The wall between experimental and commercial film is as easy to see and difficult to penetrate as the marble walls of a museum. Experimental filmmakers generally work alone, eschewing narrative in favor of exploring the raw visual and sonic possibilities of the medium, and their work is nearly as confined to those museums as the Picassos and Pollacks in the next room. Yet every now and then, a commercial director manages to play populist art thief, sneaking the theoretical ideas of the avant-garde out of the gallery and into the cinema.
David Lynch is the best example: a filmmaker who has long made highly experimental shorts that then inform his (relatively) more accessible narrative work—and occasionally, as in the "Rabbits" sequence from his 2006 Inland Empire, uses those shorts within the long-form work. Terrence Malick is another, a director whose drift into more and more abstracted territory found him licensing the work of experimentalists like Thomas Wilfred and Scott Nyerges to use in the meditative birth-of-the universe sequence from Tree of Life in 2011. But the most recent addition to the collection, Shane Carruth, director of the mesmerizing new Upstream Color, is perhaps even more radical.
Nine years after successfully debuting the micro-budgeted time travel mindbender Primer at Sundance, Carruth has returned with a work of ambitious, difficult, and unapologetic experimentation. It's difficult, heady stuff, using a fractured structure that mirrors the messy-but-ordered way of nature to tell a love story using the interlocking life cycles of plants, pigs, nematodes, and humans.
Primer also had its puzzles, a web of time-travel paradoxes to untangle that contributed heavily to the massive cult following it inspired. But with Upstream Color, Carruth firmly establishes he has the rare ability to bridge that wide gap between experimental and narrative filmmaking, between the museum and the multiplex.
There isn't really a template for successfully blending experimental inclinations with something slightly more marketable. But his supposed predecessors had commonalities among them that Carruth breaks from, suggesting that he may just be a new breed of filmmaker.
Malick, for instance, came of age in the New Hollywood of the '70s, a climate more accepting of unconventional styles. But he still gained experience on more traditional genre material: He worked on the script for Dirty Harry and made his debut with a criminal romance, Badlands. Lynch's uncompromisingly oddball first feature, Eraserhead, was essentially a student film, and while it found success on the midnight circuit, it was his subsequent forays into studio-financed (and much more straightforward) filmmaking with The Elephant Man and Dune that brought his name to wider audiences—and gave him the clout to start moving back toward the fringe.
Those brushes with the mainstream can make filmmakers who are inclined toward difficult material just marketable enough to make a name that will continue to draw enough funding to fuel them through a career. Jean-Luc Godard was playing with new cinematic ideas from the very start, but his first features still had enough of the American genre films he loved to make them accessible. By the time he began completely turning away from traditional narrative structures, he had basically already established himself as a legend. Nicolas Winding Refn excels at incorporating the ideas of figures like underground film icon Kenneth Anger and Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (who himself was a blender of narrative and experimentation) into his films, but he also started out with crime films in Denmark, and it's the genre elements of his current work that make him so accessible.
Even the uncompromising surrealist Luis Buñuel, who started his career working with Salvador Dalí on likely the most well-known experimental film ever made, Un Chien Andalou, did his time toiling in commercial cinema in Mexico before returning to his surrealist roots and making the string of '60s and '70s films that he's now best known for.
Yet Carruth is getting a lot of attention for the fact that when it comes to the inevitable offers from Hollywood that arrive for a buzzy young filmmaker, he says he's just not taking them. Granted, the anticipation for Upstream Color has hardly been at an Avengers-level pitch, but it's been fervent nonetheless. Just Google Upstream Color and witness the number of articles and reviews already out there, weighed against the fact that this is a feature rumored to have been made for under six figures, and that it is being self-released by Carruth. It opened in New York this past Friday, where it pulled in nearly $30,000 at its only screening, and it's expanding to a dozen theaters this weekend.
Self-releasing the film is in keeping with Carruth's general approach, one that places him closer to art filmmakers than to commercial ones. One of the defining characteristics of experimental cinema is the moviemaker as lone creative force—think Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Hollis Frampton, all artists who created their films in a fashion nearly as solitary as a painter. Then notice all the hats that Carruth wears on Upstream Color: director, writer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, camera operator, distributor. Not even Lynch, Buñuel, or Malick can boast that kind of obsessively complete control over their films.
That sets Carruth apart, and suggests that he's something that the movies haven't yet seen, perhaps the first great realization of the democratization of filmmaking that digital technology and the Internet promised. Carruth is not only taking on so many of these roles on his own, but he's also self-taught. The ready accessibility of the knowledge necessary to be a self-made filmmaker, as well as the easy availability of the films that helped Carruth form his own formal and aesthetic place as a filmmaker, are by-products of a time when that information flows more freely than at any point in history.
But perhaps more important is what Carruth shares with those greats: an ability to be formally radical while creating films that are still inviting for adventurous viewers—and once you're in, refuse to let go. For all its carefully constructed creative daring, Upstream Color is at its heart a romance. Its creator never forgets that, and neither does he let the viewer forget. The things it has to say about love and forgiveness are never lost in the clinical precision of the filmmaking, and the fact that Carruth has mastered this blend of experimental form serving emotional content so quickly suggests even greater things are to come.