Upstream Color Explained
Here are a few notes on Upstream Color, the second feature from Shane Carruth (director of Primer). It’s an exceptional film for many reasons, one of which is how willfully obtuse it is. I’m lucky and/or obsessive enough to have seen it twice, so I may have a leg up on plot comprehension. I’ll try to explain it now, and will follow with some other thoughts.
Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film – this is spoiler time in spoiler town.
There is a character credited as “Thief”. He has discovered that a certain slug, when fed a particular plant, and ingested by a human, leaves that human in a state akin to hypnosis, completely open to suggestion. This is strongest if the subject does not eat or sleep.
The Thief uses this knowledge to rob people. One of his victims is Kris. He robs her of everything of value and gets her hopelessly in debt by making her take out a home equity line of credit. He keeps her busy, starved and awake the whole time. The mindless busywork involves copying out pages from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and making links of these pages into chains.
When the business is done the Thief leaves, making Kris aware of her hunger and fatigue. When she has eaten and slept, she sees the slugs inside her body reacting to the changes. Horrified, she tries to cut them out with a knife.
Enter The Sampler. The Sampler is also aware of the properties of this slug – however, there is no evidence he knows of or works with the Thief. The Sampler tries to help victims of the Thief. Sound has a big influence on the slug, and by playing sounds, The Sampler can manipulate those whose bodies contain slugs. He plays sounds through huge speakers into the ground, and this lures Kris to him.
The Sampler “helps” Kris by performing a procedure that removes the slugs from her body and places them into a pig. He then labels this pig and keeps it at his farm. Kris is now psychically linked with the pig. The farm is full of other pigs, all linked to other people (all presumably victims of the Thief), and pig Kris meets pig Jeff.
Months later, having lost her house and her job and with no memory of why, Kris has put her life back together somewhat. She meets Jeff, and because of their connection as pigs, they fall in love. (Man what a silly sentence that was.) Kris tries to discourage Jeff’s interest in her by disclosing that she is undergoing treatment for mental health problems, and Jeff counters that he’s a divorcee. Guess they’re both damaged goods.
Both exhibit strange behaviour. Kris fetches rocks from the bottom of a pool while quoting Thoreau. Jeff forms chains out of straw wrappers. It seems there are still slug aftereffects.
Their current behaviour can also be manipulated by The Sampler. Via the pigs, he is able to share consciousness with any of their linked humans, without their knowing it. Playing sounds near the pigs has an effect on the humans’ behaviour and memories. In one sequence, when he learns that a subject’s wife has attempted suicide, The Sampler tries to rewrite that subject’s memories so that he doesn’t blame himself.1
Pig-Jeff gets pig-Kris pregnant, which releases hormones in human-Kris’ body, but when she sees a doctor and gets an MRI, they tell her there is no way she could be pregnant. That’s because of damage to her internal organs (not sure if that’s because of the slugs or because of the procedure The Sampler gave her).
Back on the pig farm, pig-Kris gives birth to a litter of piglets. The Sampler is not happy about this – he drowns the piglets in a sack in a nearby river. Discharge from the corpses affects the growth of nearby orchids, which are picked by the mother / daughter team of E&P Exotics – the company that supplies the plants used by the thief.
This trauma in the pig world is felt by human Kris and Jeff, who become disoriented and paranoid. Their memories are blending; Kris remembers things that happened to Jeff, and shows up at his workplace, not knowing where she is. Jeff witnesses her Thoreau-pool ritual and they figure out that the source text is Walden.
They buy a car at her urging, and as if by instinct, Kris gets them close to The Sampler’s farm. Jeff sees a mailbox labeled “Quinoa Valley Recordings”, which releases The Sampler’s musical works.
Using the recordings somehow, Kris and Jeff become aware of The Sampler’s presence in their consciousness. They find him on his farm and kill him. They find records of all the victims, and mail them these details along with copies of Walden. The other victims come to the farm, and together they take over its management, caring for the pigs and their offspring.
What does it mean?
This is One Reporter’s Opinion, but I see it as a metaphor for capitalism. The Thief is Capital, exploiting workers for financial gain and leaving them broken and alone. The Sampler is government: he enumerates Capital’s victims, and tries to “manage” them; he’s sometimes well-meaning, but always controlling. And he really has his own interests at heart, not his subjects, who are animals to him.
I’m sure there are other interpretations, and I’d love to hear them. Maybe get at me @dsankey on Twitter, that’s probably easiest.
One thing I’m interested in is the relationship of Walden / On Civil Disobedience to the themes of the film. While I’ve listed Walden as the book the Thief has his victims copy out, it is notable that the copy that is used contains the other text as well, especially considering the third act symbolically portrays a revolution. I’ve actually read Walden but it was so long ago that I don’t have anything to bring to the table here.
About the form
I saw Upstream Color the day before I saw Spring Breakers, and the comparison was interesting, despite being very different films. Both films cut freely forwards and backwards in time. The film I would consider as the precursor is Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, with its flashes forward, but I am sure there are many other films one could cite. Upstream Color also reminded me of David Lynch in a way Primer never did, as Primer didn’t truck in symbols and emotion. It also reminded me of Lost and a bunch of other sci-fi that doesn’t really feel like sci-fi.
The form of this film is fractured, like the consciousness of its subjects. Typically when a film jumps in space or time there is some effort made to indicate this to the viewer – fade to black, or a title, or different colour grading. Not so here. The film cuts between remote time periods and different locations in the exact manner it cuts between shots within a scene. Since some of the things that actually connect these cuts are atypical and theoretically require some explanation (psychically linked to a pig!), it requires something like a leap of faith to overcome the cognitive dissonance and see the connections between the shots. The connections are there, and that’s what makes this film so great. Everything has a reason. if it didn’t, this film would be awful.
Another difficult thing about this film is its sheer density. It’s almost all montage. Montage is an incredible tool, allowing whole stories to be told in 30 second commercials. However, it’s mentally taxing. I’ve seen hour-long presentations of promos and commercials, and you walk out of there wanting to rest your optic nerve, and if you’re lucky you remember two or three spots out of a hundred. That Carruth has made a feature with this information density is ballsy, questionable in its wisdom, and quite possibly the step forward that film needs to take to remain relevant.
1 This is the part I am least sure about. Perhaps The Sampler is just playing back memories, not reprogramming them?
There is some further reading in this link post I put up shortly after writing this article, including an interview with Carruth in which he’s surprisingly forthright about the meaning of the film to him. Note that it’s not specifically about capitalism in his eyes, but rather, more broadly, forces of which we are unaware that affect our behaviour. Worth reading!