Early twentieth century Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov once observed that “everybody who cares for his art seeks the essence of his own technique.”
Director Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort, the new film “Upstream Color,” strikes directly at this exploration; it is a sprawling, emotionally wrought movie whose abstract plot seems less like a cohesive center and more like a vessel through which Carruth is able to employ his considerable talents to investigate themes of loss, love, moving on from tragedy and how they all fit together.
The movie’s opening scenes reveal little: a confusing jumble involving a thief, some neighborhood kids, their bicycles and a worm with psychotropic properties. The thief drugs a woman, she then loses her memory and has some part of her transferred into a pig during a surgical procedure.
Carruth is no stranger to this convoluted genre of sci-fi. His last film, the surprise indie hit “Primer,” won the 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize on a reported $7,000 budget. While “Primer” is a sharply made time-travel bender whose highly technical dialogue and confusing plot were part of the movie’s mystique, Carruth departs from “Primer” in a number of key ways while from time to time re-applying much of what we saw in “Primer” in “Upstream Color.”
Diverging from the morality play that was at the very core of “Primer,” “Upstream Color” has not so much a confusing plot as one that is foggy on the details. Carruth — a micro-manager of the highest order who was in charge of the movie’s direction, production, score and script — has stated that he relishes this opacity; in an interview with the sci-fi blog io9 he says the film “definitely … requires more attention.”
Clearly drawing from the work of director Terrence Malick, Carruth uses “Tree of Life”-inspired montages of worms, pigs and azure orchids to elicit a message that is difficult to ascertain. Carruth has characterized this as the “worm-pig-orchid life cycle” and goes on to suggest that it is meant to prod the audience into asking deeper questions about everyday existence.
Carruth’s technical mastery is unquestionable. His minimalist score (which is available to stream on SoundCloud, free of charge) is woven into the plot and the movie’s soft beige-brown-grey color palette enables seamless visual continuity from frame to frame.
In one scene where the two main characters lie in bed with arms and legs wrapped around one another, there is a stunning optical metaphor between their limbs and the mysterious worms we see throughout the movie. There is no way to watch “Upstream Color” and be unimpressed with the precision of Carruth’s execution.
Aside from its visual splendor though, the metaphysical discussion the movie prompts in its skillful albeit bare-bones script is harder to process. These themes of emotional connection manifest themselves directly on screen as human lives are linked with motifs of worms, pigs, orchids and audio samples. If these connections seem bizarre and difficult to conceive, that is precisely the point.
Perhaps what Carruth has sought to do in “Upstream Color” is less a self-contained cinematic journey in which there’s a clear beginning, middle and end, and more of a hazy adventure in which he is able to showcase both his abilities and general curiosity about the philosophy of existence.
And it is also his earnestness, a lack of pretense that is evident in the low-key (and in the case of “Primer,” low-budget) nature of both his movies, that keeps his work enjoyable while also mentally exhausting; watching his films is the cinematic equivalent of a triathlon. And it is in this workout that Carruth “seeks the essence of his own technique.”
Whether it is the restrained, techy nature of “Primer or the rambling epic of ”Upstream Color,” Carruth succeeds at, well, something. Watching him fumble around with all these big questions or further refine his own mechanical skills is not easy to put together. In fact at times, a few disjointed moments can make it hard to keep focused.
But nonetheless, Carruth’s beautiful, pensive trek through actuality is worth sticking around for. And one can only hope that the enigma of “Upstream Color” is a sign of more great work to come
Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected].