This conversation is obviously saturated with spoilers, and is best read after you've seen the film for yourself. This is like the late night, coffee shop decompression that friends often have after a film of this sort. Now for those of you who have seen the film, by all means, let's continue this discussion in the comments.
I began by talking about how the film's startling imagery was sticking with me long after I'd left the theatre.Jason:
Days later, I'm still kind of haunted by many of the images in Upstream Color
(I keep wanting to type "colour!"). Mostly, I was struck by how it all
kind of works as a whole. This for me may well end up being a film that I
return to over and over, yet could completely respond to positively on
first viewing, something that's often not the case in films of this ilk.
Plus, as a bad Jew, I left the theatre and immediately got a bacon
sandwich. Something about seeing all those delicious pigs running
around, I guess. That or the tapeworms, hard to say.
I find a lot
of people have a hard time dealing with films of this nature, movies
that require you from frame one to put trust in the director. After
years reveling in the likes of David Simon's television shows, I'm
perfectly happy to not know what the hell is going on from the outset,
putting complete faith in the director and screenwriter to take me
somewhere. I'll be open to the imagery, both paying attention to what
clues I'm being given, but not obsessing at trying to construct them too
early. As per usual I avoided all trailers and plot summaries, and just
kind of dove in.
It was refreshing, in this case, to be rewarded for my patience. Too
often of late I've been left pretty jilted by a haphazard premise that
ends in something banal and needlessly pining for the metaphysically
I love when story and mood coalesces like it does in this film, and
tend to despise the work when it devolves into a random mess, my trust
being for naught.
As I said to Kurt at our screening, I don't
demand catharsis, some neatly packaged narrative that follows some
classical like, but I do appreciate coherence, some semblance that
there's method behind the madness, that my faith has been vindicated.
While some films can be all about mood, eschewing narrative
completely, I personally reserve positive response to this kind of
meandering "experimentation" more for musical expression than cinematic.
Talk about this kind of meandering, floating music will certainly come
later in this discussion, particularly given that it's such an important
For now, how did you guys respond to the non-traditional editing and narrative structure of the film?Ben:
In large measure I believe cinema can work wonders in a non-narrative
space and is perhaps the greatest art form at reflecting a mood. At any
rate it works for me this way, and more so than music, because I think
Please, let's not suggest that an approach that eschews what we've
come to know as a traditional narrative means there is no story! There
is always a story of some kind, however simple or complex. A story is
conjured by both the filmmakers and the audience on the other side of
that looking glass. Whether those visions line up... in just how much a
filmmaker wants the audience to participate, be hypnotized or taken
along for a ride.
Well, a lot of that also hinges on how much the audience is willing to participate
themselves, and also about what kind of films or stories they've been exposed to and
are comfortable with up to that point. In the measure of Upstream Color
I actually think the narrative structure isn't as fractured and out of sync as many have painted it to be.
A friend who saw the film at Sundance described it as if Terrence Malick directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers
That is certainly a provocative, if only partially accurate
description. Still, the film is indeed very Malick-y in its elliptical
moods and cyclical nature.
By the end everything falls into place... at least everything falls
into place in the logic of the world that Carruth has constructed. In my
mind it's more about the journey rather than the destination. The
editing is certainly more fractured, whether it abruptly cuts to black,
loops different takes of dialog over a menagerie of scenes and then
loops those scenes, but I don't think this is in anyway challenging, nor
indicative of an out-of-sync narrative.
The film is largely linear, it's just that Carruth operates on a very stream-of-conscious level. Upstream Color
is I think more than anything a tone poem.
the logic of the world, in the dispossessed, vulnerable state of these
characters it all makes very simple sense: We're connected and love in
many different and hard to fathom ways. This is sometimes directly of
our own doing and sometimes not. But that's okay, as we're connected in
unfathomable ways (Anyone whose seen the film will see what I did there,
hardy har har).
Though his filmmaking reflects this and the state of the characters I was in no large measure compelled by the people on screen.
Seimetz as Kris (in a way one half of our protagonist) is someone I've always been curious about, and she seems like
one of those actors that is willing to do anything. Since she's in what
feels like a dozen films a year, I can never get a sense of her other
than that she works a lot.
Here, she's interesting to watch, that is until Carruth himself
comes into the picture as Jeff. Though Carruth appeared as one of the leads in Primer
that was perhaps out of necessity as that film's budget and crew were
so micro, and this... well, he was incredibly stilted in his role. Just
wooden and off in a performance sense. This despite the fact that his
character was supposed to be greatly battered and bruised on a deep
Like in so many of her other relationship dramas (because, on one end Upstream Color
is a relationship drama) Seimetz sold this broken person aspect.
Carruth did not. When they got to talking, the movie largely felt
inert to me.
Perhaps this is a point Carruth as a storyteller wanted to make
about the difficulty in communicating, the fear of communicating, and of
being together. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, but I do feel
that both characters could have been more compelling had someone else
been cast in his role.
I was far more interested in the Sampler, a man who plays a pivotal
part in the film. His activities in and around his pig farm felt to me the
most unique elements of the film, and in many ways looked directly at
how we perceive the very art form of cinema, especially in his
adventures in sound recording and manipulation.
It is interesting, Ben, because Upstream Color
also evoked a kind of tension between Nature and Man, a very Malick-ian
thing. The relationship angle and the inexplicable angle makes it as if
Malick is re-envisioning Solaris
. Take your pick of either the
Tarkovsky version with its meditative floating weeds, calm rivers and
broken souls in an foreign ecosystem, or the more clinical Soderbergh
version with its precise photography and ambient soundtrack.
I found the fractured narrative quite easy to follow, especially if
you break it into its three parts: i) Kris's exploitation and heist; ii)
the 'cure' by pig transplant and a meeting of like-minded lost soul
Jeff; iii) the discovery and consequences of the pig-farm and the next
step of the process. That Carruth is disinclined to fill in some of the
connecting bits only makes me lean in and pay more attention while
letting the mood of the piece carry me along further.
There is an addiction element at play here, and I find myself more and more addicted to the film's rhythms with each viewing.
feel this film is an ambitious step forward in filmmaking for Carruth,
at both a craft level - the film is easily the most gorgeous thing
I've seen this year - but also in terms of thematic weight and putting
forth of ideas. Primer
was a puzzle box of nested timelines and plotting which offered it's themes and ideas in plain sight. Upstream Color
is certainly less complicated plot-wise, even considering the fractured
editing, but it a wonderful thing for letting the audience do the heavy
lifting if they choose, or simply get lost in the soothing rhythm of
There are plenty of 'screenwriter guideposts,' (if you will) such as the recurring appearance of Thoreau's Walden
The use and repetition of the text in that book points to the theme of
malaise and toxicity that modernity has pressed upon us. Our
manipulation of the environment and processing of its secrets result in
consequences that are utterly beyond our control and understanding.
When people practice science or husbandry, nobody has access to the
complete picture. Nevertheless, with all the changes, chemical and
psychological, as we slowly evolve into something else we can only pick
up the pieces and move on. I loved The Sampler's hobby of sound design
and Foley, because what is it, if not taking natural sounds and then
'perverting,' or rather manipulating them electromechanically into
something new? I also love that Kris works as a continuity editor as her
day job, literally looking for shadows of gaffers and crew in
individual frames to be excised from the final product (is there a more
'modern' job than this?)
More processing: The 'blue dust' off the orchid is processed into
the grub which is processed into the drug, and the chemical effect in
the user is processed into a financial grift. The Sampler, who then
processes the resulting after-effect into something else entirely, and
the Pusher are both ethereal figures, essentially ghosts, in the lives
of their 'victims' Kris and Jeff.
Kris is shown to be essentially 'raped' then the resulting organism
surgically aborted from her. Jeff is numb, as if he lived too long under
high voltage power lines. They bond only because of an intuitive
sensing of their common ghosts.
The filmmaking takes the idea of intuition and allows it to both
drive the story, but more importantly, it allows that feeling to exit
the frame into how the viewer processes the film. I feel that is a
pretty advanced form of audio-visual storytelling. Tone and pacing are
mimicking our own unconscious bio-rhythms.
Shall we talk about the shared memories in the film?Jason:
You can if you'd like. Me, I'm just going to go on record as being
perplexed by the title - The pigs (and thus the colour) flows
downstream, not up. I mean, what the hell, Shane? GET IT TOGETHER!
As for Ben's comments about Carruth's performance, I saw Primer
long enough ago (and my brain is as fuzzy as the underwater pig
decomposition shots) that I totally forgot he was the lead actor in both
films. I get what you're saying about him being stilted, but for me I
was caught up enough in the mood to find the performance both persuasive
and in keeping with the whole.
I go back to my earlier point - all the ingredients are there for
this film to be just awful. Interminable reading of literature to hammer
the point home, beepy and bloopy music to make you feel uneasy, stilted
characters and a ramshackle plot. In other words, it's super simple to
see how it all could have gone horribly wrong on many levels. I'll even
suggest that many will despise this film. This isn't exactly some grand
mystery that's uncovered, nor is its elliptical structure overly
hyperbolic (geometry pun!).
Yet for me it was a great success, a success resting on both in its
refusal to be overly conventional while not going completely off the
rails just to tell the audience to go fuck themselves.
yeah, there will be plenty of references to the likes of Tarkovsky and
Malick, but I think there's a bit of what I love about Altman's Short Cuts
in here too, or even Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia
These are slightly "sideways" films from the mainstream, yet when you
break it down it all does pretty much flow the way of more traditional
narratvies. The disjointedness will surely be most evident on first
viewing, and, again, I greatly appreciated that it wasn't overly long or
overly afraid to have some semblance of a narrative structure, willing
to risk some of it's arty cred for those that think anything with a plot
is somehow suspect.
I'd normally find the Walden stuff contrived and annoying, but
it actually worked for me, especially tied to the 'gathering of rocks from bottom of pool' scene. It contextualizes the
angst, in a way, and ties the threads together like the paper chains
from the first act of the film.
I do agree with Kurt, it is pretty in a way I wasn't expecting, but I'd still have to hand it to Stoker
for this year's most handsome film to date. Still, it's not like we can't love them both, right?
I'd like to say briefly that I quite enjoyed the use of the
electroaccoustic music - it's completely fitting with the film in a
diagetic sense, and like the film itself, it's a fine line between
crafting something banal and New Agey, rather than something that
actually drives the film along effectively. Plus, I'm a sucker for foley
as well, so the shots of how they collected the natural sounds in order
to create the musique concrète
(literally, at times, using concrete!)
Now, as for shared memories, I guess we're meant to ruminate on
their life as pigs (colour coordination and all), but I'm sure Kurt has
something more profound to share. It's clear that there's a Moebious
structure to the proceedings, with elements collapsing upon themselves
in interesting and dynamic ways. This may be the ultimate metaphor for
the film - it's both linear and twisted in on itself, forming a shape of
deceptive complexity that's fundamentally quite simple.
So, you guys think they'll make action figures for this movie? I'd like my own reticulated tapeworm myself. I'd name him Jimmy.Ben:
Well, as for that title, could it also be referring to the
bloodstream of both the pigs and humans? I don't really recall what
direction exactly the worms traveled other than all over, so...
upstream, downstream... it also just sounds good as a title. You go:
"What the fuck is that?"
Now talking about the shared memories aspect... Kurt, were you
getting at more Kris and Jeff's shared memories, specifically that one
childhood trauma that they keep arguing over who it actually belonged
to. That was perhaps the most intriguing and successful aspect of their
interaction and relationship . I really did love the larger
sequence that it was featured in, where they're watching the birds and
guessing what kind they might be. That section to me as a whole felt
very alive and perhaps even a bit invigorating, as these two people that
had been so shut down for so long were waking up in fits and starts. It
was also the one swatch of the flick where I felt like both
performances were richer together.
Now I'd just like to go on record and ask "what filmmaker who is
serious about his/her art would want to say fuck you to the audience?"
You can fuck with 'em, challenge 'em, subvert the heck out of 'em, but
at the end of the day I just don't understand the sentiment that people
would do this.
This doesn't mean I'm defending Upstream Color
regard, because it doesn't operate on this level, and nor did I like the
film enough to truly stand by it, but I think it is a point worth
bringing up, if in a rather half-thought way. I'm consistently baffled
as to why these kinds of points are made when a film either successfully
or unsuccessfully eschews narrative semblance or plotting.
It takes all kinds of cinema, and while Upstream Color
underlying structural supports are yes, Jason, far more traditional in
execution that the editing itself might suggest on first viewing, I
don't necessarily think that the film could have been awful just based
on the ingredients you cited. Then again we all have our own tastes, and
I did not like Carruth's stilted performance, so go figure...
I agree it is a great 'turn the idea on its head'
title for the film, but really, Carruth is asking us to think of the
lengthy variety of actions that get both of these characters to this
point. In terms of cause and effect, he is showing us something on a
relatively short timeline, but is asking how we got to this point in
civilization for this peculiar thing to occur: Harvesting narcotics to
enact financial scams which then leads to questionable ethics in
The ending is particularly telling, as all the victims on the
orchid-powder-tapeworm-heist list endeavour to pick up the pieces
(abandoned by our sampler/scientist.) They live with it, in fact they
own it, and move on fostering the next generation of DNA.
Sounds familiar doesn't it? The future is our child.
the shared memories, we are all strands in society. Pockets of cultural
experiences, which become conscious or unconscious touchstones, are all
shared memories in a fashion.
is definitely going after the kind of modern malaise that echos, for me, Todd Haynes' magnificently off-kilter masterpiece, Safe
This is writ large by the inclusion of Thoreau's Walden as much as
their tape-worm-abortions pulls Jeff and Kris together. Their shared
trauma is fiscal, emotional and biological.
This all also underscores the collectively shared biology of this
island earth (if that isn't too Mother Gaia for you) and is an echo of
the 'DNA-piglets' later shown in the film.
If there is colour
upstream, then it is diffuse and ethereal by the time the consequences
start seeping out - think heavy mercury in the water that begins to
bioaccumulate in fish only to make it's way into birds and maybe,
eventually drive a inland mammals into not-quite-so-mad hatters.
One further thing I particularly loved with this film is how the
dialogue is a rhythm rather than exposition. When Kris and Jeff talk to
each other in one key scene they talk OVER each other in a jumble. It's
not what they say, it's the way it comes at you off screen.
I appreciate the rare film that spends 99% of its time showing and not telling in the current age of exposition-overkill-blockbusters
and quirky-Sundance-comedies. For me, it keeps coming back to
bio-rhythms. This is as much in tune with my earlier mention of Malick
The emotion (or distanced lack-thereof) of watching a movie's images,
and listening to its foley and music. It makes the scene of the
starlings (or are they grackles?) taking flight in controlled chaos not a
'poetic image' for its own sake, but rather a cliche image put instead
to great thematic use.
Jason: We could go on at length, Ben, about some artist's
derision for their audience, and whether that's a good or bad thing, but
that's fodder for another article. For me, I respond better when
there's some authorial intention being expressed, rather than a mishmash
of half baked ideas or broken promises. I like when we go, "what the
fuck is that", and there's at least threads of coming up with something
(even if an expression of mood) rather than banal emptiness or esoterica
for the sake of seeming experimental.
Suffice it to say, there are pitfalls this film avoids, and for me,
while clearly to be ghettoized as an "art film", it's interesting and
accessible enough if stuck with that even those that don't consume film
the way the three of us do (often, and in great quantity) may be
challenged yet also moved by the work.
For me, the film is frankly more enjoyable than much of Malick and
Tarkovsky, which, as you both have noted, enjoyability doesn't always
have to be the basis of any critical response. I still find that a bit of
playfulness and humour under dour elements can help keep films
enjoyable, perhaps why I always preferred reading the blackly comical
Nietzsche to the far more pedantic Hegel back in school. Plus, I just
wanted to bring German philosophy into the conversation to drive away
even more readers!
We can namedrop reference to earlier masters all we like, but I do see this film as a richly original work. On the basis of Upstream Color, Primer and his work on Looper
("time-travel consultant" is perhaps my favourite film credit ever),
Carruth for me has easily catapulted into that league of
writer/directors who I will seek out throughout their career. It helps, I
guess, to only make a film ever decade in order to keep things
Even with nine years between the making of each of his films, this
second feature is no sophmore slump. Time will tell if he falls into
self-parody the way that other so-called "challenging" directors have
done (we going to consider this film "experimental"? "avant garde"?
"quirky"?), or if he again takes quite so long in order to come back
with something engaging and free from redundancy.
I'd also contrast Carruth's work with the far more prosaic "mumblecore" stuff, equally driven by writer/director/producer/editor/score
writer characters, equally trying of an average audience's patience.
The difference I think is that this never felt masturbatory to me, never
felt like the plot was going through the rigors required to be shaped
into an ending. In other words, Upstream Color never flies off the
rails into some incoherent mess. I found little hubris in the
proceedings, despite the kind of solipsistic nature of this type of
production, and for me that's a very good thing.
Meanwhile, wondering if you guys have any thoughts on Carruth's decision to go it alone (what our own Ryland Aldrich said was "one of the most interesting elements of the film."
For me, this extratextual stuff didn't really play into my enjoyment of
the work, but it does speak to a "can-do" attitude that I think some
cinephiles will fall for (vitriol against Kevin Smith excluded, of
Ben: We certainly could go on in regards to how derision
plays a role or does not play a role in cinema, but even
strong authorial intention could be perceived as banal, half-baked ideas
by some. It's all a matter of what we perceive to be true.
I think in the scope of the film one thing that Carruth touches upon
is the curiosity behind discovery and the need to explore whether
something rings true to us or not. Kris and Jeff have been stripped of
their identities by forces outside of themselves and yet they're
connected to it all in some larger sense as Kurt so brilliantly
expounded upon. So, now that they're awake again, or waking up, it is
now time to discover themselves.
As for why I'm only somewhat taken with the film, it's largely
because I found the basic ideas interesting, but was only mildly engaged
with them as a film, as a viewing experience . The approach to editing in the
film doesn't usually work for me as I've been a long-take kinda guy the
past few years. As always, this reflects how I am perceiving something,
what I prefer. This film just doesn't sit with me in a very deep space
of self; a place that is hard to describe as it is so firm as to be
It's also interesting, Jason, that you bring up "mumblecore" as a
contrast. It's the staple we seem to compare and base much of the other
kinds of American Independent films on these days. Largely, it's because
this style can rub people the wrong way, but also because that DIY
mentality is alive and well. This plays right into Carruth
deciding to distribute the film himself.
I think it's great he was able to afford such a path, as most
filmmakers who explore cinema the way he does cannot. For him to be able
to share his movie his way is pretty gosh darn cool. I certainly look
forward to how this approach will play out for him as I think it'll
inform many other directors out there about where and how they can bring
their movies into the light of day.
Kurt: Primer made half a million dollars in the US of its
theatrical run when it was distributed by THINKfilm, which is
respectable enough for a movie of its size and narrative
impenetrability, but hardly much for the rather cult item it has become
in science fiction circles.
I imagine a four-walling structure would at the very least see more
money and means put back into Carruth to make another film than the
usual distribution, but it seems that this is would be a good choice for
VOD (despite that this thing is magnificent looking on the big screen).
For better or worse, this movie is probably not going to capture the
attention of anyone beyond a very specific audience. Hell, if Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a higher profile film with big stars that
likewise requires a 'focused brain' and extended thought for
elucidation, can only manage $16 million at the box office, what does
that say for a tiny, challenging, science fiction drama?
I wish anyone making challenging, mentally stimulating films for
adults luck in this business of putting butts in seats at the multiplex
(or arthouse!), and remain hopeful for the right people to see and
hopefully enjoy Upstream Color. I'm even more hopeful that
Carruth continues to secure the means to keep growing as a filmmaker and
delivering uncompromising works of cinematic art. I already anticipate
his shipping lane drama, Modern Oceans, and the slim possibility that he will come back to A Topiary, despite its leaked script being out on the internet for months.
Back to the film, Ben talks about Kris and Jeff emerging from their
drug induced pupal stage into a different awareness. "Let the sleeper
awaken!" is a great science fiction motif from Frank Herbert, and I am
wondering if the thumping speakers to call Kris originally to the
Sampler (or unearth her, if you will) is not a sly reference to Dune.
It is a further aspect of the consequences of 'sound' (Foley
manufacture) in the film; as if it is a birdsong call, a mechanical (but
intuitive) instinct brought about from inorganic processing of organic
materials. Kind of what cinema does to our brains.
Am I getting too weird here? Did I mention that I love Upstream Color?
Jason: Yes, yes you did!
I must admit that I too thought of Dune,
it must have been because we were sitting near one another and our
synapses fed off shared electric energy. That, or we're both nerdy, hard
Without getting too inside (why stop now?) I actually did an
electroaccoustic "diffusion" back in the early 90s that consisted of the
analogue bass notes of Roland SH-101 thumping out sub-100hz signals
through 14 loudspeakers set in an array. I came close to shattering some
It was awesome. And it kind of made you want to poop.
completely non relevant to any one else's experience of the film, but
I'd like to thing that my own, past, "upstream" experiences made me dig
something as odd as setting up a soundsystem in order to make
invertebrates think it's raining and writhe upwards for cover from the
impending subterranean flood that's being imitated.
The worms, they turned.
So, to wrap all this up -
Kurt loves it, I really liked it, and Ben sort of liked it, but had
issues with both performance and execution. At the least, nobody can
claim it's not a film worth talking about.
Any final comments that you guys would like to add?
Ben: Upstream Color
is absolutely a film worth talking about. Really anyway
that gets the blood going as it so clearly has with us. In fact I'd say it's the first film of the
year that folks should really make an effort in going to see because
it's quite the conversation starter.
I've greatly enjoyed ours, and this coming from someone who is only lukewarm on the picture!
Kurt: George Carlin, God bless him, had a great comic bit on the perceived
need to eliminate plastic bags to save the environment. Maybe our good
intentions are all backwards. "Maybe the Earth," he said, "sees plastic
as just another one of its children. It could be that the only reason
why the Earth allowed us to be spawned out of it was to make plastic for
itself." An astute, tragi-comic awareness of the bigger picture, and
the larger cycles beyond our own collective hubris, fitting Upstream Color like a glove.
Carruth's film could easily swap titles with Terrence Malick's To The Wonder
(tone and subject matter are at least in the same ball park), and
considering both are in current release, they would make a fine double
Jason: We all agree on this - Upstream Color
demands to be seen. Despite the challenges involved with Carruth's
self-distribution model, you can hopefully find it playing soon on a big
screen near you.
Upstream Color expands today (April 12) to Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Pasadena, San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle, Cambridge, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn. More information is available at the official site.