Posted April 24, 2013 by William Dunmyer in Avant-Garde

Upstream Color: Uninspiring Academic Exercise

I am generally a big fan of avant-garde cinema. But Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” is so abstract that it is more a collection of non sequiturs than a work of art that hangs together. Each sequence is oddly compelling despite the fact that you’re not sure what is going on. Carruth likes to give you only parts of a story, as if you’re seeing sequences from the middle of a film, instead of the whole film.

But each sequence seems to be from the middle of a different film, with these excerpts then randomly assembled. They don’t come together in any meaningful way. Bottom line: Carruth is an avant-garde artist but not a very good one. Ultimately he doesn’t have much to say to us. He seems mostly into exploring story-telling techniques. But his explorations don’t produce anything of much artistic value. He’s more a technician than an artist.

To provide a sense of UC’s weirdness, here’s a brief summary:

The main character is a well-educated professional woman about 30 years old who is assaulted early in the film. A man tasers her and, when she is unconscious, he causes her to ingest a small worm.

The worm, which has some strange mystical properties, puts her in a hypnotic trance. During the trance, which lasts a few days, he instructs her to copy by hand each page of a book by Henry David Thoreau. He also gets her to empty her bank accounts and give him the cash. When she wakes from the trance, she is bankrupt and the worm is crawling around her body. She can visibly see it moving under her skin — and yes, watching this does make one’s skin crawl.

Suddenly she’s at a pig farm (no explanation), asking the pig farmer for help. He devises a procedure that appears to transfer the worm from her to one of his pigs. The farmer then takes on supernatural aspects, seeming to appear and disappear at will. But he’s not exactly a God figure; he’s more of a shaman.

Later the woman meets a man on a train (the man is played by Carruth), and they’re inexplicably drawn to each other. Indications are made that he has suffered a similar fate as she has. But as with most everything in the film, this is never stated outright.

I won’t reveal the details of the second half of the film, but I can say that the two help each other come to terms with the bizarre experiences they’ve had.

What to make of all this? What is the worm? What are the pigs? Who’s the pig farmer? Why Thoreau? What does the title of the film mean? Beats me.


William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.