If Shane Carruth’s debut “Primer” was left brain–all math, time travel, and nested Venn diagrams of causality–then his new film “Upstream Color” is right brain. The style is still very elliptical, employing a severe cinematic shorthand (more on that in a second), but the data points of its story find cohesion through emotional resonances and connections just under the surface of language. In other words, it’s romantic sci-fi.
The film is best viewed without knowing any of the story–and recapping it here wouldn’t convey any of the film’s magic–so don’t worry about spoilers. I would urge you to see it however you can, immediately.
“Primer” is famously complex, demanding and rewarding multiple viewings like some abstruse bit of analytic philosophy. The new film is much more straightforward. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. Carruth has perfected a grammar of film that feels very modern, very “2013.” Entertainment Weekly once praised “The Usual Suspects” as a great film for the DVD age because it rewarded multiple home viewings; “Primer” and “Upstream Color” are great films for the internet age: they beg for online exegesis and annotated wikis.
Many critics have noted Carruth’s confidence in his audience to follow his films down their opaque paths. While that’s certainly true, Carruth isn’t a dictatorial filmmaker like late Godard. He’s completely subsumed the history of cinema and put it to use with much more economy than we’re used to (i.e. maximalist directors like Tarantino and Xavier Dolan).
Take for example the couple’s meet-cute. Carruth knows we’ve seen a million of those, and they’re honestly a bit boring, so why not just jump 10min ahead, to the middle of their first conversation? Or, in a scene echoing Manhattan, the couple invents backstories for passersby as a means of bonding–the audience understands the function of this conceit as soon as it begins, and Carruth knows this, so he moves forward as soon as it’s proven its effectiveness.
Put differently: every other film shows us something two or three times to indicate pattern and repetition. “Upstream Color” knows you only have to do it once.
This is key. In a post-screening Q&A at the IFC Center, Carruth called the film a “cycle,” and it’s a useful framework for understanding its architecture. I’m not giving anything away when I say the audience knows much more than the characters. We alone witness the cycle’s beginning, maturation, and death. We know it may repeat in another town, with another set of characters, and another set of eerie resonances. It doesn’t need to be made explicit, especially when what has been made explicit–a film drunk on ideas, ambition, and aesthetics–is enough for us to know we’re in the hands of a master filmmaker.