In ROOM 237, accurately reviewed by our own Katie Rife, we’re given a variety of theories about the “true meaning” behind Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, and while the documentary is certainly interesting, it seems to omit a question central to the its existence – “Why the heck are so many people convinced that THE SHINING has meaning in the first place?” The answer, it seems, is that Kubrick is regarded as an “auteur” filmmaker, and that the films he creates clearly have ulterior motives, far beyond what a plot synopsis can offer.
It’s a sort of trust afforded to Kubrick by cinephiles, one that allows audiences to interpret the films through their own filters, under the guise of adhering a distinct meaning to the intent of the filmmaker. Whether or not the film’s original intent is clear is irrelevant – the respect afforded to a filmmaker that can inadvertently warrant multiple studied interpretations of their work is rewarded infrequently, and only to those that have developed a voice consistent enough to warrant such trust.
It’s virtually impossible to find a write-up of Shane Carruth’s sophomore film UPSTREAM COLOR in which his debut film PRIMER isn’t mentioned in the opening paragraph. PRIMER may have barely made a dent in 2004 when it grossed less than $500,000 in its limited theatrical release, but the film has become a genuine cult phenomenon, name-checked among the best time travel films ever made, and often mentioned as a staple of how science fiction can work beautifully on a minimal budget. PRIMER’s playing with theoretical physics and deliberately disjointed narrative have made the film take on an impressively long life, and one that may have been expanded due to the fact this it took nearly a decade for Carruth to release a second film, giving audiences nothing with which to compare PRIMER. It stood on its own, compelling and yet virtually indecipherable, allowing audiences to take it in and acknowledge it in whatever fashion they felt best.
With only one film under his belt, Carruth was as much of an enigma as a talent as PRIMER was as a film. As fascinating as a film PRIMER is, with only one credit, you aren’t able to see who a director really is as a filmmaker. First time filmmakers who hit pay dirt with a low-budget film often follow up quickly with a film that solidifies their voices (Darren Aronofsky followed PI with REQUIEM FOR A DREAM two years later, the same time taken for Quentin Tarantino to go from RESERVOIR DOGS to PULP FICTION, and a year more than it took Kevin Smith to leap from CLERKS to MALLRATS) but Carruth took his damn time, eschewing bigger budgets and name stars and creating a riddle as to his status as a new cinematic voice as answerless as anything in PRIMER.
Like PRIMER’s cult status, the mystery just became more compelling the more time went on. Audiences that tracked such matters knew that whatever Carruth had in mind as a follow-up, it was going to be unique, and when the cryptic-but-beautiful trailer for UPSTREAM COLOR arrived later this year, it quickly became obvious that if you were on board for PRIMER, you’d be on board for UPSTREAM as well.
While UPSTREAM COLOR is no way a sequel or companion piece to PRIMER, the new film wouldn’t be able to be perceived as well upon first glance without the knowledge of the older one. With PRIMER’s cult following and the length of time it took to make and release a second film, Carruth built up a nearly decade-long degree of trust in more adventurous viewers, and with the knowledge of PRIMER, those going in to UPSTREAM are already prepared for the film. You already know going in that you’re going to be confounded, and there are things that aren’t going to make any sense upon first glance, but thanks to the reputation of PRIMER, you also know that there will be answers, even if some of them you’ll have to provide yourself.
Carruth, despite only having one film to his credit (or perhaps because of it) has managed to get the trust that it took for the subjects of ROOM 237 to become obsessed with THE SHINING, and he uses this trust to beautiful effect in UPSTREAM COLOR. The disorienting nature of the plot — a young woman is essentially hypnotized into giving up her life savings and has no memory of the event – comes together slowly, but the faith and trust in Carruth’s abilities as a storyteller, along with the fact that UPSTREAM COLOR is such a visually and aurally captivating film even beyond the storyline, allows you to sit back, relax, and just quietly absorb yourself in a mindset that’s just as hypnotic as the drug the plot uses as a catalyst.
Like PRIMER, UPSTREAM COLOR doesn’t end up giving you anything resembling an easily understood conclusion as to what it’s trying to say, but after just two films, Carruth has proven himself a filmmaker that’s fine with creating works that are open to interpretation for viewers willing to not have everything spelled out for them. I’ve deliberately avoided talking much about the film itself, because UPSTREAM COLOR is best experienced going in blind to the “plotting” and just allowing yourself to be caught up in the characters and images the film creates, but that’s the kind of trust that Carruth has shown he can be handled with, and those that have embraced PRIMER will undoubtedly be even more captivated by UPSTREAM COLOR.
Oh yeah, it’s good. See it in the theater.
– Paul Freitag-Fey
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