If I were pressed to name only one independent filmmaker other independent filmmakers should strive to emulate, I’d say Shane Carruth. In fact, many filmmakers already emulate Carruth. Some of these filmmakers are more commercially successful than Carruth will ever be. Notably, Rian Johnson is a fan of Carruth’s filmmaking, and during the filming of Looper, he apparently consulted with Carruth regarding some aspects of the production. The reason I’d list Carruth over many other independent filmmakers is because his artistic savvy appears to defy reason. He has no formal training. He doesn’t even attempt to make independent films that conform to the rules of studio filmmaking. He boldly forwards the form of visual storytelling on nonexistent budgets. The only way to describe him is as a genius.
Carruth arrived on the cinematic map in 2004, when Primer premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize. Carruth was a mathematics major who had worked in an engineering firm before quitting his job to pursue filmmaking. He filmed Primer in his own Dallas home and used his old engineering office for the few scenes that take place outside it. Primer’s reported budget was $7000. Much has been made of this impossibly small figure. Because Carruth shot Primer on 16mm film and didn’t have much money to purchase the film stock, he only did one take for most scenes. He overlaid the sound in post-production. He served as actor, producer, director, writer, editor, camera operator, composer and production designer. His parents catered the production. Primer truly was a one-man show.
Following two engineers (David Sullivan and Shane Carruth) who accidentally invent a time machine, Primer is an obtuse puzzle film. It’s an elliptical narrative, focusing on what happens between scenes and how the characters, and by extension, the audience, try to make sense of what is truly happening each instance the characters travel through time. Information is withheld from the audience and the characters. Major plot details occur off screen and are only remarked upon in passing. Primer is like a mathematical puzzle. It’s solvable, but it would require someone with an intellect similar to Carruth’s to do so. Despite the volume of online theorizing regarding Primer’s timelines, no one has solved the puzzle, although some commentators have come close, according to Carruth.
Primer is a dense film. Despite its seeming indecipherability, Carruth clearly holds the solution. The almost Stanley Kubrick-level assurance the audience has in Carruth’s own intellect and control over his film makes it a popular one for obsessive film fans. It’s easy to imagine a documentary like Room 237 exploring fan theories about how to solve Primer. But even critics who aren’t obsessed with the film agree it’s an impressively assured debut. Instead of attempting low-budget theatrics, Carruth imbeds the apparent limited resources into the form of the film. As well, most time travel movies use the concept of time travel as a narrative conceit to allow impossible events to occur. Primer is genuinely fascinated with the notion of time travel, how if time were malleable, identities would become malleable as well.
After Primer, Carruth experienced the usual parade of meetings with studio executives in Hollywood that any Grand Jury Prize winner experiences. The studios offered him larger budgets to make sci-fi spectacles, but only on the condition that he tempered his obtuse ideas with conventional Hollywood structures. However, Carruth wasn’t interested in compromising. He wanted to further explore the kind of filmmaking he introduced with Primer. He pitched the studios a script called A Topiary. He intended the film as a sort of urban fantasy about children who discover a magical box in the woods that allows them to create creatures, but funding eluded him. Studios deemed the idea too strange to back. Carruth dallied with filming A Topiary on his own, but the amount of effort needed to create the creatures would be too difficult. The server capacity needed to render the CGI creatures would be beyond his means. He abandoned the project and turned to something else.
By the time Upstream Color premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, people had almost forgotten that Carruth was still active. The film was not what people expected from Carruth’s follow-up to Primer. Instead of another mathematical puzzle film, Upstream Color was a transcendental picture. The critical reception was rapturous. The film currently holds a rating of 81 on Metacritc. Even though it didn’t pick up the Grand Jury Prize like Primer, Sundance still awarded it Best Sound Design. Again the budget was slim, reportedly around $50,000, but the film looks like it cost 10 times that much. It’s shot on a modified Panasonic DMC-GH2 with Voigtlander lenses—a testament to resourceful cinematography.
Upstream Color is technically a science-fiction film but it’s even less typical of the genre than Primer. While Primer is fixated on the sequence of events, Upstream Color is tenuously interested in its plot. Its narrative is jumbled and scenes shift from one to the other. The story, such as it is, follows Kris (Amy Seimetz) who ingests a strange worm which makes her susceptible to hypnosis by a man who steals all her money. When the man releases her from her mental subservience, she finds her life in shambles and attempts to rebuild it. She then meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), who had something similar happen to him, and together they try to make sense of the entire ordeal. There’s more to it than that, but to describe elements of the plot in depth would only confound its understanding.
Through its jumbled structure and wordless exchanges, Upstream Color explores the way individuals make sense of their lives when their sense data is limited. It’s edited elliptically. Scenes will often end by cutting to black or an image from another scene, but only briefly. The dialogue from the first scene can still be heard as we cut to the next scene but then Carruth cuts back to the original scene and concludes that thought or image before cutting fully to the next moment. By focusing on the meaning of a combination of images instead of the meaning of individual images, Carruth creates something that eludes easy understanding but holds striking emotional power. His interest in the structural whole as opposed to the individual moment also causes the narrative to be radically subjective, and edited together like memories, much like the films of Terrence Malick, especially The Tree of Life and To the Wonder.
All of us experience this mosaic understanding on a day-to-day basis, taking in fragments of information from the world around us and providing meaning to seemingly meaningless events. But even more than capturing the way ordinary people form memories and ascribe purpose to events, Upstream Color has especial interest in how people recover from trauma. When Kris meets Jeff, she is a shadow of her former self. Together with Jeff, she explores their shared trauma and tries to bring closure to personal tragedy. Carruth suggests that people get over by trauma by constructing narratives of their lives. They create villains and punish those villains, or uncover fragments of their past and allow those fragments to explain the whole.
There’s a sequence midway through the film that is worth investigating in closer detail as it acts as the film in miniature. The mysterious Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), the man who removed the worm from Kris and transferred it into a pig, keeps omnipotent watch over those he has saved, almost spiritually observing them like a god. In one moment, the Sampler observes emergency responders bringing a woman to the hospital. Her husband doesn’t know why she has collapsed and sits in her hospital room, pondering his mistakes. The sequence cuts to a handheld medium two-shot of the husband leaving home. His wife stops him and tells him “I made a list of the things I want to try harder at.” The shot then cuts to a similar shot that has crossed the axis, showing us the same conversation but with the wife and husband in switched positions in the frame. This crossing of the axis alerts us to the fact that what we’re seeing is not a literal occurrence. The images are incomplete and subjective. They’re memories. The shot cuts back to the original two-shot before cutting to a slight variation of the same angle where the husband and wife are noticeably wearing different clothes. There has been a time change, the lighting is different, but the conversation remains the same. The shot cuts to the original cross-axis shot and the wife tells her husband “I love you.” We cut back to the hospital and hear the husband say, “Those are just words, they don’t fix anything, Joan.” We hear the door open and cut back to the original two-shot and see the husband leave.
The sequence then repeats itself in various forms. The characters’ clothing changes between shots. The three bits of dialogue are repeated in each cycle, but with slight variations. We see that the husband is leaving the house to replace a fire alarm. We see the wife washing dishes right before he does so. The only thing that remains constant in the sequence is the phrase, “I love you.” As the whole of Upstream Color does, this sequence explores an individual remembering past events and trying to make sense of something painful that has happened. The order of his recollections appears to be arbitrary. Details don’t align each time he recalls the scene. He can’t make sense of why his wife is hospitalized and wonders whether his own actions influenced her hospitalization. The meaning is elusive, but the struggle to make sense of it forces the events into an ordered sequence, ascribes reason to actions that defy any.
Upstream Color is a fascinating film because it captures the way people process the world around them. Its style reflects the films of Terrence Malick and other transcendental filmmakers, but it mimics none of them. Carruth has forwarded cinematic form in order to explore his own particular ideas. That he did so for around $50,000 is astounding, especially considering that Upstream Color looks and sounds better than most studio pictures.
Independent filmmakers working with small budgets ought to study the films of Shane Carruth. Too many independent films reflect the filmmaking style of big-budget Hollywood or superficially demonstrate visual tics like handheld camera or improvised dialogue in order to distract away from the tired conventions at the heart of their stories. Carruth has no interest in making films that reflect the studio style of filmmaking, nor does his storytelling conform to narrative convention. If more independent filmmakers pushed the boundaries of narrative form and imagined inventive ways of embracing their budgetary limitations like Carruth does, the world of cinema would be better for it.