Saturday, May 25, 2013

C. Jerry Kutner: Cinema du WTF – Upstream Color (Shane Carruth 2013)

Cinema du WTF – UPSTREAM COLOR (Shane Carruth 2013)
by C. Jerry Kutner
Bright Lights Film Journal

A singular and highly accomplished independent film, Upstream Color is philosophical science fiction in the tradition of the French nouvelle vague, seasoned with a dash of Cronenbergian body horror. Like the SF films that emerged from the nouvelle vague – Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Alain Resnais’s Je t'aime je t'aime, Godard’s Alphaville, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch – Upstream Color foregoes studio sets and elaborate special effects in favor of real locations and a concern with fundamental existential issues like the nature of free will, memory, perception, and time – what Raymond Durgnat once called the science fiction of “inner space.”

The body horror, reminiscent of early Cronenberg films like Rabid and Shivers (aka They Came From Within), comes from the film’s MacGuffin, a worm or grub found in the roots of orchids that secretes a drug, prized in certain circles for its psychotropic properties. If the worm is implanted in a victim, he or she becomes a virtual zombie, susceptible to any suggestion, obeying any command.

To say the film is enigmatic is an understatement. This might be the WTF film of 2013. Its complex story is told almost entirely through its visuals. There is minimal dialogue, and what there is of it is fragmentary, heard – or overhead – in bits and pieces. The visuals themselves are elliptical – we might be shown only the beginning, the middle, or the end of an action and have to infer the rest of it. Sometimes it is uncertain whether what we are looking at is literal or metaphoric. Chronology is scrambled. But the effect is not off-putting. On the contrary, this is an extraordinarily compelling film. Because we have to piece the narrative together ourselves, we pay closer attention.

Moreover, there is a sound basis for the film’s peculiarities of style. The two main characters, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (writer/director Shane Carruth) are both victims of the worm – both brain-damaged. Consequently, we experience reality as they do.

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