The slight budgeted but densely scripted sci-fi film Primer was praised for the truthful physics, potent technicality and unadulterated complexity with which it treated its core treatise of time travel. Having heard this hype Primer was a film that I quickly became excited for and while I eventually respected the result it turns out that those traits are not what I most look for in a movie and so the picture was one that I could never quite care for like so many fans do. For me it was an amazing visualization of a chapter in some cool textbook more than it was a living, breathing movie. Now, nine odd years later, comes the follow-up, the second feature from Primer auteur Shane Carruth; the intriguingly titled Upstream Color. Given our history my hopes for it were lower, and maybe that helped, but boy did I love the result; a film as frenetic and feeling as it is funly frustrating to figure out.
Don’t expect me to give a plot synopsis during this review, not that I ever really do but this time that lack stems from a can’t and not a won’t. I could try to sort of suggest, rather than summarize, the story but because of its nature the result would be too obtuse and subjective, something like: Upstream Color gives the Primer treatment to a topic more complicated than time travel, the slow and sequential passing of time. See? That didn’t help at all. I will say this though, unlike Primer there is a story here, a strongly unconventional one sure but a story nonetheless; featuring a strange sci-fi premise, characters you care about and a progression of the latter through the stages of the former from the equilibrium of a beginning to the altered-equilibrium of an end. It carves out that necessary convention without ever compromising the complexity of its thematic communications.
The other improvement over Carruth’s debut is in his direction. Primer was shot in a very practical way, Shane had a pittance of a budget and a very complicated narrative to convey so it only makes sense that he did the selfless thing and kept the shoot simple, never showing off through style or visual flourish. The looser production of Upstream Colour though allowed him to express himself visually and he made the most of the opportunity, allowing the integrity of the images equal importance as the words. In fact this attention was essential because the film is very visual in its approach to storytelling. So not only do these two new elements not distract, they actually enhance the conveyance of the film’s core ideas, the ethereal mood they create and emotions they evoke essential to us understanding any of it.
It is thanks to the tensile technique displayed in his direction (touch, along with scent, is a sense that cinema is not normally strong with but its prevent in this picture) that the film worms its way into our minds; thanks to the way he shoots is that we too are hypnotized into following along with the narrators strange instructions, giving our rapt attention to them and everything else that occurs over the movie’s momentous ninety minutes. Though the script is surely as complex as any other out there the way that we experience it is strangely simple; you just let it wash over you. In Color Carruth, like the pig farmer, is collecting life-stories like sounds and then re-mixing them; auto-tuning them into a life that we can live with and mashing the resulting moments into a song of sorts. (Which maybe begs the question: If the farmer is indeed a surrogate for the director, then does that make the pigs performers? The worm that kind of connection between an actor and their character, the two subtlety mirroring one another, connected but different?)
Of course it certainly still has some cerebral meaning and my theory is that the worm is a metaphor for all the parasites in our life, the things that suck up our time and money. When the protagonist is first infected she sits obsessed with minutia: reading books, writing copies, playing games, knitting scarves and sculpting infinite patterns out of the results; enacting rote repetition as she slowly fades away and her bank accounts swiftly empty. We’ve all been there, all woken up and wondered what we have done with all that time. In the end those rote acts take on a new significance though; the act of swimming to retrieve rocks transformed into training or an act of repentance for the other thing that could not be gotten from beneath the water. This cold cycle though is broken by the final shot of the film, the poison removed from the system and those once-parasitic acts given new, more natural meaning: the characters still move their arms in sync, they still repeat actions but now for a purpose, they paint a barn and feed their pigs, their motion given meaning.
It’s not all-encompassing or foolproof but this interpretation was both informative and inspirational, so I like it; if satisfied my wants, as the film itself did. Though, like Primer, Upstream Color is a film projected to us as individual puzzle pieces it still somehow manages to satisfy every step of the way; each scene is better than the last, leaving you with the desire to have one more until at last you are all on a sudden sated and no longer need another. Though I feel that I mostly understood the surface of the film I don’t know that I can say, even to those who have also seen it, just what exactly Upstream is all about; but subconsciously I must have felt some sort of answer and there down, deep beneath that surface is where answers most matter, the meanings drifting to the surface to subtly colour the flowers… or something.