directed by Shane Carruth
From the moment I became aware of its astounding, inexplicable existence, I vowed to remain ignorant of the Shane Carruth puzzle box, Upstream Color, until I feasted my own two eyes upon it. For years I had been promised adventure (by way of the presumably defunct A Topiary), but it never came. So when news of Upstream Color’s manifestation came to bloom like a flower from dust, I swore to allow nothing to infect my excitement. One sentence did manage to find its way into my consciousness like a kind of pest:
Upstream Color is the story of two people entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.
Don’t ask me where it came from, but it was about 8 months ago, and ever since then it skulked about my mind. With hopes and expectations unreasonably high, knowing full well it would never run at any theatre in Detroit, I quietly waited for its DVD release. But fate smiled upon little old BC, and I’ll be damned if Upstream Color didn’t turn up in a theatre near me! My little heart singing, I sat down in the darkened auditorium (sadly, with only one other intrepid film lover in the room) to await the film I never knew I needed in my life.
Carruth’s style of storytelling and filmmaking is one that demands attention, simultaneously parsing out and withholding segments of narrative that allow you a glimpse at the thing, but only through a crack in the door, and while Primer was intensely cerebral, Upstream Color is viscerally emotional. The film begins with a man harvesting larva that gives two imbibers (you’ll see) the ability to connect on a psychic level. Cut to the same harvester forcibly inserting a larva into the lungs of a woman he’s drugged at a night club (the phenomenal Amy Seimetz). Through a series of Pavlovian nightmares, the harvester manages to bilk Kris (Seimetz) of her life savings. As Kris struggles to make sense of her life, she begins a tense and rattling relationship with Jeff (Carruth), a man struggling to put the fragments of his own life back together. Woven into this tapestry is the haunting and isolated story of a man known only as The Sampler (according to his credit), a sound obsessed pig farmer who acts as a kind of shepherd for the harvester’s victims’ second selves. Lost yet? Even if I don’t mention the gestating larva that, once grown, are culled and transplanted by The Sampler into his sounder of swine- you know what, nevermind. The story is, very much like Primer, a labyrinthine puzzle that almost dares you to solve it even while the film most assuredly promises that no such solution may ever be found. Then what does it mean, BC?
To respond to the question posed to me by almost every English teacher I’ve ever had, I would say this: what does “meaning” mean? To what do we ascribe meaning? Symbolism, philosophy, parallelism? If one were so inclined, one could find a great deal of meaning Upstream Color (I sure did), but the most significant thing that stuck with me after this truly amazing film ended was the concept of interconnectivity, a Blakian thread (yes, of the William variety) stitching us all together. Poetic Genius by way of Shane Carruth's obscuring of that which is truly eternal.
Which leaves us mulling over that damned, insidious little sentence. As a kind of cipher, the sentence serves to unravel some of the mysteries of Upstream Color, but perhaps it’s the film’s mystery that is precisely what makes it so powerful. Carruth is an expert craftsman, and his style is as confident as it is oblique, but from the restless mind oft springs restless fruit. Upstream Color, though difficult, is much more rewarding than the bland fare you usually find at the theater. And PS, the sound design is to die for. If you have the opportunity, please see it in a theater, or at least on a home theater with a stellar sound system.
PPS, I am already pegging this film as one of the tragically neglected come award season.