Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour, like his first film Primer (2004), is a curiously patient, unindustrial affair, even if it cost a little more money to make. Carruth wrote both films himself, starred in them, composed the music as well as directing them, or perhaps we should say meticulously arranging them. Upstream Colour, in particular, feels like a jigsaw puzzle of which some pieces are necessarily missing, although enough pieces are there to allow us (and him) to make up a picture. The film also suggests that the picture is interesting but unimportant, a matter only of plot and causality, which we could see going several different ways if we wanted to. The pieces by contrast are precise bits of visual and aural engineering, not a frame or sound out of place, even if we can’t be sure what their place is. Carruth is said to be working on a third film, A Topiary, but he himself has announced that he has given it up. You can see why a director working in his style might no longer want to be where he thought he was going.
I don’t know whether Carruth regards David Lynch as an influence, but Lynch’s name kept coming into my mind as I tried to find a temporary shorthand for the effect of Upstream Colour. The characters are quiet, self-contained, even self-absorbed; they are consumed by a project they themselves do not understand; and after a while their off-beat world begins to seem like a place any of us could inhabit. Well, inhabit on one of our lopsided days. This is largely because of what I have called Carruth’s arranging work. We can put the film together because he lets us watch him put it together, because he provides us with the kit.
Some way into the film, we see a tight close-up of a pair of eyes, closed then open then closed again. Then a woman’s face, looking hunted, tired. There are intermittent rushes of sound in the background, waves perhaps, or traffic. Cut to a car on the side of a road. It was traffic. The woman sits in the car, beginning to realise, more or less, where she is, where she has been. We realise with her. A horrible experiment, everything we have just seen, is behind her. This is her car, she has been dumped there, it has been left there. She needs to go home. This is clear but all we’ve seen are her eyes and the car and her face again.
There is also a sense of returning to older days of film, older possibilities: mute close-ups of a spoon on the floor or crumpled paper on a desk; dialogue that is heard when the speakers are on screen but not talking; unsignalled ellipses and flashbacks; scenes that are metaphors and not narrative locations. At one point there is a cut from a row of barriers leading to a pigpen, a pig trotting between them, to a shot of the inside of a commuter train seen facing forward in the direction of travel, a long aisle bordered by empty seats. There is a narrative connection between these images, which I’ll describe in a moment. But there is also the immediate, non-narrative effect, the visually declared connection between pigs and humans, or rather, between corralled pigs and commuting humans. But then what does it mean that the train is empty? What would happen if there were no trotting pig? And who is thinking/seeing this? One of the characters, perhaps? One of the victims? Or the apparent mastermind?
At a later point in the film a shot of a couple asleep on a bed in a hotel room is followed abruptly by a shot of the same couple, still asleep, but now on a sheet on the bare ground in the large, slightly muddy enclosure where the pigs live. The humans don’t wake up, the film continues as if nothing has happened. Whose mind translates the couple to the pig field? Is this their dream? Their tormentor’s connection? A hint from the director? Later still, the filmed location alternates between the same pig field and a vast room, empty except for a table and a chair and our two main characters. We want to say the room must be the image of an image, a picture of the inside of a mind, while the pig field is probably real. But we can’t, among other reasons because the pig field was in someone’s mind before it got onto the screen. What we can say is that any place in the world may be both real and imaginary – Proust says we spend far more of our lives in the places that we think of than in the places where we actually are – and that while so many films pretend to show us reality, their authority rests on their showing only what might be real. We can’t console ourselves by pretending that half of what might be real is real.
The narrative. The film opens and closes with plants. At the beginning a man scrapes the leaf of an exotic-looking flower and produces a small amount of blue-black dust. This is the sign of the presence in the earth of a certain grub. At the end of the film a leaf of the same plant is scraped and there is no dust. This is the sign that something is over, an adventure, an experiment, a sequence of crimes, all connected with the harmless-looking, wriggling larva. The good guys, the erstwhile victims, have put an end to the doings of the bad guys.
These doings start with a man placing the grub in a capsule and feeding it to a young woman whose name we later learn is Kris, wonderfully played by Amy Seimetz. Seimetz has the ability (aided by Carruth’s camera no doubt) to look different in almost every scene while remaining manifestly the same person: a sort of visual portrait of what the many shades of a mind might be. Kris turns into a kind of zombie, who follows the instructions of the pseudo-hypnotist who has fed her the grub, withdraws her money from the bank and hands it over, borrows a large amount against her house and passes that on too. She is also, for reasons no one is ever going to explain, forced to copy out page after page of Thoreau’s Walden. When she comes out of her trance she sees there is a live creature travelling around under her skin; the grub on its journeys. A mysterious music leads her to a lone caravan, where the character I have been calling the mastermind and the tormentor – the credits call him the Sampler – is waiting for her, makeshift operating theatre all set. He extracts the grub, which now looks like a long string of spaghetti, and transfers part of it to the body of a sedated pig. The later shots of the train and the pig-field are not a simile, or not only a simile: they are a reminder of an act of twinning or legacy. The film’s story, in one sense, is that of the grub’s migrations: from plant to human to pig – and then when a couple of pigs are killed and thrown into a river, from pig to earth to plant. This is where we see the screen going from yellow to blueish, and flowers appearing of a blue that is so clear and lucent that it is creepy, otherworldly. This is, I take it, the upstream colour.
Soon after her operation Kris meets Jeff, played by Carruth, an erstwhile banker and drug addict, who seems to have been infected by a similar grub. Their quest is to find the man who is playing with them, and they do. The sense that the notionally real might be metaphorical is very strong here. How different is falling ordinarily in love from bonding with a person who has the same secret medical history? They don’t need the grub experience, even if they have it. The film lingers with them for quite a bit, and Carruth beautifully catches the mood of a stranded, bewildered couple, drop-outs of the educated class, who don’t have anything except each other – anything that makes sense, that is. At one point they are so scared of what may be out there that they hunker down in their waterless bathtub, clutching each other and their few belongings, as if this were the only safe place in the world.
Then Carruth remembers the plot, and Kris and Jeff catch and execute the Sampler. They also take away his files and are able to identify the other half-dozen people he has experimented on. They send them all a copy of Walden as a token, and they all get together at the pig field. They repaint and renovate the establishment. The pigs are all right, creatures with lives, and no longer mere objects of someone’s curiosity or temporary quarters for grubs. The humans too.
The plot sounds pretty silly, but it has a weird, broken ingenuity to it, and almost any individual sequence of the film will give a better sense of it than an attempt to pull it together. I was particularly taken with a scene in and around an indoor swimming-pool. Kris is diving for stones Jeff has flung into the water. She brings them up and places them on the edge of the pool. Jeff, fully dressed, sitting by the side of the water, has realised that Kris is murmuring phrases from Walden as she comes up, the inheritance perhaps of her old days of copying. Perhaps not, though, because an inset shows her in a shop looking for and finding a copy of the book. Now Jeff is reading from it, and as she surfaces with some of the stones Kris completes the sentences. He says: ‘I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbour, in a house which I had built myself, and earned my living by the labour of my hands only’. She says: ‘I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilised life again.’ Then she dives back for more stones, and comes up to finish the next sentence. And so on, several times, ending with Jeff reading ‘I am glad to have drunk water so long,’ and Kris responding ‘for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky.’ I have no idea what this means, but I could watch it (have watched it) again and again. The intensely naturalistic photography of the pool and the poolside equipment, the earnest acting, the skilfully edited bits of Thoreau, make the scene funny, absurd and curiously touching. Kris and Jeff seem to have found a path out of the wood without actually knowing what a path (or a wood) is.