by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Watching a filmmaker’s personal struggles play out in their work can be fascinating, vicariously cathartic, or frustrating. One way or another, it’s a self-indulgent exercise. Shane Carruth’s oblique pet project “Upstream Color” is the begrudging follow-up to his cult time-travel debut “Primer.”
“Upstream Color” is begrudging, specifically because Carruth spent the better part of eight years trying to get another film called “A Topiary” funded. For whatever reason, that financial backing never materialized, leading Carruth to tell Entertainment Weekly, “I basically wasted my whole life on it.” The sci-fi auteur’s bitterness plays out in “Upstream Color,” but those who aren’t privy to Carruth’s recent life story will be lost.
The strongest portion of “Upstream Color” is its first 15 minutes—a strange, unnerving sequence that finds a computer animator named “Kris” (Amy Seimetz) falling victim to an elaborate scam/experiment that involves a parasitic worm, hypnotic suggestion, and extremely unsanitary surgery. Kris’s manipulator uses the mysterious effects of the worm to preoccupy her with odd tasks like transcribing all of “Walden” on a paper daisy chain, while also convincing her to give up everything in her life of material value.
After a genuinely disturbing extraction, Kris’s parasite is implanted in a pig, and released into a pen tended by, of all tzhings, an experimental sound designer who has something of a god complex. Messed-up and manic in the aftermath, Kris develops an inexplicable romance with a disgraced corporate accountant named “Jeff” (Shane Carruth), who is another worm-survivor.
What follows is an excessively oblique and borderline silly metaphysical drama that has many pretensions toward cinematic artistry but is actually quite hollow. “Upstream Color’s” cinematography has been compared to Emmanuel Lubezki’s Terrence Malick from “The Tree of Life,” and though the basic aesthetics have a lot in common, Carruth’s film lacks the meaning or ambition of Malick on his worst day. Where “Primer” is a brain-twister, “Upstream Color” has precious little subtext, or, at least, very little that viewers could find without knowing about Carruth’s work history. Ultimately, the film has nary the depth of a middling episode of “The Twilight Zone,” but its pacing is hypnotic, and its dialog muted.
The key to the truth behind “Upstream Color” is an early, but unforgettable, image on Kris’s computer, while she establishes her background as an animator for film. It depicts a giant, animal-like creature made of trash, which ambles across a field with an eerie gait. The creature closely resembles Carruth’s descriptions of the object at the center of “A Topiary.” So, the plot of “Upstream Color” is about a filmmaker who is essentially making Carruth’s movie, then gets sidelined when a parasitic entity in an unfeeling system takes her life savings, and leaves her twisting in the wind. Does this mean that the art house set has been going ga-ga over what basically amounts to a big kiss-off by a bitter filmmaker?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why Carruth made “Upstream Color.” For all we know, Michael Curtiz made “Casablanca” to nurse his wounds after a break-up. The inspiration behind a work of art is secondary at best. What truly matters is the art in itself, and what we have in “Upstream Color” only works as a troll, an elaborate joke played on viewers that the filmmaker believes deserve a dressing-down.
It’s not inconceivable to see all of the Malick-isms in “Upstream Color” as an indictment of the overtly arty, borderline (if not thoroughly) pretentious stylistic choices of today’s Important Films™. There’s a cynicism in using rhythmic shots out of context, conditioning sound cues, segments of voiceover poetry, and images of desperate tenderness without imbuing them with meaning. These and other techniques, robbed of the portents and suggestions that aren’t inherent to them, are just hollow form with no function, but they may be enough to present a passable pastiche. At its best, that’s how “Upstream Color” seems. Carruth is too skilled and obsessive of a filmmaker to turn in something unintentionally sophomoric, so it more or less has to be a cynical exercise.
“Upstream Color” finishes its theatrical run at the Northwest Film Forum this week. It may be the last time to see it on the big screen in Seattle, but it may be worth it to wait for the inevitable RiffTrax treatment, and grab it on DVD instead.