By Kim Voynar

Sundance Review: Upstream Color

There are filmmakers who tell a straightforward story, and then there’s Shane Carruth, back at Sundance nine years after his brainy sci-fi film Primer, which was anything but straightforward, won the Grand Jury prize and went on to become a cult favorite. This time around, Carruth brings us Upstream Color, perhaps the strangest film I’ve seen at Sundance this year, but also one of the most interesting and technically complex. It took me awhile to wrap my head around this film; it’s not something you can digest and then immediately spit out any sort of thoughtful analysis of, but I finally think I’ve figured out what Upstream Color means … or at least, what it means to me.

Like all art, a film – especially a film as complex and thoughtful and intellectual as this one – has several aspects: There is what the filmmaker thought he was making when he started out; there is what he ended up making through the process of creation, through taking an idea, developing the script, and then turning it over to a cast, who in turn bring to it their own perceptions and ideas; and then there is how that final work filters into the minds of the audience, and what each person watching it brings to it, which in turn affects what they end up taking from it. My analysis of Upstream Color, therefore, may be very different from your own, and quite probably different also from what Carruth intended; nonetheless this is how all of what went into making it filtered through my own conscious and subconscious mind, and what I got out of it. So taking all that with the proverbial grain of perhaps overly intellectual salt, let’s dive in and explore.

Whether because Carruth was actually influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in making Upstream Color, or perhaps because he thinks Thoreau was full of bullshit and just wanted to riff on it, Walden figures heavily in this film, and that kept weighing on me as I pondered the film and tried to sort it out. So I stayed up practically all night re-reading Walden, then slept a couple hours, and when I woke up the dots had connected for me and I understood what I, at least, had gotten from this film. It was a weird sort of epiphany moment of the sort I don’t often get from a festival film, rather like looking at a painting composed of millions of tiny dots. When you look at it too closely, all you can see is the dots, and none of the dots make sense; but if you step back from it and give it a little distance, suddenly you can see the picture the dots make, the shapes and the patterns that emerge that are impossible to see with your eye right up to it. And Walden, for better or for worse, is inexorably interwoven in the dots that comprise this film, and so I’ve interspersed what I think are some pertinent quotes from Walden (in italics throughout) as I attempt to dissect this complex and complicated film.

Although I think it does this hypnotic, visceral film an injustice to try to reduce it down to plot points, it helps to know at least something of what the story, such as it is, is about: A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted by a Thief and forced to ingest a worm, which has some sort of hypnotic effect on her, allowing the Thief to control her. In a dazed and manic state, she obediently follows the Thief’s direction and hand-copies Walden page by page, folding each finished page and connecting them all together into a chain of links connecting Thoreau’s ideas. She is not allowed to eat during all this, but the Thief allows her to drink, hypnotically suggesting to her that each drink of water will taste better than the last and make her want more, and after each link in the chain she drinks iced water thirstily, greedily, until at last when she’s done he allows her a bowl of ice, which she eats slowly while staring at a painting of a deer. Water, of course, is a constant recurring image in Walden, as in:

“I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater’s heaven. I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!”

The Thief then continues his bizarre assault on Kris, convincing her to withdraw money from her savings and take out an equity loan; some time later she sees the worm, now much bigger, crawling under her skin, freaks out, tries to cut it out with a knife. We also meet (kind of) the Sampler, a strange fellow who lives on a pig farm and has an obsession for collecting sound (it’s worth an aside here to note that this film has some of the most extraordinary use of foley, sound mixing, and pattern and repetition of sound I’ve seen outside of a Malick film). It becomes apparent that no one can see this man (alien? ancient being?), but he lures Kris, still in her hypnotized state, to his farm, where he transplants the now enormous worm from her into a pig, labeling the pig with an ear tag with her name on it in some sort of bizarre transplant, presumably involving (I think) the Sampler gathering bits and pieces of the lives and experiences of the Samples for his own purpose, but also perhaps cleansing the Samples by stripping away from them who they were.

“I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists—I find it in Kirby and Spence—that “some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them”; and they lay it down as “a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvæ. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly… and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly” content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid. The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly still represents the larva. This is the tidbit which tempts his insectivorous fate. The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.”

Kris wakes in her car in a random location with no idea what happened to her, her life as she knew it essentially ruined. She is financially destroyed, her corporate job lost to her by her disappearance from her regular life. Essentially, she has been stripped of who she was before the bizarre encounter, flayed clean of all that she was, reborn, essentially, as a blank slate.

“We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure.”

Some time later Kris meets Jeff (Carruth) and it soon becomes evident that he has had a similar experience. The two of them forge a strange connection that is in its own way hypnotic, and they become increasingly intertwined. They argue over memories and can’t keep straight which memories belong to him and which to her; they grow paranoid, spending a night hiding in their bathroom; they discover there are other Samples like them who also ingested the worms, and reach out to connect with them all by sending them copies of Walden. Kris and Jeff end up on the pig farm, where she shoots the Sampler, then everyone shows up and cuddles pigs and paints the farm yellow. The End … but not really.

It’s all crazy and more than a little weird, and enjoying Upstream Color certainly requires the letting go of certain expectations of story and narrative structure, but it’s also utterly fascinating. I think that all of this has to do with patterns and the disruption of patterns, and with the idea that because we are stuck in the patterns of our lives we are in some way stuck, impure; the worm simultaneously extracts samples of experience from the Sampler’s subjects, and cleanses, purifies them by stripping them of the patterns that had come to define who they were, thereby allowing them to build new connections with each other — and, because of their connection to the Sampler now through the transplants to the pigs, with him as well.

Kris and Jeff, prior to all this happening to them, lived typical, ordinary lives, the kind of lives Throeau deplored when he wrote:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.”

After their encounter, Kris, Jeff and the rest of the Samples are inevitably changed, and are now these new people linked to each other. For better? For worse? I’m not sure it matters, or that it’s even possible to make that judgment.

Carruth, a former software engineer with a degree in mathematics, makes heavy use of pattern and repetition throughout Upstream Color, creating a visceral, almost orchestral tapestry of color, symbol and sound that wash over you. He uses visual repetition quite frequently, but even more frequently he uses repetition of sound, as in a scene later in the film when Kris and Jeff recite lines from Walden back-and-forth while she dives to the bottom of a pool to retrieve rocks, then sets each rock on the edge of the pool.

“The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it.”

The patterns of nature and mathematics – and the breaking of those patterns which in turn make new patterns – are heavily threaded throughout the structure of this film, and the complexity of the ideas it explores and the way in which it inevitably requires the audience to actively participate in seeking to understand it is very much like a cinematic Socratic Circle. Socrates taught that all thinking derives from asking questions; the aim therefore is not to arrive at one right answer, but that asking one question should lead to further questions, and from this collective back-and-forth we construct meaning and answers.

Carruth isn’t handing out easy answers here for the audience to digest, he’s putting forth this veritable intellectual buffet of ideas, philosophy, mathematics, patterns and repetition, life and relationships and connection to each other and to nature, and asking you to think and further explore all this for yourself and figure out what it means to you. Or at least, whether that’s actually his intent or not, that’s what I take out of it, and what my own contribution to the circle of discussion is. My own ideas on Upstream Color will in turn intertwine and connect and perhaps be vastly different than your own, and through that circle of spirited discourse and discussion, through questioning and seeking to answer, we will perhaps collectively arrive at something approximating meaning and understanding.

“The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed.”

2 Responses to “Sundance Review: Upstream Color”

  1. Vineet Kumar says:

    You make no mention of the orchid gatherers; I think that’s a pretty significant missing piece here.

    Also, and without any attempt to invalidate the meaning you drew from watching the film: at Q&A this evening, Carruth said the use of Walden was coincidental — he originally chose it because it was sort of bland and boring, but then later on re-reading it found (and latched onto) so much of the apropos imagery.

  2. Ray Pride says:

    Thanks for reading… This was a reaction first thing the next morning after seeing, and the film has rewarded more contemplation….

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin