Shane Carruth’s precision vision
The director of the head-spinng Upstream Colour discusses his weird, beautiful, mathematically sound vision
How neat it is when a film director admits to a childhood experience that seems to gesture towards their later career. Alfred Hitchcock was fond of explaining how, when he was once caught doing something naughty, his father took him down to the police station and asked to have the boy locked up. All those paranoid stories now make sense.
Shane Carruth, a neat, polite man in his early forties, doesn’t intend to tell such an anecdote. But he does so anyway. Asked about his upbringing, he explains that his dad was an engineer who, after starting out repairing radios for the air force, found himself doing hush-hush work on satellites for a defence contractor.
“He wasn’t really allowed to talk about it,” Carruth says. “But we slowly got a sense of what he was doing. Little pieces of information came through. I remember driving through woods with my parents and we saw these huge white structures. The way my mom and dad were talking I knew it had something to do with his work. I later learned they were to do with microwave radiation.”
The scene could be plucked straight from either of Carruth’s extraordinary first two features: Primer and Upstream Colour. The first of those films, released in 2004, told the unimaginably complex story – seek out the online flowchart explaining the various intersecting timelines – of two men who build a plausible time machine. The beautiful, obtuse Upstream Colour, one of this year’s very best films, has to do with a woman who becomes infected with an organism that strips away all the everyday comforts in her life. (If you can manage a better synopsis then you’re a better man than me.) Both films are deeply unsettling, fuelled by paranoia and hard to disentangle on first viewing.
Does he enjoy confusing the viewer?
“Hmm? Well, I know I don’t start from there,” he says. “I am led by my own aesthetic sensibilities. I don’t want everything to be handed to me in one sitting. I want to have a conversation after seeing the film. This level of obfuscation is what I enjoy as an audience member. It is wonderful to read somebody writing about my films who has thought about it and worked it all out. That is satisfying.”
At the same time, he must be frustrated by people drawing lunatic conclusions from the spooky, icy narrative laid out in Upstream Colour. There is so much to ponder. Kris, the protagonist, finds herself in psychic contact with a group of pigs on a distant facility. There’s something here about drug dealing. Characters read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden to one another. Heaven knows what people make of it in the madder corners of the internet.
“I certainly wouldn’t blame anybody,” he says. “But there is something happening now where people read a book or watch a film and then want to turn round to their friend and sum it up in a sentence. There’s a rush to assess. People have said it’s about the pharmaceutical industry, that it’s about memory, it’s about drug addiction. It’s about my attempt to get at all of these things.”
Shane Carruth came to his peculiar art via a suitably peculiar route. Raised in South Carolina, he studied mathematics in Austin and spent some time developing flight simulation software. In earlier interviews, he has made it clear that he is not one of those directors who was fertilised in film-buff mulch. He claims not to have heard of the French New Wave until he began making Primer.