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Upstream Color

Posted by martinteller on February 10, 2014

Shane Carruth made a big splash with a little movie: his debut feature, Primer.  With a budget of roughly $7,000, he caught a lot of attention and a devoted cult following.  While I respected his craftsmanship and the novel approach to time travel, I was put off by the film’s willful obtuseness.  I recognize that the mechanics of the plot are beside the point (though that didn’t stop rabid fans from developing complex graphs to explain it), it felt like an affectation, a deliberate defiance.  In his second film — nearly ten years later — Carruth is, if anything, even more obtuse.  Outlining the story is possible, but… difficult.  Let’s just say it involves hypnosis-inducing grubs, a godlike pig farmer, and a whole mess of Thoreau.

But it’s a step in the right direction.  If Primer is a puzzle, Upstream Color is more of an abstract painting.  The former makes you struggle to figure out how it all works, the latter is more of an experience.  It is not so much about fitting the pieces together as it’s about creating connections and impressions.  It’s widely open to interpretation, and theories on the internet are all over the place.  But part of me felt like Carruth was issuing a challenge.  “If you don’t get it, you just aren’t trying hard enough, dummy.”  It’s as if he’s confused obfuscation with artfulness.  I’m not one to rail against ambiguity, but there comes a point where it feels too calculated.

Maybe some of this feeling has to do with the film’s construction.  I’ve heard (well, read) people compare it to Malick.  While I see the similarities and understand the temptation to draw the parallel, I see a fundamental difference.  Malick’s films feel organic, like they built themselves on the editing table.  This film feels like the product of a former engineer (which Carruth is).  There’s an odd fussiness to the way it attempts to appear unfussy.  I get the sense that every moment, no matter how seemingly “random”, is very deliberately crafted, every line and every cut and every shot with a very specific purpose in mind.  It’s telling how many hats Carruth wears: director, writer, star, producer, editor, cinematographer, composer (the music is quite gorgeous).  Is this an auteur with a vision… or a control freak with a diagram?

Ultimately, I think that’s why this movie didn’t connect with me, though it appears to have connected with many others.  There are some lovely observations about relationships — and their symbiotic nature — but it rarely made me feel anything.  I had the most intense reaction to the first act, a very disturbing series of events.  The romance, however, didn’t move me.  For one thing, Carruth is not a particularly good actor.  And Amy Seimetz, though she does some impressive physical acting, is not quite as talented when it comes to line readings.

I can safely say I didn’t love this movie, which is probably my loss.  But I did like it.  It is often intriguing, occasionally fascinating, and sometimes even poetic.  It makes me eager to see what Carruth will do next, how he will continue to grow.  Rating: Good (75)


4 Responses to “Upstream Color”

  1. mountanto said

    Certainly I’d say it demands repeat viewings. But I think you apprehend its qualities well.

    • I have no doubt that a repeat viewing would bring further illumination (though who knows if it would make my feelings more positive or more negative). I don’t see that happening any time soon, however. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Dan Heaton said

    I think we’re on the same page. I admire the look and how original Upstream Color feels, yet I also found it frustrating and had some distance from it. I can understand the love, but it’s more admiration at best for me.

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