Three. That was the number of viewings it too for me to fully appreciate what writer-director-editor-producer-composer-actor Shane Carruth was going for with his years in the making follow up to Primer, Upstream Color. The first time I watched it, I hated and despised it for trying to position itself as a sort of non-existent mystery. The second time, unencumbered by the gentleman’s folly of trying to look for clues where there aren’t any, I was able to discern the plot, but I still didn’t think it added up. On the third and final viewing, just as I was about to give up any and all hope of liking the film, I got it and appreciated what was being done. There are still some arguments to be made against the film really being as meaningful as it hopes it is, but there’s no denying that Carruth has made a singularly unique film that adds up in all the places it needs to.
It doesn’t lend itself well to a plot synopsis due to potential spoilers and because it’s the kind of film where one explanation has to lead to another and pretty soon you’re sitting there and you’ve just given away the entire story. It, much like this week’s The Place Beyond the Pines, is essentially critic proof in the sense that no valid and meaningful discussion about the film both positively and negatively can be had outside of the company of people who have already seen the film
A year after being drugged and forced through the power of suggestion to give away all of her money and capital to a con artist, a former visual effects supervisor named Kris (Amy Seimetz) tries to piece her life back together. She begins on an awkward relationship with a disgraced businessman named Jeff (Carruth) who is a divorcee that suffered a similar fate.
All that needs to be said about the actual story comes summed up perfectly in that brief paragrapg, and had Carruth simply stuck to the moments of joy, elation, confusion, and sadness that arise from the story itself this would be something truly special and touching to behold. It would be damned near a perfect film. Seimetz delivers such a natural performance that there’s almost a feeling of cinema verite to the strange surroundings. She’s just as confused by life as we are watching her, and Seimetz generates great deals of empathy from the viewer. Her profession of creating and deciding just what’s artificial enough for film audiences is also admittedly one of the films slyest and most welcome gags.
Similarly, Carruth does a great job as an actor playing opposite her. While it seems like Kris feels prone to giving up when it comes to never being able to keep her stories straight, Jeff comes equipped with an inner rage that spills out. The two leads are justifiably raw and undiluted, but in every other aspect of the production aside from lighting and mise en scene designed to make them look as good as possible (and as if they were in a Terence Malick film), there’s something problematic still resting under the surface.
It’s often a disservice to talk about a director’s previous work when talking about their latest effort, but Upstream Color can not be properly dissected without bringing up Primer. For all of its pretensions and a twisting narrative that probably requires at least an Honours B.A. in either literature or science to fully understand, Primer was a tightly constructed film that doesn’t waste time or breathe on the superfluous. Everything had a purpose and everything had a place. That was the point of that film. Upstream Color feels so far in the opposite direction of Primer on an initial viewing that it should feel like a welcome change. Yet somehow, Carruth simply can’t divorce himself from creating a film that deliberately leaves clues to solving a mystery that doesn’t exist. The plot is as open and obvious as possible, yet the film itself seems to be racing to the finish line while putting style and artistic flourish on a higher level than simply letting the story breathe.
Carruth sets up this mindset almost right from the start, by luring the viewer in with an ingenious sort of heist film that’s well played and is clearly designed to acclimate the audience to the film’s tone and atmosphere. Much like how Kris is being manipulated through the power of suggestion to not think about what’s going on, Carruth asks the viewer to do the same, but for those who simply can’t be hypnotized by implied name checks to the likes of Stephen Hawking or Henry David Thoreau, it becomes a questionable form of narrative autopiloting. It’s particularly off putting just how much the film seems to be missing the point of Thoreau’s Walden, which gets reference frequently. It seems to only be there because of the symbolic reference to “the worms that live inside us,” but for something as rigidly controlled and analytical as Carruth’s film manages to be to bring transcendentalism into the discussion feels artistically unfounded. Where that’s about living simply, this is about the complexity of life. They are apples and oranges, not necessarily a congruent point of view.
Every moment of Upstream Color outside the immediate plot feels calculated and analyzed to death, and not always in a positive way. The blending of the abstract with the mundane has been done so much better elsewhere by other filmmakers from Malick to Salvador Dali because those are two great examples of filmmakers that don’t come encumbered with a backstory of trying to play shell games with the audience. Carruth can’t divorce himself enough from the very intricacies that made Primer what it was to tell this kind of story. It’s very much the work of an artist throwing all of his big ideas into one pot possibly out of some perceived fear that they might never work again. It reeks of effort while the material begs for a lighter touch.
And yet, that’s also what makes the film so admirable. The emotion of such a spectacle is undeniable, and what is cinema if not an artform designed to provoke such a reaction from a viewer. Even a visceral misreading of the film seems like it would be an artistic success for Carruth. Viewers should aim to watch the film with their heart taking precedence over their mind. In my first of six drafts of this review that I am finally putting to bed now weeks after I watched it, I ended by saying that the film was an endless linking of mobius strips not unlike the ones several characters craft out of paper in the film. That was admittedly incorrect on my part since everything comes together perfectly. There are those that will try to convince you that there is no greater meaning to Upstream Color. Those people are wrong and talking out of their ass. There’s a perfectly crafted plot at the centre of this giant beating heart of a film. I just wish it wasn’t as manipulative it how it goes about expressing those feelings. If you’re ever in the Toronto area and you want to talk about the film over coffee so I could explain more, I would be more than happy to do so.