By: Claudia Sicondolfo
I didn’t read the screening information online before going to see the film Upstream Color (directed by Shane Carruth) at the Bell Lightbox, so I had no idea that it is preceded by a short: Reflexions (directed by Martin Thibaudeau), a 5-minute disturbing graveside memorial.
Upstream Color begins so abruptly following this short, I was convinced that another short film had begun and I was in the wrong cinema. After briefly leaving the cinema to check the marquee and confirm that I was in the right place, I eventually – but hesitantly – resigned myself to Carruth’s much-anticipated Primer follow-up.
The experience of watching Upstream Color doesn’t have to be as perplexing as my introduction to it, so long as you allow yourself to experience it and immerse yourself in it as fully as it asks you to.
Part romantic-comedy, part sci-fi fantasy, Upstream Color can be somewhat described as a struggling love story between Kris (Amy Seimetz), a misplaced victim of horrendous body terrorism operations by a strange Foley-artist-pig-farmer named, “The Sampler,” and Jeff, a recovering junkie/broker fraudster (played by writer/director Shane Carruth). It can also be called a poetic social commentary on the realities of mental health. Or, it can also be viewed as a pretentious Cronenberg-Lynch-Malick homage/mélange, tossed into a stewing pot of loud, glassy sounds and incredibly executed art direction.
What we see are strange and disturbing images of Kris’s surgery, followed by her inability to cope with her job, her mortgage and her life. We also see warm, scattered moments of Jeff and Kris’s developing relationship, layered between an evocative and noisy score composed by Carruth, and guided by passages of Thoreau’s Walden. We see and we hear a lot in Upstream Color, but we don’t ever really know, and when we try to definitely know, our sensory experience of the film risks coming across short.
I don’t mean to suggest that Upstream Color rests immaturely at a sensual level. I would argue, quite contrarily, that while you are watching the film, something somewhat magical happens: things somehow make narrative “sense” despite the consistently sporadic and fantastically absurd order of events that unravels before you. You actually root for the tender love developing between Kris and Jeff and long for all of the moments the two of them will never have the opportunity to experience together.
It is only when you try to rationalize and articulate the narrative (what exactly do those orchid hunters have to do with anything?), that you realize how silly the task is. In the very similar ways Guy Maddin’s films laugh in the face of any semiotic reasoning, Upstream Color successfully challenges our obsessive desire for narrative and rationalize sensations and moments. It is quite laughable to even imagine what the script for this film actually looks like. This approach to the film doesn’t discount the viewers who will fight against all 96 minutes of it, because inevitably, Upstream Color will probably get some walk-outs. It’s weird and difficult at times, but there is no question that it sticks with you.
Upstream Color exists on a complex imaginary level fueled by very little dialogue, yet it somehow develops an intriguing complexity of character relationships you wish to remain involved with. It is important to question how useful and accessible the artistry in Upstream Color is (because, honestly, what do we really get out of pretty pictures and beautiful sounds?), yet the heart of the film – and there is plenty of heart – is carried by its daring ability to allow the camera to speak.
Upstream Color is currently screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, until April 25, 2013, with a (hopefully strong) possibility of extension.
Bio: Claudia likes watching pictures move. So much so, she got an M.A. in it. She spends her 9-5 teaching youth about media, and many of her evenings at the movies. Follow her: @claudia_sicon