Tuesday, August 6, 2013
MIFF Session 11: UPSTREAM COLOR: ? ... !
A man in his thirties examines the plants outside his house and scrapes some strange blue mould off their leaves. It's a fine powder on his palm. He checks the soil and finds the maggots. Playing a hunch he collects a few and separates them into two jars, one marked with a smiley and the other with a dead ... smiley. Meanwhile two boy from his neighbourhood are on to the same thing finding the right maggots and putting them into a tea-like solution. The gardener goes one further by placing maggots into emptied medicinal capsules which he tries to sell like drugs at parties and venues. Failing that he abducts a woman and installs a maggot by force. Done.
Well, not yet.
At this point I should say that I have read more of the imdb entry than usual. I tend to have that open on ly to check names of cast and crew etc but this time couldn't resist browsing through the user reviews. These are useful to comparing notes with other punters and looking for things you've missed. After a few of them showed no better understanding of what I'd seen I just went back to the cast list and immediately found a couple of insights thrown out there. The character I just called the gardener is listed as The Thief and the older guy who runs the pig farm cum audio recording service is called The Sampler. Neither is referred to in the course of the film but that slight bitg of information puts a lot into perspective.
The maggots have peculiar qualities when ingested. The Thief has a kind of hypnotic power over his captive, telling her a lot of weird things about himself to create false memories (eg that his head is made out of the same material as the sun) and to manipulate her eventually into signing her savings and assets over to him. He has harnessed the power of the maggots for personal gain.
The two boys who seem to have become extra-sensory masters from the same stuff are not heard of again but they are probably headed for a few ethical forks in their road to come.
The Sampler walks the countryside recording natural sounds and playing them back on a small midi keyboard. When the abductee finds herself in her car now more cognisant she wanders the nearby fields where The Sampler is stirring the earthworms with subsonic sound pulses, herself drawn by them. She has been in a state that looks like schizophrenia by The Thief including cutting herself to get at the worms under her skin (which at that stage might well just be hallucinations). The Sampler cares for her and rids her of the worms by a kind of transfusion with one of his pigs an-
You see the problem? Things happen here rather than build and while that might well be to a cohesive whole there is no map more discernible than our guessing at the patterns we see for the rest of the well-behaved 96 minutes of screen time. If we want to come at this one patterns are what we must get used to as even a lot of the dialogue is given to patterns rather than exposition. More than once I was reminded of my reception of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. Frequently, I was watching and thinking: really, that's happening? Barney's films were adjunct to sculpture, though, and not presented as narrative cinema as this kind of is.
The second phase (I won't call it an act as it's not about that) is about the relationship that develops between the abductee, Kris, and a man she meets on the train, Jeff. They seem drawn together but not (at first at least) sexually. When they do get naked we see that Jeff has a puncture mark on his ankle suggestive of the transfusion process that happened to Kris. Like her, he has lost his career and is drifting through a lesser job. The pair develop a kind of folie a deux confusing each other's memories for their own, arguing about the type of sound each appears to be imagining, holing themselves up in their bathtub surrounded by tins of food and an axe like survivalists or schizophrenics obsessed by visions of an apocalypse.
We spend a lot of time with them but are kept from empathy by a sense-defying sound image edit that alters locations for what they are doing, seemingly simultaneously (sex is in bed but also at the pig farm), conversations happen in voiceover while the speech in the scene is not played. There is a kind of culmination involving Kris diving in a local public swimming pool for rocks and placing them on the edge with fragmented statements that are eventually revealed to be quotes. Henry David Thoreau's Walden, a classic of American thinking, has already been shown and takes on further weight throughout.
Meanwhile, The Sampler goes about his dual business of pig farming and adventures in audio. While I've missed the development of the audio side his porcine charges and his husbandry of them begins finally to assume some significance as we compare what is happening on the farm with what is happening between Kris and Jeff. But it's all about the maggots.
Ok, no more of that. Upstream Color unrolls as a sci-fi reading of the cycle of nature and an intervention of it through the chemical qualities of the worms and its effects. Best leave it there. With a little time and thought it becomes increasingly easy to assign detailed meaning to the parts and passages of this piece but there is a cutoff where this stops being useful. I kept on coming up with jokes for the subtitle of this review like "Zac and Miri Make a Trip Movie" or "Malick Does Ixland" but the closer I came to relaxing and absorbing its stubborn strangeness those faded.
Shane Carruth has been an indy hero since his mid-noughties lo-fi time travel zinger Primer. Many fans of that are going to feel diddled by this but I am not among them. I can no better explain this film than I can the closing phase of 2001: a Space Odyssey, however many times I've seen it. That doesn't trouble me about the Kubrick film and won't about this. It's taken him a lot longer to do it but instead of being daunted by the difficult second album he's made his second film difficult. Whether it lasts or fades or, if he decides fuck this, what's Adam Sandler's number and this gets lost among more mainstream fare, he has at least done what few ever get to do and made his own film.
Oh, the title has a literal meaning in the movie. Then again you can say the same of Eraserhead. Then again again that's my favourite film ;)