I haven't forgotten what American Players Theatre actor Jonathan Smoots said about Harold Pinter. At a talkback after a performance of Old Times, Smoots remarked, "In Pinter, there are no ding-dong moments." What he meant is that the playwright doesn't introduce his characters conventionally - by, for example, having other characters greet them at the door (ding-dong!).
There likewise are no ding-dong moments in the enigmatic, rewarding drama Upstream Color. What we know about the characters we learn from elliptical asides and jaggedly edited sequences. That's disorienting.
Also disorienting: the disturbing opening scenes, in which a man takes control of a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) by making her swallow a tiny worm. Then he commands her to drain her house of its equity.
Also disorienting: the sequence that follows, in which a sound-effects technician (Andrew Sensenig) sets up a public-address system in a field somewhere, then somehow uses it in the process of transferring worms from Kris' body into that of a pig.
Also disorienting: everything else, including the romance that develops between Kris and Jeff, a man she meets while riding public transportation. He seems to have gone through a similarly wormy experience. Jeff is played by Shane Carruth, who also wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited and scored the film.
Upstream Color has been called science fiction, but fantasy could be more accurate. There's not much concrete suggestion of stalwart science fiction themes like space and advanced technology.
Still, the film certainly recalls memorable science fiction movies. Invasion of the Body Snatchers likewise is about parasitic organisms. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is likewise about people who are drawn together after having mysterious experiences. So sure, let's stipulate that Upstream Color is science fiction.
Because there is also Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film I kept thinking of as I watched Upstream Color. Like 2001, The Tree of Life and the recent Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Upstream Color is unconventional and deliberately mystifying.
What I like about both 2001 and Upstream Color is that they solve an old problem of science fiction films: Too often, they are dumb and simplistic compared to written science fiction. So rather than explaining too much about extraordinary happenings, the two films don't explain enough. The result is mystery, poetry. An important difference is that Kubrick arrived at mystery and poetry via a major-studio budget. Upstream Color is triumphantly indie.
Kubrick's mystical message resonated when his film was released in 1968, during the Age of Aquarius. Upstream Color arrives in the wake of the Great Recession. It's telling that a crucial plot point has to do with a real estate rip-off.