Upstream Color Reviews
"Upstream Color" is striking in many ways, most prominently in how astoundingly precise it is. There isn't a single wasted frame in the film, and every shot is composed for maximum informational density. Our introduction to Kris and the particulars of her life and the way the thief methodically strips it of all monetary value is enthralling. There is no expository dialogue explaining how the thief's chemical hypnosis process works, but understanding is reached gradually through meticulously assembled imagery. The film demands careful attention and ardently resists passive consumption, but it isn't arduous to sit through. Its photography is so hauntingly beautiful and its sound design is so involving that watching the film is a sensory experience.
Because the film has such lush nature photography and ethereal soundtrack, it occasionally evokes the work of Terrence Malick. But "Upstream Color" has none of Malick's aimlessness. It's a film explicated on very specific ideas and there is a sense of fine craftsmanship that Malick's films, especially his later ones, do not share. In many was it's closer to the cerebral and focused films of Steven Soderbergh, but that comparison also feels off, because the film is far more experiential than anything Soderbergh has made. It's not that the film doesn't have antecedents but whatever influences Carruth is drawing from are almost totally sublimated into his finished work.
Carruth has said in interviews that the editing process of "Upstream Color" only took weeks, but it plays leaner and stronger than films that have been worked over for years. There is little dialogue in the film but what there is very well rendered. The thief's hypnotic instructions to Kris have the clarity and precision of a well-rehearsed albeit very strange speech, and the sequence where Kris and Jeff slowly realize their memories are no longer as singular as they once were feels as fraught and messy as everyday conversation. That mixture of unsettling and mundane permeates the whole film and the effect is beguiling.
Like a practiced magician, Carruth carries the audience through each scenario masterfully. Many scenes in the film start off unsettlingly obscure before slowly revealing context. A man explains that his head is made of the same material as the sun. A woman is instinctively drawn to a farmer who blares his recording into the ground. A chemical within a decaying carcass bonds and turns a white orchid blue. All of these things are connected and all of these things make sense within the film's spiraling narrative though not immediately. It's that temporary gulf between presentation and understanding that separates and elevates "Upstream Color" from everything else in theaters.
I watched Primer, and I need to watch it again because I didn't understand what the hell was happening for about fifteen minutes. This experience prepared me for the twisted and unpredictable work of Shane Carruth, who is one of the most imaginative and intelligent new filmmakers.
Upstream Color is not the confusing mind-fuck that Primer, but it has its mind-fucky elements. I haven't seen pigs deployed in the way Carruth uses them in any film not directed by David Lynch, and I would even go so far as to say that Carruth can out-Lynch Lynch. The difference is that instead of being based upon a post-modern, post-structural point, Carruth's Upstream Color is more like an interpretative dance. It's a film about feelings determining experiences. Carruth's imagery is exact and ethereal. Without a doubt, I'm looking forward to Carruth's next film because he's always interesting.
From a plot point of view, we're never should why the bad guy does what he does.
Overall, I'm a Shane Carruth fan, and this film is one of the reasons why.
"UPSTREAM COLOR" forgets all of that and feels impenetrable for the sake of it; challenging without reward. I'm not even exaggerating that every aspect of this film, from it's grating soundtrack, abstract scenes, "inventive" camera angles, and laborious pace, have seemingly been initiated for the soul purpose of testing an audience's patience. Sure, like "PRIMER" it's bound to pick up a cult following on the basis of it's director and it's cryptic nature, but unlike that film I couldn't find much of a redeeming value here.
I didn't hate "UPSTREAM COLOR" because it's nonsense. Some of my favorite films (like the work of David Lynch for example) can only be explained via a trek through the inner psyches of their creators. I hated "UPSTREAM COLOR" because it's boring, lifeless nonsense. That happens to be the worst kind.
In regards to the narrative structure, unconventional editing, & free roaming camera work, I would not be surprised to find out that Carruth was heavily influenced by the work of director Terrence Malick. Yet what I find so impressive is that Carruth manages something that I believe few filmmakers are capable of pulling off: he apes these artistic touches while still creating a film that feels wholly fresh and completely original.
It is Terrence Malick by way of Philip K. Dick. But by the time you walk out of the theater you know you experienced something entirely Carruth. Even if you don't quite know what that means yet. To leave such an impression on the mind is quite an achievement for a director who has only two films under his belt.
Upstream Color is deliberately obtuse but doesn't feel inaccessible. It's expertly technical but oddly enough an incredibly emotional experience. It is quite simply a lot of things it shouldn't be, but somehow just is. And that...at least for me...is a beautiful thing.
But each sequence seems to be from the middle of a different film, with these excerpts then randomly assembled. They don't come together in any meaningful way. Bottom line: Carruth is an avant-garde artist but not a very good one. Ultimately he doesn't have much to say to us. He seems mostly into exploring story-telling techniques. But his explorations don't produce anything of much artistic value. He's more a technician than an artist.
To provide a sense of UC's weirdness, here's a brief summary:
The main character is a well-educated professional woman about 30 years old who is assaulted early in the film. A man tasers her and, when she is unconscious, he causes her to ingest a small worm.
The worm, which has some strange mystical properties, puts her in a hypnotic trance. During the trance, which lasts a few days, he instructs her to copy by hand each page of a book by Henry David Thoreau. He also gets her to empty her bank accounts and give him the cash. When she wakes from the trance, she is bankrupt and the worm is crawling around her body. She can visibly see it moving under her skin -- and yes, watching this does make one's skin crawl.
Suddenly she's at a pig farm (no explanation), asking the pig farmer for help. He devises a procedure that appears to transfer the worm from her to one of his pigs. The farmer then takes on supernatural aspects, seeming to appear and disappear at will. But he's not exactly a God figure; he's more of a shaman.
Later the woman meets a man on a train (the man is played by Carruth), and they're inexplicably drawn to each other. Indications are made that he has suffered a similar fate as she has. But as with most everything in the film, this is never stated outright.
I won't reveal the details of the second half of the film, but I can say that the two help each other come to terms with the bizarre experiences they've had.
What to make of all this? What is the worm? What are the pigs? Who's the pig farmer? Why Thoreau? What does the title of the film mean? Beats me.
This is captivating from the first frame, working on every level, allowing viewers to impart their own meaning (or lack of). I love this kind of experience, and it's what film is all about. Is it control, the Earth's ecosystem, existentialism? Is it something completely different? It doesn't matter.
Instead of using physics, Shane Carruth(who also co-stars) uses biology this time around in "Upstream Color" to not only play with viewers' heads but also to literally get under their skin.(What next? Chemistry?) Without explaining much of anything, he looks at how two people try to put their lives back together after losing everything and being violated in such a way. That having been said, sometimes it seems like the pigs have the more compelling storyline. Plus, Carruth is at his best when he is being ambiguous, not when he is trying so hard to connect the dots to tie everything neatly up. And I don't see how "Walden" works into the larger narrative, such as it is, when any book would have sufficed, even "The Little Prince" which actually would have been kind of funny.
Trying to follow Upstream Color in a narrative sense is a fairly impossible task, especially on its first viewing. This inaccessibility was frustrating, at first, but waned after the film's daring, bold, and spellbinding atmosphere took center stage. When taken on its own terms, the film is an entertaining experience. The score is magnificent, accentuating the narrative, and taking the place of the sparse dialogue. Director Shane Carruth is masterful in his editing, seamless in his cuts, and brilliant in his pace. We are shown a series of captivating scenes and images, with little to no sense of context or place, only to be left mesmerized. The film gets away with doing this both because of the skill of its composition, but also in that its clues start to paint a larger mosaic towards the end, pointing to a picture which starts to emerge.
The characters in Upstream Color feel real, and are very well portrayed. We see the enormous struggles they've gone through, the confusion they face every day, and yet the resilience they show. The "sampler" character in particular is very enigmatic, embodying the film as a whole. Carruth does a good job keeping the attention focused on these characters, such that we resonate with their journey, even though we don't understand what is exactly taking place.
My obvious reservation about Upstream Color is that the film is too inaccessible. It's difficult to distinguish illusion from reality, even at the ending of the film. Without a more refined ending, the film's interpretations are simply too large. Had a little more been explained, the film could still have kept its mystique, while allowing for greater audience appreciation.
As you can imagine, there's not much for the performers to work with in this abstract character meditation that is much more focused on style over substance and characterization, but for what they're given to do, these talented relative unknowns prove to be more effective than the offscreen performances, and that particularly goes for leading lady Amy Seimetz, whose subtle emotional layers and near-haunting atmosphere sell some of the more distinctly dramatic elements in the non-narrative. About as, if not more emotively effective as highlights in the performances is, of all things, Shane Carruth's score, which may not be particularly dynamic, but remains absolutely outstanding in its impeccably tasteful techno-ambience, which, more often than not, warmly carries the ethereal thoughtfulness of the more quiet meditative moments, without all of the tedious dryness, whose prominence reflects an underusage of the musical artistry, especially in comparison to the visual artistry. Just as it is a remarkable musical experience, - when the score is actually utilized, that is - this film is admittedly nothing short of a triumph of visual style, for Carruth, as cinematographer, takes notes from and, in some places, improves upon Emmanuel Lubezki's recent efforts with Terrance Malick with near-spotless definition behind bitingly crisp lighting and breathtakingly profound coloration that, while consistently beautiful, is richly dynamic in its particular style, often complimented by nifty framing and shaky cam plays that may be too experimental to immerse you in the film's plot, but surely immerses you in the film's environment. I almost hate to admit it, considering my not liking the film, but it's hard to see another film of 2013 being this visually spectacular, and when you couple the visual artistry with the musical artistry, a haunting aesthetic value is crafted, playing an instrumental role in securing the final product from contempt, but not without being well-utilized by genuine strengths in Carruth's efforts as director. Carruth's directorial efforts, like the efforts of many other film "artists" like him, are much more misguided than bad, for although Carruth's non-storytelling and punishing dryness are too questionable to be endearing, stylish editing and clever plays on Pete Horner's sound mixing and editing help in drawing you into the film, while a celebration of the aforementioned musical and visual strengths have their moments of effectiveness which move as a reflection of a much more realized drama. At the very least, Carruth's artistic ambition charms, not so much pretentiously demanding your respect, but carrying a heart to it that is endearing at times, especially when inspiration meets ambition and delivers, at least aesthetically. There's something very Terrance Malick about this film, and, quite frankly, that just goes to show you how subtle touches can make all the difference in films like this, because where Malick feels controlled enough in his plays with film artistry of this type to compel serviceably, maybe even reward, through all of the misguided artistry, this effort goes a few steps too far and falls flat, not even giving you the courtesy of coherency within flesh-out.
Seeing as how there's no real plot to humor with characterization or any kind of development of that sort here, it should come as absolutely no real surprise that this abstract meditation is lacking in expository depth, but there's still something pretty aggravating about this drama's telling you nothing about its characters, pseudo-narrative, or mythology, and distancing you with a lack of development about as much as a lack of coherency, even in its artistic liberties. The film is certainly unusual in its structure, but you've no idea just how unusual it is in its mythology, for although I suppose the film gets a good bit more grounded gets a little more grounded once Shane Carruth, as a lead performer, comes into play, the film backs set piece after set piece with bizarre imagery, figures and happenings that rarely, outside of the bare minimum of ways, connect, and could be easier to forgive if the film didn't seem to take its silliness so blasted seriously, often to the point of overplaying symbolism in an unsubtle fashion, that is, when thematic depth actually stands. I don't know if this film is trying to say something so unconventionally that you can't get a grip on the themes, or if the film is saying anything at all, but either way, in spite of the occasional subtlety issue, I can't particularly tell what is trying to be said, for the film is ultimately way too abstract with its overwhelming strangeness, made all the more annoying by strange experimentations' even plaguing the non-narrative's structure. Again, "storytelling", if you will, becomes a little more grounded around the film's body, but this effort, as well as being underdeveloped and overblown with style over substance, is more-or-less utterly unfocused, initiating something of a progression at times, only to swiftly abandon a potential extended plot for the incorporation of yet more aimless set pieces, as well as lapses in narrative consistency, until style completely overtakes substance. It's very difficult to come close to fully describing the level of strangeness and abstractionism to this artistically overblown affair, but I believe I can simply say that the final product is all but devoid of coherency, having no focus to development, consistency or structure to compel all that much, and adding the ultimate insult to injury with sheer dullness. When I said that this film takes its silliness too seriously, I meant that, on top of being misguided in its structure, the film is ethereal to the point of being tedious, underplaying kicks in artistic value, if not abusively misusing them to further, not so much immerse, but entrance in a manner that is not compensated for with effectiveness enough to be more than, well, frustratingly boring. The film stands to be more frustrating, and were it to make the fatal move that other abstract art films of its nature make and substitute the charm of its artistic ambitions with out-and-out pretense which demands your investment, rather than requests it, the final product would have easily collapsed as contemptible, and yet, no matter how charming or difficult to judge this film is is in its artistry, - which still excels in plenty of respectable ways - it is still a misguided misfire that is undeveloped, overly bizarre, incoherent and, of course, boring, and through all of my admiration of its aesthetics, I cannot begin to recommend this aggravating abuse of artistic license.
Once the color has finally flowed away, strong performances, extraordinary score work, phenomenal cinematography and effective moments in at least charmingly ambitious artistic direction leave the final product to drift from contemptibility, but overt underdevelopment, strangeness, focal inconsistency and tedious dryness reflect an overblown abstractionism which renders Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" a mediocrely misguided experiment in abstract filmmaking.
2/5 - Weak