Deep Analysis: Upstream Color, Part 2


Here is the second part of my analysis of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. While part one (which you can read here) was kind of a preface to the way I read the movie by way of The Prisoner and misfit love stories, this second part gets into the meat of the film and it’s larger thematic concerns about personal narrative and control.

Let me stress again that this three-part analysis of Upstream Color isn’t definitive or complete, and it may not even make sense outside of my own head. It’s just one possible way into the larger conversation about Upstream Color.

Check back tomorrow for the third and final part.

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 Sampler and The Sampled (The Pig Man and the Pigs)

But what to make of the pig man and his pigs? In the end credits of Upstream Color, the pig man is called The Sampler, which fits with his method of making music. He goes to nature to find sounds, and then he alters those sounds to make them otherworldly. These sounds in nature are semi-technological and semi-industrial, though: the slide of rocks is some sonic correspondence to the sound of a copier, the tumble of bricks like some industrial printer, the rake of a file against a metal edge like some big and meaningless machine.

Part of me suspects that these sounds taken from nature are a form of control that can be exerted on Kris and Jeff even if the worms have been extracted from their systems. After The Thief has left, Kris is drawn to some unknown place by The Sampler’s repetitive drone that’s part heartbeat and breath and part machine. Similar sounds at work render Kris and Jeff tranquilized — they are compliant, dehumanized, non-individuals. They’re lucky to have their jobs, Kris and Jeff say, but they’re forced into them by circumstances beyond their control.

In the end credits, the humans who have pig counterparts are referred to as the Sampled. “The Sampled” as a group name also fits with the way The Sampler makes music. The Sampler takes sounds from nature and transforms that raw material into otherworldly noise, and he takes people’s emotions/experiences (via their link to the pigs) and transforms that raw material into music. Every composition on a Quinoa Valley release is rooted in sampling.

Rather than linger with the Sampled in moments when they’re unengaged, The Sampler spends time with the Sampled in moments of distress. There’s that moving scene in which the wife of one of the Sampled has just tried to kill herself. The Sampler watches unnoticed while the Sampled goes through his grief. The Sampled replays this regret in his head, and a kind of rhythm to the grief emerges in the repetition of the event and the variations in how it’s recalled. After observing for a while, The Sampler sits and composes on his little keyboard. I don’t think The Sampler necessarily cares about the people themselves or the pigs; he’s more concerned with how he can transform the emotional lives of the Sampled into his own creative work.

One of the albums released on The Sampler’s record label is called Extractions. It’s the only title that I was able to catch on multiple viewings of Upstream Color, but it seems like a key one. (If I remember right, the title was even written in red in all caps.) “Extractions” is a great single-word summation of this entire method of inspiration and composition: the worms are collected from people and implanted into pigs; the emotional experiences of these victims are taken through the pigs and transformed into music. I’m sure when Upstream Color comes to DVD/Blu-ray, I’ll be able to read the rest of the titles no problem and find greater connections and resonances.

The Sampler himself can be viewed in a couple of ways. The most obvious possibility is to consider him as some God-like figure. There He is, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling. But I don’t think viewing him as God (at least in the Judeo-Christian sense) is sufficient. It’s actually too simple an answer for a movie that continually beguiles and intentionally complicates its own metaphors and symbols. I’m less inclined to think of The Sampler as God in the Judeo-Christian sense because while he exerts power on the Sampled, it’s a limited kind of power through the intermediary of the pigs. The Sampler might be more like a Greek god or demi-god, or perhaps the angels in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire.

Like I mentioned in part one of this analysis, good metaphors are open and fulfill more than just a single purpose. They fulfill different roles and explore different possibilities within the thematic makeup of the story as a whole. I’d add that while a metaphor like The Sampler is informed by other familiar metaphors (like the idea of God and gods), the accretion of multiple potential references upon a single metaphor allows it to become a new symbolic referent on its own.

Aside from the metaphysical possibilities, there are scientific, artistic, alien, and fascistic elements to The Sampler all rolled up into one. The Sampler could be a scientist recording the facts of these beings (height, weight, appearance, etc.) as well as the phenomenon of the Sampled’s existences. There’s the psychiatrist or psychologist facet as well since there’s a kind of interpretation of the emotional lives of the Sampled; though since this interpretation is aesthetic, it suggests a kind of voyeuristic artist aspect. The meticulous documentation and record-keeping can’t help but evoke Nazism, or any dictatorial or fascistic power.

This brings me back to The Prisoner since The Village’s reduction of supposedly subversive people to numbers and data is the terrifying realization of the fascist dream. There’s also a character in The Prisoner that somewhat resembles The Sampler: Number Two. Number Two is a gatherer of information and the figurehead of The Village’s power. He’s also Number Six’s foil each week. Number Six really only has the power to confront Number Two rather than the mysterious Number One, but in upsetting Number Two, Number Six can at least subversively annoy the whole system. Similarly, The Sampler is the closest that Kris or Jeff can ever get to confronting The Thief, who is the real perpetrator of their loss of identity. I’ll get into that in more detail in part three.

Two more half-formed observations on The Sampler. There was a great observation in an NYRB piece about Beethoven by Daniel Barenboim that might illuminate or add a layer to what The Sampler is doing:

Music means different things to different people and sometimes even different things to the same person at different moments of his life. It might be poetic, philosophical, sensual, or mathematical, but in any case it must, in my view, have something to do with the soul of the human being. Hence it is metaphysical; but the means of expression is purely and exclusively physical: sound. I believe it is precisely this permanent coexistence of metaphysical message through physical means that is the strength of music. It is also the reason why when we try to describe music with words, all we can do is articulate our reactions to it, and not grasp music itself.

Not only is The Sampler using the physicality of sound to make something metaphysical, his raw material is the physical (nature, objects, lived experiences) mutated.

Even if he seems like a benign presence at times, The Sampler is a kind of parasite like the worms. While The Thief took money from these victims and stripped them of their identities, The Sampler takes human experiences and turns them into commodities (i.e., bad New Age music).

One Man’s Personal Narrative is Another Man’s Control

When I interviewed Carruth about Upstream Color, I noticed that we used different phrases to talk about one of the larger concerns of the film: personal narrative and control. For Carruth, the film is an exploration of personal narrative and how that defines who we are, what we believe, and how we construct and assert our identities. For me, Upstream Color was an exploration of different kinds of control and how it relates to individuals asserting individuality in the face of systems and events. That was how I originally conceived this analysis of Upstream Color, but it was too limiting and repetitive, so I started over and this analysis has become an unwieldy, free-flowing essay of associations.

I mentioned previously that The Thief and the worms are a kind of MacGuffin, because they can be viewed as a stand-in for any traumatic life experience that leaves people feeling devastated and unable to rebuild or recover. Kris and Jeff both lose everything that exemplifies the comforts of an ideal upper-middle class life: home, career, financial stability, and, in Jeff’s case, a stable relationship. The Thief and the worms could be anything that would lead to the loss or collapse of these kinds of comforts: alcoholism, drug abuse, nervous breakdowns, depression, infidelities, etc. In each of these cases there is some compulsion outside of the self that leads to an act of self-destruction. But that’s just one realm of possibility.

When I first watched the film, I also saw Upstream Color as a narrative about rape and sexual assault. When The Thief first encounters and kidnaps Kris, there’s that unnerving, uneasy sense that he’s going to rape her. Even if it’s not an actual rape, he violates her mind and body when he holds her captive — it’s a terrifying exercise in power and dominance. I really keyed into this rape/sexual assault angle when Kris finally breaks out of her zombified state. Her whole performance suggests this possible reading. Kirs’s body language is tentative, agitated, scrunched, and guarded. All the while, she’s uncertain and confused, and there’s a tinge of shame mixed with fear. It’s difficult for me not to make those connections.

Body Invaders | National Geographic

That brings us to the worms themselves. They are the actual method of control and are also stand-ins for the various controlling agents in the world, whether part of the natural cycle of life, manmade, or beyond the scope of human knowledge. What’s fascinating about worms as a mind control device is that similar things happen in nature. The above video shows a caterpillar filled with parasitic wasp larvae. The larvae compel the caterpillar to eat until they are ready to burst out of their host. When told by The Thief that the walls blocking fatigue and hunger have fallen down, Kris is finally allowed to gorge, which causes the worms to mature. We see them through her skin, in an uncannily similar way to the wasp larvae in the video.

In addition to the larvae, there are also parasitic fungi called cordyceps that turn insects into irrational zombies, sending them up branches to die so that the fungus can sprout out of their brains. I also read somewhere that there are supposedly parasites in cats that turn people into crazy cat people. And I think this is how control started to become so important to my read of the film: at the most base level, organisms are vying for dominance over other organisms in order to perpetuate the existence of that species. Maybe control (both as a negative and positive) is a fact for all living things.

The method of delivery for these worms is also worth commenting on since it adds layers to this idea of control. The worms can be administered directly, like what happened with Kris. But The Thief also deals worms in capsules, which immediately made me think about drug abuse (as mentioned earlier) and the pharmaceutical industry. There’s addiction as a kind of control with The Thief as a dealer, which is overtly shown on screen. On the pharmaceutical side, there’s the often frightening control of big pharma, which not only wields lots of political power when it comes to health care decisions but also forces people to pay ridiculous amounts of money just for a necessary drug cocktail.

The first glimpse we get of what the worms can do involves the dissolution in soda. That alludes to the control of corporations like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Here are entities that own what we eat, what we drink, what we watch, what we listen to, how we watch and listen, etc. The formulas of these things can be changed to make people crave them more (e.g., increased nicotine in cigarettes in the 1990s). Marketing firms are hired to bend our desires; events get sponsored to build brand recognition and associations. In some cases, these entities represent the unstoppable march of capitalism, the West, global flattening, and cultural assimilation/leveling. It’s the consume-and-obey imperative from They Live, now with zero calories.

Cordyceps: attack of the killer fungi - Planet Earth Attenborough BBC wildlife

This is where personal narrative comes in as a solution to the natural state of control. Whatever word is used, the idea is the same: asserting personal narrative is a method of taking control back. The means of doing this can vary, but I think the notion of asserting one’s own will is exemplified in Kris’s gun. This is something I noticed after talking with Alec after a screening of the film. Upstream Color‘s idea of personal narrative gets mixed with a classic rule of fictional narrative: Chekhov’s gun — “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

The first time the gun appears is when Kris is under the control of The Thief. There’s no threat of her using the gun at this point. The second time the gun appears, The Sampler has caged the two rebellious Kris and Jeff pigs and drowns their litter. The real Kris and Jeff go through their respective freakouts, the depth of field during these scenes so shallow that our heroes seem further enclosed and isolated from the rest of the world. When the couple retreats home together, they grab supplies, including an axe and the gun. Notice the change: the first time an outside force affected the couple, Kris was unable to defend herself and though never shown on screen, the same is true for Jeff; this second time, the couples senses something is wrong on a subconscious level and act. Kirs and Jeff are at least able to retreat into a feeble kind of self-defense.

The third time the gun appears is when Kris and Jeff have a better understanding that they are being controlled, though they only have a vague sense of it. The two are now active participants in solving the mystery of their predicament. The couple listens to the music extracted by The Sampler and recognize, maybe, the raw material of their emotional lives transformed. It’s one of the things that prompts them to go and take their lives back. But they do it in a way that reminded me of The Prisoner (maybe shades of the episode “Hammer Into Anvil”). When Number Six becomes the aggressor against Number Two and his captors, he turns their methods against them.

The way I interpreted this moment of action, of offensive, (and I’m still not sure it fits with what’s going on in the movie) is a kind of trap. It involves both Kris and Jeff. Jeff, who knows his workplace so well he can recall it from memory, creates this image of himself alone in his workplace doing something banal. (He happens to be eating, dull and oblivious, like a pig.) The Sampler looks on as if nothing’s wrong. While Jeff maintains this illusion in his head, Kris goes down to Quinoa Valley and shoots The Sampler herself.

That moment of recognition where Kris looks up and acknowledges The Sampler shows her in a dominant position. She asserts power over her captor. More importantly, she pushes her own narrative against a force that wants to impose a narrative on her or transform her narrative into a something else.

Continued in part three…

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.