Upstream Color review: higher dimensions of storytelling

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Upstream Color green light Shane Carruth Amy Seimetz

A confounding intellectual mystery, an enigmatic philosophical science fantasy that’s like a cinematic Moebius strip.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved Shane Carruth’s Primer

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’ve seen Shane Carruth’s second film twice now, and I was even more thrilled by the weird mesmerizing horror of it the second time around. But I still cannot top the initial instinctive reaction I had after the first viewing: this is what would happen if Henry Thoreau made The X-Files… or The Human Centipede. And I don’t mean that in the snarky, dismissive way it might sound (especially if you know how much I hate the repulsive Centipede) Upstream Color is light-years of delicious weirdness beyond Carruth’s first film, the masterfully inscrutable Primer: this is a confounding intellectual mystery, an enigmatic philosophical science fantasy that is open to likely endless interpretation. Yet it’s not a Rorschach blob of a film, either, that could mean anything depending on who’s looking at it. This doesn’t feel so much experimental or stream-of-consciousness — I’m not particularly a fan of either genre, but I can see why Color could be corralled into those not-quite-right classifications — but more like a larger creative construct of which we glimpse only pieces.

Like this (throwing out Thoreau for the moment and invoking Victorian writer Edwin Abbott Abbott and his satirical novel Flatland): If we lived in a two-dimensional world, a cube would intersect with our perception as a series of squares that would seem to appear out of nowhere, because we’d see only a two-dimensional cross-section. If a four-dimensional hypercube were to appear to us with our three-dimensional perspective, we would perceive that as a series of cubes that would appear out of thin air before us, because we’d see only the three-dimensional cross-sections. If we were aware of concepts of higher dimensions, we might rationally determine what we were witnessing, but we still could never actually fully see what was before us.

Upstream Color feels like that: like it is a story the dimensions of which we can only dimly grasp, and only out of the corner of our mind, and only if we don’t try to look at it full on, but which nevertheless still feels whole and complete even if it is beyond our ken.

I can’t recall another film that made me feel quite this way.

Back to Thoreau. His work figures in what motifs of the plot we are able to perceive, in that it is used as a sort of distraction, an intellection treadmill, by a character whose face we barely see called Thief (Thiago Martins). He sets his victims to copying out the text from a battered paperback of Walden while he goes about stealing all their assets, which he is able to do because he has access to a strange blue powder, apparently botanical but certainly natural in origin, that turns those who consume it into robotic zombies who will obey whatever outrageous thing they are told, whether it’s “My head is made of the same substance as the sun, so you are unable to look at me” (paraphrasing a bit here) or “Sign these bank forms for a home-equity loan and then give all the cash to me” (also a slight paraphrase).

There’s no way to ’splain this or even to sum it up that comes close to approximating the experience of watching it, with all its grotesque yet mundane dread. Is it a metaphor for how we live our lives on autopilot, just doing what we’re told by the culture? Does it need to be a metaphor for anything? Maybe not.

So, then, Kris (Amy Seimetz: You’re Next) — who is the first victim of Thief we see, though clearly not his first victim — a year after she comes awake from Thief’s spell and is on some sort of psychoactive drugs after her “meltdown,” meets Jeff, whom we slowly come to see has also been one of Thief’s victims. (Jeff is played by Carruth, who didn’t just write the script and direct the film but also produced, wrote the score, and operated a camera; he may well be a extradimensional being who only just intersects our reality in a way we only dimly perceive.) They seem to share memories, in a way that’s like how you wonder whether some of your memories of your earliest childhood are real or whether you’re merely remembering your parents telling you about the things you did… except Kris and Jeff have only just met, so shouldn’t they know whose memories are whose? They certainly share the trauma that only we, apparently, are aware that they share. But isn’t all that a metaphor for relationships, too, as our lives commingle to the point that we cannot ever remember not knowing someone?

But here I’m trying to make it all sensible to my puny human mind! And I’m making it sound more workaday a film than it is.

So I barely know how to even approach the character known as The Sampler — though, as with Thief, he goes entirely unnamed in the film; it’s only by exploring the film’s meta info that we discover his label. The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) lives in the country (unlike Kris and Jeff, who live in a more urban area; the film was shot in and around Dallas), where he collects the sounds of nature with his recording equipment. No, not quite nature: the sound of a rock being set by a person to roll down the slope of a giant metal storm drain is significant here, and yet why do I still want to characterize that as a natural sound when it couldn’t be more artificial in all ways? I don’t know! Puny human brain cannot cope with this. Also, The Sampler keeps pigs, and the pigs are connected to Thief and his victims in ways that–

Crap.

Here’s the thing that really kills me. When we get to the end of Upstream Color, a point at which Kris and Jeff appear to have come to a certain acceptance of and triumph over their unacknowledged shared experience, it seems as if larger events have twisted back around on themselves. As if this were a cinematic Moebius strip, an infinitely looping chain of events in which cause leads to effect leads right back to cause again.

Is it a circle-of-life thing? Is it our lives lived in symbiotic tandem with the people (and the animals: the pigs! my god, the pigs, connecting people in a metaphysical Human Centipede way!) around us? I can’t even, but I love that I can’t.

I’m telling you: higher storytelling dimensions. Gotta be. Only explanation.

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RogerBW
RogerBW
Thu, Aug 29, 2013 5:36pm

I generally have a low tolerance for films that smell of “experimental”. But I enjoyed Primer. So I’ll give it a try…

detective del reino
detective del reino
Sat, Jan 09, 2021 9:57pm

hey MaryAnn, I watched it a couple of times (some years ao) and declared it “the best movie I ever watched”, probably to give myself the illusion that we’re in the same universe.
One thing I dare to uphold: it’s not about metaphors, like other critics also mentioned. Why are cinema scientists so obsessed with metaphors? Why is a good movie one with good metaphors?
So let’s say that Upstream Color is like a Godard movie but without metaphors. Its universe in more dimensions, to put it like you do, is not built on metaphors, like in Godard’s movies, and in the same way a house of cards is built. Instead it’s its cinematography that acts like a sort of ritual which makes appear in a traditionally magic way that new universe.
And this is what cinema should be about, in my opinion: cinematography.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  detective del reino
Tue, Jan 26, 2021 12:45am

Cinematography without substance is mere pretty pictures. It’s hotel art. This does not interest me. I’d rather see a visually ugly film with something intriguing and meaningful to say than a beautiful but vapid one.

detective del reino
detective del reino
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Dec 03, 2021 4:13pm

sorry, came back to check your reply after a long while :-)
I’m surprised that my comment made you think that I like empty cinematography. Of course films are good because they say smth meaningful. But if it’s only that, a documentary or TV show would be enough.
What I meant is that the best movies “make see” that meaninful thing to say through cinematography, and not using cinematography like simple decoration. I don’t get the point of making a movie, or I can’t call smth a movie just because the script and the dialogues/characters say smth meaningful.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  detective del reino
Sun, Dec 05, 2021 12:06pm

I’m surprised that my comment made you think that I like empty cinematography.

It did seem as if you were saying that cinematography is the most important aspect of film, regardless of anything else.