“This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
I SAW UPSTREAM COLOR in the cavernous, art deco beauty of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a warm night, the first real sweet night of spring. I had been followed through the largely empty streets (the semester at the University of Michigan was over and most students had packed up and moved away for the summer) by two people who stayed just enough in the shadows to remain anonymous. When I stopped walking, they stopped walking. Before I even entered the theater I felt as if I was in a film noir, trailed by dangerous people who wanted to hurt me for some mistaken, unknown reason. This turned out to be the perfect prologue for the film, which — like the infecting worms it depicts — changes those who watch it in ways that are difficult to describe.
Perhaps most art, at some fundamental level, is about the process of its own creation, if for no other reason than that it bears the indelible claw marks of the hands that made it. Walden, for instance, is not just about Thoreau’s experiences in nature, but also about the assembling of those experiences into the book itself. And Virginia Woolf’s experiments in her novels with extended interior monologue suggest that, maybe, that’s what her novels are really about: their composition through a particular mode of consciousness. While there are no lack of theories about what Upstream Color is about or what it all means, the fact that most of these readings don’t cancel each other out, but rather exist simultaneously, is suggestive of the particular power of this film. And it’s an especially thorny film to write about because so much of its meaning is generated not by dialogue but rather through sound. (In this respect its closest contemporary might be David Lynch’s Inland Empire or Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse or even Gus Van Sant’s Gerry.)
The plot, in its most boiled down form, is improbable sounding as summary in the way that many great plots are, including Carruth’s previous film Primer (2004). A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is made to swallow a small white worm by the Thief (Thiago Martins), who uses it (she is under the power of his suggestion while the worm is in her) to rob her of her savings. After several days the worm is extracted by the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) and transfused to a pig. The Sampler (who is operating independently and without the knowledge of the Thief, and vice versa) is the central, mysterious figure in the film, who experiences, vicariously, the lives of the infected perhaps for pleasure and for creative inspiration: to make music.
Kris, free of the worm but lost to herself, meets Jeff (Shane Carruth, the film’s director) who also has been infected, and with whom she forms a close bond that is echoed in the experiences of the Sampler, who “reads” their lives through the pigs who somehow register the imprints of their shared experiences. A darker reading of the Sampler suggests he recognizes — in an almost Marxist fashion — the surplus value inherent in the everyday lives of the likes of Kris and Jeff, which he transforms into an exchange value that expresses itself as his music. And yet beneath its vaguely dystopian, science fiction shell, the story the movie tells is one of narrative reframing: completely unmoored from their previous selves, Kris and Jeff must struggle (as if reborn) to make new sense of their lives.
Of the many unsettling pleasures of Upstream Color, the most radical is how open it is to multiple, simultaneous readings, ranging from a basic contagion/virus film to a metaphysical meditation on what it means to have a fixed subjectivity as a human being. Although the Thief and the Sampler can both be read as rough equivalents for a filmmaker — or any artist who draws on the “experiences” of others to create — it’s really the Sampler who comes closest to standing in for a film’s director. For here is someone who collects and, in his own way, profits by the experience of others through the creation of sound and music. The transformation of real life into art is not particular to movies, and yet it is the narrative quality of cinema, emerging as it did under the shadow and influence of the realist novel, which aligns it most closely with the pilfering and selling back to the audience portrayals of its very own experiences. Near the end of the film, as Kris begins to piece together the fragments and clues that will lead her to the Sampler, Jeff locates and purchases a CD from the Sampler’s label, Quinoa Valley Recording Co. With titles like “Reverberations” and “Extractions” the CDs suggest not only their content but also the methods of their creation, a form of sampling based on physical and psychological violence. Although we don’t know for certain, it could be that when we see Kris and Jeff listening to the Sampler’s music, they are in fact listening to material gleaned from their very own lives.
In 1868, Ralph Waldo Emerson published an essay in the North American Review entitled “Originality and Quotation.” Although it’s not as well known as “Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” and other essays from the 1830s and 40s, it stands as among his most radical, suggesting — in a tradition that includes Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and Chuck Palahniuk’s “a copy of a copy of a copy” (Fight Club; novel 1996, film 1999) — that what we call “original” at any given time is deeply tangled and enmeshed with what has preceded it:
The originals are not original. There is imitation, model, and suggestion […] all things are in flux. It is inevitable that you are indebted to the past. You are fed and formed by it. The old forest is decomposed for the composition of the new forest. The old animals have given their bodies to the earth to furnish through chemistry the forming race, and every individual is only a momentary fixation of what was yesterday another’s, is to-day his, and will belong to a third to-morrow.
Kris and Jeff discover in the most brutal and alienating of ways just how “not original” their lives are. Blown completely off course by the orchid worms, their very existences are emptied suddenly of narrative context. They must build themselves into something new — but what? In an excellent article in The New Yorker, Caleb Crain explores the possible connections between Thoreau’s Walden (which is featured mysteriously but centrally in the film) and the story that Upstream Color tells, suggesting that the worm has perhaps radicalized Kris and Jeff, attuning and awakening them to the natural world. And yet the film is devoid of any of the agency that’s fundamental to Transcendentalism, whose proponents argued that the process of awakening (or, as Margaret Fuller called it, “self-culture”) was as fundamental as awakening itself. In Upstream Color, something is done to the protagonists (i.e., the swallowing of the worm) against their will; this causes their radical change. But there is nothing involuntary about Transcendentalism, which is very American in its relentless emphasis on the deliberate and conscious will of the individual to, in the words of Emerson, become something else.
In “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1837 almost two decades before the publication of Walden, Emerson suggested that the increasing labor specialization of his era (the Panic of 1837 was well underway by the time Emerson delivered his speech in late August) further eroded the creative character of the individual. “The tradesman,” he said, exploring an idea that Marx would write about as alienated labor in the 1840s, “hardly ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine.” Human beings as machines. And yet if the Transcendentalists encouraged a return to Nature (in both a raw blooded physical sense and spiritually) not to abandon society but to re-enter it afresh and with a new sensibility, Carruth’s film detours this process in a radical way, as it chronicles Kris’s and Jeff’s gradual separation from the known and the familiar with no sense of what comes next. The glue that binds them into the world has dissolved; they are free agents in an existentially terrifying way.
It’s fitting that the Sampler does what the instrument of the same name does. If one of the questions of our post-Walter Benjamin era concerns the nature of creativity in the digital age, an age dominated by the proliferation of perfectly reproducible sampled images and sounds, then it’s an especially sweet twist that finds Kris and Jeff and the others (listed as the Sampled in the credits) freed by the Sampler, both the character and machine that he uses. And yet if Kris and Jeff’s liberation (and liberation isn’t always a good thing) results in their deeper enmeshment in the natural world (the film ends with Kris cuddling a piglet), it’s certainly not a utopian or idealized Nature.
The recent turn to nature in films is marked with ambiguity and sadness, as if we know (have we always known?) that we can’t go back, after all. This feeling is most pronounced in the Glendale Narrows sequence from Drive (2011), the menacing outdoor softness and insect humming in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), the “way of nature” sequences in Tree of Life (also 2011), and in the Paradise portions of the Top of the Lake mini-series (2013). In all these examples nature is present but inaccessible, its mysteries folded deeply into itself. In Upstream Color the infecting agent — the thing that radically transforms its hosts — is not something artificial, but rather a thing of nature itself: a living worm. A worm that makes it possible for the Sampler to experience the emotional lives of the hosts without their knowing it, and while the Sampler uses these experiences to fashion his music, Carruth uses them as the basis for Upstream Color.
There’s a sense that things have somehow gone terribly wrong in the world that Upstream Color depicts. It’s not just that the lives of Kris and Jeff (and the others like them at the end) have been dislodged from their familiar moorings, but that no one seems much to notice or to care. The usual safety nets we expect in times of personal crisis — family, friends, religion, community — are largely absent in the film. There is work. There are workers. Minimalist apartments and hotel rooms. In this sense, Upstream Color may very well be one of those artifacts of its time that will be looked back on as capturing a certain tendency, the prolonged heartbeat of a moment, just as films like The Conversation or The Parallax View (both 1974) offer the visceral feel of their era’s paranoia. Cutting against the grain of the triumphalist personal narratives of our era, exemplified most potently by books like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the change that Kris undergoes does not result in her transformation into a better, kinder, more forgiving person. She becomes more alert, to be sure, but not to her own goodness in the world. Rather, it’s as if her heightened sense of her broken identity leads her to break things further: she ends up shooting the Sampler.
Upstream Color‘s elliptical editing and weirdly simultaneous temporal flow have as much to do with what this film is about as the plot. There are stretches of the film that scramble time, especially the sequences that begin after the first 30 minutes that cut between the lives of Kris and Jeff and the activities of the Sampler. While it’s possible to deconstruct these moments and map out a coherent, rational placement of the film’s parts across a timeline, I wonder if being caught in the flow of the film, navigating its sometimes simultaneous and opposing currents, is fundamental to the experience of the film itself. The traditional Hollywood method of depicting events unfolding at the same in different places — cross cutting — is used here in such a rapid-fire, swirling way that we begin (like Kris and Jeff) to lose our bearings.
Carruth’s interest in time travel is both thematic and formal. On first viewing, it wasn’t clear to me whether the Sampler was experiencing Kris and Jeff’s lives in real time, as they unfolded, or whether he was dipping into the pool of memories that the worms absorbed while inside their bodies. The slippages and overlaps between diegetic sound (emerging from the “now” of the screen) and images that seem to come from the past contribute in powerful ways to the film’s circular, swirling sense of time, especially in the latter parts that cut without warning between Kris and Jeff and the Sampler. In terms of experiments with sound and memory, although the pacing in each film is much different, Upstream Color has strong connections to Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, especially the remarkable sequence where David Locke (Jack Nicholson) remembers a conversation with Robertson (Charles Mulvehill). As the sequence opens, it appears as if Locke recalls from memory his conversation with Robertson, and that the sound is diegetic, sourced from the “now” of screen time. However, at around the 1:40 mark in this clip the camera slowly tracks forward across the table to reveal a tape machine playing back the pre-recorded conversation between the men. At this moment, we realize that sound of the Robertson’s voice (who is dead) hasn’t been emanating from Locke’s memory, but rather from the physical space of the room itself.
As I made my way home after the movie, it was already past midnight, and my mind whirred back to a class on the American Transcendentalists taught by Robert Burkholder at Penn State. He had introduced us (all of us whose lives were blessed and damaged and bleached Moby Dick-white from Nirvana whose singer seemed to understand that in waging a war against death, even with sound, death will always win) to Margaret Fuller. Somehow, the facts of her death — she drowned in 1850 in a shipwreck on 50 yards from Fire Island, New York, and her body, which Thoreau searched for on the beach, was never recovered — charged her words with an even stronger current of electricity. In Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Fuller argued for “the unimpeded clearness of the intuitive powers.” Kris, so scrambled by the worm’s effects on her that she relies mostly on hunches, fragments of meaning, sound, and touch, seems to be operating in much the same manner. Freed from who she was, does she revert back to a heightened version of her old self? Or does she become someone radically new and different? What, I wondered, would unimpeded clearness be like? Was that why Fuller had to drown, because she had sought something that was an affront to what it means to be human?
Upstream Color launches a missile whose booster rocket lands somewhere in the unmapped zones near these questions. Be careful if you see it, for its detonations don’t happen all at once. In fact, the film may be the most cleverly disguised white worm you will ever consume. I cut through ripening farm fields to avoid the same two figures that had followed me to the theater. If I said that I reached my apartment and bolted my door just in time, and that through the peephole I saw that the figures to and from Upstream Color were faceless, as if their features had been erased, and that I dreamed that night of white worms struggling to escape my body through my fingertips, you might think I was damned.
In fact, I was saved.
Nicholas Rombes is a writer and Professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy. He is author of Cinema in the Digital Age as well as A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982 and the 33 1/3 volume Ramones.