Tuesday, June 18, 2013
If Primer came from the left side of Shane Carruth’s brain, then Upstream Color is from the right. Both films showcase their creator’s puzzle-box approach to narrative, but the former is austere and antiseptic while the latter is sensuous and dreamy. Carruth has moved from the cool intellectualism of his first film to a more sentimental strain of science fiction, and the difference is as stark as the contrast between Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick. Brooding over the ethics of science, Primer explored how new discoveries illuminate not the world, but our own moral failings. In his latest, Carruth’s fantasies grow more elaborate as he strives to reveal—and finally, perhaps, even heal—the gnawing sickness of life in a numb world where no one loves each other and everyone’s spirit animal is a pig. For all of Primer’s oblique twists, one suspected the film’s secrets were neatly laid out somewhere in a spreadsheet. Whatever mysteries can be glimpsed in Upstream Color will more likely be catalogued in a pile of paper scraps at Carruth’s bedside table, written in an illegible midnight scrawl.
Is it strange to admire a film that cannot be summarized without eliciting embarrassed laughter? It can be hard enough to simply describe what you’ve seen on screen, never mind digging into its deeper meanings. “And then they drank the, um, worm-tea, and those kids we never see again auditioned for the Happy Hands Club, I guess, or something, and there’s the director going for a jog, and did that lady just stab herself?” So simply accept that this is what a sci-fi B-movie would look like if Terrence Malick directed it, and focus on the damaged couple at the heart of the film, Jeff (Carruth) and Kris (a particularly strong Amy Seimetz). Both are victims of a white worm that burrows into the body and takes control of the mind, or something like that (let’s not get too science-y, please). The two combine the ruins of their lives and slowly dissolve into each other until they can no longer tell where one’s memories end and the other’s begins. Like two cleaned-up junkies, they lean on each other as they hobble down a steady path towards obliteration.
High-concept weirdness draws the viewers in—just ask anyone who has seen Primer—but it often exacts its own toll on the film. In constructing this arcane mythos, Carruth forces the audience to enter the film on his terms, to trust that he actually understands the rules of his own game and isn’t simply making it all up as he goes along. He throws away anything that might anchor the film to a set time and place. Cut loose from the particular, we drift into the universal, where Carruth’s ideas on free will and nature are supposedly floating free in some kind of Platonic intellectual paradise, unsullied by distracting, earthbound details. But the mechanics of a world populated by brainwashing thieves and pig-farming foley artists will invariably demand more attention than the themes uniting it all. Viewers are apt to spend as much time parsing the significance of the telepathic worm-tea as they will actually working through the emotional effect of the film on them.
That would be a shame, because there is something deeply affecting buried withinin this hollow world Carruth has deliberately crafted. The bond between Jeff and Kris exists in a vacuum, unhindered by any relationships beyond their lonely pairing. Where are their families? Where is the rest of the world? Where is life? The film takes place on a planet seemingly constructed by aliens who read a book about humans once but got bored before the last chapter. Absence defines this place: the absence of nature, of society, and of humanity. In the end, Kris cradles a piglet as if holding the child her damaged body will never produce, caring for this animal with a tenderness missing from most of the human interaction in the film. This is either the first step towards learning to feel again, or the final cold delusion that proves everything is already lost. The beatific lighting and uplifting score gild the scene, suggesting either redemption or deeply sarcastic mockery. There is a faint sense of euphoria, or perhaps madness. This is a shining dead world.