UPSTREAM COLOR C+
USA (96 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Shane Carruth
Despite all the hoopla about this film, and more particularly the filmmaker, this is not a marked improvement over his earlier film PRIMER (2004), one of the low budget marvels of the last decade. Waiting 9-years to make his eagerly awaited second film, there is a cult audience clamoring for something implicitly deep and complex from this film, perhaps another sci-fi puzzle film, but they won’t find it. Instead it’s simply an obscure, largely experimental piece that attempts to be more than it is, as whatever narrative there is remains obfuscated by a sketchy design that remains elusive at best. The problem is whatever themes or subject matter he is attempting to explore just never rise to the level of interest, as characters nearly sleepwalk through their roles, never generating any relevant dramatic connection. Before he was a film director, Carruth was a math major, becoming a computer programmer developing flight simulating software. As his two films suggest, guys heavily into science don’t always make the best communicators. In fact, one might think there is a pervading style of filmmaking where at least part of what it’s about is the difficulty in communicating, for instance teen angst films, or Heath Ledger in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005), where he takes the hesitant and inarcticulate nature of a young cowboy to an artform, or the many variations of supposedly naturalistic dialogue from low-budget Duplass brothers or Andrew Bujalski mumblecore movies, a fringe movement about post-college or early adult white people with problems that never really connected with mainstream audiences, as they’re not really about much of anything. Damned if that doesn’t plague this picture as well, where its intentional ambiguity remains a puzzle not worth exploring. Even if there is a coherent story here, the question is what difference does it make? How does a film like this have any relevance in our lives? Wanting this to be about something, like say the enveloping fear and paranoia of THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), is not the same as making a profoundly affecting film, where the underlying focus sticks with you for days and weeks afterwards, perhaps even a lifetime. Interest in this film fades quickly.
As best as one can determine, there are two opposing wavelengths occurring here, where one is a high degree of sensitivity and thought, where you’re able to sense things others don’t see or hear, almost like an autistic sensory level, where one’s capacity to reflect upon altered states of existence, or a unique “otherness,” may be completely mystifying to some, but certainly early on we see many gathered together, including at various times both Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) drinking what is believed to be a special (parasite infected) purified water, something to help achieve a state of wellness, where one hopes to feel better than at any other point in one’s life. The downside is the sacrifice or price paid to achieve this sense of heightened elevation, real or imagined, where you have no memory of what happened and leave yourself open to unscrupulous operators, achieving a near hypnotic state like a cult brainwashing effect where people can take advantage of your vulnerability and steal all your money, leaving you paranoid and in fear, but also angry and demoralized by the entire process afterwards. But at least initially you want to believe, like the strange Russian sci-fi film Target (Mishen) (2011) that promises everlasting youth, only to ask yourself later, but at what price? Unknown to each other at the outset, Kris and Jeff are mysteriously drawn to one another, perhaps unknowing why, though Kris is so incommunicative and unapproachable that one has to wonder what’s the attraction? She wears an enormous large-sized headset at all times in public, listening to who knows what, but obviously to keep other people away. Nonetheless Jeff persists, as if by supernatural calling, where he believes they are drawn to one another, perhaps to help one another understand what they’ve mutually forgotten, helping each other piece together missing memories, even though they barely talk. This leads to an intimate relationship, as if by osmosis, where it’s certainly not their unbelievably poor communication skills, where they talk over each other’s words and ignore one another with regularity. What changes is Kris gets pregnant, or at least thinks she does, as her conscious existence is seemingly tracked by the parasite she swallowed, which ends up at a pig farm. It’s actually Kris’s pig that gets pregnant, unbeknownst to her, where Kris grows irate when they take the little piglets away.
There is no explanation for this transference of human consciousness, which goes through yet a third life cycle when the pig farmer wraps several chosen pigs in a sack and drowns them in the river, where the parasite passes through their bodies in a bluish fluid that is released upstream causing exotic orchids to grow. From these orchids is extracted the original parasite that begins this strange life cycle all over again. What is certainly bizarre is the state of inexplicable anger mixed with utter indifference by the humans used as guinea pigs, where they do not seem to be in control of their own human faculties, still affected long after the parasites have left their own bodies. Now if aliens had passed through these bodies, like the high powered, heavy metal infused THE HIDDEN (1987), an over the top, sci-fi story that packs a punch, then you’ve got something to generate interest for decades to come. But in this dreamy saga of lost souls, roaming the earth in a state of listless apathy, where the true meaning of their lives is apparently stolen by a series of unscrupulous business transactions which happens to block the ethereal wavelengths. When Kris takes to swimming, spouting gibberish poolside as she dives for stones on the bottom of the pool, Jeff is able to decipher her apparent mad ramblings as quotations from Thoreau’s Walden, of all things, a springboard to freedom if ever there was such a thing. If it wasn’t so goofy, it might actually be entertaining, but it’s not, as the entire film is cast in such a darkly somber mood, as if the whole thing was the invention of rabid conspiracy theorists who see the end of the world near through genetic mutation. Damn the scientists and mega corporations for spreading toxic poisons throughout the world altering the face of humanity. The best thing in the film is easily the atmospheric score written by Carruth, who writes, directs, edits, acts, composes the music, and self produces his own film, an ambitious compilation of responsibilities for what is ultimately a dreadfully impersonal, drearily sad reflection of the human condition in the modern age, where swindlers and snake oil salesmen, aka the capitalist conglomerate enterprises maintain a greedy, monopolistic control over an easily hoodwinked populace looking for a quick and easy fix. The idea of violating the natural order of things is nothing new, hardly revelatory, and never digs deep enough to matter. Not sure what the characters are listening to on their giant headsets, apparently tuning out the rest of the world, and the audience with them.