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Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” is Still Worth Talking About

June 24, 2013

By John C.

Upstream Color PosterBefore Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color premiered at Sundance back in January, the film built up an almost feverish amount of anticipation throughout the independent circuit, and immediately prompted a discussion across the internet.

I had been meaning to write about the film when it opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox back in April, but was so busy screening stuff for Hot Docs, that I was never able to find the time.  But I recently stumbled upon a copy of Upstream Color on DVD, and the conversation that the film provokes is one that is still worth having.

How do I even begin to explain the story?  Throughout the first act of the film, we watch as Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drugged with a parasitic worm taken from the soil of an orchid, that thrusts her into an episode of psychosis.  Her actions are controlled by the mysterious Thief (Thiago Martins) through hypnotic direction, as she becomes more erratic in her behavior and increasingly less aware of her own identity.  The worms are then extracted by the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) and injected into pigs, who live on a farm exhibiting some characteristics of their human counterparts.

Left with no recollection of the traumatic events, Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who has an equally shaky grasp of his past, and the two form an almost unexplainable connection.  The last act brings closure to the characters, but in a way that leaves us with just as many questions as to why these things were happening in the first place.  Shane Carruth has said that he set out to make a film that defies being given an easy synopsis, and he has succeeded.  This isn’t always an easy film to comprehend, even after two viewings, and this will prompt some to describe the story as pretentious.  But even when the audience is grasping to understand why everything is happening, the transcendent images and intriguing story keep us watching.

Maybe there are no wrong answers when it comes to interpreting the film.  Some have argued that it is about organized religion and how it can come to control our lives, and others have said that it is about the confusion that can come from trying to make sense of things we might never understand.  I don’t pretend to have all of the answers or even to understand everything that the film is trying to say, but this seems to be a jigsaw puzzle that can be put together to form slightly different pictures, depending on what beliefs you bring to it.  Do those behind the film even have all of the answers, or are they just content with posing these questions to the audience and listening to the explanations they get in return?

Perhaps this is a film about how our memories and experiences may also mirror those of someone else, and these are the things that intuitively draw us together.  The connections between everyone in the film exist on both the smallest and grandest of levels, but there is a cyclical quality to the central relationship that suggests the two are connected on an almost chemical level beyond our understanding.  Amidst the starkness of many interpretations, does this suggest that the film is also about the intangible but very real power of empathy?  You could interpret the film as being about nature controlling us through forces beyond our control, or you could interpret this as an allegory for people trying to control nature.

This could also be seen as a dissection of identity, themes that are brought up over a haunting sequence where similar images keep repeating themselves over and over again, as personal memories start to blur between the characters.  The entire film might also be a metaphor for filmmaking in general, where the Thief is the writer, the Sampler is the director in charge of putting everything together, and the characters are the actors, only identified by how they are represented.  Perhaps the easiest way to understand how the subjects are being controlled in Upstream Color is to liken the experience to how we as an audience are being taken in by the film.

According to IMDb, Shane Carruth has a total of eight credits on Upstream Color, and he directs his own screenplay with an assured hand, editing everything together through a fractured narrative.  The way that some scenes play out of order and only seem to click together after a second viewing, makes the images themselves all the more haunting.  The cinematography is aided by long stretches of silence and the memorable musical score, also by Shane Carruth, often comes from within the scenes as the Sampler records sound from the world around him.  All of these elements add up to a disturbing film that is meant to be questioned and discussed.

This just brings us right back to the first question of what does it all mean?  And with that, my article could go on forever.  Because no matter what I write about Upstream Color, my answers lead to more questions, prompting a conversation that is just as cyclical as the endlessly evolving organism at the centre of the film.  This is a confounding and sometimes strangely beautiful experience that is quietly fascinating for the way that it leaves us grappling for answers, and the conversation that follows is hard to shake, just like the film itself.

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