At the Limelight: Mysteries in 'Upstream Color' surprisingly hard to shake

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEApril 19, 2013 

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Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth in a scene from "Upstream Color," playing at the Limelight Theater in April 2013.

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

With effort — maybe a lot of effort — you can tease a story out of Shane Carruth's new puzzle picture, "Upstream Color," though much of it will probably remain inscrutable. It's been nine years since Carruth's debut feature, "Primer," a mysterious time-travel story made on an ultra-low budget, showed his lack of interest in making things easy on the viewer.

Carruth, a one-man band (he wrote, directed, edited, shot and scored the movie, and acts in it), is a filmmaker of almost Kubrick-like precision — he was previously a software engineer. "Primer" (whose main characters were engineers) was an intellectual exercise, whereas this film, a skewed tale of a romance, aims at the emotions, though no one's going to accuse Carruth of going mushy.

The first segment introduces us to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young career woman living a normal big-city life until she encounters a character (Thiago Martins) called "Thief" in the credits. He forces her to consume a potion he's laboriously extracted from worms — the film has a decided sci-fi tone at this point — causing her to lose her will and sign her money over to him. In a Cronenberg touch, soon worms can be seen coursing under her skin. (The movie has material that's definitely not for squeamish types.)

Relief of sorts is provided by another obscure figure, the "Sampler" (Andrew Sensenig), a kind of pig farmer who also records random sounds. He performs surgery on Kris, who wakes up a diminished figure. She's lost her memory and her job, and is adrift. Riding the train one day, she catches the eye of Jeff (played by the filmmaker), who's involved in shady financial business and may have been another victim of the worm drug.

Kris and Jeff get together, although the relationship has paranoid and apocalyptic overtones, and they wind up in contact with others who have experienced the drug. Everyone eventually gravitates to the pig farm, and if you can decipher what these animals mean in this world — possibly it's a biblical reference — then you've accomplished something.

There's some sense of emotional resolution, though it's hard to be specific. By the way, orchids play a role in the story (two of the characters are called, in the credits, "Orchid Mother" and "Orchid Daughter"), and we hear many references to, and quotations from, Thoreau's "Walden."

Carruth sometimes shows a talent, like Terrence Malick's, for startling and gorgeous images, and he is remarkably attuned to sounds of all sorts. And the human interactions, though often obscure on a plain-sense level, can have powerful resonance.

Willfully, obstinately difficult, "Upstream Color" is not for everybody, but its mysteries are surprisingly hard to shake.

'UPSTREAM COLOR'
Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
Rated: Not rated
Length: 96 minutes
Playing: Limelight
Fri, April 19: (4:10), 6:30
Sat, April 20: 4:10, 6:30
Sun, April 21: (3:10), 5:30
Mon-Thu, April 22-25: (4:10), 6:30

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