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The Berlinale Blog: Sci-fi catnip

Shane Carruth is among us. The Primer director, who made time travel confusing and believable back in 2004, was in town on Sunday night to present his much anticipated follow-up Upstream Color. Rory O’Connor reports.

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After almost a decade on the cinematic DL, Shane Carruth landed in Berlin yesterday to present his highly anticipated second feature Upstream Color for the first time to a European audience.  Since his peerless 2010 micro-budget gem Primer announced his arrival at Sundance all those moons ago the director has garnered a strong cult following in spite of – or perhaps fuelled by – having produced nothing since. A packed out Sunday 10pm screening, with temperatures hitting -5 outside, was a clear testament to that.

The film is quite stunning. A sort of organic opera following the life cycle of a parasitic bug through the relationship of the two damaged humans it inhabits. The parasite’s immediate effect is of extreme coercion and so we follow a thief who uses the bug to rob his helpless victims blind. Then the host, still under the influence, is passed on to a mysterious pig-farming sound-synthesis enthusiast (Andrew Sensenig) who transfers the affliction to his pigs, thus creating a symbiotic relationship between them and the hosts. The victim eventually wakes in the middle of nowhere with no recollection. The story follows two such people (played by Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself) who, after a chance meeting, become romantically involved unaware of the bond between them and oblivious to the farmer’s strange music which seems to be influencing both their lives.

The Q&A session flowed easily with Carruth fielding questions on everything from his background in mathematics to more stylistic queries. With Upstream, Carruth trades the sterile storage facility of Primer for a much more ethereal feel, with the camera examining dirt, soil and flowing capillaries with a crisp shallow depth of field. This biological approach, the director explained, was a continuation of his love for scientific perfections. Like the heavy physics jargon he employed in Primer the cyclical life span of the parasite and these symbiotic relationships are something which can be found in the natural world. Carruth’s use of these tangible ideas is what lends the stories their fascinating sense of possibility and takes them out of the fantasy world and into something closer to myth or fable.

Pulling off something like this is pure catnip for sci-fi fans so when a quaint request for a signed poster was heard from the back of the sold out crowd, it proved a pleasant full stop to the evening.