To start with, Sam Adams, dispatching to the AV Club, suggests that you might not want to read any reviews of Shane Carruth‘s second feature, premiering at Sundance eight years after Primer won the Grand Jury Prize in 2004, at all, “since having the movie wash over me was one of the most transcendent experiences of my moviegoing life. That said, Upstream Color is virtually impossible to spoil, insofar as revealing its plot would involve understanding it, a circumstance from which I am at least several hundred words and more likely several viewings removed. Upstream isn’t a puzzle movie like Carruth’s Primer; I expect no elaborate charts reassembling its fragmented narratives, filling in its plot holes and plastering over its deliberate lacunae. (It’s also several orders of magnitude more lyrical and emotional than Carruth’s first film.) It’s not a movie to be solved but pondered, reconstructed and torn apart and built up again.”
“With much information purposely withheld and no dialogue during the film’s final third, this densely exploratory work will cue both elation for its many beauties and deep-furrowed brows about what the hell is going on,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. “Although Carruth very much remains a filmmaking one-man band—he wrote, directed, co-produced, co-edited (with Ain’t These Bodies Saints director David Lowery), composed the music for and stars—Upstream Color actually is dominated by lead actress Amy Seimetz, an indie-world veteran who directed last year’s Sun Don’t Shine. With a grave intelligence and beauty that from certain angles remind of Juliette Binoche, she commands the screen in the gorgeous but mystifying opening stretch during which her professional woman character of Kris is abducted, then subjected to a disturbing procedure by which small white maggots and perhaps various bodily fluids are exchanged between her and a pig under the supervision of an unidentified man.”
Further notes on what happens follow, and you’ll find more in Justin Chang‘s review for Variety. Here, though, let’s just record that Chang writes that “Upstream Color is a stimulating and hypnotic piece of experimental filmmaking. It’s also a poem about pigs, a meditation on orchids, a cerebral-spiritual love story, an intensely elliptical sight-and-sound collage, and perhaps a free-form re-interpretation of Thoreau’s Walden. Surely the most challenging dramatic entry at Sundance this year, this unapologetically avant-garde work regards conventional narrative as if it were a not-especially-interesting alien species.” Further, “the film seems to be attempting to induce a state of synaesthesia…. This is a warmer, less foreboding picture than Primer, not moving in any conventional sense, but suffused with emotion all the same. One can only imagine what directions the actors were given in order to inhabit roles that seem to splinter and reassemble themselves at will, but Seimetz supplies a quietly haunting presence, particularly in the film’s tender closing fade.”
“Some will feel like they’ve been ethered in the dentist’s chair and woken up with no one in the room and their pants around their ankles,” predicts Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “Upstream Color is almost like a sci-fi thriller without possessing either genre trait. In truth it’s more of an opaque identity and relationship story that takes its time to unfurl without feeling the need to connect its cellular tissues.” It’s a “sensually-directed, sensory-laden experiential (and experimental) piece of art that washes over you like a sonorous bath of beguiling visuals, ambient sounds and corporeal textures (Douglas Trumbull’s visual effects within the body are stunning).”
For Anthony Kaufman, writing for Screen, “as visionary and beautiful as it may be, Upstream Color wears its pretensions a little too proudly.” More from Ryland Aldrich (Twitch), Eric Kohn (Indiewire), and Drew McWeeney (HitFix).
Mark Olsen talks with Carruth for the Los Angeles Times: “He is somewhat tight-lipped about what he was doing during his time away from the spotlight. He speaks of an ambitious sci-fi project called A Topiary as ‘the thing I basically wasted my whole life on.’ The frustration of that unrealized project seems to have spurred his autodidact polymath instinct to learn something new—how to market and release his own film—rather than depend on others to do things for him. So he’s adding distributor to his long list of jobs on Upstream Color.” He’ll open it New York on April 5 and follow up with dates throughout the month in nearly 20 more cities. “The film will become available on digital and cable platforms soon after. ‘The people that this is for, it will be for,’ Carruth said of the audience he wants for Upstream Color, which he describes as ‘an earnest film,’ explaining his desire to sell the film for what it is and not what a more conventional distributor might try to make it out to be.”
Updates, 1/23: The “remarkable Seimetz is as central to the film as women in Kieślowski’s late films,” argues Ray Pride. “The Pole’s project was always to make the indelible prompt the ineffable. Carruth’s ambition, after a decade in the weeds unable to make his epic A Topiary script, rises to Kieślowskian ambition in the insistence on sensations of the body and eruptions of memory and the tactile artifacts of the material world: consciousness is broken apart for the viewer to reconstruct…. Upstream Color is daunting tapestry, the sort that unfurls only in memory or in heated contestation and conversation.”
James Rocchi for MSN: “If you open your perspective a little—and your feelings a lot—then it works as a singular achievement on par with, and in the same mold as, Tarkovsky‘s Solaris or Stalker—a story that uses speculative ideas and para-scientific plot points to not only tell a delicate, fascinating love story but also to inspire you to re-think your story of what love means and how it works.”
“Challenging does not begin to describe what Carruth has concocted here,” writes Time Out New York‘s David Fear. “A formally audacious, narrative-schmarrative attempt to tackle heady ideas about PTSD, identity, divinity, good versus evil, free will, love and the process of healing via Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 transcendentalist manifesto Walden. At least, that’s what I think it’s getting at; I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie actually turned out to be about none of these things.”
“The film is about constructing identity when the inputs for that identity become soft and weird and shared with others who may or may not have been subjected to the same procedure,” suggests Zach Baron at Grantland. “Carruth and Seimetz’s characters find they possess the same intermingled childhood memories, react in terror when their pig surrogates are threatened, fall in love but struggle to communicate on even the most basic level. Every act by every character is echoed in someone or something else. I dunno—I walked out stunned, hypnotized, elated, utterly confused. If they’d screened it again in that moment my guess is most of the audience would’ve stayed.”
Time Out Chicago‘s A.A. Dowd notes that “while there’s no trace of pseudo-scientific shoptalk—the film communicates its most outlandish elements through purely visual means—this is unmistakably the product of the same mind that dreamt up Primer. The aversion to audience hand-holding, the disorientation tactics and the use of science fiction for its metaphoric possibilities all mark Upstream Color as a Carruth joint.” But at Twitch, Eric D. Snider argues that if “Carruth didn’t appear onscreen in both films, you’d never know they had any connection to each other. I say that not as a criticism, just to indicate that it probably doesn’t matter what you thought of Primer. Upstream Color is a different thing entirely.”
Dispatching to the Guardian, Jeremy Kay finds the new film “extreme, and extremely pretentious… We the audience leave in silence.”
Updates, 1/26: In Primer, “Carruth’s extraordinarily confident direction doesn’t reach beyond artful illustration,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Here, his direction is the point, and it’s a sort of dazzlingly intensified impressionism, a crystallization of vision and emotion in flickering moments that, in its analytical power, rivals David Fincher’s cubistic actionism in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, in its sudden abysses of mood, resembles the work of Terrence Malick. With his brief, fluid, darting images with undulating splashes of light that catch the characters’ flickeringly rapid gazes, Carruth offers, in effect, a ‘Tree of Death’ that gets deep into the psyche, albeit with a notable minimum of explicit narrative subjectivity. The images’ materialistic suggestions of metaphysical power blend analysis and wonder, cause and effect. The scientific element of microphotography suggests a hidden world of biochemical astonishment and menace, as images of a medical, quasi-diagnostic depth evoke a physical unconscious that ultimately binds people to the natural world far more tightly and enduringly than does any ecological enthusiasm.”
“Whether because Carruth was actually influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in making Upstream Color, or perhaps because he thinks Thoreau was full of bullshit and just wanted to riff on it, Walden figures heavily in this film, and that kept weighing on me as I pondered the film and tried to sort it out. So I stayed up practically all night re-reading Walden, then slept a couple hours, and when I woke up the dots had connected for me and I understood what I, at least, had gotten from this film.” Kim Voynar elaborates at Movie City News.
For the Voice‘s Scott Foundas, “this hypnotic, symphonic film, which calls to mind everything from Jacques Rivette‘s Paris Nous Appartient to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, undeniably gets under your skin, and it confirms its 40-year-old writer-director-producer-composer-editor-star as one of the singular talents in American movies today.”
“If anything at all can be gleaned from the movie’s visual abstractions, it might be that Carruth is more interested in the relationship between memory and imagery than he is in plot,” suggests Zeba Blay at the House Next Door. “And if one really wanted to reach, one might say that the movie is about the catharsis of shared experience, but even by its last moments it remains so vague that it could be said that it really isn’t about anything at all.”
At Ioncinema, Jordan M. Smith calls it “a unique, mind-bending achievement.”
Updates, 2/3: Writing at Film.com, William Goss finds Upstream Color to be “as willfully oblique as [Carruth’s] first film was densely foreboding, a rumination on the perils and pleasures of interpersonal connection that would seem to refuse any easy connection with even the most curious of audiences. It’s not an impenetrable endeavor, though. The editing rhythms are hypnotic, the dialogue spare, and even borderline daft notions involving people and pigs are given the same weight of universal significance as innocuous meet-cutes and puzzling routines. Revealing a sprawling scope at a rather deliberate pace, it’s the kind of metaphysical mystery that feels like it could be knocked right over by a strong wind, yet cracked wide open with a strong drink.”
Twitch‘s Ryland Aldrich talks with Carruth about his decision to distribute the film himself.
Update, 2/5: Carruth “abandons a logical progression of events as each character’s emotional state refuses to cede control,” writes Jacob Mertens for Film International. “Appropriately, the editing follows broken conversations, or forgotten moments of intimacy, without much clarity of time and space. However, it would be a mistake to look at the fragments of the film and deny the compelling narrative lying beneath its obscurity.”
Update, 2/20: BlackBook‘s Hillary Weston notes that “the soundtrack has premiered (get it digitally or on vinyl) and you’re going to have to listen to this. Composed by Shane himself, the ambient and visceral music for the film is what elevates it entirely into the world of the ineffable and is so integral to its life. So if you’re nowhere near a grassy field at dusk or entwined with someone you love, go sit in the nearest bathtub and blast this high. It’s incredible.”
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