“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.|
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.|
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.|
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.