June 29th, 2013 12:06 AM. My girlfriend and I nestled in for a night on Netflix. This is what happened.
It started with a really ‘clever’ and ‘quirky’ movie called Spork. That didn’t last long. Then we tried Kink, a Canadian TV show about an assortment of really arrogant and obnoxious S&M purveyors. The bumpers took up more time than the fucking interviews. Next. Then we tried that Sushi documentary that every keeps talking about but it was boring as fuck. Then we entered what I call ‘the blur’. This is where you turn off so many movies that are all so similar that they run together. I can’t remember what any of them are called.
After a while, Netflix kind of beats you down and you end up sticking with the least shitty thing. Generally, you want to pick something that’s just bad enough to be fun to make fun of, making it bearable. Most movies are far below that, but finally, I found one. Here’s what I wrote right after it ended:
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead. If you don’t want to read a detailed plot synopsis of Upstream Color, skip the indented text.]
Ok, hold on. It’s 5:28 AM, I just watched a movie, and I need to write about it. I literally just finished it and I have to try to get this out while it’s still fresh. Okay, there are these little kids playing some kind of patty cake game. A black kid with glasses and another kid. Then there’s this guy and he’s collecting these little grubs from the soil in his backyard. He looks at them under a microscope and puts them in mason jars. Then he goes into the bathroom and gets some pills and replaces the powder inside with the grubs. Then he takes the pills to a bar nightclub kind of place and we see an attractive woman. Then we see her being dragged outside in the rain by the grub guy and he does some kind of stomach pump on her and the grub comes out of her. She gets up and stumbles around a little in the rain.
The next scene has the woman in an oddly lit room with grub man sitting across from her. She is under hypnosis and he’s giving her commands. She does what he says and the next time we see her it’s light outside and she’s copying down a page out of the book Walden, freehand, and then folding the paper and glue-sticking it into a ring. Her reward for doing this is a sip of water. Then he has her drive to her bank and take out a bunch of money for him. Then she eats a bunch of food while sitting indian style in front of her fridge.
Next we see footage from inside her body and it’s the grubs. I thought the guy pumped them out or something? I know, no idea. So her hands start moving and then we can see the grubs under her skin so naturally she freaks out and starts trying to cut them with a steak knife through her skin.
Then it’s raining again and she’s outside and we hear this loud industrial sound being played through speakers that just keeps repeating. She’s lead into a kind of medical tent and a guy has her drink a bunch of white liquid. Then he attaches a gas hose to a pig’s snout and cuts into the pig. We see that the girl and the pig are connected to each other by a little hose.
Then the girl is on a subway train and a guy starts hitting on her. She gives him her business card and he keeps demanding, sternly, that he “doesn’t need any signage”.
So they get together and I can’t remember some of this part but then there’s a sequence where she keeps talking about a guy named Renny that did something in a pool when she was a kid and the guy gets mad because he says that happened during his childhood. Around this part is also the sequence where there’s this other couple, a guy with a beard and a redhead, and he keeps leaving the house and every time he does the lady says ‘’I love you” and he says some variation of “those are just words”, and leaves. This sequence is all kind of blended together and keeps ramping up to a thing where the main couple starts running around and you see that they own a flashlight and a gun and then it ends with them laying in their bathtub, fully clothed, holding the flashlight out as if they’re in danger.
Throughout all of this we keep going back to the guy who did the pig surgery. There’s a whole scene near the beginning of the second act where he records a bunch of sound effects by like rubbing a thing on a big pipe or dropping rocks along the inside of a sewer drain.
Later, he asks a guy a question about his pigs. Oh wait, this is after going into the pig field and just like putting his hand out to the pigs and letting them get his hand all muddy. But yeah, the guy he asks says something about his pigs and then later he goes home and scoops up a bunch of the baby pigs and puts them in a burlap sack. He goes to a bridge the runs over a river and drops the baby pig bag into the river.
So later, in the river, a bunch of blue stuff comes out of the baby pig bag and it makes these blue flowers. These women carefully walk across the roots of a big tree along the river and dig up the blue flowers, take them back to a shed, and water them. Then we see the grubs coming out of them.
But back to the couple—they’re in a hotel room and the guy explains that he does something for the hotel chains for work, and a perk is that he gets to stay in them for free. She asks why he chooses to stay in the room but instead of answering her we see them in the hotel kitchen, alone together, eating cheeseburgers and drinking wine. He asks her if her burger is good and she says no.
Later, he explains that he doesn’t really work for hotels and that he did some business job but was fired because of something, and gets paid cash to avoid going to jail? She says it was smart he waited so long to tell her. Later on in the film we learn that where he worked was an office building, but it’s been cleaned out.
Then later the girl is swimming in a pool, diving to the bottom and getting these rocks and putting them in a pile at the edge of the pool. The guy comes up and starts reading from Walden. She finishes the quotes. Then the couple drives out to the pig farm and they do a few of the things the other guy did while recording sound effects, like drop a rock along a drainage pipe. Then, the guy goes to a CD store and buys all the CDs by some band. He has his wife listen to them and then they’re in his old office building. The pig farmer guy approaches them and he walks over to a wall and slowly sits on the floor. His motion is intercut with him doing the same thing at the farm, except at the farm the woman has shot him and in the office he’s just sitting there.
She finds a box of information and she and the guy start looking through it. It’s Polaroids of all the people who’ve been brainwashed. The husband and wife (oh yeah, I forgot, they got married because at one point on the street the guy just started saying, “we’re married, I’m marrying you”) send copies of Walden and the info page and polaroid to each brainwashed person and they all show up wearing suits and ties to the pig farm. The couple then gathers up all the pigs and the flowers in the river are white now, instead of blue. And then it’s later on and the girl has longer hair.
That movie is called Upstream Color, and I’m pretty sure I just wrote out the shooting script verbatim. They say in reviews, and especially in criticism, that you aren’t supposed to recount too much of the plot. But in the case of Upstream Color, it’s the only thing you can do. The movie is not about anything. It’s just that series of things, happening in not exactly that order, but close enough. There is never one single iota of an attempt to explain how it is that the characters ever know anything about what’s happening or why any of these things are happening in the first place.
This is the description on IMDb:
A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.
There’s this common and very timid and fallacious notion in art that when somebody like me comes along and trashes a movie like this, I “just don’t get it”. The problem is that I do get it. Getting it equals not liking it. In order to like it, you’d have to not get it, because what it is is simply a whole lot of nothing masquerading as ideas.
With a vague description of your work and the ability, in art, to hide behind a cloak of abstraction, you can really do whatever you want. And that’s beautiful—art shouldn’t have rules, and it doesn’t. But it doesn’t make senseless messes with no clarity ‘darling’, ‘interesting’, or any other broad, descriptive word you want to use—it makes them boring.
Watching Upstream Color made me really question why I like David Lynch. What works for me about Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, which at the end of the day have just as little story as movies like this? David Lynch and his filmography is proof positive that abstraction can be fruitful if you at least make the experience fun for your viewer. Eraserhead is not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. But there is a very effective tone created by the lighting, composition, soundtrack, and performances. When Henry goes to Mary’s for dinner, you feel like you’re in that house and you’re on his side. The dad is funny and Jack Nance plays a wonderful straight man. You even get a sense of the comment the movie might be making about the future of an industrialized society. It’s faint, but there’s a biting satire in the presentation.
Is David Lynch arbitrary at times? Sure. Masturbatory? Of course—but what great artist isn’t? Are all of his movies good? Of course not—but who’s are? The point remains that you can at least see the ideas. Lynch gives you enough to latch onto. And his greatest victory perhaps is that you aren’t busy asking why or how. In Eraserhead, for example, you kind of just accept that their baby is a deformed mutant. It’s not gimmicky—it’s just what’s happening. In movies like Upstream Color and Cube and whatever, you’re constantly asking “But wait, why? How?” This is because the characters are so thin and their motivations are so unclear and the story so incoherent that you expect to be given answers. When you aren’t, the pretentious viewer assumes brilliance. (Just look at how reaching this review is.) I’d rather call it what it is: thin, underdone, shallow garbage.
Upstream Color is an assault on the viewer, and not in that good, fashionable way that asshole filmmakers think is so cool. It’s just a bunch of footage slapped together. It might have well been edited by a blender.
I wasn’t that surprised to find out it’s the much-awaited sophomore effort by the dude who made Primer—a movie hobbled together from 16mm film the director carved out of scrap lumber. (I stole that joke from Mr. Show.) Primer is famous for being made for $7,000 dollars and still being shot on film and only that. It’s just another overcomplicated, ‘clever’, confuse-fest where characters speak knowingly about time travel and shit. It’s no wonder that given more resources the dude would make this thing.
But hey, I had fun. It’s interesting to see what’s inside somebody’s head for 90 minutes. Apparently Shane Carruth’s head is filled with a bunch of gobbledegook about grubs and pigs and stuff. It’s not good art, but the idea of it existing is interesting—and that’s what’s truly great about Netflix!
Upstream Color, like so many other movies on Netflix, is simply a bunch of ideas that somebody wrote down and convinced other people to give them millions to make. (According to IMDb, it grossed $415,000. That’s a lot more money than I’ve made in my life.) He or she spent time casting and lighting, storyboarding and slaving over it, and then edited it for months. The simple fact that it exists and that I was able to watch it is amazing. So thank you, Shane. And thank you, Netflix.