Friday, 30 August 2013

GFT programme note: Upstream Color

Upstream Color is out today. I saw it at the Edinburgh Film Festival a wee while back and thought it was a bit rubbish. Then I watched it again and decided, ohwaititsactuallynotbadatall. Here's 1000 words on its brain-twisting appeal, written for the Glasgow Film Theatre:


With its fragmented structure and abundant ambiguities, Upstream Color undoubtedly qualifies as what Warren Buckland terms the ‘puzzle plot’. ‘A puzzle plot is intricate in the sense that the arrangement of events is not just complex, but complicated and perplexing’ writes Buckland in the introduction to Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema. ‘The events are not simply interwoven, but entangled.’[1] The obvious impetus when confronted with a puzzle plot, then, is to start untangling; to take the text’s adventurous knottiness and start explaining, defining and ordering. Certainly, there is no shortage of such analyses, from articles with pseudo-authoritative titles like ‘Everything you were afraid to ask about Upstream Color[2], to the more tentative questioning of IMDB’s message board users. Perhaps unusually, the film’s writer-director (not to mention lead actor, producer, composer, editor and cinematographer) Shane Carruth has actively contributed to this search for definitive answers, offering concrete solutions to some of the film’s mysteries with apparently minimal prompting – a surprising move in as much as filmmakers who take pains to produce ambiguous art are rarely inclined to narrow the interpretive field in interview.

One thing that is clearly borne out by such discussions, however, is that the sui generis Upstream Color has a firm internal logic, and can be mapped onto a classical narrative through repeated viewings. Indeed, as one of the aforementioned articles notes, rather than spoil the movie, knowing ‘how the film works in advance… might just save the diligent viewer a return trip to the theatre.’[3] This of course presupposes that solving mysteries is the ‘correct’ reaction to a film of this nature – a presupposition likely influenced by Carruth’s reputation, which prior to Upstream Color rested on a single film. Though not addressed at length in the pages of the aforementioned Puzzle Films, 2004’s Primer is arguably the sub-genre’s epitome: a low-budget time-travel film that is both densely complex yet, according to those who have charted and cross-referenced its scenes with forensic detail, wholly coherent. Impenetrable on first watch then incrementally clearer on every revisit, Primer is the puzzle film as mathematical formula – a film as confusing to the layman as an elaborate algorithm, yet precise enough to all add up on multiple passes.

If Primer’s complexity was mathematical in character, Upstream Color’s is biological. There’s still a scientific patina to proceedings, but like nature itself, its complexity is messier, more unknown, and less neatly resolvable. For example, the life-cycle that drives the narrative is a microcosm of interdependency: a parasite moves from orchid to human to pig and back, with each step dependent on actions that take place figuratively (and in one case literally) ‘upstream’. The cycle also offers – in keeping with conventional narrative expectations – a clear causality: A begets B begets C. But in other ways, Upstream Color wilfully clouds cause and effect – most notably in the mysterious connection that exists between the pigs and their human counterparts. Instead of causality, here we appear to have synchronicity in the Jungian sense: the meaningful co-incidence of two causally unconnected physical or psychological events. This logic is most apparent in the scene where Kris and Jeff are left intensely distressed by the experiences of their spatially distant hog doubles, the former sobbing uncontrollably and the latter lashing out with primal anger for reasons neither can satisfactorily explain.

There is also, however, another possibility: that rather than being absent, the causality of this relationship is simply beyond our current comprehension. In an interview with Indiewire, Carruth adapts Arthur C Clarke’s aphorism ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ to propose that, since there is so much we do not understand about life, the Universe, even our own bodies, what appears impossible may be merely as-yet-undiscovered.[4] The implication is that, in the same way that a century ago we had no concept of, say, the mind-boggling behaviour of subatomic particles (indeed, the majority of us still don’t…), so too an interspecies, parasite-instigated psychic connection seems causally inconceivable but only because we haven’t yet discovered the logic that underpins it – making Upstream Color science-fiction in the truest sense: imaginative, but grounded in a degree of plausibility.

Whether viewers are content to have Upstream Color’s kaleidoscope of thematic resonances pared away to leave only a somewhat conventional bio-horror is another matter. Synopses of the film will list the whats, whens and at least some of the whys, but it remains our prerogative whether to take these as sufficient explanation or graft on more adventurously metaphorical interpretations: for instance, there is ample potential for a reading that locates in the characters of The Thief and The Sampler an allegory for divine conflict, with the former exploiting weaknesses and manipulating victims, and the latter tending his flock (or, more accurately, herd) and working in mysterious ways – a reading that takes on a Nietzschean flavour in the final act. And, while Carruth himself may have some fairly clear ideas about what the film is and what it represents, he’s at least accepting of alternative interpretations. In an interview with Slash Film, he recollects: ‘Somebody asked me if it was about the pharmaceutical industry and I had to admit that ‘Well, no it’s not... It’s more about how it can feel like we are being affected by things off screen or far away that we can’t quite know about or understand’… they said, ‘well yeah, but with people taking these drugs they don’t quite know if they are affecting them or not’ and I was like ‘I guess that’s true then’.’[5]

Or, in other words: make of it what you will.

Christopher Buckle
Researcher and journalist
August 2013

[1] Warren Buckland (2009) ‘Introduction: Puzzle Plots’, from Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester) p. 3

[2] Daniel D’Addario (2013) ‘Everything you were too afraid to ask about ‘Upstream Color’’, Salon, accessed 27/08 at

[3] ibid

[4] Jessica Kiang (2013) ‘Interview: Shane Carruth Reveals the Mysteries of ‘Upstream Color’’, Indiewire, accessed 27/08/13 at

[5] Russ Fischer (2013) ‘Film Interview: ‘Upstream Color’ Creator Shane Carruth’, Slash Film, accessed 28/08/13 at

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