The Kidd here...
One of the more anticipated films to hit SXSW this year is Shane Carruth's mysterious UPSTREAM COLOR. That's what happens when you haven't made a film since your debut nine years ago.
After premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Carruth has only shown the film once or twice on the path to Austin, and one of our early screening spies Ace Rimmer just happened to be inside at one of those viewings. Lucky for us, he's sent along his thoughts and an overall review of the film, to better prepare those of you set to see it in the coming days on what to expect (spoiler-free), while the rest of us are forced to wait until early-April for Carruth's self-distributed release.
Okay, Ace... take it away...
Ace Rimmer here,
Welcome to the most polarizing mind fuck of the year.
Anticipation for UPSTREAM COLOR has built impatiently in the nine years since Shane Carruth's debut feature PRIMER. It was a unique sci-fier about time travel that twisted genre convention with it's ear for realistic scientific jargon and a distinct lack of interest in traditional exposition. Carruth utilized his talents as an engineer, musician, writer, editor and actor to coax something focused and intimate. Puzzling yet rewarding. Enigmatic but ultimately, attainable.
It drew both high praise and furrowed brows from critics and audiences, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. Some needed several viewings to 'get it'. Others pointed at the obscure narrative and called bullshit. More importantly, PRIMER secured Carruth a large, passionate fan base who saw in it an exciting future for science fiction filmmaking. It was very much the MEMENTO of it's genre. Low on budget but big on brains.
Of course the big question was, what would Carruth do next?
Would he dive deeper into PRIMER's rabbit hole and make the science fiction masterpiece of our times? Or would he go the studio route and build brainy thrillers for grateful movie stars like Christopher Nolan?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he turned left. Then took another left and crafted something high brow and almost entirely elusive to himself.
Viewing UPSTREAM COLOR is undoubtedly an intellectual workout. Reading the reviews out of Sundance, there's a clear separation between those willing to actively participate in the experience and those who couldn't find a foothold, gave up and decided the whole thing was nonsense. Many who champion the film claim that the point is not to get it, but to let it wash over you like a dream.
It's another cinematic litmus test in the vein of THE MASTER or THE TREE OF LIFE and as with those films, I believe the passive approach is really an excuse not to think. Having said that, it's still respectable and better than nothing. To reject UPSTREAM COLOR outright as pretentious and without merit, however, is simply not true.
I understand how it feels to be shut out of a film intellectually and unable to relate. But UPSTREAM COLOR screams it's meticulous design from every corner of the screen. I haven't felt this aware of a veiled underlying logic since my last trip down MULHOLLAND DRIVE. This is a film of great merit and artistry and it deserves to be celebrated.
Actually liking UPSTREAM COLOR? Well, that's another thing entirely. But before I get to that, I'll take the scenic route and offer my take on the material.
It's pretty out there stuff, but as with PRIMER, it's treasures are attainable. Think Sodenbergh's SOLARIS meets ETERNAL SUNSHINE with a dash of THE TREE OF LIFE and you're halfway there. We're talking metaphors as plot points and themes as subtext. If you try to rest on the real plot for direction you'll hit a brick wall five minutes in.
Strip away it's obvious aesthetic similarities and UPSTREAM COLOR is not a spiritual successor to PRIMER. Carruth is not interested in the same things. To this effect, he knowingly throws down the 'high art' gauntlet to his fans who may well find their craving for heady science fiction unserved.
While science is present here, it's not the primary focus, but merely impressionistic window dressing. Details and specific concepts are kept vague and only exist to be expressed as visual poetry and suggest emotional ideas. This time, Carruth is purely interested in the damaged, desperate and enduring human condition.
In the first scene, two young boys place a maggot in a sieve and pour out a drink. Upon consumption, they begin to move in unison. What's important is not the scientific explanation, but simply understanding that they are connected because of a drug. This becomes more important as we explore two characters, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), who will be defined and challenged by their personal and universal disconnect. Almost any scene can be understood in the context of the whole by asking "what is being suggested about connectivity?"
At the post screening Q&A, Carruth and co-editor David Lowery spoke of the unorthodox blending of pre-production, production and post-production that came about through necessity. The director almost lost control wrestling this monstrous project before Lowery came on board. After listening to Carruth unpack his intentions, the two started to cut and from the footage, a product took shape. This is very noticeable upon viewing UPSTREAM COLOR. It feels like a work that was constantly rediscovered during it's development.
What holds it all together are it's core ideas, which were firmly in place from the word go.
Natural and synthetic human and animal synchronization. Abuse. Language. Hope. This is the bread and butter of UPSTREAM COLOR. A sensory meditation on these ideas unite every moment and action. If you follow the development of these ideas, you will have your sacred narrative thread. The utterly barmy visuals will cease to baffle. The endearing message of the film will take shape.
But is it any good?
I liked UPSTREAM COLOR a lot. I think it absolutely holds up under intense scrutiny and it's legacy as a cult classic is only just beginning.
The most progressive thing about UPSTREAM COLOR may be it's breakneck, kaleidoscopic editing, which feels like a glimpse at just how sophisticated audiences ten years from now will be at receiving and deducing information. Anyone can cut a film quickly, but this is masterful, evocative stuff.
My one gripe is that Carruth became so buried in his important work that he forgot to put in moments of levity to offset the serious tone. Over time, the trick of marrying his beautiful, bittersweet score with troubling visuals takes on a slightly monotonous tone, which sets limitations on the films emotional parameters. THE TREE OF LIFE had more laughs.
I haven't even mentioned pigs, The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), meta sound design, or the astonishing performance of Amy Seimetz. I'll just say they're all wonderful.
Ultimately, UPSTREAM COLOR is a film to behold, consider, discuss, adore, or if you fancy, ignore. I'm going to spend another few hours trying not to think about it while humming the score and looking for a maggot that can teach me how to love.
Ace Rimmer out.
There you have it... a pretty positive review for what Carruth is serving up on his plate.
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