I don’t really know how to start this. I could talk about theme or plot or the actors or the score or what have you. I could. I probably will. I will probably hit the ground running when I do start. It’ll be great. readable, at least. But at this moment, I’m not sure how to start. I still feel a little thrown off; hazy from experiencing Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color.
I have strong affinity for movies that do more than what is expected of them. Meeting expectations has been the status quo for quite a while, what with the prevalence of summer blockbusters. With Primer, Carruth boldly presents a hard science fiction film that drowns you in overtly complicated technological jargon as well as the inherently confusing effects of time travel. Carruth manages to breathe life into that story through the nuanced characters who succumb to the pressures of greed. Primer set the bar high for the rest of Carruth’s career and I honestly would have been happy if his follow up met half my expectations. If there ever was a bar, Upstream Color tore through it. The film transcends not only the science fiction genre that tries to define it, but film language itself.
Before seeing the film, I had heard a lot of comparisons between Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. That is not surprising as both films tend to lay their visual focus on the hidden grandness of the minutia of life. Images of nature and everyday human occurrence are interconnected to create a struggle between them. Almost every frame of the films are a works of art, displaying an intermingled understanding of technical skill and artistic merit. The comparisons essentially end there, though. While I am not completely certain of the vast significance of themes behind either film, I can rest assured that they are attempting portray very different meanings. Whatever message, they both engage the audience with very different tactics.
The narrative structure of Upstream Color is unlike any other, languishing in being obscure clearly. At any given moment in the film, one will feel lost, things seemingly connected by nothing; just strings of images one after one another. However, as time drifts on, a plot starts to emerge. The beautiful imagery engulfs you so fully that one barely notices the story has begun. It is not to say that the plot of the film is trivial, but rather so alive on the screen that it becomes something that has always been there. This feeling comes from the confidence in Carruth’s vision, where not a single moment is wasted in the film. The audience is never shown an unneeded frame or made to listen to endless expository lines of dialogue. Upstream Color spends long segments of the film speechless, but when dialogue appears it is often wrought with meaning. In-between those moments of speech, Carruth’s heavenly score plays, lulling viewers even deeper into the film. These elements are carefully brought together by Carruth, accomplishing a dreamlike experience that very few artists have successfully done (only Michel Gondry and his film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes to mind).The film unfolds slowly and truly requires attention to be paid at every possible moment. In the roughest of estimations, the film is centered on an unknown life form that exists within worms . This life form’s presence is heralded by a blue tint that secretes from plants coexisting in the same soil as the worms. The entity connects people in extraordinary ways after they come in contact with it. Initially this connection is not too worrisome; merely creating some control across people, recreating hand and arm movements involuntarily for the person being controlled. Things escalate quickly, early scenes in the film show a nameless and nearly faceless person taking advantage of this organism to control and exploit a helpless victim, Kris (portrayed flawlessly by Amy Seimetz). The rest of the film revolves around the after effects of coming into contact with the organism.
The acting by Seimetz and Carruth (who plays Jeff, a love interest to Seimetz’ Kris) is astounding. Carruth comes off as a seasoned pro after Primer and Seimetz gives a spot on performance that causes the audience to connect with her, not unlike how the film portrays the effects of the organism. Whether Seimetz’s portrayal of Kris is vulnerable in one scene or steadfastly determined in another, one feels her emotions as real as their own. The rest of the prominent cast also bring their best to the film. Thiago Martins barely appears on screen; instead his deep hypnotic voice guides both Kris and the audience through the visceral brainwashing and exploitation. Andrew Sensenig appears later in the film as an enigmatic farmer whose connections to the events are as abstract as the organism.Upstream Color does not require more viewings, but its submerging quality invites them. This film is a meditation on existence, positing questions about identity, relationships, parenthood, Henry David Thoreau, and countless other things. It is a true wonder of cinema and deserves to be seen on the big screen. You can go on the film’s website and check for dates when it may be playing in your area. Here in Chicago, the magnificent Music Box Theatre is currently playing it. I cannot recommend this film enough. I may not have known how to start this post, but I know how to end it. Go experience this film.
Update 050913: the film is currently available on Netflix, there is now no reason why you shouldn’t watch Upstream Color.