(Mild spoilers ahead, but it would be hard for me to really ruin anything since much of it is in trailers)
(Note: 12 June 2013 I watched the film for a second time, confirming my initial opinion that it is one of my favorite movies of all time. There are some brief comments on things I missed the first time through added at the end of this post.)
On Tuesday, April 23rd, one of my students cancelled her tutoring appointment in Walnut Creek. I leaped with joy.
It might seem funny, the idea of going from Danville to San Francisco just to watch a movie. True, the movie was only showing in San Francisco. True, I didn’t have anything better to do. But I could have stayed home–saved the BART fare–and so on. But like a homing missile there I was, 10:30pm at the Roxie near 16th & Mission. I ran, actually, from a bar five blocks away, just as I would run to BART when the film was over, not ready for the exhilaration to peter out.
As for the film itself… I’m not sure I could write a straightforward review. What follows is part narrative, part review, part evaluation. And it’s going to be in question form, because that’s all you’ll have when this movie is over.
Wait, you ran to BART? Nerd.
Yes, I ran to BART. I had it calculated exactly. The film was 96 minutes and started at 10:34. The last BART to the East Bay was at 12:19pm. Not a train you want to miss.
Why did you want to see this thing so badly?
First, I loved Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer. I’m a strong believer in the auteur-centric vision of cinema, which places directors (rather than producers or actors) as the most important determinants of a film. Since his first film was great, I expected an equally unconventional, challenging, hauntingly beautiful second feature.
Second, the trailer is unbelievable. As I’ve said before, I love movie trailers, and this one is a masterpiece, particularly in terms of sound design. The theme song captures the mood perfectly–a sort of sinister synchronicity giving way to wonder at the workings of an unfolding process. It made me so stoked to see this movie.
Check out the soundtrack here. “As If It Would Have A Sudden and Memorable Ending” is the one from the trailer.
Wait, this is the Primer guy? So is there time travel?
Well. No. I don’t think so. I don’t think it would be totally out of scope to call it a science fiction movie. But where Primer lived exclusively in your head, with all its endless Godel/Escher/Bach self-referencing temporal loops, Upstream Color is much more of a full-body experience. There’s a bit of body horror that is actually easily the most conventional part of the entire movie, so it’s visceral in a physical way. But it’s also visceral emotionally, and an appeal to an understanding of the world that, unlike Primer, isn’t totally based on explaining it in perfect formulae.
Body horror? You mean, like Cronenberg stuff?
Just some run-of-the-mill man shoves maggot pills into your throat and you grow giant worms and try to stab them out but then some farmer guy transfers them into a pig. And then clips the pig with a name tag bearing… your name.
What skill is Upstream Color most likely to make me want to learn?
Probably not farming, because you’ll be really worried that your animals are actually people.
Probably not gardening, either. Don’t ask.
Kung fu is a good answer. There’s an awesome scene where these two kids do some sort of ceremonial kung fu. I have no idea why but it looks cool. More practically, kung fu might have helped Kris not get drugged.
Best answer: sound recording. The Farmer (henceforth capitalized) operates Quinoa Valley Records, and does meticulous field recordings of all kinds of stuff: a knife scraping against rocks, stones sliding down pipes, babbling brooks, grunting pigs. It seems awesome. Music of the spheres.
If Upstream Color were a Bible verse, which would it be?
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
Upstream Color definitely makes it seem as if the supernatural, or at least the preternatural, is everywhere. Truth lives everywhere in Upstream Color, from the acoustics of a sliding rock to the behavior of porcine pets. As the film goes on every little thing seems to take on enormous significance: an ominous stereo, a home pregnant with hymnlike sounds, a subway car to Heaven.
What book will Upstream Color make me want to read?
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Warning: Upstream Color may actually make you want to memorize Walden. Double Warning: Memorizing Walden may also be a sign that you are actually a pig. Or something like that. Do you see the pattern emerging?
Okay, stop messing around. What the heck is this movie about?
I suspect that Shane Carruth would be disappointed in us for asking such a pedestrian question. He may think his movie transcends such concerns. Whatever. We’re just mortals, and what is this movie about is the only question we can think to ask. Let’s see what we can come up with.
The movie is really very fragmentary, but I think we can cobble together some motifs (recurring images) and themes (social or philosophical questions or concepts the work seems to concern itself with).
Walden, the flower–>worm–>person–>pig cycle, immersion in water (the bath, the stream, the pool), sound, gardening, farming
marriage and relationships, human-nature interaction (gardening, farming, Jeff chopping down trees, Walden), voyeurism or oversight, interconnection
(Big spoilers alert)
Upstream Color doesn’t need to be about anything. It’s a pretty transcendent cinematic experience that is worth watching just to watch–the images are keenly beautiful and when you leave you’ll find yourself looking at the details in your life with new appreciation. Moreover, the film is a prime illustration of how important sound is in creating and supporting the mood of a film. If the film has any precedent, (at least given my limited film-viewing experience) the best comparison is to Terence Malick’s epic Tree of Life. That film is on a much larger scale, and is certainly more domestic than the sci-fi inflected UC. But the viewer’s attitude is the same: it’s a film to immerse yourself in, to let wash over you, more than anything else–if it were a concert, it would be the kind where you don’t sing along or dance, you just close your eyes and let the soundscape shape your mind’s reaction.
With that being said, I think Upstream Color is–kind-of–about the death of God.
Even though Carruth plays Jeff, he’s actually fairly extraneous to the story. Fragmentary though the film is, there is a story, and a linear one at that. (Okay, it might be cyclical, but we’ll get to that.) That linear story follows Kris, the female lead, as she is kidnapped, hypnotized, and operated on before returning to her life bewildered and confused. Ultimately she instinctually finds the Farmer–who previously operated on her–and murders him.
Who is this Farmer? The Farmer is also obsessed with the sounds of Creation, endlessly trying to record or recreate them. He is also the only supernatural character in the film: he is able to see the lives of others many miles away. We are able to infer that the people whose lives he can see are ones whose worms he has removed and implanted into his pet pigs, because Carruth occasionally alternates footage of two pigs (including the “Kris” pig) behaving in a certain way or shot in a certain way with similarly framed or themed shots of Kris and Jeff. Kris also believes she is pregnant right at the time that the Kris pig becomes pregnant. Somehow, the Farmer’s pigs mirror the behavior of their human correlates.
Lest we believe that the Farmer is merely an unknowing bystander in the worm cycle, it is clear that he knows his pigs are somehow special. He refuses to sell the piglets the “Kris” pig has, instead drowning them. Moreover, the overseers of the cycle do seem to benefit from a process that is less than beneficial for the human hosts. While the human hosts suffer–we see Kris writhe in pain, stab herself, and generally remain very freaked out for the rest of the movie–the overseers of the process all benefit. The gardener (who is also the kidnapper) extorts money from Kris while she is hypnotized. The Farmer’s voyeurism doesn’t seem malicious, but then again, he doesn’t seem to help anyone, and his farm helps perpetuate the cycle.
What evidence do we have that the Farmer might occupy a God-like position within the film?
- His co-conspirator, the Gardener, tells a hypnotized Kris that “You cannot look directly at me.” This echoes a common theme in religious art and thought, the idea that God’s glory is too great to be directly confronted in conventional human terms, appearing everywhere from Dante’s ineffable Paradiso to Islamic proscription of images of the deity.
- The Farmer is omniscient, or close to it. He is able to see others’ lives. That’s pretty godlike!
- The Farm is an analogue for the real world. If the Farmer takes care of the Farm, and each pig on the Farm has a human counterpart in the World, then the Farmer takes care of the World. (It’s true that the pig-human correlation might not have the degree of causal relation that I am giving it here–it’s unclear whether killing a pig, for example, kills the human correlate, or vice versa, or neither.)
- In many traditions the Deity sings the Earth into Creation or is otherwise concerned with music in a spiritual sense. The Farmer is obsessed with the sounds of Creation, refining and recording them.
(Biggest spoiler alert)
At the end of the film, Kris shoots the Farmer. The worm cycle falls apart. She and Jeff send files to every person the Farmer has every operated on, and they all come together to operate the Farm, signifying a powerful transition from the hierarchically-inflected worm cycle to a more nourishing, closer relationship where human-Creation relations are no longer mediated by the meddling of an overseeing Farmer/God. I believe the Farm really does represent Creation in a sense, so the fact that the humans (Kris, Jeff) overthrow the Deity (Farmer) and then take the Farm into their care really suggests that they are taking their place as masters of their own world.
One of the most powerful supports for this theory is the choice of book. Carruth could have chosen any number of books, and maybe if he had chosen another one we’d be talking about some totally different crackpot theory. But he chose Walden, so we’re going to talk about self-reliance. This is, after all, a book about a guy who decided to be self-reliant–to live in the woods, by himself. It is the story of a man who eschews oversight for the opportunity to be master of his own fate and caretaker of his own world. In that sense Thoreau’s journey mirrors Kris’ as one of liberation through the process of taking life into one’s own hands.
It’s possible, I’ll note, that this is actually a cyclical process–that Kris or Jeff will become the new Farmer, and that the cycle will continue until they are murdered in turn. I’ll also note that I don’t necessarily mean God as literally God, but maybe more like authority figures in general. I also think there is a lot to be said about the memory confusion phenomena that happens to Kris and Jeff as their relationship goes on, but I’m not sure what, except that it’s something a lot of close friends will be familiar with and which goes to show how deeply the film is concerned with human interconnection.
I wouldn’t put too much weight into this theory, or try to bend the film to fit the confines of this oft-repeated frame. It would be an insult to ignore the nuance and particular beauty of the film in favor of a single interpretation, when a plurality of personal reactions lends a much better impression of the film’s attitude of wonder at a complicated, often incomprehensible world.
JUNE 13, 2013:
I just watched the film for the second time last night, and it was just as good as I remembered. There were several things I noticed this second time around that I didn’t quite piece together the first time I saw the movie, so I’ll mention them here.
- I didn’t realize the first time I saw the film how much time had elapsed while Kris was being brainwashed. It appears to have been at least a week, since her employer fires her.
- rape subtext–remembering nothing from the time she is tazed to the time she wakes up in the highway, I somehow did not notice that she suspects she was raped; because time is portrayed in such a discontinuous way, it’s hard to say whether, when she briefly believes she if pregnant, she believes that the rapist could have been the father
- I also didn’t realize that Jeff’s embezzlement of his employer was almost certainly not done consciously–it probably occurred while he was being brainwashed, just as Kris signed away all the money from the equity on her house
- I still don’t quite understand how Kris and Jeff meet. They are shown meeting on the subway–it appears Kris is ignoring Jeff at first. We see them on the subway, but two scenes are interspersed, one that shows them meeting at night and another that is during the day. (They are also wearing different clothes.) It’s unclear whether perhaps Kris and Jeff met before they were brainwashed, and this scene shows their unharmonious first interactions, or if it is all after the brainwashing and just shows the two of them sharing daily rides home on the train, which lead to Jeff eventually asking Kris out?
- Jeff and Kris both seem to become more attuned to the true nature of their situation when they are engaged in meditative activities. Kris becomes aware of the assault on the piglets while she is measuring out paper in the graphics shop she works in after being fired from her previous position. Jeff does the same while doing a rote task at work. Later on, Kris is only able to recover her memories of reciting Walden when she is in the pool alone.