‘Upstream Color’: Shane Carruth’s Search for Authenticity in an Alienating Century

By  · Published on April 16th, 2013

Warning: Though Shane Carruth has referred to his film as “un-spoilable,” this post discusses the ending of Upstream Color at length.

It’s been a little over two weeks since I watched Shane Carruth’s ambitious sophomore feature, Upstream Color, and there are still specific images, moments, sounds and feelings that continue to resonate through my mind. Whether it be the sight of a worm moving through the crevices of a human body, the briefly glimpsed drama of an anonymous couple who made a habit out of creating distance and never reconciled before it was too late, or a man’s poetic gesture of quitting his drone job by watching business papers slowly float down several stories in a hermetically sealed, ultra-modern office-tropolis, Upstream Color is as sleek and expertly polished as it is sneakily affecting.

A swimmer recites Thoreau’s “Walden” as she gathers pebbles in an indoor pool. A seemingly benevolent farmer herds and feeds a mundane gathering of pigs in a film in which no quotidian imagery is simply that. Blue and white permeate nature as if color itself was a literal material force of its own. Upstream Color is remarkable in its ability to merge the poetic with the concrete, routinely invoking abstract ideas with specific material symbols.

The result is one of the most purely cinematic, well-crafted, and earnestly hopeful films released in the first half of 2013. It displays as much faith in audience intelligence as it does in the idea that a sincerely optimistic message will speak to ostensibly cynical audiences in perpetual states of postmodern crisis. Upstream Color’s implied viewer is also its depicted subject. However, Upstream Color represents the profound alienation of modern life far more adeptly and convincingly than it does humanity’s last chance at genuine connection.

Carruth himself has been reluctant to compare Primer and Upstream Color while doing press and promotion for his new film. However, since these two films are all the evidence we have of Carruth’s creative mind from the past ten years or so, it’s difficult not to put them in conversation to some degree. But what’s interesting about Carruth’s first two features is not their similarities, but their contrasts. Where Primer’s major mode of address is its uncompromising use of specialized technical jargon, for Upstream Color, dialogue is a largely secondary means of conveying meaning – the latter film’s primary “language” is that of juxtaposition and visual metaphor.

More to the point, Primer starts from a point of cold, clinical calculation already embodied in its exclusionary employment of engineering and mathematics language. Its protagonists are virtually non-present in human terms, immediately utilizing their short-term time travel technology to their own advantage as well as, ultimately, towards the exploitation of one another. The film starts at a point of moral neutrality and ends somewhere in the realm of ethical vacancy.

The tone of Upstream Color basically starts out where Primer left off. Amy Seimetz plays Kris, a veritable young middle-class everywoman who is attacked and forced to ingest a worm which forces her to become subject to processes of mind control and exploitation. Her captors trick her into giving away her life savings, and when she comes to (when the worm is surgically transferred to a farm animal that I think can only be accurately referred to as an “affect pig”), her life is ruined by a prolonged absence, self-inflicted violence, and a draining of funds that she possesses no recollection of. She simply maneuvers through life step-by-step, a blank slate who avoids experience in constant living fear of another encounter with the inexplicable.

Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), who romantically pursues her on her daily commute in a passive aggressive manner all too fitting for this movie’s vision of entangled crises of authentic personal connection in the age of the simulacrum. In a seeming paradox, the couple bonds deeply over their common despondency, realizing at some point that they can’t both be this disconnected and unfeeling for no damn reason. Somewhere out there, each of their respective affect pigs roam, with Kris and Jeff’s essential capacity for human experience tucked safely away in their adorable piggy bodies.

The journey Upstream Color takes to get to this point is, as I suggested before, far more fascinating than most narrative films you’ll see this year, and its vision is manifested through masterfully executed cinematography (not to mention impeccable sound design). Interpersonal ambivalence makes for some stunning photographic composition.

While abstruse in terms of its technical surface, Upstream Color’s message is surprisingly literal, direct, and accessible. Referred to as a “modern day fable” by the New York Times, the film attempts to address pervasive sense of postmodern malaise in which we’re increasingly disconnected from our own experiences just as we assume the affairs of others as our own (this idea is illustrated literally when Kris and Jeff confuse their own memories as belonging to the other).

Fox News, reality TV, text messaging, interior city walks, and a general loss of neighborly hospitality are all implicit culprits in Carruth’s interrogation of 21st century’s perpetual state of non-living. While representing certain aspects of the (post)modern world (mundane office work to pay off debt, alienating urban architecture and transportation modes), Carruth’s major means of addressing the 21st century condition is through distinct and revisited metaphors: the worm takes away our capacity for genuine experience, the pig is where that experience has been relocated, and Thoureu’s “Walden” is the key for fusing together again a man or woman with his or her relationship with the natural, authentic world.

While the journey itself is worthwhile, it is perhaps inevitable in a film constructed this way that, upon reaching its destination, the metaphors become decidedly mixed. The proposed “solution” reveals Carruth’s oversimplification of the problem addressed – that there is some retrievable “authentic” experience to be recaptured. With the restraints of feature filmmaking and with Carruth’s admirable ambitions on full display here, this is a more-than-forgivable shortcoming of an otherwise rich and rewarding film.

However, the ways in which this solution is portrayed visually (one of the film’s greatest strengths up to this point) is where it lost me. Kris, Jeff, and their fellow worm-assault victims achieve a common understanding of their shared conspiracy Manchurian Candidate-style, specifically through mail-ordering different editions of Thoreau’s “Walden” to fellow former worm-ingestors. Members of the group then retrieve their respective affect pigs and pursue a simpler, agrarian lifestyle outside the ubiquitous alienating forces of a world realized through brands and information exchange.

This imagery resonates in ways that its filmmaker may not have meant for it to, for images of agrarian, authentic living seem to already circulate alongside the distancing forces of postmodernity. Just as we’re steeped in technologies of dis-connection, images of a “natural” and “organic” lifestyle are sold to us within the same public culture as reality TV and Chat Roulette.

Rather than highlighting contradiction, this binary of middle-class urban life instead exists symbiotically: the various problems (say, chemically manipulated produce, globalized disorientation, outsourcing, inauthentic simulations of interpersonal encounters) are necessary for their supposed solutions (say, organic markets, locavorism, fair use, a fleeting sense of community) to become sold in turn. Neither are practices of living as much as they make up the surface components of a particular lifestyle. Images of the authentic are steeped into visions of the inauthentic in a mutually reinforcing relationship.

Upstream Color illustrates, perhaps more pointedly than it intended, the precise visual landscape of hip, urban, middle, class, (primarily white), surface-liberal practices of commercial consumption and commodified experience. This film embodies the dichotomy of the bobo. Few moments of this are made more distinct than when the notably dapper Carruth, as his character reaches the brink of his malaise, walks outside to chop down a tree (seen above) – a narrative turning point in a visionary American independent film, or avant-garde viral ad for J. Crew’s Fall line?

Visions of what it means to re-connect with an authentic, natural world are already embedded within the current mechanics of alientation that Carruth posits as wholly dehumanizing. “Natural authenticity” is as much an aesthetic of living as the hermetically sealed modern life that it poses itself as a relief from. These characters, after all, only re-encounter genuine experience after a mail-order exchange of premium editions of mass-reproduced literature (maybe Amazon, not “Walden,” was the key all along). It’s perhaps to the credit of Upstream Color’s depiction of the incredible extent of the crisis depicted that even a film this original struggles to envision an alternative outside of the visual terms presented by the problem itself.