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Coming Up for Air:
Migrations of Meaning in Upstream Color  

David T. Johnson



I love to be alone.


So says the character Kris to her husband Jeff, late in the film Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013), as she surfaces from a local community pool where she has been swimming late at night. ‘You love what?’ he asks, but Kris has already gone under, disappearing for a moment before returning with a rock, which she places in a pile of others at pool’s edge, saying, ‘The sun is but a morning star’, before leaving again. Jeff’s voice trails after her: ‘What’d you say?’ When she comes back, she tells him, ‘The wildest sound ever heard makes the woods ring far and wide’. Jeff now no longer tries to engage but simply writes, recording whatever Kris says when she comes up for air. Eventually, he has a list which Kris reads when she is done. This leads her to a bookstore in a brief scene that follows where, thumbing through a copy of Walden, she realises the source of her nocturnal recitations, a look of nausea signalling the prick of recognition.


But what’s begun in that pool has not, apparently, been finished. And this, each time I see the film, always strikes me as curious – since they do not move to some new action occasioned by this revelation, as I might expect, but instead return to the pool. Now Kris treads water as Jeff, holding a bag, walks to the diving board, which he steps out on, a copy of Walden in his hands. Opening the bag, he lets fall its contents, the same rocks as before – broken bits of concrete – as he reads aloud. Kris goes under, disappears for a little while and, when she surfaces, completes the lines begun by Jeff. In this way, they exchange a dialogue based solely on Thoreau’s words, until late in the ‘conversation’, when Jeff expounds, ‘I am glad to have drunk water so long’; Kris responds, ‘for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky’. On this, Kris returns to the depths and sees something there she has not seen until now: an orchid, impossibly growing, an ethereal vision of plant life that should not be here, alive and thriving.


There is something profoundly mystifying about this moment and this scene, for me. And as those who have seen it know, it is not short on mystifying aspects – beginning with its highly unusual, opaque plot. (So opaque and mystifying that others are likely to describe it differently than I will here.) Kris and Jeff are two people in their late twenties or early thirties, both living in the U.S., where they hold, or have held, jobs within a contemporary global economy characterised by the rapid flow of capital. Kris’ vague position in media production and advertising is hinted at in brief scenes early in the film, and Jeff’s own position in financial management and his off-book hotel consultation are later alluded to as Kris gets to know him. Early on, a character listed in the film credits as Thief poisons Kris with a parasite that makes those who are infected highly receptive to hypnotic suggestion (Jeff, too, is poisoned, but we only learn about this later). Thief uses the parasite to fleece Kris of her entire savings before leaving her, as she suffers through increasing difficulties brought on by the parasite. She finally finds relief through another character credited as Sampler, a figure whose functions are even more obscure – we know that he runs a pig farm and that he is an obsessive recorder of sounds, such as that of a rock sliding down a drainage pipe, which he manipulates and remixes in digital processers. Sampler ‘cures’ Kris (and, off-screen, Jeff) by driving the parasites from her body into a pig, but there is a price for this remedy, a psychic link to the respective animal that enables Sampler to drift in and out of Kris’ and Jeff’s consciousness at will. The couple meet and grow closer, as the movie progresses, and they get by as best they can – although, in one sequence, they find themselves utterly bereft when Sampler drowns a litter of piglets from Kris’ pig. Their decayed corpses leach the parasite into the river, which mutates a flower, collected by some botanists, who then sell it at their greenhouse to none other than Thief – thus completing for the viewer the cycle that has been at work all along. Other characters, also previously infected, are visited from time to time, but the narrative mostly follows Kris and Jeff as it progresses. The pool scenes come late in the film, where the two continue to cope with their shared trauma; the second visit to the pool signals a breakthrough, one that leads Kris to track Sampler, both physically and psychically, in order to kill him. (That there is a final confrontation, and that the one here is so violent, suggests that undergirding the meandering, oblique plot is the spine of a more classical narrative.) At film’s end, Kris and Jeff, along with several people who are similarly recovering from the same fate, move to Sampler’s farm, which they take over and where they care for their porcine others, to whom they are still linked and presumably will be, in a strange kind of harmonic life that the film views with a surreal and unsettling attitude that is nonetheless hopeful as well.


Roland Barthes once speculated that a potentially useful position for a writer to adopt is that of someone observing the flight patterns of birds. Because the birds themselves may appear from any direction and depart, equally, toward any point on the horizon, the only sensible posture is to remain fixed and observe their motions through a predetermined shape in the sky, whether a scientist or (as in Barthes’ figure) a ‘soothsayer’. (1) If meaning is in constant motion, Barthes’ metaphor proposes that we might, like the avian observer, trace out those movements through an ‘imaginary rectangle’, a set of borders bisecting time and space, ‘in order to observe therein the migration of meanings, the outcropping of codes, the passage of citations’ (2) – an image, incidentally, reliant on framing, and thus particularly well suited for studies geared toward cinema, television or similar media. Tracing the migrations of meaning, or the assemblage of new ones based on the old, has guided much of the scholarly work of our time; this work has gone by many different names, depending upon the emphasis and expertise of an individual writer, and would include terms such as adaptation, intertextuality, intermediality, transmediality and remediation. While the terms have specific histories, they all reflect a desire to study the life, and death, of meanings – how they migrate and mutate, split apart and come together, die and are born, over time and space. Yet, all too often, their inquiries remain ironically fixed within a specific set of readers. My feeling is that it is high time we began opening them up.


In the spirit of Barthes’ S/Z which opens by reflecting, ‘[t]here are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean’, (3) I will condense my focus on Upstream Color to Kris’ surfacing from the depths of the pool, a piece of concrete in her hands, as she completes a line from Thoreau begun by Jeff. I propose that, like Kris, we dive down again, into the film, to consider the relevance of this concept to our own moment, and the various paths we use to think about meaning migration – in terms of how it might inform twenty-first-century cinema and media studies.



1. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), p. 14.


2. Ibid.






3. Ibid., p. 3.



The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed.


This scene is not the first time viewers have seen Walden, a text that serves not just as a conceptual reference point throughout much of the film, and as dialogue here, but also as a prop. We first encounter Walden when Kris is copying, by hand, passages from the book onto pieces of paper, which she then folds into small rings and links, one by one, into long chains. The chains prompt our recollection of one of the film’s first images, Thief taking garbage bags to a back-alley dumpster, with similar chains spilling from the openings of the bags and indicating that others, too, have been conned, once infected, by Thief. Walden thus in part denotes futility in the copying, since its length, combined with the amount of copies readily and cheaply available, makes transcription of this kind somewhat useless and futile. And yet many other books would serve, and serve better, to denote futility; Kris does not copy a dictionary, a phone book, or any number of other texts that would yield pages but are not meant to be read chronologically, suggesting a deliberately dull exercise. Other readily available long texts, notably the Judeo-Christian Bible, would have provided ample material and, in that particular case, could have been easily procured from an obliging church. In addition, Thief could have opened a laptop and quickly landed on any number of free, long web documents – including Walden itself.


Walden, however, is a loaded choice when it comes to meaning-migration. One of the primary ways in which this subject has been studied, at least since the reign of High Modernism, which continues to maintain a strong interest from Departments of English, is allusion – and Walden sets in motion the allusive interpretive apparatus for the spectator who has been socialised into twentieth and twenty-first century humanities education. For such a viewer, exploring the harmonic resonances of Walden – an appropriately sonic metaphor, given Sampler’s primary occupation – comes quite easily, particularly in light of the multiple cues within the film itself for making these connections. Among them is the importance of Walden for environmental movements. Although Upstream Color is not about environmentalism, exactly, the ending suggests a more balanced life, biologically and socially, with the move to the farm and the caring for livestock, the final image of Kris holding a piglet in a diaphanous light suggesting a much more peaceful and, indeed, balanced existence. Thoreau himself inveighed against the organised farm from the outset of Walden, lamenting those ‘whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools …’ (4), but the movement away from the film’s urban and suburban settings suggests a retreat in keeping with the book. Many other connections, too, could be drawn from allusively reading the Walden references, and a number of writers have already done just that. The reason such allusions guide scholarly discourse, critical reviews and classroom discussions so well is because their two-way relationship tends to deepen the understanding of both texts.









4. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1995), p. 4.

Yet my curiosity about this scene is not just in its invoking Thoreau’s work; it also seems unnecessary, although it may just be one among the many red herrings and loose narrative threads to be found in the movie. Still, the film could have easily moved from the bookstore scene into a confrontation with Sampler, rather than returning to the pool, and its doing so resists moving more quickly to its confrontational climax. Within the scene, too, the structure of the dialogue is perplexing, in that the scene begins by promising a reconstitution of order that it undermines as it goes forward. It starts where we might expect, in the initial words that Jeff speaks. ‘Economy’, he says. ‘When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbour, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, and earned my living by the labour of my hands only’. When Kris surfaces, she offers the next line: ‘I lived there for two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner of civilised life again’. We are, as many readers probably recognise, on the very first page of Walden, implying that any new exchanges will proceed, in order, from this one, even if there are ellipses between them to indicate time’s passage – and even if we are already hearing slight deviations from the original (the missing phrase ‘in Concord, Massachusetts’; a substitution of ‘of’ for ‘in’ following ‘sojourner’), suggesting something else at work here, too. Likewise, Kris’ line in particular – ‘At present I am a sojourner in civilised life again’ – works to convey a return to rational order, in the connotations of ‘civilised life’, but ‘sojourner’, for Kris as much as Thoreau, implies that this may not last.


And, indeed, it does not, as the next exchange moves much too far ahead, to Chapter 17, ‘Spring’, in a doubled fashion, with Jeff saying, ‘he heard a low and distant sound, but grand and impressive, unlike anything he had ever heard’; Kris responding, ‘gradually swelling and increasing’; Jeff adding, ‘as if it would have a universal and memorable ending’; and Kris closing, ‘a sullen rush and roar’. We are still, technically, proceeding in order; nevertheless, the great leap forward, not just to Chapter 2 or 3, but 17, already presents a challenge to rational chronology. The next exchange confirms this disruption when we move backwards, to Chapter 4, ‘Sounds’, as Jeff begins, ‘The rays which stream through the shutter’, and Kris finishes, ‘will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed’. And the dialogue continues, moving back and forth across the text. One could make the case that Jeff is in effect ‘quizzing’ Kris, so that answering with the correct lines – and doing so, impossibly, right at the moment she comes up for air – indicates psychological healing in these localised calls and responses. Yet the unpredictable leaps ahead and back imbue the scene with a haphazard and random quality that undermines any sense of order – which is unexpected, given that healing would seem to depend upon it.


The exchanges thus encourage us to think more laterally in relation to the circulation of meaning – and how disorder might be a good thing. Here, the material strangeness of the words and their poetry become more pronounced as the scene goes on, given the difficulty of remembering their place in the text. Mikhail Iampolski explains a related sense of disorientation whenever we have trouble arriving at an easily identifiable rationale for a textual reference, such as a quotation (or, in Iampolski’s language, a fragment):


  If a fragment cannot find a weighty enough motivation for its existence from the logic of the text, it becomes an anomaly, forcing the reader to seek its motivation in some other logic or explanatory cause outside the text. (5)   5. Mikhail Iampolski, The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 30.

Once explained, we return to the text – the quotation or fragment – now affecting our reception. Between those states, in Iampolski’s words (drawing from a related point made by Michael Riffaterre), ‘we witness the birth of meaning’. (6) I experienced just this when I first heard Jeff say, ‘The rays which stream through the shutter’, and Kris responded, ‘will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed’. Unlike some of the other quotations offered to this point, I was unable to access the original context for this quotation, and the idea itself equally seemed strange, existing in its material density, something I initially turned over like a koan or a small poem; there is in fact a creative study of Walden, titled Walden in Haiku, where the author, Ian Marshall, places certain passages into haiku form to harness this impulse for critical purposes. Eventually, wanting to consider the passage’s meaning further, I was led back to Walden and relied on Marshall himself for assistance. (Often, as Iampolski is no doubt aware, the birth of meaning relies on the delivery of interpretation.)


6. Ibid. Iampolski makes reference here to Michael Riffaterre, ‘Le Tissu du texte: Du Bellay, Songe, VII’, in Poétique 34 (1978), p. 198.




Marshall explains the ray/shutter metaphor in this way: ‘The world is full of things to notice, as bountiful as sunlight. But only a little bit gets noticed or written about – about as much sunlight as makes it through the shutters. We live our lives with shutters down, and not much of the world gets through’. (7) Having thus found a meaning, the quotation now ‘fit’ with the scene. For Kris and Jeff, the shutters, while not ‘wholly removed’, are starting to open further, slats beginning to disappear one by one as Kris continues to piece together those broken shards of memory, allowing those separate rays of sunlight to merge, become whole. That she does so through the very text that enabled her hypnotic catatonia – or, in the language of contemporary narrative discourse, the suspension of her agency – suggests a reclaiming of the text for herself (and, to follow this idea, the reclamation of her agency).


Still, the material density persists, a residue that never quite disappears. It calls to my attention other aspects of the scene’s density, sensuous details I might have otherwise missed: the way their voices come back to them in the echoes of the large room, the distortions of light both above and below the surface, the steam rising, the rocks sinking, the blue light and the aural blend of being underwater, when interior and exterior mix, so that one’s pulse is as audible as the lapping of water against the side of a pool. And then, inexplicably, late in the conversation, an orchid appears. The rich interplay of sense and movement, language and conception, perception and memory, image and sound circulates, joins and divides, pulses. It takes place in and around Jeff’s readings and Kris’ responses, as she surfaces with another piece of debris. It congregates around those small rocks or (using Iampolski’s language) fragments.


7. Ian Marshall, Walden by Haiku (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), p. 114.







Their roots reaching quite under the house …


A potent image and concept, the fragment appears again and again in intellectual work, and yet its critical use should be circumscribed from the outset, given its near infinite applications. So vast are its terrains, as a figure, despite its connotations as something minute, that it hovers near the edge of losing meaning altogether, always threatening to drift off into shorthand for an impulse the critic seems sure of but never fully articulates. This has not prevented us, time and again, from using it to characterise periods of aesthetic history: the fragment was a mainstay of Modernist mantras about the fracturing of institutions – religious, social, governmental and otherwise – in a discourse continued or interrupted by postmodernism, depending upon one’s point of view. We could just as easily travel backwards to other periods in aesthetic history, especially since so many ancient texts arrive to us as fragments – leaving it up to us to imagine the whole that will never be fully recovered (if not, in more recent media history, the remains of film history’s earliest days).


Beyond aesthetic historiography, many other forms of humanistic investigation, as well as scientific research, police detection, archaeological reconstruction, medical diagnosis and other areas of inquiry, are often based on the revelatory power of the fragment – a clue toward a larger insight that may be revealed if the fragment is studied closely enough (or if enough fragments are amassed). Within cinema and media studies, fragments and fragmentary discourse animate a great deal of criticism and theory. If we think of the fragmentary rhetoric that often governs discourse about the moving image aesthetically, if not also production processes, distribution networks and exhibition contexts, as well as the attention spans that greet them, then, however unusable the term may seem to us at times, we begin to see ways in which it continues to yield insights for those willing to risk its difficulties.


One area where it has yielded such insights (as well as some critical dead-ends) is in the rich body of cinephilia-informed writing that has appeared in the past few years, a body of writing, as should be clear by now, that guides the present study. Of the potential limitations of this way of working, few have spoken so candidly about them as Adrian Martin, who has wisely warned us not to be too hasty in our application of fragmentary methodologies, ones that may lead to a form of thinking whereby ‘[t]he fragment becomes the essence and truth of cinema, while any regard (classical or otherwise) for the work as a totality (however conceived) goes to hell’. (8) George Toles, as well, in ‘Rescuing Fragments: A New Task for Cinephilia’, makes explicit his sympathies with Martin’s own critiques, when he notes, ‘I am not suggesting that the stray luminous passages in otherwise disposable or broken narratives ought to be scavenged catch-as-catch-can with no regard for the film worlds which engendered them’. (9) His approach suggests we may avoid some of the problems Martin identifies by the way we engage the fragment. If Martin advocates taking care not to forget the more synthetic, holistic aspects of a given film or films, Toles moves outside the rhetoric of hermeneutics when he speaks of ‘how a movie dreams its own way, with onerous digressions and mishaps and bewilderment, to the piercing clarity of certain glittering shards’. (10) These ‘shards’, he notes, are worth studying in their own right, and the way he discusses them is almost mystical (one recalls here Barthes’ soothsayer):





8. Adrian Martin, ‘Beyond the Fragments of Cinephilia: Towards a Synthetic Analysis’, in Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb (ed.), Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction Vol. 1: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (London: Wallflower Press, 2009), p. 48.

9. George Toles, ‘Rescuing Fragments: A New Task for Cinephilia’, Cinema Journal 49, no. 2 (2010): p. 161.

10. Ibid.

  the brief passages that rise above the rest are also, arguably, in communion with each other, sharing a higher pitch of awareness and a secret network of correspondences. Perhaps they are seeking to actualise another, better imaginative realm within the movie’s vexing limits. At the same time these fragments link up with kindred episodes in other more fully realised films, which seem to conjure up alternative homes for them, more spacious and attuned to their bewitching qualities. The stubbornly alive particles and remnants of a forgotten movie have elective affinities with the larger, always unfolding utopian narrative of cinema at large. (11)  




11. Ibid.

Although there is a logic at work here, it functions more at the level of tone, evocative in its descriptions – ‘bewitching’, at its most luminous, which indicates that Toles is not just describing what the fragments can do (those to which he is drawn) but equally practicing this form of discourse – an unusual way of writing that, like the fragments themselves, gestures beyond a more typical approach and which, to cite another of Martin’s works, evokes his idea of creative criticism (12) that we see across a great deal of recent writing and audiovisual essays.


Within some of these more recent concerns is a much longer history, too. Over two centuries ago, in the literary period now known as German Romanticism, the authors Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis famously experimented with writing fragments – in essence, statements as brief as a sentence or as long as a page that would reflect on multiple subjects: poetry, philosophy, history, politics, theology and others. Here is Schlegel, in a fragment on the not uncommon subject of the fragment itself: ‘A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine’. (13) Novalis states: ‘Mystical expression is one more stimulus to thought. All truth is ancient. The stimulus of novelty lies only in variety of expression. The more contrast in its forms, the greater the pleasure of recognition’. (14) In both cases, the reader is invited to think both within and beyond the fragment – ‘complete in itself’, as Schlegel writes, yet equally indicating something beyond it; a ‘stimulus to thought’, even if Novalis is not directly speaking of the fragment form. My interest in these writings lies far less in what they espouse about various subjects than in how they conceptualise form. Generative properties take precedence over their seemingly incomplete appearance, a point that Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy emphasise in The Literary Absolute. ‘In these texts’, the authors reflect, ‘this term [i.e. fragment] is almost never confused with the detached piece pure and simple, with the residue of a broken ensemble … or even with the erratic block … At the very least, it designates the borders of the fracture as an autonomous form as much as the formlessness or deformity of this tearing’. (15) Stating what the Romantic fragment is not, however, is more straightforward than trying to establish what it is, in part because a fragment is not the same as rational discourse – it does not try to prove a point, per se, though insights may be gained from reading fragments, both individually and in relation to one another. For the Romantics, the fragment had a kind of infinite potential – an energy, as it were, in their thought-generation and thought-conveyance – and thus in the way meanings migrated rapidly within, between and beyond their horizons.



12. Adrian Martin, ‘No Direction Home: Creative Criticism’, Project: New Cinephilia, May 31, 2011.




13. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 45.

14. Novalis in Margaret Mahony Stoljar (ed), Philosophical Writings (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 85.




15. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988), p. 42.

In cinema and media studies, Robert Sinnerbrink has usefully coined the term ‘romantic film-philosophy’ to make an explicit link between certain contemporary writers (notably Stanley Cavell) and the longer history found in the German Romantics. Sinnerbrink advocates a form of writing that ‘depends as much on aesthetic as on argumentative persuasion’, resulting in ‘a virtuous aesthetic-hermeneutic circle’. (16) As an example, he cites one of Cavell’s essays, comprised of ‘a collection of fragments – fragments of thought and fragmentary thoughts – on the nature of collection; a re-collection of various ways of thinking about collecting that does not narrate or theorise so much as enact or display (like a cabinet of wonders)’. (17) The emphasis on display could productively be expanded to description, evoking other romantic-critical work as can be found in the ‘thick description’ of Lesley Stern. That all of this falls loosely under the description of romantic will undoubtedly set some of us ill at ease, and for good reason, given the numerous corrupt political regimes that have been informed by romantic ideologies.


Yet that is not the only meaning of ‘romantic’ – or, at least, it need not be. As Nikolas Kompridis has observed in his own attempt to recover romanticism for philosophy, ‘Unfortunately, it is too often simply taken for granted that “romanticism” reduces to an anti-rationalist aestheticism; that it promotes communitarian anti-individualism; that it involves exaggerated, highly inflated conceptions of difference and particularity; and, that it is informed by impulses, and that it espouses ideals, incompatible with democratic forms of life’. (18) Adding to this, Richard Eldridge, a thinker who has informed Kompridis’ work, sums it up by saying, ‘In broadest terms, Romanticism is typically faulted, following Hegel’s lead, for its subjectivism: too much visionary blathering; too little attention to both material reality and social forces’. (19) One does not have to look too far, historically, to find its extreme individualism, the other face of Kompridis’ ‘anti-individualis[t]’ strain, that often informs the worst kinds of self-serving political, social and economic attitudes. In fact, and all too depressingly, we rarely need to look beyond our own time and place.


Yet there is more to Romanticism than these interpretations alone. Kompridis advocates for ‘a living romanticism for our time, and for a time that will follow our own’. (20) I wonder if we might, following his lead, think more carefully about what certain other romantic practices might offer us, more positively – not just for our time generally, but for romantic film criticism specifically, in the ways we write about meaning-migration in cinema and media studies. Can we take up romantic fragmentation while avoiding many of the potential problems with either term? Might we recast these broken pieces, like a fortune-teller’s bones, and discover another future for us? Could the soothsayer, thus informed, redraw that shape in the sky? So many questions surface for me, as Kris brings up each rock, as Jeff begins another passage. Here, in the circulation of image, sound, movement, memory, discourse, fragment and system, we might consider how fragments might inform our own path, moving forward – and how there could be a secondary epiphany awaiting us, as Kris reaches toward her deep water orchid.


16. Robert Sinnerbrink, ‘Questioning Style’, in Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan (ed), The Language and Style of Film Criticism (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 43.

17. Ibid., p. 44.






18. Nikolas Kompridis, ‘Introduction: Re-inheriting Romanticism’, in Nikolas Kompridis (ed), Philosophical Romanticism (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 2.

19. Richard Eldridge, The Persistence of Romanticism: Essays in Philosophy and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 5.



20. Kompridis, ‘Introduction’, p. 3.




The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved.


Scholarly conferences are immersive experiences; returning from one can feel like coming up for air, enormously stimulated by the papers, plenaries and informal conversations that take place over three to four days, usually in a large hotel not unlike the ones Jeff consults for, off-book, in Upstream Color. These days, I (like many others) am frequently struck by an essential pluralism that animates most of the discussions; one not altogether unwelcome, since it can allow the scholar to advocate for a position that may be unpopular. The swirl of discourse can be intoxicating – with both the attractive and pejorative connotations of that word – since, in our field at the moment, one can feel buoyed by one argument, unsettled by the next. Still, one wonders: with so many discourses coexisting, do they ever comingle? The answer would seem to be, yes and no: there does seem to be more real exchange taking place, and many more discourses at work, than in previous decades. But the generative effects of one discourse within another seem frustratingly circumscribed at present. To return to Thoreau for a moment and his window/light metaphor, if conferences are windows into disciplines more generally, then the window of cinema and media studies has grown to exponential proportions, with more light streaming through than has ever been possible in the relatively brief history of the field. And yet, to extend Thoreau’s analogy, we are more slatted than ever.


Adaptation, intertextuality, intermediality, transmediality, remediation: such terms can be useful for identifying a readership, but equally make for boundaries at the edge of the text that are less than permeable. Scholars who write about adaptation, for instance, are often at a loss when it comes to the work being done on transmediality; likewise, someone who studies remediation may not be up to speed on insights produced by adaptation scholarship. This is where the practice of a more generative, fragmentary discourse might be one way of addressing these concerns. To return to Kris and Jeff: part of what I like about the second pool scene is that what they do depends upon exchange. Fragments look forward toward their completion and also mix and mingle with one another. They willingly cross over demarcations in the text to inform each other, so that the slatted light might be conceived of in relation to the ‘blooms of fruit’ which, after all, need light to grow, whether inside or out. Similarly, we can forestall the closure of our discipline’s slats by willingly crossing and mixing the critical divisions that we currently maintain – and that includes, as well, the ways we practice romantic or creative criticism. All too often, a reader dismisses this way of working out of hand; likewise, the romantic critic looks askance at the work being done in more conventional quarters. Much ink, literal and virtual, has been wasted in pointless arguments among intelligent people who feel that the only way to justify their own way of working is to insist that everyone else work in exactly that way. Instead, to invoke another familiar metaphor, we need to begin the work of mending fences – ones with gates that we willingly leave open and cross through at will.


This might even come down, in practice, to tone. I have tried here to use a form of writing that invokes an aesthetic-hermeneutic circle, in Sinnerbrink’s description, and that equally invites readers outside my immediate field. My writing here is less fragmentary and more essayistic than, say, the German Romantics; but then, as Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy remind us, the kinds of texts that inspired the German Romantics were equally those, such as Montaigne’s foundational writing, that inform the very impulse I am trying to describe and practice all at once.


This impulse need not occur at the speed of electronic exchange. While Upstream Color climaxes with a traditional conflict straight out of a revenge film, it actually ends with Kris, Jeff and others moving to a more agrarian lifestyle and a general slowing of their lives. The slow cinema moniker has arisen recently as a response to various forms of cinema that seems to derive pleasure not from a wilful drive toward a climax but from forestalling that motion, allowing the spectator to linger as long as possible in a given space and time. Few of its admirers would cite Upstream Color as an example, given that its aesthetics do not favour the long takes of most slow cinema; yet, when Matthew Flanagan describes this kind of cinema as one ‘which compels us to retreat from a culture of speed, modify our expectations of filmic narration and physically attune to a more deliberate rhythm’, (21) I find a sympathy with my own experience of this film and, in particular, the pool scenes – perhaps, even more so, in the act of writing which extends those scenes further, the romantic fragment here an occasion to pause, dwell and contemplate.


Here we may return to one final Romantic notion, for in part what we dwell in is the sense that a given aesthetic experience is ‘inexhaustible’. Isaiah Berlin, describing the Romantic interest in myth (and who uses the word ‘inexhaustible’ to describe the Romantic impulse), explains this attraction by noting how




21. Matthew Flanagan, ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema’, 16:9, Vol. 29 (November 2008).

  myths embody within themselves something inarticulable, and also manage to encapsulate the dark, the irrational, the inexpressible, that which conveys the deep darkness of this whole process, in images which themselves carry you to further images and which themselves point in some infinite direction. (22)   22. Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 121.

Inarticulable, inexpressible, inexhaustible, infinite: are we so self-assured in our beliefs, concepts and attitudes that we can reject these impulses? We need not take them to their logical extreme, as the Romantics did, nor even in any theological direction that a word like ‘infinite’ might imply, to draw on the idea that we might, in writing, seek not finality but a reaching toward something beyond our own discourse, toward other cinemas, other writings, other readings, other lives.


I am reminded of Girish Shambu’s ‘Taken Up By Waves’, where he draws on Gilles Deleuze’s image of newer sports like skydiving and surfing that require responding to the rhythms of a larger natural force to think about how we read – how other work takes us in various directions and how we allow those forces to inform our thinking, as we write, read and interact with others. (23) There is a sense of inexhaustibility to this image and, tonally, to the way Shambu writes – the sense that there is always something more to be said, and paradoxically that there is nothing lacking in what I am reading there. Going further, there is a sense, always, that I am not being hurried along – that I, too, may be the one who ‘completes’ the writing, in the act of reading, or in the act of writing anew.








23. Girish Shambu, ‘Taken Up by Waves: The Experience of New Cinephilia’, Project: New Cinephilia, May 23, 2011.

Thomas Leitch, closing a powerful recent essay on agency, suggests that resituating our conceptions of agency might, among other things, ‘allow us to acknowledge more openly that essays like this one are written not to provide the last word on a given subject, but frankly to provoke further discussion’. (24) We might change discussion to fragmentation, in the Romantic sense: Kris’ rising from the pool’s depths is an act that is never finished, that seems initially futile but which becomes a celebration amid which the real epiphany occurs. We do not necessarily fix our ideas when we publish – we set them in motion, we let them go – or, to put it another way, we watch them move, we ride their waves, we find ourselves carried.



24. Thomas Leitch, ‘What Movies Want’, in Jørgen Bruhn, Anne Gjelsvik and Eirik Frisvold Hanssen (eds), Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p. 173.

Ideally, the migration of meanings in this text will continue after someone finishes reading it and, at the very least, after I have finished writing it – just as the meanings of Upstream Color continue after the film ends (in that ‘other projector’ of the mind, to borrow yet another metaphor, this one courtesy of Serge Daney). Ideally, too, these boundaries, once made more open, can inform our conversations both within and outside classrooms, film festivals, journals, informal discussions or any other place where we gather to see and hear and talk about cinema and media. We might find ourselves following new migrations of meaning, slowing down and pausing long enough to consider the fragment – a brief scene in a recent film, a quotation of a much older text within that film, and the longer histories of the forms upon which they draw – as we enact the fragment, practice it, dwell in it. And if I must end having tested the reader’s patience with words that sound naïve to contemporary critical sensibilities, then I will push it further by bringing in others: love, compassion and one so familiar, even treacly, that I hesitate to raise it here – peace. I wonder if our fragmentary rhetoric might be open to taking those words seriously and putting them, too, into practice. Surely there is a way to move in that direction; we may not finally arrive, but perhaps we will move a bit closer. And perhaps such dialogues will continue to move even closer to their realisation, the next time around, in the lives of those who take our place, long after our own migrations have come to an end.   



I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky.


from Issue 5: Shows


David T. Johnson 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.