Friday, December 27, 2013

Challenging "Upstream Color" Requires Work From Viewers

Upstream Color is not an easy film-watching experience.
Upstream Color, writer/director Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to Primer, has worked its way into a number of year-end bests lists. It won’t wind up in mine. Although my personal tastes have begun drifting further and further from convention, the story is too esoteric to rate that highly with me. But I will say this – the film is beautifully composed, undeniably unique and extremely interesting.

The plot is jarringly dense, as it focuses on a worm-pig-orchid cycle that our heroine Kris (powerfully played by Amy Seimetz) gets caught up in. Carruth doesn’t spoon feed anything, so it’s not exactly an easy viewing experience. There a numerous stretches with very little dialogue, and you need to figure out certain things on your own. You can’t coast while watching this movie – it’s too different for that. But, for those willing to stick with it, the basic story beat is readily apparent.

 In a nutshell, a thief (Thiago Martins) forces his victims to ingest a worm obtained from the potting soil of blue plants, thus allowing him to utilize a complex form of mind control involving stall tactics like orgimai chains and transcribing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden so that he can rob his victims blind.

Once the thief has his loot, a man credited as “the Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig) summons the victims (or the worm inside) by playing an amplified sound through humongous speakers aimed at the ground. The Sampler extracts the worms from the victims and puts them into pigs, creating strong psychic connections between the corresponding humans and pigs. He then drops the victims back into their lives, unaware of what happened and in financial ruin. However, The Sampler is able to observe (or sample) the lives of the victims by touching their pigs; inspired by what he experiences, the Sampler records (samples) an array of sounds, which he then sells through his record company.

Ultimately, the Sampler disposes of his pigs by bagging them up and throwing them in a stream. They float down to an embankment where they decay causing the essence of the worms to seep into orchids and turn them blue. These blue orchids are picked by two orchid farmers who then sell their flowers (along with infected worms in the potting soil) to the thief.

Got all that?

We see Kris go through this process as a victim, and later she connects with Jeff (Carruth), a man who seems to have experienced something similar. The two are drawn together because of the connection forged by their respective pigs, and this transference leads to a courtship. Ultimately the two learn some of what happened to them and the plot goes on from there, but to say more would spoil the film.

"The Sampler" drops in and out of the lives of people connected
to his pigs.
I’ll quickly mention that it’s never implied that the thief, Sampler and orchid farmers are actively in cahoots. The thief is clearly a bad guy taking advantage of this cycle, while the orchid farmers seem totally oblivious. The Sampler would seem to have the most information, but he isn’t overtly bad – he’s more of a deistic god figure.

All sorts of allegorical interpretations and themes can be grafted onto the story. Google has led me to various reviews that have brought up capitalism, religion and a slew of other things. Caleb Crain’s analysis in The New Yorker really dives into the Thoreau connection, while this review by Jeffrey Wells does a nice job of explaining how the film is mostly about what you want it to be about.

I tend to agree with the Rorschach test approach, but regardless of the specifics, I do think there is a pretty definable point being made here about individuality and identity. This is a film about the various forces that control us – religion, culture, biological instinct, or any type of destructive cycle (racism, sexism, abuse, violence, whatever).  The film seems to be suggesting that we should break free of these treacherous systems that bind us and take control of our lives. In that way it has thematic similarities to works as diverse as The Wire or The Matrix.

Carruth, who also scored the film, is an extremely independent filmmaker, so it’s unsurprising he would create something like this. One could even make the argument that by making a film that’s so specifically obtuse and anti formula, he is arguing against the Hollywood system, which, in its own way, binds and controls us in the same way the worm-pig-orchid cycle controls the characters in the film.  

With Upstream Color, Carruth is daring us to embrace something different and more organic than the processed crap Hollywood is prone to produce. Even more than that, he seems to be suggesting that we really should question all of our thoughts, desires and attitudes. Do we really think this or want that, or are we just influenced by external factors in the same way Kris and Jeff have been influenced by the relationship of two pigs?

Upstream Color is not all that different from the challenging classics that students read in English literature classes across the world. If you’re willing to discuss, theorize, and research, the film can be a rewarding experience. But it does take work, and, for most people, movies are about taking time off.

Ultimately, I prefer something in the middle – I like a challenging film, but I also require a bit more entertainment. Nevertheless, Upstream Color is worthwhile viewing for anyone willing to expend the effort. B-