2004’s Primer, Shane Carruth’s other directorial effort, left me confused. I feel like I understood a good deal of what was going on, but once the time manipulation at the center of the movie’s narrative began to hum along at a steady clip, my heretofore firm grasp turned out to be quite tenuous. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the movie and respecting the hell out of the personal industry which produced it, namely an incredibly austere budget, single takes and using non-established actors (including Carruth himself). What I ended up taking away from Primer, which is similar to what I took away from something like Pi or even 2001, is that the images and atmosphere presented might actually be more significant than the serpentine paths of their stories. If I let myself off the hook and conveniently convince myself that it’s OK not to get it and to allow the mood to wash over me, then I am incredibly well set up for Carruth’s next movie, the beautiful and beguiling Upstream Color.
The movie opens on a scene of some kind of cultivator/botanist, combing through plants for larvae amongst the soil as well as a particular type of powdery secretion left behind, blue in color. In addition to these moments, there are interactions of young boys in the nearby area practicing strange exercises which appear to the viewer to be either some sort of blending of consciousnesses, as their bodies intrinsically mimic a shared thought, or, more cynically, a style of possession by one party over the other. In either case, something seemingly organic but menacing is afoot.
Which leads the audience to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young professional woman who is assaulted by the man earlier seen cultivating plants and forced to ingest one of the larvae. Over the next several days, Kris is placed under the incredibly potent hypnotic spell of this man, who controls her most primal desires (fear, hunger, joy) by simple verbal commands, and keeps her mentally and physically occupied reading Thoreau and forming paper loops. Once the hypnosis period concludes, however, Kris’ bank accounts have been emptied, her absence at her job has irrevocably damaged her status there, and altogether her existence has devolved into a fragmented, desperate tailspin.
In between her regaining a sense of herself and meeting a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) on a train in her new schedule, Kris is drawn out to a field. What happens in the field, and its implications on the remainder of the movie, are significant but difficult to elaborate on without fear of suggesting anything which might affect one’s viewership. Suffice to say, what emerges from her frantic post-abduction state is a development that offers up a number of curious themes Carruth wants to touch upon, and that I’m more than happy to spend the remainder of this piece going over.
Once Kris and Jeff meet, a tenuous though eventually powerful relationship develops out of a seemingly strong and immediate internal connection. Both people have been through genuine trauma, including a divorce for Carruth, but it’s suggested each have been through the much more particular trauma we witness Kris endure in the movie’s beginning. After some slightly evasive tactics on Kris’ part, the two fall in love and commit rather thoroughly to one another. In these moments, Carruth manages to capture, with appropriately alternating saccharine and clear-eyed views, the momentous sense of falling for someone. It’s in these instances that I feel Upstream Color is a cousin of Eternal Sunshine, who’s own take on the notion of retreating into the shared memories of a partner are explored as well. In Eternal Sunshine it is a literal escape, as Joel and Clementine desperately attempt to burrow into the former’s subconscious, buying enough time to reevaluate their lives and, even then, learn more about one another – or at least reconsider past memories in light of current revelations. While UC doesn’t concern itself too much with examining literal memories, it is significant that it devotes a substantial portion of the second half to examining how memories and personal histories, at once so immediate to the persons within whom they reside, have some if not all of their ownership relinquished in a two-way compact.
The two directors I’m most reminded of when watching a movie like Upstream Color are Terrence Malick and David Lynch. Malick, because of the constantly wandering, tilting camera lense and hushed voiceover, not to mention the considerate, sensitive attention awarded nature and humanity’s own pathetic yet essential existence within its boundaries. Lynch, due to the heightened editing and ability to make the mundane seem frightening, be it a speaker in a field at night or a desolate textiles workshop. In addition, the best way I’ve found to watch David Lynch movies over the years are to take what the visuals show me as almost completely literal. When the table is speaking Spanish in Mulholland Dr., it’s because they are speaking Spanish – they’re speaking an entirely opposite language from Naomi Watts, exacerbating her already heightened sense of anxiety and alienation. In Lost Highway, all the supposed doppelganger physical impossibilities are forgiven and understood if you simply ingest what has happened according to what you are shown. This method works wonderfully for Upstream Color, as well. It’s not to suggest the story is too abstract to follow on its own, it’s genuinely straightforward. But there are times where delving too much into what is happening, as its happening, is a drawback. With a movie this gorgeous, I found it best to watch first, and ask questions later.
And there will probably be some questions. Symbiosis, pig farming, organic hallucinogenics, American Romanticism, foley artists – these are a few of the crucial elements to a movie which has great ambition and largely succeeds.
There’s a recurring theme throughout the movie of a sound mixer taking everyday objects (bricks, rocks, wood) and manipulating their recorded reverberations to achieve something melodic. From a macro point of view, it might make sense to view Upstream Color in this regard. When people look for one another, and find solace in them, it’s not a physics-defying event or something worthy of historical remembrance, as it has happened every day for all of recorded time. Rather, it’s more akin to finding someone out there whose physical and chemical vibration matches your own – taking the decidedly un-sexy things about ourselves (emotional baggage, workplace malaise, personal insecurities) and shaping them, pounding them in such a malleable state so as to allow them to resonate.