Sunday, September 8, 2013

19. Shane Carruth - Upstream Color

Upstream Color is a 2013 film by Shane Carruth, his first since his 2004 premier Primer, infamous for its extremely low budget and impossibly confounding story. Akin to the latter, Upstream Color is a rigorously independent and experimental film directed, written, produced, and starring Carruth himself. It is perhaps what could be called an auter film for the age of technological and epistemological accessibility. Since its release earlier this year, as will be read at the beginning of anything else about it, the film has quickly generated a plethora of discussion and commentary, with a great deal of "explanation" as the impetus, brought on by the beautifully expressive yet intentionally fragmentary, nonlinear, broken temporality of the film. It has a poetic approach that at times leaves information too sparse, unfortunate only because it is this very technique itself that imbues the passage of scenes with such potency. The film is what I would like to term an 'embodied experience', meaning: the medium through which sensory information is transmitted is transmitted in such a way that the experience of the information itself communicates the content of that information. The medium and the message are one.

In the many interviews Carruth has given about the film, he is upfront and surprisingly straightforward about the intentions of making the film, which is, to paraphrase, to reflect on (contemporary) alienation. What is surprising about his admittance of this is not that artistic laborers want to hide the 'meaning' of their work today in the age of precarity, but the fact that this meaning, this intention, is very clearly identified and really quite simple. For this reason, the fragmented montage of spatiotemporality and narratives itself embodies the experience of film with 'the film' (or, 'the project'). In this sense film becomes a medium.

Before going any further, I will take cue from the New Yorker review (The Thoreau Poison) in saying that what follows may contain what is known as "spoilers", but ultimately what is most potent about the film cannot be spoiled through any divulgence of plot information. Furthermore, while the following discussion will largely focus on a single device that Carruth, in interviews, has more or less outright stated was an arbitrary choice for inclusion, I will again take cue from the review previously cited in saying that this object might in fact be the key to unlocking the true philosophical complexity of the film, for while it's choice might be contingent, it is necessary.

What is perhaps most problematic about the film is its central objet, the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which functions as the device around which the story weaves it's path. Much of the debate that has arisen about the film has focused on Carruth's particular, yet emphatic if in no other way than rhetorical, use of the book. Enigmatic lines are repeated like religious hymns; the trauma which occupies the first third of the movie is predicated on the book's incessant transcription, whereas the finale directly posits the book as the key to salvation. Beyond the profoundly resonant score, sound, a fundamental element of Thoreau's book, is integral to the development of the story, acting as the means by which Kris (the main character) finds her way out of the trauma, as well as the sublime and foreign way in which Kris and Jeff are able to identify the impulse that guides them towards salvation.

It is deeply unclear in which type of light the book Walden is presented; at the same time it is what leads the characters to salvation, it is what facilitated their alienating trauma in the first place. One gets a very uneasy feeling at the end as to whether Walden is really the solution, or in fact the problem itself. But perhaps this line of questioning is fundamentally ambiguous and ambivalent for its fallacious interpretation of the effect for the cause. What is therefore ultimately most problematic is not Walden itself but it's traumatic instrumentalization. It is here that I must insist, in the face of Carruth's comments, that Walden as a sign is not innocent, but in fact points again towards the project that was (re)initiated with Upstream Color.

Upstream Color, and conjecturally Walden itself, seems to posit the corruption of a human essence by the evolution of society, potently represented as a physical trauma (with visible traces). The trauma itself is composed of two parts: the first in which the subject is imbricated with a foreign force, making the one two, and as such allowing for the manipulation of the one by a foreign operator; the second element of the trauma is in which the subject, passing from an "authentic" one (Kris working) to an "authentic" two (Kris being manipulated) to an "inauthetic" one (Kris alone after manipulation with the force loose inside her body), is split into two in an attempt to restore the subject to its authentic wholeness. Instead, what is produced is a lacking pair, in which Kris returns to her life, finding it completely empty without a job, unable to communicate with others nor control or understand her emotions. What makes this view most enigmatic is its transcendental nature: while it may be undeniably real (with scientifically identifiable physical traces) the trauma is itself posited as contingent. What this means is that the source of the trauma can be identified, and even though it cannot be erased from memory, can be treated, which in the case of Upstream Color, is accomplished through the awareness of said trauma. The awareness of the trauma will produce two effects: it will lead the traumatized to be united with its severed half while stopping the trauma from repeating itself to others.

The emphatic presentation of trauma and its transcendence is questionable not in an artistic, but philosophical sense, and as such puts in question the level on which Upstream Color should be interpreted. For example, is the traumatic act (the imbrication of Kris) really contingent? If trauma is treated as something perhaps fundamental to existence, or at the very least human subjectivity, at what stage in the traumatic process can it be said is the 'default' condition? Can an ontological framework for an ethics be constructed on the conceptual basis of trauma? While the philosophical questions this film raises may be questionable, what ultimately stands out for this film is its lucid representation of alienated connectivity, and the belief, albeit transcendental and debatable bordering on religious, that another way of being is possible.

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