Upstream Color & the Weird World of Shane Carruth

If I had more artistic talent, my review of Upstream Color would just be a text drawing of a pig made of question marks. I consider that the most accurate representation of the experience. I looked down at my notebook after the screening, and the last thing I’d written was “what the f*ck just happened?”

During the post-screening Q & A, a chubby 20-something with a beard raised his hand, and, sounding tentative, asked for a literal interpretation of the plot. Director Shane Carruth was not present, but lead actress Amy Seimetz, suddenly no longer sheepishly cupping her elbow with her hand or playing with her pixieish bob, straightened up, looked at the kid incredulously, and asked “You just saw Upstream Color and you want a literal interpretation?”, openly disdainful of the idea that a person could even want such a thing. Standing with Seimetz onstage, actor Andrew Sensenig helpfully offered “It’s about how you have to find your pig.” Asked about how much of the story the actors understood as they were filming the project, the four or five of them just looked at each other for a few long seconds. Seimetz was the first to speak, offering,”Well, it’s Shane, you know?”

Welcome to Upstream Color, and the weird, culty world of Shane Carruth, Upstream Color‘s director, writer, producer, co-star, cinematographer, editor, sound designer, and soon, distributor. If it’s “something different” you’re after, Upstream Color is your movie. But be careful what you wish for.

Let me see if I can summarize the plot (and I can all but guarantee you that none of these are spoilers for this unspoilable film): a mysterious man harvests special worms, or possibly an organism living in those worms, and spikes a girl’s drink with them. The girl (Seimetz) goes into a trance-like state in which she has no will of her own but can receive and carry out suggestions, as if hypnotized. The punch spiker uses this power over her to clean out her bank account. He skips town, leaving her writhing on her kitchen floor until another mysterious man shows up, cuts the worm out of her, and implants it into a pig. The second man disappears with the pig, and Seimetz is left trying to piece her life back together, eventually meeting and falling in love with a man (Carruth) who’s apparently had the same thing done to him, all the while experiencing a strange psychic connection with the pig. Throughout the process there’s little dialog, just atmospheric music, and certainly no Ice T-in-SVU character, standing around asking helpful, so-let-me-get-this-straight questions. So let me get this straight, he put a girl’s memories inside a pig, and the pig’s memories inside a girl, and now she’s tracking down the pig using its memories so she can get her memories back? Well, yes and no, Ice. Yes and no. The actor onstage might as well have said, “It’s a film about having pig dreams, and the courage to follow them.”

I didn’t know much about Shane Carruth going in, only that he’d previously directed Primer, which I hadn’t seen, but despite it costing only $7,000 to make almost all of my friends had, which is a hell of an achievement in its own right. I only knew that Primer was some kind of mental puzzle time-travel movie with shades of Looper, and that Carruth was some kind of math genius software engineer.

“What I don’t want is this whole concept of it being a puzzle movie or ‘Primer’ being a puzzle movie,” Carruth told the LA Times earlier this year. “That’s not a fun little box to be in.”

It’s a box he’s in no longer, but you wouldn’t know it at first. Upstream Color is so specific with its odd little details – the worm, the pig, weird recurring themes like building paper chains and reading Thoreau – that it feels like a puzzle movie, something you’re supposed to piece together little by little from the clues provided. It’s not like The Master, where you can just float along enjoying the scenery, it really does feel like it’s meant to be deciphered. It’s only at the end when nothing becomes clear that you realize it wasn’t a puzzle at all. It’s more like an unanswerable question, a what-if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest kind of a thing, either profound or pointless, depending on your perspective. It’s probably the most inscrutable film I’ve ever seen. I spent the entire movie silently, angrily demanding to know what the the hell was going on, and while the ending didn’t offer any answers, it did leave me with a strange warm feeling, an emotional drain like maybe my unconscious mind had experienced something at a sub-verbal level while my conscious mind was in the other room making demands. It’s not like a David Lynch movie. Lynch will throw a bunch of schlocky, pulpy, “big” scenes at you – Dennis Hopper masturbating with an oxygen mask, demons, lesbians, etc. – and tell you to find your own logic in them, probably because he just wants the freedom to film imagery he likes without having to justify it with story. Upstream Color is more like a mushroom trip, where you’re forced to imagine conspiracy theories behind the most mundane of objects. Instead of demons and lounge singers, you get Amy Seimetz picking up rocks off the bottom of the pool and reciting Walt Whitman Thoreau when she comes up for air. What does it mean? No idea.

The official synopsis describes Upstream Color as “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.” When she was finally forced to explain, Seimetz said of the film “it’s a film about creating your own personal narrative,” once stripped of the normal collection of memories and artifacts that normally make up what we think of as identity. That all sounds nice and poetic and makes sense in retrospect (and fits my theory about this entire movie being a mushroom trip), but I’m not sure I was getting all that as I was watching it. I’m all for a movie that requires thinking, and that you continue thinking about once it’s over, which Upstream Color certainly is. But I don’t believe a movie where people are doing unfascinating things and you have no idea why for ninety percent of the run time is the best, or the only way to create that. The characters are cold and distant for most of the movie, understandably in a state of shock at their situation, but that begets a cold detachedness from the audience. It’s an intriguing movie, but not a particularly enjoyable viewing experience.

I also have a limited tolerance for existential thinking. In the Q & A, Amy Seimetz, in fumbling to describe the film, said “Don’t you always wonder things like, why are people driving in cars, on streets, and going to work, when we still haven’t figured out the bigger questions, like why do people die? It’s about finding the true meaning of life separate from society.”

I understood what she was saying, in her hippie-dippy ‘shroom-addled way, and most thinking people have similar thoughts. But to me there’s also an obvious answer to that question, which is, people focus on the mundane shit because the bigger stuff is beyond our capability to understand. I respect an earnest attempt to explore the meaning of identity and some of those questions, but as someone who’s comedically-inclined, I have to wonder why that exploration has to be so humorless. (It doesn’t have to be, and Cosmic Bandidos is proof). After all, isn’t existence the ultimate joke?

Okay, well dogs dressed like humans is the ultimate joke, but existence has to be a close second.

GRADE: B (grades are mostly meaningless and entirely subjective on a good day, but especially so with a movie like this)