A movie with pigs and worms

Upstream Color 2013

available Amazon Instant Video

Director: Shane Carruth

Written, photographed (in part), directed, produced, co-edited, composed, designed, cast by and starring Shane Carruth

Review by Peter Hulm

Shane Carruth (born 1 January 1972) has positioned himself as a film director who, through science fiction stories, tries to find new ways of presenting narrative and questioning our standard involvement with movie images. However good his films, he draws a lot of flak from old-style viewers and reviewers (of all ages). But his way may be the direction that almost all films are going, when freed from the burdens of earning back millions in prior investment.

Audience empathy or identification with characters onscreen is one of the longest-lasting presumptions of film criticism.

But what if you have no idea what is going on in a character's mind, or any one onscreen?

What you have, in a sense, is real life, where all motives and many actions are inscrutable. Except that it excludes your consciousness.

The plainest stories can become mysterious. The simplest acts haunt our minds with their weirdness. Your consciousness is busy with attempts to make sense of it.

And that is the fascination of Upstream Color, which Shane Carruth produced with a budget estimated at only $50,000. For his money, he was able to control virtually every aspect of the film as, it seems, he did with Primer, his first film released some nine years before. Carruth, anxious to manage the context in which the film is received, even handles the marketing and distribution, and sells copies of the film and music on the movie's website.

As Carruth would be pleased to know, it doesn't look at all like a deliberately low-budget movie.

Spoiler alert

On the other hand, it is hard to convey how original and disturbing the film is without destroying the experience of watching an opaque narrative and trying to piece it together on your own.

As a result, more than with most good films — where the staging and filming are usually enough to keep you watching even when you know the story — it is best to see Upstream Color before reading this meditation on its qualities and achievements.

Culting a movie

It should be no surprise that reviewers wedded to the empathy theory of film viewing used terms such as "cult movie", "narratively abstract" and "extremely pretentous" even when appreciative of its intensity, visceral impact, brilliant photography and evocative soundscaping (see wikipedia's excellent backgrounder).

Most reviewers didn't even record, and neither does wikipedia, that the last quarter of the film — which explains the puzzle of what we have seen earlier — has no dialogue (not quite true). But the rest doesn't have much talk either.

Nevertheless, what takes place onscreen is as clear as Carruth could make it, and there's no sense of a narrative failure. It's as near a guarantee as you could get that the conundrums have a logical explanation.

Spoilers start here

The upstream color, as is evident from the first scenes, is blue, produced in plants by tiny grubs.

O.K. But what's the deal with Thoreau's Walden? That I have no immediate answer for, and Carruth's not telling. He has said (perhaps a joke) that it's the sort of book you might force people to copy as a menial job simply to kill time. It's probably, almost certainly, not relevant but the movie was filmed in Dallas (town and country), and Carruth had a hard time keeping the suburbs out of the picture.

Is Kris, the name of the main female character, a reference to Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky's tale of shared consciousness? Maybe not. But Carruth asks you to follow his story as closely as the Russian film-maker, and there's a scene with traffic noises at almost the same place in the film and story as in Solaris (see end of Act II below).

Color is certainly photographed with the precision of Nostalghia and Sacrifice, with that same unearthly obsession with time passing before your eyes.

Parallel and single universes

One key to Upstream Color's mysteries is that the puzzling parallel scenes of action in the film are there to help us understand what is going on.

The clue comes at the beginning. Two teenage boys drink a potion together (we later learn it comes from the worms) and then every movement one makes, the other carries out, too, even with their eyes closed.

The man we saw at the very start of the film (Thiago Martins), disposing of a significant bag of chained-paper rings, observes the boys from outside the door as one prepares the potion. Perhaps the teenager preparing the drink is the man's son. He does not hesitate to approach the man as he returns to his car. Once they have tried the potion again, the boys prove unbeatable at predicting each other's karate moves.

Playing fair

Quite a few of these connections are left to us to pick up for ourselves. But Carruth plays fair. He does not wilfully mislead us about what is significant.

If you look at the screen and recognize what's happening, as distinct from expecting the author to tell you what is going on, the story is straightforward, though strange and haunting in its sci-fi embodiment.

This is a story of people whose lives crash around them because of a Thief (Martins) who uses the grub worms to control his victims, gets them to give him all their money, or steal someone else's, and then abandons them to pick up the pieces with no memory of what they did.

The science fiction element is that the victims of the grub now share memories, and one man has access to their consciousness, as well as controlling what they experience. But what the victims also share is the emotions of the pigs into whose bodies the grubs have been transplanted. When one of the pigs becomes pregnant, Kris (Amy Seimetz), the victim whose grubs have been siphoned into a pig, thinks she is, too. When Kris meets another victim and the pigs panic, they react as strongly and huddle together in a bath (as the poster for the film shows us).

This is the story

In view of reviewers' complaints about the obscurity of the scenes, it might be worth summarizing the story, to indicate how honestly Carruth deals us his narrative cards. You can also check on the few goofs recorded on imdb.

In Act I scene 2 (after the prologue with the teenagers, to use a theatrical metaphor) we see the Thief checking his hothouse plants and when he finds blue substance on the leaves, taking out the plants and picking worms out of the pot soil, then burning the plants and inspecting the grubs under a microscrope.

Pushing the grub drug

In scene 3 he prepares the worms for consumption by putting them into pills which he then tries to sell in the city. We see Kris, a sci-fi video editor being pulled out of a nightclub by the Thief after he checks a taser. He then wakes her and forces her to swallow the pills. She struggles to her feet and tries to run but turns into a zombie-like creature. I think he is playing here with standard sci-fi expectations.

At this point we have no idea of his motive or what he wants to do. We do not even know he is The Thief, as the cast list tells us.

Scene 3 shows her driving him to her house and the man controlling her. We see her deterioriation, making paper chains of passages quoted from Walden, believing all food is poisoned and that a jug of water has miraculous revival powers, until the Thief has her sign cheques for money and empty her bank accounts. He then halts his abuse, allows her to eat again, and she wakes up, alone and a mess, in her room.

As she wakes the grubs make themselves evident and she tries to cut them out of her body using a kitchen knife.

Act II: Sampling reality

At the start of Act II we switch to the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), driving to a field in his camper. He sets up powerful loudspeakers in a field and broadcasts a deep throbbing, whooshing sound.

Kris approaches him as if still drugged and says: "They won't come out."

The Sampler lies her on a camp bed, gives her a potion, prepares a piglet on an adjacent bed, and attaches them before restarting the loudspeakers. We see the grubs moving inside a body and in the soil. Kris wakes up. He gives her another glass of the greyish liquid, and we see the piglet being carried and its ear marked with her name.

The pig returns to its pen. We then see the farm has a whole host of piglets. What does it mean? Anything?

At this stage we cannot be sure, but in a dreamlike sequence Kris wanders through rooms where other people are standing at the windows with their back to her. She pours some water and then turns to the camera looking flabbergasted. In extreme closeup we see her eyes blink again and open as the sounds of traffic increase around her. She wakes up in her car on the edge of a highway. She looks confused, examines herself and drives in a panic back to her home, where finds literally the mess that has been made of her life.

In Act II scene whatever, we then see Kris getting the sack for her absence from work, her attempt to buy food at the supermarket that fails when her card no longer works, and her protest to the bank that she had not drawn out all her money. We then watch her leaf through printouts from ATM machines of her withdrawing cash.

Not meeting Jeff

Act III: Parallel Words (these are all my provisional titles). opens with Jeff (Carruth) climbing onto a train, and looking equally depressed. Kris is there huddled on a seat. They are preternaturally aware of each other, but hesistant to follow up on this feeling.

They have a coffee together. Kris gives Jeff her telephone number but does not answer his calls. He catches her on the train again, revealing that he skips three trains to travel with her. They have another cafe meeting and she declares with some exasperation that she was diagnosed as, presumably, depressive a year before and is on medication. "I take these and I take those. And it's all right.[...] I think I saved us three to four weeks."

We see Kris obsessively picking up stones from the bottom of a swimming pool. We see Jeff selecting all the blue sweets from a jar in a hotel bar, then sitting in front of a mirror with a box of straws, unpeeling them from their paper wrappers.

A montage mystery masterpiece

What follows is a mini-masterpiece of montage.

The Sampler is shown in the wild producing sounds by overturning a pile of bricks, scraping a metal tool, sliding rubble inside a corrugated-iron pipe. It's as if the film has switched gears into a story of how to find music in the wild.

Interspersed with these shots, we see Kris standing blankly in front of a throbbing printer, Jeff dreaming at the washbasin while the tap is running, then at the photocopying machine, and Kris at a sewing machine. We are suddenly over-aware of the sounds of machines around us.

Kris cuts the sewing thread and we switch to the Sampler playing strange notes on his keyboard using a score. He suddenly reacts, and throws the pages of score into the river. He drives to the pig farm, approaches the pigs and when he touches each one appears beside various people, who are all unaware of him on the street and in cafes.

It is the first indication we have of the Sampler's powers to "transport" himself.

Then we hear police sirens. This alarms the Sampler. We see his hand approach another pig. He appears to be at the scene of an incident (a suicide or car accident?). The film switches back to several different versions of a domestic scene between the man whose wife was injured, ending with a scene of apparent reconciliation. The Sampler is then in the hospital beside the husband who is lost in thought at the bedside of his unconscious wife. Then he is in the background as the husband sits looking despondent.

For the first time, The Sampler realizes (as do we) that he can change the memory or experience of other people.

Despite the documentary style of Carruth's filming, we don't believe the Sampler is really there. We see him back at the pigfarm with his keyboard, pressing a note that doesn't sound while a piglet snuffles beside him.

Act IV: Silent dialogue

Act IV: The single universe. The scene switches to Jeff picking up a reluctant Kris from work. In the train there's a soundtrack-only conversation about being able to decipher the background of strangers that suddenly switches into an onscreen discussion.

Jeff and Kris spend the night together, and are suddenly seen naked on a bed in the pig farm. The Sampler notices someting strange about a couple of the pigs who stay together.

Jeff reveals he stole money but his employers kept him out of jail. Kris sees he has made tiny paper chains on the table between them.

When Kris says she thinks she might be pregnant, we switch to the pig farm where the local vet is examining the Kris piglet that is pregnant.

Kris learns she has undergone an operation for cancer and can never give birth. Jeff and Kris drive out to the country and become convinced they share the same thoughts. "I feel that you know."

One hour into the film Kris and Jeff argue pleasurably about who's experience belongs to whom.

Playing on normal experience

Carruth is smart enough to make these experiences which many people may have had: feeling at one with another, copying other's gestures, guessing each other's thoughts.

When the Sampler captures the Jeff piglet and separates it from the Kris piglet, Jeff turns on his fellow workers. As the Sampler collects the piglets born by the Kris pig and puts them into a sack, Kris panics, smashes her hand into a glass pane. Jeff walks out of his office building and heads home. The Sampler throws the sack into the river. Gasping in panic Kris stumbles around and (we learn later) goes to his office. Jeff calls her from his car. "I can't find them anywhere," she says. He doesn't know what he means but picks her up, they drive home and huddle in the bath.

Carruth, I'm convinced, doesn't expect us to have worked out the explanation yet. It makes the scene both disturbing and touching not to know the reason for their panic.

And the answer is...

The answer comes immediately, with Act V: Putting things right. We switch back to the pigs in the river drifting under some blooming orchids. Jeff viciously cuts down a tree (not sure why, here). Back in the woods, the orchids sport blue flowers.

Kris is made anxious by a low and high pitched sound in their house. The logical explanation is pipes. Meanwhile, underneath the water, a blue colour escapes from the piglets along with the grubs. Whole orchid flowers turn blue. They are collected by a mother (Kathy Curruth) and her daughter (Meredith Burke) and sold in the region where The Thief lives.

Jeff does not find Kris at home. She is back swimming obsessively in the pool. Jeff comes in. When he aks what she is doing there, she replies "I love to be alone". He is puzzled but with the next stone collected she says: "This sun is but a morning star." He starts taking notes. of the strange things she says.

And here's the answer to the Walden conundrum

She takes the notes and goes searching for their source. She discovers it is Walden.

Jeff then drops stones into the swimming pool and quotes from the book while she picks up rocks. She surfaces and completes the quotations.

From Thoreau's book we learn the source of the "low and distant sound", the pleasure in natural water, and that "the rays that beam through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is removed" (just like the victims under the Thief's control).

Kris then sees blue and yellow orchids in the pool and dry leaves, with a look of revelation and reaches out to them several times.

They drive out to the woods where the dry leaves are. She finds the corrugated iron culvert where rubble can be slid to make sounds, the telegraph poles that the Sampler had recorded, and they stare at the Quinoa Valley mailbox at the entrance to the pig farm. We see another Quinoa Valley label (blue) and Jeff's hand running along the top of a series of CDs in a music shop.

Blame it on quinoa

We see Jeff carrying a series of Quinoa CDs down the aisle, one plainly entitled Extractions.

We see a parallel shot of Jeff carrying a food tray with quinoa and salad.

This is the penultimate scene. He is carrying the tray to a table into a brightly lit room. He sits down. We switch to a back view. It's almost like the pre-climax of 2001....

...and then there's a back view of Jeff in his living room putting on a pair of earphones. Kris is in the background. We presume he will be listening to a Quinoa CD.

The Sampler's right-hand fingers run along the metal bars of the pig farm. (Jeff's?) left hand runs along the crossed wire fence on the left at the farm. The Sampler's hand stretches out towards a pig. Then it is back to the metal bars. A man sits on the left with his head down, averted.

A left-on closeup of the Sampler's thoughtful face is matched by a right-on profile of an apprehensive Jeff, who nods. Kris's hand turns up a control on the amplifier. Jeff pulls off the headphones. The Sampler kneels down near the piglets and stretches out a hand.

Kris puts the earphones on.

The Sampler puts out a hand to the Kris and Jeff piglet. He appears in the bright room with Jeff and sits down. Kris comes in and sits down next to Jeff, then looks up as if she sees the Sampler, who then looks away, gets up and starts walking away. Then he slumps on the floor and puts his hand toward his heart.

The answer is a gun

Kris comes into shot, and the scene switches to the pig farm. She lifts a gun and shoots the recumbant figure of the Sampler.

She carries the gun and a box out of the farm as she had carried her effects out of the office when she was sacked.

The box contains polaroids of people and a page of information. Jeff and Chris send them copies of Walden. They all gather at the pig farm, start repainting it and put it in order.

Back in the woods, the Orchid Daughter sees that the orchids are all white again. The Thief sees, too, that things have changed. In his horticulture garden with the other teenager from the start of the film he confirms that the plants no longer have signs of the grub worm larvae. Back on the farm, Kris cuddles a piglet that (might) have come from the Kris pig's litter.

No, it's not

Carruth has made fun of marketing that highlights guns, worms and guns for an off-the-wall film. The shooting at the end manages to avoid a revenge-movie exploitation of killing as a feel-good ending to drama. You are too busy working out where she actually is at the time of the shooting.

Feeling the bewilderment and depression of the main characters has nothing to do with empathy or identification. Carruth has stated that he thinks The Sampler is an innocent figure in the drama, as much led by the attraction of the new form of consciousness as leading the process.

Carruth has been very critical of the character he plays for "embracing" his criminal past in a macho way that almost boasts about the use that was made of him.

The sufferings of Kris enable us to understand her reaction, but not necessarily to forgive her, though Carruth does not pose the question in such terms.

He told io9: "I don't believe that narrative works when it's trying to teach a lesson, or speak a factual truth. What it's good for is, an exploration of something that's commonplace and universal — maybe that's where the truth comes from. If you can thoroughly explore some nuance and what's universal about something, then that to me is what narrative is for."

Artificial endings

"We are also used to narratives coming to an end in some way and having some resolution and conclusion, and exploration isn't always going to have that, and maybe it never does. These endings are sometimes artificial. And so the best that I can hope for is an ending that doesn't preach or teach, but maybe subverts in a way that echoes or provides a coda to the exploration."

He has described the film as being about breaking cycles. He points out that the affection Kris shows for the pig can never be returned and she can never have children, either. The sweet resolution is somewhat bitter, and Carruth wants us to question whether she picked the right target.

He also told Charlie Jane Alders he designed the sci-fi story to be about a completely impersonal organism that was not being managed:

"You know, another story might say, 'Oh, there's a pharmaceutical drug on the market, that's wiping people’s memories,' or maybe it's religious, and there are angels screwing with people, or whatever else. What I needed was something that felt like it met a certain criteria in my head, and what that meant to me was, I wanted it embedded in nature. I want it to feel like it's permanent, and that it's been here as long as we have, and that it is just outside our normal experience, but nothing strange or alien, as far as an alien presence or whatever. It [also] needed to be cyclical, and it needed to continue on its own volition — nothing conspiratorial, not somebody managing the process, but something that would just keep going."

Action at a distance

Demonstrating this theme of action at a distance, there are several occasions when characters find themselves doing the same thing together, and particularly the Sampler.

In addition to those occasions already cited, when the Sampler walks with his hand out towards his group of pigs in a pen. Jeff does the same in an office.

Kris comes out of her operation while Jeff goes through sympathy pains of the same sort outside in the waiting area.

Where Color scores

Having given Under the Skin a low rating for its flouting of plausibility, it might appear perverse to praise Color for embracing some wild ideas about consciousness.

But Upstream Color challenges viewers to consider whether what they see onscreen is actually taking place (and often probably not) at the same time as the mechanism needs to be puzzled out.

Carruth's movie also expects you to provide an answer to equally serious questions about human personality as you make sense of the story.

The destructive use of the grubs comes from a human not from extra-terrestrials, even if the decorative, aesthetic use arises from our race as well. We may be repelled by the behaviour of The Thief but we are not asked to generalize from this observation or feeling.

Somehow, as numerous recent health panics evidence, we expect even bacteria to be malevolent. Few film-makers will give us really impersonal villains. Even their impersonality gets cast as indifference, as if they have recognized us as important but have decided to ignore this. We are not even a blip on the screen of consciousness for the grubs in Upstream Color. This might have something to do with Carruth's scientific background as a software engineeer.

The case of empathy

Once the story is pieced together, the scope for exploiting viewer empathy is hard to miss. Even The Sampler, seeking to understand his new powers and puzzled by what is going on (it seems), is a prime candidate to be the viewer's representative on film.

Yet he is also the villain for the main female character. Kris is the main protoganist. We can feel for the destruction of her life and her attempt to piece it together, while becoming even more aware of her tragedy when she learns she cannot have children because of an operation (by The Sampler) she no longer remembers.

However, she refuses to act like a victim — leading to her killing the wrong person when seeking retribution — in contrast to Jeff, who Carruth criticizes for accepting his designation as a criminal and charity case.

It's Psycho, stupid

Apart from this cool treatment of the characters, Carruth's "abstract" narrative style distances us from easy identification with any individual, though the first part leads us through the breakdown and destruction of Kris's stable world (of science-fiction movie editing: the scene used comes from Carruth's abortive Topiary project).

The sudden switch of focus away from her to The Sampler is reminiscent of Psycho after the death of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). But in contrast to the shock of losing the "star" of the horror film, Upstream Color delivers a jolt of new energy to the narrative through a figure (The Sampler) whose activities seem to promise an interesting trajectory.

In time we learn how mistaken a reaction this is. But as in Psycho, the formal spareness — a break for Hitchcock from the "complex, almost baroque, surrounds and the theatricality that have contributed to the spectacle of death" (as Laura Mulvey points out in Death 24x a second 2006) — Color replaces the sense of death (here psychological) as public spectacle with "a more abstract, cinematic spectacle". She declares: "It is the spectator alone who can interpret this complex montage sequence". Though Carruth here exploits the parallel-action format that first came into cinema with The Great Train Robbery and was a signature of D.W.Griffiths, the rest of the comment could apply to Color.

Criticising empathism

Like the Marxism-inspired cultural critic Raymond Williams and many science-fiction writers, Carruth's narrative offers a stern critique of empathism in fiction. Each of the characters shows significant flaws we may overlook while following the story but have to recognize on second viewing or reflection.

The Sampler's pretense at being solely an interested observer is abruptly shattered by the shooting (after killing the piglets rather than giving them away). Kris jumps to the wrong conclusion as a result of her distress when she kills The Sampler. Jeff's only attempt to break free of his psychological trap is a senseless fight with co-workers.

What Carruth has said he wants audiences to do is to recognize how our behaviours can be controlled by forces beyond ourselves and follow his characters' attempts to make sense of what is happening to them.

It's a theme that contemporary authors such as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett to have treated in a more aggressive or humorous form. What Carruth brings to the idea is a link to our everyday behaviours and admonitory tone that prevents us from discussing it as a necessary part of 'the human condition'.

Empathy does not lead to action

Suzanne Keen, in the most thorough study I know of the science and theory of empathy in fiction (Empathy and the novel 2007), points out:

"Empathy may precede and lead to sympathy, but as has been amply demonstrated, mature sympathy, pity, and compassion do not necessarily result from empathy, nor does empathy inevitably lead to helping" (27).

Her examination of the scientific evidence is that only discussion and debate over empathically organized narratives leads to action. Williams, presumably seeking to bolster Marxist arguments that capitalists could feel for workers but still exploit them, asserted that 19th-century novels of industrial exploitation did not lead to improvements in conditions, no matter how much readers sympathized with their protagonists, It's a debatable point if we remember Oliver Twist or Uncle Tom's Cabin, Tom Brown's Schooldays or Les Miserables. But they all led to public reassessment of conditions for the various victims, and that led to reform.

As plainly as he could, Carruth has rejected the empathic approach to fiction in favour of an emotional arc that leads to reflection and expects from us a visual awareness that is not subservient to the immediacy and apparent reality of the film image.

The puzzling scenes of The Sampler appearing inside other people's lives are intended to provoke our questioning of what is real in what we are seeing, while the audio soundscapes indicate the links to action at a distance that goes beyond verbal articulation.

The new movie world

It's no surprise that the actors in this film are all artistic creators in their own right. This may represent a new approach to film production whose first shoots could be seen in Hollywood and television through Robert Redford, Sean Penn, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Hopkins, John Slattery and John Hamm.

Some of these are actors moving seamlessly into direction (Slattery, Hamm). Others (Redford, Penn, Foster and Hanks) have used film to explore situations and topics that mainstream Hollywood avoids. The last group (including Hopkins and Estevez) are seeking to exploit the capabilities of film in new ways.

Film-makers like Carruth (among them Jonathan Weiss and Maya Deren) have experimented with new ways of presenting stories through film, dislocating our conventional habits of consuming images without reflecting on what they present. Deren said her first film, Meshes of an Afternoon, "externalises an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external one", which is not a bad descripton of The Sampler's experience.

The distinction between these two types of contemporary film seem similar to me to the difference between standard novels and experimental works. There's room for both on your bookshelf, but you go to them for different experiences.

Some critics have written of similarities between Carruth's and Terence Malick's or David Lynch's films, but I don't think these comparisons are helpful. Malick may be a fellow Texan but Carruth has none of his mysticism, and one of Lynch's attempts to put dream states on film. As I have attempted to show, the narrative of Color is quite straightforward. Its events can be explicated in a way that Mulholland Drive could never be, and Carruth's interviews underline how different his naturalistic goals are from Lynch's punk surrealism.

Carruth was the surprise success of the Sundance Film Festival 2013. At the same time, Upstream Color earned back over half its costs in the first weekend of its cinema distribution, even though Carruth refused conventional marketing.

Not many blockbusters do that.

In October 2019 Carruth announced that he is quitting film-making. “I’m gonna get out of film,” he declared. “I’ve got another half of my life to live and I want to think about charities and finding a way to help people, not doing this bullshit, caring about box office, distribution and all this.”

Useful sources

Laura Mulvey. 2006. Death 24x a second: stillness and the moving image. ISBN: 1861892632 / 9781861892638.

Sites with interesting information about Shane Carruth and this film:

Mark Olsen. 2013. 'Primer's' Shane Carruth in total control with 'Upstream Color'. Los Angeles Times, 14 January 2013

To restore the strangeness of Upstream Color:

Charlie Jane Anders. 2013. Color Explains Your Dysfunctional Relationships. io9, 2 April 2013.

Charlie Jane Anders. 2013. Director Shane Carruth explains the ending of Upstream Color. io9, 17 April 2013.

Ian Buckwalter. 2013. A new breed of filmmaker? The Atlantic, 11 April 2013.

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