It is a truth universally acknowledged that TV has surpassed the movies as the medium of choice for the discerning viewer. Since the evolutionary leap that was “The Sopranos,” episodic television—the grown-up kind, that is; the kind that’s not TV, but HBO (or Showtime, or AMC, etc.)—has raised its game with complex plots, high-quality production, morally ambiguous protagonists, and eager forays into R-rated territory. So, this weekend, the sixth-season premiere of “Mad Men” will suck up all the cultural oxygen. A couple million viewers will tune in, and tens of thousands of words will be written obsessing over every detail of Don Draper’s continuing journey from icon to relic. Director Shane Carruth’s new film, Upstream Color, meanwhile, will open in one theater in New York, kicking off a brief art-house rollout that, if he’s lucky, will win over a modest, devoted following.
For the last nine years, the only thing on Carruth’s filmography was Primer (2004), a 77-minute sliver of a movie shot around the Dallas suburbs for less than $7,000, and one of the great sci-fi films of the last couple of decades. A time-travel mystery set in the nondescript now, it beat out crowd-pleasers like Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite for the top prize at Sundance and captivated indie audiences with its brain-scrambling plot and cerebral cool. (If you haven’t seen Primer, xkcd offers a useful diagram of what to expect.) No doubt Carruth’s multi-hyphenate achievement added to the allure: The former engineer essentially taught himself how to do everything about making a movie, serving as star, director, writer, editor, cinematographer, and composer.
Then a funny thing happened: nothing. A dream project that Carruth spent years working on never got off the ground. Primer’s cult grew, with exegeses spreading like kudzu on the Internet. But as that movie receded further into the distance, it began to look like a one-off. Luckily for us, Carruth re-emerged this past January and unveiled Upstream Color at Sundance. Sensuous and emotional where Primer was austere and withholding, Upstream Color is an altogether radical work, relentlessly finding ways to fracture narrative and use the language of movies to express knotty ideas. It is also the most original American film to come out in the last couple of years. In a culture that congratulates itself on living through a Golden Age of Television, in a year that awarded the diverting, disposable Argo the Oscar for Best Picture, Upstream Color is a reminder that there are still experiences that movies—and only the movies—can give us.
Cryptic title aside, Upstream Color is actually more legible than its predecessor, if no easier to reduce to a synopsis. At the center of it all is a worm, cultivated by a mysterious horticulturist (in the credits he’s called The Thief) who uses it for nefarious purposes. The parasite has unusual effects: When it’s ingested, a form of hypnosis, even a mind-meld of sorts with anyone else who has it in his system, takes hold in the victim. It’s a foolproof scam: The Thief (Thiago Martins) gets carriers of the parasite to hand over everything in their name—bank accounts, home equity loans, valuable possessions—and retain no memory of the incident.
Thus we are introduced to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young woman whom he picks out at a bar and victimizes with this drive-by lobotomy, leaving her both broke and broken. Fast forward to some time later. Kris—depressed, mistrustful, and struggling to start over—strikes up a romance with Jeff (Carruth). They fumble toward love, get married, and begin the process of building a life together. But strange things keep happening: Inexplicable moods drown Kris (like a random crying jag at work); bizarre compulsions seize Jeff (like the urge to chop down a tree in the yard); and the memories of the two begin to intermingle (like an anecdote about a childhood friend that each keeps trying to claim). Eventually, they piece together that Jeff, too, was a victim of the same crime, and that they—along with a reclusive pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig), and maybe even his pigs—have somehow become inextricably linked by the experience.
Upstream Color may begin as a sci-fi noir, but Carruth isn’t confined by genre. The movie’s loopy premise and discursive style yield unlikely metaphors. If Kris’s worm-caused condition resembles clinical depression, the merging of the lovers’ memories evokes the increasingly porous boundaries in a marriage. Confident in the audience’s ability to follow along, Carruth never holds us by the hand. Instead, he breaks down the building block of drama—the scene—parceling out text and subtext in shards of image and sound. Mirrored movements and audacious cuts link characters separated by space and time; snippets of dialogue recur, used more like musical lines than tools to advance the plot. Upstream Color asks that most basic of questions: What makes us who we are? With its images of flesh, blood, and cells, and evocations of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (a book that figures prominently) and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Over-Soul,” the movie answers with a recombination of molecular biology and poetic Transcendentalism.
The intimations of Transcendentalism—the belief in our connection to nature, and to each other—are redolent of another idiosyncratic auteur: Terrence Malick. With its symphonic form and cosmic view, Upstream Color is a direct descendant of Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). (If Tree of Life is about the invention of god, Upstream Color is about the invention of the self.) Malick’s film, an autobiographical family drama set in 1950s Texas that spanned across vast stretches of time, from the Big Bang to the present day, perplexed and polarized audiences with its rejection of traditional narrative form—an opening weekend show I saw had more walkouts than any wide-release film I can remember. At 96 minutes, Upstream Color demands less time but shows the same impatience with convention. As Upstream Color wound to a close, my first thought was: Do we even know what to do with a movie like this?
Which is why my excitement about Carruth’s return is undercut by nervousness. Because in this, the Golden Age of Television, audiences seem less inclined than ever to follow an artist into the dark. These days, it is the progression of plot that seems to excite viewers most. While the appeal of story is self-evident, television’s foregrounding of it has come at a cost. Our ideas about narrative have become more constricted. We—and I’m not immune—watch primarily because we want to know what happens next. (Indeed, the Golden Age of TV has also given rise to the Golden Age of the Episode Recap.) When works come along that challenge that demand, we dismiss them—and then complain that all we get at the multiplex are superheroes. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody recently wrote about how the primacy of the story has led us to believe that the story is the end, not the means to a larger aesthetic statement. As he put it, story is “a basis, not a goal; an element that may either be charmingly memorable or ingeniously conceived, but that is merely a starting point for a significant work, not a result.”
Even the best TV series, frequently begun with no end in sight, spin out subplot after subplot, prolonging their lives at the expense of a coherent vision. The tidal pull of narrative can sometimes obscure the flaws of the most critically acclaimed shows: Think of “Homeland,” a drama with a strong premise hijacked by dumbed-down exposition and pedestrian direction. Or “Breaking Bad,” which after a gripping start has grown rote as the urgency of Walter White’s predicament has given way to the need to keep the show going. (Imagine how great it could have been had it been a mere six episodes.) Even the thrilling “Game of Thrones,” a personal favorite, can only create (in the words of this page’s own Tom Carson) “an enjoyable illusion of depth where none exists.”
It’s worth noting that Carruth himself is no opponent of narrative. “I love narrative and how it exists and why it exists and how it’s meant to be used,” he recently told an interviewer. (Indeed, Upstream Color cares enough about classical storytelling that it introduces a gun in the first act that goes off in the third.) That “how it’s meant to be used” says it all. To Carruth, the plot’s not the thing, but the vehicle through which vital ideas can be explored using sound, image, movement, editing, and performance. An undiluted shot of an artist’s sensibility, Upstream Color reminds us that when it comes to distraction, TV may have the edge—but epiphanies are still possible, too, and we’re more likely to find them at the movies. Give Upstream Color a chance and it will reward you. The only downside is that you can’t fold laundry while watching it. For that, I recommend television.