Requiem for an Upstream Color

11 07 2013

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Shane Carruth, with this movie, has unlocked the expressive potential hidden in Primer. While his debut spun a devious plot of time paradoxes, Upstream Color unwinds into an expressionistic spectacle. Carruth now doesn’t quite care if the pieces fit, if the fragmented imagery coalesces into anything graphable or tangible. Rather, he seems more attuned to sound and texture, to the feeling of movement, of being confused, without goals or direction except staying alive, moment to moment.

I am reminded of Darren Aronofsky, of Requiem for a Dream. Like it, Upstream Color is partly about substance abuse, about altered bodies and states of mind. Two lovers: one has a history with traditional drugs, with cocaine; the other, with an odder and stranger drug, derived from tiny psychedelic worms. In Primer, the shifts in time and space, justified by the time travel story, eventually became more philosophical: what it meant to be unchained, unstuck, roaming wild across the space-time continuum. Here, the narrative justification is weaker. Perhaps, like in Requiem, the substance abuse leads to distorted perception and memory loss. Aronofsky is more literal, though. He is especially fond of dramatizing the moment of intoxication, the dilated eyes, the popping veins. Carruth cares more about the space between hits and lines, where the wandering mind is lost amidst the spotted continuity of the dream life. So is Aronofsky, no doubt. But the lasting impression of his Requiem is the kinetic, electric, hopped-up editing. Upstream Color seems more contemplative, elliptical. Rather than emphasizing the moment of consumption, it plays like a disjointed memory, the recalled year of living dazedly.

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Life disappears into holes of forgetfulness. As the remembrance of things past unrolls on the screen, gaps punctuate the discontinuous run of days and hours.  Aronofsky, after Requiem, would later make The Fountain, which peppers a reasonably realistic tale, about a scientist hoping to save his wife from the claws of disease, with mindfuckery about space-faring trees and surreal conquistadors. Carruth does something similar in Color, in which the romance between two lonely broken souls is interrupted by images of pigs corralled by an omniscient, Godly figure who, in his down time, enjoys recording ambient sound samples. But The Fountain was more sober. Each of its three stories – scientist, conquistador, space traveler – was perfectly understandable in and of itself. How they came together, now that was the question. Aronofsky basically riffed on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which, when it was released in 1916, was criticized for its supposedly incoherent editing. But it was really rather straightforward. Sure, it haphazardly links together four unrelated stories – the social struggles of the 1920s, the Passion of Jesus Christ, the fall of Babylon, the murder of the Huguenots – but unites them under a common rhythm. Yes, Griffith tried to more explicitly connect the stories via some meta-hogwash about man’s inhumanity to man and the cradle of life, but nobody bought that excuse. What made the movie watchable was pace, editing, emotion. Four stories making a synchronized dramatic dance, moving towards parallel violent climaxes. Aranofsky’s surface excuse is more sophisticated than Griffith’s. He intertwines the stories more convincingly. But, on a deeper level, what makes The Fountain work is how the three tales plunge towards an exciting end, how everything works musically, like in Intolerance. Same thing happens with Upstream Color, except Carruth seems more in control of his material, more aware that the connective tissue is not the point. No, there are no multiple story-lines, only a single screwed up narrative. But how it flows, how it splinters and shatters, is what expresses the themes and characterizations. We don’t have to right the mess.

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Despite the business with the magic pigs and the sound sampling, the protagonists develop in obvious arcs. We meet a woman who is abused and drugged-up. She descends into the lowest depths, in what looks like a bloody withdrawal period bordering on Cronenbergian body horror. She then emerges into a kind of second life, after her spiritual fall, and meets a troubled man with whom she establishes an awkward relationship in which both confront the demons of their shady pasts. What Carruth does is embroider this basic outline with oddball details, not just for the sake of whatthefuckness, but to contribute to the nightmarish uncertainty. Carruth seems to bounce off genre clichés: strange experiments, ubiquitous Big Brothers, wormy monsters. We expect a linear, explainable, genre-normative plot. Indeed, Carruth’s earlier Primer contributes to this, since so many of us tried to figure it out like a puzzle. But Upstream Color is no puzzle, though its elusive visuals sketch out tentative patterns.

In the experimental, abstract videogame Kairo, you inhabit a city of coffins and skeletons, a city which is also a large, inscrutable machine, which you somehow have to operate. Throughout, there are hints of a larger narrative. Video footage of war and destruction, symbols of the Earth and the creation of life. Are you a God? Are you  generating the trees and the waters? Are you giving birth to humankind? The city-machine is covered in writing. You try to understand, but the attempt is doomed from the start. Yet, enough clues are thrown at you that the resolution seems at hand, just waiting in the following room. The clues make up a pattern, which makes Kairo feel whole and complete. But there’s no way to decrypt the code. Upstream Color is the same, reiterating images of pigs, pills, worms, and disrupted time. We notice the pattern, there’s no randomness. We are always inches away from discoveries and epiphanies. Yet, like  a whisper just beyond our hearing, the words hold meaning but reach us in a muffled dissolution. And the closer we step to the sounds, the more we miss their meaning, like an inevitably frustrated search. Carruth’s opaque film surface shows enough on the other side that we keep looking, connecting the dots of a mysterious shape.

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