Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is Shane Carruth's UPSTREAM COLOR experimental or simply VERY independent?

Either way, it is certainly far out of the mainstream. As much as I enjoyed the 40-year-old filmmaker Shane Carruth's earlier movie, Primer (he's made only two), I have to admit that I didn't understand some of it. But so thoroughly did I enjoy it and also enjoyed being occasionally baffled by it, that after finishing the film, I simply wanted to watch it all over again. Primer has a relatively simple premise: the building and possibly using of a very homemade but amazing machine. A time machine? A tele-transporter? We never exactly know. Whatever it is, it's something that is of vital importance to the quartet of guys working on it, and probably to the world.

After viewing Carruth's new work, UPSTREAM COLOR, I didn't particularly want to watch it again. (The filmmaker -- who writes, directs, edits, composes the music and handles a number of other chores -- is pictured on poster, top, at right and occasionally below.) I may eventually give it a second viewing, but not for awhile. With this film, Carruth has taken a giant leap forward in terms of film-making prowess (the movie is gorgeous to look at, where Primer was merely there) and he offers us a premise and story much more complex and multi-stranded.

What Carruth accomplishes better than any other filmmaker I can think of, however, is in telling his tale quickly and highly suggestively. He uses suggestion and slick editing in a manner so that we barely see what is happening. Yet he enables us to follow along, if haltingly, and understand enough to keep going. Of all the independent filmmakers working today, he is the one who most challenges his audience but still manages to remain (if sometimes barely) accessible.

Is this bracing? Aye, aye, aye! Is it frustrating? Even more so. Forget about genre (it jumps one to another and back) and motivation (make it up as you go along, just as the actors probably had to). The plot? Compared to Primer, this one is all over the place: strange and powerful larvae, kidnapping (a brief one) followed by mind control and robbery, pigs and piglets (above), a maybe-love story, and then a kind of banding together and at long last... justice. Or not.

Carruth has cast himself in the leading male role (above), but he doesn't even appear for half an hour into this 96-minute movie (New York magazine's David Edelstein claims to have caught sight of Carruth briefly during that first half hour, but then Edelstein has already seen the movie twice). In any case, as an actor the guy is quite watchable, with a thin, angular body and a face to match.

In the leading lady role, up-and-comer Amy Seimetz (above and below) is impressive. With a face that commands attention even when it's doing almost nothing, Seimetz manages to bring a weird versatility to immobility.

So many of Carruth's ideas and visual notions seem so new and genuinely, meaningfully odd that when he resorts to something a little old-hat (like the sight of the "worms" noticeably crawling underneath the skin, which causes our heroine to try to cut them out of herself), it's a bit disappointing because we've been-there/done-that a few times already.

For all of the movie's buoyant suggestiveness, it packs almost no emotional punch. It's all allusive style. But what style! It is experimental, yes, but not, I think, so much so that most dyed-in-the-wool film buffs would have trouble following. The question is more will they be glad to have done so by the time the movie reaches its conclusion?

Upstream Color (the title of which may refer to the flowers (above) that somehow bloom from the aforementioned larvae and its spawn), an erbp Film release, opens this Friday, April 5, exclusively in Manhattan at the IFC Center, and will expand to 10 more cities on April 12, with further openings nationwide in late April and early May. (To see all currently scheduled screenings, click here.) On May 7, the film will be available on VOD, retail DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, and all other transactional digital outlets.

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