Some movies can transcend film-making to become archetypes: they express something that goes beyond its creators’ intentions. These movies contain intuitions which can constantly be interpreted by the audience, thus becoming universal pieces. At least that’s what I think. I am referring to a range of masterpieces: The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel, 8 and 1/2 by Federico Fellini, Stalker by Andrej Arsen’evic Tarkovskij, 2001 Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, Inland Empire by David Lynch. And I think Shane Carruth’s Upstream color deserved to be listed alongside.
It may be difficult to explain why, just as it may be difficult to explain the movie itself. At first glance, Upstream color does not look like anything you might have seen before: a nervous direction, nearly screeching as it manages to mismatch even consequent passages. A mesmerizing, almost ecstatic synthesis. The search for impressionist-like means of expression. Sound is a dominant element, established as conceptual foundations of the entire movie. You may think it has something in common with Malick’s Tree of Life, maybe its enigmatic characters remind of Lynch, and its use of the flesh evokes Cronenberg, and yet looking for analogies might lead astray. This movie goes beyond genres and similarities. Carruth has engineered a sophisticated piece, and it is no coincidence that he was a mathematician and a developer of flight simulators. But unlike in Primer, here he adds a certain spirituality, a nearly sacred aura. He minutely adjust each single detail: direction, cinematography, editing, screenplay, score, production, distribution, co-protagonist role. He states that narration must be “an exploration of something that’s commonplace and universal – maybe that’s where the truth comes from“. Which is what he wants to deliver with his work. Does he succeed? I think so. His movie is hard and complex, of course, but nearly perfect.
He forces the audience to an act of faith, mesmerizing their senses, engaging them in a reality that can possibly exist only in the realm of the movie.
Pigs, altered states of perception, worms, love, sound sampling, orchids, fate… Of course, a literal description of the themes and their relation makes them look ridiculous. And yet, in the movie, they are not ridiculous at all. Once the understanding and involvement are completed, they strike the most universal chords.
So, what is Upstream color about? Apparently, the mysterious abduction of a girl and her subsequent encounter with a man inexplicably connected to her. Apparently – because it is actually about the cycle of a parasite (and yet again, an apparent touch of ridicule). Yet to fully understand this you will have to wait until the end of the movie, pay attention at the roles listed in the ending credits and re-watch the first scenes. My advice would be to proceed to a second re-watch, but that is up to you. At this point it should be clear to you that not everything is unveiled and the discourse can only be picked with a certain attention. But I assure you, just like a puzzle, every piece can be put together. This is why I think it might be worth to analyze the various passages together and to attempt an interpretation, just like I did with House of Leaves before. If you read my previous articles, you might be already familiar with my taste for what is mysterious, dark and hard to comprehend… It is always a pleasant challenge to try and get on top of such a complex thing. Of course, I would suggest that you watch the movie before reading the next section.
As I said, the movie shows a parasite cycle which gets broken in the end. In order to understand this, it is necessary to mark the stages of this cycles and to clarify the roles of who overlooks each stage.
First stage: Kris is abducted by the Thief (credited as such in the ending credits), who injects her a parasitical larva, which makes her pliable, and makes her move in a repetitive and apparently pointless fashion in order to keep her hypnotized. This allows him to obtain a series of checks in his name. Once this operation is completed, he lets her eat, which makes the larva grow bigger. Jeff and the other abductees go through the same treatment.
Second stage: the Sampler summons the victims (by using a real ultrasound practice), extracts the worm and transplants it inside pigs. This creates a connection between each victim and their pig. And allows the Sampler to spy these people’s lives by simply approaching their pig. This serves as an inspiration for his music, which is why his victims are credited as the Sampled. There’s more to the connection between victim and pig. These poles influence each other. We continuously see this in the movie: when their pigs approach each other, Kris and Jeff feel mutual attraction. Similarly, Kris is convinced she is pregnant as her pig is. When the Sampler takes away the puppies, the protagonists are put in a state of fear and rage which culminates in them hiding in the bath tub.
Third stage: after the Sampler has killed the puppies and thrown them in the river, the parasite emerges from their decomposing bodies, reaches the orchids and colors them blue. The women picking the orchids (credited as Mother Orchid and Daughter Orchid) pick these rare flowers in order to sell them. These are the same orchids bought by the Thief at the beginning of the movie, from which he obtains the parasite. The worm-pig-orchid cycle get broken in the end, when the victims rejoin with their pig and rebuild the farm.
Upstream color is without a doubt a movie about identity and what makes it. The bizarre and complex use of images and narrative fundamentally makes it an expressionist experiment, in the way he deliver its concepts. First of all, this movie must be perceived. And yet, maybe, the thinnest line that goes through the movie is the feeling of inexplicable. The kind of mystery that engage us all, and covers some of our daily gestures. Are we really always ourselves? What influences our actions? What governs certain coincidences? A part of Carruth’s discourse involves nature, how it is still a mystery for men, no matter the progress. The parasite cycle which is represented – and broken – here is almost like a biological mystery. Just like the reaction to sounds. We are subjugated to this mystery, even though we are aware of it. As if there is only a curtain – like the one from the bathtub scene – keeping us safe and apart from the unknown. This unknown, this unknowable, has a more universal value. It can be assimilated to the room of Stalker and to the the monolith of 2001 Space Odyssey.
The ending can be interpreted as a liberation, a possibility to retake fate in one’s own hands. And yet it is not the reconciliation it may seem. The one that gets killed is the Sampler – who not necessarily a evil figure -, as Kris mistakes him for the Thief. Carruth himself noted that this detail should not be underestimated. During the cycle, each element (Thief, Sampler, Orchid harvesters) does not care about the next stage. Each of them seize its own opportunity, almost like a state of nature. The Thief is overtly malevolent, while the Orchid harvesters are not. Which makes the cycle a bit more abstract – it cannot as easily be reduced to morals. At the end, the cycle is broken, but Kris makes the wrong choice by blaming the Sampler. There is a mismatch between the presentation of the ending and what really happens, as if the movies is telling us that there was no real resolution. The victims are no longer hiding behind a curtain, but the unknown is still out there, over the farm walls.