Mysticism in Film: ‘Upstream Color’ (2013)

Shane Carruth tackles the nature of god, the interconnectivity of all living things, the mechanics of love and relationships, PTSD and pig farming. In the best way possible.

Shane Carruth is a cinematic unicorn; a microbudget film maker who not only makes intelligent, high quality cinema, but who garners mainstream attention and near-universal critical praise. He is a true auteur, serving as actor, writer, producer, cinematographer, composer, editor, as well as director, on the two features he has completed so far. A former mathematician and software developer, Carruth’s first film, Primer (2004), shot on 16mm for just $7000, is probably the most realistic (and certainly, the most complicated) time travel movie ever made. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

‘That’s a gift for us.’ Kris does her best to disuade Jeff…

Upstream Color was shot for between $30,000 and $50,000 on a hacked Panasonic GH2 mirrorless camera and looks like a 70mm Terrence Malick movie. Carruth initiated production on the film after spending eight frustrating years in Hollywood attempting to get a science fiction project, A Topiary made, during which time he contributed to Looper (2012). By Hollywood standards, A Topiary would have not been an expensive proposition at all, but after nearly a decade of maybes and no green light, he walked away, deciding to go back to his indie roots in order to produce something quickly and on a low budget.

Summarising the plot of Upstream Color is a challenge, mainly because its various narratives and character arcs intertwine in such a complex manor that it’s hard to know where to begin. The film opens on the mysterious activities of The Thief (Thiago Martins), who cultivates grub-like creatures growing from vivid blue spores on equally blue orchids. Two adolescent boys visit him to try his product; a tincture made from the grubs, which results in them somehow becoming able to precisely synchronise their movements without looking at one and other.

Personal tragedy as entertainment.The Sampler shadows one of this victims.

We then meet Kris (Amy Seimetz), an advertising executive seen reviewing footage from a special effects reel Carruth made for A Topiary. In a nightclub, the Thief tasers her and forces her to ingest one of the grubs, which has the effect of putting her in a trance-like state. Thief takes her back to her house and sets her to performing odd, menial tasks’ like copying out passages from ‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau and making paper chains from the pages. Whilst she is doing this, he tells her that several men have taken her mother and are hurting her, and that they demand money. Kris, who at this point is completely in his power, childishly goes about cashing in her stash of gold coins and the equity on her house, and the Thief calmly leaves with her life savings. The next morning, Kris, still in a less than lucid condition, wakes to find long worms crawling beneath the surface of her skin. After trying unsuccessfully to remove them with a knife, she finds herself drawn to the farm of the Sampler (Andre Sensenig), who uses loud speakers on the ground to force worms to the surface, which seemingly has the same attractive effect upon Kris. During a painful surgical procedure, the Sampler extracts the parasites from her body and implants them into a female pig, which he tags with the name “Kris.” The human Kris then wakes up in her car in the middle of a country road with no memory of how she got there.

This strange experience has a devastating effect upon Kris’ life. She loses her home and her job, and the banks offer little sympathy, producing CCTV footage of her financial transactions.

Jeff mourns the loss of his children… despite never having any.

Sometime later, Kris, now working in a printing shop, encounters a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) on the train to work. At first, their interactions are awkward, even downright confrontational; nevertheless, they cannot help but feel drawn to each other. It soon transpires that Jeff is divorced following what, at first, seems to have been a history of drug abuse, and that Kris is heavily medicated for mental health issues. Every scene depicting the early stages of their relationship is less of a “meet-cute,” and more of a “here’s-another-reason-you-should-get-the-hell-away-from-me.” The two of them fall in love anyway, and increasingly blatant hints clue us in that Jeff may have had a similar experience to Kris; he absent mindedly makes paper chains out of straw wrappers and has similar extraction scars to herself. Eventually, he confesses to her that he stole money from the firm he works for, but that because of his position, they covered for him. “If I was anybody else, I would be in prison.”

Kris and Jeff find mysterious patterns in a book neither remembers reading yet know by heart.

In the meantime, the Sampler, in between recording sounds of nature and composing music, mentally eavesdrops on numerous other people, somehow entering their lives and observing them as he tends to his flock, each of his pigs seemingly connecting him to one of the Thief’s victims.

As Kris and Jeff try and piece together the mystery of what really befell both of them, Kris is shocked to find her womb has been surgically disfigured (after her connection with the female pig leads to a false positive pregnancy test), Jeff experiences periods of uncontrolled aggression directed at his co-workers and both experience a moment of overwhelming panic as the Sampler separates their corresponding pigs’ litter from them and drowns the babies. The source of the mysterious organisms, and the interconnectedness of everyone involved is slowly revealed.

Kris nears the end of her journey.

Like Carruth’s first feature, Primer, Upstream Color unfurls its narrative in a dizzyingly unconventional manner, and it’s no surprise that it won multiple wards for editing and cinematography. It’s quite impossible to accurately describe its narrative structure on paper, since the whole film is essentially a 92 minute montage, intertwining the lives of Kris, Jeff, the Sampler, the Sampled, the Thief, the Pigs, the orchids, and the strange, life form that causes communion between them. The nature of this life form is never revealed, and it is not, in itself, hostile; only the actual misuse of it causes harm. But it doesn’t matter. It’s clear that the gestalt entity we are dealing with here, with its ability to connect the consciousness of all living things is, for want of a better word, God.

Although, the inclusion of Thoreau’s ‘Walden,’ which is quoted extensively, especially in the last act where Kris and Jeff begin piecing things together, makes that reading somewhat reductive. A philosophy of transcendentalism permeates the film. Carruth is not being so crass as to deal with the concept of God in religious terms but on philosophical and even scientific wavelength. God as a disease. The infection of nature. Here, all living things remain both autonomous individuals and part of a greater super-organism. While the bizarre parasites appear ugly and Cronenbergesque, the film isn’t a horror film, though it contains moments of horror; it isn’t a love story, even though it tells one; it isn’t a thriller even though all the tropes of one are in place. It’s a philosophical discourse of such narrative complexity few film makers (or creators in any medium) would dare attempt.

 About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.

 Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here:

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