dir: Shane Carruth (USA, 2013)
Now playing at the Music Box Theatre is Upstream Color, the second feature film from the enormously talented multi-hyphenate Shane Carruth (writer-director-actor-composer-editor, etc.), and a masterpiece that I urge everyone to see on the big screen as soon as possible. Primer, Carruth’s inventive, complex, mind-bending low-fi/sci-fi debut from 2004, has garnered a huge cult following over the past decade and is widely referred to as the most “realistic” time-travel movie ever made. But I think Upstream Color, the long-awaited follow-up (which Carruth self-financed and is now audaciously self-distributing), is even better. It is just as bold in terms of ideas and narrative structure as Primer but it is also far more accomplished cinematically — fragmented close-ups, a super-shallow depth-of-field, zig-zagging editing rhythms and a use of heightened natural sounds all combine into an intoxicating stew where other masters of image and sound as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Terrence Malick are all valid reference points. I was originally scheduled to interview Carruth by phone yesterday but this was canceled at the last minute when his L.A. press junket ran behind schedule. So I’ve taken my notes and interview questions and converted them into this review.
The plot of Upstream Color concerns a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who works in digital animation, being kidnapped and drugged by a con-artist (Thiago Martins) who forces her to ingest a parasitic worm through a gas-mask-like apparatus. This allows the “Thief” — as the character is referred to in the credits — to use mind control to deplete both Kris’ bank account and her identity. Sometime later, she meets and embarks on a romance with Jeff (Carruth), a disgraced former financial broker who may have been subject to a similarly traumatic experience. Meanwhile, Kris also meets a pig farmer/sound recordist (Andrew Sensenig) — referred to in the credits as “The Sampler” — who performs surgery on her to remove the worm, which he then implants into one of his own pigs. As Kris and Jeff’s relationship evolves across a chronologically scrambled timeline, they discover that they have shared (false?) memories of the same childhood experiences and that they are just two of many damaged souls whose lives have been manipulated by the Thief and/or the Sampler. But Upstream Color is ultimately not a story-driven movie. It is a remarkably singular and wholly entrancing sensory experience in which the narrative elements serve as a starting point for Carruth to explore themes of love, loss, identity, consciousness and rebirth. I have no reservations about calling it American filmmaking at its most original and ambitious; or, to put it another way, this is the movie that I wanted The Tree of Life to be.
I recently came across an interview with Stanley Kubrick (to whom Carruth has been favorably compared by more than a few critics), in which he said that he was never sure if story was the most important thing in a movie or if story was what allowed him to do all of the other things he really wanted to do. Carruth’s sympathies would seem to fall squarely on the latter end of Kubrick’s equation, as his exploitation of genre elements functions primarily as a fascinating pretext for him to explore various themes and ideas. Primer may outwardly appear to be a science-fiction head-scratcher but it is really more “about” the themes of ethics, friendship and betrayal that could ultimately be explored in any genre. My perspective on Upstream Color is that it starts off as an intellectual horror movie and then slowly and surprisingly transitions into a touching love story (though I fully admit that this perception might change upon further viewings). The opening of the film and all of the scenes with the Thief controlling Kris are disturbing to me personally because I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than the idea of losing control of one’s own mind. But, after Kris meets Jeff, a kind of rebirth occurs for both characters, which leads to an ending that I feel is almost transcendental in its sense of uplift. Upstream Color is ultimately a much more emotional film than Primer (and may therefore be more accessible to general audiences), in large part because of the phenomenal, highly emotional lead performance of Amy Seimetz, for which Carruth’s debut has no equivalent.
Upstream Color‘s most puzzling aspect, and the one most likely to send casual viewers heading for the exits mid-screening, is the subplot involving the Sampler. At first, I viewed this character as a kind of benevolent doppelganger to the Thief on the basis that he had removed the worm from Kris’ body. But the more scenes we see taking place on the farm, the more it seems like the Sampler is also controlling Kris’ and Jeff’s actions through the pigs — voodoo-doll style — since the animals have been implanted with parasites that were once inside of their human counterparts. The Sampler’s ambiguous, God-like status is increased by the fact that he is an artist — not only because he’s a musician and sound recordist but also because he’s a kind of puppetmaster to the main characters. (Is he meant to represent a film director?) In one of the film’s most enigmatic yet beautiful sequences, the Sampler throws a burlap sack full of dead piglets into a river. Their bodies decompose, eventually causing the color of the orchids on the riverbank nearby to change from white to blue. This scene is where the title of the movie comes from and may have in turn been inspired by a lyric from a White Stripes song (“You took a white orchid and turned it blue”). But the idea of rebirth is prominent in the film figuratively as well: Jeff and Kris forge a new collective identity, indeed become new people, when they become a couple and get married. As a happily married man of five years, I can relate.
The idea of giving birth to a new identity is also reflected in the film’s many references to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the ultimate declaration of independence. Whether or not Carruth consciously thinks of his own fiercely independent status as an artist as something that links him to Thoreau, Upstream Color is a film I definitely plan on showing towards the end of future Film History classes as an example of a true independent movie production. A lot of young people today think of independent films only as Hollywood calling cards and don’t understand why someone would consciously choose to make a movie outside of the studio system, especially if that person had the chance to work for a studio and make a lot of money as a director-for-hire (an option Carruth has resisted). Upstream Color is a film that maximizes its independent status by expressing things in a way that could never in a million years be expressed in a Hollywood studio film. Carruth clearly views the act of independent filmmaking as taking the political stance that it is, which is reflected in his decision to not only make but distribute his movie himself. This gives him final say over every aspect of how Upstream Color is advertised and disseminated and points the way towards a new business model in which the studio hierarchy may be less relevant in the future. Even though I’ve already seen a screener of it for free, I’ll be going to the Music Box to see Upstream Color again on Sunday. This is partly because I feel it demands a second viewing but also because, in our corporate climate, where one casts a “vote” with every consumer dollar spent, I’d like to use my money to say “More like this, please.”
You can view the trailer for Upstream Color on YouTube below: