Fearful Symmetries

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29 April, 2013

Alive in the Superunknown: Upstream Color



I recall having a very fun conversation with my friend Aaron in which we tried to make sense of Shane Carruth's time travel parable Primer and thusly I was happy to hear that Carruth had final come up with a follow-up, Upstream Color. Here he has a larger budget but hasn't moved towards the mainstream or made a film which is in any way easy to decipher.

The film's first act follows a character only known as Thief. He cultivates plants which have a certain worm or grub that lives in the soil with their roots. A couple teenagers experiment with a hastily prepared tincture of the worm and find that it has a weird effect, namely, that it allows for a low-level form of mind control. Thief, on the other hand, goes for bigger prey. He forces a whole worm down the throat of an unsuspecting victim named Kris that he spies at a club. This allows him to have full control over her.

Before getting her to give up her life savings to him, Thief has Kris do seemingly inane activities like transcribing Moby Dick and convinces her that he has a condition which causes his head to be as bright as the sun so that she looks away from him. Once Thief has gotten the money and run, Kris wakes up under his spell no longer, though with no memory of what happened to her. She finds that the worm inside her has grown as it writhes around under her skin and that surgery with a chef's knife is not particularly effective. The cure for this is offered by The Sampler. He has setup shop out in a field with speakers that play a low, rumbling beat which mysteriously draws Kris. He draws the worm out and into a pig.

Kris begins the process of getting her life back together when she meets Jeff on the train. She is understandably cautious about letting Jeff into her life at first. But she takes the plunge and we discover that he too has had an encounter with Thief. Their romance is oddly compelling as these two lost souls try to find themselves as well as courage to find someone else to have in their lives. Scenes consisting of jump cuts where the pair try to sort out their memories, unsure which ones belong to whom are sad and romantic at the same time.

The Sampler, meanwhile, understands the power of the worms. Once removed from a person's body, they take with them memories from their former host or, perhaps, allow him to peer into the recess of the former hosts' minds, places they themselves may not be able to look into. Although this porcine Rube Goldberg contraption of a mind reading system is never fully explained, it seems that the worms respond to sound as he uses various field recordings that he has made to somehow stimulate the worms and allows him to experience the memories of others.

Upstream Color is reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but is much more abstruse with the Phildickian aspects turned up to eleven. The sci-fi aspects of the plot are never grounded in any kind of internal logic. Thief and The Sampler are not fleshed out with them remaining a thief and a voyeur, respectively. And so the focus is on Kris and Jeff. They see through a glass darkly with their relationship moving in fits and starts. I think that the movie portrayed the nervousness, the fun, and also the sadness of getting to know someone intimately very well. It felt realistic at the face-to-face level while being mired in absurdity when you step back. Perhaps what makes their relationship interesting is that Carruth cuts between Kris & Jeff and scenes of The Sampler & his pig farm. I felt that the mystery of The Sampler and his porcine friends contrasted nicely with the more tender story of two lovers and their search.

While I don't think there is a definitive reading of Upstream Color except in Carruth's head, I do think there are clues I missed which could fill in some holes in my understanding of the plot. For instance, at one point Kris thinks she is pregnant and at the same time the sow that received the worm from her body is revealed to be so. There is some kind of link between former and current hosts. The Sampler kills the piglets by tucking them in a sack and throwing it into a river. He explicitly shows a blue liquid – the worm "essence" - drifting out of their corpses on the bottom of the river. Does The Sampler kill them just because he doesn't want any more pigs? Does this act exert control or influence over Kris? Or is he feeding the eldritch blue orchids which grow along the river and among whose roots the strange worms live? On a second viewing I would also be cognizant of match on action cuts. There were a few and I suspect they aren't there for purely aesthetic reasons.

Upstream Color has a goodly amount of thematic material to chew on. It's about tragedy and finding control over our lives. In the spirit of Blade Runner, I'd say it's also about memories and their role in being human. These are heady topics to be sure but Carruth couches them in a friendly, albeit odd, way which proves to be perfectly suited for pondering.


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|| Palmer, 3:00 PM

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