Tag Archives: Shane Carruth

164. UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

“We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies.”–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“We already know that weird things happen. So let’s just watch something happen, and let that be it. If a worm goes into Kris and then leaves her and then goes into a pig, and we see that there’s a connection and I execute it with music and cinematography and Amy’s performance, in such a way that conveys that transference of some deeply felt kind is taking place, that’s it.”–Shane Carruth on Upstream Color

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

PLOT: Kris is poisoned by the Thief, who forces her to ingest a worm that sends her into a hypnotic trance, then empties her bank account. Waking up days later, and unable to cut the worm out from under her skin, she is drawn to a man (the Sampler) who surgically removes the organism and places it inside a pig. Suffering from hallucinations and delusions, Kirs then attempts to rebuild her shattered life with the assistance of Jeff, a financial analyst and recovering junkie.

Still from Upstream Color (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • After scoring an independent hit in 2004 with the time travel puzzler Primer, made for a mere $7,000, director Shane Carruth went silent for nine years. In that time he worked on developing a script entitled A Topiary that never went into production (he referred to that project as “the thing I basically wasted my whole life on”). Carruth tried to get Hollywood backing for the project, but couldn’t get anywhere because he demanded to have final cut and final say on every aspect of the film’s production—conditions that no Hollywood producer would ever agree to.
  • After finally abandoning A Topiary after 7 years of attempted development, Carruth conceived and shot Upstream Color in about a year, announcing the project in October 2011 and debuting it at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2103.
  • Besides writing, directing and acting in the film, Carruth is also credited with the music, cinematography and editing. He also handled distribution of the movie himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun,” says the Thief, and a quick shot suggests his statement is true. Of course, you can only glance at the sun for the briefest of moments, and the camera observes this caution, so you may spend the rest of the movie wondering if you saw what you thought you did, or if it was just a result of a hypnotic suggestion.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Upstream Color is the movie that asks the question, “what if there was a psychoactive parasitic worm that could create a psychic link to a person if you surgically removed it and implanted in a pig? What would that be like?” It then proceeds to answer the question.


Shane Carruth discussing Upstream Color for Sundance Film Festival’s “Meet the Artist” promo

COMMENTS: In his negative review of Upstream Color, The Guardian‘s Jeremy Kay prefaced his synopsis with, “here’s the plot, such as it is. It’s Continue reading 164. UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

LIST CANDIDATE: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

UPDATE (3/5/2014): Upstream Color has been officially inducted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Here is the Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Upstream Color

PLOT: After a man known as the Thief drugs a young woman and steals most of her money, she loses her job and some of her memory, and needs to start an entirely new life; a year later she is romantically pursued by an incorrigible businessman, but their relationship is hindered by her traumatic experience and the enterprising man behind it.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Approaching the narrative in a dreamlike state, Upstream Color is a surreal and beautiful journey through lingering trauma, tinged with elements of science-fiction and romantic drama. Its convoluted, unstructured story is at first distancing, but the imaginative visuals, strong performances, and compelling use of sound make for a weird movie that’s also emotionally resonant.

COMMENTS: Opening with choppy shots of a mysterious drug operation involving white worms with unique mind-altering properties, Upstream Color devotes most of its first act to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a special effects coordinator who is knocked out, drugged up with a worm, and essentially taken hostage in her own home for a few days. The worm has a kind of brainwashing effect, allowing the Thief (Thiago Martins) to coerce Kris into signing away all that she owns. Left alone and discovering the living worm crawling around inside her skin, she is sonically drawn to a pig farm where the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) cuts it out of her and harvests it for future use. She wakes up at home with no memory of the experience, and only an empty bank account and unemployment to look forward to. It is a deeply unsettling sequence, played out in short, calculated bursts that emphasize the strange and harrowing process of Kris’ mental infiltration. The Thief remains faceless and monotone while she unquestioningly follows his every command, which primarily involve making her repetitively perform mundane tasks as a means of keeping her weak and controlled.

Fast-forwarding: after things have settled down, Kris, with a new haircut and an unexciting job at a copy shop, is harsh and distrustful. Her first interactions with Jeff (Shane Carruth) are halting and unsure, choppy and without resolution, and as their relationship grows deeper their scenes together become repetitive and disjointed. Both seem to have confused memories. The soft-glow blur of their romance is cut through with an otherworldly hum that seems to take over Kris, and she and Jeff begin to realize there are greater forces at work here. Their unconscious repetitive actions echo each other, and they see connections in each other’s fragmented psyches. Through it all the Sampler watches them, maintaining the pig farm where he harvests the mind-altering worms, with each pig serving as some kind of psychic link to the humans he’s operated on. His stony, unreadable demeanor makes him an ominous figure, and his sound-gathering trips are fascinating while also somehow menacing.

Upstream Color is notable for its combination of different genre and story elements that are blended and transformed through Carruth’s innovative narrative and filmic techniques. Diffused light and extreme close-ups mix with quick-cut editing and microscopic natural wonders, along with some graphic medical procedures and animal abuse. The loving attention to sound—both effects and background score—is clear, effectively creating an at-times anxious and at-times comforting atmosphere. The film is composed of little details that may or may not be important, as the bigger picture gradually, partially reveals itself, so that every scene is equally gripping and enigmatic. While the story is often ambiguous, Carruth does not lose sight of his characters, and in fact the performance of Amy Seimetz as the central figure grounds much of the film. As a whole it is certainly obscure and utterly dreamlike, and most viewers will likely leave unsure of exactly what went on, but certain that whatever it was, it was beautiful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “To watch the haunting, disturbing ‘Upstream Color’ is to feel like you’re inside not one of your own dreams but someone else’s, a dream that’s both compelling and unnerving in ways you can’t put your finger on.” –Kenneth Turan, LA Times.

LIST CANDIDATE: PRIMER (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shane Carruth

FEATURING: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

PLOT: Two engineer/entrepreneurs accidentally discover a box that allows time travel, and

Still from Primer (2004)

soon get themselves into trouble.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTPrimer‘s baffling story gives you an untethered, free-falling in reality feeling.  But although the dense, complicated, and deliberately obtuse plot produces a level of confusion comparable in effect to the weirdest David Lynch movies, I’ve got the sinking feeling that, if you dissect  it carefully, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for everything that happens.  (That complaint makes the 366 project the only outlet in the world to potentially reject Primer because it makes too much sense).

COMMENTS: If what you most value in a movie is a plot that will inspire you to sit down and create a schematic flowchart—maybe using multiple ink colors to illustrate various contingencies—in order to figure out what’s going on, then have I got a recommendation for you!  Made for an incredible $7,000 on suburban locations with only two major characters and no special effects, Primer relies entirely on it’s smart, knotty script to keep the viewer interested—and succeeds admirably.  After a pre-time travel prologue, joltingly edited and spoken largely in an untranslated engineerese that’s fairly bewildering in itself, Aaron and Abe (A & B?) stumble upon a box that will allow them to travel backwards in time for about a day at a time.  Like any of us would, they initially use the box to play the stock market, investing in the day’s biggest mid-cap mover.  After placing their online orders in the morning, they agree to carefully lock themselves in a hotel room away from the rest of the world so that they won’t accidentally kill their own grandfathers or meet their doubles wandering around on the street.  The plan goes well for a while, but then strange, logic-defying events start happening, and each of the two men wonders if the other is cheating on their agreement, secretly going back a day to change events for personal reasons.  Paranoia mounts as they become suspicious of each other and of reality itself.  That brief synopsis actually makes Primer sound more (initially) coherent than Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: PRIMER (2004)