Is White the Only Color in Upstream Color?


Maybe the title of Upstream Color primed me to be thinking about race from the film’s start, or maybe, given the non-white characters in the first scene, it was the fact that people of color are under-represented in films and are, when present, often accompanied by a race-related message. The movie opens with three non-white teens and a non-white guy who is later revealed to be some sort of confidence man. The non-white teens are involved in the production side of a sci-fi drug business, and they’re getting high on the product on the side. The confidence man uses the drug to infiltrate the life of a middle-class white woman and steal her money. Pretty much the rest of the movie is about white people.

The Plot

The movie opens to a montage-like set of short clips showing the cultivators of an exotic blue flower. The spoils of the cultivators’ labor are a small worm that lives near the roots of the plant and a blue powder that gives the flower its color. The worms and powder are collected (and stored separately from each other) by the confidence man and his teenage employees.

White-woman Kris is briefly introduced as someone who works with videos in an artsy, high-ceilinged office. In our first glimpse of her, she’s running in a race (probably a half-marathon?) and talking on her cell phone. Now that we “know” her, cut to a bar, where no sooner has she used the bathroom, it seems, than she is drugged, violently implanted with a worm, and accompanied home by non-white “Thief” (so-named in the credits). Over what appear to be days or weeks, he distracts her with strange tedious tasks such as hand-copying the contents of Walden one page at a time and folding the pages into paper-chain links. At his command, she subsists off of ice water laced with the blue powder (presumably used to feed the worm in her body) and dazedly obeys Thief while he cons her into turning over her valuables, the equity in her house, and the contents of her bank accounts.

upstream color knife
Urgent care

Once the money has changed hands, we see Kris, still drugged, bingeing on the floor in front of an open refrigerator, apparently allowed food for the first time since Thief’s arrival. In the background, Thief disposes of the paper chains and all other evidence of his presence. Kris falls into a long, recuperative sleep. She wakes up – Thief now gone – to see the worm visibly crawling just below the surface of her skin across her body, after which we see a disgusting scene in which she tries to stab the worm where it moves (imagine watching people fish with spears, but on a human body instead of in a body of water).

Poor white Kris is up shit creek, until a white man, credited on IMDB as the Sampler—a mysterious, mostly silent guy who lives in the sticks and spends his time raising pigs and audio-recording the sounds of nature—uses amplified sound to beckon Kris to his farm, where he surgically removes the worm and transfers it to a pig, which he then ear-tags “Kris.” Cured of the infestation, Kris wakes up in the median of a highway and, her senses restored, returns home to find her life in shambles. She’s lost her house, her job, and the chunk of her memory that contains knowledge of Thief and what he did. Thus begins the much slower-moving middle half of the movie. White girl meets white boy. White boy Jeff (apparently endearingly) stalks white girl. Love blooms. Our second hero is slowly revealed to have undergone the same deception as Kris – except he made his chains from straw wrappers. Both characters are emotionally fucked up because of their life-shattering experiences. Both characters (but especially Kris) have some kind of weird psychic connection with the pigs that carry their worms (actually, the extent of this connection went totally over my head during the movie; reading this piece made the plot much less murky).

upstream color sampler
Pretty much American Gothic

The voyage-of-self-rediscovery part of the movie is long, and here’s where we find most of the film’s actor moments – moments where the onscreen actor is making some overwrought (or prolongedly blank) face that draws more attention to the acting than to the character, or when the actors seem overly conscious of the camera (e.g. the kitchen make-out scene). Once the action gets rolling again, there are some filmmaker moments too – such as when the actors walk along moving their hands and arms very slowly in such a way that the audience can almost hear the director telling them what to do. There are even a few film school moments – these are the scenes in which something mundane suddenly becomes a central focus for the camera in a way that it momentarily shakes loose our disbelief suspension, so that again the director’s thoughts ring in our ears, “This is going to look so awesome. Run across the room dragging the phone cord while we zoom in on your bare legs.” But really, what’s most startling about these moments in the film is their relative rarity. With many art films, all we get is the self-consciousness, but Upstream Color overcomes it for the most part. The actor who plays Kris, Amy Seimetz, even manages to avoid actor moments in a few silent scenes that would normally scream for an actor moment. And her post-Thief persona transformation is complete, well beyond the movie’s conspicuous trick of giving her a post-traumatic haircut.

Another success of the film was that it didn’t indulge in the elementary use of symbolism we find in many art flicks and wannabe art flicks. Symbolic moments are those places in a movie where the camera shows us some object, and it’s supposed to mean something, but you get the impression that the creator didn’t think it was his responsibility to have it mean something in particular. You’ve spotted it! There’s that blue shoe again! It isn’t Chekhov’s gun—it never moves from the mantelpiece. It’s symbolic, the hack critic tells us. But objects need to mean something to be symbols. Beware symbolism. It’s often a refuge for idiots. Yet most of the objects in this film aren’t burdened with an unrealistic responsibility of “adding meaning” just by being present. The pigs, the worm, Walden: all of these have a function in the plot. The printing presses (which mimic the sounds the Sampler records in nature) make audible to us their connection to the story.

The Message?

I’ll leave out a few middle-game spoilers and skip to the end. Kris and Jeff—not quite in this order—confront the Sampler, possibly shoot him (it’s complicated), find case files on the other worm-extraction patients and mail tell-alls, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style, to trigger the patients’ memories, team up with the other victims, give the pig farm a fresh coat of paint, and become loving pig-farmers. I’ve left out the explanation for quite how, but this chain of events breaks the cycle of drugs and thievery, and the world is restored to its sunshiny whiteness. Our last glimpse of the seedy societal underbelly (pork belly?) from whence the evil arose has Thief looking angry, foiled, and jobless. Whiteness prevails, possibly creditable to Thoreau, the sheep in wolf’s clothing and the wrench in Thief’s gears. And don’t be fooled about Kris’s animosity toward the (white) Sampler; as the film’s director, Shane Carruth, explains in an interview with Slant magazine:

Then you’ve got the pig farmer, the “Sampler.” He’s observing…and clearly benefiting from his ability to observe and “sample” these emotional experiences. But he’s not necessarily harmful. The idea that Kris would find him culpable, and make him pay that price for what’s been done to her, is hopefully an interesting coda. I mean she’s basically supplanting one false narrative with another. But she will never know that, and she can’t know that. And it’s only for the audience to realize, hopefully, after some reflection, that although the ending felt and looked like somebody finding the culprit, and getting their own peacefulness and resolution—in reality there’s almost nothing positive about what we’re looking at. The wrong person is “gotten.”

There must be a Crate & Barrel somewhere around here
There must be a Crate & Barrel somewhere around here

I’m not generally one to fixate on the issue of racial representation in media — maybe partly because I’m white, but also because it’s a charge so ubiquitously levelable that sounding the complaint unfortunately comes to feel as if it lacks force, because the complaint is almost always in order. Some might argue that my reading a negative message into the race of the actors is itself a racist act, but … watch the movie. There’s something very strange about the choice to have the characters who represent the underbelly of society be the only people of color in the movie, and to have the middle-class white people be their unwitting victims, and to have the downhome caretaker and savior be an unassuming-looking white man who the director tells us is another victim. If there is a message about race, I’m not seeing how we could cast it as commentary on racism. But maybe I’m missing something.

The internet hasn’t really jumped on questions of race in this movie yet. I did, however, see an odd reference to race in Grantland’s pukingly hipster bromance article on Carruth (in which the author sees something endearingly man-of-the-people about Carruth’s ordering the cheap Laphroaig, shunning Hollywood, living without health insurance by choice, and standing unwaveringly on the ceremony of his auteuristic image). Carruth tells the author how touched he was by a scene in Girls in which one of the characters sings a Kanye West song white-girl-style at what appears to be a bourgeois cocktail party. “It just broke my heart wide open,” says Carruth. I watched the clip on YouTube. She isn’t bad. The characters in the audience react negatively to her performance, but I don’t know how to interpret their motivations (maybe this becomes clear in the wider scope of the episode or the show?). In any case, nothing immediately strikes me as being off about Carruth’s appreciation of this scene, but what follows in the Grantland interview is a little troubling:

He had a dinner party recently, with Bellflower director Evan Glodell and Lowery, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was at Sundance too. A bunch of auteur filmmakers, blasting Ke$ha. “We couldn’t stop talking about how these are the places that you go,” Carruth says. “When you get so screwed up in your own head, you just want to know: What does it feel like to just get broad and get in touch with everybody at the same time?

Is it just me? Does it not sound like he’s suggesting that dissolving racial boundaries is something white people should do for their personal fulfillment in times when (the luxury of) introspection and self-finding gets them into a depressive funk? Does it not suggest that he sees people, real people, as “wake up calls,” or external objects useful for shaking him from his apathy, as he releases a movie on the dissolution and reconfiguration of white identity? As I said before, I’m out of my wheelhouse here. So, yeah, maybe I’ve got Carruth and his movie all wrong. But if there’s no animosity in his casting choices, there doesn’t seem to be much social responsibility either.

As for Girls, I’ve only seen a few episodes (and I saw Lena Dunham’s awful, gangrenous sore of a movie, Tiny Furniture), but I’m by no means alone in thinking Lena Dunham represents an unapologetic, self-aware celebration of white privilege (case in point, unless you think the “but” is redeeming). The hipster-white pretension of being “post-race” sees race not as a force of social control, but as a condition for the white person’s Siddharthan journey toward Irony-Nirvana: to be excusably racist, one must sufficiently internalize the tragedy of racism, assimilate the idea that “When I am being racist, I am publicly airing my own inadequacy,” and then project racism as an ironic (and therefore transcendent) statement about one’s inadequacy. More specifically, simultaneous rejection and assimilation of racism, sexism, and other blemishes on the face of humanity are the hallmark of one understanding of coolness. Its adherents “rock” racism the way I rocked mismatched socks in my twenties or the way Lady Gaga rocked a dress made of meat.

Shane Carruth says Girls is not for him (it’s too sexual, apparently), but he seems to belong to an insular world similar to that of the show’s characters. His own racially stereotyped character-casting might not rival the gross abuse of privilege in, for example, Lily Allen’s new video (or maybe it does), but it nonetheless strikes me as being – to put it most charitably – under-sensitive. If Carruth’s color-coded casting was truly coincidental, I don’t know how to account for the “oversight,” except by concluding that Carruth wears his privilege utterly without introspection (What privilege? I’m an equal opportunity hirer.). His attitude in interviews suggests a bit of willful ignorance on the privilege front. Example: “So the reality was she had to have a job, we had to show that she was a working girl—is it sexist to say ‘working girl’? I’m scared to death now—” (interview here). If the movie’s casting was purposeful, the message is disturbing.

I hope the community of critics will put rational pressure on Carruth when it comes to his movies’ messages, and maybe there’s hope for him yet. Despite the working girl comment, Upstream Color wasn’t sexist, as movies go. Where movie-making skill is concerned, Carruth is no hack. It takes skill to maneuver as many plot intricacies as Upstream Color presented, and it’s always nice when artists don’t throw too many empty symbols at us. The characters’ quest to interpret messages made cryptic by lost memory reminded me very much of Oedipa Maas’s inner journey in The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa’s ego disintegrates along the trajectory of a high-dose acid trip, as she stumbles deeper and deeper into conspiracy lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. The Thief’s influence on Kris and Jeff (both short-term and long-term) similarly turns everyday sounds and objects into tokens of repressed consciousness. And Upstream Color might even outdo Pynchon a little bit at the conspiracy game in not getting sidetracked by sex as Pynchon does. It’s refreshing to see an introspective female character not be preoccupied with her sexuality or surrounded by other characters who are preoccupied with her sexuality. But I think I’d commit the white feminist treachery of throwing non-white women under a bus if I brushed the racism under the rug because of the (relative) gender equity. What did everyone else who saw the movie think of it?