In 2004, Shane Carruth debuted his first film, Primer, at the Sundance Film Festival. It was a mind-bending science fiction masterpiece made on a meager budget, and made Carruth a filmmaker to watch. Since then, he consulted on the time-traveling narrative of Looper, but hadn’t made a feature film until now. Upstream Color is here, and it’s another masterpiece. Imagine if Terrence Malick made a film based on a Hayao Miyazaki story, and you have a glimpse into Carruth’s approach. Hypnotic and wandering cinematography, utilizing images over dialogue (showing over telling), and the integration of imaginative and mystical elements that must be taken at face value as part of the tale.
While the complex narrative looping of Primer is still confusing to me, Upstream Color has a fairly straightforward narrative arc, if one is able to accept its fantastic (as in, fantasy) moments. A young woman, Kris, is the victim of a Thief. She is violated holistically–not sexually, per se, but invaded from the inside out. Her identity is stolen, her sense of safety is gone, and her concept of herself is lost. The Thief has stolen everything from her, leaving Kris terribly broken and alone. After her ordeal, a young man, Jeff, notices Kris on a subway train. He feels drawn to her, and despite her initial hesitation and resistance, he continues to patiently pursue a quiet romance with her. He harbors secrets and pain of his own; he too has lost everything and is slowly rebuilding his life. Together, their stories become intertwined as they embark on a journey of healing and the pursuit of wholeness.
Did I mention the pig farm? And the parasitic worms? And the strange blue color that seems to be a living organism that creates mysterious spiritual connections between beings? If you thought Upstream Color was a simple romance story between two people as they heal from past wounds, you’re right. It is. It is also a meditative fantasy film peering into our perception of identity and the invisible connections we have to other persons.
The Thief who stole Kris’s identity is somehow connected to the Sampler, a man who operates a pig farm out in the middle of nowhere. The Thief and Sampler connect through a long and complex cycle–the mysterious blue color comes from the Thief and his plants, goes into the worms, goes into the human victims (Kris, Jeff, and others), goes into the pigs via the Sampler, goes into the stream of water through the death of a pig, moves into the orchid plants, and back to the Thief. The Thief gets money out of this scheme, but what does the Sampler gain? A sense of control over others. He has the ability to interact with the people around him that he perhaps can’t connect with in real life. As evidence of this, his only face-to-face interaction with a human being is with a veterinarian checking on a pregnant pig; the Sampler is awkward and aloof, not even making eye contact. He is “watching” the people through their respective pigs, not interacting or engaging with human beings in real life.
The pigs are avatars. They are connected to reality, and their experience affects the people who are connected to them, but they are not fully “real” in the same way that we are real. The Sampler uses these avatars to watch and observe people, but this is not the same curious observation like the angels in Wings of Desire. This is more akin to the relational connections often found in social media; the pig avatars are like our Twitter and Facebook accounts, and the Sampler can only interact with human beings through this controlling and filtered relationship. It feels like a relational connection, but if the only interaction is through the avatar–pig or social media–then the connection is incomplete at best and fallacious at worst. We are not fully known through avatars in the same way that Kris and Jeff know each other when they embrace. The I and Thou interaction is run through a filter. Identities blend and mold together, both between the pigs and the people, and between Kris and Jeff (their arguments over whose memory is whose is at once amusing and alarming). The interaction and intertwining between I and Thou is important here. These are people interacting with people, not objects or things. The Thief and the Sampler only use and observe, detached and abusive; Jeff chooses to wrap himself up with Kris, quite literally in the above pictured scene set in a bathtub.
The romance and relationship between Kris and Jeff is a deeply affecting portrayal of the messiness of unconditional love. He is present with her in her pain and brokenness. He doesn’t run from her, doesn’t commit her to a psych ward or send her away to “get fixed.” He wants to be a part of her healing. He serves her, does anything he can to help her. Even when their identities are beginning to become intertwined, it never feels like an unhealthy codependency. Unlike romances like the one in Silver Linings Playbook, where two people build their relationship upon the shallow foundation of their romantic emotions, the relationship of Kris and Jeff is built around both a romantic attraction and a sense of fidelity in the midst of brokenness. Jeff will not leave Kris, and Kris will not leave Jeff, and it is a deeply healing realization for both of them.
Upstream Color is filled with wonderfully affecting scenes: Kris and Jeff coiled up in the bathtub together out of fear; the pool scene with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, where Jeff chooses to sit and write what Kris says; when Kris holds the pig and smiles. Visually, Carruth is an expert cinematographer and editor, but Upstream Color is far more than its striking visuals. This is an auditory film–the visuals are impressive and the script is phenomenal, but the sounds! Pulses and movements and hums and whistles. Sound is critical in Upstream Color, and it washes over the audience like a wave, baptizing them into the experience of Kris and Jeff. (The film won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for “Sound Design.” They called it “a film that we thought had absorbing use of sound and incredible aural inventiveness.”)
At its core, Upstream Color is a film about healing. Karl Barth and other theologians make the claim that we are only human persons in the context of relationship; we can only know our identity through the interaction and connection with other beings made in the image of God. When identity is shattered and relationships are distorted, it is a long and arduous process we go through to heal our wounds. Kris and Jeff have found the Thou to their respective I, the person in their life who is simply that–a person, not an object or an avatar or a figure of dominance and control. Their journey towards healing is traveled together, beautifully wrapped in each others arms as they break free from the bondage of isolation and control.
Is God in Upstream Color? Implicitly, I believe He is. I feel Him in the sounds, in the water, in the sunlight, in the relationships. I think He watches and heals and brings about the mysterious connection between Kris and Jeff. He is the God who makes people whole, and if Upstream Color is about the healing of the brokenhearted, then God is certainly present.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2084989/