Anyone who has ever had a conversation with me about time travel films knows that I am a fan of Shane Carruth’s Primer. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004, Primer follows the story of two inventors who accidentally discover time travel and the consequences that come with changing the past. What I really love about the film is just how confusingly realistic it is. Primer has the most accurate portrayals of time travel and it definitely shows. Carruth makes it apparent that he’s not going to hold his audience’s hand through the film, and while to some that creates a feeling of frustration and confusion, for me it creates a feeling of spectacle, one that directly stems from the confusion that somehow seems vital to understanding the story. When it was announced that after nine years, Carruth’s new film, Upstream Color, would be premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I was very eager to see what he would be bringing to the table this time. Luckily, his return to the screen not only provides an intellectually challenging and satisfying experience but also an emotionally compelling one as well.
Upstream Color follows the story of Kris as her life derails after being drugged by a small-time thief. However, something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world. During her journey, she meets Jeff, a man equally consumed by a larger force. The two begin to search for safety within each other as they try to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.
What really impressed me about this film is Carruth’s ability to trust his audience to actually figure things out for themselves. Much like Primer, Upstream Color is a film that demands your attention. While it definitely is not as confusing and scientifically written as Primer, the film rewards audiences for immersing themselves into this piece. A forty to fifty percent of the film takes place without any dialogue, making anyone watching it pay attention to details through visuals only. It’s an experimental piece of work that not only calls for attention to detail but also active participation from its audience. There are questions that are bound to arise but I think that’s the point. The story finds a way to create an emotional impact and say so many things, all the while the characters remain almost completely silent for good portions of the film (the last 30 minutes has a line or two of dialogue). He gives the power of the film away to the individuals watching and allows them to get out as much as they put in, creating a scenario that glorifies cinephiles who truly love the art of cinema.
Technically, this film is absolutely brilliant as well. Easily one of the greatest improvements from his first film is the cinematography. Each shot is meticulous, allowing the viewer the ability to take in his or her surroundings and really grapple with the emotions being felt. Every fade in or microscopic shot meant more than what was being presented; it ois our job to reach out, grab it, and really soak it in. The editing and sound design were both done fantastically as well. Carruth’s ability to cut these shots so cleanly kept the pace relatively fast and everything sound related, from the score to The Sampler character and his little sound “experiment,” which helped the story reach its deeper meanings. Carruth and Amy Seimetz both delivered very emotionally compelling performances as well, and given the fact that much of the film had to be conveyed through looks rather than words is all the more impressive.
However, the most admirable part of this film is Carruth’s DIY style of filmmaking. Much like Primer, Carruth took on most of the aspect of this film himself. He directed, wrote, co-produced, acted in, co-edited, shot, and created the score for this film. To see someone so passionate about his projects that he would rather do everything by himself then relinquish creative control to others is a really refreshing sight compared to the current Hollywood mold. It’s easy to see that Carruth puts himself 150% into his projects, and through this demands the same from the others working on the film as well as the audience. For someone looking to get into film, it’s really inspiring to see an individual whose passion lies in creating a piece of art, rather than a money-generating machine of nothingness (ahem, Transformers) that we see thrown at the screen constantly.
Upstream Color is a cerebrally intimidating but an ultimately satisfying experience. Shane Carruth comes back with a masterfully shot and emotionally intense piece of art. It demands your undivided attention, but the reward you get in the end completely justifies the means. Cinephiles rejoice; this is the film you will be talking about and analyzing for the next couple of months.
Article by Nick Franco