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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: Upstream Color

Shane Carruth is an interesting case. In 2004, during the initial digital revolution in film, he helmed his debut feature Primer in 16 mm, a daring choice, on an incredibly meager budget. Shot for only $7,000, the film was a cult smash and conceptually was ambitious enough to attract Carruth into the good graces of many a sci-fi fan. I personally wasn't as sold on Primer as many others. While I admired the scientific line of thinking that went into its rather head-y script, I found it dramatically a bit inert and the acting left much to be desired. Though, the latter is excusable enough given the circumstances in which the film was made. Upstream Color comes hot off the festival circuit with comparisons to both Malick and Cronenberg. My initial hope was that Carruth, with a bigger budget and more experienced film-making chips, might have produced something truly special. The sting of disappointment is bitter indeed.

In terms of plot synopsis, the ability to spoil this film is nearly impossible, as plot is seemingly secondary to Carruth. It's also a difficult film to describe in detail, as interpretations may differ from viewer to viewer, but here goes nothing: A man in the midst of experiments with worms, placing them in capsules, forces Kris (Amy Seimetz) he meets at a bar to injest one, leaving her in a highly suggestible state. Utilizing a form of hypnosis caused by the worm, he convinces her to give him thousands of dollars and leaves her in her home. This same woman, who can see the worms (that have now reproduced) under her skin is drawn by the amplified recordings of a pig farmer who performs surgery on her, grafting a piece of a baby pig onto her and placing one of the worms into the pig. When she finally comes to, she learns she's lost her job and her accounts have been drained. Years later, and a number of inches of hair shorter, she lives inside the city and meets a Jeff (Carruth), a disgraced broker, with whom she eventually falls in love with and has gone through the same experience she has. As they spend time together, their memories begin to shift in a paranoid fashion, and they start to delve further into what exactly has happened to them. There's also alot of reading of "Walden", swimming, shots of flowers, and cute pigs.

In film, there's a thin line between art and commerce, and there have been many films in the recent past that have skirted that line. The Tree of Life is a perfect example of a piece of film-making that while having strong artistic ambitions, also tells a fairly coherent story. Inception is another example that leans slightly more populist, but still tickles the right part of the cortex. The point being, films can be art and enjoyable to watch at the same time, and when they do so, the artistic ambitions of the film are often elevated in my eyes. Much like To The Wonder, which earlier this year became 2013's cure for insomnia, Upstream Color fails to connect. Carruth is clearly inspired by the film-making of Terrence Malick, and much like Malick's work from the 90's on, Carruth's film pays special attention to the wonders of nature and the general concept of life itself. There's beautiful shot after shot that certainly leaves no question as to Carruth's skills as a cinematographer. There's nothing wrong with a film that doesn't spoon-feed its audience a plot, as I too am fairly critical of modern day film-going and its needless passages of exposition; yet, Upstream Color has a crucial missing element, which is a point, or to be more accurate, any kind of narrative voice at all beyond its first act.

The first 30 minutes of the film are rather intriguing as we have no concept of why this particular woman was targeted by the man who would eventually rob her, and the point at which her life begins to fall apart afterwards is probably the most stirring part of the entire ordeal. The initial scene where Kris is drawn to the pig farmer and what his connections were to the thief were fairly unclear, but forgivable as it would seem certain answers might eventually arrive. This never occurs. Instead, the second act brings Kris to a different point in her life, and this is where Upstream Color really begins to fall apart. Much of the blame here needs to be leveled at Carruth himself, who while a capable lens-man, simply does not have the gravitas to pull of the dead-pan style of acting needed to convey what the script may only hint at. Each scene between Seimetz and Carruth is painful, as the romantic chemistry is non-existent, and they're both so lost in their own semblance of reality that they never connect in a way that causes you ever care about the goings-on. This deficiency of course, is not assisted by the actions they perform which are nothing other than a function of the bizarre puzzle box Carruth has assembled. Why Walden? Why is Kris swimming to pick up rocks at the bottom of a pool? Why all the meetings in the empty office building? Carruth isn't interested in giving us these answers, his excuse being, "simply let the events wash over you", but that comes across as utter hokum. Even a challenging film like The Master, which has plot points that are up to interpretation, have base-level explanations that can satisfy.

By its final third, the film gives up on narrative coherence entirely and becomes something akin to a tone poem. People touching things, big keyboard swells, our protagonists walking slowly into an empty office. The beauty of these shots cannot be denied, but when you compound all of the unanswered questions of the first hour of the film with the growing slow as molasses malaise that it eventually becomes, restlessness begins to set in and the 90 minute running time feels far more like 3 hours. Perhaps there's some key code I'm missing altogether that will allow a greater understanding of Carruth's vision, but even as the end resolution was made somewhat clearer upon reflection and discussion of the film: the idea that conformity impacts the cycles of life and when that cycle is broken we all fall apart (I guess), I still wound up feeling let down by the whole experience. By the film's conclusion the only time I remained engaged was whenever the camera panned to the multitudes of pigs, who are just so darn cute. This is probably not what Carruth had in mind.

Shane Carruth is a director that is just the right kind of cerebral that is celebrated in sci-fi and indie circles, and the idea that he would attempt to take on something of greater emotional depth should be applauded. He also perhaps comes across as the kind of film-maker that may be buying into his own hype, and despite the fact that he perceives that he can write, direct, shoot, compose and act in his films all at the same time doesn't necessarily mean he should. Even Malick and Lynch don't try to take on every aspect of their films. Upstream Color could have been far more successful with a different lead actor, and a tighter, more coherent script in pre-production. Instead, what we have is a head-scratcher that reeks of pretension, the kind of film that critics all want to be on board with whether they grasp any of it or not. Here's hoping that the next Carruth feature is more collaborative in nature, as his technical ability could be a wonderful showcase filtered through another vision.

I give it a C-       

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