I am posting about Upstream Color (Shane Carruth) twice: one without spoilers and one with. This post is spoiler-free! : 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. [[Upstream Color is streaming on Netflix (as of today anyway)]]
Below is a spoiler-free version. I want to present a reading that may help. I don’t think it will hurt a complex film such as this one, but I tried to pick examples that should not spoil too much. I am also 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.
Upstream Color is not the easiest film to simplify, and a detailed summary would not only be dull, but unfair—also, you can find walk-throughs elsewhere. [The trailer at end of post is awesome, check it out.] I like the first half of IMDb’s synopsis:
“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.”
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. 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?
There are other 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).
“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 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.
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. If you like Thoreau, this film will certainly interest you.
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.
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.
^^ I wrote a final paper (dated July 15, 2013) for my Fantasy in Film class at UC Denver about the use of fantasy in Upstream Color, it bears the boring title: “Weaving Fantasy into the Fiction: Visualizing Congruity in Upstream Color.”
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.