Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2013

Upstream Color

Animal farm

Shane Carruth's beguiling 'Upstream Color' is another breathtaking and complex experiment

Upstream Color
Director: Shane Carruth
Screenplay: Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig and Thiago Martins
Not Rated / 1 hour, 36 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

A film like Upstream Color can be unusually instructive in regard to the way we interpret cinematic language. And that's only fitting, given that the film is explicitly about (at least in part) how we read, interpret, remember and understand information, images, ideas, moments, sounds.

Among other things, it is about how memory works - and even, for that matter, time (which was also the subject of writer/director Shane Carruth's previous film, 2004's labyrinthine time-travel masterpiece Primer). We see various characters living and re-living the same moments - going through the same motions, saying the same words, with little variations each time. Are they re-living the same moments? Re-remembering them? Reinterpreting them? Are multiple people - or at least multiple organisms - having the same memories, experiencing the same things?

In some cases two people seemingly have identical memories, each convinced it's from his or her own childhood. They argue over whose memory the story belongs to. They get confused, disoriented. They go through moments of compulsive, trance-like behavior. They all seem to know the words of Thoreau's Walden by heart.

In much the same way those characters can get uneasy about the way they're processing their own memories and experiences (or presumed experiences), so, too, have certain viewers complained about Carruth's filmmaking approach. I've heard it described as difficult to decode, or even "impossible" to understand. That reaction baffles me, simply because of how straightforward the narrative actually is - perhaps deceptively so. Not only that but, unlike Primer, it's also mostly linear. There's no doubt Carruth is a nontraditional craftsman, but the sense of bewilderment I've heard on occasion makes me wonder how much conditioning by other movies affects how we're able to (or willing to) read and interpret what we're seeing. I'm not blaming anyone for being confused so much as questioning the degree to which that is determined by what one is used to seeing. After all, every movie teaches you how to watch it, and this one is no exception.

To me, Upstream Color is the epitome of pure and unadulterated storytelling. Carruth trims the fat off his narrative, carefully marrying images and sounds to one another, creating a magnificent visual and aural tapestry that has rightly drawn comparisons to both Steven Soderbergh* (a vocal champion of Carruth's) and Terrence Malick. Nontraditional, maybe - but in no way is it muddled. Certain details and subtleties are meant to remain oblique, but the events of the film, and their implications, are made abundantly, if subtly, clear.

* Carruth has clearly graduated from the Soderbergh Editing Academy. There's one scene of the main character, Kris, waking up in bed that, in its shot selection and close-ups of hands and feet awakening, explicitly calls to mind a similar scene in Soderbergh's Solaris. Not only that, but the score - composed by Carruth himself - is distinctively reminiscent of the work Cliff Martinez and David Holmes have done on Soderbergh's films over the years.

The opening scenes establish the potent mind-altering effects of a rare drug found in exotic orchids and administered through maggots. A small-time crook (Thiago Martins) picks out a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), at a bar one night, tases her, drugs her, and returns her to her home. From then on, she is under something of a brainwashed spell, completing minute tasks and absentmindedly giving the man virtually all of her money. When she finally snaps out of it, she has no memory of the man, but wakes up to find worms crawling underneath her flesh. After unsuccessfully trying to cut them out of her body, a repetitive, hypnotic sound draws her out to the country in the middle of the field, where a man identified only as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) performs an operation somehow transferring the parasitic worms from Kris to a pig. In an astonishingly evocative shot, Kris (shot in close-up) walks slowly and mindlessly back through her home, with the still-life figures of other people peppering the frame behind her, out of focus. The implication is clear: there are others.

Kris meets one of those others, Jeff (Carruth), on a train one day and the two strike up an awkward flirtation, then a romance. It's clear they're being controlled by the same force, and intercut between all their scenes together are a series of scenes at The Sampler's pig farm. We see him closely observing his subjects (identified as "The Sampled" in the closing credits), practically peering into their souls, an earnest, calm, intently focused and serenely sinister look on his face. We see images and sounds created and mixed and matched; we see Kris and Jeff's strange compulsive behavior, their confused shared memories, their ambiguous frustration as they come to realize their lives are somehow not in their control.

The jaw-dropping final 15 minutes feature what may well be, by the time 2013 is all wrapped up, the single best sequence of any movie this year. Crisp, surreal, devastating, thrilling. I can't say enough about the way Carruth weaves his pieces together, from the exceptional sound design to the way he mirrors and combines images and moments from the "sampled" characters in the city and their pig counterparts. In doing so, he's able to approach ideas about agency and memory in ways that are as authentically imaginative and purely cinematic as anything being done these days, by anyone.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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