{film} upstream color*

I am posting about Upstream Color (Shane Carruth) twice: one without spoilers and one with. This post has spoilers! : the other is here.


Plenty hear “indie film” and flee, and not without good reason. Some really do come across as indecipherable, and a film is constructed with a particular audience in mind. I see an indie label on a film and wonder: do I just surrender to the film, or am I supposed to engage all the critical apparatus I have? With Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, I would recommend both. Begin by just experiencing the film, the structure guides and instructs and most importantly it facilitates a dawning of a most basic and important sort. Then re-watch. Then read if you want, because there is a lot of conversation about this film.

Below is a w/ spoilers/conversation version. I want to present a reading that may help. I am writing this without having read others’ take on the film (I skimmed a New Yorker article and left it before it held anything of particular insight); I did watch and converse on the film w/ Sean, of course; I have especially avoided interviews with writer-director Shane Carruth because if the film can’t be read in some convincing way without his externally-drawn insight, he sucks at his job and the film fails. I will, nevertheless, be keen on what he has to say in the near future, and read the interviews to which he so graciously agreed.

Upstream Color is not the easiest film to simplify, and my detailed summary would not only be dull, but unfair—also, you can find walk-throughs elsewhere. As a synopsis, I like the first half of IMDb’s:

“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.”

uc film poster

Do you ever wonder from where does that astounding connection between two people come? Two people who begin an intimate relationship wherein love might be ascribed are asked: how did you two meet? One might answer: I was running late for work one day and I saw her on the train and I felt very deeply that I had to get to know her. I became obsessed, like we were meant, like were being inexplicably drawn together—as if we were together in another life. A reason you might even ask one or both persons (or even wonder for yourself and significant other) is because of the otherwise inexplicable.Why did he pursue someone obviously disinterested in him, who warned him of very affecting mental health issues, who has been traumatized and is dealing with strange sensory overlays in its wake all this time later? And he has his own issues that equally complicate a relationship. They seem an odd pairing, unlikely; or one or the others’ struggles cause you to marvel over their commitment to one another. What is the tie that binds?

What if the answer for that deeply abiding connection was a worm, a parasite that had taken up residence no thanks to a thief who discovered he could use chemical properties in the worm to control people’s minds. With the help of an owner of pigs, the worm is extracted and transplanted into a pig; a pig who becomes attracted and attached to another pig in the pen who has a human counterpart as well. The pigs’ experiences become intertwined with the humans’. Two humans mate because their pig counterparts have mated; so in a way, they are together in another life. So the short answer for that deep and abiding connection is: our pig counterparts found each other and so then we are, likewise, drawn to one another. Are we allowed to see this in metaphor in a science fiction film?


There are all these connections at work, relationships to be recognized in Upstream Color. There is The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) whom I affectionately dub “the pig whisperer,” mother-daughter orchid venders (Kathy Carruth & Meredith Burke respectively), and a Thoreau-reading Thief (Thiago Martins). What has a “pig whisperer,” florists, and Thief to do with one another much less the traumatized girl and some guy off the street?** Much of Upstream Color has to do with a realization of the connections between seemly incongruous people, things or events. Every aspect of the film works to demonstrate congruity between unlikely pairings, their interdependence. Take the title of the film for example: “the words upstream and color seem like a random pairing, holding no apparent relevance to one another until the film, at length, lends it significance.”^^

A certain loveliness is found in how it Upstream Color is structured to mimic a growing awareness of that for which the film is arguing, removing the obfuscations, collapsing time and space cinematically to create important realizations. The ability to visualize connections lends them greater veracity; we, in sense, actualize them. Upstream Color is structured with its medium in mind: frames spliced in sequences, juxtapositions that create narrative; the viewer creates the movement and relationships. For non-students of film, Upstream Color is structured like a puzzle, fragments collect and interlock toward a more conscious visualization of a type of interconnectedness at work in the film—and just as possibly, in the world. The science in this fiction is ecology (both in terms of biology and sociology).

uc orchid

“Implementing the visual art of film to create strong inferences, Carruth eases the viewer into a greater and more conscious connection with the structure of his narrative, into seeing how the seemingly incongruous may, in fact, harbor congruity.” […] He “works hard to articulate one relationship to the other through a variety of means before placing them in a shot together for greater transparency.” ^^ The film opens with well-spaced, barely discernible dialog. The explanations are in the actions and edited sequences played out on screen. For instance, when we are first introduced to Kris and Jeff they inhabit different shots juxtaposed. Both are running, but Jeff is the jogger and Kris, we recognize, is a part of an organized run. We connect the action (their running) and proximity (the cut) and unconsciously relate the two figures, which is troubled by our understanding of space and time. They aren’t together; and yet an association has been made. We have to wait until later for the two to share a train and, more importantly, a screen together for “a more tangible proximity [to] confirm what is earlier (however less consciously) hinted at.” ^^ I should add here that Carruth relies on a viewer’s ability to remember (or ability to re-watch the film). Jeff wasn’t a remarkable enough a figure for me to recall him from that first scene to his next, and I was aware (after Primer) that I needed be really paying attention. Having had the trailer in recent consciousness may have helped as well, or recalling what Carruth looks like. Memory aside, just how deep Jeff and Kris’ connection goes is further illumined as the film collects as dialog and incisive cuts (to name two) following the silent and spare (yet voluminous) train sequences.

Upstream Color introduces inklings, moves to strong suspicions, then on to some sort of confirmation or revelation. The notion of reciprocity is an especially noteworthy revelation—it removes us from that level of anguished helplessness Kris undergoes at the beginning of the film; we are provided the hope of intervention, awareness as an activating agent toward change. The film reads like a mystery of the sort one finds in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry 2004). As Eternal Sunshine progresses we begin to fill in the finer details of what is really going on, what certain figures, objects, or events actually mean. Like Eternal Sunshine, it is enjoyable to watch the first time, but even more so upon the second viewing.


“Carruth “cross-cuts sequences wherein movements, objects, shapes and/or sounds are repeated to form vital connections that draw characters and concepts together.”^^Evidence of another’s existence and influence begins to appear everywhere. He will also uses a singular sequence to speak to the interconnectedness the film contemplates, i.e. The Sampler pushes over bricks and records their sound, or slides a rock down a corrugated steel pipe, or records the hum of electricity. These actions become an event to later share, but in their moment we relate action with consequence. We also see how The Sampler profits from this cause and effect. What The Sampler takes from the consequence of toppling, tumbling, scraping, industry or anguish is translated into a knowable auditory perception then packaged and sold—if not tossed aside in the hunger for something more meaningful (i.e. grief).

While I spend more time speaking to the visual reliance, the use of sound as a way of perceiving relationships is another significant aspect of the film. I am especially taken with the correlation between sounds in nature or the rural with those within the towns and industry. Many shots focus on a figure’s ear, the tilt of the head as if listening, the movement of fingers as if playing along to something only they can hear.


Henry David Thoreau: I haven’t spoken of this element of the film, which is important to its reading. There are people writing about it. I skimmed a New Yorker article and there was section on the worm references in Walden alone. If you’ve read both Walden and “Resistance to Government (Civil Disobedience),” the relevance is apparent, but I would want to spend another viewing on it. I am taken, primarily, with the lines Kris recites in the pool. I want another look at that, because of the words/lines most strongly intoned seemed to conjure pieces of the film.

uc z

Upstream Color is billed science fiction. And it is. But if you are expecting overt scientific explanations at some point (if not every point) in this genre film, you will be sorely disappointed. The only known certified practitioner of science and medicine appears ~56 minutes into the film and all the doctors do is deepen the conflict of the film. They serve only to confirm that the earlier inhabitation of the worm and its extraction actually occurred; that or suggest that we (to include Kris) are experience an incredible hallucinatory journey. But this isn’t a fantasy film, it is supposed to harbor that horror of potentiality a less fictional fiction like science fiction can offer. Much of “the film’s success depends upon an implication of reality. The pigs are not left to metaphor in relation to Jeff and Kris (among others). There are biological ties that cannot be ignored (the painstaking transference of the worm; the pregnancy; the shared sense of anguish and helplessness when the piglets are taken away). A film that would make explainable the oft obscured connections and intersections in life has to maintain a denial of unreality.”^^ How the worm works to facilitate such a sensitivity/awareness between animals is a scientific explanation the viewer brings. Perhaps there are signs, some kind of corollary we should be identifying within the film. The film resonates with our understanding that both the visible and invisible connection between figures, objects and events exists, and it demonstrates this in impressive ways. Is it enough?

uc poster tagline

Upstream Color is a bizarre film–the charming sort of bizarre. It frightens and reassures, it rages and smiles warmly. And its oft quite understated manner is worth the while…that and Amy Seimetz as Kris. She is seriously fantastic and so much depends on her capability as an actress. The film really is just beautifully done: gorgeous imagery, great sound. Sure I left with questions, and the first viewing left me with a headache, but it is also a very rewarding experience. Carruth isn’t trying so hard for clever that the coherence of the film is lost. However, if he is trying hard for provocative (to say nothing of evocative), it works.


an article Scott (in comments–thanks!) links: it is really good, especially on writing about the sound which I hardly touched on at all above:  “The White Worm: Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” ” by Nicholas Rombes (June 10th, 2013)

^^ the quotations are mine, pulled from a final paper (dated July 15, 2013) that I wrote for my Fantasy in Film class at UC Denver about the use of fantasy (how/why) in Upstream Color, which bears the boring title: “Weaving Fantasy into the Fiction: Visualizing Congruity in Upstream Color.” per a request, my paper [such as it is, not as edited as it should and grade unknown, etc]: Weaving Fantasy_L Darnell

**no doubt there are infographics by now, but Sean had a nice way of looking at how the figure interrelate. The Sampler, orchid vendors, and Thief are adjacencies; the worm is the interstitial; the others are collateral damage.

Upstream Color (2013) Directed, written, director of photography and original music by Shane Carruth; produced by Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair & Scott Douglas; editing by Carruth and David Lowery; Studio: ERBP; Starring: Amy Seimetz (Kris), Shane Carruth (Jeff), Andrew Sensenig (The Sampler), Thiago Martins (Thief), Frank Mosely (husband), Carolyn King (wife), Kathy Carruth (orchid mother) and Meredith Burke (orchid daughter).

running time 96 minutes. Not-Rated.

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

5 thoughts on “{film} upstream color*

    1. thank you! and thanks for the article link (I’m going to update the post with it attached). There are several points I enjoyed, one I appreciated was his observation that for all the Thoreau, the absence of the Transcendentalist–unless the “transcendentalist” is Thief (and likely the Florists and The Sampler), and is a criticism of the exploitation of the this American ideological framework for the sake of our less pure American ideologies.

      I will update with a pdf of my paper “Weaving Fantasy into the Fiction: Visualizing Congruity in Upstream Color” whose graded outcome is yet unknown and whose editing is suspect. and let’s see, what other disclaimers… 🙂 I should add that there it is written with the course discussions in mind; I’m thinking now that my mention of liminal space may seem random. anyway, thank you for your interest and kind words.

  1. L,

    Glad you liked the review from the LA Review of Books. The link I provided is now giving a “Page Not Found Error” so I went back and hopefully this one is stable:


    For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the film is how many interpretations there are; in almost every analysis I’ve read, I find validity to the view under discussion. Nicholas Rombes’ review, linked above, puts it nicely:

    “Of the many unsettling pleasures of Upstream Color, the most radical is how open it is to multiple, simultaneous readings, ranging from a basic contagion/virus film to a metaphysical meditation on what it means to have a fixed subjectivity as a human being.”

    Perhaps that’s one way to decide if something is a work of art, or not — can it stand up to multiple, simultaneous interpretations?

    I was quite bewildered after my first viewing; I then read an FAQ about Upstream Color that was enormously helpful in understanding the film upon second viewing; here is the link:


    An FAQ for a film may be considered crass, but in does have numerous insights.

    The only downside of my exposure to Upstream Color is that since my second viewing I feel more dissatisfied with conventional film structure; I think Shane Carruth has elevated what a really good film can be, and has absoutely succeeded in his goal that the film not be “disposable”.

    1. I, too, like complexity in any narrative and enjoy exploring different readings (whether on my own or from others). That said, ambiguity can also be the fatal flaw for me, so I also demand a pretty coherent work; which is where I agree with you and Rombes on Upstream Color.

      I enjoyed the second viewing, for the ease of it, and likely much of that is due to the convention of it. I think it goes back to a conversation I had with my daughter two days ago: we were starting The City and The City by China Mieville together and it is (and has been noted) that the murder-mystery is almost painfully conventional; rather than a complaint, this is a relief considering the complexity of what Mieville is doing elsewhere, such as constructing and imaging for the reader a city that exists in simultaneity with another city (I’m not sure he can use the term ‘cross-hatch’ enough).

      I admit to enjoying FAQs w/ certain films–Primer (Carruth 2004) birthed several fascinating posts (according to my husband–I just go with his clif notes on that one) and I adore the trivia. I usually prefer trying my hand at a reading beforehand. Thanks for the link; will be looking into the insights. I enjoy films that invite this much conversation and sharing. I always miss when a film class is done because of those discussions and hearing the multiple perspectives/insights even on a fairly “straightforward” film.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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