A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the lifecycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.
Let’s, for fun, define genius. How about: ‘a singular, borderline obsessive vision that creates wholly unique and uncompromising work, for no other reason than it needs to be created.’ There are few cinematic geniuses, then, directors with completely distinctive and tenacious voices, making films that seem near idioglottic and sometimes impenetrable, but, watching, you know that they are authentic; you know they make sense, perhaps just not to you, or anyone else besides the filmmaker. They are unerring, following, it seems, the logic of a world different to our own. There are few, because movies are expensive and you have to get people to pay to watch them. Unlike, say, a poem. Or a blog. To see these worlds is to experience, humbly, the mind of an unconditionally original thinker and artist. David Lynch falls into this category. He had to go back to roofing for two years after making Eraserhead until Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) searched him out to make Elephant Man. There is no doubt, even if there is no comprehension, that what we are witnessing is true. Bela Tarr is another—to see The Turin Horse or Werckmeister Harmonies is go somewhere else for a while, a discrete and fully formed place where though we may not speak the language or share the logic, we can know our guide does. Other works of genius might be Post Tenebras Lux by Carlos Reygadas, Enter the Void by Gaspar Noe, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves. Films as real and unsettling as dreams. True cinema genius is rare, a once in a generation thing, perhaps. And we have one now. He is Shane Carruth.
Upstream Colour is Shane Carruth’s second feature, after the low-budget and unnerving Primer. As that film used the Trojan horse of time travel to open the door into something much more profound, Upstream Colour likewise uses a conceit of scientific fiction (this time the bio-horror of David Cronenburg) to go to places more fundamental; science fiction isn’t the destiny, it’s the doorway, a way in to explore identity, memory, culpability. To explain the movie by describing the plot is a disservice, as it is with Lynch’s Eraserhead (a man discovers his girlfriend has had a deformed baby, and finds heaven on a vaudeville stage behind a radiator, and then his brain is made into a pencil eraser) or Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (a travelling carnival arrives in a freezing, provincial Hungarian village and takes over the town square with it’s main attraction, the stuffed carcass of a whale in a ratty tin shed. And then there is a military apocalypse). In this case, an amnesic drug has been found, produced by common larvae, that paralyzes our autonomy. Initially, it is used, in small doses, as an entertaining high, a way to synchronize with someone else and make you really good at street dancing, parkour, or fighting. But, inevitably, as happens with everything new and fun—cocaine, the internet, time share condos—it becomes a tool to fleece people. Criminals soon realize that they can turn unsuspecting victims into hosts for the larvae, who then behave like their marionettes, or a robot with a different driver, while still retaining their encoded memories (like bank account numbers and where the gold coins are stashed). As the criminals loot every corner of the victims’ lives, the perpetrators need only to keep them busy, like automatons, memorizing Walden by Thoreau and making paper chains until the bank transfers have gone through. Once finished, they leave them, without new memories of what happened, only lives emptied of not only of material possessions but also a sense of their identity. They also have a big worm inside of them. A man known as The Sampler, who collects sounds, uses large speakers to attract worms from the ground at night, and also bring the hosts to an operating theatre where he either helps them or doesn’t, it’s hard to be sure, by transferring the worms into pigs that he raises. When two empty hosts (Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth) find each other, a desolate solace is achieved as they try to piece together what vestiges remain of their lives and their selves. And that’s just the surface. Upstream Colour is a film of sound, not dialogue, accessing the parts of our brains more primitive than the speech centers (like Lynch). The hypnotic cinematography veers from sterile to chimerical, a film that explores deep and unanswerable themes like the nature of selfhood and our connection to the world, not through exposition but through visceral, emotional, experience. Carruth says that the characters ‘can’t say a lot of things, and so it puts us in a world where we’ve got to be using all the other elements of film to deliver something close to what the subjective experience is for them. We’ve got to heighten sound, and heighten music, and heighten cinematography, and make sure that we’re suggesting a certain tactility and curiosity with the visuals.’
Upstream Colour is one of those rare movies that takes us someplace else, someplace nonarticulated. And we come back changed.