Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Shot-By-Shot Analysis of Shane Carruth's Upstream Color - Part 1

by Jack Kentala

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

Preface: Primer, A Topiary, and the resulting Upstream Color

We all know the general story of Primer and its writer/director/producer/actor/cinematographer/composer/autodidact Shane Carruth, who stole Sundance with a strange, brilliant film cobbled together in and around Dallas with a nonprofessional cast and crew. Moreover, Carruth, a first-time director, revealed on the DVD commentary that he basically taught himself cinematography in lieu of hunting down a DP. There's also the unanswered question why an engineer who worked as a flight-simulator developer went off on his own and made one of the most striking cult films of this century.

And just as he came on the scene, Carruth vanished. There are rumors that he was courted by Hollywood players trying to bring his mind-warping filmmaking style to big screens and bigger audiences; it's not surprising given the concurrent rise of directors like Christopher Nolan who make similarly "mind-bending" work. Carruth was already laying the groundwork for a film that spent nearly a decade in development before he pulled the plug.

Information on the canceled film, A Topiary, is scattered across the internet. Supposedly there's a script floating around the dark, damp corners of the internet, but anyone who has seen Primer and certainly Upstream Color will know that a Carruth script would likely resemble a mountain of unsorted jigsaw puzzle pieces with no box image for guidance. The bones of a plot summary reveal basically nothing. In one of the few interviews I've read, a cagey Carruth mentioned that, in the first part of A Topiary, a man becomes obsessed with a pattern he finds in all aspects of his life, leading him and others to search for some greater truth. In the second half, strange creatures built by kids out of everyday objects come to life.

As for the demise of A Topiary, it's mostly speculation, as is the theory that many elements of that project migrated to Upstream Color. In another interview Carruth mentioned the concern that he would've had to farm out the ambitious visual effects to multiple companies. It also might have cost far too much for a likely-niche audience. The most likely answer for A Topiary's demise is a combination of everything mentioned.

Upstream Color, though, is no consolation effort, and it's certainly not Carruth's sophomore slump. I first saw the film in early 2014 and was immediately spellbound. The film, while met with acclaim on the festival circuit, remains criminally underseen, so I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. Also, since I've found no official breakdown of the film - sadly, there is no commentary on the disc - I can veer into wild speculation for my more ambiguous theories.

Let's begin:

The Thief's routine, the kids, and the "blue"

The first shot is a garbage bag filled with a chain of paper rings. Its explicit importance becomes known rather early in the film, but the visual metaphor of circles, often linked together, carries throughout the entire story.

The swelling, evocative score comes in, which is a presence throughout most of the film. In the many years since Primer, Carruth has greatly improved his musical chops. (Steven Soderbergh was so impressed that he hired Carruth to score his executive-produced The Girlfriend Experience, the TV series based on the Soderbergh-directed movie of the same name.) Whereas Primer had moments where instruments like pianos were obviously synths, here Carruth uses either real instruments or very convincing digital counterparts.

The Thief - a name only mentioned in the official credits, which is how I'll refer to most of the characters - is shown taking two garbage bags filled with paper rings to a dumpster. We don't know it at the moment, but anytime he visits the site to drop off the chains is an indication of his dubious activities.

Two kids approach on bikes. How they became aware of The Thief's operation is never explained. One of the kids asks The Thief when he and his friend can come over, implying that they've associated with him before. The Thief responds that it'll be a couple of weeks, likely to distance himself from his crimes and his victims to avoid detection.

The sound design is very aggressive; when The Thief opens the sliding door of the dumpster it's loud and jarring. It's an interesting approach to the sound design, in which the dynamics are quite harsh. Also, most of the ADR in the film quite plainly sounds like ADR instead of the original on-camera audio. Given how much this film is about our senses and the way we interpret and interact with the world, the sounds of exterior objects - a metal sliding door, bicycle spokes, a truck - create an otherworldliness, like the reality of Upstream Color is slightly removed from our own.

The Thief shops for plants, and he obviously looks for a very specific plant. He needs the worms that burrow in the plant's roots, though how those worms get there is never explicitly addressed. The Thief examines the leaves on one plant and seems dissatisfied. Eventually he finds a leaf that contains traces of a powdery blue substance when scraped with a knife. Though this powder is never used in any raw fashion, the imagery of powder suggests its use as a drug; the vector of delivering this drug, however, is quite involved.

For the sake of clarity, I will mainly refer to the drug as the "blue."

The Thief buys all the plants that contain worms. Back at his house, he burns the plants but keeps the worms.

I want to highlight a great piece of visual filmmaking. As The Thief separates the living and dead worms, he puts them in one of two jars. One jar has a sticker of a blue happy face and the other bears a green frown with X's for eyes. It's far more efficient than labeling the jars with the words "Alive" or "Dead."

The kids come over, including one who wasn't there during the initial encounter with The Thief at the dumpster. He's the first to drink a strange dark liquid, and he slightly shudders at the taste. The other kid drinks it and has no reaction, suggesting he's done this before whereas his friend hasn't.

The next scene shows the enormous gulf between what the kids harmlessly do with the magic beverage versus The Thief's more sinister use. The veteran kid is quite excited at showing his friend the symbiotic effect of the "blue" extracted from the worms and how it physically affects "linked" people.

The new kid closes his eyes and his friend stands next to him. They both start performing intricate, identical gestures with their hands; it looks like the veteran kid starts the movements and his friend unconsciously mimics them. Carruth's score drops out almost completely. The sound design suggests a sort of underwater environ, which becomes more pronounced as the film progresses. It directly correlates to the recurring element of water as seen later, ranging from the drowned pigs to Kris's routine at a local pool. It's all part of the complex cycle and those - "The Sampled" - who unknowingly perpetuate it.

Right before the cut inside the house, the novice kid still has his eyes closed even after the hand motions are completed. He looks like he's hypnotized in a pleasant trance.

The more experienced of the two kids mentions, "See how many he had to go through to get a good one?" This ties back into sorting the worms into the dead and alive jars. It raises the question of whether or not the "blue" drug kills the worms in the plants or if the worms die otherwise.

As the kids prep a worm, it seems that there's a very precise method to make the magic beverage, even though, later, just the worm itself suffices to create the effect. The sound design takes a micro perspective: there's the snap of a can opened, the fizzle of carbonation, and the soda poured over a worm and into a glass.

This mysterious shot is one of the few glimpses of the "blue" transferred from the worm into the liquid. It's also one of the few shots in the film to include both blue and yellow colors, which gain thematic importance later. There's also a shot immediately after where a number of circular particles fuse together until the last one dissolves, which is accompanied by the death of the worm.

A quick mention of the DSLR cinematography of the film: It's much more forgiving than Primer, which had issues with soft focus and film grain. Primer was shot on 16, so this is Carruth's first official foray into digital. Wisely, he doesn't try to make it look like film, and he embraces what some consider an inherent coldness in DSLR cinematography. He often uses practicals and plays with color temperature based on available light.

While the overall color palette remains relatively grounded and unchanged, the majority of the film plays as a master class on composition, providing the visual interest for the many wordless passages in the film in addition to the rhythm of the editing.

I'm reminded of Dave Eggers's intro to David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest, where he declares that there isn't a single "lazy sentence" in the entire tome; similarly, there certainly aren't any "lazy shots" in Upstream Color.

Back with the kids, the one with glasses is given his own drink, and he suddenly doesn't seem so sure about downing it. He's probably also a first-timer. In the "fight" scene after, it's telling that when asked if he's ready, his answer is a simple "No." He's then distracted by The Thief passing by the door, and the veteran kid throws a punch. The kid with glasses, without looking, deflects his friend's strike, causing their flat palms to touch above their heads. The two are suddenly mirror images of each other. Both are locked in to the point where they can both anticipate the actions of the other. They're bound by whatever sort of symbiosis is created by the "blue."

Continue to Part 2.