As you may know, Upstream Color is the long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth, the autodidact auteur behind 2004's extraordinary Primer. To say I'd been looking forward hugely to this film would be an understatement.
To say that I was not let down would be one, too. It's better than I dare dreamed.
I adore narratives that demand repeat exposure and reveal more of themselves with every iteration. That of course describes the work of both Gene Wolfe and Christopher Nolan, but it's also Primer (some would say almost to a fault). That's all that I hoped for from Carruth's new film; an emotionally resonant text that would, above all, set those "oh my god I think I understand this" bombs going off in my head, and do so in different ways each time I saw it. (At some point I'm going to propose that the acronymic omgitiut should be recognized as a full-fledged film genre; if you recognize the source of the phrase you know that such films can be domestic dramas as well as sf puzzle-boxes.)
What I got was something much more. Imagine that Terrence Malik made one of these films, and you've got something like Upstream Color, and indeed critics who are indifferent to narrative challenge for its own sake are swooning over this, and asserting that they love it despite feeling no need to solve the problems it presents.
There is, I think, almost a precise parallel here in the career of Darren Aronofsky. Pi was a terrific debut, though nowhere near as good as Primer. After making the even better and much more conventional Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky then spent years trying to make a film that would tell a challenging sf story with glorious visuals, using SFX to achieve the sort of aesthetic rapture you get from a Malick film, rather than the sense-of-wonder that you'd get from Kubrick or the opening shot of Star Wars. When the funding fell through, he made the film anyway, after re-writing it as a small budget film. And that was The Fountain.
After Primer, Carruth spent years trying to make an sf film called A Topiary, and when the funding fell through, he made Upstream Color instead. In both its artistic aims and thematic concerns it seems to me as close as possible as any film could be to The Fountain (and vice versa). I liked The Fountain quite a bit and I'm looking forward to seeing it again some day. After one exposure to each, though, I'd make the following comparison: the science in Upstream Color is much more interesting and feels more like it has complexity, internal logic and consistency; and in every way, Upstream Color is the more accomplished film. Yes, I'm asserting that as good as Darren Aronofsky is, he's not in Carruth's class as a writer or director. And Carruth is his own cinematographer, composer, co-editor, and first camera operator, and excels in each role, and he's more than solid as the male lead.
What Carruth has done here is almost unprecedented in film history. And I'm not talking about doing everything but the catering -- that goes without saying. It's this: spectacular debuts are almost never followed by a significantly better film. Have you even heard of Gran Casino, In This Our Life, Stagestruck, A Woman is a Woman, There's Always Vanilla, Alex in Wonderland, The Last Movie, or Crimewave? They are respectively, second films by Bunuel (following L'Age de Or), Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Lumet (12 Angry Men), Godard (Breathless), Romero (Night of the Living Dead), Mazurky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), Hopper (Easy Rider), and Raimi (The Evil Dead). (Two more recent examples of the principle: Andrew Niccol's Gattaca and S1m0ne, and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's, The Lives of Others and The Tourist.) Even when a director hits home runs his first two times out, the first film is usually superior: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player; or regarded as more or less its equal: Badlands and Days of Heaven, or Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. .
I can come up with only four instances where a director or directors topped a classic first film with an even better second effort, and two of those have asterisks. Gene Kelly followed his first collaboration with Stanley Donen, On the Town, with Singin' in the Rain -- but Donen made several films in the interim (his first being Royal Wedding). The Coen Bros. followed Blood Simple with Raising Arizona, but that is regarded, I think, as an incremental improvement rather than a dramatic one -- still impressive, but not eye-opening. And that leaves us with Mike Nichols following Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with The Graduate, and the comparison that I think is closest to the bone: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. That's the one time in film history where a director's first two films give me the same sense of "we knew this guy was great, but, really, we had no idea."
Upstream Color comes out as a Blu-Ray / DVD combo pack on May 7, but it deserves to be seen on a big screen. Proceeds go to financing Carruth's next film. Anita and I will be back to see it a second time next weekend, dragging friends along. See it if you can.
The Antepenultimate Truth
- See Upstream Color, If You Can