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carruth's reflexive nature

(writing the essay nyu w/ beth kurkjian)

“They could be starlings,” starts Kris, as they glow in the backlight of a washed out cold blue sky at dusk. Hundreds of these starlings fly, creating beautiful patterns in the background, and lens flares from shots staring directly into light reflect their figures on the foreground. “When I was little, my friend Renny would come over,” she tells Jeff before he interrupts her, “I knew a kid called Renny.”  The soft organic score continues as she puts make-up on in front of the mirror, then as they have lunch. “Who said that?” they both ask, “they could be starlings.” In his confusion, Jeff interrupts her anecdote again. Kris replies, “My neighbor. You’re doing it again!” but Jeff continues with the anecdote. A warm color palette takes over as our protagonists lay at home, discussing a different anecdote previously described by Jeff. They’re in front of the mirror again, then they’re looking at starlings again: “I tell you a story, and then you’ve taken it and you’ve made it your own, you do this all the time.” They argue in a park, home, to the mirror, until a whistle in the background suddenly interrupts Kris and they both stare into each other. They’re back looking up at the sky again, “they could be starlings.”

Just as Kris and Jeff in this scene, we are very confused about what is going on. Upstream Color (2013) by Shane Carruth is what you call a difficult film. Vivian Sobchack discusses these films in her article “Stop Making Sense,” describing them as, “cerebral “puzzle” films with intricate plots and/or structures that require some effort to figure out, […] push the limits of representation as far as it will go, […] push the very limits of cinema itself”(50). These films are paradoxical in nature because the concepts they play around with invite us to immerse ourselves in them and then linger on with us, but these very concepts can only be expressed through complex narratives or methods that shut us out from the film. Upstream Color requires some effort to figure out; I often don’t fully understand what is going on even after multiple viewings. Recurring images of pigs, larvae and other symbols assure it pushes the limits of representation, and the montage-esque nature of its storytelling pushes the limits of cinema itself. Sobchack then describes a key distinction between difficult and normal films, “we are used to most narrative films adding up, meaning something and giving us the wherewithal to answer the question: “What was it all about?"”(50). The answer to this question isn’t given easily to us in Upstream Color. How can we find it? Should we even find it?

Well, what was this particular montage all about? It runs for about two minutes around the second third of the film, no shot is longer than five seconds and the constant jumping around between locations and time periods make it fast paced story telling. The score and at times dialogue prevails above different shots even though they might be occurring in different contexts. This, plus the actual content of what’s going on at that moment, is a big part of what makes the film, and this particular scene, so difficult to follow.  But perhaps this is exactly how you are supposed to feel. We are confused because Carruth wants us to feel the confusion his characters are feeling. We see two people who’ve just started a relationship, who are happy but are struggling because of a strange event that happened in both of their pasts. Carruth makes us wonder whose anecdote and memory is whose, but doesn’t give us the answer because Kris and Jeff can’t figure it out themselves.  We can’t fully relate to their situation because it is in fact a work of science fiction, but perhaps we can relate to how they feel.

A short analysis of just two minutes of film already makes one feel like one’s revealed great truths about the film. Yet this is only one aspect of the many methods Carruth uses to convey his message. Another method he uses is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, a book that features prominently throughout the film. Thoreau, an American author part of the transcendentalist movement of the mid 1800s, wrote Walden in 1845, when he moved to a small hut on the shore of the Walden Pond in Massachusetts. His aim was to find what the real necessities in life are by living in a primitive way. Paul Lauter, in his essay “Transcendental Politics”, describes how transcendentalism emerged and points out details about Walden that closely correlate content and themes to the film. “It seems to me no accident that the longest chapter of Walden is “Economy,” which is at base about the possibility of detaching oneself from a system oppressive to body and spirit” (sec.1). In Upstream Color, our protagonists Kris and Jeff are completely detached from this system, due to the new life they’ve had to begin after being brainwashed by the Thief. They didn’t detach themselves to this lifestyle willingly though, and find the initial adaptation process difficult since they can’t fully remember what happened. We can gather it wasn’t as easy for them because, as Lauter describes, “they encounter desire, greed, conflict, death, the everyday oppressions of field, factory and kitchen – in short, injustice” (sec.3). After all, not everyone lives at Walden Pond in “transcendental paradise” like Thoreau did, and the real world is much tougher to deal with. But how do we react to this injustice? Thoreau suggests we must transgress unjust laws rather than being content to obey them. He actually spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax in 1846, which he did as a way of protesting against slavery and the Mexican War. “In not paying his poll tax, he was concretely removing his support from a government that had become unjust by requiring injustice of its citizens. “In an unjust society, the proper place for a just man is in prison””(Richardson). This philosophy was further explored by Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, but is also present in Walden. Perhaps Kris and Jeff applied civil disobedience by killing the Sampler. They had to remove his control over their lives; it was the last step they had to take to be at peace with themselves. Then, after mailing copies of Walden to all of the affected, they are able to live the Thoreauvian way at the pig farm.

The inclusion of the book in the film itself is an interesting technique used by Carruth to convey meaning. As viewers of a difficult film like this, we must look for details and symbols that will point us in the right direction, like Walden. The film doesn’t give any context for the book, or even tell us what it is about. Yet, it invites us to find out more about it, so then we can put it in context with the film. If you look at any reviews of the film, they will mention Walden at some point. Caleb Crain offers an interesting take on the influence of it in his review of the film, “The Thoreau Poison” for The New Yorker. He argues that near the end of the film, Kris and Jeff hold and care for their piglets “as a parent might a child,” which symbolizes how they have become aware of their connections with nature. “Thoreau felt that people unaware of these connections were asleep, and the message of Walden is to wake up. It’s on that account that he calls the sun a morning star.” However, does Upstream Color send a similar message? Is the film simply a new take on Walden or is it actually trying to say something else? As I stated before, Kris and Jeff didn’t assume this lifestyle willingly. What happened to them was undoubtedly tragic, even though they manage to find happiness at the end. Perhaps what Carruth is trying to say is that this kind of lifestyle is not easy to adopt, but worth it at the end. But is he inviting all of us to partake it? It helps Kris and Jeff cope with the tragic event they lived through, but we never see its benefits for people that haven’t had such an experience. In “The Thoreau Poison,” Crain never really harnesses Thoreau’s ideas himself. He finds them very interesting but never implies that they hold absolute truths. After all, he refers to the worms that cause the Thoreauvian life in Kris and Jeff as poison; perhaps it actually kills more than it creates and frees. Is this lifestyle really worth it?

Crain offers further insight to this question by bringing up something very interesting about Carruth himself, “I began to wonder if I’d been watching a movie by the premier Thoreauvian of our time.” It is worth noting that Carruth directed, produced, acted, wrote, scored and did the cinematography for the film. He had complete control over the film, he was even the main investor in its limited budget, self-published it, and did it completely outside of the normal Hollywood system. “It can’t be accidental that Carruth’s movie so strongly echoes Thoreau, the figure in American intellectual history who tried hardest to do his thinking apart from the hive mind.” Walden has definitely been a huge influence not only in Upstream Color but also in Carruth himself. He has a Thoreauvian lifestyle, and through it has been very successful in doing what he wants in the way he wants it. “Upstream Color is very much the work of an individual, so much so that I suspect its myths and symbols constitute a sort of meditation on the nature of individuality.” Crain is alluding to how the individuality present in Carruth himself, which was influenced by Thoreau, has transferred into the contents of the film and vice-versa.

So perhaps Carruth is sending a similar message to the one Thoreau sends with Walden after all. However, because of his experience with the Thoreauvian lifestyle he understands that it is not apt for everyone. This is why he’s decided to transmit this message through a difficult film. It isn’t an accessible film for everyone, one Hollywood would never make.  Upstream Color is a self-reflexive film at its core. It demands determination from you to feel the way it wants you to, which reflects how the Thoreauvian lifestyle also demands determination to feel the way it wants you to. Carruth has pushed the medium in a way that the film itself is a representation of what it’s trying to say.

This self-reflexive nature of Upstream Color intriguingly resembles 8 ½ (1963) by Federico Fellini, the self-reflective film by excellence. I say intriguingly because they both self-reflect about very different themes and concepts, but do so in a similar way. 8 ½ starts to self-reflect with its title; Fellini had directed seven films and co-directed one prior to 8 ½, literally making it his eighth and a half film. The film follows Guido, a film director suffering from an artistic block that can’t figure out what his next film will be. This is the concept Fellini self-reflects upon: an exploration of artistic block. It is no mystery that Guido represents Fellini himself, suffering from an artistic block before making 8 ½. He couldn’t figure out what his next film was going to be, so he made a film about him not being able figure out what his next film was going to be. The film Guido is making in the film is in fact the film we are watching.

Yes, you can call 8 ½ a difficult film too.  We feel confused during the many dream sequences throughout the film, and at times we can’t separate them from Guido’s reality. But, as in Upstream Color, we are supposed to feel confused because it is the same confusion the characters are feeling. However, in this case we not only feel the same way as Guido, but also as Fellini felt throughout the making of the film. The point of it being about himself making a film is not to teach us how to make a film, but rather to make us feel what it is like to make one. Even though most of the events we see in the film are inspired by his real life occurrences, 8 ½ is not trying to be an autobiography; it is merely a self-reflection. This is why we follow Fellini in his journey to self-acceptance, where we learn about the struggle of artistic block and the struggle of living in reality. By the end, we find the beauty of life alongside Fellini and we dance around with him in his circus.

Carruth does the same thing. Upstream Color is not autobiographical in any way; it is merely a self-reflection. The key difference is that, although Carruth acts as Jeff, he hasn’t put himself into the film. He’s put Walden in the film. The Thoreauvian lifestyle, its connection with nature and the civil disobedience are the main “myths and symbols” Crain refers to in relation to the individuality of the film. Walden is the concept that lingers on with us after watching the film, even if we didn’t fully understand the narrative. “I tell you a story, and then you’ve taken it and you’ve made it your own, you do this all the time,” says Kris in the montage I previously described. We are as confused as Kris and Jeff are, but as the whistle sounds in the background we suddenly stop caring about whose anecdote is whose. We care about the intention of the anecdote; whose it belonged to originally is trivial. But perhaps this quote is emblematic of Carruth and Thoreau’s relationship. Carruth has heard Thoreau’s story, taken it and through Upstream Color, made it his own.