Shane Carruth’s sophomore feature film finds him on his on-going mission, begun with Primer, to elicit widespread audience bafflement. I found his first picture’s narrative complexity enticing, frustrating, head scratching and ultimately distancing. And so Upstream Color, with its fractured meditation on identity and connection, is fascinating, elusive and ultimately distancing. It is perhaps ironic that a film exploring such themes refuses to bridge the gap and meets its audience halfway. Carruth, even when making a film about who it is we are (or think we are), constructs it as an appeal to the mind rather than the heart and the emotions.
This appears to be an essential ingredient of the puzzles he creates, however. Carruth’s pictures immediately inhabit an exclusive niche that encourages in depth analysis and theorising (and which can bring out the worst in people; those who adore his films may succumb to a tendency to dismiss those who don’t as unwashed ignoramuses, while those left cold may ascribe it the knee jerk label of pretentious bollocks). Such devotion is well and good, provided the undertaking reaps benefits in one’s appreciation of the film. With Primer (despite being immensely impressed one level) I found the vague, indistinct protagonists an added challenge on top of a densely clinical script; the lo-fi environment and performances ensured an impenetrable remove from the material. It seemed that Carruth was doing his darnedest to make life difficult, no doubt reasoning that once his audience arrived at answers their satisfaction would be all-the-greater. Performance isn’t such issue with Upstream Color, although Carruth isn’t the most engaging of actors (he needs a weak spot though, as his multi-hyphenate writer-director-composer-actor status is slightly sickening). The “plot” maybe isn’t that impenetrable, but Carruth’s storytelling manner (be it through framing, pacing or intercutting) is so intentionally diffuse that it may seem more disconnected than it is.
Carruth’s on record saying he doesn’t care for plot synopses, which may explain why Upstream Color’s premise is woefully inadequate even when you’ve seen the film; “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives”. Carruth treats the life cycle of his organism with the same earnestness and diligence as his take on time travel in Primer. But just as I’m a little less impressed with some of that film’s ideas in retrospect, knowing that he also advised on the flawed logic that drove Looper, so the process he creates here never seems remotely plausible. Indeed, it may be even less so for the matter-of-fact manner with which it is rendered. Since the governing principles of the organism lack believability, one assumes we are being asked to look through to the possible metaphors that lie behind. Carruth has offered clues, some of which are self-evident, some of which are less so. The challenge lies in threading together a consistent thematic content, as I’m unsure how rigorously Carruth himself has developed it (and to get him to admit it would be nigh on impossible). We are left defining them in only their broadest sense.
I’ll provide at least a partial synopsis, for all the good it will do. Kris (Amy Seimetz, who is very good) is drugged and robbed by a character credited only as the Thief (Thiago Martins). Left in a posthypnotic state, and infected with a worm, she finds herself at the farm of another oblique character, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig). He transfuses the worm into a pig, and Kris is left with no memory of these events. A year later Jeff (Carruth) engages with her on a train journey; she is resistant, but it is clear that there is some sort of heightened connection between the two. Jeff has encountered not dissimilar hardships (he also bears physical signs of the treatment Kris received from the Sampler) and their mutually inclusive relationship develops to the point where they are sharing each other’s memories, unclear whose is whose. All the while, a psychic link to their respective pigs on the farm is maintained. It appears that their emotional states affect their human counterparts. And it is evident that the Sampler is using this connection to vicariously eavesdrop on the experiences of the “sampled”.
As suggested, the cycle relies on some very unlikely principles to succeed, such that it would be pointless to try and figure out how those involved realised the cause-and-effect in the first place. When the infected pigs give birth, the Sampler drowns the piglets in a sack. A substance escapes from the decomposing piglets that causes blue flowers to grow, which the Thief purchases. The larvae found on these flowers can be used to drug a victim or larvae extract can be used to provide a telepathic “high”. Once infected by the Thief, humans visit the farm and the cycle repeats itself (they are attracted by the infrasonic messages the Sampler sends the worms).
Carruth has “helpfully” commented that his inspiration came from ideas of identity; what it constitutes, how much our actions come from our core being and how much from rote behaviour. So he places his protagonists in a situation where they have no memory of their former selves and sees how they fare. It may be that he intends the encounters with the Thief and the Sampler to represent traumatic life experiences that affect our sense of self. The Thief might be any addiction (he achieves his aims through encouraging repetitive behaviour in his victims, leaves them virtually destitute and unable to function in the world). The Sampler may represent an apparent “healing” that merely plasters over the wound, without understanding the broader picture (at least, this is how I interpret the visit to the doctor, where Kris – who believes she is expecting, mirroring her pig’s actual pregnancy – is told that she had cancer and that she cannot conceive). Or perhaps these individuals can be interpreted as the greater, cumulative, forces within society, operating with no conscious awareness of each other but succeeding in perpetuating a malaise of somnambulance that afflicts each one of us. The drain on Kris and Jeff needn’t be an addiction; it could be as mundane as a binding mortgage, or as pervasive as an unquestioning belief system.
The director has stressed that the “antagonists” are not aware of each other, and it cannot be coincidence that the theme of interconnectedness finds “resolution” when the now self-aware protagonists end the cycle of parasitical interdependence. They appear to progress from replacing one dependency with another (their relationship) to a deeper understanding of their place in the macrocosm. Or do they? Carruth refers to Kris’s action as a “sort of horrifying ending” since she “shoots” the wrong guy (whatever else we are to conclude regarding the Sampler’s specific culpability). Perhaps there is a symbolic positivity in that Kris and her fellow sampled “take responsibility” for their past actions/behaviours (as personified in the pigs). Perhaps they have found only a partial answer, as they are now unable to recognise the part “the Thief” played in their reaching this place (so their final status may be akin to assuming another false doctrine or learnt behaviour one that prevents true perception and catharsis).
A swathe of reviewers instantly compared Upstream Color to Terrence Malick’s work. I can’t say I really see the connection, except in the most superficial terms. Sure, there’s a gauzy dreamlike feel to scenes and interactions and maybe To the Wonder is closer in its abstraction to Color than most Malick. But we always remain on the exterior of Carruth’s world looking in, no matter how intimate his envisioning becomes. We cannot do otherwise, because his narrative play is all about concealment and the assemblage of missing pieces. As such there’s an absence of Malick’s attempts to explore the universal. Carruth looks at what we mistake for meaning; Malick uses his characters to contemplate meaning.
But as to the superficial qualities, there is definitely a visual lustre that compares. Among the scenes of decomposing porkers and unpleasant self-harming, Carruth (as DP) has manifested something striking and haunting. His images and edgy-yet-ambient score cohere to create an immediately encompassing world. It doesn’t seem like a lived-in world (something it shares with the austere Primer) but this suits the heightened states of Kris and Jeff.
And, if I’m not wholly sold on his vision, I can’t deny the uniqueness of what Carruth has created. From the beginning, he ushers us towards the stylised and inexplicable. The Thief explains to Kris that he was born with a disfigurement, such that his head is made of the same material as the Sun. As a result, it is impossible to look directly at him. Imposing ideas and images accumulate throughout, and their singular qualities balance the impatience that greets Carruth’s refusal to be drawn on their meaning. The Sampler, with his strange musical clarion call to his future sampled, appears unseen to his victims, observing their experiences. There’s an almost Lynchian quality to this, but without the imminent horror mustered by Jimmy Stewart from Mars. Then there’s the merging of memories, as Kris and Jeff claim each other’s past, and Kris’s stone-gathering in a swimming pool, leading to their recall of the book passages used by the Thief indoctrinated his victims.
My nagging doubt is that Carruth’s elliptical conjuring is an elaborate sleight of hand, and that it doesn’t warrant untold hours exposing its secrets. Of course, that is for the beholder to decide. Perhaps my resistance to poring over Primer, and now this, is a sign of laziness. Perhaps it’s a symptom of my identity controlling me. Or maybe it’s me controlling my identity. While I may revisit the picture, I feel no urgency to dot every “I” and cross every “T” of its potential meaning, any more than Carruth feels compelled to explain himself. We tend to know pretty much straight away when we love a movie. And among those are the ones that fuel endless fascination and rediscovery. On much rarer occasions, appreciation for a picture we initially dismissed can develop, as we become aware of its hidden depths or merits. For now, I’m content to draw a line under Upstream Color.