Friday, May 17, 2013

Upstream Color & Kieslowski’s Blue

Shane Carruth’s fantastic Upstream Color is a film that all but demands cogitation. After watching it, one can’t help thinking about it, and the great thing is that it not only holds up to scrutiny but rewards those willing to give it further consideration. Carruth constructed the movie with the precision of a Swiss watch (as he did with his first feature Primer) while at the same time using a suggestive and oblique storytelling style that does not provide fast answers. This combination makes for a very pleasurable viewing experience. Concepts and themes, meaning and import are all initially elusive, but we sense the order behind everything and are confident that the more we think about the film, the more little bits of it will suddenly make sense, like a blurry picture racking into focus. The insights we get from these moments of clarity feel strikingly personal, like we’ve made our own private discoveries, which endear us to the movie even more.

Much has been written about Upstream Color since its screening at Sundance this year. Plot summaries, guides, and analyses have all been part of an audience reaction that feels participatory and of a piece with Carruth’s DIY approach to both the making and marketing of his movie. (A couple good write-ups are here and here.) With a film that fosters so much legitimately interesting conversation, it’s only natural to want to put in one’s two cents, so this is my attempt to add to the discussion.

At a certain point after my first viewing of UC, I somehow got it in my mind that it had a lot of similarities to the film Blue, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski. Following that train of thought, I came up with what seemed like interesting connections, enough to try to write about. It’s really just an excuse to talk out some of my thoughts about UC, while also directing more attention to what I think is my favorite Kieslowski feature film. (I prefer it over the excellent Double Life of Véronique and also Red, which a lot of people choose as the best Kieslowski, but if we’re including the entire Decalogue as one work then I think it’s pretty clear that that tops everything.)

Also, it’ll probably be necessary for you to have seen both movies because I’m not really going to describe what happens in each one and will probably refer to scenes or plot points in a shorthandish sort of way. So, here we go, starting with:

1) The Protagonist

While it may have made more sense to start with point 2, the thing that really began to connect the two films for me was Amy Seimetz. This was the first time I’d seen her and I thought her performance greatly contributed to UC’s power and resonance. Her role required someone who could demonstrate vulnerability but also a determination and resolve that should feel almost primal, something that feels innate instead of acted. It’s hard to think of many other American actresses in Seimetz’s age group that can pull off something like that, and so it was easier to think of a younger Juliette Binoche. They seem to share many traits. Both are preternatural beauties with high cheekbones, stylishly cropped hair, and soulful chestnut eyes (while completely lacking the cold supermodelish quality of a lot of other actresses). Besides zygomatics, they share the quality of being utterly watchable, even—or rather, especially—when they aren’t doing anything onscreen. That they both project intelligence is indisputable, but this intelligence seems augmented by something akin to an immemorial wisdom. (They are both what you’d call “old souls.”) There are a lot of actors who are compelling when they feel or emote; Binoche and Seimetz are compelling when they are just sitting there thinking. It’s as if in their quiescence they are revealing something intrinsic about being human that we’ve forgotten, some prelapsarian knowledge that would benefit us greatly were we to possess it. You feel like you might actually learn something about yourself, watching them in their silence.

From that connection it was easy to think of Blue. It’s interesting to think of the arc of Binoche’s character (“Julie”) in Blue and how it parallels the story of Seimetz’s character (“Kris”) in UC. Both suffer a traumatic event early and spend the rest of the movie trying to recover from it. In Blue, Julie loses her husband and daughter in a car crash; in UC, Kris suffers the complete decimation of self and is left little more than a husk of a person without a job or money. They both struggle to find some way to reinvent themselves as they attempt to move on with their lives, but for the bulk of both movies they are thwarted in their endeavors.

Kris can’t get over a nagging feeling of connection to a pig harboring a parasitic worm extracted from her body. In Blue, it seems that everything around Julie is conspiring to remind her of the accident she so desperately wants to forget and put behind her. (Her husband was a widely regarded composer who was in the middle of working on an important symphonic piece for “the unification of Europe.” Lots of people understandably want to see this piece completed. (It is revealed later that Julie is the one who actually wrote her husband’s compositions, and so she is subject to an inner turmoil that wouldn’t have existed had she not been the true author.))

Both movies introduce a love interest who has some connection to the protagonist’s traumatic event: It’s pretty clear early on that Carruth’s character went through the same thing as Kris, and Julie is pursued by the former assistant of her late husband. (It’s interesting that neither Kris nor Julie have close friends to help them through their ordeals, as would typically be the case. Neither movie addresses this curious absence of friends, though there are enough suggestions that point to possible explanations (they both seem to have been pretty wedded to their work, for example).)

There are also small intriguing echoes in what happens to both characters. They both purposely injure their right hand at some point—Julie by running it against a stone wall, Kris by putting it through a glass window. Both hear sounds and music that no one else around them hears. Both “give birth” to surrogate/metaphoric children in animal form, which are subsequently killed (Kris: pigs, Julie: mice). (There’s probably a more literal connection between protagonist and newborns in Upstream Color, whereas in Blue (and other movies), Kieslowski made ample use of metaphor.)

Both characters are also drawn to pools. It is there where they seem most affected by previous events (Kris retrieves bits of stone from the bottom of the pool and recites Walden; Julie hears the music most strongly while swimming). It’s as if the water facilitates the connection between character and previous events, and the pool itself seems like an incubator for each movie’s themes, waiting for the protagonist to return to it for further exploration.

2) The Color Blue

This one is a no-brainer. The color blue features prominently in Upstream Color, and every occurrence seems tied to the mysterious substance that allows for the mind-connection or symbiosis that occurs in the movie. The dead pig babies emit plumes of blue material, which turns the nearby flowers blue, then blue powder precipitate forms on these plants, and this somehow gets into the worms, giving them blue vein-like streaks. The characters are unconsciously drawn to the color blue, with Carruth’s character picking out everything blue in a snack tray at a bar, and Kris’s new workplace has streaks of blue in it.

Kieslowski’s Blue is also filled with a ton of blue (obviously). There are blue clothes, blue folders, blue lollipops, and blue pen markings. Julie experiences visible bursts of blue without warning (out of the blue, even). In Kieslowski’s film, blue seems to symbolize the past, something that she can’t escape (and maybe doesn’t even want to: after moving out of the house that holds too many painful associations for her to stay, she decorates her new apartment with a blue chandelier that was originally in her daughter’s room). In Upstream Color, blue seems to be an important part of an ongoing chain, alluding to the movie’s themes of fate and choice. (Kieslowski said that Blue was about the concept of liberty, and the film clearly explores the notions of freedom and imprisonment albeit in an emotional sense rather than a physical one.)

Some have astutely noted that in Upstream Color there is an eventual shift to the color yellow, possibly as a way of symbolizing the characters escape from the “blue” chain of fate (which adds a healthy dose of irony to the fact that they end up painting the bars of the pigs’ enclosure yellow). There is a color shift in Blue as well, but its counterpuntal color is green, which shows up in places like Julie’s new apartment. It definitely represents something in direct opposition to what blue represents, though blue predictably remains the film’s dominant color. (Julie eventually completes the “unification” composition and addresses all the loose ends of the life she had wanted to abandon.)

3) The Filmmaking

Both Carruth and Kieslowski employ similar techniques to tell their stories. Both films start in a clipped way, with a series of contextless, “uninflected” images (as Mamet would call them) and it is up to the viewer to make sense of them. The movies also end in similar fashion, with an extended dialogueless montage set to soaring music.

And then there’s the ubiquitous shallow depth of field. Carruth takes it to an extreme, as I believe every single shot in Upstream Color is done with a long lens. There are parts in Blue that appear to use a wider lens, but there are plenty of shots that have just a sliver of focus.

Both movies are designed to be somewhat ambiguous and they both encourage individual interpretation. They are also more rewarding with subsequent viewings. Next time you want to give one or the other a re-watch, think about making it a double-feature with both of these excellent, subtly affined movies in tandem.


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