In 2004 Shane Carruth made the indie time travel classic Primer for around $7,000. Carruth took the role of actor, writer, director and probably even burned the DVDs himself to get the film made that he wanted to make. The result was astonishing, and astonishingly complex. Primer pulled no punches and required to viewer to complete give themselves over to the film in order to enjoy it and, with multiple viewings and a few diagrams found online, comprehend the plot. When I watched Primer I was swept up in its authenticity and while it took me a while to understand what was happening I loved it from the start and the more I discovered the deeper that love became. It is clear to me know that I have been dating a film for a good few years now. Awkward.
Carruth’s second film has arrived nine years later in the form of Upstream Colour and comes with a similar proposition. With Carruth taking on every production role he feasibly could he is once again bringing to the screen his singular vision and once more it is a vision that beautifully crafted but almost impenetrable. Normally in a review I would do my best to summarise the plot of the film so the reader at least knows what I am referring to but her I really can’t. The film defies definition to a degree that I have been running away from reviewing it for seven weeks now. IMDb offers up the following short synopsis:
“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”
Now that synopsis is technically accurate but doesn’t really represent the film. What we witness is a young woman called Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is kidnapped, hypnotised, and infected with a parasite. During her captivity she is tricked into emptying her bank accounts and loses her job due to her prolonged absence. The parasite within her grows and after some failed self-surgery Kris sleepwalks to a strange location where a pig farmer and sound collector (I am not making this up) removes the parasite from her body. Kris wakes up in an abandoned van with no recollection of where she has been but with no job and no money. Kris is a shell of her former self. Before long she bumps into Jeff (Shane Carruth) who has seemingly suffered a similar fate and the two find themselves inexplicably drawn to each other and the two try to piece together both their lives and what has happened to them.
There are also lots of pigs which are cute but I think if I tried to explain them now I might lose you completely.
While Primer drew me in without me necessarily understanding what I was watching I felt like Upstream Colour kept me at arm’s length and never let me get close enough to really enjoy the experience. The acting is superb, the directing sublime, and the sound design something worth actually mentioning in a review, but the end result was far too abstract to love. The film as a whole is gorgeous and atmospheric and shows that film and cinema can truly be an art form as much as oil on canvas. The trouble with art is that it requires a subjective personal connection with the viewer for it to be fully appreciated and with Upstream Colour I just couldn’t connect. There are plenty of glowing reviews to be found for the film and I can understand why. Carruth has created something unique and original and should be applauded for that. As with Primer I think that Upstream Colour will take a few more viewings to be truly understood and while it may grow on me in the future for now I see it as a masterful piece of art that simply failed to win me over.
Upstream Colour is an abstract film about connectivity that requires you to fully indulge yourself to reap the benefits. The narrative is slow, wandering, and hard to grasp but the film is never anything short of beautiful and made it with such an admirable singular artistic vision. Upstream Colour takes great pains to create a unique atmosphere but at the end that’s all I experienced; a gaseous substance that drifted away and gave me nothing to grasp onto.
I need to see Upstream Colour again and I need you to see it too so that we can discuss it endlessly and decide if it is the greatest film ever made or a piece of pretentious nonsense. For now I am sitting on the fence:
Upstream Colour is released in the UK tomorrow and you’ll most likely love it and make me feel stupid for not loving it too.