Friday, 6 June 2014

Upstream Color is Proudly Pretentious

The film:
Upstream Color (2013)

The under-the-radar factor:
Filmmaker/actor Shane Carruth made his initial splash in 2004 with his low-budget sci-fi flick Primer, which ended up taking Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival. He returned to that event in 2013 with this artsy, poetically experimental musing that, while appreciated by critics, has predictably had less than explosive results in finding an audience. 

The review:

I know many of you consider yourselves to be "art-house movie goers". Perhaps you are. There is a litmus test for it, you know.

It's India Song, the 1975 film directed by Marguerite Duras.

Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario seated around 200 bodies at capacity when it was the venue for what I called the good-old-days of Cinematheque Ontario (...and why was it the good-old-days?...that's for another time). The Duras film would play to a capacity house but after about 20 minutes of heavy-on-style-but-inert-on-action/movement/anything, you would notice people walking out in a huff. By the time all was said and done, the theatre would have thinned out by about 15%.

(For the record, I sat through India Song...('puffs chest out') twice!)

Using that film as the bar to set judgements by, I would guess about 15% of you "artsy-fartsies" would prefer to take a pass on Upstream Color, a film as narratively baffling as it is atmospherically rich. The exit is that way - the rest of you stay tuned.

It's no big surprise after you've seen the film to note that the DVD case is packaged as plain as can be, with leads Amy Seimetz and Carruth embracing in a bath tub on the front cover and a shot of some pigs on the back (those oinky creatures have front-and-centre rolls in this one). That's it! No further info is really to be found inside or on the disc itself - no attempt is made anywhere on the package to "describe" what the film is "about". This is highly appropriate, as it's really up to the viewer to decide whatever meaning has come before them in this challenging piece.

Sparse cover, loaded film.
Not so much a story as a set of actions leading to impressions unfolds. In the first half hour some creepy guy who hangs out and observes school kids for experimental purposes has devised something with grubs that when inhaled can lead the inhaler into states where they can be persuaded to do just about anything. Kris (Seimetz) is the person tasered and abducted by said creep - after getting a dose of the grubs (yes, this part of the film isn't easy to digest visually) she is willing to sign over all her private holdings and financial assets.  The power of these worms have also compelled her to kiss her identity goodbye. After the dark character has left, Kris snaps out of it and comes to realize her life is in ruins, loosing her job as well as all else.

Now at this point one could try to continue describing the "plot" but that would be largely a waste of time. The film takes a wide detour to concentrate on the coming together of Kris and Jeff (Carruth), two people who are awkward with each other and yet seem to have things connecting them that they (or the viewer) really don't understand. There's also The Sampler - a dude who's into recording sounds and hanging with the aforementioned pigs. He's important in being both a danger and a defender of sorts but there's no point in trying to convey why right here. Same with the numerous readings coming out of Walden - all of this is not so much food for thought as it is fuel for impressions. There are few words spoken in the film but many interpretations as to what this all means.

While I understand Upstream Color is largely meant to be taken as "experimental", I still found myself rolling my eyes in the first 30 minutes, dismissing the scenario and actions presented as pompous trite anyone could throw against the cinematic wall. For act two, I found myself less incredulous but more bored by the developments and I thought there were a few points where my jaw would dislocate from yawning so loud.

Then a funny thing happened. By the time the last act was playing out I was sensing this entire experience coming together and even gluing the elements from the first hour that had previously been easy to brush off. The film grows on you as an introspection of the cosmos we inhabit ourselves in, more by how we feel about things than by what we consciously regard them as.

This is not to say Carruth is entirely successful with the trip he's taken us on. Some examinations/experiences take their time, others are given too short a gander. And a lesser performance than the one delivered by Seimetz would have blunted the film's impact considerably - she's largely the binding for the out-of-order pages of this disjointed effort.

But there is no denying this is an intensely personal vision that tries not to cop out or compromise. Carruth's fingerprints are on this work as director, writer, producer, actor, editor, cinematographer and, last but far from least, the composer of a score that is haunting and highly effective. Throw into this his attempts to promote and distribute the film through every micro-means possible and you have the signature of someone who may be labelled as a lot of other things but will never have the title of "true independent" yanked away from him. And true indie this film is. A work that insists on its place in the cinematic landscape through its own unique vision and means, Upstream Color carries a fair bit of fresh air in its stormy winds. It may not be a can't-miss film for some but it is a can't-dismiss one for the open-minded.


  1. I saw this at a Q&A with Carruth. He mentioned that he wanted to make a film that was more like an album, and hoped that more films would be made that were more like albums.
    Also, in the artsy-fartsy stakes, I believe my sitting through the entirety of Star Spangled to Death takes some beating.

    1. Hmm...Star Spangled To Death...that is a good one. I may have to put India Song on a double bill with the full version of Dog Star Man to beat that one.