Upstream Color (2013)


In 2010, an Italian film called Le Quattro Volte dedicated itself to visually and narratively incarnating the philosophy of Pythagorus. In particular, the film explored the Pythagorean idea of “transmutation of souls,” that is, the linkage between the lives of animals, vegetables, minerals, and humans. The film follows one quad-partite life cycle with simplicity and grace.

Recently, Shane Carruth has similarly invigorated the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer in his film Upstream ColorUpstream Color, unlike Le Quattro Volte, is a masterpiece of cinematography–and on a Panasonic GH2 no less. The success of the film is an incredible success for the independent film world; personally, I take heart that a film this meandering could find success at Sundance. But back to my main point.

In the 19th century, Arthur Schopenhauer developed a robust, albeit unpopular, philosophy which synthesized Eastern philosophy with Kantian idealism. Schopenhauer’s main tenet is that life is perpetual suffering. To make things brief, he also held that music was a direct appropriation of the eternal conflict at life’s core; the beauty of music, then, was a moment of truth which, when grasped, allowed for an enlightenment that affected spiritual release. Such release, the only true respite in a dark world, was immense yet always temporary. No human could escape the suffering of life, yet through music one could, briefly, find peace in the midst of it.

This is how I understand Upstream Color. The lives of the two protagonists are lives of suffering, conflict, and depression. The viewing experience itself is a muted one, featuring moments of cinematographic beauty but little emotional intensity or anticipation. The moments captured are fairly dispassionate, or when the two make out for the first time the shot is from across the room. This tone, this atmosphere, is to me evocative of Buddhism, a distancing of oneself from individual emotion. The film is also dogged in its loyalty to its protagonists’ perspective while never giving them much power or allowing the viewer to understand or identify with them very much. This speaks to me of another tenet of Buddhism, non-individuality.

These Eastern ideals are channeled through Schopenhauer into an entire worldview. Similarly, Upstream Color draws on Buddhist tendencies in its construction and emphasizes both of Schopenhauer’s core tenets. Not only do the characters perpetually suffer, but music plays a key role in the film as a kind of truth. Non-diagetically, music emphasizes transcendence over immanence; we watch the characters live rather than feeling thrown amongst them, allowing for curious and dispassionate viewing. Diagetically, music is created by the Sampler, who draws on the sounds of the world around him and reappropriates them into compositions which often create the atmosphere of a scene. There is strong continuity between diagetic and non-diagetic music in the film, just as in Schopenhauer music defines the severe, conflictual truth of the world the humans inhabit.

This way of understanding the film is helpful to me. I cannot explain the character of the Sampler, who seems to be the sordid inverse of the Dekalog’s silent watcher. I cannot explain the ending, where the parallel, symbolic world (the pig farm) becomes the real world and the prior world (the hotel/office space) becomes the symbolic.There is something Schopenhauerian about the identification of human beings with pigs, and something hopeful about the humans caring for the piglets rather than killing them. That said, I understand the mealworms very little, except that they fit with the general feel that swaths of nature are dangerous and beautiful (blue flowers) at the same time.

All said, Upstream Color is an immensely complex film that is so atmospherically cohesive I don’t feel a need to understand it all that well. My point has been that it touches the philosophy of Schopenhauer (and thereby Buddhism) at multiple places and that it’s general philosophical approach is not acceptable to me. Still, the film is quite beautiful and a perfect opportunity to view the world from a different set of eyes.

These are my first reactions. I wonder how they will change with time.


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