By Ray Pride
“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” at Sundance 2013. I meant those words as a kind of high praise: the remarkable Seimetz is as central to the film as women in Krzysztof Kieslowski’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 Kieslowskian ambition in its 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.
Openly 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 a fourth-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 its opening lines, “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 a first glance, attempting synopsis is the wrong work to attempt, 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 finds 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 an 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 a leaf; a hand pocketing a vial of hotel shampoo at waist height; a fearful couple retracting into a cluttered bathroom, embracing, clothed, in the bathtub with an oversize wood-axe near to 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 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, there is the vision of her gleaming dimply grin in the foreground 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 phenomena? In some ways, it’s like a pulping of the phenomena of the oddities case-studied by Dr. Oliver Sacks. The bulk of 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, “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.
“Upstream Color” opens Friday at the Music Box. Carruth will appear Saturday, and his first feature, “Primer” will also be showing; this show is sold out. Carruth will also appear at the Friday 5pm screening of “Upstream Color.” A trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.