Friday, April 12, 2013

Movies: Upstream Color

Upstream Color is the second feature film by Shane Carruth, here working as writer, director, composer, and starring in a lead role (as the character Jeff). Carruth's first feature, Primer, was a low budget science fiction tale about a couple of engineers who accidentally invent a time travel device, and the consequences of inventing such a thing. Primer is perhaps the only time-travel film that has a flawlessly mapped out internal logic (and it's no wonder he later acted as a consultant on the film Looper). That first film made a big impression on a lot of people, who anxiously awaited Carruth's next project. Nine years (!) later, we have Upstream Color.

Amy Seimetz stars as Kris, a young professional that works at what appears to be a media company, who one night at a club is tasered, abducted, and subsequently infected (via airway transmission) with a parasite by a man listed in the credits only as 'Thief' (Thiago Martins). The parasite contains (or rather, may actually be) a plant-derived chemical that makes Kris highly suggestible, among other things. The Thief uses Kris' mental state to put her through a series of routines, deprives her of food, and ultimately has her sign away all of her savings to him. When he's done with her, he leaves. The parasite grows within her. The story is just beginning.

Did I mention the film is also deeply concerned about love, loss, identity, memory, and sound?

Here's where I'm going to stop with the plot description because at a certain point it's just going to be a laundry list of strange characters and bizarre occurrences intermingled with ordinary lives and truthful moments, and it will give away the entire film but not make much sense as a synopsis. It makes more sense as you're experiencing it than it does to read about it. It is not a conventional narrative.

Parasites and such might make you think of David Cronenberg's earlier work, but that's not really the tone here. Upstream Color is more dreamily melancholy than nightmarish. If it's reminiscent of the work of any other directors, I would say perhaps a subtle mash-up of Terrence Malick and Steven Soderbergh.

There's poetry to be found, visually (where the similarities between the composition of film frames and their content creates a sort of "rhyming"), and literally (Henry Thoreau's "Walden" plays an important role).

As someone who has a keen interest in the prospects of indie filmmaking but hasn't yet taken the plunge, I should note that the film was shot on a freeware-hacked, $900-ish Panasonic GH2 DSLR. While the image was likely enhanced before its release to theatres, it was slightly soft, especially during the opening. I still find it exciting that you can make a feature for theatrical release using equipment you can buy at Best Buy. The future is now!

While engaging for the most part, the languid, hallucinatory quality of parts of the film did actually put me to sleep at times. It happened mostly towards the very end; I was tired to begin with; and it was those "microsleep" experiences where you wake up, realize you were asleep, but then surmise from where you are in the film that you only missed a few seconds at most. I include this note only to suggest that, while I enjoyed it, I think the film is definitely not for everyone (especially, say, if you like your films with a little more action, and a little less parasitic infection).

I saw it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For other cities, here are the film's North American theatrical release dates.

EDIT 04/16/2013

The film's score can be streamed via Soundcloud here.

Also, here's an interesting interview: Shane Carruth on Control and the Self-Distribution of UPSTREAM COLOR.

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