“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.” This is the IMDB synopsis of Upstream Color. Don’t worry if this doesn’t appeal to you, because there’s a good chance you’ll see something entirely different.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort explains that to enjoy qualuudes, you need to survive the first fifteen minutes of sedative effect before the fun can start. I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy Upstream Color, but if you can persist through the weirdness of the movie’s first sixth, it’ll certainly get you thinking.
The plot is not traditionally comprehensible. If you do understand Upstream Color it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to explain it. Some variation of “you’re not supposed to get it, you’re supposed to feel it,” will suffice in a pinch. In other words, store the title and director (Shane Carruth) away for a time when you need to demonstrate some intellectual bone fides.
Words that should also be included for maximised boasting: auteur, esoteric, allegorical enigma. Perhaps mention that Steven Soderbergh sees Carruth “as the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron.”
Aesthetically it’s beautiful – there are plenty of moments you’ll feel like you’re watching a Terrence Malick tracking shot. It seems well acted, although since it’s not immediately obvious what the actors are supposed to be portraying, a conclusive judgement on their competency is difficult.
In a Q&A after Upstream Color’s première at Sundance last year, director Shane Carruth suggested that he didn’t really have a singular vision or focal intent for this film. An unkind interpretation would be that he threw some loose ideas together and hoped that the hypnotic poetry of thousand word CAPS LOCK increments would fill in the gaps.
It’s clear that Upstream Color has an internal consistency, and a coherence of sorts. This would seem to suggest that it could equally be self-indulgent art-school experimentalism or it could be a motion-picture Jackson Pollock. Carruth is undoubtedly talented, and almost certainly has better work to come.
The familiar staples of Western cinema breed contempt in all but the most complacent viewer. And there is so little mainstream innovation that films like Upstream Color are too easily derided because they’re unusual. Their unfamiliarity makes it difficult to process and our default instinct, when we’re used to three easily divisible acts and an unambiguous outcome, is negative. Upstream Color could be good, or it could be bad. Either way, it left me indifferent.
Upstream Color is available to own on DVD now