Two-Headed Boy, by Matt Warren
When talking to my girlfriend about why I was so excited for Upstream Color, I explained that director Shane Carruth was sort of like a indie sci-fi Jeff Mangum: a genius auteur who’d burst out of nowhere with a singular work of iconic brilliance and then disappeared just as quickly. Sure, the analogy isn’t airtight, but the comparison between Carruth’s 2004 debut Primer and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea at least illustrates the esteem in which each project is held by their cult of fans. But while we’re still waiting for Mangum’s comeback, at least now we have Carruth’s Uptream Color, a bold new work that should satisfy fans of Primer (to the extent that fans of Primer can reasonably expect to be satisfied.)
Color is difficult to both summarize and categorize. Most people will tag it as science fiction, but it doesn’t feel like any science fiction movie that I’ve ever seen. It’s one part Cronenbergian body horror, and one part pure Terrence Malick poeticism. It’s wistful, dreamlike, and melancholic, obsessed with biology, lifecycles, and closed ecosystems—both in terms of its plot and its structure. It also contains some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard, with sound recording even being a major plot element.
What’s it about? I dunno, it’s weird. Two lonely people (Carruth and Amy Seimetz) meet, fall in love, and discover that their pasts may share the same formative trauma. This leads to the revelation that their lives are just a small part of a much larger whole, and that their individual existences may be even more interconnected than they think. Also: pigs. Upstream Color definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if Carruth’s second feature is something you’re already anticipating, you won’t be let down.
I want to add my unqualified support of this film, which I found to be the most exciting sci-fi film (and I would absolutely call it that; much of my excitement stems from just how unlike any other film of that genre (that I’ve seen) it really is) I’ve seen in I don’t even know how long. Maybe since Primer. Carruth’s mastery over visual storytelling is astonishing, giving us just enough to put the pieces together (I could explain maybe a fraction of Primer, but I found this easy enough to follow) without going out of his way to explain his wild ideas, and in this way, his genius. Not always a comfortable film, I should mention, but so thoughtful and surprisingly moving.
If you’re able to catch it in a theater (listings here – http://erbpfilm.com/film/upstreamcolor#screenings), it’s a must – besides the usual big-screen experience, Matt’s not kidding about the sound design, and you want to get in on the best-tuned experience of that.
My brother texted me about the movie earlier knowing I’d seen it and I used the -exact- same description: it’s Terrance Malick meets David Cronenberg!
And I absolutely adored this movie despite the fact that some of the plot specifics (as described in the synopsis, which honestly does little to relate the mostly indescribable film) were lost on me. Carruth, as you said Scott, offers just enough to allow us to understand his complex plots and most off all to care about the characters’ emotional stories.
Just as Primer is really about two scientists who have bitten off more than they can chew, Upstream Color is, I think, about the couple’s struggle deal with each other’s baggage and to cope with the unexplainable issues and tragedies that come their way. Of course, its about much, much more (I found myself reminded of Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique) but that one plotline is a large part of what carries us through the film along with the visual style and the puzzle of it all.
Carruth did a Q&A at the IFC Center in New York this evening that was supposedly sold out and I left the theater to find people buying tickets. I would have gladly sat through the film a second time, along with a discussion of the film, if money and time weren’t an issue. He’s doing it again on Sunday but it conflicts with my plans of seeing My Fair Lady at the Film Society- thoughts?
Well, I’m replying a little too late to really do you any good in this department, but my vote almost always goes towards seeing a classic film on the big screen for the first time, though of course that depends on whether they’re showing the thing on actual film or not.
I like your comparison to The Double Life of Veronique, though I must admit that, while I have a pretty good handle on Upstream Color (aside from the whole diving-for-rocks business), I haven’t the slightest clue as to exactly what’s “happening” in Kieslowski’s masterpiece, and quite like it that way. Like aspects of Upstream Color, it’s so palpable in its emotional current that any mystery doesn’t feel to be a mystery at all, and whenever a piece of art can transcend its particulars to get to that kind of pure emotional connection, man, that is bliss.
Huh, I feel like I have more of a handle of The Double Life of Veronique though maybe if I’d seen Upstream Color half as many times as I’ve seen and studied Kieslowki’s movie I might feel differently.
The way I see it the two films deal with the unexplainable emotional connections…
The Double Life of Veronique expresses that literally: there’s another you somewhere and what happens to them affects you whether you know it or not.
Whereas Upstream seems to cover more ground in a much less direct fashion: we’re all connected in ways we can’t explain, somehow that relates to our connection to the world and nature itself and finding these connections happens naturally and is even inevitable or fated.
But like you said, neither film seems concerned with rationalizing or packaging their themes and both directors have a way of making you understand the emotions even while you’re puzzling over story particulars.
The synopsis, by the way, reads like a Mad Lib: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”
And for anyone interested in the New York rep scene…
This was my first time in the Film Society’s amphitheater and, well, I didn’t do my research. It’s a small-ish room designed for presentations and lectures and in lieu of a projector it’s got a flat panel the size of a garage door. The room’s not completely light-proofed or soundproofed and because of all these issues the tickets are appropriately reduced.
Since I don’t have a particularly large screen in my apartment, never mind light or soundproofing I didn’t feel jipped but considering they previously showed My Fair Lady as part of a 70mm marathon this past Christmas week (family was visiting or I would’ve been all over that) you can understand some disappointment.
Luckily the Film Society clearly labels their screenings so there’s no chance you’ll accidentally end up seeing a movie in an unexpected format. And luckily My Fair Lady with an audience is an experience itself, despite the amphitheater not being entirely optimal.
I loved Upstream Color, but not as much as I loved the Neutral Milk Hotel concert I went to the other night. The return of Mangum AND Carruth in one year! I know it’s not movie related, but since you mentioned it, seeing NMH live was one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life.