Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What I Loved in 2013: Upstream Color

Upstream Color – Shane Carruth’s long anticipated follow-up to Primer isn’t going to be an awards season darling. It’s too peculiar, it’s narrative too nebulous, it’s participants too unknown, but it challenged me while viewing and moved me emotionally and intellectually for days after. It’s the type of film perfectly suited to my tastes since my transformation from film buff and amateur critic to part-time philosophical mediator on entertainment media (I know that sounds crazy-pretentious but, whatever, I’m half-joking).

I wasn’t one of those rabid fans impatiently waiting nine years for Carruth’s sophomore feature. I’d always heard great things about Primer, but wasn’t compelled to watch it until the night before I saw Upstream Color. I was still on the fence about seeing the latter and I was using the former to make the case for it. Even knowing about and handicapping its impressively low budget, Primer, with its amateur feel and acting wasn’t exactly easy to get in to, but Carruth’s ominous score hinted at something to be anticipated and 30-minutes in, I was captivated by the ideas present in the film and by its ability to elevate itself well-above its monetary restrictions. It’s a thinking man’s time-travel flick and everyone else be damned. Overall, Primer is a very good film and an unbelievably auspicious debut. Carruth’s follow-up, is a great film and a down-payment on what is likely to be a very promising career.

In between films, Carruth became a hot commodity, being approached by Spielberg and Soderbergh and Rian Johnson. He worked for years on a sci-fi epic called A Topiary that never garnered the necessary financing and so a smaller film was born in Upstream Color. The plot is essentially a love story about two people who’ve unknowingly undergone brainwashing and financial /personal ruin at the hands of the same people, whose method of control (a worm that feeds on a flower, which grows in a river, where piglets were drowned, which come from a farm owned by a man…) is as much a part of the film as anything. There are elements of science-fiction to the story, about impossible connections between man and woman and man and god and everything and everything, but they don’t obscure the genuine elements of the story, they enhance them. They make the feelings and relationship between the two main characters seem even deeper and spell them out in a creative way that most romances lack and can only hope to intimate. Upstream Color too is a thinking-man’s film, but at its center is not a tangled, mystery of mechanism that can be plotted and, with great diligence, found out. Instead, at its core, is a fairly straightforward film, with ideas and nuance that appear superficially initially but come into greater focus with intense reflection and repeated viewing.

In addition to writing and directing the film, Shane Carruth also co-edited, scored and starred in the feature. It has sat atop my “Best of 2013” list since I saw it back in April, and so has many of its individual components - like the haunting score and beautiful cinematography. Carruth’s acting, which is very good, is still the thing he’s least impressive at, especially when compared to his remarkable co-star, Amy Seimetz, whose performance is among my favorite of any this year.

Apparently (and hopefully), we won’t have to wait nearly as long for Carruth’s next film, tentatively titled The Modern Ocean, which is expected to film soon (maybe).