When I interviewed Upstream Color writer/director Shane Carruth, I was hesitant to have him decode symbols or do a systemtic breakdown of the film’s themes. Something about those questions always seemed reductive to me, and any metaphor or symbol that has resonance usually has more than one meaning or utility. Besides, the fun of any enigmatic work that hits you emotionally is the experience of trying to figure these things out on your own.
I understood the broad concerns of Upstream Color on first watch. Like I mentioned in my blurb in our review of the film, the movie is sort of an existential misfit romance rooted in ideas of free will, control, love, loneliness, alienation, community, and self. These are some of the same concerns as one of my favorite TV shows, The Prisoner. (I’m talking about the Patrick McGoohan original from the late 1960s, not the crummy 2009 remake on AMC.)
This three-part analysis isn’t definitive or complete (it may not even make sense outside of my own head), but I think it’s one way to approach the bigger conversation about Upstream Color. Think of this first part as a kind of introduction.
Check back on Saturday for part two, and Sunday for part three.
Note: There are spoilers below. I urge you to see Upstream Color yourself before reading, because I’m writing this assuming you’ve seen the film. Click here for a complete list of Upstream Color release dates and cities.
The Plot Machinery of Upstream Color and The Prisoner
I think the reason Upstream Color and The Prisoner are linked in my head is that they both feature similar set-ups that involve people losing identity and trying to escape their situation in which a larger force is in control.
Let’s break down the broad plot machinery of Upstream Color:
- A woman named Kris is tasered and drugged with worms that allow hypnotic suggestion and mental links to occur
- The Thief uses hypnotism to steal money from Kris during this time while also subjecting her to strange and monotonous tasks
- When The Thief is done with her, a man known only as The Sampler extracts the worms growing in Kris’s body and puts them into a pig, which is tagged with the subject’s name and given a number
- The pig is put in a pen with other tagged pigs (analogs for other victims of the same process), and The Sampler uses these pigs to observe human experiences/emotions and compose music
- Kris returns to her civilian life unaware of what’s happened, her experiences linked to the pig, and she loses all traces of her former self (her job, her finances, her home)
- Kris must either submit to her situation or assert her own personal narrative to take back control of her own life
And now the broad set-up for The Prisoner:
- A secret agent resigns for private reasons (“A matter of conscience,” he says in some episodes)
- The employer sends someone to drug the agent at home just as he’s going to leave for holiday
- The secret agent wakes up in a place called The Village where he’s surrounded by other former agents and intelligence operatives
- The secret agent’s name/identity has been stripped and he’s been given a number instead, Number Six
- The people who run The Village use mind control and various methods of psychological torture to extract information from the people in The Village
- Number Six must either submit to his captors or rebel and escape from The Village
Obviously the movie and the show share a lot in the broad strokes rather than particulars, and I think finding out Carruth really liked the show helped me go down this initial read of the film. The Prisoner, like Carruth’s film, focuses on an individual asserting the right to be an individual. Both Upstream Color and The Prisoner explore personal identity and how it can be taken away and how it can be reasserted. Both individuality and personal identity can be reclaimed through acts against the system that wants to impose its will on the individual’s will. While the systems in place in these films are different (one is a strange life cycle wielded by a handful of people, the other is an influential secretive organization of some kind), the systems are also sort of MacGuffins, which I’ll touch on more in the second part of this analysis.
And at the same time, both Upstream Color and The Prisoner are about battles against simple reduction and dehumanization. In each of these works, there are processes in place that turn people into machinery, mere animals, cogs. And yet people are more than just a single function and fulfill more than just one sort of utility. Number Six proclaims, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” His demand for individuality goes further:
I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own.
Despite this, he is helplessly reduced to a mere function with a single purpose for those in power. Same goes for Kris and Jeff: they are people reduced to specimens who have something that can be taken from them. This becomes a battle for privacy since the victims of the mind control and the people in The Village can be observed at all times in order to extract this stuff from inside of them. I’ll get to that more in part two with the relationship between The Sampler and the Sampled.
In some ways, both The Prisoner and Upstream Color are also works about how we overcome the drudgery we’re accustomed to. Many prisoners in The Prisoner are content to be there in The Village. They play chess (some of them as human chess pieces), they take jobs and earn credits to buy necessaries, and they join the genteel society of penny farthing bikes and flattering, cheery outfits. The needs of the Villagers are taken care of so long as they conform and obey. In one episode of The Prisoner, Number Six says that some of his fellow Villagers are content to die like rotting cabbages, but he’s different. If they’re fed, housed, and cared for until they die, they can also be viewed as livestock — pigs.
In Upstream Color, the drudgery that needs to be overcome is the day-to-day grind of work. Both Kris and Jeff, stripped of their former lives, have jobs they don’t like. The jobs aren’t even the sorts of things they want to do. But even still, they both say they’re lucky to have those jobs. It’s like a programmed response, as if they couldn’t do any better, as if this is the best they could do. On the one hand, it’s true: the characters have lost everything, now they have something to cling to. But on the other hand, both Kris and Jeff fall into the trap of defining themselves through their work rather than through their true passions, whatever those might have been before.
Notice when Kris and Jeff first get into a conversation off the train. All Kris can talk about is her job making signage. Part of it is a defense mechanism since she doesn’t know Jeff at all and she’s hesitant to get into any kind of intimate connection with anyone, but I think it works thematically as well. These people have been turned into machines and livestock. They are cared for — The Sampler feeds his pigs so he can get what he wants. The pigs are not allowed to leave the confines of their sty, however, or to even raise their own children. If Kris and Jeff can’t escape the meaningless drudgery of their lives, they will die like rotten cabbages.
Escape and freedom can come in many forms, but in these two works, the forms are all about individuals asserting their individuality. In The Prisoner, it’s acts of aggressive rebellion and subversion against a society that want the individual to conform, but in Upstream Color, it’s falling in love with someone who’s been through similar experiences in order to find a way out together. The connections between The Prisoner and Upstream Color only go so far, and the big break is here even though I think there are plenty of other thematic parallels. There is absolutely no romance in The Prisoner, whereas romance could be viewed as a kind of rebellion in other works (think Winston and Julia in George Orwell’s 1984) — Number Six is too suspicious of affection, which might be a tool of his captors to get what they want.
I’ll get back to The Prisoner in later parts of this analysis, but this idea of love is a good segue into another thing that affected my read of Upstream Color.
Upstream Color as a Misfit Love Story
Sometimes the movie you see before another movie winds up affecting the way you encounter the second movie. Literally 45 minutes before watching Upstream Color at SXSW, I got out of a screening of Everyone’s Going to Die, a misfit love story out of the UK. Because I was thinking of the familiar machinery that all misfit love stories share going into Upstream Color, it made me view a lot of Kris and Jeff’s relationship in those terms.
In most misfit love stories — whether it’s Minnie and Moskowitz or Lost in Translation or Harold and Maude — we watch two lost souls find each other and get out of the traps of their day-to-day lives. The important thing is that these love stories are about outsiders, because they are on their own and they feel like no one else really gets them, but when someone shows up and does, it’s this magical thing because it breaks them out of their isolation and negative self-fulfilling prophecies. There are some telling lines about this from Jon Brion’s melancholy misfit love song “Here We Go” in Punch-Drunk Love:
As we move along
With our blinders on
Each one of us feels a little stranded
And you can’t explain or understand it
Each one of us on a different planet
And admist all the to and fro
Someone can say “Hello,
Here we go.”
When Kris and Jeff first meet, it’s during their respective morning commutes on the train. Kris is in a bubble. It’s been some time since she lost everything she was in her previous life, and she’s curled into a ball with headphones on, shut out from the world. Jeff reaches out to her, but she’s resistant. During one of their kind-of dates, she does her best to block him out and scare him away by showing the pills she’s on. She’s done this before, things have almost worked out, but in the end, no one gets her, and maybe Jeff will be the same way. The sad comfort of feeling alone in the universe is sometimes better than the disappointment of always almost connecting with someone only to fail — better the cold drudgery than the glimpse at thwarted adventure.
But Jeff persists because they’re so much alike. (“Here We Go” again: “You’ve gotta hope that there’s someone for you / As strange as you are / Who can cope with the things that you do / Without trying too hard.”) It leads to a key exchange just when the two of them are starting to click. Kris is still hesitant because she’s afraid of the moment this sense of possibility will end, and she’s stuck in a depressed and alienated rut. She’s already predicting the way she thinks this will all end before anything’s even started.
“It’s not my fault when things go wrong,” she says.
Jeff replies, “It is.”
I think that exchange is about how the reverse of Kris’s statement and assessment is true: that this thing that Kris and Jeff have between each other isn’t something wrong and isn’t something that can go wrong, for one; and that it’s also Kris’s fault when things go right in life. It’s the good old-fashioned affirmation that love can make you feel — the “yes” to life that the lonely are sometimes too hesitant to submit to because they feel that these brief moments of beauty can be so quickly obliterated by forces outside of their control. Without this hopeful feeling of mutuality, Kris and Jeff wouldn’t be able to escape or reassert their individuality — note the Kris and Jeff pigs trying to break out when their human counterparts are in love, which makes this misfit love a kind of rebellion. Again, with the Jon Brion song:
The feeling that someone really gets you
It’s something that no one should object to
It could happen today so I suggest you
Skip your habit of laying low
It’s the end of the things you know
Here we go.”
Carruth and editor David Lowery do little tricks of association during this burgeoning relationship, though they actually start bringing these two characters together in the first five minutes of the movie. There’s the visual and aural similarity of the train car and the chute that leads to The Sampler’s pig pen. Before we’re even properly introduced to Jeff or Kris, there are two or three brief shots of Jeff running through a neighborhood while Kris is running in a half-marathon. They haven’t even met, but the storytelling machinery is already bringing these two strangers together. There’s also the affinity for certain sounds and for certain banal activities — Jeff with the straw wrappers, like some unhealed scar of the paper chains he was forced to make while under control of The Thief; both Kris and Jeff gathering and sorting stones in their disparate locations.
What’s interesting about this mutuality is how infuriating it can be. Carruth in our interview talked about how in some couples, it’s hard to tell where one person ends and another person begins. Mimicking the person they love, using some of their favorite expressions, sometimes dressing a little alike. It’s that mysterious connection, like the odd way that starlings follow each other in patterns in the air as if they share one mind and one body. That’s a kind of domestic bliss.
“They could be starlings,” Kris says when talking to Jeff. Viewing these kinds of relationships where people seem merged, Kris and Jeff could be. Both have been through similar experiences, both were introduced to the audience while running, both wore lots of blacks and grays and khaki; this all might be another kind of pre-association before they come together. Or it could just be my mind creating connections where there is only coincidence. (I remember in an audio commentary or making-of for David Cronenberg’s The Fly, someone pointed out that Geena Davis and Jeff Golblum were dating at the time of making the movie, and Davis would often take on Goldblum’s various mannerisms. The Fly, by the way, is like a doomed misfit romance.)
This two-souls-as-one idea is sort of like the Aristophanes bit in Plato’s The Symposium. In that part of the work, Aristophanes shares a story about lovers as conjoined twins who were severed by the gods and must reconnect. (Note again: the imposition of an outside controlling force on individuals.) The connection is so intense that Jeff can even feel Kris’s experience when she undergoes surgery for endometriosis. But the reconnection is also one of memory and psychology. Part of that is the mental link created between the victims of the mind control worms and also the proximity of the pigs to one another in the pig pen. I also think this shared memory is a function of the Kris and Jeff pigs having a litter of piglets together — children (at least in the best case scenario) can be thought of as a manifestation of two different lives/histories made into one new one; a carrying forward of two separate things in one.
Suddenly, maybe, the third telepod in The Fly makes a warped sort of sense.