Behold the photo above. It is from Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, my favorite movie of the year so far, which debuts today on Netflix Instant. (Advice to first-time viewers: Don’t get hung up on trying to figure out everything that happens in it. The film is best navigated intuitively, like a poem, and Carruth places enormous faith in viewers to find their own way through it.) That image—a pitcher of ice water, an empty glass, a dog-eared paperback copy of Walden, a notebook, a pen, and someone seated almost entirely offscreen—is not some random screengrab from Upstream Color. It’s an official publicity photo.
Now, there’s some degree of marketing strategy at play with that photo. The fact that other press kits don’t feature images of inanimate objects gives it novelty, and the film actively encourages a “What the heck was that all about?” reaction from audiences. And one of the reasons that Carruth opted to distribute the film himself was the opportunity to set expectations for something offbeat and enigmatic, rather than have a distributor pull a bait-and-switch by making the film seem more conventional and accessible than it actually is. But to me, the photo has taken on an almost totemic significance. The pitcher means something in the movie, but outside the movie, it symbolizes independent filmmaking at its essence. In addition to serving as writer, director, producer, co-editor, composer, cinematographer, and star, Carruth, the ultimate auto-didact, handled the distribution himself, premiering the film at Sundance without a For Sale sign on it and keeping his base on operations at home in Dallas.
“There isn’t a molecule of Hollywood that touched this,” Carruth said in a great profile for Wired magazine. If the dream of digital filmmaking was to democratize the medium—to have “some little fat girl in Ohio [become] the next Mozart,” as Francis Ford Coppola indelicately phrased it in Hearts Of Darkness—then Upstream Color is its best realization. —Scott Tobias