Here is something powerful. When you watch a movie, depending on where you are in the narrative, threads of meaning fix themselves and can be extended in your imagination. A specific scene can make you think about statements or implications the movie is making. This is the movie you are creating as you watch. Countless directions that your thought process takes, sometimes to confirm your own beliefs, or other times to make connections between things you never would have thought of.
The perfect movie, for me, has to connect on some essential elements that I seek when I watch ‘filmed stories’. This is what I think a movie is, a ‘filmed story’. I like to see in these ‘filmed stories’ elements that refer to the act of filming stories. I am referring to the act of being in a place with people and filming something. I like to see the actual world and the story behind the filmed image appear in the so-called ‘fictional’ construct. Pedro Costa’s “In Vanda’s Room” is one of the standards for this type of cinema. In that particular film, the intrusion is overt to the point where there is no longer a distinction between mythology and reality. Vanda was a real junky, Pedro really did film her, they created beautiful images, we were shown glimpses of a life, of a place. Everything was really there, but presented in a way where you can create your own film out of the experience. The story has no entry point, it has scattered elements for you to assemble. The derivative books, film journal articles, interviews, are part of the idea you form in your mind. It is not just a movie, it is a group of people you invited into your home.
Some movies don’t extend that far outside of themselves, but they are still deeply self-reflexive. For example, Vincent Gallo’s ‘Buffalo ’66”, where the director plays the main character, and you can see how the individuality corresponds to the visual aesthetic. Woody Allen is another obvious example, where the entire world he creates revolves around a personality type that sees cinema as psychologically all-inclusive, a sort of celebration of the fragmented self. It is not so much about the ego of the artist than of how a pattern of absorption and expression emerges within certain individuals. From that perspective, movies can be scientific objects of study, as per the work of Ted Goranson, an abstraction scientist, who uses movies to model ‘visual reasoning structures’ of the human mind.
So I was very surprised when I found out the main actor in Shane Carruth’s ‘Upstream Color’ is Shane Carruth. On my first viewing I thought of the film as decent, albeit a bit too cryptic, and frankly I was left unimpressed by the range of its visuals. The digital cinematography made it look like countless independent films from the United States that make the rounds in North American festivals and get enough press in online film journals to catch my attention (I admit I downloaded it instead of catching its one-week limited run in Montreal). On second viewing, all of that changed. I wasn’t so much bothered by the cinematography anymore. The story took precedence and ignited a rush of euphoria I had not felt in years while watching a film. It occurred to me that Upstream Color was about one hundred things, including social critique, and an unapologetic attack of cinema itself. Although it is essentially a love story, there is a sense of aggression and contained violence that is in line with an overall cynicism about modern life with which I am not too unfamiliar.
1. The Thief’s Connection To Soil
As I explained in my first comment on the film, the story follows two characters who were poisoned by a man with the help of an extract from some kind of venomous plant. This poison made them become completely under the thief’s control for a number of days during which they gave away all of their important monetary holdings (cheques, credit margins, gold properties). Basically, they were robbed of all their life savings. The actor that plays the thief is not white, and I think this is an important point while both victims we follow in the story are white. The thief’s best friend is black, and he himself is Latino. His special skill is botanics. He understands plant organisms and he uses this knowledge to extract the poison and administer it to his victims. He is also a practitioner of Tai Chi, which in my opinion implies that he is a balanced individual in his daily life.
Why show this positive characteristic for a character who is an antagonist? This is is part of the social critique implied by the director. What is socially acceptable is not necessarily just or intelligent. What is socially unacceptable, and even considered immoral (poisoning people to steal their money), might actually be an efficient and clever way to get ahead in society. Surely, I don’t condone the act of stealing, but I can still appreciate how viewing an individual strictly on moral grounds is limiting as it does not take into consideration the larger whole of society in which individuals are part of.
Uncharacteristically, Shane Carruth paints a negative character in a positive light. In the balance of power found in society, Shane Carruth is implying that victimization exists at all levels. Where you choose to stand determines your outcome, which determines your social status, which defines your quality of life.
The thief’s connection with the soil, his knowledge of botanics, is the key element that permits him to ‘get ahead’ (get rich faster) in society. This is related to him not being a White American, but instead being of Latino American descent, and living in the United States. What we might initially perceive as a disadvantage is actually a rich cultural heritage full of survival tactics based on a connection to the earth which has historically been inhabited by Indigenous tribes of which he is a more or less direct descendant.
You can see where this is going…America as a corporate project, human beings as a work force no different than cattle. A cynical, if not very lucid perspective on modern life and the overall systems that generate it. There are moments during the viewing of the story where you can entertain these perspectives and they can be as shocking as they are illuminating.
2. Love As A Broken Recollection
The core narrative in “Upstream Color” is the love story between Jeff (played by director Shane Carruth) and Kris (Amy Seimeitz). They both have been swindled by ‘The Thief’, they both are working jobs that they do not enjoy, and they both define their lives in terms of the trauma they survived. Their union, although hesitant at first, is the sole redemptive force they are holding on to.
But there is a hidden purpose to their coupling. They both go through similar patterns of behavior in regards to their general mistrust in the external world. Step by step, and through the exchange of what I will call ‘sychronistic information’ (positive coincidences through pattern matching), they succeed in accomplishing their goal of taking revenge on their manipulators. Their driving force is retaliation, their method is scapegoating, with the added ambiguity that there is a ‘correct’ scapegoat (the musique concrete musician known as “The Sampler” in the credits of the movie).
Jeff and Kris believe they are being controlled by an external force. Maybe they are deluded, and probably they are mentally ill, but if those are the limits by which they are able to define themselves as individuals, then it is perfectly plausible that they are correct. What I think Shane Carruth wanted to show was the ideal movie romance turned upside down. The usual light elements of screen romance such as dreamy infatuation and sexual jokes, are overturned to show something more haphazard, and chaotic. The truth is that Kris and Jeff are both trying to recover something they lost. After suffering traumatic identity crises, it is through a partner that they can best remap their identity. There has to be a trust in the breakdown and the complete deprogramming of their selves. This is the chaotic part. Love is not some kind of Hollywood cosmic fate, but a physical and psychological process through which one can reach a necessary detachment from society and dive back into the mysterious and spiritual potential of ‘the self’.
3. The Sampler
The Sampler is Shane Carruth’s surrogate in the story, which is funny considering the director also plays one of The Sampler’s victim. If you are following the thread so far, Upstream Color is an incredibly multi-layered film dispensing important and relevant truths about current life, and what we all are trying to do in the world, which is to assert our selves in the face of powerful information structures whose primary purpose is to silence us while at the same time manipulating us to guarantee their survival (their own survival, not ours).
Here comes the mysterious character called The Sampler. He records natural sounds which he uses in musical compositions. He is also all sentient and overlooks his victim’s lives for artistic inspiration. This is the role of the artist, the way we have been taught to believe. The artist wants to create a work of art with meaning, so he peers into the lives of others. He exploits their pain, instead of lending an empathic hand. The power of being privy to information he wouldn’t otherwise obtain, and an obsessive need for control over his artistic creation makes him the ultimate manipulator/voyeur/exploiter.
Who is then to say if his art is bad, or good? In a system of human relationships, it is no longer whether something is good or bad, but whether the individual/creator is even aware of the forces that push him to create. This is the position in which Shane Carruth finds himself, I believe. The trauma of identity loss as shown in the film is a metaphor for any other process of social conditioning. Not even the process of creation is exempt from the possible systems of control which restrict human activity and constrict openness. What this story purports, I believe, is that even so-called ‘artistic pursuits’ are mechanical processes on which artists inflict control over others. Seen from this perspective, Upstream Color, is also a condemnation of the act of filmmaking, and a portrayal of the internal violence generated by anybody that has been a victim of cinema’s curious hypnotic powers.
I can’t reiterate how important this story is for me. First because it seems so frank and lucid about economical power (The Thief makes the most money). Second because the love story is about the hunch of an external force controlling lives (the paranoid schizophrenic symptom), and third because it is essentially about filmmaking and its hypnotizing powers. Yes, the deeper I study film, the clearer it seems how profoundly useless, and irrelevant the entire enterprise is (conceiving stories, filming, manipulating reality). It seems inherently tied to mind-programming procedures such as brainwashing and pure hypnosis. Story has it that Shane Carruth interrupted work on a special fx, sci-fi story to make this film. We catch glimpses of this sci-fi film at the beginning when Kris is seen working as a visual effects designer. This makes me feel confident in my interpretation of the story. I love cinema, and I love images, but I also understand it is part of ‘the problem’, the problem of media consumption and its effect on the mind.
That’s why we need new forms, new shapes, that expose, and shatter such systems.