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Upstream Color

Upstream Color

It's important to feel safe

dir: Shane Carruth

What a freaky film. It’s probably the strangest film I’ve seen this year. It’s probably the strangest film I’ll see all year. There are six months to go, so, who knows?

It will be very hard to give a synopsis of this flick in a coherent way that will give a sense of what it was like to watch this movie. A few films are good, a lot of flicks are mediocre, but very few films deliberately avoid pandering to an audience by being very hard to understand and aggressively difficult to watch. This, from the same guy who made the low-key low-budget time travel flick Primer, is just such a concoction.

Most flicks, with the business model/logic behind them that generates them, go out of their way to be as easily consumable as possible. Upstream Color doesn’t seem to want to go the easy route, or to really be understood or explained in the way most flicks seem to work. At least that's what I think happened. For all I know, it makes perfect sense, and I'm way too thick to make sense of it, because I'm clearly not a genius.

It’s also aggressively edited as well, and I don’t mean in the way that a Michael Bay movie or one of the Bourne movies will be over-edited to stop you from realising how deeply stupid the plot or action of such a flick is. The purpose here seems to be to keep you unsettled, deeply unsettled.

It’s an unsettling story, but I’m not sure I’d call it a surreal or experimental one, just one for which we don’t get a lot of explanation as to what’s really going on. So much is never explained that we're left grappling with trying to piece it all together ourselves, or just pushing it aside and placing it in the "too hard, no point" basket.

It starts off with the strange depiction of some kind of drug, and some kind of worm. A guy (Thiago Martins) harvests these worms, and uses them in a pretty diabolical manner. We see him stalk and then force feed one of these tequila-like worms to a woman (Amy Seimitz). This sounds like it's the prelude to a horrible kind of stalker-fantasy flick, but what the strange guy does is order the woman around. The worm in her system, this parasite, presumably (I'm just guessing here) releases these chemicals which makes people completely pliant, as if they have no willpower or agency of their own. He essentially uses this in order to get her to extract every cent out of her bank account and out of the equity in her house, but when he isn't getting her to sign her life away, he makes her copy pages out of the Henry David Thoreau book Walden, which she then has to fold up into paper chains, long endless chains.

No, I have no idea why he was getting her to do that. No, I don't know even though I've seen the whole film.

When he disappears, she 'comes to', and has no memory of what happened, just that there is a gap of days in her memory. And then, of course, she finds that this horrible parasite is crawling under her skin, which she tries to extract herself.

As far as I can tell, what happens next is that some melancholy look guy (Andrew Sensenig) tips over some stereo speakers onto the ground at some property way out somewhere, and starts playing this sound which alternates between a high and a low frequency. This somehow compels the woman we saw earlier to walk towards the sound, where he straps her to a table and somehow manages to transfer her parasite to a pig.

I know, I'm as confused as you are, and I saw the goddamn film.

The woman, called Kris, has a life that has fallen apart on her, the way it would for most of us, I guess. She no longer has parasites rippling under her skin, but the whole world thinks she's gone mad. She sees the footage of herself at the bank withdrawing her life savings, and she thinks "that can't be me." The medical profession's technique with dealing with this kind of thing, obviously, is to prescribe lots and lots of medication of the anti-psychotic variety.

And yet the compulsive behaviours remain, and she remains some kind of connection to the pig.

As she tries to piece her life back together, she meets another guy on the train who, I guessed as anyone clutching at straws would guess, also had the same thing happen to him. Jeff (Shane Carruth, the director) is a angular, nervy kind of chap, who's pretty much like a recovering meth addict but with better skin. When the thief messed with Jeff's life, he ruined his job and his marriage as well, so Jeff has even more reasons to be nervy and angry than Kris. When they get together, it's desperate and messy, and aggressive, just like the editing.

Over all of this, the strange guy with the pigs looms over all, linked not only to these two people, but the other people this same crime might have happened to.

With such a surreal crime being at the centre of the plot, you could think that, in a conventional telling of this story, it would end up being all about tracking down and getting some kind of metaphysical revenge on the prick who did this to all these people. Let's just say the film has other purposes in mind.

It's not interested in being conventional in the slightest. It points towards stuff that might be what's going on, but never explicates them or gives us more than an impression of what might be going on. These connections between living things is broad, and massive, and seems beyond any kind of explanation, but there's nothing touchy-feely Earth Mother ain’t Nature grand kind of bullshit about it. If anything, though it doesn't degenerate into horror and blood, it's something more like a H.P. Lovecraft kind of idea, of some ancient organism that propagates in unsavoury ways and seeks to connect with multiple people by taking them over, but it's not an attempt at global domination. The connection doesn't seem to be control, but the connection isn't benign either.

I don't really know what was going on with the pigs, and why stuff happening to the pigs affected Kris and Jeff and vice versa, but I guess it's to do with the parasite/drug in their systems. I don't really know why pigs needed to be in the flick at all, but they are cute little things, so they've got that going for them. You could also make the case that Kris and Jeff, like the two leads in the William Friedkin film Bug, are two crazy people who've hooked up and whose folie a deux / gestalt madness has exploded exponentially, making them paranoid lunatics, but while it did remind me of that flick, I don't think it's a productive road to go down.

We're meant to feel something about Kris and Jeff, but I felt very distanced by the film. I 'cared' what happened to them in the sense that I didn't want further harm to come to them, and I 'knew' that I was meant to care that their relationship, symbolised by their lying together in the bath in that frightened/romantic way, was saved from whatever was to happen to them, but I didn't feel like I really had a sense of what they were going through. For a film about a tenuous but felt connection between people and animals, like some kind of resonance pervading beyond the seen world, I didn't really feel like I felt their connection, which perhaps was intended. If they're joined not only by experience but by this mysterious chemical/organism, maybe it does shut out the rest of the world, maybe that was the point.

So much of this is conveyed by images and scenes I can only generously describe as brief or fleeting. The scenes the film concentrates on are not the ones you think are important, and yet they have to be important, and the ones you wish were fleshed out more flit by, even if some of them are repeated multiple times.

I'm also further not ashamed to admit that I didn't really get the Walden references or idea. I understand it was 'important' in the context of the film, since they spent so much goddamn time on it, but I'm not sure I really got what it meant. the only clue I have is that maybe the story was implying that Henry David Thoreau's experiences at Walden Pond were as a result of ingesting this parasite which gave him these bizarre insights into being alive.

It plays so much of a part in the story, with a whole section devoted to Kris diving down to the bottom of a pool to collect rocks she's dropped there, only to come up and recite the next line she's memorised from the book, that my inability to understand what it means probably hamstrings my ability to understand what the film ultimately is trying to say about anything, if in fact it is trying to say anything about anything.

It probably doesn't matter that much, because this film has garnered absurdly positive reviews, from a whole slew of reviews far better at understanding stuff and reviewing films than I am. Where I see a bewildering array of confusing images and themes, they see sense and order, and coherence, beauty and transcendence. Where I see a film so obscure it gives me an almost pleasant headache thinking about it, they see glory and brilliance, which completely eludes me. I'm prepared to cut flicks slack if they deserve it, if they warrant it, but if I get to the end of a flick and think "well, it was interesting and unpleasant", then maybe I didn't get as much out of it as the average genius.

Brighter people than I might get far more out of this than I did, but I'm not completely writing it off. It was an interesting and irritating film experience, which is far better than being bored, that's for sure.

6 times I too hear the sound both high and low in nature, but that’s because of the severe tinnitus from going to one too many gigs out of 10

“I have to apologise. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.” – yep, your guess is as good as mine – Upstream Color