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Sundance Film Festival 2013: Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Michael Polish’s Big Sur

Vivid, striking, and methodical in its approach, Upstream Color’s visual aesthetic is both provocative and beautiful.

Sundance Film Festival 2013: Upstream Color and Big Sur

With his 2004 debut, Primer, Shane Carruth challenged the long-held conventions of the sci-fi genre, taking the traditional time-travel narrative and twisting it into a dense examination of human relationships. With Upstream Color, Carruth once again offers up an imaginative but deeply disorienting film that he himself has admitted is virtually “impossible to spoil.”

From beginning to end the viewer is bombarded with a series of bizarre images, beginning with a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), being kidnapped and forced to ingest a maggot that subjects her to a sort of mind control. Forced to perform strange tasks and undergo a transplant surgery with a pig (seriously), she’s finally compelled to give up her entire life savings to a mysterious man, who later leaves her battered and bloody on the side of a road. Over a year after the ordeal she attempts to regain control of her life, a traumatized shell of her former self. A chance meeting on a train with a man named Jeff (played by Carruth) leads both to realize that they may be connected in a strange, possibly otherworldly conspiracy. Nothing makes sense.

Carruth gives himself permission to confuse, though, due to the sheer ambition of the work. Vivid, striking, and methodical in its approach, the film’s visual aesthetic is both provocative and beautiful. Shots of the natural juxtaposed with the unnatural play an especially strong role in the movie: A scene in a pig corral employs extreme close-ups of animals, soil, and plant life, as the mystery man uses strange mechanical tools to operate on Kris and a piglet. Later, a mysterious, artificial-looking blue powder bleeds into a river bed, swirling across the screen in a manner that echoes the swirling mix of bodily fluids during Kris’s surgery. Edited together with frenetic energy, the movie’s almost scientific imagery begins to take on greater symbolism and meaning than its vague yet intriguing plot.

As Kris and Jess get to know each other and begin an investigation into the possibilities of others who’ve undergone similar ordeals, snippets of dialogue are repeated with slightly different inflections, while their separate flashbacks to childhood memories seem to meld into one. If anything at all can be gleaned from the movie’s visual abstractions, it might be that Carruth is more interested in the relationship between memory and imagery than he is in plot. And if one really wanted to reach, one might say that the movie is about the catharsis of shared experience, but even by its last moments it remains so vague that it could be said that it really isn’t about anything at all.

Joining the influx of films turning a nostalgic lens onto the icons of the Beat generation is Big Sur, director Michael Polish’s lush adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel of the same name. The film works in fascinating contrast to recent Beat movies, most significantly fellow Sundance entry Kill Your Darlings, which chronicles the Columbia University days of Kerouac and his contemporaries. Whereas Kill Your Darlings captures the genesis of a movement, Big Sur vividly captures its decline.

Struggling with the pressure of fame in the wake of his On the Road success, a severely alcoholic, middle-aged Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) takes three retreats to a remote cabin on the California coast, where he grapples with writer’s block and depression. Longing for inspiration, but unable to reconcile his past creative and physical vitality with his present deterioration, he enters into a deep haze of liquor and self-pity, half-heartedly pursuing Billie (Kate Bosworth), the mistress of his best friend, Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas).

For a majority of the film, we watch Kerouac stagger through lavishly filmed scenery, sharing cigarettes and whiskey bottles with famous literary friends like Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards). Very little is revealed of these supporting players, who function as indistinct sketches that flit in and out of Kerouac’s world, never making much impact, highlighting the writer’s alienation and detachment from everything around him, including the literary movement that defined his career.

Kerouac is as inscrutable to the viewer as he is to those around him, as Barr turns in an enigmatic and reserved performance. With minimal on-screen dialogue, the only glimpses we get into his psyche are through a series of voiceovers: jazzy readings of Kerouac’s poetry and prose played against scenic views of the Pacific Ocean. Polish, whose past films include the haunting For Lovers Only, creates a melancholy, dream-like reality that relies heavily on grand vistas and an atmospheric score by the National. Mimicking the disjointed cadences of the novel that inspired it, the film is less a character study than it is a meditative portrait of artistic ennui. While at times this more contemplative approach puts the film in danger of becoming a study in navel-gazing, Polish manages to pull back by shooting the film with a simplicity that works to underscore rather than overwhelm Kerouac’s state of mind. A delicate, exquisite-looking film, Big Sur is a brief, glittering portrait of an artist.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17—27.

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