Upstream Color, A Note on (Shane Carruth, USA, 2013)


This is what I remember: Young kids drink a brown liquid that seems to give them extra reflexes. A man works from home at his desk scraping blue dust from flowers. He de-roots those flowers to dig up worms: some of them go in one jar, some in the other. The choices seem to be made on the basis that atoms of some break up and turn blue. The scientist then takes those blue worms and puts them into pill casings as if each were a drug. He then forces that drug onto a young woman, hypnotizes her, and when she wakes up from that nightmare induced by the drug/worm is left without a home, a job, a life; she also doesn’t remember why it happened. There’s a sound man, and there are pigs and there are flowers and there are copies of Thoreau’s Walden. Something connects them but I don’t know what that is.

I remember being very moved when the girl, Kris(Amy Seimetz), finds someone like her, Jeff (Carruth), the hesitancy with which they begin to interact, how closed-off they are and needful; how they connect in spite of being scared; how they keep trying to keep the other at bay whilst simultaneously unable to keep themselves from wooing; they share to such an extent they accuse the other of stealing their memories/identities;  how they seem to live in a vacuum of empty hotels and sad motels, each being the only other human connection to the other. This whole part is told in fragments, associative, metaphorical, symbolic but of what I’m not clear on. There are beautiful images of flocks of birds and a repeating phrase – ‘they could be starlings’ that I find oddly haunting.

Thoreau’s Walden seems to be something to figure out and something that links and connects our two protagonists to many other strangers. What does it signify? Have they also been dispossessed of their former selves? The colours white, blue, yellow seem to be important but what of?

I was quite moved but I also remember asking ‘where do the pigs and the sound man and the wild orchids turning blue, and the worm that’s really a drug fit into it?’ yet not wanting to take the trouble to find out.

But then I felt a need to. I looked up The Guardian  but the review was overly literal and I thought the comparisons to Malick, understandable though they are, didn’t quite give me the key into the film that I sought.  David Gritten in The Telegraph writes that he’s now seen it twice, finds it dense, visually gorgeous, poetic but ultimately  finds the film irritating and hard to write about . I know what he means but he did end up writing on it so should have taken greater trouble. The best written review I found to be Richard Brody’sin The New Yorker: ‘Skittering, fragmented editing and glowing images suggest a tenuous hold on reason, and also abysses of irreparable loss; subplots of a sound recordist in search of effects, a pig farm with a special allure for the victims, and recurring phrases from Thoreau’s “Walden” intertwine to yield a vision as vast and as natural as it is reflexively cinematic and fiercely compassionate’. That jives with my experience of the film.

I found the most  informative review to be  Michael Atkinson’s in Sight and Sound. However,  he still warns us that the film he describes, ‘may not resemble the film you yourself see, of course. No film may be quite as contingent on cryptic intimation as Carruth’s, and certainly no film since Eisenstein’s October has relied so categorically on associative editing. You sense that a thoroughgoing metaphysics lies just behind the secretive passage of impressions – which is where, you equally sense, it should remain. Clearly, the film is intended as a tactile experience of poetic ideas, of modern disconnection and biophysical insecurity and existential doubt, and the clarity of these anxieties is bruising and stunning.’

None of these reviewers claim to be able to describe the film they saw as the film you or I might see. All find the film beautiful, poetic, somehow meaningful to them. Not all events or states of mind much less feelings about those events or states of mind are explainable. But Upstream Colour somehow seems to convey them in such a way that it incites the audience to connect them to their own life. It’s quite something when a film can do that. It’s why, without quite feeling I’ve understood Upstream Color, I’ve already had so many interesting conversations about it. I suggest you see it if you can though, if you’re like me, it has to be in a cinema. I would have turned the TV off in ten minutes had I been watching it at home. The cinema context forces your attention and then rewards it. It’s worth taking the trouble.

José Arroyo

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