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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How Tetsuya Mizuguchi reinvented video games with his love of synaesthesia

The Japanese designer on using music, movement, art and colour to create truly pioneering games.

It has taken six months and communicating across three different time zones to finally speak to Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Somehow, we’ve finally managed to meet on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Brighton. It’s the best chance I’ll have to ask him something I’ve always wanted to know. But I didn’t want to be too rude.

“How do I ask whether you’ve taken any psychedelics?”

“You’re asking about getting high? I’m pretty normal,” replies the pioneering Japanese video game designer. But not before a burst of laughter.

Mizuguchi’s background is unusual for a games industry professional. Having graduated in media aesthetics from Nihon University in Japan, it wasn’t until he saw a photo of Nasa’s VIEW virtual reality (VR) headset that he decided to enter the gaming world by joining Sega in 1990. And this was Sega before they unleashed Sonic the Hedgehog into the world.


Nasa VIEW headset. Photo: Nasa

“We had a long, long history of 2D over 100 years, including movies, TV, games. Everything was 2D and squared,” says Mizuguchi, on the challenges he faced in his early years.

He was tasked with creating one of the first powerful 3D games, Sega Rally, which upon its release in 1994 was unlike anything the industry had seen. It would later influence many other arcade racers for years to come, including Gran Turismo and the Colin McRae Rally series.

However, after one sequel in 1998, Mizuguchi headed for Zurich, where a music festival made him realise the new potential of powerful, modern games by combining visuals, music and player input into one reactive loop.

“I went to the party at night and it was a thousand people not dancing but moving,” he recalls. “The music changed, the sounds changed, the movement changed and the colours changed. I watched from the view and I remembered the word synaesthesia.”

From that moment, he focused primarily on music games, releasing Space Channel 5 (and its sequel), Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden. Despite the critical success of each title, Rez is the game that continues to live on, from its first release on the Dreamcast back in 2001 to a VR-enabled update last year known as Rez Infinite.

You play as a virus flying through the inside of a supercomputer tasked with saving an all-powerful AI named Eden, while fending off attacks from firewalls. The buttons you press, the enemies you attack and the environmental changes all feed into the multisensory game-playing experience.

Rez Infinite via GIPHY

Although it sounds like a bizarre idea for a video game, there’s no denying Rez is a moving, out-of-this-world experience. Mizuguchi reflects on whether anyone outside of Japan could have produced the game. “When I made Rez, we were talking about that all the time. It should be timeless, placeless, cultureless. So we asked what is the deep, deep point of the human being, what is our basic instinct?”

Mizuguchi is an innovative auteur in the same class as fellow game designers such as Hideo Kojima, Sid Meier and Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises.

Despite his love of music across many genres, and being a writer and producer for songs and videos (such as those featured in Rez’s spiritual successor Child of Eden), he doesn’t label himself as a musician or game designer, but a “technologist” and “futurist”.

“Technology makes people hunger,” he declares. “I think we are in a transition. I think in ten or 20 years people… won’t be so closed. VR is closed. It’s going to open soon, with talking and mixing with each other. I believe it’s going to get us back to being much more human.”


Tetsuya Mizuguchi talking about synaesthesia. Photo: Emad Ahmed

It’s quite an achievement for a designer to have transferred so fluidly and successfully to different gaming technologies over the years, from 2D to 3D, portable gaming, high definition visuals and now VR. It’s something he says is important for everyone in the industry. “All the time, I have a big influence from new technologies.”

Mizuguchi looks at the PSP handheld console I place on the table at the bustling hotel restaurant. “When I first got this, Ken Kutaragi [known as ‘The Father of the PlayStation’] said, ‘this is an interactive, 21st century Walkman’, and that was the first time I can bring games outside. Music like this, anytime, anywhere, any style.”

This gave him the idea to create Lumines, the music-based handheld puzzle game. “And with Kinect technology, what kind of game can you play? Oh, I want to play like a conductor.” Here, he’s referencing Child of Eden, which gives players the option to use the Xbox’s body-tracking camera instead of the standard button-bashing fare.

Mizuguchi is always thinking about creative design in this holistic way. “I love to combine many elements, the music, the storytelling, many things, as one architecture. I don’t care about the genre, I want to create a fresh new thing. Also, I want to break something,” he laughs.

I share with him a story of my first visit to London’s Tate Modern where I decided to stroll through one of the gift shops and amuse myself with the quirky ornaments being offered to the public. But as I was leaving, a stunning piece of artwork on the wall caught my eye. The Nineties vibe it was radiating was part of the appeal, so you can imagine my shock when I learned it was in fact painted in 1925. It was abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky's Swinging. I bought a print. It’s the same artist I later realise has inspired Mizuguchi all these years, after first seeing Kandinsky’s Red Square in Moscow.



Swinging and Red Square in Moscow by Kandinsky. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

“I love artists from a hundred years ago, I love their concepts,” he responds, explaining how he draws inspiration from them – so much so that he credits Kandinsky at the end of Rez Infinite.

“They have the same kind of image and I’m always thinking about the same dream. Now we have technology, so I believe we can create a much deeper experience,” he says. “It’s a good thing you mention Kandinsky. Maybe it’s a good thing games can be the first encounter with artists. Gaming is also a new art form.”

So what other ideas does the artist in front of me have at the moment?

“Many ideas!” he grins. There’s no doubt that Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s next dance with synaesthesia will be just as exhilarating as his last.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.