the usual social relationships can. Amid the dust motes of that intolerable sand, Junpei discovers a universe far bigger than the stars of the night sky.
Walkabout by Nicholas Roeg - After a middle-aged man with some issues goes nutso and starts shooting at his his son and daughter during a picnic in the Australian outback before killing himself and destroying their car, the two siblings are forced into the desert wilderness with limited food and water, searching for civilization. Visits to an oasis provide temporary respite but the hostility of the insects and assorted critters waiting for them to stop moving is constant. They meet an aboriginal boy who takes them on an adventure through his home terrain. A makeshift family of three forms with a budding romance between the girl and the aboriginal adolescent. It is not to last however, but there is much beauty and loss before their adventure ends and they return to their familiar suburban life. Walkabout is a primarily visual adventure that sets up dichotomies between sterile civilized life and the untamed excitement of the outback. The characters are all unnamed and assumed to be archetypes and what plays out is an allegorical story of the tensions between nature and society, the comical futility of attempting to tame nature, the misadventures stemming from a failure to communicate and how one can recapture the innocence of Eden, albeit briefly, when mandates of society are ignorable.