Saturday, May 11, 2013

Upstream Color

If you pay any attention to the discussion of current films then by now you know the story of Shane Carruth. The writer/director/star of 2004’s micro-budget Primer spent a frustrating decade trying to get another project going, but he was unable to find anyone willing to finance his vision despite the support of some major Hollywood names. If you know Primer then you can understand why a studio executive might be afraid of Carruth; the film is full of dense, authentic-sounding scientific dialogue and lacks a clear hero or villain. So what does Carruth have in store for a second film? The new Upstream Color is a significantly more abstract and challenging work than Primer, and that’s saying something. It’s a genuinely experimental work, low on dialogue, with no regard for conventional ideas of motivation or resolution; at the same time there’s a beating heart to the film thanks to the actors and the scope of the ideas Carruth engages . While Primer was a film Carruth wanted to make, with Upstream Color Carruth has a produced a film that it feels like he had to make. In short, it’s thrilling.

What plot there is in Upstream Color can be quickly summarized. A woman named Kris (the excellent Amy Seimetz) is assaulted and implanted with a worm that makes her susceptible to suggestion. Her attacker (Thiago Martins) drains Kris’s bank accounts and she loses her job; her squirm-inducing attempts to remove the worm lead her to a character known as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who in a bizarre surgical procedure transplants the worm into a pig. Later Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), whose has been through a similar experience and shares Kris’s sense of something missing. The rest of the film is the story of their relationship and search for meaning. Trying to describe the plot of Upstream Color makes the film sound like some sort of bio-terror horror movie. Carruth’s meditative style, stark locations, and sparse dialogue suggest a bigger ambition though; he’s not interested in cheap shocks but rather the flexible nature of identity itself. There’s a remarkable montage (the editing is by Carruth and David Lowery) in which Kris and Jeff argue about which of them actually experienced a childhood memory. Are there ties between us that are deeper than we understand? What happens when Kris and Jeff begin to look for answers could be interpreted as Carruth commenting on religion, but the ambiguity of the ending (Kris has found at least a temporary peace) suggests to me that Carruth thinks our biggest problem as a people is what we do to each other.

Upstream Color would be as exciting as a dorm room bull session if it weren’t for Amy Seimetz, who invests Kris with a great pain and need to connect with someone (or something). Seimetz doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with (and a chunk of it is taken from Walden) but her face does a lot of work; Seimetz is magnetic in the scenes where Kris undergoes various indignities to restore her identity. Shane Carruth isn’t required to show as much range as Seimetz, but he ably conveys the emptiness at Jeff’s center. The next film Carruth wants to make is reportedly called The Modern Ocean. I have no idea when we’ll see it or who will finance it, but the existence of Upstream Color is a cause for celebration. This is what the product of an original mind looks like, and though I have no idea if I’ve parsed the film correctly I am certainly glad I had the chance to try.

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