Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
April 11, 2013
* (out of four)
Forgiving critics and moviegoers often call films without articulate points or well-defined characters "poems." This usually affixes to work by Terrence Malick and will surely be a tag for the frustrating, hollow “Upstream Color,” Shane Carruth's follow-up to 2004's “Primer”--a no-budget sci-fi chat fest that felt like the “SNL” girl at the party you wish you didn't start a conversation with … if she minored in physics and wanted to time travel.
Here's the thing: Poems have meaning. Poets use their form deliberately, and even abstract work takes purpose to matter. A movie without depth or story isn’t automatically “a poem,” and a movie is not a painting either. A painter’s creativity may explode from him/her, but movies aren't so spontaneous. Even a gush of complex imagination on the page still must be rendered meticulously on screen.
In bits and pieces, “Upstream Color” documents:
>>A man (Andrew Sensenig) on a farm as he looks at pigs
>> A woman (Amy Seimetz) who appears to be kidnapped and is hooked up to a machine next to the aforementioned animals as if she's about to be part of a human centi-pig
>> The woman's later relationship with a douchey guy (Carruth), which contains no legitimate development between them or recognition of what happened to her before
>> Tiny snippets of another couple who say things like, “I want today to be peaceful” and, “Those are just words; they don't fix anything.”
This is not profound; it’s empty blather posing as tentpoles for insight.
Characters repeatedly hold or quote Henry David Thoreau's “Walden,” an inherently lazy reference point. In one ridiculous exchange, the primary couple confuses stories from their childhood, as if they don't know what happened to whom, even though they haven't shared much of anything with each other.
Carruth fundamentally refuses to employ content or structure that would illuminate whatever he thinks he's trying to say and doesn’t come close to pairing narrative and approach the way, say, Paul Thomas Anderson does with the spectacular, appropriately confounding “The Master.” Coherence is not your enemy, buddy, and you and your movies are why some people hate independent cinema.
“Upstream Color” is a pretentious movie oppressively engineered to baffle—if anyone thinks they can explain what I’m missing, go right ahead—even though Carruth hardly seems to know what’s there to get.
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