Thursday, June 20, 2013

Upstream Color: An Experimental Film About Parasites, Pigs, and the Connections Between People

     It's been nearly ten years since writer/director Shane Carruth broke onto the scene with Primer, a wicked cool sci-fi movie about time travel that cost less than $10,000 to make and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Like any great puzzle, Primer took immense concentration to figure out, and it shot Carruth to the forefront of young filmmakers willing to work with big ideas while using a small budget. Film fans couldn't wait to see what he would come up with next. Then they waited...and waited...and waited. They waited nearly 10 years, until January of this year when his newest creation, Upstream Color, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. I'm not sure a viewer could say it was worth the wait if they were into narrative cohesion; in fact, I'm not sure a film such as this deserved to be judged at all: an abstract collage of scenes (sometimes connecting and sometimes not) featuring beautiful images and an incredibly weird plot propel Upstream Color into the realm of great American experimental film--key word "experimental".
     If you don't enjoy being challenged or confused while watching a movie, feel free to stop reading now. Because Upstream Color could take a dozen watches to truly figure out its intricacies (not that many will be willing to do that). The tagline sure doesn't give anything major away: "A man and a woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives." If you said you knew exactly what the film was about after watching it, you'd be lying. But there are many possibilities: the connections people make with each other, the connections humans have with other animals and nature, the mutual craziness that comes with love, the technique of making film a more visceral watching experience. These are all viable ideas.
     The plot basically concerns two people, though others play integral roles. Kris (Amy Seimetz), who works with computers, gets abducted by a man known as "Thief" and drugged with some form of larva (Thief shoots it down her throat) that completely alters her consciousness. Essentially, Thief now has complete control over Kris, and he makes her perform mundane tasks--like handwriting the book Walden page by page or taking sips of water--while he empties her bank accounts and the equity from her house. This first 30 minutes is the best and most intense part of Upstream Color. Once she is released from her trance, she is obviously completely devastated, remembering only tiny flashes of what exactly happened to her. Later, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth, the director, writer, producer, cinematographer, composer, and production/sound designer of Upstream Color), who may or may not have experienced a very similar situation.

     As they begin to really get to know each other, they realize that their connections are certainly more peculiar than mere coincidence: memories involving an orchid-like flower, childhood incidences, and a mysterious man known as "Sampler"--who uses different sounds to lure people into his pig farm to perform operations involving the creepy larvae--start to invade their every thought and dream. Yeah, it's not really like anything you have seen before. And I don't even know if I can say that I really liked it. But it's unquestionably one thing: watchable.
     An easy comparison, in terms of the direction, is Terrence Malick, whose films have a dream-like quality that you experience rather than just watch. It's the same way here with Carruth's creation: nearly every shot and every sound is filmed in a way which is rarely seen or heard. The film also becomes a bit scatter-shot, without much of a conventional plot or scene structure, causing the viewer to become discombobulated but still utterly fascinated. The ideas at hand are deep and varied, and the feeling you get while watching is one of complete originality. You also couldn't fault a viewer who finds the entire film a bit too weird and eerie. But it still shows that the ultra-talented Shane Carruth is a director worth seeking out, as Upstream Color--like an intricate maze--is a rewarding piece of art.     (B+)     

(Upstream Color (2013) and Primer (2004) are both available on Netflix Instant)

No comments:

Post a Comment