Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: Upstream Color

 I'm not sure that I could tell you what Upstream Color is about. Then again, I'm not sure that writer / director / co-star Shane Carruth necessarily wants me to be able to, or that there even is one clear reading to take away from the film. The first line of dialogue, spoken a few moments into the film is "keep trying until you find one," which might be the only hint for audiences searching to untangle the narrative and find what's beneath. It's up to you to decide what Upstream Color means to you, and that is as much or as little as there is.

 That's not meant to diminish Upstream Color, which is, in many ways, as dense as Carruth's debut, Primer - still one of the best and carefully thought out time travel movies you're likely to see. It's a movie that sticks with you, that digs into your subconscious, that beckons you to return and watch it again, to pick up pieces you missed the first or second or third time, and to keep trying. What you take away from Upstream Color might shift based on what you see that you didn't before, or the way you respond to a line of dialogue or an image. I've even considered not explaining what happens in the film - even in a rudimentary fashion - because part of the thrill of watching it for the first time is putting together the pieces as you go along, unsure of how they fit together.
 Upstream Color's narrative plays out like someone dropping a jigsaw puzzle onto the floor and sliding the disparate pieces around, only deciding where things need to be near the end. The events in the film are, at their core, cyclical until the very end, when the pattern is disrupted (that I won't necessarily say is a SPOILER, although there may be others littered throughout). Of course, you can start anywhere in the cycle, as Carruth is well aware, and still get to the same point, even if the audience isn't sure what part they came in on. In broad strokes, the film is about a drug manufactured by the grubs who live on a plant with blue petals. The diluted version of the drug can be made by simply pouring some soda through a strainer the grub is in, and the effects create a sort of tandem mind between the people who take it.

 For the dealer (Thiago Martins) - identified as "Thief" in the credits - that's not enough to make a living on, so every now and then he doses someone with an undiluted version: the entire grub. For our purposes, this victim is Kris (Amy Seimetz). The effects leave her highly susceptible to suggestion, and the Thief uses this to his advantage, asking her to take out loans and give him the money. But being easily suggested isn't the only issue with this drug. There are... side effects. Before he can abandon Kris to her own devices, he takes her to The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), for reasons better left to be discovered. Later, Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), another lost soul trying to cope with a loss in his past, one that may or may not be related to the Thief and The Sampler...

 That's as much as I'm comfortable telling you about Upstream Color, and that's actually telling you a lot. I've described the first thirty minutes of the movie, which is concerned mostly with the methodical operation the Thief runs to brainwash Kris and take her money. Where the drug comes from, how it affects you after it runs its course, and what The Sampler does other than create music from sounds he makes in nature, I leave up to you to discover. It's worth warning you that people with a sensitivity towards animals might have trouble with a few scenes in Upstream Color, so much so that even though it isn't real, it's quite haunting. You should know that going in, and that in many ways it's directly linked to what the title of the film means.

 Is Upstream Color meant to be put together? That, I suspect, is up to the viewers drawn to it. If you've seen Primer, you know Carruth's approach to narrative is unorthodox - he operates in a non-linear fashion, even when not making a movie about time travel. Upstream Color makes sudden lurches forward, and sometimes backwards, without necessarily acknowledging the shift in time. Conversations begin in one place and end in another. Memory becomes scrambled and loses its subjective quality (this is most certainly a running theme of the second half of the film). One could argue that we're simply being presented disparate moments that aren't intended to be put together, which is not to dismiss the potency of what we're seeing - only that finding the underlying theme might not be the point. Upstream Color might simply be experiential storytelling, if you choose to watch it that way. For those who love to seek out riddles, to answer ellipses, there's plenty of that to dig into as well.

 Upstream Color makes an explicit connection to Thoreau's Walden, and it's continuously referenced throughout the film (it may be the only consistent through-line in the movie), although I cannot say with certainty its significance when you find out why it's important near the end of the film. There is something to be said for the longing of capturing a specific moment in time that haunts the characters in Upstream Color, and part of the film close to the end reminded me a bit of Chan-wook Park's Lady Vengeance, although the significance of the moment for the characters in each film is very different. I do feel, for the moment, that a sense of loss (of memory, feelings, and time) binds together the Thief's victims, and they are inexplicably drawn together. Some of the symbolism involving The Sampler and who and how he watches I'm still working on, but I have a friend who is quite enthusiastic to discuss this at greater length. If you choose to follow Carruth down the (very enticing) rabbit hole, you too will want to join us. We'll keep trying until we find a really good one.

No comments: