Friday, June 13, 2014

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

This little piggy

Nine years after debuting on the independent filmmaking landscape with the fast-paced yet near-incomprehensible time-travel thriller Primer, Shane Carruth presents his sophomore effort Upstream Color. The two films couldn't be more alike, couldn't be more different: where Primer is all dialogue, heavily laced with scientific and technological jargon, Upstream (ostensibly about Kris (Amy Seimetz) being infected with a mind-controlling worm, though what it's really about is anybody's guess) sports the bare minimum, mainly extended silences backgrounded by a mysterious thumping; where Primer unfolded in an overexposed fluorescent world of padlocked storage spaces and decrepit apartment units, Upstream is rooted in the wide outdoors--a wilderness of stream and sky, brush and branch, leaf and creeping, crawling life. 

And yet both films show Carruth's iconoclastic sensibility, the first stubbornly made in 16 mm when digital video could have made his life so much easier; the second still produced, funded--and now distributed--outside the Hollywood system. Both make narrative leaps, Primer because its time-traveling protagonists, antagonists, what-have-you are constantly going back to tinker with an progressively more complicated past so they could alter an increasingly undesirable future, Upstream--well, Kris falling in love with Jeff (Carruth) aside, we're still not 100% sure what connects the different threads (Kris and Jeff; The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) and his pig farm; The Thief (Thiago Martins) and his victims; the Husband (Frank Mosley) and Wife (Carolyn King) who quarrel, then are never seen again) and why. Carruth, an engineer turned filmmaker, pays us the ultimate compliment of assuming we can and are willing to follow his deliberately obscure plots even without fully comprehending them; in effect it's not the (almost always disappointing) explanation found at the end that matters, but the constantly dumbfounding ride.

Critics have noted the similarities between this and Terence Malick's Tree of Life (2011). One can see similarities--the wide-eyed regard for nature, the meandering not completely integrated narratives--the same time one notes major differences: Malick's has a broader (you might say cosmic) scope, emphasizing vast landscapes with a wide-angle lens and gliding camera;  Carruth has a nervy editing rhythm (not a fan myself, incidentally) coupled to a keen, occasionally microscopic, focus (some amazing magnified imagery involving microbiological activity, involving corporeal decay), and a sound design that (to my ear anyway) seems superior to Malick's, almost Lynchian in its subterranean reverberations. Carruth on interview denies the connection (though he does profess admiration for the man); I think for once we can believe the interviewee--he not so much channels Malick as he does a writer-philosopher indispensable to the makeup of both filmmakers' artistic DNA.

You can't help but note how often Henry David Thoreau's Walden keeps popping up--as a series of text pages, folded into daisy-chain links (they make you think of the missing links between narratives); as words directly quoted by a semi-delirious Kris; in the guise of worms, a repeated symbol of varied meanings in the book. Some critics have deemed the book a red herring; Caleb Crain in his excellent New Yorker article (The Thoreau Poison) explains how, on the contrary, Thoreau might be key to understanding not just the film, but Carruth himself--his distrust of or need to distance himself from Hollywood, his desire to tell a story on his own terms, his obsession with sounds both natural and manmade.
Thoreau like Malick longed for transcendence; Carruth seems to have similar yearnings, said transcendence in this picture apparently involving greater self-awareness (Jeff and Kris eventually piecing together what happened to them), the passing of the old to make way for the new (the riverside orchids losing their blue coloring--sounds innocuous enough till you realize the implications). Along the way Carruth creates indelible images: Jeff and Kris in a fit of panic, hiding in a bathtub together; a drowned animal gradually rotting away, releasing a blue substance--a blue poison?--into the water (think David Cronenberg on a nature trip with Jan Svankmajer); Jeff and Kris upset that they share a common memory/delighted that they share a common memory; Kris cradling a suckling pig with almost unbearable tenderness. 

You wonder if Thoreau ever achieved transcendence; Malick is still working on his, with increasingly acclaimed (though to my eyes increasingly mixed) results. Carruth has finally come out with his own attempt--on a much smaller budget, hewing more closely (more Thoreau-ly?) to basic principles in his own strictly independent, non-hive-mind-inspired manner. Then again, maybe it's not the ultimate destination that matters but the ride--in which case Carruth's makes for an unforgettably heady trip. 

First published in Businessworld 5.29.14

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