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.”