ScreenAnarchy Talks UPSTREAM COLOR

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
ScreenAnarchy Talks UPSTREAM COLOR
Shane Carruth's followup to his stunning debut Primer expands to additional theatres this week (and will be available for download and streaming May 7). Our own Eric Snider reviewed the film at Sundance, suggesting that "Upstream Color is interesting; it just doesn't get interesting till after it's over."

Here's more from Eric's review:

"Carruth relates this strange tale with some linear jumps, dialogue-free sections, and a few other flourishes, but the story itself isn't complicated. (Weird, sure. Not complicated.) What it means is another matter. Since we're clearly not meant to take it literally (or at least not just literally), we look for clues to its interpretation. We have to: taken merely at face value, the story is cold, dispassionate, with characters we have no reason to care about. It's not particularly visually arresting or atmospheric. If that's all there is to it, then the film is turgid nonsense.

That's how it felt to me while I was watching it. No particular interpretation manifested itself, and since I couldn't find the thread that would tie it together, the film rolled over me like a swampy river of opaque randomness. Movies that need to be figured out, or that require multiple viewings to fully appreciate, aren't a problem; I just found this particular one unfulfilling."

For me, part of the pleasure in a film like this is to take it all in, not actively looking for clues while being confident that things will begin to cohere as the narrative evolves. But that's just my point of view; really, this is a rare sort of film-going experience, one where everyone might see the same movie, but react in very different ways, depending on their taste in cinema

With that in mind, fellow ScreenAnarchy writer Kurt Halfyard and East Coast Editor Ben Umstead joined me in a back-and-forth email discussion about the work. You'll hear about worms, Walden, and some of the more startling images and ideas that the film touches upon.

This conversation is obviously saturated with spoilers, and is best read after you've seen the film for yourself. This is like the late night, coffee shop decompression that friends often have after a film of this sort. Now for those of you who have seen the film, by all means, let's continue this discussion in the comments.

I began by talking about how the film's startling imagery was sticking with me long after I'd left the theatre.

Jason: Days later, I'm still kind of haunted by many of the images in Upstream Color (I keep wanting to type "colour!"). Mostly, I was struck by how it all kind of works as a whole. This for me may well end up being a film that I return to over and over, yet could completely respond to positively on first viewing, something that's often not the case in films of this ilk.

Plus, as a bad Jew, I left the theatre and immediately got a bacon sandwich. Something about seeing all those delicious pigs running around, I guess. That or the tapeworms, hard to say.

I find a lot of people have a hard time dealing with films of this nature, movies that require you from frame one to put trust in the director. After years reveling in the likes of David Simon's television shows, I'm perfectly happy to not know what the hell is going on from the outset, putting complete faith in the director and screenwriter to take me somewhere. I'll be open to the imagery, both paying attention to what clues I'm being given, but not obsessing at trying to construct them too early. As per usual I avoided all trailers and plot summaries, and just kind of dove in.

It was refreshing, in this case, to be rewarded for my patience. Too often of late I've been left pretty jilted by a haphazard premise that ends in something banal and needlessly pining for the metaphysically relevant.

I love when story and mood coalesces like it does in this film, and tend to despise the work when it devolves into a random mess, my trust being for naught.

As I said to Kurt at our screening, I don't demand catharsis, some neatly packaged narrative that follows some classical like, but I do appreciate coherence, some semblance that there's method behind the madness, that my faith has been vindicated.

While some films can be all about mood, eschewing narrative completely, I personally reserve positive response to this kind of meandering "experimentation" more for musical expression than cinematic. Talk about this kind of meandering, floating music will certainly come later in this discussion, particularly given that it's such an important plot point.

For now, how did you guys respond to the non-traditional editing and narrative structure of the film?

upstream_2.jpgBen: In large measure I believe cinema can work wonders in a non-narrative space and is perhaps the greatest art form at reflecting a mood. At any rate it works for me this way, and more so than music, because I think in pictures.

Please, let's not suggest that an approach that eschews what we've come to know as a traditional narrative means there is no story! There is always a story of some kind, however simple or complex. A story is conjured by both the filmmakers and the audience on the other side of that looking glass. Whether those visions line up... in just how much a filmmaker wants the audience to participate, be hypnotized or taken along for a ride.

Well, a lot of that also hinges on how much the audience is willing to participate themselves, and also about what kind of films or stories they've been exposed to and are comfortable with up to that point. In the measure of Upstream Color I actually think the narrative structure isn't as fractured and out of sync as many have painted it to be.

A friend who saw the film at Sundance described it as if Terrence Malick directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is certainly a provocative, if only partially accurate description. Still, the film is indeed very Malick-y in its elliptical moods and cyclical nature.

By the end everything falls into place... at least everything falls into place in the logic of the world that Carruth has constructed. In my mind it's more about the journey rather than the destination. The editing is certainly more fractured, whether it abruptly cuts to black, loops different takes of dialog over a menagerie of scenes and then loops those scenes, but I don't think this is in anyway challenging, nor indicative of an out-of-sync narrative.

The film is largely linear, it's just that Carruth operates on a very stream-of-conscious level.  Upstream Color is I think more than anything a tone poem.

In the logic of the world, in the dispossessed, vulnerable state of these characters it all makes very simple sense: We're connected and love in many different and hard to fathom ways. This is sometimes directly of our own doing and sometimes not. But that's okay, as we're connected in unfathomable ways (Anyone whose seen the film will see what I did there, hardy har har).

Though his filmmaking reflects this and the state of the characters I was in no large measure compelled by the people on screen.

Amy Seimetz as Kris (in a way one half of our protagonist) is someone I've always been curious about, and she seems like one of those actors that is willing to do anything. Since she's in what feels like a dozen films a year, I can never get a sense of her other than that she works a lot.

Here, she's interesting to watch, that is until Carruth himself comes into the picture as Jeff. Though Carruth appeared as one of the leads in Primer, that was perhaps out of necessity as that film's budget and crew were so micro, and this... well, he was incredibly stilted in his role. Just wooden and off in a performance sense. This despite the fact that his character was supposed to be greatly battered and bruised on a deep soul-jarring level.

Like in so many of her other relationship dramas (because, on one end Upstream Color is a relationship drama)  Seimetz sold this broken person aspect. Carruth did not. When they got to talking, the movie largely felt inert to me.

Perhaps this is a point Carruth as a storyteller wanted to make about the difficulty in communicating, the fear of communicating, and of being together. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, but I do feel that both characters could have been more compelling had someone else been cast in his role.

I was far more interested in the Sampler, a man who plays a pivotal part in the film. His activities in and around his pig farm felt to me the most unique elements of the film, and in many ways looked directly at how we perceive the very art form of cinema, especially in his adventures in sound recording and manipulation.

Kurt: It is interesting, Ben, because Upstream Color also evoked a kind of tension between Nature and Man, a very Malick-ian thing. The relationship angle and the inexplicable angle makes it as if Malick is re-envisioning Solaris. Take your pick of either the Tarkovsky version with its meditative floating weeds, calm rivers and broken souls in an foreign ecosystem, or the more clinical Soderbergh version with its precise photography and ambient soundtrack.

I found the fractured narrative quite easy to follow, especially if you break it into its three parts: i) Kris's exploitation and heist; ii) the 'cure' by pig transplant and a meeting of like-minded lost soul Jeff; iii) the discovery and consequences of the pig-farm and the next step of the process. That Carruth is disinclined to fill in some of the connecting bits only makes me lean in and pay more attention while letting the mood of the piece carry me along further.

There is an addiction element at play here, and I find myself more and more addicted to the film's rhythms with each viewing.

upstream_3.jpgI feel this film is an ambitious step forward in filmmaking for Carruth, at both a craft level - the film is easily the most gorgeous thing I've seen this year - but also in terms of thematic weight and putting forth of ideas. Primer was a puzzle box of nested timelines and plotting which offered it's themes and ideas in plain sight. Upstream Color is certainly less complicated plot-wise, even considering the fractured editing, but it a wonderful thing for letting the audience do the heavy lifting if they choose, or simply get lost in the soothing rhythm of the editing.

There are plenty of 'screenwriter guideposts,' (if you will) such as the recurring appearance of Thoreau's Walden. The use and repetition of the text in that book points to the theme of malaise and toxicity that modernity has pressed upon us. Our manipulation of the environment and processing of its secrets result in consequences that are utterly beyond our control and understanding.

When people practice science or husbandry, nobody has access to the complete picture. Nevertheless, with all the changes, chemical and psychological, as we slowly evolve into something else we can only pick up the pieces and move on. I loved The Sampler's hobby of sound design and Foley, because what is it, if not taking natural sounds and then 'perverting,' or rather manipulating them electromechanically into something new? I also love that Kris works as a continuity editor as her day job, literally looking for shadows of gaffers and crew in individual frames to be excised from the final product (is there a more 'modern' job than this?)

More processing: The 'blue dust' off the orchid is processed into the grub which is processed into the drug, and the chemical effect in the user is processed into a financial grift. The Sampler, who then processes the resulting after-effect into something else entirely, and the Pusher are both ethereal figures, essentially ghosts, in the lives of their 'victims' Kris and Jeff.

Kris is shown to be essentially 'raped' then the resulting organism surgically aborted from her. Jeff is numb, as if he lived too long under high voltage power lines. They bond only because of an intuitive sensing of their common ghosts.

The filmmaking takes the idea of intuition and allows it to both drive the story, but more importantly, it allows that feeling to exit the frame into how the viewer processes the film. I feel that is a pretty advanced form of audio-visual storytelling. Tone and pacing are mimicking our own unconscious bio-rhythms.

Shall we talk about the shared memories in the film?

Jason: You can if you'd like. Me, I'm just going to go on record as being perplexed by the title - The pigs (and thus the colour) flows downstream, not up. I mean, what the hell, Shane? GET IT TOGETHER!

As for Ben's comments about Carruth's performance, I saw Primer long enough ago (and my brain is as fuzzy as the underwater pig decomposition shots) that I totally forgot he was the lead actor in both films. I get what you're saying about him being stilted, but for me I was caught up enough in the mood to find the performance both persuasive and in keeping with the whole.

I go back to my earlier point - all the ingredients are there for this film to be just awful. Interminable reading of literature to hammer the point home, beepy and bloopy music to make you feel uneasy, stilted characters and a ramshackle plot. In other words, it's super simple to see how it all could have gone horribly wrong on many levels. I'll even suggest that many will despise this film. This isn't exactly some grand mystery that's uncovered, nor is its elliptical structure overly hyperbolic (geometry pun!).

Yet for me it was a great success, a success resting on both in its refusal to be overly conventional while not going completely off the rails just to tell the audience to go fuck themselves.

So, yeah, there will be plenty of references to the likes of Tarkovsky and Malick, but I think there's a bit of what I love about Altman's Short Cuts in here too, or even Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia These are slightly "sideways" films from the mainstream, yet when you break it down it all does pretty much flow the way of more traditional narratvies. The disjointedness will surely be most evident on first viewing, and, again, I greatly appreciated that it wasn't overly long or overly afraid to have some semblance of a narrative structure, willing to risk some of it's arty cred for those that think anything with a plot is somehow suspect.

I'd normally find the Walden stuff contrived and annoying, but it actually worked for me, especially tied to the  'gathering of rocks from bottom of pool' scene. It contextualizes the angst, in a way, and ties the threads together like the paper chains from the first act of the film.

I do agree with Kurt, it is pretty in a way I wasn't expecting, but I'd still have to hand it to Stoker for this year's most handsome film to date. Still, it's not like we can't love them both, right?

upstream_4.jpgI'd like to say briefly that I quite enjoyed the use of the electroaccoustic music - it's completely fitting with the film in a diagetic sense, and like the film itself, it's a fine line between crafting something banal and New Agey, rather than something that actually drives the film along effectively. Plus, I'm a sucker for foley as well, so the shots of how they collected the natural sounds in order to create the musique concrรจte (literally, at times, using concrete!) was heartwarming.

Now, as for shared memories, I guess we're meant to ruminate on their life as pigs (colour coordination and all), but I'm sure Kurt has something more profound to share. It's clear that there's a Moebious structure to the proceedings, with elements collapsing upon themselves in interesting and dynamic ways. This may be the ultimate metaphor for the film - it's both linear and twisted in on itself, forming a shape of deceptive complexity that's fundamentally quite simple.

So, you guys think they'll make action figures for this movie? I'd like my own reticulated tapeworm myself. I'd name him Jimmy.

Ben: Well, as for that title, could it also be referring to the bloodstream of both the pigs and humans? I don't really recall what direction exactly the worms traveled other than all over, so... upstream, downstream... it also just sounds good as a title. You go: "What the fuck is that?"

Now talking about the shared memories aspect... Kurt, were you getting at more Kris and Jeff's shared memories, specifically that one childhood trauma that they keep arguing over who it actually belonged to. That was perhaps the most intriguing and successful aspect of their interaction and relationship . I really did love the larger sequence that it was featured in, where they're watching the birds and guessing what kind they might be. That section to me as a whole felt very alive and perhaps even a bit invigorating, as these two people that had been so shut down for so long were waking up in fits and starts. It was also the one swatch of the flick where I felt like both performances were richer together.

Now I'd just like to go on record and ask "what filmmaker who is serious about his/her art would want to say fuck you to the audience?" You can fuck with 'em, challenge 'em, subvert the heck out of 'em, but at the end of the day I just don't understand the sentiment that people would do this.

This doesn't mean I'm defending Upstream Color in this regard, because it doesn't operate on this level, and nor did I like the film enough to truly stand by it, but I think it is a point worth bringing up, if in a rather half-thought way. I'm consistently baffled as to why these kinds of points are made when a film either successfully or unsuccessfully eschews narrative semblance or plotting.

It takes all kinds of cinema, and while Upstream Color's underlying structural supports are yes, Jason, far more traditional in execution that the editing itself might suggest on first viewing, I don't necessarily think that the film could have been awful just based on the ingredients you cited. Then again we all have our own tastes, and I did not like Carruth's stilted performance,  so go figure...

Kurt: I agree it is a great 'turn the idea on its head' title for the film, but really, Carruth is asking us to think of the lengthy variety of actions that get both of these characters to this point. In terms of cause and effect, he is showing us something on a relatively short timeline, but is asking how we got to this point in civilization for this peculiar thing to occur: Harvesting narcotics to enact financial scams which then leads to questionable ethics in biotechnology!?

The ending is particularly telling, as all the victims on the orchid-powder-tapeworm-heist list endeavour to pick up the pieces (abandoned by our sampler/scientist.) They live with it, in fact they own it, and move on fostering the next generation of DNA.

Sounds familiar doesn't it? The future is our child.

As to the shared memories, we are all strands in society. Pockets of cultural experiences, which become conscious or unconscious touchstones, are all shared memories in a fashion.

Upstream Color is definitely going after the kind of modern malaise that echos, for me, Todd Haynes' magnificently off-kilter masterpiece, Safe. This is writ large by the inclusion of Thoreau's Walden as much as their tape-worm-abortions pulls Jeff and Kris together. Their shared trauma is fiscal, emotional and biological.

This all also underscores the collectively shared biology of this island earth (if that isn't too Mother Gaia for you) and is an echo of the 'DNA-piglets' later shown in the film.

If there is colour upstream, then it is diffuse and ethereal by the time the consequences start seeping out - think heavy mercury in the water that begins to bioaccumulate in fish only to make it's way into birds and maybe, eventually drive a inland mammals into not-quite-so-mad hatters.

upstream_5.jpgOne further thing I particularly loved with this film is how the dialogue is a rhythm rather than exposition. When Kris and Jeff talk to each other in one key scene they talk OVER each other in a jumble. It's not what they say, it's the way it comes at you off screen.

I appreciate the rare film that spends 99% of its time showing and not telling in the current age of exposition-overkill-blockbusters and quirky-Sundance-comedies. For me, it keeps coming back to bio-rhythms. This is as much in tune with my earlier mention of Malick and Tarkovsky.

The emotion (or distanced lack-thereof) of watching a movie's images, and listening to its foley and music. It makes the scene of the starlings (or are they grackles?) taking flight in controlled chaos not a 'poetic image' for its own sake, but rather a cliche image put instead to great thematic use.  

Jason: We could go on at length, Ben, about some artist's derision for their audience, and whether that's a good or bad thing, but that's fodder for another article. For me, I respond better when there's some authorial intention being expressed, rather than a mishmash of half baked ideas or broken promises. I like when we go, "what the fuck is that", and there's at least threads of coming up with something (even if an expression of mood) rather than banal emptiness or esoterica for the sake of seeming experimental.

Suffice it to say, there are pitfalls this film avoids, and for me, while clearly to be ghettoized as an "art film", it's interesting and accessible enough if stuck with that even those that don't consume film the way the three of us do (often, and in great quantity) may be challenged yet also moved by the work.

For me, the film is frankly more enjoyable than much of Malick and Tarkovsky, which, as you both have noted, enjoyability doesn't always have to be the basis of any critical response. I still find that a bit of playfulness and humour under dour elements can help keep films enjoyable, perhaps why I always preferred reading the blackly comical Nietzsche to the far more pedantic Hegel back in school. Plus, I just wanted to bring German philosophy into the conversation to drive away even more readers!

We can namedrop reference to earlier masters all we like, but I do see this film as a richly original work. On the basis of Upstream Color, Primer and his work on Looper ("time-travel consultant" is perhaps my favourite film credit ever), Carruth for me has easily catapulted into that league of writer/directors who I will seek out throughout their career. It helps, I guess, to only make a film ever decade in order to keep things interesting!

Even with nine years between the making of each of his films, this second feature is no sophmore slump. Time will tell if he falls into self-parody the way that other so-called "challenging" directors have done (we going to consider this film "experimental"? "avant garde"? "quirky"?), or if he again takes quite so long in order to come back with something engaging and free from redundancy.

I'd also contrast Carruth's work with the far more prosaic "mumblecore" stuff, equally driven by writer/director/producer/editor/score writer characters, equally trying of an average audience's patience. The difference I think is that this never felt masturbatory to me, never felt like the plot was going through the rigors required to be shaped into an ending. In other words, Upstream Color never flies off the rails into some incoherent mess. I found little hubris in the proceedings, despite the kind of solipsistic nature of this type of production, and for me that's a very good thing.

Meanwhile, wondering if you guys have any thoughts on Carruth's decision to go it alone (what our own Ryland Aldrich said was "one of the most interesting elements of the film." 
For me, this extratextual stuff didn't really play into my enjoyment of the work, but it does speak to a "can-do" attitude that I think some cinephiles will fall for (vitriol against Kevin Smith excluded, of course).

Ben: We certainly could go on in regards to how derision plays a role or does not play a role in cinema, but  even strong authorial intention could be perceived as banal, half-baked ideas by some. It's all a matter of what we perceive to be true.

I think in the scope of the film one thing that Carruth touches upon is the curiosity behind discovery and the need to explore whether something rings true to us or not. Kris and Jeff have been stripped of their identities by forces outside of themselves and yet they're connected to it all in some larger sense as Kurt so brilliantly expounded upon. So, now that they're awake again, or waking up, it is now time to discover themselves.  

As for why I'm only somewhat taken with the film, it's largely because I found the basic ideas interesting, but was only mildly engaged with them as a film, as a viewing experience . The approach to editing in the film doesn't usually work for me as I've been a long-take kinda guy the past few years. As always, this reflects how I am perceiving something, what I prefer. This film just doesn't sit with me in a very deep space of self; a place that is hard to describe as it is so firm as to be intangible.

It's also interesting, Jason, that you bring up "mumblecore" as a contrast. It's the staple we seem to compare and base much of the other kinds of American Independent films on these days. Largely, it's because this style can rub people the wrong way, but also because that DIY mentality is alive and well. This plays right into Carruth deciding to distribute the film himself.

I think it's great he was able to afford such a path, as most filmmakers who explore cinema the way he does cannot. For him to be able to share his movie his way is pretty gosh darn cool. I certainly look forward to how this approach will play out for him as I think it'll inform many other directors out there about where and how they can bring their movies into the light of day.

Kurt: Primer made half a million dollars in the US of its theatrical run when it was distributed by THINKfilm, which is respectable enough for a movie of its size and narrative impenetrability, but hardly much for the rather cult item it has become in science fiction circles.

I imagine a four-walling structure would at the very least see more money and means put back into Carruth to make another film than the usual distribution, but it seems that this is would be a good choice for VOD (despite that this thing is magnificent looking on the big screen).

For better or worse, this movie is probably not going to capture the attention of anyone beyond a very specific audience. Hell, if Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a higher profile film with big stars that likewise requires a 'focused brain' and extended thought for elucidation, can only manage $16 million at the box office, what does that say for a tiny, challenging, science fiction drama?

I wish anyone making challenging, mentally stimulating films for adults luck in this business of putting butts in seats at the multiplex (or arthouse!), and remain hopeful for the right people to see and hopefully enjoy Upstream Color. I'm even more hopeful that Carruth continues to secure the means to keep growing as a filmmaker and delivering uncompromising works of cinematic art. I already anticipate his shipping lane drama, Modern Oceans, and the slim possibility that he will come back to A Topiary, despite its leaked script being out on the internet for months.

Back to the film, Ben talks about Kris and Jeff emerging from their drug induced pupal stage into a different awareness. "Let the sleeper awaken!" is a great science fiction motif from Frank Herbert, and I am wondering if the thumping speakers to call Kris originally to the Sampler (or unearth her, if you will) is not a sly reference to Dune. It is a further aspect of the consequences of 'sound' (Foley manufacture) in the film; as if it is a birdsong call, a mechanical (but intuitive) instinct brought about from inorganic processing of organic materials. Kind of what cinema does to our brains.

Am I getting too weird here? Did I mention that I love Upstream Color?

upstream_6.jpgJason: Yes, yes you did!

I must admit that I too thought of Dune, it must have been because we were sitting near one another and our synapses fed off shared electric energy. That, or we're both nerdy, hard to say.

Without getting too inside (why stop now?) I actually did an electroaccoustic "diffusion" back in the early 90s that consisted of the analogue bass notes of Roland SH-101 thumping out sub-100hz signals through 14 loudspeakers set in an array. I came close to shattering some windows.

It was awesome. And it kind of made you want to poop.

While completely non relevant to any one else's experience of the film, but I'd like to thing that my own, past, "upstream" experiences made me dig something as odd as setting up a soundsystem in order to make invertebrates think it's raining and writhe upwards for cover from the impending subterranean flood that's being imitated.

The worms, they turned.

So, to wrap all this up - Kurt loves it, I really liked it, and Ben sort of liked it, but had issues with both performance and execution. At the least, nobody can claim it's not a film worth talking about.

Any final comments that you guys would like to add?

Ben: Upstream Color is absolutely a film worth talking about. Really anyway that gets the blood going as it so clearly has with us. In fact I'd say it's the first film of the year that folks should really make an effort in going to see because it's quite the conversation starter.

I've greatly enjoyed ours, and this coming from someone who is only lukewarm on the picture!

Kurt: George Carlin, God bless him, had a great comic bit on the perceived need to eliminate plastic bags to save the environment. Maybe our good intentions are all backwards. "Maybe the Earth," he said, "sees plastic as just another one of its children. It could be that the only reason why the Earth allowed us to be spawned out of it was to make plastic for itself." An astute, tragi-comic awareness of the bigger picture, and the larger cycles beyond our own collective hubris, fitting Upstream Color like a glove. 

Carruth's film could easily swap titles with Terrence Malick's To The Wonder (tone and subject matter are at least in the same ball park), and considering both are in current release, they would make a fine double bill.

Jason: We all agree on this -  Upstream Color demands to be seen. Despite the challenges involved with Carruth's self-distribution model, you can hopefully find it playing soon on a big screen near you.

Upstream Color expands today (April 12) to Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Pasadena, San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle, Cambridge, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn. More information is available at the official site.

Kurt Halfyard and Benjamin Umstead contributed to this story.

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