Sundance London Film Festival 2013: ‘Upstream Color’ is a phenomenal film concerned with phenomena
Written by Shane Carruth
Directed by Shane Carruth
In William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition a mysteriously binary filmmaker slowly and anonymously drip feeds footage of his homebrew masterpiece to an eagerly seduced audience of intellectually curious, avant-garde aligned internet film fanatics. Christened as a ‘garage Kubrick’ by the fictional on-line community this was prescience as normal from Gibson, as a year later filmmaker Shane Carruth released his paradoxical puzzler Primer, a film he had written, directed, edited, acted, produced and scored for an infinitesimally small sum, mostly capturing his doppelgänger debut on the off-cuts and donations from industrial and corporate sources. An instant cult classic the films time travel programming and unconventional disregard for plot progressions has fostered a deluge of debate on its contortions and purpose, with every year seeing the electronic publication of a new workflow to interrogate its syncretic structure, each of which increasingly resembling an IED assault on a PowerPoint presentation. Almost a decade later and Carruth has finally completed his sophomore sequencing, releasing the eagerly awaited Upstream Color to a simultaneously bewildered and beatific audience, through a production process that exemplifies the 21st century. There has been much cultural speculation that the advance of the internet and so-called digital emancipation would hand the keys of production to the public and wrestle it away from the corporate clutches of international finance, with the committed and cerebral able to digitally shoot their own projects with increasingly inexpensive cameras, cut them on bespoke editing platforms, score them in synthetic lap-top studios , and crucially distribute them electronically through social media platforms, maybe even funding their uncompromised visions through Kick-Starter and other emerging funding streams, with crews recruited from Craiglist. Although some filmmakers have adopted some of the techniques in that production chain of command no-one has fully embraced (or been pushed) more fully into that process than Carruth given the frustrations he suffered with the development of his abandoned project A Topiary, and these frustrations seems to have infected his work as Upstream Color operates on a panoply of meta and thematic levels, as either a mercurial masterpiece or pretension personified.
The film has a plot of sorts which doesn’t web together in an immediately lucid fashion, it’s just that Carruth isn’t particularly interested in telling a story as he is in materializing the Xerox of the story, subjecting the viewer to the same disorienting mind state as the two central characters, or more accurately ciphers. What we can discern is this – Kris (a brittle Amy Seimetz) is a office worker in a vaguely creative design or animation field, aimlessly shifting through a nameless American urban suburb. In a scenario which resembles a date-rape Kris is assaulted by a mysterious figure who inserts a bioengineered caecilian into her esophagus, an intrusion which renders her in a brainwashed and highly suggestible mindstate, and the ‘thief’ and her return to her identikit home. After signing away her life savings and assets to the nematode grifter she is drawn to the ‘sampler’ (Andrew Sensenig), a second intangible figure who is performing some strange auditorial field recordings of stone on metal, of brick on wood, out in the wilderness on the outskirts of civilisation. After an unexplained transfusion is conducted between Kris and one of the pigs that the Sampler is harvesting on his eerie farm we flash forward a year as a hesitant romance blossoms between Kris and Jeff (Carruth), he having endured a similar experience, as they both suffer a glitch in their lives and attempt to uncover the mystery of their contemporary lives.
There was a great Roger Ebert quote circulating after his sad passing , that ‘it’s not what a film’s about but how it is about it’, a statement that once unpacked can be thoroughly attributed to Upstream Colors disorienting design and infectious purpose. In this mechanistic narrative a ghost has possessed the machine, with human beings absorbed into the data set as another manipulated cog in the Sisyphean revolutions of daily society. Channelling early Cronenberg with shadows of Eraserhead’s nervous anxieties it’s a experimental work which is sure to divide audiences, given its transparent disregard for plot or narrative cohesion, as Kris and Jeff are locked in a symbiotic psychosis, malfunctioning protagonists deprogrammed as glitch. Through a densely rich visual environment there is a fascination with the beauty of replicating organisms and how organic spheres elide to our manufactured and sterile work places and cities, our species urgent to exert control over visible chaos. The gynaecology is simple to divine, from the man-machine of Chaplin’s Modern Times to The Tree of Life’s 21st century hymn to the complexities and mysteries of life on this planet, Upstream Color is the echo warning that we’ve veered from the path of the sacred, into the proliferation of nullified personalities and of animated machimina.
The medium is the message, a bewildering collusion of image and sound, elliptically edited like the repetitive push pauses of a Attention Deficit Disordered cerebellum, dialogue is phrased and repeated, and Kris and Jeff’s memories even merge and coalesce in a digital stew. The film isn’t completely indeciphersible nor is it completely alienating, movements and tempos in the narrative are signposted with discrete fades to black which signal the conclusion of a sequence, it has the aura of our distanced and surfaced times, the paradox of an interconnected and global aligned world resulting in higher temperatures of disconnect and mental malfunctions, with recitation and fragments collapsing the database of our memories and emotions. Every sequence seems to be spinning its head from side to side in a scan for potential predators, transmitting the bare minimum of information through a pacity of dialogue (the film has no speech in its final fifteen minutes), as the next algorithm stacks up in the films cache table, a malfunctioning malware which is CPU infected at the core. The presence of Henry David Thoreau anarchistic credo is one tumbler in the toolset to decipher some of the films wider drives, his work serving as a manifesto of return to a less industrialised purity, this suggests that the Thief may be a liberator not a plunderer, another of the films interpretative free-floating signifiers. Carruth’s repeated shallow focus framing concertinas the z-axis depth of field which surreptitiously visualizes the films coding , mirroring our absorption in the screens in our homes, on our commutes and in our corporate dronehouses, a calculated effect that squares the algorithms of the films editing patterns, it’s photochemical surface, the heuristic performances and obsolesce of the conventions of plot or narrative clearance.
As the films composer Carruth revealed to his dumbstruck Q&A audience how his original soundtrack developed as the material was visualised, with pieces ejected and repurposed for scenes and sequences as the film moved through its phased evolution, it moves to the rhythm of its soundtrack as opposed to the narrative logistics of tradition cinema, the deprogrammed protagonists paralysed like two whales beached on the oceans of the information superhighway, emitting a mournful electronica fog-horn mating call. Some mysteries remain obtuse and ill-defined – what is the significance of the children in the opening cycle? For what purpose are the Samplers field recordings? – but these and other ambiguities accelerate Upstream Colors processing prowess, as like Primer it is destined for a tsunami of translations and deconstructions of its anodic glyphs, destined for detailed diagnostics of its molten achievements – a phenomenal film concerned with phenomena.