Can Thoreau Unlock the Mysteries of Shane Carruth's Cerebral 'Upstream Color'?
What does Henry David Thoreau's classic narrative of his 2-year sojourn in the wilderness, Walden, have to do with Primer director Shane Carruth's sophomore effort, Upstream Color? According to Vimeo user Anna Robertson, everything. Her video is a great example of the subtle ways that a film can embed its meaning and structure under the surface, demonstrating that just like dreams, there is, in successful stories (and movies in particular), a logic at work, even in the most seemingly opaque narrative. Let's go through the looking-glass, people.
Unlike Primer, which was made for an extremely low budget, with a deliberately no frills, flat-lighting office-park aesthetic, which did wonders to enhance the idea that these kooky nerds just might have actually cooked up a box that could take you back in time a few hours, Upstream Color is a visually lush, impressionistic and highly symbolic film.
While I'm thinking of it, just like Anderson went from Boogie Nights to The Master, Carruth appears to be edging towards Terrence Mallick territory, at least visually, with this one (the film is full of beautiful shots of the natural world and life, both animal and human, from the tiniest parasite to the biggest person, and lots of pigs. And it's all very, and pardon me, but it's all very natural, or rather naturalistic, i.e., the pigs don't look like they were acting.) Anyway, summarizing the plot of Upstream Color is just going to make me sound like I am blogging from a locked ward, but I will make an attempt: A thief infects the main character, Kris, with a parasite, which is psychotropic and causes her to become hypnotically suggestible. He eventually makes her copy out pages from Henry David Thoreau's classic 19th century work, Walden (wherein the author went and spent two years in the wilderness to test the limits of self-reliance and solitude). Carruth, whose 2004 debut is still scratching heads, does not make films which give themselves to easy interpretations, but Robertson has teased out the associative links between Thoreau's novel and its fundamental importance to the structure and meaning of the film. I'll let the video explain the rest for me. (Watch out! Spoilers ahead, guys!)
Essentially, though, it is Robertson's supposition (and, I would hazard a guess, a pretty good one) that the use of Walden is not arbitrary, i.e., odds are that someone in the Production Dept. didn't happen to have a dog-eared copy in the back of their car. To her mind, this book, written in 1854, holds the clues to the movie, and can be used by the audience, if they so choose, to tease out meaning (though not a literal meaning, not an M. Night Shyamalan kind of meaning) of the film's manifold enigmas. She sees the book's use within the film as a symbol, as a narrative metaphor for the journey of the characters, which she sees as cyclical -- consisting of the cycle of life, which is represented by humans, pigs and orchids and I think you can see why I'm not explaining the plot further. And, just as Henry David Thoreau found an inner peace when he went to live in solitude by a pond for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days (total coincidence, I'm sure), the main characters in Upstream Color leave their mostly unhappy lives in the modern world behind, and even though they go through an involuntary, traumatic journey (a subject with which I am well acquainted), they come out the other side, better, happier and wiser for their experience (not so much). What do you guys think about the connections Robertson made between Upstream Color and Walden? Also, if time travel were possible, what would you do (remember, you can't kill Hitler; science has proven this.) Let us know, in the comments! [via: Anna Robertson]