Awhile back a friend asked me if The Tree of Life was worth seeing and if they would like it. Having seen the movie and understanding why so many viewers were dismissive of it, I thought carefully about how to respond. My answer, I think, changed their expectations and led them to enjoy the film, where they most likely would not have liked it had they not asked my opinion. I know it seems pretentious of me to think this, but I do think expectations shape one’s watching experience. So what was it that I said, you wonder? Well, The Tree of Life shouldn’t be watched the same way one watches a normal movie. To me, The Tree of Life was more an experience than a viewing. If one were to experience what is happening in the film, I think the movie is more impactful than trying to understand exactly what is taking place. In many ways I feel this works best for Upstream Color.
In 2004, Primer was screened at Sundance, instantly generating buzz for the film and it’s creator. This sci-fi mindwarp is the brainchild of Shane Carruth, a renaissance-man-of-sorts who also produced, directed, edited, scored, and starred in the film. Carruth must be good with budgeting money as well, as the film was made for only $7000. Since then, many of been awaiting his next move and what exactly it would entail, and nearly ten years later we have the answer- Upstream Color. Whereas Primer had more of a plot (whether you fully understand it is an entirely different matter), Upstream Color relies more on inference, visual storytelling, and an amazing score. And while I didn’t fully understand every aspect of the story, it was the experience of the film that makes Upstream Color so enjoyable. In fact, much of this film reminded me of Terrance Malick’s recent films. Just like Malick’s use of individual visual moments interspersed with scenes of expository details, this film relies heavily on sound, visuals, and editing along with moments of dialogue to portray an experience. This isn’t to say that there is no plot; far from it. Instead it’s story (and how one may interpret it) is told more abstractly.
Upstream Color’s plot could be summed up in one sentence: the journey of a man and woman who struggle to readjust after being kidnapped and hypnotized with a parasite harvested from a flower. And yet the film is so much more complex- paralleling man and the animal inside him, how experiences shape us, how relationships create shared memories, and the inherit struggle to survive. It’s almost the total opposite of the cerebral film, Primer, and instead is a very small, personal film. It’s a film that yields new observations and understanding with each subsequent viewing, and yet retains a simplicity as well. That’s not to say that all the answers will be revealed after one viewing (I had to consult the internet to answer a couple questions), but with a film so beautifully done, you won’t mind watching it again. I can honestly say that it was the most unique movie experience I’ve ever encountered. I was in awe throughout the whole film, having never quite experienced a movie like it. The performances are natural and understated. The cinematography is beautifully poetic. The sound design and score are excellent. The whole film is wonderfully executed, leaving me to anticipate Carruth’s next film even more than the last. Overall, Upstream Color is a excellent example of an experimental film done right, and one I will experience again and again.
(This site was valuable at answering some of the questions I had after watching the film the first time.)