FilmJuice have my review of Seth Carruth’s art house SF film Upstream Color, which came out this week on DVD and Blu-ray. I loved the film but it also made me intensely aware of the limitations of certain styles of cinematic storytelling.
At the heart of Upstream Color is a very conventional relationship movie: Two fragile people struggling to overcome life-threatening traumas meet on public transport and immediately recognise themselves in each other. Initially quite tentative, the two fragile people orbit around each other; feeling the attraction but afraid of getting too close lest they get sucked in. When the pair do eventually commit to each other they connect on such a profound level that the lines where one person stops and another person begins begin to blur. Whose memories are these? Whose emotions are these? Am I me? Are you me? Told in a way that emphasises visual storytelling over verbal exposition, Upstream Color looks and feels very much like the type of film that European art house cinema has been churning out for the last fifty years. World cinema is a very different cinematic tradition to that of Hollywood but the techniques and themes favoured by that tradition mean that Carruth can quite easily pick up their tools and tell yet another story about alienated people undergoing the ambivalent process of change associated with love and the construction of a couple’s subjectivity. This cinematic vocabulary is a mature system and Carruth is a talented-enough director to use those tools to tell a really effective if ultimately unchallenging relationship story. However, Upstream Color is a lot more besides…
Halfway through watching the film, I pointed out on Twitter that Upstream Color felt a lot like someone using an iPad to make scrambled eggs. What I meant by this was that while the core story was really quite mundane and unadventurous, Carruth tells his story using one of the richest and most complex metaphorical infrastructures in recent cinematic history. Yes, this film is all about empathy and Carruth uses an explicitly Science Fictional device to explore how empathy can open us up to good as well as bad experiences, Carruth’s device is actually a lot more complex than a traditional relationship drama would require. Indeed, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer trod similar ground by making Buffy temporarily telepathic, Carruth cracks the egg of human relationships with the genre equivalent of a sledgehammer. A worm that, when consumed, puts people in state of such psychological vulnerability that someone can effectively clean out their bank account, destroy their life and order them to forget the whole thing. Even more conceptually lavish, Carruth explores the life-cycle of these worms and how, once removed from a human host, they allow people who understand the technology to ‘check in’ and watch the people that were once infected. Frankly, there are enough ideas and story-hooks in these worms to support and entire film festival but Carruth only really begins to exploit the thematic potential of his device at the end of the film:
Aware that his genre tropes can probably handle a lot more than a simple relationship story, Carruth devotes the final act to pushing the limits of his metaphorical infrastructure and so we are treated to an absolutely beautiful sequence in which the life-cycle of the worms is revealed and a further sequence in which Jeff and Kris confront their shared trauma and tentatively begin edging towards a less isolated way of living. Carruth handles both of these expansions quite well but the combination of oblique storytelling techniques and limited space means that much of their thematic and dramatic potential must remain untapped. Indeed, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life spends over two hours wrestling with ideas far less substantial than the ones that Carruth rushes through in less than ten minutes!
In an age when both art house and mainstream directors are making films based on tired and insubstantial ideas, it is both refreshing and slightly overwhelming to encounter a film that could easily have been a trilogy or a series. Upstream Color is not just an incredibly beautiful and well-told story, it is a film so full of ideas and thematic resonances that it is almost too frustrating to watch. Sitting through Upstream Color I was struck by the extent to which art house cinematic techniques struggle to convey new types of information. Watch enough art house films about alienated people trying to get their lives back on track and those techniques are incredibly effective at conveying mood and theme but ask those techniques to explore the psychic fallout of discovering that you are only one of hundreds of people who have been secretly observed by shadowy figures and those techniques begin to struggle. Upstream Color could have been about the NSA and Google dismantling privacy, it could have been about post-traumatic stress or it could have been about the psychic fallout from being involved in a mass event like a terrorist atrocity or a religious cult. It could have been about any of these things and yet the film ended too soon.