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Shane Carruth Designed Upstream Color, Now You Put it Together

There's a thin line between what's truly mysterious and what's totally bogus. A movie that leaves you feeling unclear about what's happening isn't necessarily mysterious—it may just be inept. In other words, the problem may be it, not you.

Shane Carruth's second feature, Upstream Color, a dystopian romance in which two damaged people find their way to one another, is a little mysterious. The picture is beautifully shot by Carruth himself; its tonal palette shifts easily from crisp to soft, assessing the menace and color-wheel beauty of the natural world as well as the somewhat beige, though not necessarily safe, comforts of the city. And it's far from inept: Carruth also edited the film himself, creating a cracked-mirror narrative that gradually pieces itself together. If the structure isn't straightforward, the basic plot and ideas aren't any harder to follow than those of, say, Leos Carax's super-wiggy end-of-cinema meditation Holy Motors.

But beware the allure of the quasi-experimental one-man show: There's a stream of pretension bubbling beneath the assured surface of Upstream Color—it's singing to us, and the words sound something like, "You probably won't get this, but try anyway." That's what keeps the film from having any emotional impact; it respects the laws of science more than the mad, vital entropy of art.

Location Info

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IFC Center

323 Sixth Ave.
New York, NY 10014

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: Greenwich Village

Details

Upstream Color
Written and directed by Shane Carruth
Upstream Color, LLC
Opens April 5, IFC Center

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That was also true—truer, in fact—of Carruth's 2004 debut, Primer, in which two engineers build a time-travel whatsit in a garage. Carruth produced, directed, shot, edited, and scored that picture. (He filled all those roles on Upstream Color as well, and he's distributing the film.) Primer is clever, if self-consciously so. And for a picture made on an extremely low budget—Carruth spent $7,000—its production values are sleek and elegant, a world apart from what other burgeoning filmmakers were doing. You wouldn't catch Carruth turning a jiggling camera on desperately uninteresting Williamsburg folk.

Upstream Color is far more ambitious, thematically and technically. But even though it's intended to be the emotionally richer movie—it's at least partly a love story, after all—Upstream Color is actually remoter. It's also fuller of well-disguised baloney. Almost midway through a man named Jeff, played by Carruth, approaches a woman named Kris (played by Amy Seimetz, also an indie-film writer and producer) on a train in an unnamed city. There's clearly something wrong: She's huddled in a corner seat, having sealed the world out with her headphones. She wears anonymity and dislocation like a hoodie.

Jeff and Kris strike up a tentative romance, pushed forward by fractured conversations and fracturing jump cuts. There's tenderness between them, and they need it: By this point in the film, we already know—as much as we know anything for sure in Upstream Color—what has happened to Kris. When we first meet her, she's an upstanding citizen with a good job in a creative field. Then an unnamed man slips her a mysterious narcotic made from what appear to be grubs. He kidnaps and brainwashes her, turning her into an automaton and forcing her to perform abstruse menial exercises and empty her bank account.

Meanwhile, the grub-drug lives and roils inside her. (Didn't Brian Ferry once sing, "Love is the grub/I'm thinking of"?) Another mysterious figure, perhaps a scientist, a musician, or both (he's played by Andrew Sensenig and referred to as "the Sampler" in the credits) comes to her rescue. Or does he? His plan for her involves an anesthetized pig, some crude surgery, and a possible melding of plant, animal, and human life. Thoreau's Walden figures in there, too. Afterward, Kris remembers nothing.

To be bewildered by Upstream Color is to be human; the story is obtuse by design, though the filmmaking is X-Acto precise. But it's a bloodless movie, and its ideas aren't as tricky or complex as Carruth's arch, mannered approach might suggest. The movie's chief lament can be summed up pretty succinctly: We're disconnected from nature and disconnected from each other. That idea is played out best in Seimetz's performance, the movie's most affecting component. Even though Kris has lost her livelihood, maybe even her reasons for existing, her eyes are only half-blank—Seimetz makes sure there are flickers of life there. In math-speak, she cancels a negative value with a positive one, the mere possibility of happiness.

But what about the X factor, that elusive variable that existed in science, math, and nature long before it became a music-competition TV show? That's what Upstream Color,sensuous only in the clinical sense, lacks. When Carruth, a self-taught filmmaker and former engineer, trains his camera on some scarily bright blue flowers—or on some unnervingly pristine white ones—they practically pop off the screen, like a surprise rebuke from Mother Nature. Similarly, when Jeff and Kris, stricken suddenly by agonizing paranoia, take refuge together in an empty bathtub, their intertwined limbs become a yin-and-yang map. Meaning is everywhere you look in Upstream Color. If only life were that simple, or that easily diagrammed.

 
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9 comments
kenvallario
kenvallario

I watched this movie last night, and a long time watcher of this genre of film, I can say that you Stephanie Zacharek are probably not the intended audience.  This is not meant disrespectfully but to say that one of the primary themes of this work has to do with registers and wavelengths, and like many symbolist film-makers, it is understood that films like this speak a language that requires some enthusiasm, and a bit of history.

To the intended audience I would imagine this movie will be seen as a masterpiece, and the references to Malick, and I suppose Kubrick, are well earned, but some laudable distinctions are ready to be made, that have to do with the unique nature of the time we live in...namely, the relationships between science, our experience of reality and history, and how this resonates with the bonds we share with nature...in other words, there are many forms of sleep and many forms of ideological infection...and this movie works at an ancient practice which is to convince us of the value of a perspective, only to completely and utterly destroy it, taking us closer to a wider, less attached perspective...

If you are not an advanced practitioner of metaphor, much of what is happening in this movie will be missed.  I understand that alienating audiences comes with its own ideological dilemmas, however, there are realms of intellectual speculation that sometimes require a specialized approach.  And I was surprised that your review had no mention of the intense intimacy between the actors and the animals in the movie, but it is emblematic of exactly the disconnectedness the movie is exploring, that you might not be touched by the sensitivity with which these pigs are shown, in their fullest, most emotional complexity.  I am a meat-eater, and I found myself quite challenged by this movie.

anyways, i didn't see a lot of positive reviews, so i felt compelled to put another perspective out there...i was blown away, and I wish more film-makers lived in the world of risk that Shane Carruth does...

HendersonHallNCR
HendersonHallNCR

Sorry, but you are wide of the mark.  As a first approximation the movie is an examination of the mechanisms of our control, how we are manipulated into conformity.  Witness mantras of positivity turned into paper chains.   The expansion from Primer is that Mr. Carruth makes much more explicit his humanist viewpoint.  The ending, as the couple are united with surrogates of their murdered progeny while the thief is deprived of his burglar's tools,  is far removed from the subtle hinge of Primer's "heroic impulse".  

HendersonHallNCR
HendersonHallNCR

Sorry, but you are wide of the mark.  As a first approximation the movie is an examination of the mechanisms of our control, how we are manipulated into conformity.  Witness mantras of positivity turned into paper chains.   The expansion from Primer is that Mr. Carruth makes much more explicit his humanist viewpoint.  The ending, as the couple are united with surrogates of their murdered progeny while the thief is deprived of his burglar's tools,  is far removed from the subtle hinge of Primer's "heroic impulse".  

ChrisLC
ChrisLC

Thanks for taking a reasoned stand against this mounting, bewildering personality cult. Carruth keeps getting compared to Malick (and jeez, who doesn't these days), and for me Malick is already rapidly accelerating towards a point of ne plus ultra navel-gazing --- but even he doesn't *also* do the camerawork, and *also* compose the score, and *also* do the sound design, and *also* (ugh) perform as lead actor. It's goes beyond self-satisfied cleverness and into a sort of desperate quest for widespread validation and superiority. Ostensibly the most important job of a film director is to balance the frisson of collaborative creativity with the need for a unified vision; Carruth seems to discount the first responsibility entirely in order to... what? Prove that he's good at every last aspect of filmmaking, and moreover capable of doing them simultaneously? Insist on the evident fallacy that there are *no* genius-level filmmakers available, even those who would work for little money, who could add their own organic constituents to his work's totality? It's almost juvenile in its singularity; Tarkovsky and Kubrick are as of-a-piece as filmmakers get, yet they certainly didn't need to be 'one man bands.'

It really just ticks me off because insular filmmakers like Carruth really are 'some kinda' geniuses, but they're so obsessive over maintaining their crystalline purity of vision *as it exists in their heads* that all their talents are wasted on what is essentially 'Facebook filmmaking;' that is, tone poems that have been brilliantly and sonorously decorated, but really just to distract from the fact that we're just watching a filmmaker preen and contemplate himself in a mirror.

campbellismyname
campbellismyname

Best thing to happen to the Village Voice: Stephanie Zacharek.

glennrwordman
glennrwordman

@villagevoice. Or perhaps I'm shallow. Or that's what the film is designed to make one feel. I wanted to like it, mostly due to Amy Seimetz.

 

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