It seems as though calling a film transcendentalist would be a bit of an oxymoron considering the philosophical movements decided rejection of all things institutional, yet when one considers Shane Carruth's most recent work Upstream Color, one can find few proper terms to describe its unique, cinematic and absolutely mesmerizing quality and considering that it was written, directed, and, more importantly, produced by Carruth therefore allowing to exist about as outside of the institutional elements of filmmaking as possible, much as was the case with this now cult classic sic-fi enigma Primer. If it were not enough alone that the film were outside of the system, as one would put it, thematically it draws upon a push from the absolute heights of technology and indoctrination back towards something in the natural world, almost bestial and intangible. Of course, the film also makes heavy use of Henry David Thoreu's Walden which, undoubtedly, helps my case, although it is not in the "on the nose" pretentious manner that seems far more indicative of a terrible mumblecorp than the absolutely realized and visually haunting Upstream Color. I would comfortably compare this film to the work of Terrence Malick with far less whispering and considerably higher amount of rejection regarding humanity as being inherently good. One could also easily draw some connections to the work of Brian Eno, wherein he takes the most basic of musical elements and extends them to their grandest and most realized potential, finding the ambient enjoyment in minimalism. While Upstream Color certainly uses visual elements in varied and intense manners, it still seems to have an ambient element about it, nonetheless, one that moves through itself and beyond itself, occasionally tapping into the most basic of human desires and experiences, only to make grand statements about the universe moments later. Upstream Color is an early 2013 release and will likely become forgotten by the time awards season rolls around, however, it is such an engaging and challenging cinematic experience that I am convinced that it will do very well come the end of the year when I reflect on my favorite film experiences of the year.
Upstream Color certainly has a narrative, however, much like Primer it is so intertwined, cyclical and non-linear as to make navigating it with any degree of certainty, nearly impossible. What does exist is a series of characters and ideas which seem to result in some identifiable narrative moments. The main character of the narrative appears to be Kris (Amy Seimetz) a graphic designer whose run in with a drug dealer known only as The Thief (Thiago Martins) results in her losing all her assets, and her job, when the drug, created by some hybrid of plant, liquid and insect causes her to be hypnotized into following every order of The Thief. This portion, however, is followed by Kris, now possessing much shorter hair and her attempts to rekindle a relationship with her estranged husband Jeff (Shane Carruth) whose own illicit behavior as an off the books broker for a set of motels leads to a certain degree of paranoia. These interactions, as well as brief other occurences, are monitored by The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) who appears to be an experimental musician with an expressed interest in capturing and altering the noises of nature into ambient, polyphonic musicscapes. However, considering the location of much of The Sampler's work it is also quite possible that he is a pig farmer, who has music as a very secondary hobby. When the traumas of the past and Jeff's own problematic present state lead to a falling out the couple almost split ways, only to decide to give their relationship one more shot, this time with a greater degree of success, although there arises on issue as to their shared understanding of past events, particularly Jeff's assurance that what Kris assumes to be her past is indeed his own. However, their memories seem to collide together in poetic certainty when the two arrive at The Sampler's pig farm and find themselves magnetically drawn to the animals, an act that has a certain degree of connection based on Kris and her previous run-in with The Thief, however, the involvement of other previously unidentified bodies makes the experience both incredibly personal to Kris and seemingly universal to all those involved, including Jeff and The Sampler, and, indirectly, The Thief.
It is the very indistinguishable line between the personal and the universal that seems to draw the narrative ideas of the movie together. It is no accident that the film borrowed heavily from Thoreau's Walden exists in a similar thematic space, although to be fair that is very much the nature of transcendentalism. It first involves a person finding themselves in relation to the institutionalized state they live in, then rejecting it and in the process of rediscovery finding a larger meaning. One of the best moments of this within Walden involves Thoreau innocently looking into a frozen like at the habitat below leading to his own personal identity crisis, followed by a profound reflection on his relationship with a higher entity, in his case God. Upstream Color is not so much oriented towards the higher deity aspect, although Kris and her vision of a sun-headed man, could certainly glean such a response, instead; it seems concerned with a push towards a healthy non-institutionalized way of living. In fact, even the very drugs that exist within the narrative are completely detached from an sort of chemical-pharmeaceutical hands. They appear to come from the earth, eerily manifesting themselves out of nothingness. Interestingly enough, while Kris is going through the process of rejecting all her "earthly possession" as it were, her diet consists solely of water and ice, a veritable cleansing that goes along with her move towards a transcendent lifestyle. One could certainly argue that the tension in her relationship with Jeff is a result of his continued attachment to the institutionalized world, even though his existence is entirely detached on paper. Furthermore, the irony of them moving through hotels is not lost, in so much as not only is it not a home they built on their own, much as Thoreau did, it is further a space that even as it is intended to be a place of safe space and rest is not one of possession. As such they must return to the dirt of the earth for the answers, and Carruth is clever to make it the most disgusting of places, a pigsty, perhaps suggesting that life is eternally attached to the most grotesque and it is in this realization that others can begin to share in the beauty of the world, at least the closing montages suggest such a possibility.
Key Scene: The sun-head scene involving Kris and The Thief is cinematic magic. I am almost scared as to look up how it was done, as it would inevitably spoil some of its awe.
This is a stellar work, it is well worth obtaining on bluray to view once, twice or even three times. I imagine it even exists as a wonderful sort of backdrop when muted.