Sunday, June 9, 2013

Esoteric Discoveries: Upstream Color (2013)

Two complete strangers run across each other on the local metro, and spark up a most discordant and yet irresistible fondness. Both on the surface quite average, city professional types, it is also quickly revealed that their shared awkwardness carries with it a disturbing secret that if not faced soon, could manifest in disastrous ways. But this is merely the surface of the tale PRIMER helmer, Shane Carruth weaves in this borderline impenetrable offering. And it is not with any offhand sense of dismay that I express this confusion, but rather of feeling both distressed and thrilled that Carruth's follow up to perhaps the ultimate time travel film turns out to be anything resembling commercially safe, or comprehensible. Upstream Color is cold, calculated, and defiantly ambitious. And while It may not work completely, it is made with a sure hand that is incredibly rare.

Taking an almost Malick-eque approach to allowing the camera to play omnipresent observer, we are witness to some truly horrific acts in the first third that is meticulous to the point of obsessive. The initial 30 minutes involves the harvesting of a most unique form of blue plant that is digested by plant-eating mealworms. The worms are then used on unsuspecting city folk, who are soon rendered open to suggestion, and eventually released back to what wreckage remains of their former lives- with zero memory as to what happened to them.We are not made privy as to the identity of those who would do this, let alone why. They seem on the surface to be as benign as anyone we would meet outdoors, minus the creeping curiosity. The remaining moments of this first third of the film illustrates the fate of digital art producer, Kris(Amy Seimetz), who is subjected to systematic conditioning, and eventually used  in numerous financial crimes and rituals. Soon after, she is eventually "cured" by a local sound artist, and returns home, a shell of her former self with no memories of days past, and re-entry into a world that has become alien to her newfound behavior.

 And this is all before Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth himself), a man from the city's law sector who seems just as broken as she is. Not much time passes before the two share a burgeoning relationship largely based on these huge missing sections of life and logic. They have a rough time conveying their detachment, and inner turmoil, and yet they are drawn together. Not much time passes before they truly feel as if they are the only two people capable of handling their altered psyches, awkwardness and all. The film seems primed to be discussing the onset of mental illness, and what we would do if we knew what was introduced into our bodies that caused this all to occur. If we were capable of seeking blame in a realm where more often than not, none can be made.

The rest of the film tinkers with the lives of these two as they seem almost subconsciously drawn to a nasty truth that could mean more than their newfound existence. Carruth isn't as interested in the answers so much as the questions in how a society could turn a blind eye to mankind's intervention of nature. While Kris once knew a life bound in vision and fantasy, she is soon host to a bevy of personal horrors. And Jeff's vast gulf of a life as a man of the legal world, there seems to be a constant scrambling of memories that he and Kris both seem incapable of knowing with a modicum of certainty. And with that observer's eye that Carruth and Co. are employing here, we are often left scrambling just as frantically as they are. It's not a puzzle to be solved, but an ever shifting sense of loss permeating every frame. While Kris is increasingly paranoid and internal, Jeff grows more frustrated with the gaps laid at both their feet. The compelling performances and overall ethereal gloom of the film creates the feeling of a series of very personal dreams. This is only made more troubling as we are given no island of reason to ground us. We're just as adrift as they are. It's not as interested in warmth as it is about allowing us to feel as helpless, yet resolute as the pair become over the film's length.

So when the film wanders from horror to almost parody of mumblecore drama, there seems to be a knowing jab being made. Much like how PRIMER characterizes its core conceit as something horrendously mundane, yet mysterious, Upstream takes independently financed breakthrough genre such as horror and mumblecore comedy, and plays with them in surprisingly fun but affecting ways. Carruth seems eager to do away with what has become something of a modern phenom as home video has gone streaming. With overt access comes saturation, and ultimately blandess, and somehow a lot of the film has a thinly veiled beef with it. All bound by a mostly droning score by Carruth(again), it is clear that this is meant to be an all-encompassing response to the scene over the last few years. The whole affair is a personal one.

And yet not all is congruent, yet how could it be considering the subject matter? The work is more an amalgam of ideas and concerns than a specific theme. There are moments when it is clearly turning tangential with its leads, rather than allowing the story to gel organically. The finale feels pretty forced and pat, while the use of Walden could be seen as entirely too on the nose for something so breathless everywhere else. So is it an exploration of the love lives of the mentally affected, or a rally cry for New Domesticity? I couldn't say. As capable of entrancing as it is of leaving viewers deeply unsettled, Upstream is a challenging piece of work that defies simple description. It dares you to explore, and to find your own thoughts in between, and come up with your own impressions post-viewing. Definitely not a film for every taste, but a welcoming dip into the uncanny for those with the inclination.

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