Shane Carruth has a theory about “The Graduate.” It involves Elaine actually being pregnant with another man’s baby before she runs off with Benjamin at film’s end. It’s about the sadness hidden inside putative happy endings to movies, about the secret burdens they bear. Carruth’s interest in the hidden meanings of beloved films is highly relevant to any discussion of his long-awaited new film, “Upstream Color.” People are likely to have a lot of theories about “Upstream Color,” and Carruth is here to provide some guidance — albeit of a distinctly limited sort.
But first, an attempt must be made to summarize the plot of this wildly impressionistic, deliberately confounding, elliptical film. Carruth’s second feature, his first in nine years, is another unique harvest of science-fiction experimentalism, a delirious amalgam of Lynch, Malick, Kubrick, and Cronenberg. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is targeted by a thief, who uses a mysterious pill and a series of performance-art-style challenges to debase her and break down her personality. Kris comes to, broke, jobless, and alone, and meets Jeff (Carruth), a slick businessman whose persona is also more slippery and unstable than it appears to be at first. Kris and Jeff begin to fall for each other, but a free-floating menace still lingers, possibly embodied in a shadowy pig farmer, a directorial stand-in who devotes his spare time to recording ambient sounds and desultory scraps of overheard conversation for his own pleasure. “These are victims that have no place to put their anguish or their anger,” says Carruth of Kris and Jeff.
One of the foremost mysteries of “Upstream Color,” for much of its running time, is whether there’s a mystery to be solved at all. “The first third of it is as straightforward as this film is ever going to be, pretty much,” says Carruth. “It just lays out the mechanics, it processes Kris, puts her through a system. It’s about control, and so everything is locked down, as far as camerawork. And then the middle third is the part where it becomes this much more subjective experience. The camera work, the cinematic mood, changes and matches it, the music changes and matches it.” Carruth’s framing, following along behind characters as they enter a room, or tracking back to take in a new space, only enhances the sense of heightened first-person point-of-view.
“Upstream Color,” which opened at the Brattle Theatre on Friday, is an immersive experience, and any summary of its narrative runs the distinct risk of reducing it to banality. (I haven’t mentioned the worms, the orchids, or Thoreau’s “Walden” yet.) Like the recent work of David Lynch, Carruth’s film marries narrative inscrutability to emotional richness. Even when deliberately confounding audience expectations regarding plot, Carruth’s use of editing and music create a clear emotional through-line. “I think that in any good story,” says Seimetz of Carruth’s film, “the metaphoric, the emotional, and the plot are all intertwined with each other, and I think what is brilliant about what he did is that people are engaged on this emotional level and on this metaphoric level while being completely puzzled, but also intrigued, about where the plot’s taking them.” Like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the film to which “Upstream Color” bears the most distinct, if blurry, resemblance, the fragile plot is distinctly secondary to the wash of extraordinary images — of the pulsations of Kris’s bloodstream, of the downtown skyline, of pigs rutting in the mud — that bear much of the film’s emotional freight.
The film’s sparse dialogue provides few concrete hints as to the direction of the story. “The second they can start talking about it, they could probably solve it,” Carruth says of the characters’ sense of haunting. “So they can’t talk about it because they can’t know it’s happening. They have to experience the mania and hysteria without being able to point at what it is that is happening.” A knot of grief lingers at the core of “Upstream Color,” darkening even its moments of blooming romance. “There are no words,” says Seimetz, “that can describe or replace or even come close to fulfilling what the great loss and confusion is internally when you have experienced death or loss.”
“I tell you a story, and then you take it and make it your own,” Kris playfully accuses Jeff, and the same could be stated about the film itself, which continually complicates and undermines any semblance of order regarding its narrative. That never bothered Seimetz, a filmmaker as well as an actor, whose own tastes run toward the avant-garde. “This sort of movie makes more sense than the movies where there’s a woman struggling with is she ever going to get married, and is she ever going to figure out balancing career and love?” says Seimetz with a chuckle.
Carruth first pleased and confounded audiences with 2004’s time-travel fantasia “Primer,” which catapulted him from software engineer to indie auteur. As a follow-up, he had written a script called “A Topiary,” an FX-heavy film whose modest price was still too much for Carruth to meet, costing him a number of years of fruitless work.
The kernel of inspiration for “Upstream Color” came for Carruth after engaging in some political debates with his brothers. Carruth felt that they were all guilty of merely parroting the opinions of the various cable channels to which they were loyal. What would happen, he wondered, if everything a person believed were to suddenly disappear? “Are we really just carrying around these cemented identities without the ability to ever change?” Carruth wondered. “So I started thinking about, well, what if that were stripped away, and somebody were just to wake up, and had to rebuild the way they think, based on whatever information was there?” The concept only expanded from there. “It became more and more romantic, this concept of breaking people to their core,” says Carruth. “And that sort of romantic promise that exists when people don’t have anything else, and the other person might be some sort of salvation to a problem they can’t even really define well.”
“Upstream Color” is a distinctly auteurist enterprise. Carruth wrote and directed the film, plays the male lead, edited (with David Lowery), and wrote the film’s haunting musical score. Carruth had initially planned to edit concurrently with shooting. As the shoot went on, he found it harder and harder to simultaneously don his disparate array of hats, eventually bringing in Lowery to assist him. The staccato editing conveys the film’s intertwined narrative inscrutability and lyrical beauty. “It’s this mosaic of tiny, tiny pieces building into this larger picture. And so the scenes that we shot aren’t necessarily in the traditional way where I got to go all the way through the trajectory of my emotion,” says Seimetz. “At a certain point, it becomes like performance art.”
Carruth is also distributing the film through his own company after screening it at Sundance, South by Southwest, and Berlin, among other top-tier festivals. Self-distribution, always a risky business, has paid off so far with solid box office numbers in specialty release.
For Carruth, the editing is of a piece with every other aspect of “Upstream Color’s” creation, including its deliberately misleading relationship to the familiar American trope of redemption through violence. Embracing ambiguity, “Upstream Color” leaves all matters of final interpretation to its audience.
In the same way that Carruth defends his counterintuitive take on “The Graduate” (“I feel like everything is there,” he says), he maintains that “Upstream” also has everything a viewer needs, though he deliberately never clarifies what, precisely, that everything might be. “Why it’s edited the way it is goes back to everything else, like why it’s shot the way it is, why the music works the way it is. We are reflecting subjectivity almost at every turn,” says Carruth. “We can end our story, but the story doesn’t end, really.”
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.