Beauty, Autonomy, and Pastoral Escape


Upstream Color, appearing in multiple online streaming queues earlier this Summer, really caught me off guard. I found the film riveting, sensory, disorienting and reorienting in ways that suggested beauty. I recommended it to many.

I watched it again, and now I’m not so sure. ┬áThe film’s smart, arresting style – single camera, framed close-in on the actors, edited in short takes with little synchronous diegetic sound – probably allows the director to play to the strengths of his small digital cameras. The resulting breathlessness is familiar from television advertising, especially where budgets are tight, and the desire for authenticity great. The style also conjures embodied memories, reminds me of past experiences of beauty and the sublime. Can the senses be trusted here though? The question nags the protagonists, and also this viewer.


As in other examples of the sublime in art and advertising, Upstream Color disorients as it promises an eventual revelation. In contrast, the films of Tarkovsky or Marker separate sound from vision and destabilize time without promise of fulfillment. They cut us free altogether, at least for a while. Carruth’s film shares more in common with Hitchcock, promising a reveal at every turn, or at least comfort until the next glimpse of resolution. The film remains firmly in the popular form – that is, the romanticist form.

The source of comfort in Upstream Color is the pastoral – the space between the city and the wild, which in this case is also synonymous with the in-between space of white middle-class familial and economic precarity. A swimming pool to oneself, an old Volvo on a dirt road, a piece of modernist furniture on a moving blanket, a single table and chair in a vacant floor of a glass office building. The film’s protagonists occupy these spaces during a time of personal transition and even trauma. There are pieces to assemble for these characters, memories and scores to be sorted and ultimately settled. They move toward restoration, gradually. The sounds they hear eventually find their sources, their labors bear fruit.



The film is a paean to marriage (which is interesting to find from a writer/director who publicly eschews family for art). Marriage in the film is not a legal, public or civic act, but rather a material one, a willing co-mingling of flesh, a submitting of body to body, ear to sound, human to animal. The film’s resolution/marriage sequence stands in contrast to the unwilling union of parasite to host, of voyeur to victim.

And so, as in Thoreau’s Walden (a major player in the film), sensory exploration and even an undoing of the self through abandonment to others stands on a stable platform of free will. Here individual intention and control, decisiveness over one’s boundaries, are not only the answer to trauma, but the foil against which the liminal experience of beauty rests. As in so many romantic narratives, the background of rupture or breach makes the figure of beauty and even sensation possible.



I was taken in. For me, it’s a very pleasing film – and I suspect this says a great deal about the film’s ideal audience – in terms of gender, race, class. But it doesn’t feel true to me. I could set some cinematic contrasts against it, examples of mobile subjects experiencing beauty in spaces of unhinged sensation – yet where individuality and intention aren’t the resting point. Private Witt in Malick’s Thin Red Line comes to mind, and a score of other holy fools.

Its harder to think of counterexamples in the context of relationship stories – films where a person experiences pastoral beauty amidst crises of memory and sensation, without autonomous control as the foil, the point of origin and return.



For now, I would at least turn to examples wherein these familiar romantic narratives make no attempt toward truth – as in the dependable work of Baz Luhrman and company. Their film version of The Great Gatsby offered all the pleasure of Upstream Color and more, without ever masquerading as anything more than a 2-hour romp in the wild. Where I can’t find less individualist approaches to existential questions, at least give me a glorious lie.

Now I’m off to track down the Big Star documentary.

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