Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour, written by Shane Carruth, starring Shane Carruth, scored and edited by Shane Carruth, and presumably key gripped by Shane Carruth is two good short films embedded in an Nine Inch Nails music video from an alternate timeline where Trent Reznor discovered E before heroin. Put that on the back of the Blue Ray.
WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead
I’m going to come clean straight away and admit I haven’t seen Carruth’s first film, time travel shenanigan Primer, and actively dodge the frequent attempts by friends (and strangers in the street) to make me see it. I harbour a deep seated distrust and loathing for time travel movies (with the obvious exception of the Bill and Ted series). As soon as any temporal messing around is introduced into a plot, any semblance of narrative nuance is abandoned for LOLPARADOX bullshittery, and the writers go mad with power and the whole thing devolves into wank. When I watch Terminator 2 (the only good Terminator film), I just pretend that the goo robot was sent on his murder quest by the phone company and Ahnold was built by a cabal of shampoo manufacturers, desperate to protect the profits they made keeping John Connor’s fringe so silky soft. Back on topic, these so called friends reply that it’s not like that at all, and that it’s very good and smart and well made, to which I respond by flouncing away like a dandy, with my fingers in my ears shouting la la la I can’t hear you. The point of all this is that apparently Carruth has earned his bona fides and is generally respected amongst certain sections of the film watching folks. Good for him, moving on.
Upstream Colour, what’s it all about? Worms, I think. Well that’s probably not what it is capital A About, but they certainly factor into things quite heavily. After some a short prologue involving some neighbourhood children performing an interpretive dance on the theme of The Karate Kid, the film gets going properly. After a night out, Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) is accosted in a rain drenched alleyway and has a small white grub forced into her mouth. Soon, she is in total thrall to her attacker, who returns with her to her house. Here is the first ‘good short film’. We are shown her attacker feeding her suggestions and commands. Some of these make a lot of sense, with the attacker keeping Kris from from forming memories of his face (the way she shields her eyes when he informs her nonchalantly that his head is made of solar plasma is a particularly nice moment), and others are impenetrable in motive, like forcing her to make paper chains from transcribed pages of Walden. Fine, we all have our fetishes. It’s all very well shot, and Thiago Martins’ performance as the flat affect modern day voodoo priest infuses things with an unsettling sense of dread. Eventually he suggests that she goes to the bank and sign over everything she owns to him in cash. His aims achieved, he leaves her alone and shattered on the kitchen floor.
The film then lulls for a period while Kris has a breakdown and gets fired from her job. She gets a bit spooked when she notices worms moving through her body, and goes through the standard rigmarole of trying to remove them by stabbing herself in the legs more or less at random; We’ve all been there. The tedium is compounded by an abundance of shots of Kris touching something very slowly, or close ups of her face looking totes emosh. The lack of an editor who wasn’t also the writer and director is felt pretty keenly here as most of it could have been cut out without detriment to the film. This is particularly grating in a lengthy scene that takes place after her worm is removed and placed inside a piglet, (by a middle aged bloke in a van with a subwoofer that would make Jah Shaka jealous) where she walks around a house looking quite bored by it all. I know how she feels.
A bit further on, and enter Shane as human Moleskine notebook Jeff. He notices Kris on the commute to work and starts to
stalk insistently pursue her romantically. There is some very dry humor to be found here (e.g. Jeff’s response when Kris dumps her medication on the table of a coffee house) and things move along at a fair clip. This section of the film is a bit more open structurally. The pigs that have had the worms implanted in them trot down the narrow run to their pen, and this is echoed in the crowds of commuters on the trains shuffling off to another grim day at work, or home to a bowl of steamed vegetables in front of Netflix (and they say the art of Film Projection is dead). There is even an echo of this metaphorical echo in the form of actual echos (typing!) in the scenes where the middle aged bloke from the van (henceforth the farmer) chucks some rocks about in a tunnel, trying to get the reverb response just right. As an occasional dabbler in music and reverb aficionado myself, I know his struggle, but I think the lengths he goes to in order to create his soundscapes (didn’t I mention that already? Keep up) are a bit mad. But then maybe that’s why he’s a successful farmer / musician / telepath and I’m not. The time we spend with the farmer, entering the lives of other people who had been through the same process as Kris makes up the other ‘good short film’ portion.
I won’t talk any more about the plot, because I could go on forever with it (it certainly doesn’t get any less convoluted from here), and you have either already seen it or made your mind up on the value of the story by this point. What about the rest of the stuff you are supposed to do in a film review?
Looking at it with your eyes
Apologies to my blind readers, but I am going to focus on what it’s like to look at for a bit. Most striking is the degree to which everything feels so designed. Everything is a bit drab, but also clean to the point of sterility. Carruth makes almost no use of props or set design to ground us in a real feeling place. There are no establishing shots, making the middle portion of the film feel as if it is taking place in a never ending corridor several hundred miles under the earth. Everything is evenly lit, and clear, and dry, and it produces an interesting effect when combined with the constant use of close cropped shots of the leads; They are the story and the setting.
One thing that did get extremely tiresome was the inclusion in virtually every frame of the movie of a blue object (as can be seen in the image accompanying this post). The idea, I think, is that blue was the colour of the worm / pig / orchid lifecycle, and that as this cycle suffuses the lives of the main characters. That’s fine, I suppose (although I don’t know why it’s always colour chosen to be these kinds of symbols. Sure, it’s ubiquitous in vision, but so is shape, or movement), but it is utterly relentless in a way that jars horribly with the more subtle aspects of the rest of the film. Other directors do it too. I wonder if it’s seen as a shortcut to being considered ‘arty’. At the beginning of preproduction, spin a colour wheel and whatever it lands on, make sure you’ve got it in every shot. Hooray, here’s your awards you hack. And while I’m on an insecurity fueled rant, what on earth happened to the end credits? For a film with such painstaking detail in every scene, it feels very much as if Shane forgot to add them until the day before deadline. Bizarre.
Gripes aside, it is quite a beautiful film with a similar clarity of vision and dedication to design to Spike Jonze’s Her. If you are just looking for something pretty to look at, you could certainly do worse.
Fun with sequencers
The sound design of the film is quite well done. During the initial portions in Kris’ house, the absence of music lends itself well to the claustrophobic atmosphere. When the farmer cranks up the bass to attracts the worm-girl, the throbbing woosh that is generated creates a propulsive sense of disease, and I found myself surprised to feel visceral relief when it finally stopped. If that’s what he was going for, and I suspect it was, he succeeds.
In terms of music, the latter part of the film is scored with the sort of plinky plonky music you might find in a modern indie game’s start menu, albeit of a higher quality. It fits the film well, and quite often runs over several scenes with no relation to the what’s happening. This would usually be a fault, but the non linear, intentionally obscure presentation of events means that this approach works very well.
Beyond that there isn’t much to say, other than if they were real, I would probably buy the farmer’s albums. Especially if they had been made with telepathic pig worms as inspiration.
From the rather scattershot and facile way I’ve described it, you might be surprised to know I’ve actually seen Upstream Colour twice. The first time (around when it was released) I enjoyed it hugely, and went round recommending it to anyone who would listen (why do Shane Carruth films make people into zealots?). When I watched it again recently, my feelings were decidedly cooler, and I felt slightly embarrassed for having evangelized it so heavily. Why the change then? Maybe it’s that the first time I watched it, I was in the middle of a ridiculous fugue of daytime bottles of cheap red wine and other forms of mindless self indulgence, with no schedule or demands on my time at all. It was spring, and life was fresh and cool like mountain water, and I had time to waste. When I watched it again, I had a job (of sorts) and it was night time, and there were things to be done in the morning and washing up and other obligations. I suppose what I’m saying is that spending time watching films like this is a risk or a gamble, and the relative value of 90 minutes of your free time determines whether it’s a wise one. It’s an interesting film, and in parts a good one, just don’t bet the farm on it.