The Problem with Guns and ‘Upstream Color’

Upstream Color Shane Carruth

The presence of the gun is unnecessary and damaging. It cheapens the whole thing. The appearance of that damn pistol is indicative of shortcuts, overly symbolic visuals and other problems in Shane Carruth’s feature film, “Upstream Color.”

“Upstream Color” is Carruth’s second picture after his Sundance Grand Jury winner, “Primer,” which was not only notable for its $7,000 budget, but also for its narrative structure. “Primer” is a time travel movie that internally both confuses and makes more sense than the destiny-fate garbling of “Looper,” the Terminator franchise and other time-travelery.

The gun, as shown and used in “Upstream Color,” is not only annoying on its own, but indicative of a larger problem: this movie does not trigger the lasting emotions it desperately wants to.

The picture is loaded with visuals to outdo Malick and von Trier (the two filmmakers “Upstream Color” most resembles), with an acute sensitivity to sound (Bresson) but it cannot pull off the vision of Sartre-like authenticity blown in our faces.

Chekhov’s Gun

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Anton Chekhov.

This so-called Chekhov’s Gun principle is something misunderstood, or at least, misapplied in stories. Let us break his advice down: nothing should be present in a story that does not move it ahead in some way.

Chekhov’s Gun is a useful bit to remind storytellers to tighten their narratives to keep from any meaningless meandering. But the mistake of storytellers who lay hold of the principle is that such a tight adherence to it unravels the story into a predictable mess.

Since so much of “Upstream Color” is marvelously unpredictable (an exciting elliptical narrative), that gun, that predictability really does harm the picture overall. It practically received its own spotlight in the beginning, a cue ensuring I was prepared for its later significance.

The gun appears about ten minutes into the film and does not reappear until about ten minutes from the end when it is fired. The problem is not necessarily that the gun is only shown twice or so sparsely used like a voiceover narration that sets the tone for a movie, disappears and then closes the picture out like a bookend.

The more particular problem here is that the gun is so obviously flagged to grab our attention and that its use in the denouement is so overdone, so overly weighty.

If the world of the movie is not one where guns are often used, then any use of one must be carefully monitored. This is the case in any movie where your protagonist is not James Bond, Humphrey Bogart or Vincent Vega in the front car seat waving one around.

The poor use of the gun is not a storytelling sin in and of itself. In many of the Coen Brothers’ pictures, guns are a little too cleverly used (much like most elements in their movies), but there is more in their pictures to appreciate than just the gun (most of the time).

The gun in “Upstream Color” is a symptom of something else. The sequence that sets up the picture from Worm Garden to Worm to Theft is really unnecessary. If the movie had begun somewhere later, where Kris meets the Sampler or even wakes up off the highway, then we would have more to take away from the picture.

As it is, Kris is a victim of a horrible series of events. She wants justice. She gets justice when she fires the gun later. She mails out freedom packets to all the other victims. Fade out.

It is really an empty picture because so much of it is built on a silly thriller premise. Like the gun, I was ready to forgive the overdone insert of Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” when Kris recalls portions of it while swimming. This is going somewhere more interesting, I hoped.

Nope.

Let’s talk pigs

That “more interesting” direction teased me with many of the film’s threads: the Sampler recording sounds and writing music, a loop of scenes between two unnamed lovers, the confusion of memories, the Sampler’s facing of death, even those damn pigs.

Here is another one of those gun/Walden moments where the film sticks with the cheapo instinct instead of leaping: the dead pigs, in the lyrics of the White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid,” “took a white orchid turned it blue.” Some biological substance (I am biologically ignorant) floats upstream from the dead pigs and turns the white orchids blue, hence the movie’s title.

The scene is both lovely and disturbing and it could have developed into something poignant on its own, but as it turns out, those blue orchids are necessary for the production of worms and guns and Walden Pond that started this whole movie.

Oh well.

Upstream Color Carruth sampler pigsThe elliptical and mostly dialogue-free narrative of “Upstream Color” is surprising, pleasant and unsettling, too. There is a lot in the movie that seems to drive toward something beautiful, but it settles for the thriller premise. Cheated. That is how I felt. Carruth purchases a spiritually satisfying end for the movie’s characters without offering the audience anything similar.

In “Upstream Color,” Carruth shows us how disturbed he is by a world where I Love You are words that “don’t mean anything,” a world where the memories of one are absorbed by another. But the movie failed to make the answer meaningful to the audience. Perhaps it was a failure to package an answer in the first place.

I cannot shake the memory of the scene where the Sampler sits in a chair in front of a parked vehicle with its headlights staring him down, speakers turned toward the ground while a recording of an engine repeatedly revving up plays.

The Sampler faces death and the scene’s sound made it real for me, too. It is a great scene, even if a little too short. I do not want to shake it. I just wish the rest of “Upstream Color” were more like it.

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