July 29, 2013
Sophomore Efforts Marathon: Upstream Color (2013)
Plenty of hotshot directors burst onto the scene with a stunning debut, but how do they follow that magic? They may have spent years developed their first project, and now people expect them to do it again in a few years! Avoiding the “sophomore slump” is a challenge for even the most capable filmmaker. Our expectations are higher, and even delivering competent entertainment may be disappointing. A good example is Duncan Jones, who arrived with the intriguing Moon. When he delivered the impressive but conventional Source Code, audiences wondered what happened. This isn’t fair to Jones, but it shows the challenges faced on the second movie. For the next four weeks, I’ll explore follow-ups from directors who delivered remarkable opening films. My first entry is Upstream Color, which appeared in theaters earlier this year. Movie fans have been raving about Shane Carruth’s Primer since its 2004 release. He’s finally returned with the challenging Upstream Color, which has generated even more divisive reactions. There’s no easy way to tackle this picture, which is open to many interpretations.
What's this story about?
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted by a thief who uses inventive mind control to steal all her money. His tactics involve an organism that invades the body and leaves serious traces after it’s been removed. After her life falls apart, Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) and realizes he’s faced a similar experience. They begin to uncover their connections and trace their trauma back to a mysterious Sampler (Andrew Sensenig). Their relationship grows, but they’ve hardly escaped the demons of the past.
How does this film connect with the themes of Primer?
Carruth’s first movie has a well-deserved reputation for confusion, and his follow-up takes the challenge to a new level. If you aren’t careful, it’s easy to get stuck in this world of pigs and strange beings. I rarely get lost in films, but I’ve had a similar experience with both Carruth films. That doesn’t mean they don’t work, however. His characters are struggling to connect in a difficult world that isn’t what it seems. Kris loses her job as a graphic designer and has no money, and this separation from her past life throws everything into chaos. She’s a drifter who rides the train and just tries to get out of bed every day. When she connects with Jeff, it’s clear that they share more than just a romantic attraction.
Where is Carruth venturing in a new direction with this film?
Unlike the involved conversations of Primer, this story includes limited dialogue and is more concerned with images. The visual sequences wash over us and deliver a mesmerizing, often maddening experience. Carruth is taking a more contemplative approach to this world and uses a sci-fi premise to paint such a vivid look at the natural world. The Sampler is doing nefarious things, but he’s also obsessed with recording sounds. He’s basically a mad scientist who’s so wrapped up in exploring the organisms that he doesn’t care about the negative impact on people like Kris and Jeff. Carruth’s score provides an elegant backdrop to a movie that has a similar tone to Malick’s The Tree of Life. He puts us right inside the emotional space of the characters, and we’re right with Kris while she experiences the trauma.
Are the characters interesting? What performances stand out?
This question is tricky because we learn so little about Kris before she’s abducted. She’s the unfortunate victim of a scene right out of a horror movie, though the outcome is much different. Amy Seimetz dives into the material and brings so much emotion to Kris’ plight. She realizes that her body is different and even thinks she may be pregnant. Seimetz goes into some challenging territory with this performance, and she never strikes a false note. Carruth is solid as Jeff, though he’s so withdrawn that it’s hard to connect with him. He’s essential in showing Kris that she isn’t crazy, but it’s really her story.
Does Carruth avoid the "sophomore slump"? If so, how does that happen?
Upstream Color is the type of film that will captivate some viewers while others scurry for the exits. My reaction falls closer to the former but doesn’t totally reach that level. Carruth masterfully draws us into this world and uses remarkable imagery to create a unique atmosphere. He makes parallels between the pigs and humans that are obvious, but it doesn’t feel like an art project. There’s enough mystery behind the story that it remains intriguing despite the puzzling material. While this film may not have the staying power of Primer, it’s a more interesting movie for me. Carruth seems determined to chart his own course; I don’t see him being announced as the director of the latest blockbuster anytime soon. He’s a unique filmmaker who should provide interesting material for a long time.
Next week, I’ll close another David Lynch blind spot and check out The Elephant Man.