Priming for Upstream Color

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Shane Carruth took the independent film world by storm with his first film, Primer. Premiering at Sundance in 2004, Primer won the Grand Jury Prize, stunning audiences with its complex, scientific plot-line about time travel. Not only did Carruth write, direct, produce, and star in Primer, he did the entire movie for a mere $8,000. After it was released to DVD, it became a cult-classic film – one that begs for multiple re-viewings.

When it was announced that after ten years of obscurity, Carruth would be back at Sundance this year, the indy film industry was buzzing with all kinds of hype. His new film, Upstream Color, didn’t disappoint. In it, Carruth continues with his obsessive control over the creative filmmaking process. He writes, directs, produces, and stars in this film. He also wrote the original score for it and is even planning on distributing the film himself.

Upstream Color is a film reminding us that the wrong question posed to any artistic expression is, “What is this really about?” Carruth’s films resist the distilling of his work to a neatly packaged point. Suffice it to say that in Upstream Color a pig farm, exotic plants, blood transfusions, memory loss, and Thoroeu’s Walden all play central roles in the plot. As Shane stood on the Sundance stage for the Q&A after the film, there was the palpable sense that no one knew exactly how to ask the question we were all wondering: “What the [heck] just happened?”

Upstream Color is a confusing, masterfully crafted piece of narrative in which analysis and deconstruction would short change the experience and meaning of the story. While knowing and identifying certain motifs can help in the appreciation of the film (for example, it’s about how we form and live out of our identities), we can become so obsessed with understanding that we miss the artistic, narrative experience itself. Difficult films such as Upstream Color (and Primer for that matter) have a lot to teach us about interpreting narrative; about not watching to “get it” but watching to “enter in” and be captured by the story. Practicing this kind of seeing, being disciplined by films like Carruth’s, I actually believe we may find ourselves becoming better human beings.

While you wait for Upstream Color to hit theaters (or whatever crazy distribution plan Carruth dreams up), check out Primer on Netflix instant stream.