The three best films I’ve seen so far this year (Spring Breakers, To the Wonder, and Upstream Color) all strive to exist as pure cinema, expressions so heavily dependent on the interplay of sound and image for their emotional effect that it is impossible to imagine their survival in any medium other than film. This places them in direct opposition to the other great film I saw this year, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, which—while undoubtedly cinematic—could easily be conceived as a thoroughly effective short story. The term frequently applied to films like Spring Breakers and Upstream Color (and even To the Wonder) is Malickian, or Malicky, or some derivation thereof. Sure, all these films rely more heavily on emotional than narrative logic a la The Tree of Life, but Spring Breakers is more heavily indebted to Michael Mann, Upstream Color to Cronenberg and Resnais.
Upstream Color is a genuinely beguiling film. On the surface, the plot is relatively straightforward, but the details serve (perhaps unnecessarily) to complicate things. This creates a unique effect. At the same time that you’re being seduced by the sublimely edited sequences, these details nag at you, making you question whether or not the whole enterprise is bullshit. On a thematic level this works, as the characters are being forced to reconsider their identities, the narratives they’ve constructed for themselves. This is Carruth’s primary focus, the frailty of our identities and the degree to which they are shaped by other people and the relationships in our lives.
The growth Carruth has shown as a filmmaker since Primer is astonishing. The direction in that film was not without the occasional flourish, but it was primarily functional, existing in service of the script. Seldom a moment passed that wasn’t driven by dialogue. Conversely, Upstream Color is driven by its direction—the sounds and images and the emotions they convey, and the way they relate to other sounds and images via montage. Large swaths of time flow by with nary a word spoken. The script sometimes gets in the way, serving as the source of the cognitive dissonance described above.
Carruth didn’t doubt the intelligence of his audience in Primer, but in Upstream Color he places a remarkable amount of faith in our visual literacy. Like a painter or a poet, he takes for granted his audience’s ability to piece together a meaning without the artist connecting the dots. It’s not unique so much for what he does as how he does it. Elliptical plots are nothing new, we can point again to Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, but Kiarostami gives us text to build upon, Carruth assumes the foundation is already there. Rather than a puzzle box like Primer demanding to be solved, Upstream Color is content to wash over you, trusting that if the plot eludes you the feelings won’t. And in art, the feelings are what’s important, are they not?