upstream color

Upstream Color, the first film from writer/director/producer/actor/composer/editor/cinematographer Shane Carruth since his debut, Primer, is just as densely plotted as that famously mind-bending feature, but its ambitions extend far beyond that of its precursor. While Primer announced Carruth as a talented polymath, it was essentially a simple morality tale for all its logical intricacy. Upstream Color marks a significant leap forward, using a complex narrative structure not for its own sake, but as a means to explore an extended web of emotional relations. Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) are strangers who meet after suffering intense, mysterious traumas. Kris believes that she is mentally unstable, while Jeff chalks his experience up to substance abuse, but both have fallen victim to a sinister financial scheme involving trance-inducing parasites. As a result of this experience, Kris and Jeff’s lives are intertwined with those of two pigs whose experiences mirror their own. The pair strikes up an immediate connection, bonded by the damage they can’t understand. To say much more would be unwise; the film’s final third spirals beyond the generic constraints of romance or science fiction into realms rarely touched upon by cinema, or art in general, exploring the invisible communities that bind people to each other, as well as the non-human organisms they coexist with. Carruth’s formal style has few comparable neighbors in cinema; it’s closest cousins are in music (the circular editing patterns and repeated fragments of speech recall Phillip Glass’ minimalist compositions), literature (Walden plays a key role in the story, and Carruth has a writer’s gift for stimulating narrative inference), and even science (some of the film’s most beautiful images are microphotographic snapshots of growth and decay, “close-ups” in an eerily biological sense). For all its narrative and thematic density, Upstream Color is an incredibly warm and inviting film. Don’t worry too much about trying to lock all the narrative pieces in place, just sit back and appreciate the emotional ecology. The wildlife – trauma, intimacy, grief, trust, and community – is familiar for all its exotic stripes.

Equally ambitious in its own way, but perhaps less successful, is People’s Park, the latest in the slowly expanding body of films that unfold in a single take. While past examples such as Russian Ark have involved a built-in wow factor due to their meticulous choreography of numerous moving parts, Libbie D. Cohen and J.P. Sniadecki’s contribution to the single take genre is all the more audacious for the fact that it is completely unstaged. Over the course of 75 minutes, Cohen and Sniadecki take the camera through the titular park in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, winding in and out of crowds, drinking in the fluidity of public space. As a formal stunt, it’s hugely impressive, using the slow movement of the camera to create an unmoored drift through the environment. The sound design is arguably even more striking than the images, rising and falling on waves of music and crowd noise. For all its pleasures, however, People’s Park seems somewhat lacking as an investigation of its subject. The single take aesthetic forces Cohen and Sniadecki to coast on the placid surface of the park rather than digging deeper into human nooks and crannies. Their approach creates new possibilities for visual exploration – most notably the reactions the camera’s presence receives, which range from eager posing to confused discomfort – but ultimately closes off the subject more than it opens it up. Is this public space really just a friendly utopia where individuals form and detach from groups, crowding and drifting around nuclei of music? We can’t really know for sure, since the camera never stops to join those groups, merely offering them a passing glance. I don’t mean to be too hard on People’s Park, which comes from the same Harvard “Sensory Ethnography Lab” that produced one of the year’s best films, Leviathan. Its gentle pleasures and technical audacity are not to be underestimated, but it remains too conservative as sensation and too complacent as ethnography to achieve success beyond the gimmick of its premise.

Upstream Color screens Thursday March 28th at 9pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Saturday March 30th at 6:15pm at MOMA.

People’s Park screens Thursday March 28th at 6:15pm at MOMA and Saturday March 30th at 6pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.