Published on December 17th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant0
I was introduced to the talent of engineer turned writer/director/actor Shane Carruth in 2004 through his little seen first film, Primer, which also happens to be one of the best time travel movies ever made. It introduced Carruth as a renegade of sorts, eschewing things like easy-to-follow plot and dialogue in favour of deeper philosophical notions, in essence, asking the audience to keep up with the movie, rather than pandering to their ideas of structure and story. Primer was a revelatory success of filmmaking, which he didn’t follow up until this year’s Upstream Color. But would Primer prove to be a fluke? A guy with a degree in math writing about time travel in an interesting way that just happened to break through? Or would Carruth further establish a steely voice and make his second film another event for cinephiles? I’d say, he’s accomplished the latter.
Upstream Color is another film with science fiction-y leanings, featuring a fairly abstract story about a woman that is kidnapped and subjected to brainwashing by being infected by a wormlike organism. Later, she meets a man that is just as broken as her, and they take solace in each other, at least, until it becomes apparent that their identities are not as concrete as they had assumed. You could almost call it an existentialist horror film. Amy Seimetz (from The Killing and Family Tree) plays the woman, Kris, and Carruth himself plays Jeff, her lover. Seimetz is especially well cast, radiating the aura of a woman putting up a tough façade, like the rough, chain smoking skid chicks you knew in high school. She plays it so well that the film doesn’t have to delve into much more exposition than what we see unfold at the start; we can read the damage on her face.
And in fact, this type of economy is what makes Upstream Color a filmmaker’s movie. It revels in its visual nature — it’s practically a silent film. There is some dialogue, though much of it is buried in the audio mix. By the way, I’m not sure if the movie is big enough to catch Oscar notice, but it could easily be nominated in the sound categories; they are integral to the storytelling here. In fact, there is even a sound recording element to the story and a character called ‘The Sampler’ who utilizes field recordings.
As for the visuals, and the story itself, they’re an abstract collage of scenes with Malick-esque shots and editing. Carruth uses this abstractness to play with your understanding of how a story is told. In the wrong hands, this would be a train wreck and a pretentious piece of shit. And I’m not going to pretend I fully understood the whole thing, but it made me ask story questions, so I was always engaged and wanting to know where he was taking us as he lead us by the hand, gape-mouthed through this strange world. But that’s sort of the point of the movie, for both the characters and the audience — how the film makes you feel comes first. Understanding what you’ve just seen and where you’ve been comes second.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden appears again and again in the film, adding a lot of intertextual elements. Walden tells the story of Thoreau’s time spent living in a cabin outside of society. It’s about self-reliance, something that Kris struggles to find, yet she’s first tethered to the parasite invading her body, then later, to Jeff himself. It’s also about the illusion of progress, another theme in Walden; Kris is desperate to move and change and grow (and buy a car before they get married), but even as the world turns and changes, the organisms in this relationship (worm, human, pig, flower) do what they will within their natural habitats, as they probably have for thousands of years. Progress is elusive, but nature is everything (and of course, animals, seasons, and nature are the biggest recurring motifs in Walden).
A few critics have disparaged the so-called meaning of the movie, saying that the story itself is pointless, but I’d disagree. In fact, what questions could be bigger than the ones raised by Upstream Color? It’s a tale that informs us about the cycles of our past, present, and future as beings in the universe. It’s about our identities and the idea of hope and contentment in our lives. It’s about the patterns we’re forced to obey, both by nature and by non-natural elements, and whether or not it’s possible for us to break out of these endless phases. It’s not just wanking for the sake of wanking.
It’s a melancholy film, and it feels a little bit cold and bookish at times, but overall, the tone soaks into your bones. It’s probably too abstract for most multiplexers, but if you’re okay with that, then it will return you to another era in film, where it was more about visuals telling a story, rather than being carpet bombed by CGI and smashed about the face with on-the-nose ‘meaning’ that leaves nothing to interpretation. I’m not dissing the blockbuster, by any means, (and the last Transformers movie actually probably makes less sense than the abstract ramblings of Upstream Color), but it’s nice to know that there are still films out there that can affect us with simple elements. And as Thoreau said of simplicity in Walden, “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”