Upstream Colour: Cronenbergian scenes which try to break loose from conventional storytelling

Ryan Gilbey tries to puzzle out an ice cool drama from Shane Carruth - a circle-of-life story with psychedelic maggots.

Upstream Colour (12A)
dir: Shane Carruth
 
It’s a story as old as time. Boy meets girl, boy forces girl to ingest psychedelic maggot, plunging her into extreme hypnotic state during which he divests her of all her worldly belongings, girl recovers and meets second boy who seems to have suffered the same fate. Small world!
 
So begins Upstream Colour, a film in which fathoming what is going on is like trying to build a calculator out of blancmange: there’s a big mess at the end and you’re still no closer to working out the answer.
 
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is the unlucky lass whose night out ends with her being held captive by a softly spoken crook (Thiago Martins) who convinces her to fashion endless paper chains and not to look directly at him because his head is made of the same substance as the sun. On the page, it all sounds a bit Derren Brown, although the film-maker Shane Carruth’s tight grasp of mood keeps any levity at bay. (The oppressive, disorientating tone makes it feel as though Kris’s tormentor has drugged both us and her.) While we may not know what’s happening, the look and sound of the movie ensure we won’t mistake it for a laugh riot.
 
Carruth has cast his net wide to create this effect. For the clean, frosted images – each frame looks as if it has just been removed from the icebox – he has turned to the cinematographer Shane Carruth. For that sadsinister score, full of strangled yearning, there must have been only one name on his wishlist: Shane Carruth. And when it comes to editing, who else could he have hoped for to splice together this narrative jigsaw puzzle but Shane Carruth? Thank goodness he was available, is all I can say.
 
One person’s control freak is another person’s perfectionist and even those who don’t enjoy Upstream Colour cannot deny that Carruth’s vision is original and singleminded. Or that he is a fine and guarded actor. Yes, he’s in the film as well as all over it. Still, it’s reassuring to see he’s taking things easy this time. On his 2004 debut, Primer, he wrote, acted, directed, produced, scored, edited, took on sound and production design and – rumour has it – baked the most darling little cupcakes for his colleagues with their names piped on the top.
 
Playing Jeff, who becomes involved with Kris after her release from captivity, Carruth exudes that charismatic shiftiness usually seen only in handsome, amoral ad execs in metropolitan singles bars. As Jeff and Kris become closer, an intriguing synthesis occurs between them: they start parroting one another’s anecdotes and disputing which of them had first dibs on their memories. This is symptomatic of the way the script is structured. It proceeds not so much by cause and effect as by intimation.
 
It isn’t giving too much away to say that the movie is a circle-of-life story that begins and ends in the soil. There are Cronenbergian scenes that touch on biological horror but the resounding impression is that Carruth is trying to break loose from conventional storytelling templates and convey information instead in some amorphous, intuitive fashion. Where the maggots and the orchids come into this, not to mention the pigs (lots of pigs), I wouldn’t want to say, partly because I’m still unclear.
 
No one who saw Primer, a low-key but highly cerebral time-travel thriller that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, will be surprised that Upstream Colour provides an intellectual workout.
 
Primer was one of those debuts, like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Darren Aronofsky’s π, that felt thrillingly unprecedented; its tangled science-fiction plot was played out against a creepily bland canvas of storage facilities, crummy offices and suburban kitchens. Keeping track of it was no cakewalk. But it had wit. There was a major and memorable release of pressure for the puzzled viewer when one of the time-travelling protagonists turned to the other and said, “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”
 
And it was fun. Upstream Colour scorns such fripperies and is slightly the poorer for it. Its enigmas will not harm any chances of longevity. (One can imagine college clubs being established solely to debate its meanings.) But the danger with a style that is this closed-off is that it can repel our pleasure as well as our understanding.
Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in Upstream Colour.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear