May 11, 2014

Can Thoreau Unlock the Mysteries of Shane Carruth's Cerebral 'Upstream Color'?

upstreamWhat 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 MasterCarruth 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]

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18 Comments

That sounds about right to me. The thought that just about anything in a Shane Caruth movie is not there by design is foolish I think. Particularly this one as he had more time and resources at his disposal for production than he did for "Primer". He is an exacting story teller who constructs his stories with the greatest amount of intention.

That's a well made video. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

May 11, 2014 at 9:27AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Yeah, given Primer, it doesn't seem like he's haphazard. You're welcome, thanks for checking it out!

May 11, 2014 at 12:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
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It is great that Ms. Robertson has spent so much time untangling the enigmas of Upstream Color.
Great films always inspire many nights of independent research.

Unfortunately, I think she failed to remember that Shane Carruth is an anomaly among arthouse filmmakers in that he is completely transparent about his films. David Lynch prefers to remain silent about his projects, believing that verbal discussion detracts from universal subconscious intercourse, and that is certainly his prerogative. Jarmusch seems to have some elitist, tight-lipped quality about him. Jodorowsky and Harmony Korine are slightly more open to chatting about their films, but they are a bit lonely in their genius, existing on their own plane of reality, perhaps borderline psychopathic, and their Q&A's typically serve only to multiply confusion as they ramble on about whatever abstract tangent they are amused by.

But Carruth is a rather accessible fellow, and a geniune one as well. His films have no surreptitious motives. And nearly every question you could have about Upstream Color, he is willing to talk about, and most likely already has, in Q&A's and interviews.

May 11, 2014 at 12:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher

This is all true, I'm working off the assumption that she was making her own observations, perhaps ignorant of any interviews, after all, not everyone follows indie film (though one would have to have a degree of requisite filmmaking competence to put together a video of that quality.) I only say this because she never comes out and says that he's deliberately opaque, just that the narrative is. The thing I find so fascinating is that after Primer, nine years pass before his sophomore effort, and after its release he is immediately ensconced as an important director, and I imagine he's getting attention from studios, too; that's fairly rare, with that large of a gap. Or at all. Which I think speaks to his intelligence. And yeah, he does seem like a totally normal, down to earth guy. Which is weirder than if he were self-consciously weird, in a way.

May 11, 2014 at 12:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
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Video author checking in! Thanks for taking the time to comment! :) I actually watched quite a few interviews with Shane Carruth and read theories about the film before I made the visual essay and I'm very aware that Mr. Carruth is up front about the meanings and intentions of his films. I made the visual essay with the sole intention of submitting it in lieu of a written essay for an experimental film class so as you can imagine, a lot of barebones explanations and simplifying went on in the making of the video. I didn't think anyone other than my professor would be interested which is why it has more of an oblivious tone. If I make any more in the future just for my own personal enjoyment then I might take a different approach. But again, thanks for watching it and commenting!

May 11, 2014 at 1:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Oh hey, Anna. I wrote the piece. I tried to send you a message through Vimeo, I guess you didn't get it. I wanted to ask you that stuff and also whether it was okay or not to publish the piece. I assume you didn't get the message, but glad you're cool with us writing about it. Cool video, have you turned it in yet? You better get an A!

May 11, 2014 at 3:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
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Anna! NFS editor here. I thought your video was incredibly illuminating. Thanks for giving us something to obsess and ponder over for days and weeks to come!

May 11, 2014 at 6:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
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Hey thanks a lot! I'm so glad you like the video and thank you so much for featuring it! You guys are awesome!

May 11, 2014 at 7:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Hi Sergio,

Thanks for taking the time to drop us your note! It's not a secret that this information is out there, nor was that ever the assertion of the post; there was no breaking news. Our logic was roughly: the video is visually evocative, personal, and presented the information in a highly enjoyable digestible manner for our readership, many of whom don't read the New Yorker, which I am assuming you do on a regular basis given your ability to quote chapter and verse. Kudos. Also, it's a link to an article and not a video, so I don't quite get your "viewing" comment, in fact the article is a "reading" of the film, just as the video is; I refer to the narration. A viewing would be watching the movie. In conclusion, alas, we are a film site and we post videos. But thank you for your feedback!

May 11, 2014 at 4:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
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This was all published in a remarkable reading (or is it "viewing") on the New Yorker a year ago when the movie debuted.

Google "The Thoreau Poison". Nothing new here.

May 11, 2014 at 1:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sergio

This is fantastic, Anna! Congrats.

For me, even though I am choosing to take the route of "no film school" I do miss this kind of interaction with film history, and wish (call on!) NoFilmSchool would do more of this kind of content aggregation.

Moreover, I find this kind of analysis so inspiring and shows (me) the true value of Cinema with a capital C.

I also applaud Shane Carrurth and the mavericks of cinema throughout history for choosing filmmaking as the means of their artistic and philosophical expression. Those of us that are interested in more than commercial zombified stories sit at your feet waiting and wanting to be schooled!

May 11, 2014 at 7:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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RickyG

My interpretation of this wonderful film is so extravagant that maybe it's better to not waste your time reading it (I believe in this idea, even though it's science fiction):

Thousand years ago the human race was created by a far superior species that we named our gods. We inherited from them part of their genes and also, at the beginning, they shared their knowledge, their powers, with us. Later, some of them wanted us to be their slaves and tried to erase everything they gave us from our minds and souls (creating things like language that erased our telepathic skills), but that was useless; Intuition (that's why the girl -intuitive by nature- discovers the invisible master and is capable to see him to his eyes) are telling us that something is wrong, we, creative and conscious, are discovering what we really are -true and real like nature (Walden)- and looking directly to the eyes of our masters and telling them we are ready to be free.
(I told you not to read it XD)

By the way, When I told to a friend the plot of the movie, he related it immediately with the Ender's Game book

May 11, 2014 at 7:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I think to take a film apart like this is kiling it. A good film is an experience first and foremost, you understand it subconciously, you can't explain it in words. What's the use of doing this? I feel sorry for everyone who needs to "understand" a film and are searching for logic in cinema, i don't think you're interested in art at all.

May 12, 2014 at 2:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Martin

:(

May 12, 2014 at 6:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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That's like saying studying the phenomenon of scattered atmospheric molecules and particles won't let you appreciate a sunset.

Oftentimes my desire to study a film actually comes from the emotional response I had while watching it. Honestly, what kind of artists and lover of art would I be if I wasn't curious about the things around me that impact me? Isn't that where art comes from?

Also…just because it's art doesn't mean it's not logical. Logic is beautiful, too. Art can be anything! That's why it's awesome. :)

May 12, 2014 at 8:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
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Upstream Color struck me as more of a deep spiritual expression than cerebral one, and one that potentially it's creator hasn't fully figured out, even after it's completion.

May 12, 2014 at 11:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Marc B

I agree with MarcB. But if you know Waldon then you know Thoreau's motivation for "retreating." It was as much a spiritual retreat - research into the relations between self and nature - as it was a lifestyle choice.

May 12, 2014 at 7:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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RickyG

Analysis like this is worthwhile and fun and shouldn't be discouraged. It's part of enjoying art and artistry and I applaud Anna for tackling it.

But, in accordance with Betteridge's Law of Headlines, the literal answer to the headline is probably "no." There are interesting and serendipitous thematic parallels, but Carruth has been really candid in interviews about just *how* serendipitous those parallels were. He's said he chose Walden primarily because it would be a tedious work to have Kris transcribe, and was quite surprised to discover all the parallels.

So while it's a really fun comparison (and none of us but Carruth can speak really authoritatively about this), I think looking at Upstream Color as a cipher and Walden as the key is Room 237 material.

May 19, 2014 at 3:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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