There are times when watching movies that the casual viewer, and even the cynical critic, must think, “In all seriousness: What am I watching?”
Is the viewer stupid or is the filmmaker a genius? There are times when watching movies by masters—Terrence Malick comes to mind—that the head must be scratched, the chin stroked, the nerves calmed. Maybe it’s the elliptical filmmaking; maybe it’s the viewer’s apparent dum-dumness; maybe the filmmaker’s ideas are half-baked.
Most of the time, even when watching movies that I just don’t like, I’m down with giving the filmmaker his or her shot. Take Shane Carruth, who has just unleashed the very Malickian Upstream Color. Carruth’s first film, Primer, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner in 2004, demands repeat viewings. Not just because it’s sometimes hard to decipher—though it can be, for reasons ranging from big ideas to low-tech moviemaking—but because it’s captivating, enthralling and exciting.
Upstream Color, on the other hand, is opaque, silly and grandiose, but very quietly. It’s so sure of itself, too, that you may think you’re nuts for not buying into its narrative.
That’s something that Carruth and Malick share—self-assurance—and sometimes that confidence is just plain unwarranted. It’s not that they make bad movies; not even the bad ones are bad (Malick: To the Wonder; Carruth: this one). It’s just that sometimes the story is so threadbare and so—dare I say—not necessarily worth telling, that it’s truly a waste of your time.
Reads like I’m turning in circles, right? So it is with Upstream Color. I never read movie press releases or one-sheets for the simple reason that most audiences don’t. But here’s the synopsis given for Upstream Color: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the lifecycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”
It actually sounds like film school, but yeah. OK. Sure, why not?
A man called Thief (Thiago Martins), who’s really more of a cultivator of ancient life forms in the shape of tiny maggot-like worms, finds Kris (Amy Seimetz) and forcefully makes her swallow these worms. For some time after, she’s under his spell, and he promptly empties her bank accounts while she’s in this trance-like state (she’s doing the physically emptying; he pushes her in the directions he wants her to go). She copies Thoreau’s Walden while all this is going on, too.
The thief leaves and is mostly unseen for the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig, and yes, he’s called The Sampler), records sounds, raises pigs and is involved in this whole process in some way. Kris shows up in a field. He removes some worms from her. She cuts herself to remove the others. The pigs (and some adorable piglets) get slopped. And then Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), and though we don’t see what happened to him, it seems as if he went through the same worm process Kris did.
Nothing in Upstream Color would be quite so irritating if there were any sort of emotional payoff. But it just goes on and on and on—though Carruth’s Primer feels long at 78 minutes, so maybe I should have expected this—and even after you’ve figured out what’s going on, it doesn’t add up to much more than pretty pictures.
Plus, there are moments that echo Malick so explicitly that it’s distracting. You almost expect a wheat field to pop up with all the slow walking and fluttering hands centered in the frames. At least the photography, by Carruth himself, is quite lovely.
Upstream Color demands patience. It’s obtuse on purpose, but that doesn’t make it good—or bad. But whether you find it good or bad will likely depend on your prevailing mood, your sense of equanimity and whether you like pigs. And worms.
Written and directed by Shane Carruth
With Amy Seimetz and Carruth