Swimming Against the Current with Upstream Color.

In 1974, famed author Amos Vogel published a novel called Film as a Subversive Art, which extensively detailed several short films and feature-length films that “use one of the most powerful art forms of our day to exchange or manipulate our conscious and unconscious, demystify visual taboos, destroy dated cinematic forms, and undermine existing value systems and institutions.” The book has now gone out-of-print and commands outrageous prices on the web, but many PDF-versions online have been circulating for years. It’s quite the read and leaves you making a list of the kinds of films you want to check out simply because your curiosity is bubbling.

I bring this up because, I believe, if Vogel were still alive and anxious to publish a second volume, denoting more “subversive art” in modern cinema, Shane Carruth’s latest film Upstream Color would make the cute instantaneously. This is one of the most challenging and enigmatic pieces of art I’ve been met with since Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, tricky, contemplative, and immersing in its tactics. It does everything it can to disengage and lose a viewer and it succeeds. It does everything to alienate and it succeeds. It does nothing to make itself likable or “solvable” and still succeeds.

Regardless of your cinephile status, you are not prepared to take in a movie of this caliber. It annihilates not only your commonplace, movie going sensibilities, but makes itself almost so inaccessible and cold to a viewer that you almost want to shut it off. And yet, you don’t. This sounds like the start for a one-star, bottom-of-the-barrel review, and yet, I sit here and reflect upon the experience as a stunning work of unprecedented art/visual talent. I can’t say I loved it, for “love” in this sense would be too attached to the film’s coldness. Admiration still seems to distant and appreciation is a bit too contrived. I am awed by it. Very, very awed.

I’m delaying any explanation of a plot because I’m unsure of how to conduct one. The film deals with deception, fraud, pharmaceuticals, a relationship based on mutual understanding, hypnosis, flexible reality, delusion, worms, larva, and many, many other things that can be taken on the surface or exercised to no end in an attempt to provide a meaning to one of the film’s features. We see two characters, Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who has been forced to partake in a series of activities that test her physical and mental state for reasons unknown. The man she is instructed by has the stunning clarity and dictative qualities of a psychologist issuing an experiment. She then meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is also forced to do the same tactics and consumed by a similar force. They find solace in one another in a time where nothing, literally, nothing at all makes sense.

I can’t even say for sure that is the plot. When I watch this film two or three more times, I’m not even sure I’ll be able to say this. Upstream Color is among one of the most ambiguous pieces of work I have ever stumbled upon and for that reason alone, again, this should be a condemning review. My tolerance for ambiguity in films only goes so far before a film’s obsession with channeling bigger, more elusive forces becomes wholly narcissistic and downright tedious. I’ve given several films low ratings because of this reason alone. But aesthetically, Upstream Color is impossible to ignore and, much like The Tree of Life, there’s a presence here I’m able to sense but not grasp.

To bring you up to speed, this is Carruth’s second film in nine years. In 2004, he made the cult-hit Primer, which was a project he assembled after boldly quitting his sound engineering job that “paid fine” according to him. Much like Malick, his absence begs explanation. He couldn’t have supported himself for nine years on a cult film, could he? What line of work did he do for nine years, especially in an unforgiving economy? Moreover, Carruth’s background in the art of audio and sound engineering shows here immensely. There will be cinematic tyranny if this film doesn’t snag the awards for “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing” at the upcoming Academy Awards. The naturalistic ambiance of the sound, color, and light of the film are beyond words in terms of their beauty, and things such as thunder, flowing water, simple breaths, the shaking and clacking of pills, among other little nuances have never felt such boldly exploited and gorgeously played.

The film seems to be about hypnosis and not knowing a dreamlike reality to the “real one,” hence the foggy cinematography and dizzying videography. If the sound wasn’t enough to sell you, the music should be, accentuating a world that seems equal parts haunting and welcoming. Carruth brilliantly executes such a mismatched, unearthly combination in a versatile, daring way.

Upstream Color is a moviegoing experience I can see having the broadest, most dissenting reactions to than any other film released this year – even more than Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Some will come out speechless and in-awe, some will come out puzzled but charmed, others will emerged venomous and spiteful of the film’s unique qualities. No one will emerge with no questions to the film’s treatment of space, time, mankind, and all living and existing matter. It’s the kind of film I’ve seen but haven’t seen. How can one write a review or express sufficient thought when saying something like that?

NOTE: Upstream Color is playing in select theaters all across the United States and is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and various video-on-demand outlets. If you can, see it in a theater occupied by a good sound-system. If you can’t, all I can say is play it loud.

Grade: A-

Reviewed by Steve Pulaski
Read more of Steve’s Reviews at: http://stevethemovieman.proboards.com