Tag Archive | upstream color

Swiss Army Man (2016)

After a while it feels like, in film, all the big themes and questions have already been wrestled with in the collection of movies I’ve seen since the time I started paying attention to them; and at a certain point the motivation to watch more and continue hunting is to find that new and interesting approach to those questions, rather than an attempt to raise more. It makes it all the more striking when you watch a story with the oldest plot line in existence that somehow makes you feel something strongly, or connects you with characters that should be cliché but somehow aren’t. The story makes you feel as if you are asking those old questions for the first time again and experiencing a new answer. This is how I felt watching Swiss Army Man (2016).

For me, the hunt and zeroing in on targets usually gets started by something very strange. I am a strange enthusiast. I remember stumbling upon movies like Upstream Color (2013), Ink (2009), and The Frame (2014) and being so happy that I had been drawn in. The story descriptions were so odd, but at the same time were about something very old and familiar to human thought and emotion. They were just told in a way that made you think about those themes a little differently.

The first scene in Swiss Army Man is enough to make you think WTF… but after a few minutes you realize you’re watching something worth your time. The morbid humor of Hank trying again and again to execute himself by hanging while trying to ignore the impressive magnitude of gas emitted from the body of a corpse named Manny hanging out on the beach is…intriguing. At that point I’m thinking either this is going to be really stupid, or incredibly interesting. And because it’s Paul Dano, I had a pretty good feeling and leaned toward the latter.

The first time I saw Paul Dano in anything was when Little Miss Sunshine came out in 2006. He played a brooding young teenager who idolized F. Nietzsche and dreamed of being a fighter pilot, undergoing a vow of silence to demonstrate his commitment. His odd face struck me, I remember. What a strange-looking dude, I thought. But his performance was fantastic, culminating in that gut-wrenching breakdown when he realizes in the bus that he is color blind and can never qualify as a pilot. He did not hold back anything in that scene; he was broken and ugly, and it gave me goose bumps to hear those sounds and see that face. I believed every second of that performance. He holds his own strongly alongside actors like Steve Carell and Toni Collette. He was incredible, and that was easily my favorite movie of that year.

Paul Dano appears in the beginning of Swiss Army Man as a withered man covered in facial hair. It kind of reminded me of Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000), only this time instead of the old, decrepit aspect that Hanks carried along, the main character carries more of a sense of new adult crossroads. The cadaver that floats into shore and begins passing gas like nothing in existence serves to take you further out of a mindset that you are watching a survival story. Instead, it views more like a message. This young man has something to discover, something to say. He’s not going to die, you feel; he has many miles to go yet. It is odd after having that thought how strong the conviction is that you can’t have a believable lone survivor story unless you start out with the character looking ancient, having tried everything possible and failed. Nothing about Hank here makes you feel like he is in danger.

Eventually Hank gives up on his suicide attempt and goes to check out the floating cadaver, later called Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe. The story takes an even stranger turn as Hank hops onto Manny’s back and rides him through the waves like a jet ski, pulling down the cadaver’s pants to get the most propulsion possible out of him…ok

Manny carries him to the shore of land where Hank is sure he will find his long-awaited rescue. He is desperate to find people, anyone at all. We get the feeling he has been alone for a very long time, though we are never told how long, or even how old Hank is; though he is obviously a young man.

After finding an old bag of cheese puffs on the ground, he regains some of his lost hope.

The real story begins when Hank starts to animate his cadaver friend out of desperation and loneliness. Manny can talk! But he must have Hank move him around into position. Soon Hank finds all kinds of ways to use Manny. Move an arm there, his head here, and load his mouth with ammo and he becomes a human BB gun. One miraculous property of his “swiss army man” is that with the correct positioning of applied pressure to the abdomen, he spurts fresh water out of his mouth! Hank can take showers with a little rigging, and is no longer in danger of dehydration. But what does the cadaver have to say?

Manny is introduced in this new form as a human being, but without any knowledge whatsoever about the world. Hank must explain how everything works, answering basic questions about life itself, love, friendship, meaning etc. And as we know that Manny is only actually animated through Hank’s imagination, Manny becomes an amplifier for what is going on inside Hank’s mind.

We all, at different points in our lives, experience things which give us conviction about possible answers to the questions that have no answer. Why are things the way that they are? Manny’s character asks the viewer to basically revisit that state of being right before you really think you know what you are doing, or what everything is about. “Why do we have to hide so much from people?” is a specific example brought up after Hank tells Manny he should stop passing gas all the time. People don’t like it. But that’s sad, Manny says, “why do people feel they have to hide it?”

Later, Hank decides to relinquish an embarrassing secret to his friend Manny that he’s never told anyone else. He demonstrates how embarrassment and fear of being found out can isolate and trap people. The constant fear and thought of “what if” compounds on itself until your world is nothing but worrying about what if and never seeing what is or what could be. Perhaps the worst fears are those which involve giving power to the opinions and thoughts of other people. Why does this fear have so much power? Why do we care so much about what people think of us? Manny doesn’t know, but he’s pretty good at showing us just how absurd the idea is.

We go further into Hank’s life as Manny discovers a picture of a beautiful woman on a cell phone. Hank tells him it is Manny’s phone, and that he must remember her in order to remember how to get home. But how will he remember? He tries very hard, but cannot remember who the woman is. Perhaps if Hank dresses up like her and pretends to be her in a role-playing game where Manny first meets the woman as she gets onto the bus that he rides every day…

Manny quickly falls madly in love with this woman he knows nothing about. Perhaps the most telling scene comes as Manny sits on the bus just a few inches away from the girl of his dreams, and does nothing, unsure of what to do. “She’s right there!” Hank insists, (playing the role of the girl, but jumping out of character out of stress), “and you’re not going to do anything?” Just as deep into the game as Manny, he betrays the reality that perhaps he is a lot more familiar with this scenario than he has admitted to Manny.

In actuality, indeed this woman is someone with whom Hank has fallen deeply in love, but has never had the guts to do anything about. He took the picture on the bus with his phone while she was not paying attention, but has never spoken to her. In his fantasy role-playing with his cadaver friend Manny, he has a chance to live through the scenario again, but this time he will say something and tell her finally how he feels.

Perhaps the most impressive feat in this film to me is the fact that I actually developed empathy and feelings for the cadaver character lol. His innocence in how he processes and learns things about the world makes you connect with him just as you would with a child, but it is in a more personal way because he is learning adult things as an adult, and not as a child. His character works to shine a light on the child in all of us who have grown up, but are still feeling like a child in many ways, simply pretending to play the part of an adult. No, you do not suddenly have all the answers once you turn a certain age. You continue to form your own answers, make conclusions, have experiences, change your mind about the world, over and over again. We all become lost at times, and we all find ourselves again at different points in our lives, if we’re lucky.

This demonstration of life, and the absurdity of life, is what I love about this film. It is portrayed in such a fresh, original way and it gets through. In the end, sometimes our reward for so much searching is something as simple as being able to fart in public, and not freaking out about what someone else is going to think or say about it.




Pulse                                Altered Chords

Accent/Ambient            Epic Crescendo Repeat

Epic Crescendo Bloom

Percussive Editing/Sound Effect

Several years ago I was turned on to the idea of studying psychology in terms of music because of the intensely powerful effect it has on me personally. I wanted to know why music causes emotion and there have been lots of different people saying kind of remote and distanced things about it. A lot of attention is put on patterns and the pleasure the brain finds in identifying patterns. Another paper I read recently augmented the importance of effective music being a “balance” of delivering on the expected and delivering the unexpected, observing that simple repetitive music is usually just annoying, while too complicated and unpredictable music can be…just as annoying. This at least resonates a little with me when I think about some of my favorite tracks I’m listening to right now. Case and point. I recently discovered Squarepusher thanks to my brother in law. A track called “Dark Steering” is an unusual and fascinating piece. It delivers on the unexpected, resolves into periods of sense, and additionally progresses a lot like the soundtrack to a film clip. The beginning of the track is percussive and you can follow it below the surface of the stranger electronic sounds that fly around the center like insects, going in and out of focus with the beat. Layers are steadily added, and eventually the thing runs out of a tunnel into an open space of a simple repeated phrase with accents of noises that paint a picture where you can’t really focus in on a single element, but all together something beautiful is formed. The phrases fade away, then you have a different statement, decidedly dark. Then I hear the title of the song in the form of electronic steering, I felt like I was in the passenger seat of this vehicle that mimics the sounds of a car but is really trapped inside a computer. There is enough repeated phrasing to keep the listener grounded but it also sends you flying into space around weird angles and constant strange turns.

So this is the experience of audio by itself. When we add the human element in visual images to sounds there is a combination of pattern that self-identifies as an emotion, sometimes without even noticing it as we watch a movie. Why do minor chords sound “sad” and major chords sound “happy”? We personify music in a way that we don’t really understand yet. But one of the most fascinating observations that relate to what I wanted to write about today had to do with movement and sound.

“Music is exquisitely emotionally evocative, which is why a touch of happy music makes even unrelated pictures seem more pleasant…we are led to the conclusion that the artifact of music should contain some distinctly human elements.

The question, of course, is what those elements are. One candidate is our expressive speech – perhaps music is just an abstract form of language. However, most of the emotion of language is in the meaning, which is why foreign languages that we don’t understand rarely make us swoon with pleasure or get angry.

But there is a second auditory expressive behavior we humans carry out – our bodily movements themselves. Human movement has been conjectured to underlie music as far back as the Greeks. As a hypothesis this has the advantage that we have auditory systems capable of making sense of the sounds of people moving in our midst – an angry stomper approaching, a delicate lilter passing, and so on. Some of these movements trigger positive emotions – they conjure up images of pleasant activities – while others might be automatically associated with fear or anxiety. (The sound of running makes us wonder what we’re running from.) If music were speech-driven, then it is missing out on the largest part of speech’s expressiveness – the meaning. But if music sounds like human expressive movements, then it sounds like something that, all by itself, is rich in emotional expressiveness, and can be easily interpreted by the auditory system.” -Mark Changizi, Scientific American, 9/15/09, link here.

This is especially significant to me because I’ve developed a personal form of meditation that involves movement and music in such a symbiotic way that the two are not separate for long after the start. Sometimes it feels like I can write the music myself with the movements I make, a combination of muscle memory from dance training and improvisational interpretation.

I am a firm believer in the idea that the majority of a film’s emotional impact is delivered by the audio factor. And I don’t say strictly by film score, because a seemingly complete lack of film score can be just as effective. Except, like in the example clip from The Dark Knight (2008, Hans Zimmer) below, there is actually a very finely crafted element of editing and sound effect musicality that creates a percussive soundtrack that serves the film in one of the most exciting action sequences I’ve seen in a while…and there’s no roaring screeching guitars. Just minimal use of pulsing music to prep you. Then from there the rhythm is completely controlled by the sound effects and editing, a music all its own.



The minimal pulse is one category I wrote down when trying to identify at least a few of the types of effective film score devices. Another example of the minimal pulse, and probably the most famous, is of course Jaws (1975, John Williams) (which I don’t think I need to play for you to know.) John Williams is the greatest film composer who ever lived in my book.

There is an example that you may not be familiar with unless you’ve seen last year’s Upstream Color. The soundtrack was created by director Shane Carruth, and is on my top ten list for favorite film soundtracks. The use of the pulse always clicks in my brain as a signal that represents a heart beat, and extends to mean continuation, movement forward, living moment to moment. So in this way when I hear the pulse during a movie it makes me feel like I’m being led forward. Perhaps to an event, or just through the menial tasks of everyday life, but movement just the same. It is of course used in various forms in horror movies to get you ready, or fool you, in the form of a jump scare. Here is an example of the beautifully effective pulsing device of film scoring.



In the same film is a beautiful example of using altered chords for emotional expression, or to make you feel something that is being felt in the scene. This film is filled with moments like this. The subtle change in the middle of a chord can push the ambience of a film’s scene in to a very dark, very hopeful, very scary, or very happy moment, and within just a second, and within just a note. It’s fascinating to me. What drives me pleasurably insane about this film score is that it carries you through the journey leading you up intolerably to…something. But somehow it seems to bypass that something to simply continue on the journey, but along the way drops you beautiful lingering strands of sound that fulfill something that you did not realize you were moving toward. The pulse also often sounds much like a march, which visually and audibly suggest movement. So in a way, I guess hearing the film score in what in real life would be a moment where time would stop, like a terrible accident, horrible news, or a breathtaking discovery or surprise…the music in these moments makes sure that you do not lose touch with the progression of the film and get lost in that moment, unless of course that’s what the film maker wants you to do.



There are yet other arguments to be made about the effectiveness of film score to be measured by whether or not you actually notice it while you’re watching the movie. Perhaps it should be just below the surface. I can see this point I think. It’s the same way that a really good character actor performance will fly by under the radar, but when you really think about it that character actually made the movie. I think that this is most valid on the very first viewing of the movie. When you are so wrapped up in what’s going on on screen, the audio enhancement that is boosting the emotions may be pushed back into the subconscious, but still be every bit as effective as if you were pointedly listening to it. Anyway, one of my favorite scenes from an Aranofsky film and an example of the third category of film score devices, the accent/ambience, is shown here in a scene from Pi (1998, Clint Mansell).



The sound is barely above the level of sound effect, but it is there, and it underscores the intensity of Max’s passion and the significance of the argument the two characters are having. Then notice how it drops even lower almost to nothing as the scene culminates and refocuses on the dialogue, “…you’re no longer a mathematician, you’re a numerologist.”

Now for some of the most beautiful film score evolutions I love to hear in movies. They are similar but there is a marked difference, at least to me. The first is epic crescendo repeat which uses the climbing volume levels to climb alongside the intensity or drama that is happening visually. The phrase or theme is repeated, but the volume begins to raise and that theme becomes embellished until it swells into a beautiful storm swirling just above the climactic moments in a scene.



The embellishments of the phrase with the strings in “Time” in the film Inception (2010), composed by Hans Zimmer, take the emotional level that much higher and adds a level of interest that makes the images more intense even than they may have been before. In the above example, the music actually works to decompress the tension, whereas earlier in the film the same theme was used to intensify the action.

And finally, the epic crescendo bloom. This is a movement in the score that does nothing but grow. It moves right alongside the escalation of the action with no hidden agenda. Pure force and power that sometimes even surpasses the movement or intensity in the film. Here are a couple of my favorites. Two clips from The Neverending Story (1984, Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder), and A Beautiful Mind (2001, James Horner).




In conclusion, I would like to end with one of my favorite movie/action/film score combinations of all time, something I have commemorated on my left forearm as a tribute to all that Masanobu Ando and Katsuhito Ishii are, and have accomplished to me personally in the film Smuggler (2011, Toshio Nakagawa).



And, finally, the final light saber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (1983, John Williams). THE GREATEST FILM/FILM SCORE SYNTHESIS OF ALL TIME !














Upstream Color, by Shane Carruth (2013)


Without a doubt, the major implement of effect for me in this movie is the film score. The images and sounds are so symbiotic the film feels like more of a ballet at times than a narrative work. What is impressive to me is that Shane Carruth directed, acted in and indeed wrote the beautiful score. A true “auteur” if any creator can be called one. I want to earnestly say that if the viewer were staring at a barren field for two hours listening to this score, he would be convinced the whole way that something big is just about to happen. This feeling is pervasive throughout nearly the whole film. You are given pieces of information through images and the storyline isn’t so cryptic that the viewer is at any point clueless as to what has happened. Therefore, the majority of the attention is placed on the reaction, the emotional effect and disturbances. Instead of hitting you square with the shocking details, the film instead lets the viewer’s mind simmer within the reality that neither character can escape from, like the pervasive and relentlessly edgy music. It is so clever to me that the music is simultaneously mellow and tense. Like someone learning gradually to accept a horrible occurrence in their life that they can do nothing about.


The main characters, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth), are inflicted with pain of loss in a major way. Afterwards, they find each other, without any memory of what had happened to them. Slowly the experience nestled in their subconscious moves to the surface, like the plant chemical used to poison them floating through the water from the piglet’s guts towards the end of the movie. In the end, Kris finds some measure of solace when she discovers the home of the man who has done this to her and Jeff and kills him. Later the two find the pigs that have become forcibly connected to each of the victims of “The Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig) and the Thief (Thiago Martins), which is a very long list. The Sampler seems almost unaware of what he is doing to his victims, until finally one of them, Kris, joins her eyes with his. The Sampler’s eyes look away immediately, dance back and forth as if confused, then in a parallel set of shots walks in the same sluggish way as his victims across the floor of an empty, colorless building (a pig-sty) then leans against a wall (the barn) before sliding down it to the floor, clutching his heart (the gunshot and shooter only visible in the muddy pig-sty shots). Why is this scene shot to show the same event happening in two places? Is only one physical, the other mental? And why? For me, what’s pivotal here is the exchange between Kris and the Sampler that happens in an instant through their eyes.

How easy it is to be guided by instinct or curiosity, like animals. Having exhausted all other conclusions, we continue on autopilot until such times that we are forced out of it when we collide with someone else, another consciousness, that we are shocked to find is wandering through and treading the same waters. In the realization you wonder, what are the hurtful things I may have done while I was asleep? At the place where some choose autopilot others choose full speed ahead, only to wake up one day surrounded by empty accomplishment when one of the nameless crowd crosses their path and their eyes meet…their faces, their bodies, their minds are the same. The only difference is that one has stepped over the other for a clearer view, and failed.

Love is also explored in an incredibly beautiful way in this film. There is no romance, only survival, and an indefatigable connection that binds two people together because of what they share. The same thing is illustrated in the end, when the victims of the Sampler take over the care of the pigs. A beautiful movie and a powerful statement that is open enough for each one of us to find power in common with ourselves.