Film

'Upstream Color': A Metaphorical Exploration of What It Means to Have a Self

Upstream Color emulates the experience of trauma, as the personal turns abject and absolute, shaping all the rest of the victim's world and time going forward.


Upstream Color

Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Myles McGee, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke
Rated: NR
Studio: erbp
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-04-05 (General release)
UK date: 2013-03-01 (General release)
Website
Trailer
I am absolutely an unreliable narrator.

-- Shane Carruth

"You can leave the tile. The rest of the floor will support your weight now." So instructed, Kris (Amy Seimetz) pauses. Close-ups show her face, perplexed, her hair, damp, and her toes, exposed. Holes in Kris' pantyhose remind you of a previous scene in Upstream Color, where she is drugged and dragged onto pavement. In that scene, Kris wakes to pelting rain, staggers to her feet and away from her assailant (Thiago Martins); in this scene, he's describing to her what she's feeling and how she might respond. "Your throat is parched," he says, "Make a pitcher of ice water, bring a small glass."

Kris appears in the next scene as knees only, the camera panning from her seated in a chair to the pitcher of ice water she's "made". The camera moves, you hear the assailant again, not quite explaining, "I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun, which makes it impossible for you to look directly at me. It has always been this way." A cut to Kris' face shows her eyes lowered, as if to avoid the bright soft light that fills the frame.

These brief moments in Upstream Color hint at an abrupt subjective shift. Facing what appears a monster, as well as her own radical uncertainty, Kris responds. With her sense of self undone, her body suddenly strange to her, she can't identify where or how she is. Just so, the film positions you in the midst of her un-knowing, as a process and as a series of seemingly unrelated events and behaviors. Kris hears and follows instructions from her assailant, called the Thief in the movie's credits, indicating that he has stolen something from her, in that moment where he feeds her pills that have inside them small worms, the film's visual and narrative point of departure for a formal, metaphorical exploration of what it means to have a self.

Not unlike filmmaker/mathematician Shane Carruth's previous, also remarkable, film, Primer, this one manages that exploration by breaking up space and time, most vividly by use of sound -- sound that's pervasive and unfamiliar (Upstream Color won the Sound Design Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival). The sound here serves a narrative function, as a figure called the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) records it, from rustling leaves to running water to snuffling pigs. He also appears to perform a sort of surgery that connects Kris to one of these pigs, biologically, maybe genetically, certainly visually.

Whether or not the Sampler is an alien conducting one of those horrifying experiments that aliens in movies like to conduct matters less than his function as a kind of connective tissue: even as he observes and records his subjects (human or porcine), he doesn't interact with them, until film's end, when Kris looks directly at him (a look that appears to surprise him), then engages him. The moment is striking, and aptly violent, given that she spends so much of the film avoiding or resisting engagement. That she and Jeff see in one another similarities, and even seem reflections of one another, underlines the film's investment in looking and seeing as means to define, if not precisely understand, relations between bodies, between beings.

In Primer, such investment was focused through a couple of guys' peculiar confrontations with themselves (and each other), ordained by something like time travel. In Upstream Color, the conflicts and revelations are more internal, and not only because Kris and Jeff seem to be hosting alien worms, but also because their relationship, not quite romantic but excruciatingly intimate, is premised on a shared experience they don't articulate so much as they perform. That's not to say it's not real, only that it's represented to show the artifice of movie conventions (they eat together, they have sex, they smile in montages on sidewalks and in cars). Kris and Jeff feel a bond, as coupling movie characters do, but the story turns to the work that comes after that initial recognition, work narrated here as their analogous physical changes -- afflictions, ruptures, apprehensions, disconnections -- changes that are simultaneously literal and metaphorical.

Whether or not these changes have to do with their personal crises -- the assault on Kris, for a most obvious instance, as it brings on her changing relationship to kitchen tiles and ice water -- or with a more general, existential adversity remains unclear. And as such, it emulates the experience of trauma, as the personal turns abject and absolute, shaping all the rest of the victim's world and time going forward. As Upstream Color contemplates and signifies loss and recovery, absorption and adjustment, it focuses on connection and reconnection, changes that may or may not be lasting.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.