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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Forbidden forests: how Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows saved the trees

How Bloomsbury used the Harry Potter series to make publishing eco-friendly.

“Of all the trees we could have hit, we had to hit one that hits back,” says Harry of the Whomping Willow, which successfully whomps both him and Ron when they arrive at Hogwarts by car. The incident is representative of a natural world that often appears remarkably robust in JK Rowling's original series. There is little sign of wizards being plagued by air pollution or acid rain. And while Dementors may lurk in the shadows, climate change does not.

Yet just as Rowling's wands pay tribute to the trees they're hewn from – with their hawthorn, holly and hornbeam woods as key to their construction as their pheonix feather or unicorn hair cores – so too would her books.

By the time The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, all its UK texts, jackets and cases were printed on forest-friendly paper. The move by Rowling and Bloomsbury “sent a clear signal to the rest of the world”, says Greenpeace’s Jamie Woolley, and was “the catalyst” for other publishers to follow suit.

The Potter transformation was inspired by a Greenpeace campaign. In the same year that the fifth Harry Potter went to press, their “Paper Trail” report revealed that the UK book publishing industry was unwittingly sourcing paper from vulnerable ancient forests in Finland and Canada.

Change spiralled from there. In 2005, Bloomsbury printed the UK’s hardback version of The Half Blood Prince on 30% Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. By 2007, the US publisher Scholastic had pledged that the first 12 million copies of The Deathly Hallows would all be printed on paper that was at least partly recycled or sustainable.

Thanks to this shift, UK books labeled with the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) logo are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. Over half of all British adults now recognize the mark, numerous UK publishers have upped their proportion of paper taken from FSC certified sources, and Penguin and Harper Collins have both pledged to reach 100 percent FSC sourced paper in the next three years.

But the challenge is also far from over. According to the FSC, many European and US publishers outsource their manufacturing to China, where imported timber from Indonesia is accompanied by one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

In the UK, just 13 percent of land is covered by trees and a recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee criticised forest regulation as “not fit for purpose”.

So what can readers do to help? The FSC recommends looking out for its logo on any book you buy. And if that's not enough to satisfy, the Harry Potter Alliance has created a guide to fighting climate change for fans. 

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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