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By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Upstream Color

“Love, love Amy Seimetz’s pixie cut. Love,” I wrote on Twitter directly after the press and industry screening of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color as a couple of colleagues disagreed loudly nearby. I meant those words as highest praise: the remarkable Seimetz is as central to the film as women in Kieślowski’s late films, like Irène Jacob in Three Colors: Red and The Double Life of Véronique, or Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue. The Pole’s project was always to make the indelible prompt the ineffable. Carruth’s ambition, after a decade in the weeds unable to make his epic “A Topiary” script, rises to Kieślowskian ambition in the insistence on sensations of the body and eruptions of memory and the tactile artifacts of the material world: consciousness is broken apart for the viewer to reconstruct. (“Enjoy your trip back to Philistinea!” the first colleague said banging the Holiday Village door open onto the bracing chill.) Openly, literally filleting and repurposing Thoreau’s “Walden”—among its several manifestations is a manuscript copied out page for page by hand and then joined link-by-link into a paper chain like a second-grade teacher might encourage her students to make—Upstream Color likely is embedded with myriad allusions to other literature as well as deeply-impacted personal concerns. Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” came to mind in some of its choppy bursts of language that resound like music but then refuse to yield as sense, only beginning with the all-encompassing opening lines of “Wake,” “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay.” (The inscribed paper chain also reminded me of poet John Ashbery’s comment that poetry runs in his head all the time, he just sits down once in a while to cut off a length.) At only one glance, attempting synopsis is the wrong work to try, especially of its opening passages that suggest a science fiction mysterium of physical dread and sonic paranoia (See: under: Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) that observes a character called the Sampler in search of sounds in a muddy pig-lot filled with domesticated piglets as well as abductions that lead to samplings of bodies (and presumably souls). Resistant symbols recur and bloom, as blood and parasite and flora. The largely plein air cinematography (by Carruth) is specific and contemporary and near peerless. But above all it is a sensational accumulation of the resoundingly concrete and gorgeous and specific: that bob of hair above Seimetz’s keenly lost features once her character has given herself over to simple paranoiac reactivity; basins of ice cubes; sheets of inscribed stave paper or of corporate hoo-ha cascading from a bridge down to a river and from a elevated walkway to an emptied lobby; multiple occurrences of the drape of lank fabrics on Seimetz’s form (like each physical detail, the costume design is simple yet exemplary); flexing hands or flexing feet; a woman’s black tights shredded at the toes as toes worry, worry; a plump pale grub sluggish yet undulant against a tan palm, its lines as prominent as the veins on the back of leaf; a hand pocketing a phial of hotel shampoo at waist height; a fearful couple retracting into a cluttered bathroom, embracing, clothed, in the bathtub with an oversize wood axe at hand. In a city, on a train, a man pursues a woman. He is Jeff (Carruth), she is Kris (Seimetz). He is forward and assertive even as she shoulders on her damaged tremulousness. Kris smiles, truly smiles, but once, in the middle of this relationship that could be a week or take place across several years, her gleaming dimply grin in the foreground [see photo above] as in the background grackles black the sky. Several montages compress, repeat, redesign man-woman exchanges: there’s one of “I love you” and “those are just words”; another of the get-to-know-you “I like you”s and there is another of a liar and thief or a man who is lying about being a liar and thief confessing forward and backward repeatedly in patterns of cubist-style editing (co-cut by Carruth and David Lowery). They flurry like regret distantly recalled but never truly dismissed, the math of the mind that calculates quietly over what we’ve lost or what we’re losing right in front of ourselves: the editing is like the self-editing of the memories that will not let us go. Is it a succession of clues or a crazy quilt of occurrence that resists ready discernment? In some ways, it’s like a pulping of the phenomena of the oddities case-studied by Dr. Oliver Sacks. And the dialogue is necessary banality itself: “I like your scarf.” “I like you so much.” “We should take a trip.” And Carruth’s throb and thrum of a score ennobles the proceedings: it is a warm and stately gloom. Upstream Color is daunting tapestry, the sort that unfurls only in memory or in heated contestation and conversation. To turn to the nether end of Joyce’s dream salad of an epic novel and its closing line, “A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” Mr. Carruth acts, wrote, operated, shot, directed, co-produced, co-edited, composed the music and is self-distributing. A way a lone a last a loved, indeed.

2 Responses to “Sundance Review: Upstream Color”

  1. David says:

    Do you mean “Walden” by Thoreau?

  2. Ray Pride says:

    Erp. My personal nostalgia is for copyeditors. Thank you kindly.

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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