Wondrous, dense and utterly abstruse, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is the sort of film that surrenders more on a second viewing. Or third, or eighth. Yet, it still doesn’t surrender everything. If anything it asks surrender of the viewer. To watch Upstream Color is to accept incongruity, embrace esotericism and really to roll with what is on offer. Oddly, this is a good thing. A really good thing. “You can force your story’s shape but the color always blooms upstream.” Two watches in, and that statement is no closer to making an iota of sense, but that is okay. Mysticism is the order in Upstream Color.
Carruth really did force his story’s shape, in more ways than one. For the film he is credited as director, writer, cinematographer, editor, actor and yes, composer too. Upstream Color’s failings and successes rest firmly on his slight shoulders, but judging purely from the confidence displayed in the film, and the commitment made to get it out, he is more than comfortable to carry them. Arriving 9
years after his low-budgeted, high-minded time travel thriller Primer, Upstream Color was always to going to be met with what must have been an intimidating level of anticipation for the multi-talented auteur. Following one of the biggest independent successes of the decade, Carruth had to offer something bigger and better, and more importantly different than Primer. Upstream Color is not only that, it is different than any just about other film out there.
After Primer’s outlandish success, Mr. Carruth was tipped for big studio productions. As interesting it might have been to see a Carruth
fronted Alien sequel for instance, it is best, for author and audience, that he stuck the course with his own projects, as he is very much someone who needs the creative freedoms his method of self-distribution allows. With the independent approach, Carruth gets to do what he wants, not what a studio requires of him.Pigs, Walden and seeming incomprehensibility might not have landed too well with Mr. Harvey Weinstein.
Hopefully, he makes some money, as 9 years without output must have come at some cost to both his pocket and sanity. Upstream Color, despite its eccentricities and its inaccessibility, looks like it may perform, taking $31k in a single theatre on its New York City opening. If there was ever a time for Carruth to succeed, it is probably now, with no shortages of self-financing and self-distribution success stories. The film itself isn’t exactly audience friendly though. Moving evocatively through a series of events and images, largely coded in meaning, towards a finale that is as enigmatic as all before it. Upstream Color is a blend of so many things, mostly a sci-fi thriller with a heavy romantic element, but also part tone poem, part body-horror, part philosophical pontification, a hybrid in the truest sense of the word.
To summarise the plot, though not to make sense of it, some individuals have a parasitic worm put inside of them. For one of them, Kris (Amy Seimetz), this happens through a man, The Thief (Thiago Martins,) who sedates and kidnaps hers, installs the worm into her, and uses it to control her mind, and defraud her. Kris is seen to have the worm removed by a different man, The Sampler (Andrew Sensnig,) who then puts the worm into a pig, and the puts the pig into a pen with other pigs, who hold the worms of the other persons who were once worm-hosts. Kris returns to society, but is now devoid of everything that defined her as a member of it, her job, memories and house.
Kris then meets Jeff (Shane Carruth,) who has been displayed to also be an ex-worm-host. Though unknowing of what they share, they
are drawn to each other, not quite knowingly, but not entirely unconsciously either. “I’m going to go where you go,” says Jeff. “I feel like you know,” replies Kris. Due to their shared experience, they seem to share motivations, wants and feelings and act upon these
things rather than logic, but struggle with things more concrete. At times they seem unable to differentiate between past and present,
self and other, and after a point they cannot even distinguish between their separate memories. They share a past trauma and a parasitic presence, and as a result, they share a history.
As confusing as of this is, to rely and to watch, something about it works. The film isn’t the sum of its narrative’s parts, Carruth even says even that it is impossible to spoil. On the surface a fairly nonsensical piece of silly science-fiction, with a lot of coded meaning running murkily underneath, in actuality a lot more. Instead, like a select few films, it exists as an experience, a work of film that could only be imagined as to exist in the cinematic format. Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, David Gordon Green’s George Washington, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Without passing any judgement of quality over any of those films, Carruth’s included, can it not be said that they could exist only on film?
It works largely because of the films emotive, largely wordless rhythm, running in cycles and waves, it contains some of the best use of montage in recent years. Fantastic editing and flowing camera work links things together, as well as pulls them apart. One gliding hand cuts to another, a splash in the water, a pig snuffling in the mud, a hand punching through glass. Snippets of dialogue and action, repeated and altered, images and ideas thrown out for the viewer’s absorption or rejection. Rocks sliding down pipelines, underwater flowers, passages from Walden. Fragments of memories created and deconstructed, drawn out and .colours, shapes and sounds, laid out, looped and blended together. All bundled under that pulsing, effective score. The style comes together as one complete synesthetic construct, wrapping the film with a hypnotic aura.
If that paragraph didn’t make it clear, much of the value to be had with Upstream Color relies on the viewer’s acceptance. Acceptance of abstraction, acceptance of discordance. Some films require the viewer to roll with it, take it on their own terms and receive what is being offered, not what the viewer demands. Upstream Color is what you make of it. Not in a lazy way though. Not in a the director couldn’t think of how to write his story, and felt that empty ambiguity and loose symbolic would be easier than hard meaning and direct writing way, but in a natural way. The film is carefully constructed, images, directions, dialogues and moments do mean things, but the value is in the individual emotional response, and in the individual reading.
Taking one clue as an example, Walden, a Henry David Thoreau novel about returning to nature and living simply in the woods, features heavily, quoted from and pointed at often. Walden was added in after Carruth and co. noticed similarities in their script with Henry David Thoreau’s work, apparently. Walden is about living life in the simplest sense, stripping back the complications and compromises that belonging to conventional civilisation demands, and living a life of core values and core needs, achieving a greater freedom as a result. Without divulging specifics, Upstream Color’s ending is about achieving a greater freedom, about escaping certain restraints and breaking certain cycles. For the viewer willing to work with it, not against it, Upstream Color has rewards to offer.
In the period between Primer and Upstream Color, of which details released were a minimum, there was talk of a project named A Topiary. How far along it got, and what became of it, is currently unclear, as are details of Carruth’s next enterprise. Perhaps A Topiary buckled under the weight of its own ideas, or pretensions, depending on your viewpoint of Carruth’s work, or perhaps it just wasn’t to be. Wherever it went, there will be plenty looking out for it, or anything that Carruth decides to put out next. Hopefully there won’t be another near decade wait. Upstream Color is not being so rapturously and excitedly talked about because it is a blank canvas, but because it contains content that values engagement and response. It’s a frustrating puzzle that may prove impossible to solve, but if the complex timeline charts produced by fans of Primer are anything to go by, people will be willing to give it a good crack.