Pig Farming for the Hyper-Intelligentsia
It was with a notable degree of gleeful delight that I told Ye Editor that one of the films I was considering seeing this week was Shane Carruth's Upstream Color. 'I can't wait to see you explain that plot,' is the phrase that particularly sticks in my memory. Well, as you know, the Ed is a very cultured guy who is capable of talking intelligently with German words about opera and suchlike, and Upstream Color is clearly the sort of thing which is up his street. I would have thought it was up mine too, as – whatever else Upstream Color is – it's definitely an SF movie.
However, the house of SF has never been more arty than in the case of Upstream Color. This film is aimed at the kind of punter for whom Inception was just way too mainstream and obvious a piece of film-making. This is usually the point at which I would launch into a brief outline of the plot and how the story gets under way. Unfortunately – and here's where you may faintly be able to hear distant laughter – Upstream Color has a peculiar relationship with conventional notions of plot and story.
I am absolutely not saying that Upstream Color doesn't have a plot or a story. But where most films take their responsibilities quite seriously when it comes to things like setting up a scenario, introducing characters, and developing a plot, with Carruth it is much more a case of a journey to the centre of 'what the...?' What Carruth does as writer, director and editor is construct little moments of incident, which he then floats past the viewer bereft of all the usual connective tissue in terms of understanding how they relate to one another.
I knew very little about Upstream Color's plot before I went to see it (the temptation is to add that, having seen it, I still know very little about the film's plot), but I suspect that much of the film's special charm derives from the oblique unfolding of events as it progresses. So, bearing all of this in mind and not wanting to spoil the experience of watching it, this film is primarily the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz – by no means a very famous performer, but one with a prodigious work ethic), a woman who is the victim of a rather exotic type of extortion which effectively destroys her life. Recovering from the fallout of this, she meets and begins a somewhat fraught relationship with Jeff (Carruth himself), a broker. Intimately connected with all of this are the activities of a pig farmer who also enjoys making some slightly peculiar recordings.
Or so it seemed to me, anyway: the film is very much a puzzle (there are long stretches which are almost entirely dialogue-free) and I think the challenge of trying to work out how the different strands fit together is what has endeared this film to so many critics. Bits of it wander off in different directions and narrative roles shuffle around unexpectedly; I myself emerged with a vague sense of what had been going on but would by no means claim to have completely understood it.
I expect that many people who prefer films where you don't need to be a savant to work out what you've just seen would accuse Upstream Color of being incredibly pretentious. I have some sympathy for this view: the film is artfully shot and convincingly played, but does this particular story demand to be told in such a cryptic way? The obvious comparison is with Carruth's previous film, Primer. Highly abstruse and erudite academic articles have been written trying to tease out the full details of Primer's intensely convoluted plot, but there's an argument to be made that Primer is about about an inherently deeply confusing situation and so the film itself is justified in deliberately being confusing too.
I'm not sure the same argument can be made for Upstream Color – the plot isn't exactly complex, but its telling is so disarticulated that it almost feels like it is – but of course in order to be sure I would have to be certain exactly what the film is supposed to be about. In the end, I suspect that Shane Carruth gets away with it, but to say more would – yet again – risk spoiling the film.
This has been an unusually difficult and slightly frustrating review to write, which is interesting because watching the film itself was a genuine pleasure (although a slightly bemusing one). Carruth is turning into one of the most interesting film-makers working today, taking what looks like standard genre material and producing films quite unlike anyone else. Careful thought and considerable artistry have clearly gone into the making of Upstream Color and it's my respect for this which makes me unwilling to crack the story open here and delve about inside it in too much detail. It's a very, very unconventional film, and I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone I didn't know quite well. But it offers many subtle pleasures.