There is an excellent book entitled Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, written by Scott Bukatman, which argues that science fiction is the paradigmatic narrative form of the the postmodern, 21st century world. In science fiction the traditional pathways and understandings are often erased or complicated beyond recognition. The reader/viewer is constantly displaced, confronted with familiar words and concepts made unfamiliar and alien. At every point, nothing can be taken for granted. The world we know is constantly in flux, evolving words and objects and spaces which we have never encountered before, and yet it is all uncannily familiar, still bound to a science wrapped in a fiction. I have just described science fiction, and I have also described out contemporary daily existence. The world has become displacement and disjuncture; our lives are a continual engagement with the unfamiliar, kept on our toes as we attempt to navigate future. There will be a continuity with the past, and we can use it to evaluate and interpret what is happening, but it is not guaranteed that it will help.
With the above in mind, my thoughts on Upstream Color are after the jump.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is perhaps the boldest cinematic attempt to visualise and give narrative to this paradigm. To those who think it has no plot, well, they just need to get back on that horse and try again. Science fiction is not for everyone, and despite the continual representation of it as a juvenile form it is actually one of the most complex and philosophical of genres. An enjoyment of science fiction requires a certain kind of engagement with the world, a way of perceiving and understanding, as described above, and some folks just aren’t interested or capable of that. That’s fine, but please don’t disregard the genre just because of your weltanschauung. If this describes you, then this may not be your film. You may find it empty and silly. If, however, you feel the future like a bullet train rushing by and you just want to put your hand on its silken steel surface and feel its speed, then you may need to see Upstream Color.
Upstream Color is a rather traditional film in many respects. There is a grain of sand here that disturbs and alters an old-school tale of broken and lost soul-mates who find each other in a lonely world. That grain of sand takes the form of a small grub, a wriggling maggot-like creature that grows amongst the roots of a plant. It can be distilled into a drug that empowers and unifies minds. Or, if eaten whole, can allow your whole being to be seized and manipulated by another. Ultimate reprogramming. What would your life be if you woke up one day in a strange place, with days of your life missing and all your finances gone? This is only the first twenty minutes, but it sets the story down a path that involves symbiotic worms and psycho-biological connections; strange, and yet not, not in a contemporary world wherein we are breaking apart and rebuilding our humanity and the very fabric of space/time. Reality ain’t what it used to be. We are well and truly inside a post-human world, with boundaries between animal and human and machine complicated beyond belief. Upstream Color investigates a possibility, shifting entirely into that destabilised paradigm to engage with the transformations wrought upon basic human behaviours by near-magical scientific developments. It’s a love story.
The programming of Kris (a divine Amy Seimetz) by a random stranger – working the ultimate confidence trick to fleece her completely of money and identity – involves menial tasks and a book rich in significance. It is Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life In The Woods, collected with his essay Civil Disobedience. I have not read it, so will leave other, more knowledgeable folk to investigate that (such as this site). However, the physical aspects of the programming (and later deprogramming), reminded me of Marcel Mauss’ Techniques of the Body, in which he laid out the startling concept that the ways in which we use our bodies are not necessarily inherent to biology, but vary from culture to culture. Our bodies are programmed by the society which we inhabit; under our skin and shaping how we engage with the world around us. Here we have a collision/collusion of enforced programming (the worm) and suggested counter-programming (Thoreau); like hot and cool air meeting in the atmosphere, create a storm and stir the world. Strange new forms will arise.
There is one film which Upstream Color forcefully reminded me of: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Both are flowing, somewhat disjointed visual poems, wherein sound and image dominate traditional narrative forms and the audience is allowed to find their own way and meaning. However, they are fundamentally oppositional works. Tree of Life is nostalgia, it is all backwards, caught up in an inescapable history. Upstream Color, to borrow an associate’s term, is pre-nostalgia; the moment has not happened yet, the conjuncture of reality and experience has not yet formed. And yet Upstream Color looks forward with a certainty that is overpowering. It has a sense of what will come, of the world we are currently inhabiting and the stream which we are following. This is the shape of the future.
By Ben Buckingham
Director: Shane Carruth
Writer(s): Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
Runtime: 96 minutes