The Emergent Subjectivity of Upstream Color

This essay contains SPOILERS for Upstream Color, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Shane Carruth’s second film, Upstream Color, is an emotional, powerful piece of filmmaking that has stuck with me since viewing it back in April. Part of what makes it so striking is the combination of its seemingly complex form with rich, yet ultimately basic, I would argue, thematic content. As difficult as it is to put into words the experience of the film—people have described it as making emotional sense, but not being able to articulate it—I want to briefly probe what Upstream Color is about and what the experience of the film conveys.

One of the challenges of describing Upstream Color is the film’s opacity: basically, this is a difficult film in terms of laying out cause and effect and what happens, or why. I think it’s fairly clear that the relation of film form or narrative structure to the meaning of a film is one of Carruth’s key interests. Also, since Carruth acts as director, screenwriter, actor, editor, composer, and more, on both of his films, it might be helpful to compare Upstream Color to his earlier film, Primer, to see how one sheds light on the other.

One of the things that struck me about Upstream Color is that while its narrative is perhaps more fragmented than Primer, its overall content may be easier to follow. Primer was about ellipsis (what is left out) and the difficulty we experience in putting together a narrative. In Primer the viewer is given pieces of an overall story (formally called the fabula or the content of a story—what happened), but structured and presented in a specific way (this is the syuzhet or how a story is organized i.e. beginning, middle, end).

Primer has an extremely fractured syuzhet. It pushes the act of piecing together the overall narrative (or fabula) to a radically obtuse degree, as the fans who have laboured over recreating the story have shown. It takes a lot of work and multiple viewings to put together the pieces of the story in a way that makes sense. Thematically it works because Carruth is trying to show the effect that time travel would have on the basic premises of cause and effect that we use to make sense of our lives (our own narratives, if you will). But Carruth insists that all the material is there to put together the pieces and that some fans have come very, very close to “solving” it.

Upstream Color also offers a fairly fractured syuzhet as well. It contains gaps in information. But the film’s fabula ultimately can be summarized. Ostensibly it is about a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is drugged with a worm, sees her life fall apart, and finds a connection with another victim, Jeff (Shane Carruth), as they attempt to rebuild their fractured lives. Oh, and there’s a mysterious Sampler, (Andrew Sensenig) who seems central to connecting the various characters and events.

People talk about the film making “emotional sense” to them. A viewer can come to a kind of intuitive understanding of it, even if the connections between the various pieces (the worm, the Thief, the Sampler, the orchids) isn’t made explicit. Perhaps that is because while Primer explored the way that time-travel technology could mess with the way we experience the world, Upstream Color is actually about more basic questions of human existence in the world, and how we gain that knowledge about our world.

Upstream Color might be one of the best films I’ve ever seen in recreating the way we actually experience reality and organize narratives out of the sense data we are given. It is radically subjective—we make connections based on our limited knowledge and vantage point—but viewers are able to make sense of it because our lives are radically subjective, even if we haven’t had the experiences that Kris and Jeff have had.

Upstream Color strips away the character’s knowledge of what has happened to them, so they are left in no better position than the viewer. Kris really wouldn’t be able to say that the “Thief” (Thiago Martins), as he’s named in the credits, drugged her with a worm he distilled from some orchids. And she wouldn’t be able to say the Sampler “saved” her by removing the worm and placing it in a pig. Or that the pigs and people then share some kind of innate connection based on the presence of a shared organism (the worm?).

Even Kris’s attraction and ultimate connection to Jeff is intuited. They start to find out their memories and experiences overlap in certain ways, and are drawn further and further into each other’s lives until it’s difficult to distinguish whose life is whose. It’s the ineffability of quantifying an attraction from our limited viewpoint. Such a subjective experience is emergent; there are a million things that are affecting the outcomes, and some of them are beyond the scope of both the characters’ and the viewers’ knowledge, and cannot be analysed simply by breaking them down to their parts. But we intuit a narrative that will help us to make sense of the situation.

Does it all hold together? That’s for the viewer to decide. One of the things that still puzzles me is that, from what we view, the drowned piglets upstream release the worms into the water, which creates the blue orchids, from which the Thief creates the mind-control drug, which was used to control Kris (and Jeff, we presume). It’s circular. But that assumption, that something is out of order, is based on the order in which the information is presented in the film. The structure of the film—and our human reality, whether it’s our natural environment, or our beliefs, both social, economic, and religious—forces us to make decisions about how we will organize information.

As Carruth mentioned in the Q&A after, he’s interested in pushing at the boundaries of a question, in this case the question of how we form identities. He noted that the way the film deals with the collapse of systems of meaning came out of discussions he had with his brother about the financial crisis, but I’m impressed with the way he has expanded those questions outward, coming up against an outline of an idea. Upstream Color is about how human beings deal with crises (what our friend Luke Siemens called an “aesthetic of collapse”) and the feelings of being subject to something beyond themselves (i.e. transcendence).

So the premise of the film explores how the characters rebuild an identity with the knowledge and situation that they have. It’s about having a subjectivity, or a window through which we view the world, aware that we are acting on very limited information. The act of interpreting the film echoes the actions that Kris and Jeff go through in the aftermath of their loss of identity. It’s a film rich to experience, and rewarding to think about.

Upstream Color (2013 USA)

Written and directed by Shane Carruth; starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins.