Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Shane Carruth's UPSTREAM COLOR

(A commission to interview Shane Carruth on his new film Upstream Color fell through earlier this week, leaving me with some useless research and words. In other words, the perfect thing for my blog: shit other people don't want! Upstream Color is now available online via iAmaGPlay, but see it in theaters if you can.)

“But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard.”      —from Walden, Chapter IV “Sounds”
"They could be starlings." Kris and Jeff of Upstream Color.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a one-of-a-kind wonder. Modest in means but opulent in delivery, it’s a transcendental blend of science fiction, thriller and romance in the best possible ways. On the surface, the film is about Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young woman who at the beginning of the film suffers a psychological trauma with economic and physical consequences. As if someone hit the reset button on her life without her agreement, Kris starts over and in the aftermath fosters a connection with Jeff (Carruth) who seems to have had a similar experience. Parallel to Kris and Jeff’s developing attachment, the narrative explores the organic agents of cause-and-effect in their relationship: the harvest of psychotropic worms, the transference of DNA from human to pigs, and the spontaneous growth of an exotic flower on the banks of a river. If that sounds elusive, it’s because Upstream Color’s unique development is best experienced without a preconceived notion of plot.

But I already feel like I’ve said too much. Regardless of what you read before seeing Upstream Color, the web of ellipsis and referential sparks will allow for myriad discoveries. Fans of Carruth’s debut feature, Primer, will understand the enthusiasm. Primer, a surprise Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, generated a fervent following (check your interwebs) for similar reasons. An indie sci-fi mindbender, Primer was made on a well-documented shoestring that challenges its audiences to intellectually meet it halfway. Those who were willing to do so no doubt found inspiration in its wickedly smart DIY aesthetics—those of Carruth’s filmmaking as well as those of the characters’ who engineer time travel in their garage. But where Primer is a cerebral puzzle locked to left-brain mechanics, Upstream Color forges a far more intuitive path. Although structured on a scientific framework of entanglement, the narrative implies that within the symbiosis of physics is something quite spiritual. The requirement for audiences of Upstream Color is to emotionally meet it halfway.

Free and trapped: the pigs of Upstream Color.
Upstream Color premiered at Sundance earlier this year largely under a cloud of well-controlled secrecy. It had been nine years since Primer, and while the rumor mills and news feeds were churning with Carruth’s activities (including helping Rian Johnson with effects on Looper) there seemed to be nothing in the hopper for finished material. As if stuck in one of his own Primeresque time loops, Carruth fell silent in the years that followed his award winning film. But instead of wiling away his time in hotel rooms and libraries like the characters in his film, he was running the Hollywood treadmill trying to finance his next project, the now fabled and likely shelved A Topiary. When the verbal support—including Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher signing on as producers—failed to produce monetary support, Carruth went the other way and built his film from the ground up, much like Primer but far more refined in almost every aspect.

If Upstream appeared seemingly out of nowhere, it was because it was a production so far outside of the Hollywood system, it failed to exist within normal networks. Working as producer, director, writer, composer, cinematographer, editor and actor, Carruth was able to keep the project under wraps until he was ready. When a couple of minute-long teasers arrived online late last year, both fans and the uninitiated were intrigued. Those early glimpses, as well as the eventual full-length trailer, were faithful to the ambiguous, and glorious, mysteries of the film. Carruth has created a multilayered world around Kris and Jeff that is aware of both the macro and the micro of their lives and their relationship. They are connected by an intangible experience (the aforementioned trauma) that they themselves don’t even acknowledge. Their kindred paths create a bond so strong that their individuality starts to blur, but, similarly, their relationship to the world is heightened. When Kris is kept awake at night by a sound, is it because a part of her now flows in the ground water? Does Jeff also hear the resonance of himself there too? Maybe.

An event that speaks with metaphor from Upsteam Color.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden plays a prominent role in the film as a perfunctory tool for mind control, but on closer inspection the book and film share an overall ethos, to the point where you can nearly connect any sentence found in Walden to Upstream Color. Perhaps it’s the underlying transcendental intentions of the film that so easily associate with a text considered a spiritual autobiography. (Here is where I would have asked if Upstream Color was a spiritual autobiography.) There is a shadowy principal character in the film simply referred to in the credits as The Sampler who (among other things) spends his time carefully recording ambient sounds. His obsessive pursuit is none other than recording the language that Thoreau worried that we would forget—a language that is elevated in The Sampler, Kris and Jeff for reasons that are locked inside the enigma of the film.

The film uses an immersive technique of both sight and sound that works emotionally on your subconscious. One of the most striking aspects of the film is the intimacy built not only between the characters, but also within their environment that goes beyond the frame. In a brief, disconnected sequence in the film, an unnamed man keeps replaying a scene with his wife in his head: he is leaving and she is making a sincere attempt reach out. She is going to try harder, and most importantly she loves him. He can’t go back and extend his own openness to her; he leaves; he shuts the door; it’s too late. Even as a minor moment in the film, every ounce of this interaction feels honest. This extends to Kris and Jeff where their convincing amity is constructed with performance, editing and a sound design where every interaction is tethered to the surroundings.

Like Primer did nine years before, Upstream Color will appeal for repeat screenings in order to discover or patch together the answers to its secrets. But defining those answers will be harder than mapping the time sequences in Primer, with many of the emblems of Upstream Color being abstract or obscure. There’s a lot to contemplate, and I’m not entirely sure an analysis can be anything but personal. I left the film thinking about Guinea worms, the relationship that I have been in for over 20 years, economic dependence and corruption, and the life-affirming co-habitation with my dog. Themes and evocations of Upstream Color are scattershot. Revenge, redemption and awakening are all paths Kris travel, but describing the film with those terms is reductive. To go back to Thoreau: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of our residual statement.” Upstream Color works on a visceral level, inciting something that is not easily explained. And maybe it shouldn’t be.

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