Upstream Color is a mesmeric, stimulating cinematic experience. It is aesthetically beguiling and formally challenging, and comes as a welcome return to the world of independent cinema for director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer and actor Shane Carruth. The one-man-band that is Shane Carruth, controlling his films like an auteurist Tommy Wiseau, made his debut film Primer on a smaller budget than a Pavement music video. Primer was made in 2004, and Carruth did not make another film for nine years.
His second film, Upstream Color, is a highly ambitious project. Like Spike Jonze’s Her, Upstream Color is a not-quite-sci-fi film set in the not-too-distant future. It is more concerned with sensorial provocation than logical explanation. The result is a melting pot of cinematic influences: a good dollop of Cronenberg’s body horror, a sprinkle of Lynch’s social mysticism, plenty of Malick and Tarkovsky for good measure, and even a dash of the montage techniques developed by Eisenstein and Vertov.
Upstream Color is pure filmic formalism. Carruth uses the elements that are unique to the cinematic art form – montage and camera movement – to communicate his tale. The dialogue is scarce, the characterisations minimalistic, the narrative opaque, the music overwhelming, and the imagery oblique. Consequently, giving a synopsis of Upstream Color is difficult, as the film is so confounding that demystifying it is a virtually futile exercise. Like the great works of impressionistic cinema – notably Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and Malick’s The Tree of Life – Upstream Color’s sensuous visual style and emotional acuity leaves you in a state of utter awe.
Upstream Color details the abstract lives of Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) who, after fate connects them on a train one day, become entwined with one another. They share a parasitic infection that paradoxically destabilises their identities but propels their relationship, and they become inextricably entangled in an oneiric world of dreamscapes, drugs, pigs and orchids. The actions of a man known in the credits as ‘the Sampler’ (Andrew Sensenig) impacts Kris’ psyche, as he uses music and pigs to continue the destructive cycle of the parasite. The film’s plot is not difficult to follow, but it is difficult to literalise.
Upstream Color contains many motifs. The train where Jeff and Kris first meet recurs throughout the film, allegorising the sense of transient movement that drives their shared lives, compared to the stolid astaticism that characterises their lives before meeting. In the sequences where the sublime Amy Seimetz carries the film on her own – before Kris meets Jeff – Kris is claustrophobically incarcerated in the nothingness that is her pallid, blank apartment.
The repetition of certain images signifies their importance to the narrative. The recurring image of Kris and Jeff sitting in an abandoned SUV, framed in a long-shot foregrounded against the vivid colours of dusk, is striking, and its recurrence emphasises their isolation as the only two people afflicted by this rare disease. In the SUV scene, Kris begins to lose her memory, further emphasising the film’s exploration of loss. Carruth continually juxtaposes organic images of the natural world with washed-out images of artificial modern edifice. Throughout the film, pervasive images depicting the wormlike parasite infiltrating Kris’ bloodstream are matched with inorganic objects that have the power to save or end life – from CAT scanners to handguns.
The imagery is extremely powerful when it is unique, bizarre and mysteriously disturbing. Occasionally, some of the images border on ‘art-house clichés’ – characters gazing vacantly into the distance, Kris and Jeff huddled in a conjoined foetal position in a bath. However, the images are given meaning through Carruth’s elliptical editing. Carruth uses montage to demonstrate frequent and nonsequitous shifts in time and space. He rarely uses dissolves or fades to infer temporal and spatial changes, deliberately obfuscating the film’s chronological sequence of events. Kris and Jeff’s relationship is universal and metaphysical, not one that is bound by the physical, human domains of space and time.
Carruth uses match-cuts to clearly draw connections between divergent people and places. The burgeoning relationship between Kris and Jeff and their inherent similarities – insofar as their mutual possession by the parasite – is shown through cuts that match the identical body language of Kris and Jeff together. Match-cuts between pig stables and the seats on a train also occur regularly through the film, linking the primitive world where the Sampler exists – the stables – with the modern world that Kris and Jeff inhabit to insinuate the overbearing dominance of the Sampler in their lives. The film is like a 90 minute montage.
Upstream Color is so thematically rich, using the exactitude of Carruth’s symmetrical photography and the efficiency of his montage to communicate its lofty ideas; ideas concerning trust, fate, identity loss, the power of intimacy, and life’s cyclic transitions between nature and modernity. Upstream Color is arguably the year’s most transcendent film.