Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Reader, it will do neither of us any good if I pretend here that I have anything approaching a definitive understanding of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. It’s a deliberate, persistent befuddlement, the work of a puzzlemaster carefully, solemnly revealing each and every piece without once letting us glimpse the overall design. Characters speak as if in a trance, if they speak at all. Images, full of carefully obscured import slowly pile up into a collection of textures of sound and image, color and emotion. It’s as intriguing as it is irritating. Carruth’s first film, the similarly complicated and elusive Primer, made for a mere $7,000 and meeting some acclaim upon release in 2004 before becoming something of a modern cult classic, is a sci-fi time travel film of pretzeling timelines told with simple staging and cold strings of jargon that exert a push and pull of mystery and confusion. I find it invigorating. With Upstream Color, however, I felt no pull, only push.

None of that is to say this film is particularly punishing or unspeakably incomprehensible. The narrative makes some sort of intuitive sense, even as the edits, each and every cut, appear to line up more with mood and music than narrative coherence. The first movement of the plot – for that’s what it feels like, less of a conventional narrative arc, but rather swirling movements of story and emotion – starts when a young, professional woman (Amy Seimetz) is cornered in a dark alley. Her attacker (Thiago Martins) pumps wriggling worms down her throat, creatures that must have some effect since she’s left a shell of herself, intently following her attacker’s confounding, hypnotic orders to solve puzzles, write Walden on paper chains, and sip ice water. This quietly terrifying section summons up great mystery and great expectations.

The next movement, which occurs after further complications I have skipped over in the effort to avoid springing all of the film’s puzzling developments, finds Seimetz, in a performance of powerfully rattled normalcy, some time after the attack. She seems to have no recollection of what has happened to her. On the train she meets a man (Carruth himself) and feels drawn to him. He’s drawn to her as well. They strike up a hesitant courtship, drawn into each other’s worlds with a romantic connection tinged with conspiratorial sparks unacknowledged. Did the hypnotic man with the worms attack him too? Their scenes together are intercut with the routine of a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who, as a hobby, takes a large microphone out into the woods and records interesting sounds to later speed up, slow down, and play on large speakers he places face down in a field for some inscrutable reason.

There are images and sensations in Upstream Color that I’ll not soon forget. I’ll remember the woman lying on a bed, her limbs wriggling like the worms that are, well, worming around inside her. I’ll remember the man and the woman telling stories of their childhoods in a montage that slowly blends their stories into one intimate, mildly hostile jumble. I’ll remember a burlap bag of piglets floating away. I’ll remember the man with the microphone solemnly looking out over the pigsty, watching the animals interact with each other. I’ll remember the couple huddled fully clothed in a dry bathtub, terrified that something – or maybe, worse yet, nothing – is out to get them.

But while all that memorable and intriguing material is all well and good, by the time the film arrives at its climactic scene of rapturous reunion (of a sort) I found myself unsatisfied. This incredibly simple plot in event and feeling is told with maximum obfuscation and artful complexity, but that’s largely for the sake of hiding its thinness for as long as possible. If the film merely continued on as a kind of dream, a trance of hypnotic imagery continually sliding past complete cohesion in perpetuity, it’d be better off. Alas, as a film it must eventually end and in drawing to a close, its conclusion reveals the whole enterprise to be nothing more than a mood, the wavelength upon which I could never quite get. Carruth is an exceptionally promising director. I’m glad he’s out there experimenting with structure, even if, to my mind, it doesn’t pay off nearly as well here as it did in Primer. I can only hope we don’t have to wait nearly a decade for his next film.

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