The Senses of Cinema

Upstream Color
(USA, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seitz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, piglets.
I have no idea what the heck Upstream Colour is “about”, but I found it absolutely thrilling. Coherence and definability seem to be the motives of least concern in this densely cerebral film by director/writer/producer/actor/cinematographer/editor/composer Shane Carruth. Upstream Colour lies somewhere between a romance, a noir, a thriller, a sci-fi, and a Sundance hipster film, and it’s all of them and none of them at the same time. Upstream Colour might be the most unique film in some time for cinephiles who think they’ve seen it all. Upstream Colour is most certainly an experimental film, as it’s a long-form abstraction with some semblance of a narrative that holds it all together. Upstream Colour is a film “experience” if there ever was one.

Upstream Colour’s ability to defy classification might be its downfall, as this highly academic film might enjoy the same boatload of sematic nitpicking that keeps intellectuals in their ivory towers guarded from saying anything concrete. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as overhyped and overpraised as its much-ballyhooed cousin Spring Breakers is, as Upstream Colour offers something new and seems to have something to say. Even if one can’t pinpoint what exactly the film is saying, it’s impossible to deny that Carruth has delivered one of the most smartly and splendidly crafted films of the year. (Although I would never argue with people who say they don’t “like” it.) The strange, elliptical style of Upstream Colour plays like a night terror from which one wakes up with the sweats and only a fleeting sense of the images that seemed horrific. 
Upstream Colour might be appreciated best if one goes in with absolutely no objective towards aligning its intricate and arbitrary storyline. The whole film seems to be floating without gravity. Bopping it further into film geek cultural-intellectual hyperspace are some cute little piglets that will have you scratching the hair on your chinny-chin-chin for most of the film’s ninety-six minutes and long after.

The film seems more like an elaborate exercise in the senses of cinema. The abstract character of Upstream Colour puts one in a state of hyperawareness. Gorgeously shot and scored—Upstream Colour has one of the best contemporary soundtracks I’ve heard in a film—the story of Upstream Colour seems to lie in the sensations it provokes. The visuals are outstanding; the sound is hypnotic. Your brain is on full alert throughout the confounding sense-making game, but there comes a point at which it all seems to blend into some sort of audio-visual tapestry that overwhelms a viewer, much like staring at a painting on a wall for an unknown length of time.

The film seems to come together in its final act, or it at least has a sense of climax or culmination as it flies of the rails. The code of the lovers’ mystery reveals itself in the words of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. A tale of transcendence and spiritual discovery, Walden is like a template for Upstream Colour. It concerns an escape to nature and a re-examination of the self in society. The commune in Upstream Colour—either the interconnected humans or the piglets that run through the mud in their pen—seems like an ideal form of community where people are good and live in harmony. I’ll admit that I’ve had greater moments of transcendental clarity whilst sipping a cup of David Lynch coffee, but Upstream Colour is quite an eye-opening mind-bender. The enthralling techno-beat that accentuates the carefree tempo of the piglets seems oddly futuristic, though, as if mankind can’t bring home the bacon in the present-day (ish) story world in which the film begins.

Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s play on Scientology in The Master, Upstream Colour’s enthralling transcendental vibe makes little sense once the credits roll. It’s one of those films that one wants to debate and decipher, and the act of decoding is the better reward. The sights and sounds of Upstream Colour open our minds to ideas and possibilities.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)  

Upstream Colour is currently playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
It will be available for streaming and on VOD on May 7.