Monday 16 September 2013

Upstream Color (US 2013: Dir Shane Carruth)

James Joyce once wrote, of the complexities of his most famous novel Ulysses, that "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." I've always liked this quote, and it's one which popped into my head after watching Shane Carruth's latest headscratcher Upstream Color.

So what is Upstream Color about? Essentially it's a film featuring a young couple who have separately had their identities wiped (and their money stolen, at least in one case) as the result of a powerful organic drug administered unwillingly by a character called The Thief. The couple, while getting to know each other and recovering their lost memories, discover that they've both been through the same experience and attempt to ascertain what happened to them. The audience knows more than they do as we've seen how the drug is harvested and processed and also the shadowy figures behind the whole operation. That's all I'm prepared to disclose because that's about all of the plot that is discernible without guesswork and conjecture.

In interviews Carruth is reticent about the specifics of his films, and happier to talk about ideas. As a director who is also a mathematician and former software engineer, you'd perhaps expect a high degree of planning and structure in them that close analysis would reward, but he has hinted that Upstream Color should be seen as a metaphor, which suggests that things aren't quite as organised or focused as we'd like. Carruth also remains rather po faced about his work, so while the subtext of the Joyce quote implies that the author was rather amused at the idea of scholars reaching lots of different conclusions about the meaning of Ulysses, we have no way of knowing as to whether our digging into the real meaning of Upstream Color will ever pay off or whether the director feels that the digging is worth doing.

This inscrutability and obliqueness comes across in the film, which is both its USP and also its downfall. The great thing about film is that it can do lots of things. It can straight out entertain, it can baffle, it can inform you, and because it's primarily a visual medium, if it's put together well it can take a lot of chances and still engage an audience. Upstream Color doesn't do this. It didn't have enough narrative or visual hooks to keep this viewer interested. To me the film looked flat and lifeless, and I felt that I was constantly being wrong footed in trying to understand what was happening. There is nothing wrong in a bit of directorial wrong footing, but when the whole film is predicated on it, it just becomes tedious.

Compared to Carruth's previous film, 2004's talky but frankly rather autistic Primer (a film I also didn't like) Upstream Color has a lot more warmth, and the two leads, Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself, are engaging in a rather blissed out way. But to me the film failed, if only because, as many reviewers have mentioned, that this is a film that needs to be seen many times to reveal its true meaning, I'll not be bothering.

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