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Aug 30, 2013

Review: Upstream Color (2013)

           Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Myles McGee, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke, Ted Ferguson, Lynn Blackburn, Steve Jimenez, Cody Pottkotter and Lindsey Roberts


                   Shane Carruth


                 Upstream Color will go down in the history as one of the most unique films ever made. This sophomore effort by the American maverick indie filmmaker after his 2004 debut "Primer" is at once both complex, simple, profound and rich film. I haven't seen Primer yet but I know all about its complex plot and setting. His previous film won the main prize at Sundance, this one too was highly praised while at the same time, people were aspired to discuss it and help each other unlock its mysteries. That particular process for me is always the best part, unless a movie is so obscure and self-reserved because in that case, its mostly useless. With movies like these, first of all your experience counts. A re-watch is likely going to open you to much more possibilities which is harmless considering a movie can compel you to watch it once again for whatever purposes. I am really impressed by Shane Carruth and the way he makes and then presents his movies. Carruth is not only the actor or director of the movie but he is also the writer, producer, co-editor, cinematographer, score composer and was also involved in casting, production as well as sound design. I guess that pretty much tells you how much he loves making his own movies the way he wants without having to answer to anyone. Carruth (like Lynch) have always encouraged the audience to involve themselves in his movies and to think and process whatever mysteries that his work beholds by themselves. You will have to do a lot of that here because as much of a simple plot that this movie has, which you might not get at first but is easier to understand if understood by breaking it down. It is basically the rest of it, the implications, metaphors, visual and audio clues that holds so much meanings. Carruth basically took ideas and philosophies from our everyday life, our basic existence and gave it his own twist, at once questioning and answering them. He basically created his own universe where the characters aren't just characters but they represent Carruth's ideas. The same thing I have been saying about Terrence Malick, for his last two movies.

                 So Upstream Color is a science-fiction, avant-garde, indie drama about two people at the center of the story whose lives and everything else about their existence is affected by a complex parasite. The whole worm-pig-orchid cycle is what affects them and everyone else, each process ends with benefiting a particular person, the parasite progresses while the traces are still left behind. I can't really talk about the movie without giving away spoilers, though I don't think that even if you haven't seen the movie, that I might spoil some basic twists and turns for you because it is best experienced than read about anyway. So the movie begins with a person known as The Thief extracting worms from a particular pot of blue orchids, he adds the worm with a drug to be given to the victims. We see glimpse of Jeff at first but Kris is someone who is the main focus here. She is a graphics production designer and one night outside a club, she is drugged by the thief. Now what the thief tries to do is to get Kris to sell her possessions and basically rob her out of her materialistic life. The victims are put in a state of trance due to the drug and worm inside them so that they can be ordered to do anything a person wants them to. The thief indulges her in some activities to distract her like making her to create a paper chain where Kris copies a page from Henry David Thoreau's novel "Walden". He gives her icy-chilled water and this goes on until she eats, the worm grows thanks to that and he have already left having taken everything from her. This is where the first step is completed. The second one involves an enigmatic person called The Sampler who attracts Kris (or the worms insider her that is) by using amplifiers to send vibrations into the ground. Once Kris arrives, the sampler takes the worms who are visibly seen under the skin and delivers them to one of the pigs in his farm. This immediately establishes a connection between the victim and the pig. While no longer under the control of the thief, the victims who are now known as "the sampled" can be spied upon by the sampler at any time and that whatever happens to the pig will affect the subjects as well. When the parasite is released into the water when the pigs decompose, that is what turns the white orchids into blue (as seen in the beginning) and then the worm/drug can be extracted for the parasite to further continue the cycle. Two women, credited as Orchid Mother and Orchid Daughter picks those rare blue orchids and sell them through their company, E+P Exotics.

                 This is the basic plot of the movie, the mechanism that happens and believe me, it is quite easier to understand while watching the movie. The rest involves your experience, what you take away from it, what you think of it etc. One thing that everyone should understand is that Upstream Color doesn't have a basic or conventional narrative structure. By that I mean that the movie lacks traditional plot or narrative structure but it is rather a montage of several images and symphonic sounds. "Scenes" doesn't really happen but the fragments of imagery represents something. When Kris is sampled, she returns to her wrecked life trying to piece things together but nothing makes sense. On a train, she meets a man named Jeff. We learn that he was also victim of this cycle, his money was taken away as well. Both Jeff and Kris develop a strange connection on metaphysical level that they cannot really explain. Their attraction soon develops into feeling of love, the meet quite often and spend night together. They learn about each other, what happened to them but don't know how it happened or why. Slowly their identities, only in terms of memories seems to be merging. They both can feel each other's physical and emotional pain. Seen in many moments, the pigs seems to be affecting them. They are helpless, on the mercy of forces beyond their control. At one point, Kris feels like she is pregnant but she is not, she can never be. It is actually the pig who gives birth and the farmer then separates the piglets (to unknowingly contribute to the final stage of the cycle). Jeff suddenly feels scared and angry, because his pig is feeling that way. Jeff beats up some of his employers. On the other hand, Kris is severely depressed and feeling strong emotions since her pig as a mother just got separated from her piglets. Kris was never pregnant but is experiencing that emotion of being separated by the children, the worse kind of emotional pain for the mothers without ever literally being a mother herself so you can sense what she might be going through. They both meet in a panicked state, gather supplies and isolate themselves in the bathroom.

                 Upstream Color is a movie about our existence and how things that are beyond our control affects us. Does our identity controls what happens in our life or is it the opposite? Do we have control on our life or does someone or something else? It is a movie about nature and its controlling and overpowering affect. The 'force of nature' as we say to something very powerful. This movie doesn't have any religious overtones let me say that, at least that is what I feel. But it is all about the world, nature and human beings while how they all interact and subsequently affect each other in more ways than one. Our life involves many things, love, hate, fear, hope, power, weakness, betrayal, rise, fall, fate, free will, memories, creativity, spirituality, friendship, enemies, loss, gain, reliance, pride, need of being with someone, need of being with ourselves and so on. For Carruth to basically talk about all that in his own unique way in just 96 minutes without going too philosophical in both visuals and literal terms is nothing short of a miracle. Upstream Color has a breathtaking use of imagery, sound and light. Carruth takes us to places where we have never been before. Drugs, worms, parasites, molecules, roots, cells, the microscopic imagery to the universal impact of forces, emotions to the physical embodiment of us the humans. I mean isn't this a work of a pure genius? Upstream Color has a very poetic, sensory and hypnotic quality in it. The experience for me was out of this world, I felt intoxicated as if I was being drugged as well. The editing is very rhythmic, as I said that the style of the movie is similar to a montage. So it all comes together very good with the editing technique used here. It is very rippling if that is a word, like a ripple in the water. Carruth takes us to a journey into the unknown known with every bit of confidence that he needed to first of all have a clear idea of what he wanted to do or how he wanted to do it. You can truly trust him here, just let yourself go. This is not a logical movie per say, there are no scientific keys or some mechanism involved that you have to piece together like a typical sci-fi movie. It is more emotional, lyrical and visually suggestive than anything else. You will feel it, you don't have to understand it. Because you do understand it if you fully try to feel it not when you try to make a sense of it because this is not a movie relying on a plot. Think more on the line of Malick. His Tree of Life, a bit similar concept in terms but Carruth applies that into much more complex ideas here. Carruth isn't interested in how the universe and its laws all comes together to impact one another but in how much human beings are either in control of their lives or being controlled by forces beyond plain explanation. To continue that point, there are a few haphazard interpretations about a few things in this movie that I have. I apologize if they don't make sense or are half-baked but these are just on the top of my head.

                 The drug element in the movie if taken more seriously in a conventional way seems to be telling us how addiction destroys us in real life. The drugs hypnotizes us, slowly our reliance on it makes us lose our grip on our own life and at the same time, our materialistic life takes a deep plunge same as our physical, emotional and internal condition. The sampler can be our spiritual guidance, a doctor? He helps us in getting our life back by cleansing us. When we try to get our life back together, we aren't the same person anymore. It feels like our existence is basically fragmented into tiny pieces that we have to slowly piece together. We might need some help, another person, perhaps someone who have been through the same thing. We rely on people and their help during our worse crisis. Keeping this very last point in our mind, you can see that in the movie both Kris and Jeff after going through a lot even after being together because the process is still ongoing, they finally start getting a grip on things. Now the book, Walden, is the key here. Kris' depression and her strong emotions seems to have had an impact on her and in that fragile state she seems to be remembering lines from the book (with that comes the hazy memories). Thanks to that and the sounds, slowly their memories seems to be coming back. They realize that they need to take control of their life and seize the day. And those who have seen the movie knows how they do that, how the movie ends and what happens. I still am not 100% sure about "The Sampler" character I mean who is he really? God? The sampler doesn't really benefit from what he does in the way that the thief does. He never took anything away from them. He is a pig farmer as well as a music producer who loves recording sounds of the various things found in nature and then mixing them together to form unique pieces of compositions. He then sells those albums. I love that part so much, when he is recording those sounds. Which brings me to talk about the excellent sound design of this movie. Definitely one of the best of the year, you wont hear such quality of sounds made by rocks and streams and other things in any other movie. A small budget feature to have such an impressive sound design as to put those big budget blockbusters to shame. Anyways, continuing my thoughts on the mysterious sampler, he also does one more thing. The sampler has the access to 'sample' the emotional experiences of the people he de-wormed. Some of the conscious lets say, of those people are left behind with the parasite in the pigs. So sampler can move along and be present in a more cerebral way in the head or emotional space of those people. He is like watching over them, not necessarily impacting them personally though his pigs does. I am not sure if he is aware of that, the way this movie ends, you can question Kris' action. The sampler doesn't seem like the real culprit here. But then who is? The one who watches over us and lets worse things happen to us without doing anything to stop them or the one who uses us for their own benefit and leave us broke and shattered. What is the act of revenge? Killing each other isn't a need, the need is to get assurance or satisfaction. Also I am not even sure that Kris or even Jeff recognizes the thief, they never saw his face did they?

                 I liked Amy Seimetz's performance in this movie. She plays her part very convincingly. Upstream Color has excellent cinematography, visually stunning and carefully photographed moments. The implication of real, repetition, subconscious, surreal, microscopic and macroscopic each of those moments are captured perfectly. Carruth is the real hero here, he have crafted a jaw-dropping masterpiece. Mysterious, confusing, shocking, moving, peaceful, dreadful, romantic, life-affirming, surreal, real..... Upstream Color is an experience that is surely going to bore some and sweep others. The first 15-20 minutes is when the movie is at its most simplest, straight-forward when it tries to form its base. Once it gets moving, it never stops. The final few minutes lack any dialogue, just the beautiful score and we see Jeff and Kris taking control of their life. The entire movie is beautiful to watch. Carruth does gives us enough to not actually let us wander aimlessly with his movie which is what many filmmakers never do, you know weird for the sake of being weird! Carruth is very much dedicated and is true to his vision, confident enough to take us with him on a ride that offers so much. Upstream Color is one of the best movies of 2013.

Grade: A