After years of trying to play the Hollywood game, Shane Carruth is finally back with a new film. That news on its own is enough to send cinema nerds scrambling for seats. Upstream Color, which Brian Rafferty at WIRED aptly calls, “beautifully baffling,” and about which Steven Shaviro tweeted, “wrenching, nearly impalpable. Left me dazzled, tongue-tied. Sort of the Martian riposte to Terence Malick? I don’t even..,” is definitely worth the wait. Carruth, who previously dazzled us with the self-produced, garage sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), spent the years since trying to get a script called A Topiary made, which, even with the support of no less than Steven Soderbergh, never received the funding it needed. He was on hand at the Music Box Theater in Chicago last night and answered questions between screenings of his two films. Reluctant to offer up spoilers and background on the underlying elements of the story, he was additionally thwarted by the audience from doing so. Carruth did say that after all the time he wasted on A Topiary, he’s sold on the independent route he’s been following.
Where Blade Runner (1982) uses memory as the basis for identity, gifting its android Replicants with an implanted past thereby giving them a sense of self, Upstream Color manipulates its characters’ lack thereof. Not knowing exactly what happened to you means not knowing exactly who you are. Both Kris (Amy Seimetz, who, among other things, was previously in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture; 2010) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, who also co-starred in Primer) have experienced a trauma they don’t recall, and their spotless minds do not yield eternal sunshine. Their missing memory strips them of their subjectivity, which is then built back up again in incomplete layers, juxtaposed with suspicion, worry, and paranoia. It’s an allegory and a love story, but don’t go in trying to figure it out.
The hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of Primer was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voiceover, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music. As a composer, Carruth gave props to my favorite score of all time, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris (2002). Though both are beautifully sparse yet eerily unnerving, his own soundtrack for Upstream Color owes little to Martinez (Clint Mansell’s 2009 Moon score has cornered that debt).
Carruth promised not to keep us waiting another nine years for his next film, saying he’s hoping to start production on his next project, called The Modern Ocean, this summer.
Here’s the official trailer for Upstream Color [runtime: 2:10]: