Sunday 8 July 2018

The Question in Bodies #15: Upstream Colour (2013)

(Edit August 2020: This piece was obviously written long before the allegations of horrendous abuses perpetrated by Shane Carruth against his co-star and former romantic partner Amy Seimetz came out, and indeed long before Carruth posted a picture on Twitter of an Upstream Color soundtrack album next to the restraining order Seimetz served on him, which, however you frame that, can be in no way excused. Eventually I'll revise this post. But for the time being, just hold the thought that you don't treat the people who make things you love like saints.)  

As you get older (and I mean, as you get to my age), your favourites often become static. Your lists of things that you love, whether conscious or not, cease to allow new entries, and fewer things fall away. I suppose this isn't really as dangerous or depressing as it seems. It's part of aging. It's part of who we are.

Still, sometimes we surprise ourselves. I think it was the third time, or maybe the fourth, that I watched Upstream Colour that I realised that I was rewatching it for more than simply thinking it interesting or worth writing about, and that it had moved me deeply.

Spoiler warnings are for wimps, but you nonetheless have been warned. 

My face is made of the same material as the sun.
Upstream Colour (or, more correctly, Upstream Color) was Shane Carruth’s second feature film, and Carruth writes, stars, directs, edits, and composes the music for the film, as he did with his first, better known film, Primer (2004). Primer is a fine, if chilly, piece of intelligent sci-fi about a couple of engineers who stumble across the secret of time travel, and who, being engineers in the Elon Musk mould, of course exploit the technology regardless of ethics, empathy or each other, with predictably miserable results. Primer was the sort of film that is complex enough that people felt they needed diagrams to explain the plot, which rather misses the point, but there you go.

Upstream Colour is the better film, in my opinion. It has a core of emotion, of feeling, that Primer doesn't have. And it also deals with the effects of trauma in a sensitive, if still really harrowing, way.

Often when we talk about film, we talk about visual metaphors, about the times when a film shows us a thing and we're supposed to recognise that what we're looking at is in fact something else. That what is happening in the film’s story is a representation of another thing. Upstream Colour is a rare example of a film that not only uses visual metaphors, but which also uses visual similes. Rather than show you a thing that is happening in the story and then expect you to either understand it's another thing or just take it literally, Upstream Colour takes the riskier course of showing you an image and expecting you to understand that this is not what is happening in the story, and that what you're seeing is in fact like what is happening in the story, since the actual experience, which is affective and abstract to begin with, is impossible to show in images.

It took a couple of watches to tap into that for me. But I became helpless for it. It infected me. It parasitised me.

I'm going to call, but it won't be for printing.
I Used to Wonder at the Halo of Light Around my Shadow and Fancy Myself One of the Elect
A horticulturalist sells blue orchids. A man (Thiago Martins) comes back to the nursery on a regular basis to find the orchids with just the right colour: a powdery deposit on the leaves, blue. He buys the plants and then, having found the parasitic worms that the colour is a sign of, burns the plants. Some of the worms he puts into pill casings, or drowns in cola, and sells them: the worm/drug gives you a powerful sense of connection, makes you blissfully follow the movements of others. It’s hypnotic.

And I supposed that you’re intended to think of the wasp larvae that infest and seize control of the brains of caterpillars, or that parasite that cats are supposed to have that makes you susceptible to the whims of cats. The way in which a creature parasitises you the better to serve it; but the magical element of the worm is that it connects you with nature. It connects you with other creatures. It connects you with experience. It forces you to live in the moment, the Now. It imprisons you in the moment.

The discoverer of this drug is of course unscrupulous (which I suppose is the most direct link that this film has with Primer – the discoverer of something extraordinary who uses it for selfish ends). He tasers a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), and force feeds her one of the worms.

It takes effect even while she tries to run. She becomes docile. She obeys his whims. He makes her drive him home. And then he brainwashes her.

The techniques that the Thief (the only name he’s given in the credits) uses to deepen his control of Kris are fairly elementary – she is deprived of food and sleep; she is made to copy out tracts of Thoreau and then make them into paper chains, and start again. He depersonalises her, so that she believes everything he tells her: her mother has been kidnapped; his face is made of the same material of the sun and cannot be directly viewed. She mindlessly replays conversations for him verbatim. And over the space of several weeks, the Thief clears out every penny Kris has.

Then he lets her eat and sleep and goes, leaving her to deal with the wreckage of a life she doesn’t even remember having been stolen.

It’s a rape. The Thief doesn’t sexually assault Kris, but it begins like a rape: the taser, the struggle, the dragging of an insensible body, the dishevelled clothes. He assaults her inmost being, accesses the very core of her self and violates it. And then he abandons her, and she has to deal with the removal of her everything. He leaves her hollow-eyed, empty. He leaves her traumatised. Kris must deal with the loss of her job, her savings, her home, and her agency, and with a bodily trauma that means she'll never have children.

He leaves her ruined. He leaves her a prisoner of the moment.

I love to be alone.
The Finest Qualities of Our Nature Like the Bloom on Fruits Can Be Preserved
A certain quality of sound draws those parasitised by the worm inexorably closer; a sound engineer, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) uses the noise to draw Kris, as he has drawn many others before. He uses a classic field medic method to remove the worm, and then transplants it into a pig.

The Sampler keeps a pig farm. He makes the sort of music you make by stitching together found sounds. But the sounds he finds are the abstracted – or extracted, perhaps, since one of his albums is called Extractions – experiences of parasitised victims’ lives. The victims, hopelessly connected to the world and the pigs and each other, go through their lives, unaware that the Sampler is listening to their traumas, and making innocuous ambient music out of them. Later, we’ll see what happens when one of the Thief’s victims listens to one of his albums: it’s as if these sounds are direct steals from the lives of these people. This is the sound of human experience.

The quality of music, and I mean great music and bad music alike, is that it's affective. It abstracts the feelings and sensibilities of the human into sound. We hear anger, fear, sadness, love, in abstract tones. We hear ourselves. And although a music snob might sneer, different people are as likely to hear themselves in the work of an Ed Sheeran as they are in that of a Dmitri Shostakovich.

We see, as the Sampler listens to the pig, as he brushes his hands lightly over them, that he experiences the music of human tragedy, of sadness, of loneliness. Ben (Frank Mosley) is another victim. He’s lost in depression, can’t connect with Jill (Carolyn King), his wife who patiently tells him over and over that she loves him and that she hopes this day will be better and each time he says it’s just words and it beats her down, and then she takes an overdose because she can’t take it anymore.

So perhaps it's more of an insult that the true music of human pain is channelled by a man who records innocuous new age music that's so aggressively bland that he records under the name of Quinoa Valley.

No wonder Kris is so angry when she finds out.

A way you don't look at me yet.
Their Roots Reaching Quite Under the House
Kris meets Jeff (Carruth) on the train to work and they're drawn to each other, without really knowing how or why. Kris is nervy and indirect, and Jeff is blunt, almost clumsy in his honesty. Both have a far away look in their eyes. Both are prisoners of the moment.

They fall in love, almost in spite of themselves, in the way that those of us with deep-seated traumas often do. We recognise that the judgement of the world doesn't apply to our own.
Jeff: They talk to me in a certain way. They look at me in a certain way. In a way you don't look at me yet.

The pigs that now house their worms – Jeff was another victim, of course, brainwashed to believe he'd embezzled from his company to feed a nonexistent smack habit – have coupled up. Do Jeff and Kris couple because their pigs have or do the pigs couple up because Jeff and Kris have? It's a bit of both.

As their connection deepens, Kris and Jeff lose track of their separate identities. They begin to get confused as to whose childhood memories are whose.

The empathic link they have with their animals works both ways. The Sampler can hear human experience via the pigs, but the emotional state of the pigs too affects Jeff and Kris. The Sampler tries to separate the pigs, and they break through the fences. And then the pigs conceive a litter. Kris believes she is pregnant – she isn't, she can't be, the parasitic infection, the devastating traces of which resemble an excised cancer, has prevented that – and when the Sampler takes the litter away and drowns the piglets, Kris and Jeff panic without really knowing why, adopt frantic fight or flight reactions. Jeff flies at someone at work. Kris runs to somewhere she thinks is safe without even knowing where she is. The lovers barricade themselves in the bathroom of their home. They have food and a gun. They wait it out.

They behave, in other words, like people in the midst of a traumatic episode would. Dysregulated, panicky, lost. But then, they are exactly in the middle of a traumatic episode.

Trauma isn’t a thing you can generalise, of course. But the trauma in Upstream Colour feels like the trauma I have experienced in the past. People sometimes ask me why I’m not in the moment. But of course, that’s the problem. I’m trapped in the moment, and I’ll do anything I possibly can to take myself out of it. And this isn’t healthy, I know that, but you cope how you cope, don’t you? I don't know how to fix this, or even if it can be fixed. I'm one of the people for whom mindfulness techniques not only don't work, they're actively harmful, an opening up to a flood of emotional damage, and so if I sympathise with the confusion and anxieties of Jeff and Kris, that shouldn't be at all surprising, since here they are, trapped in a privileged man's idea of a Better Life in the Moment.

But the moment is a prison. The moment is sometimes a hell.

With such reminiscences I repeopled the woods and lulled myself asleep.
Some Consider Blue to Be the Colour of Pure Water, Whether Liquid or Solid
The piglets’ corpses float down the river. They settle. They decay. The worms that infest them – it’s why they can’t be sold, and the Sampler knows it – nestle in the roots of the riverside flowers. The orchids turn blue. A horticulturalist comes up here when they bloom to harvest them. The Thief knows the blue orchids have the worm. He uses it to make money at the cost of his victims. The Sampler draws the worms out, now infused with human trauma, now vessels of souls, and implants them in pigs.

About a decade ago, in an old book of mine that you can’t buy anymore (for what it’s worth, it was called Memory Sticks), I wrote a story about a scientist who discovered the human soul in a small organ the size and shape of a pea, situated in the human breastbone. He did experiments. Soul transplants, inevitably; it didn’t work out for him, of course. I haven’t thought about that piece of writing for years, but Upstream Colour reminds me of it in a small way, the speculation of what would happen if we put the human soul in a different vessel, if human affect is really transferrable, and what it would mean for us as individuals if it really were. How would we approach a connection like that? How would we experience it?

For the Sampler, it’s through a sort of voyeurism, or whatever the audio equivalent of that is, auditeurism I suppose, through the peculiar sounds of the pigs. He’s a synaesthete. He sees what he hears. The grunts and squeals, the movements of the animals, picture for him worlds. The pigs are ensouled. Vehicles of a soul transplant.

Sometimes the pigs breed, and the Sampler can’t support whole litters, nor can he sell them, since they are infested. So he drowns them.

The infested corpses float downstream.

The orchids, hosting the larvae, bloom, and are harvested and sold.

The Thief finds the worms and makes money from them by infesting victims.

The Thief’s victims go to the Sampler; he transplants the worms and listens to the music of the victims' lives.

The Sampler’s pigs breed.

We see a cycle here. The Thief doesn’t know about the Sampler’s pigs; the Sampler doesn’t know about the Thief. The victims (the Sampled, as the film credits have it) don’t know what happened to them. It’s through breaking the cycle, which we see travel over the course of two years as the film progresses, signified by clothing and haircuts, leaves on trees, flowers blooming, that Jeff and Kris escape. The Thief is thwarted at the end by the break in the cycle. Everyone looks to upstream, because that’s where the colour comes from. When there is no more upstream colour, the story comes to a graceful end.

A low and distant sound, gradually swelling and increasing.
The Rays Which Stream Through the Shutter Will Be No Longer Remembered When the Shutter is Wholly Removed
The Thief makes his victims copy out Walden, the collection of essays Henry David Thoreau wrote about living alone in a cabin in the woods, and then turn them into paper chains. It’s a whim of course, but it’s through finding a copy of Walden that Jeff and Kris understand what’s been done to them.

Walden is a sort of bible of nature, and that’s not entirely as good a thing as you might think. Thoreau could afford to clear off to the woods in the first place, and Walden Pond wasn’t really in the wilds anyway, it was on an estate owned by Thoreau’s pal Ralph Waldo Emerson. The wilderness is a thing invented by the urban human, a myth, and sometimes a pernicious one. Thoreau was for his day a pretty decent guy (for example, he had escaped slaves hole up in his cabin at least once), but there’s something about Walden that is dangerous in the way it grabs you, in the way it makes you turn away from your life in pursuit of some Present Moment.
I see the Thoreau poison working today in many valuable lives, in some for good, in some for harm.
Emerson wrote that after Thoreau’s death. He’d thought that Walden was a waste of time, that “A frog was made to live in a swamp, but a man was not made to live in a swamp,” and Emerson read a journal entry by his now-deceased friend – one where Thoreau had wondered if his writing had inspired a suicide – with a sort of rising despair.

Walden covers a period of two years and two months. And so does Upstream Colour: you see it progress from orchid season, to Kris’s lost month, to Jeff and Kris (and Kris with short hair now) meeting and falling in love, to orchid season, to their gradual discovery of the truth, to orchid season, to a coda where Kris, Jeff and the other victims of the Thief are now caring for the pigs, and Kris’s hair has grown out again. Two years, or just over, have passed. Kris and Jeff have spent that time in the territory of Walden. The worm’s neurotoxin is the Thoreau Poison, the drug that imprisons you in the moment, that forces connection.

But of course they're not alone. The Sampler himself is another analogue (no pun intended) for Thoreau; Thoreau imagines himself standing alongside other people, watching their experiences, quietly sharing their lives, and using them in his art. The Thoreau poison works in his life, for good and harm. 

...when that which is eaten is not a viand to sustain our animal, or inspire our
spiritual life, but food for the worms that possess us.
As If It Would Have a Universal and Memorable Ending
Upstream Colour is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, and yes, it’s one of my very favourites. I find it deeply moving and unsettling and powerful. And yet, I don't think I necessarily got the message from it that Shane Carruth intended.

But then, Carruth’s genius lies in making, for all the artfulness of his technique, a film that shows you a thing, and flatly allows you to judge what you are seeing. That it is surreal and adopts the visual language of simile to do its job doesn’t prevent it from being ultimately dispassionate in the way that it presents its story, while being all the time so very humane. Does the Sampler deserve his fate? Is the connection between Jeff and Kris any less real for being the result of an injection of Walden? It doesn’t matter. For all the surrealness of its vision, Upstream Colour shows things sort of as they are. And you can take what you want from that.

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