Upstream Color

Tue Mar 29, 2016

What Happens

Let me first attempt to explain the plot of Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s second film. An entrepreneur has discovered that the worms who live in a certain orchid’s root matter have psychogenic properties. In particular, if ingested they induce a hypnotic state in which the subject is amenable to all suggestion. Teens are used for pharmacological testing, in apparent violation of many FDA regulations. The drug is manufactured first in pill form and distributed by the entrepreneur (referred to in the credits merely as “Thief”) in a night club, though the film does not reveal any flunitrazepam-like use. The drug itself is perhaps more like an empathic than a hypnotic, if empathy could be extended to complete subjugation to another’s will. This part of the R&D process is confusing, because subsequent events reveal that perhaps a dozen people have been given the worm, and the timing of the initial scene makes it appear as if our protagonist Kris is first in line. She might be, given how much time passes between her drugging and her meeting Shane Carruth’s character Jeff; but I imagined that it happened to him first for some reason. Given that he has much more in the way of financial resources, perhaps the Thief worked his way up the socioeconomic ladder.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The Thief tases Kris in the same nightclub where he once sold essence of orchid-worm. He drags her out in an alley on a rainy night and pumps her lungs full of worm-filled water. The worm can thrive in her bloodstream, apparently, and releases some type of psychoactive agent that induces the aforementioned hypnotic state. It’s a less gruesome form of vermiculture than what Khan was doing in Star Trek II, now that I think about it. The whole scene seems like a fantasy of the American Psychological Association’s ethics board; combine the terror of drowning with effective brainwashing for enhanced interrogations! Over a period of days, the Thief occupies Kris with transcribing Walden and making ringlets from the paper. He also keeps here bloodstream pure by telling her all food is poisoned and suggesting that she drink many glasses of water. He then methodically liquidates her assets, including a coin collection hidden in the same nook as a handgun. Why does Kris have a gun? As a creative professional who edits digital effects, she does not fit the profile of a handgun owner, especially since the gun is too inaccessible to be used for defense against kidnappers, brainwashers, and thieves. The effect she is shown editing, by the way, apparently comes from one of Carruth’s abandoned projects. It shows a machine very reminiscent of the Imperial ATV used to little effect on Hoth. Perhaps we’re up to two allusions to the second sequels of early 80s sci-fi blockbusters now.

Kris lives in a suburban house with a yard. The city that Upstream Color takes place in could not be readily identified (by me, at least). At one point the characters see a tree full of birds, but they don’t know if they are grackles or starlings. (I see on the film’s website that there’s a clip labeled “starlings.”) Grackles mean Texas or west, and Carruth is from Texas. I suspect the location is deliberately ambiguous. It’s well-attested that demons speak through grackles, though I don’t know if that fact is relevant to the film’s metaphysics. She is freed from her fugue state by the Thief and immediately eats everything in her refrigerator and then passes out. When she awakes, she notices that worms are crawling in her flesh. Many people might seek medical assistance in these circumstances; Kris, perhaps still doozy from her ordeal, attempts to cut them out with a knife taken straight from her dishwasher.

Everything that’s happened up to this point seems normal to the point of banality. The rest of the film is a bit strange, however. After Kris attempts a manual deworming, we see a man of methodical mien removing speakers from his camper. This fellow, referred to as “The Sampler” in the credits, somehow draws Kris to his boskage perdu. The whooshing sounds the speakers play may call to the inner rhythm of the worms. Perhaps they are a form of post-hypnotic suggestion. In any case, in addition to being a composer and a gentleman farmer, the Sampler is also a combat medic or at least an amateur surgeon of unusual facility. He transplants the worms from Kris to a docile pig in conditions of dubious sterility. I half-wondered if this film takes place in an alternate reality in which all microbial pathogens have been eliminated, and the orchidaceous worm is somehow nature’s revenge.

After this final ordeal, Kris comes to her senses, finds out that she’s lost her job (not a very flattering portrait of the labor practices of her employer, by the way), and then discovers that she has no money left. She thinks of calling the police, but she apparently realizes that the story wouldn’t be believable. A year or so passes, and she starts working at a print shop. She meets a man named Jeff on the train. Jeff is romantically interested in her, but she’s reluctant to begin a relationship. She attributes her trauma to a mental breakdown, understandably enough. The film now alternates between scenes that show Jeff and Kris’s relationship developing, Jeff at work, and the Sampler going about his business. Part of his business involves making ambient noise records that he releases on the once-hip Quinoa Valley label. (That’s also the name of his farm.) The other, perhaps more intriguing part, involves communing with his pigs. Many of the pigs have worms; Kris was not the only one. When the Sampler touches a wormy pig, he is transported by some stupendous mechanism to the location of its former host. He watches them unseen.

Viewers might wonder at this point about the relationship of the Thief and the Sampler. If you had spent most of the semester reading Beckett, you might think that the latter was the thief who was saved. Further events reveal that when the Sampler drowns a pig or piglet in the stream, the organic decay releases some substance or chemical that leeches into the roots of the orchids, turns their flowers blue, and blesses their grub worms. But there’s a paradox in that the Thief supplies the worms and the Sampler supplies the wormy pigs, so how did the cycle begin? This causality loop reminds me of Carruth’s prior film, Primer, which is about the inevitable paradoxes of time travel but is also kind of emo, in its own special way.

There are two major plot developments from this point: Kris thinks that she’s pregnant and another unknown porcanthrope suffers marital trauma. The first point is more central to the plot, though I suspect that the second reveals more about what the rules of this fictive universe actually are. Kris takes a pregnancy test which comes up positive, but the doctors then tell her that she shows signs of treated endometrial cancer. At no point would the viewer assume that Kris’s ordeal with the worms and the pig-transplant had anything to do with endometrial cancer. But, if it had been treated medically and Kris had somehow forgotten about it or had the memory excised, wouldn’t the doctors see it in her medical records? The concurrent event on Mr. Sampler’s farm involves, predictably enough, the two matching pigs having their own relationship. For a polytropic sort such as Mr. Sampler, the pregnancy and aggressive behavior of the mating pigs seem unusually difficult for him to handle. He seems put out by having to repair the fence, and he consults a fellow agrarian on how best to handle the pigs’ newfound aggression. He mentions at one point during this conversation that he has a buyer for his pigs, which suggests that routinely discards them into the stream, as I conjectured. These are also his only words, and he seems short-tempered and even a bit petulant while speaking them—a stark contrast to the serene detachment with which he normally views the pigs and their human avatars.

The marital trauma I mentioned is shown when the Sampler is surveying his various pigs and suddenly sees the flashing lights of an ambulance. We see a stricken husband watching his wife being carried out on a stretcher. As he’s in the hospital, being observed by the Sampler, we see his last words with his wife before she presumably attempted suicide. What’s curious about this scene is that it’s replayed with slightly different parting words each time. It is unclear if this is imagination of the bereaved husband, who’s attempting to find the right combination of words that could have prevented this from happening; or if the Sampler is somehow replaying alternate timelines to find one in which this doesn’t happen. My guess is that understanding this scene is the key to the film, and I’m don’t grasp it yet. (An otherwise comprehensive wikipedia plot summary does not mention this scene at all nor does this Slate FAQ.)

Kris’s trauma related to her phantom pregnancy almost leads to psychosis, but she is able to manage it through repetitive stone retrieval from the bottom of a YMCA pool while reciting Walden. Jeff, about whom I’ve written little thus far, recognizes and helps her through this recovery. Jeff’s story is that he was a commodities trader who may have possibly had a recreational drug habit that allowed him to be noticed by the Thief. The post-operative scars show that he’s had the same experience, and he was obviously a much more lucrative mark for the Thief than Kris. He apparently now works in limbo, as the financial group that employed him wasn’t willing to risk exposure by having him arrested after they discovered his peculation. So he works for presumably low, off-the-books wages, and lives in one of their hotels. I suspect Carruth devised this part of the plot for the photogenic affordances of the contemporary hotel. Kris has also cut her hair short and dresses increasingly like Jeff. Their memories are blended.

At some point, Kris becomes aware of the Sampler. Using Cexov’s gun (Ursula Le Guin wrote that this admittedly unusual transliteration reminded her of an “anaphrodisiac breakfast cereal”), Kris shoots the Sampler in one level of reality, while he appears to observe her and Jeff in another. Before the shot was fired, she sees him, as no one else could do before. They discover all of the medical records of the other sampled, summon them to the farm via copies of Walden, and start taking care of the pigs themselves. Kris is very maternal towards one piglet. The Thief discovers that his supply of worms has dried up.

Brief Discussion

More than ten years ago now, I wrote a chapter for an edited collection on Carruth’s first film, Primer. (Available here, though I apologize for the formatting and odious header.) It’s one of the few pieces of academic writing that I’ve done that has elicited negative feedback (well, any feedback…), as one of the film’s many devotees castigated me for spelling the characters’ company as “Amoeba” instead of whatever illiterate variant they used and perhaps for something else of no consequence. As a man of fundamentally irenic disposition, I hesitate, therefore, to explore the world of internet commentary on this equally baffling film even as I contribute to it. I own the DVD, or “Blu-Ray,” as they may be calling them now, of this feature; and I’ve not yet explored what commentaries it might hold. This interview with Carruth has a number of interesting comments. I find his admiration for Childhood’s End especially appealing. (I must assume that by “psychic break,” he means “psychotic break,” though the film does clearly involve some sort of thought transmission.) I also admire the agnotological flair of this response:

Because people are not rational and they are driven as much as by biology as they are by intellect?

Sure, or who knows what else? Who knows if we’ll find — not that this is what’s on the film’s mind necessarily — but who knows if we’ll find in 50 years that most of our genome is made up of parasites that globbed on along the way, and bits of information that we get from weird processes that we never thought of. I mean honestly, who knows what’s coming, and who knows what we’ll find, or what exists in just other areas entirely, that I couldn’t even speak to right now?

Many of the reviews I read mentioned the influence (sometimes of “fellow Texan”) Terrence Malick. This article [note: I can’t find the Film Quarterly version for some reason] by Joseph G. Kicksola is very useful on the sound design; he also makes the vital point that the Sampler is very much a directorial figure.