Upstream Color: Mysterious Shade
Somewhere out there, this joke must already exist: Why did Shane Carruth take nine years to release his second film? He was waiting for people to figure out his first one.
That first film was Primer (2004), a time-travel tone poem whose mundane surfaces hint at, but often hide, exotic strata beneath. Stating its running time as 77 minutes is misleading, considering how many people have felt they needed to watch it again. It begins simply enough. A couple of engineers (with the biblical names Abe and Aaron) stumble across a novel physical effect while tinkering in a garage. At first, they’re friendly collaborators, but, as they scale up their device and explore its uses, they begin to disagree and then to distrust each other. For part of its length, then, Primer resembles a tech-world chronicle—akin to some real company histories—with a garage-made style to match.
That production style remains consistent throughout; its tiny budget mandated shooting on Super 16 with no retakes. Everything is carefully reckoned and sometimes visually memorable, even if the sound could’ve been cleaner and the lighting smoother. But the story, tangled from the outset by an intermittent voiceover narration that seems to speak from a future time, becomes more elliptical as it progresses. The film shows only a part of the full story; figuring out the rest depends on catching clues. Writer-director Carruth has always known exactly how intricate it is. He declared in a 2004 Village Voice interview (village voice), “Two viewings seem to do it, but I can’t say you have to see it twice; that’s so pretentious.” Some fanatical fans have seen it many more times than that, written lengthy exegeses (including an entire book, now out of print and converted to a blog ( primer), and diagrammed the film’s looping timelines (for instance, timelines). Not surprisingly, the proliferating diagrams led to a parody timeline (see lower right at parody).
He made Upstream Color in much the same way, beginning with the circumstances of its production. Having tangoed fruitlessly with Hollywood over another project (A Topiary, now abandoned), Carruth went back to solo mode for this one, doing without film-industry financing, influence, or distribution. By now a skilled practitioner of DIY methods, he again wrote, directed, and acted in the film, along with serving as director of photography and composer. Upstream Color looks and sounds better than Primer, undoubtedly the result of more time and money, but it’s still a pretty small-scale venture. Shooting again took place on Carruth’s home territory, in the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, and as with Primer the film itself is location-independent—it happens someplace, that’s all.
There are also many differences between Carruth’s two films. The easiest thing to say about Primer is that it’s a time-travel story, whereas there seems to be no easy thing to say about Upstream Color, unless it’s to mention the “mind-control pig worms,” as I think one viewer called them, which are more obvious than they are important. Come to think of it, that’s kind of a clue.
Primer isn’t really about time machines or time travel; the story’s reliance on high-efficiency implication (little is seen, much is implied) have simply made it possible for viewers to think so. Figuring out what really happens, which involves multiple versions of the film’s two engineers, is such a challenge that fans have gotten caught up in that. But Primer is really more concerned with the consequences, ranging from the physical to the moral, for anyone who uses one of its time machines.
Likewise, the plot of Upstream Color employs something that, broadly speaking, is technological: a worm that, like some real-world parasites (and many plants), affects the behavior of anyone who ingests it. When it’s forcibly given to a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) near the start of the film, it induces a state of suggestibility that allows the man who forced it on her to empty her bank account. She finds a way to get past the immediate consequences, and she meets a man named Jeff (played by Shane Carruth), to whom the same thing has happened. You can get caught up in trying to make sense of the film’s events, even though, this time around, Carruth is much less elliptical in presenting them: it’s pretty clear what happens. You can also, much more than with Primer, get caught up in the film’s surfaces: the repeating visual and behavioral echoes, the sonic fantasia to which a few minutes are devoted, the rhythms of the editing, the Eno-esque music, and the film’s overall feel, which is suggestive, elusive, and mesmerizing.
But my sense, after seeing Upstream Color once and pondering it for a few days, is that Carruth isn’t really concerned with people, pigs, worms, and orchids. His film is about less concrete matters: suffering at the hands of others, being driven to desperation, achieving a degree of restoration, taking refuge in and with another person, finding oneself partly merging with a loved one, discovering an unlikely replacement for something lost. (That may sound like a recovery memoir, which is probably irrelevant.) This level, one degree abstracted from the visible action, is where the film engages and moves you. Regarded this way, it’s like descriptive music, which isn’t about the musical events per se but instead portrays characters (Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”) or evokes a scene (the storm in Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”).
Or… Upstream Color is about proper versus improper uses of people and the natural world. The character called Thief must be wrong in using the worm for financial gain, and taking advantage of Kris is not a proper use of her. One of the characters is mysteriously named Sampler; though he helps restore Kris to herself after the worm episode, he also perpetuates the life cycle of those worms. How he benefits isn’t clear, but he appears to use people for his own ends, as he uses nature. He finds or creates sounds so he can capture them (that is, sample them), whereas Kris and Jeff do this merely to appreciate them.
Maybe Upstream Color is about one more thing as well. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote that the worm “induces a state of bewildered suggestibility.” This is akin to some of the effects of film in general, though cinematic enchantment is usually something other than bewildering. In any case, Brody’s is an apt description for what Shane Carruth’s new venture does.
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