Walden pondering: Upstream Color ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2013)

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You know all those Weekly World News-type stories about people allegedly kidnapped by aliens, who perform horrible experiments on their hapless captives before returning them to their original upright position behind the wheel of their car, now mysteriously relocated in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Iowa? While they may have vague recollections regarding anal probes and such, these folks are generally a bit fuzzy on details. In Upstream Color, writer-director-actor Shane Carruth may be offering an explanation. At least that’s one explanation that I can offer for this fuzzy cipher.

To say this film is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Huh?!” may be more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is jumped in an alley, tasered and then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (all I know is that it appears to be in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state.

Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna (I believe the original working title of this film was When Ethnobotanists Attack!) As he methodically cleans out her financial assets over a period of several days (with her “willing” cooperation) while encamped at her house, he next directs her to commit passages of Thoreau’s writings to memory (it was either that or waterboarding).

What happens next is…well, what happens next is, erm…OK we’ll just say it’s the creepy, fuzzily recollected part involving anal probes and such. All I know is that it takes place at a pig farm and fuzzily reminded me of that really creepy part of O Lucky Man! where Malcolm McDowell inadvertently stumbles into a top secret government medical research lab, where he’s tortured and then the next thing he knows he’s coming to on a gurney next to some poor wretched creature that appears to be half man and half sheep.

Anyhoo, the next thing the woman knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked alongside some cornfield off the interstate, and spends the rest of the movie slowly retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. Oh, and along the way she meets and falls in love with this sullen dude (played by Carruth) who may have had the same exact experience! Wild and woolly metaphysical/transcendentalist hi-jinks ensue.

While I will give Carruth some points for originality (the closest I can come to a tagline for this one is A Man and a Woman meets Eraserhead) and find it admirable that he is making such an earnest effort to be compared to Andrei Tartovsky, unfortunately he’s falling short, just this side of a glorified Twilight Zone episode.

This seems to be the latest entry in a burgeoning sub-genre that I have dubbed “emo sci-fi” (alongside the likes of Another Earth and Safety Not Guaranteed). That being said, if you are predisposed toward such challenging fare, I wouldn’t dissuade you from checking it out. And don’t feel bad if you don’t “get it” the first time you see it. I didn’t get it the second time I saw it, either.

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