Sunday, April 14, 2013

upstream color - a review.

my expectations for upstream color were high - I hadn't been looking forward to a film this much in many, many years. I saw primer right at the start of my second year at tisch and it energized me in a way that few modern films could - here was a first time director whose minuscule budget didn't hold him back but instead made him thrive. shane carruth crafted a complex, fascinating narrative that (whether or not it actually makes sense in the end) that felt limitless in scope, despite the very real limitations imposed by the production itself. not only that, he also did everything - he wrote, shot it, starred in it, directed it, and edited it. it's a film that I can still turn to for inspiration whenever I need to.

enough small talk - this film completely destroyed my expectations in every way imaginable. as carruth himself has said, the film is about the life cycle of a biological organism - in this case, a fictional type of worm. throughout the film we follow that worm, and the path of destruction in its wake, as it grows, matures, and spawns new life. but it's also about the flawed cycle of mankind - we are born, we go through life, destroy ourselves, spawn, and it starts all over again. until, that is, we take it upon ourselves to root out that flaw, expose it, and endeavor to change it.

we open on an unnamed man ("the thief") who buys a blue orchid and then harvests several small worms from the roots and flowers of the plant. he then uses these to drug a woman, putting her under his complete control. he drains her bank account, her home equity, even the gold coins she has stashed under her house over an unspecified period of time, which could be weeks or even months. she's then handed off to another unnamed man ("the sampler"), who extracts the now fully-grown worms from her body and deposits them into a heathy pig. after the process, she wakes up in her car on the side of the freeway, unaware of how she got there. her life has been destroyed - no money, no job, nothing.

and then she meets carruth's character, a man who has also lost everything. we don't know if it's also because of the worm but due to some of the wounds on his body, that's a fairly safe bet. together they have enough left to survive, but that's about it. when the worm is removed, something else much less tangible gets removed along with it - some might say "soul," but I don't want to be that specific - some sort of essence, or happiness, gets ripped out.

eventually the pair track down the man who removed the worm to discover that he is also the reason for its propagation. but they refuse to let the cycle continue, stopping it dead before another life can be consumed and also, in the process, changing the course of not only their lives, but all of the others than have been affected by the parasite.

while time is still cyclical, this seems like quite a change from the central theme of primer - that cycles are fixed, and no matter what we try to do, no matter how much foresight we may be able to gain, nothing can change that fact. but primer focused on the micro - the personal. and as we've already discussed, upstream color focuses on the macro - the different generations of a species. terrible things are always going to happen to anyone and everyone, but if we fight really hard - fight as if we have nothing to lose - we can provide a better future for those we care about.

technically, this film is an achievement of the highest level. the structure, the editing, the camera work, the shot choice and composition - it's all absolutely stunning. there isn't a single throwaway shot in the entire ninety minute-plus runtime. so even if you find the story ludicrous and the acting forgettable, at least know that you're witnessing one of the most visually spectacular films in years. there are no epic CGI battle scenes, no high-speed car chases, no visits to alien worlds. everything here is natural, real, tangible. and it's a genuine visual work of art.

and to everyone who reads this blog exclusively for the music - "the sampler," as he is known (and can be seen in one of the above stills), makes and releases music via his own record label, consisting of piano loops, field recordings, and ambient sound - genuine musique concrète. it's both interesting to watch and well-integrated into the plot, and definitely added to my enjoyment of the film on a personal level.

all in all, this is certainly not a film for everyone, but if you're a frequent reader of this blog, I urge you to go see it - I'm sure you'll leave with something positive.

upstream color is in limited release all over the country in major markets - los angeles, new york, boston, chicago, etc. - and will be opening in many more over the coming weeks. see it and help support the most essential kind of cinema being made today - that which is incredibly minimal, stunningly experimental, and, most of all, deeply rewarding.

(release dates, cities, and theaters for upstream color.)

(stream the soundtrack on soundcloud.)

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