Monday, May 06, 2013


If I see another motion picture in 2013 that is as remotely as intelligent or mature as Upstream Color, it will be a very good year for movies. One can go years between films this well-conceived & executed. It seems to have done well in an art-house cinema in New York, but the self-distribution plan by writer-director-lead actor-producer-composer-editor-cinematographer Shane Carruth found it playing in the basement auditorium of a science museum in Philadelphia where I  caught it on the second day of its release showing to a crowd in high single digits. This in spite of a near-rave review from the Philadelphia Inquirer just one day before. Carruth, who settled on the do-it-yourself distribution scheme even before the film showed at Sundance, is undoubtedly correct in his presumption that the old model for getting films to people is breaking down for films just as much as it is for books, music and just about every other intellectual endeavor (heads up, art dealers – they’re coming for you). But his cobbled-together alternative really isn’t working unless the stream-or-download distribution that starts – hey  – this Tuesday catches on. I’m here to tell you it’s worth spending twenty bucks, give or take, to see something extraordinary. But if it’s on a big screen, do that – even if it’s in the basement of a science museum.  As film, Upstream Color is gorgeous. And the sound is to cinema what Red Desert once was to the use of color.
I could recount the narrative of Upstream Color, but you wouldn’t understand it because the protagonists, played by Carruth and Amy Steimetz, don’t and the film really wants you to feel their sense of confusion even when it flirts with omniscience. Steven Soderbergh has been quoted as calling Carruth the “illegitimate offspring of David Lynch & James Cameron,” but the directors who seem to be the hovering godparents of this project are Wenders, Tarkovsky & early Polanski. Envision, if you will, Wings of Desire blended with Rosemary’s Baby, seasoned with just a sprinkling of Babe (& Babe in turn as read through Soylent Green), all filtered through the depressed lens of the driving sequence in Solaris. Did I say you wouldn’t understand it? Now consider that much, maybe all of this hinges on the text of Thoreau’s Walden. 

You can imagine the expression on some studio exec’s face as that was pitched to them. The glaze over his eyes must have been instantaneous. 

Suffice it to say that bad things happen to some decent enough people, very bad things that they can’t explain, comprehend or even really remember. They’re rescued, sort of, but it isn’t clear if the rescuer is part of the same conspiracy that has already ruined their lives, or on another team altogether. And there are elements of the rescue that are as appalling, as genuinely devastating as gutting  their bank accounts, careers, reputations & relationships. They’re left among the walking wounded, barely getting by, very much like people who are afraid to tell you that the probes of their alien abduction really hurt. When the rescuer checks in on them, they don’t even notice his presence. Or maybe he’s invisible. But the evidence of PTSD is spilling out in every direction. 

By chance, perhaps¹, Jeff & Kris, two of these victims, come together & recognize their neediness under a common wound that they can’t even, at least until the very end, discuss. Jeff achingly wants to be with Kris & Kris isn’t sure she ever wants anyone to touch her again. Meanwhile the rescuer is big into ambience, a meditative angel as sociopath as sound engineer: monster  Buddha. What Jeff & Kris can’t say, they can hear & then begin to see or sense under water, & then finally into passages of text until the momentum of it all cascades into consequences for everyone. Perhaps. 

This is the saddest film with a happy ending that I have ever watched. Steimetz’ Kris & Carruth’s Jeff are smoldering triumphs of understatement. You want her to call the cops, but you know they wouldn’t believe her. A  psychiatrist thinks she’s schizophrenic. Jeff thinks he became a heroin addict – that might explain why he doesn’t remember being a junky. [Think about that for a moment.] What do blocks of concrete sound like when they topple over? That’s what the rescuer wants to know. That & what do I do with these mutant pigs? You will never trust blue orchids again.

If the problem with narrative lies in the fact that an author already knows too much, Carruth has tried to show what might occur if you erased all the back story. And then some. Presume for a moment that the rescuer – who is called The Sampler in the credits – really isn’t a part of the eco-chain of botanists, chemists & dealers who are putting their worms into your body – perhaps he’s a deprogrammer or a farmer that depends on your product, that product being you. Removing him disrupts the chain, but for just who exactly, and how long? What if you are ultimately leaving the next generation of victims without a rescue, regardless of the brutality of its consequences? Then all that cuddling with piglets as tho they were babies has a very different context and content. 

Upstream Color is all about the questions, leaving the answers pretty much up to you. As indeterminate as it is, there is not one second wasted in the execution of the film. Every shot, every sound, seems utterly necessary. In this way, you might read it as an argument for intelligent design, intelligent malevolent design. Think about it. 

¹ By film’s end, you won’t think it’s chance in the slightest. But doesn’t that mean that the rescuer must have foreseen what was coming? And how then do we interpret that?