Upstream Color – Thursday, March 29 at Magno Review and Friday, April 5 at the IFC Center. In addition to directing, writing, and producing Upstream Color, Shane Carruth also was director of photography, a camera operator, co-editor, wrote the original score, and one of the lead actors as well. This degree of hands-on control is unusual in feature filmmaking. He pulled similar duty on his debut feature, Primer (2004), a very twisty science-fiction film concerning time travel. Both films are perplexing and demanding, but quite rewarding if you open yourself to them. This is especially true of Upstream Color, which affected me emotionally in ways I don’t yet understand and can’t explain. I was frustrated the first time I saw it, because I couldn’t figure it out and couldn’t see the connections, assuming there were any. It was like watching a feature-length trailer that didn’t want to give anything away. I was ready to write it off as some sort of opaque, arty puzzle without a solution. But I also had the urge to see it again. The film has a haunting quality that’s hard to shake. Something had really engaged me and I wanted to feel again whatever the hell it was I’d just experienced.
At the beginning of Upstream Color we see a man walking through a nursery examining plants, poking in potted soil, then sorting out pale worms and putting them in containers. He later abducts a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), outside a nightclub. We’ve seen her earlier working at a film production job, or possibly it’s advertising. He forces her to ingest one or more of the worms. She’s now totally under his control, following every suggestion and command, performing seemingly meaningless tasks. We watch Kris transcribe passages from Thoreau’s Walden Pond. The man has her sign over large amounts of money to him. We see another man (Andrew Sensenig) who makes odd sound recordings with elaborate equipment, such as the sound a stack of bricks makes when he pushes them over. He also operates a pig farm where he carries out some kind experiments on the pigs. He almost never says a word. He’s called “Sampler” in the end credits, which makes sense when you see it, but this is never mentioned in the film.
We see Sampler outdoors at night with his equipment. He puts large speakers face down on the ground and begins blasting loud thrumming sounds directly into the earth. Earlier Kris awoke in her bed to see worm-shapes moving just under the skin of her arms and legs. Alarmed, she tried to cut them out with a kitchen knife. She now appears in a daze at Sampler’s farm (perhaps somehow drawn by the sound). Sampler puts Kris on a kind of operating table and connects her via tubing to a pig on an adjacent table. He begins to transfer something either from Kris to the pig or from the pig to Kris. Later Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) on a commuter train in an unnamed city. There are intimations Jeff has undergone the same testing as Kris. We see similar marks or scars on their bodies. They begin to fall in love (or something like it). As they get to know each other, their memories begin to overlap. Kris’ recollections become Jeff’s, slightly altered. His memories become hers. They argue about whose memories are whose. There’s a stunning sequence where this plays out in increasingly frenetic rapid-fire dialogue.
There were moments when Upstream Color felt like a horror movie, a monster movie, movies by David Cronenberg and David Lynch, or about alien abduction. It’s none of these things, or maybe a bit of all of them.
Upstream Color gives us fragments of a larger story. It’s up to us to make sense of it. The film is like a dream or memory you’re right on the edge of grasping or understanding, but it’s just out of reach, like something half heard, half remembered. The music creates a sense of expectation, of momentous events about to happen. At no point in the film is there a moment that tells us this is it, where all the strands neatly come together. But Upstream Color is not a Rorschach test; it’s more like a jigsaw puzzle with some missing pieces. I don’t think there are different stories we can come up with here. I think there is one story; we just have to see it. There are very definite signposts, but it’s up to us to fill in the blanks. Of course, we have to use our imaginations to do that, so even if there is only one story, probably no two viewers will see quite the same film.
It was after seeing Upstream Color the second time that connections became clearer, particularly in the last moments. Not that everything makes sense. For example, I don’t know why Walden Pond appears on tables and bookshelves repeatedly in the film. Though maybe if I had ever read Walden Pond, I might have a better idea. I don’t what the deal is with the two young black kids on bicycles at the beginning, or the guy who puts the worms in Kris’ body and steals her money. It occurs to me just now that he may be working for Sampler, recruiting test subjects. It’s okay not to understand everything. The idea that there is more to Upstream Color than I’ve been able to comprehend doesn’t bother me. That’s part of the mystery and beauty of it. I don’t know, I may be way off the mark here. But I wonder when was the last time I was this engaged or moved by a film. And yes, I want to see it again. – Ted Hicks
Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer, is available via Amazon Instant Video and for rental or streaming from Netflix. Upstream Color is currently being distributed by the filmmaker for a limited theatrical release. It will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon on May 7, as well as Instant Video. Also check Netflix for availability after that date.