Over the past week I have been somewhat haunted by Shane Carruth’s latest offering, “Upstream Colour”, to such an extent that I feel compelled to reflect upon its visceral beauty. The task of finding a way in, of getting a purchase on Carruth’s film, is, however, by no means straightforward. Whilst the film certainly has a plot, Carruth makes little use or no use of the traditional signposts that we might expect to find in the cinematic experience. In a style that both reflects and refines that of his debut, the time-travel thriller “Primer”, Carruth uses the cinematic experience to challenge temporal conventions of linear causality, such that the whole idea of a plot as such has to be re-thought. The sheer complexity of the film’s encounters and happenings suggest an understanding of plot based instead upon the mutual entanglement of beings, whether human or otherwise. Whilst the film is pervaded by a sense of cause-and-effect, Carruth’s genius is to resist linearity at all costs, emphasising instead the way in which both things and people get caught-up in (or in A.N. Whitehead’s words, are ‘prehended’ by) processes with their own strange trajectories. To this end, the film certainly runs the risk of becoming immortalised, like its predecessor “Primer”, on the online fora and blog-pages of meticulous plot-detectives. And when all else fails, we might then be tempted to ask what Carruth could possibly have ‘meant’ by the film – surely these characters stand in for a much grander narrative, whether the death of God, a critique of Capitalism, or a Lovelock-esque cry to return to the natural rhythms of our ailing planet?
The answer can only be perhaps. But I can’t help but think that these tendencies towards interpretation are precisely what the cinematic experience of “Upstream Colour” brings to light, if only in order to make-felt the myriad ways in which our nervous, bodily existence is inclined to exceed these semantic frames. Perhaps, therefore, this is a film about the experience of bodies, and of what happens to our understandings of causality when we become brutally aware of the various bodies – again, human or otherwise – through which we come to know our own. After being poisoned by a maggot laced with a blue-powder, Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) is reduced to a state in which the affections of her body begin to overwhelm any sense of subjective identity or personal narrative. She is stripped back, forming what Carruth himself has described elsewhere as a ‘raw nerve’. This is made brutally apparent to the audience through the re-appearance of the maggot as it tunnels below the surface of her skin. On a more subtle register, Carruth’s use of wide-aperture close-ups to portray both objects and Kris’s body-parts adds to the sense in which the film is dealing with the immediacy of the affective body. The experience is, in places, quite overwhelming, as Carruth forces the viewer into a synaesthetic world – which is of course Kris’s world – of visual contrasts, sonic textures and surface frictions.
With Kris, we feel the presence of a world through its impact upon – and in this case, its movement through – the body. During the first third of the film, the audience is viscerally reminded of the fact that human reasoning takes place in a body whose existence requires that it composes with others. Moreover, this is a body that, in order to persist, must necessarily remain open to fortuitous encounters, and thus to the inevitable risk of decomposition and death that such encounters entail. I am reminded here of Gilles Deleuze’s impassioned re-reading of Spinoza, in particular his understanding of affections (affectio) as ideas of the body. For Spinoza, or so Deleuze argues, the conditions of our embodied existence mean that human reason stems from “ideas neither of ourselves, nor of external bodies, but only ideas of affections, indicating the effect of some external body on us” (Deleuze 1992, page 279). Expressing the state of the body, these affections-ideas are ‘inadequate’ ideas for Spinoza because they tell us nothing about causes beyond our own bodies. This is a mode of existence entirely determined by the capacity of a body to be affected by its environment. The crucial question for Deleuze is then, “how could we leave behind the world of inadequate ideas once we’re told that our condition seems to condemn us strictly to this world” (1978)? Which is also to ask, how is reasoning possible given that everything sets-forth from this world of affections-ideas? How do we make sense of a world beyond the affections of our own bodies?
In a way, I think that this is one of the central problems or ideas encountered in “Upstream Colour”, namely, a vertiginous realisation that we must always start from the affections-ideas of a body that is buffeted by forces outside of its control. What Carruth shows so well throughout the course of his film is the ontological heterogeneity of these forces: the rhythmic shuffling of a photocopier, the selfish intentions of a thief, the cycles of decomposition and decay. More precisely, this passive world of affections-ideas is not something that is ever fully escaped, as Deleuze explains:
“One is completely smothered, enclosed in a world of absolute impotence, even when my power of acting increases it’s on a segment of variation, nothing guarantees me that, at the street corner, I’m not going to receive a great blow to the head and that my power of acting is going to fall again.” (1978)
This serves as something of an antidote to the search for some kind of meta-narrative or allegorical meaning, because despite the intentions of characters such as the orchid collectors, the thief and the pig farmer, something takes place which could not have been foreseen. It is as if the ‘reasonable’ worlds and seemingly linear trajectories of each of these characters are, to burrow from Deleuze, ‘smothered’ or enfolded by a logic of fortuitous encounter that finds its expression at the level of the body.
Following Spinoza, Deleuze points to the formation of ‘common-notions’ from initial ‘affections-ideas’ as key to the possibility of grasping or knowing a world beyond the scars and traces left on our own bodies. For Deleuze, this emergence of understanding takes place through a determination to organise one’s bodily encounters in such a way as to maximise those which are ‘joyful’ – that is, those encounters which further increase our powers of acting. The shift from affections-ideas to common-notions occurs when a joyful encounter induces “the idea of a something in common between two bodies and two souls” (Deleuze 1978). It requires, in this respect, the creation of a territory. For Kris, this territory comes to be defined by her relationship to Jeff; a character who has likewise been reduced to an affective body, supposedly through a similar ordeal. As the relationship progresses and Kris’s existential territory is progressively established, Carruth subjects the viewer to various aesthetic associations between disparate beings and environments (most notably, cutting between the lives of the two main characters and a pair of farm pigs). Like Kris, the viewer is made to feel the sense in which very different bodies might form compositions, and that these compositions might induce in us a tendency towards reason and understanding. Through the layering of musical refrains and the association of images, Carruth exploits this liminal zone between a narrative that we yearn to understand and a territory which we cannot help but feel.
There is certainly a lot more to say about “Upstream Colour”, and perhaps I will make an attempt at some point in the future. But for now, I’d like to end with a quote that was ringing in my ears when I entered the cinema to the see Carruth’s film for the second time this week. The quote is taken from A.N. Whitehead’s “Process and Reality”, and, in a somewhat different approach to Deleuze, emphasises the sense in which bodily life is made possible by a reliance upon forces which are not of our choosing:
“An inhibition of familiar sensa is very apt to leave us a prey to vague terrors respecting a circumambient world of causal operations. In the dark there are vague presences, doubtfully feared; in the silence, the irresistible causal efficacy of nature presses itself upon us; in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us” (1978, page 176)
It is precisely this vague feeling, this idea of the body’s affections, that I think Carruth captures so brilliantly.
To see a trailer of the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U9KmAlrEXU
G. Deleuze (1992) ‘Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza’, Zone Books.
G. Deleuze (1988) ‘Spinoza: Practical Philosophy’, City Lights Books.
G. Deleuze (1978) Lecture on Spinoza (WebDeleuze)
A.N. Whitehead (1978) ‘Process and Reality’