Deep Analysis: Upstream Color, Part 3


Here is the third and final part of my Upstream Color analysis. (You can read part one here, and read part two here.) As I’m winding this down, I finally tackle Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which plays a major part in the film’s plot, and probably informed a lot of the concerns of the film as well. I also take a brief look at how text and subtext are affected by the circumstances of their creation before examining the end of the film and how it can be considered from different perspectives.

As I’ve stressed in previous parts, I don’t think this is a definitive read of Upstream Color in any way, but it’s a collection of ideas that may help approach one of the most enigmatic (and potentially frustrating) movies of the year.

Once you see Upstream Color, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments. That’s where further discussion and analysis should continue.

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.

Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

If Chekhov’s gun states that a loaded rifle should not appear on stage unless someone is going to use it, maybe the same can be said about text from a book. That brings us to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I haven’t read Walden since college, so I’d forgotten a good chunk of it. Unfortunately I’ve only had time to read the first three-quarters in the last few days, so my thoughts here are incomplete, but those pages contain thematic connections that are too close to be mere coincidence. If Carruth didn’t intentionally incorporate these ideas into Upstream Color, maybe they seeped in subconsciously.

The larger concern of Walden is to explain why people should get back in touch with nature and divest themselves of the trifles and complications of the modern world. Obviously that overarching concern plays into similar concerns in Upstream Color, as do Thoreau’s smaller observations. A line like “men have become tools of their tools” touches on ideas about dehumanization and zombifying jobs. The following might be a nod to the music of The Sampler and its tranquilizing effects: “The best works of art are the expressions of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and the higher state to be forgotten.”

Below are a few other lines from Walden that seemed noteworthy:

  • “Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation; now, a taste for the beautiful is cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.”
  • “All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.”
  • “I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another.” (Thoreau used to house fugitive slaves in his cottage, which is what this refers to, and it’s an interesting way to consider the plight of the Sampled in the pigpen.)
  • “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
  • “I find it in Kirby and Spence- that ‘some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them’; and they lay it down as ‘a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. ‘The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly… and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly’ content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid. The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly stir represents the larva. This is the tidbit which tempts his insectivorous fate. The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.” (Personal narrative as a kind of metamorphosis?)
  • “It is neither the quality nor the quantity, but the devotion to sensual savors; 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.”
  • “We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure. The other day I picked up the lower jaw of a hog, with white and sound teeth and tusks, which suggested that there was an animal health and vigor distinct from the spiritual. This creature succeeded by other means than temperance and purity.”
  • “I suspect that Pilpay & Co. have put animals to their best use, for they are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts.”

This kind of text hunt can get out of hand, so I didn’t share every line with potential significance. Any appearances of pigs and worms in Walden might mean something, or they may just be pigs and worms. Example: “My enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks.” (I don’t imagine that Carruth considered using mind-control woodchucks in this film.) For a minute I got hung up on Thoreau’s thoughts on cultivating beans, commanding sprouts from the earth rather than grass. He also mentions Pythagoras, whose cult believed that beans contained transmigrated souls. This is an accidental correspondence between text and film, though it’s amusing to ponder the existential plight of pork and beans.

I noticed on a second watch of Upstream Color that the edition of Walden that The Thief uses on Kris includes “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau’s essay on rebellion against the injustices of the US government. It makes sense for the book to include the essay since it’s another seminal Thoreau work (which I also haven’t read since college) and it’s alluded to in the text of Walden. Kris is forced to copy this entire book, so maybe the element of rebellion is embedded in her through this act of control, as are thoughts of a better way to live — Chekhov’s gun in the form of Thoreau’s text.

Another odd connection in my head that’s probably coincidental: Walden‘s subtitle is Life in the Woods. The first lines in Dante’s Inferno are, “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” This is the situation of the Sampled after encountering The Thief: people in their thirties and forties whose lives are upended and rendered directionless. The journey of Upstream Color is about reasserting direction; and since it’s also a misfit love story, it’s a story about lost people finding each other and then getting the hell out of the woods together.

Walden is full of great ideas about how a person might want to live, but it’s a collection of metaphors and anecdotes predicated on Thoreau’s lies of omission. While he was a bright mind and a well-meaning aphorist, Thoreau was also a naive and prevaricating douchebag.

Some Words on Punctuation and Subversion: Text, Outside Text, and Subtext

Thoreau wasn’t as isolated as he made himself out to be. His mother lived about a mile away, and he’d often go to her house to do laundry and eat her cooking. His cottage wasn’t far from his friends either, and he’d go hang out with fellow Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson at night. Solitude was just a stream that Thoreau went a-fishing in.

There’s also a lot of material in the text of Thoreau’s writing that’s problematic. His tone is occasionally smug and condescending, like an insufferable little boy tut-tutting his peers and betters. He plays the role of infuriating populist and rails against academia. He claims that it teaches little of value, but at the same time Thoreau believes everyone should learn Ancient Greek and Latin to read the classics in their original languages. In “Civil Disobedience” there’s a rose-colored tint based on his own limited experience. Thoreau’s stay in jail was conveniently brief — a night, maybe a full day, and then his aunt bailed him out. For Thoreau this was all invigorating, and why wouldn’t it be? Prison can be intellectually liberating for someone who’s only a tourist there rather than a resident. It’s the same way that being a starving artist can be great as long as you have a trust fund.

This is all part of the odd way that events in the text and outside of the text can enhance or subvert the text. Thoreau writes of isolation when he wasn’t really that isolated, so his work of non-fiction winds up being a work of partial fiction. It’s an unintentional subversion of the message, but the message does have truth to it even if it’s from a mendacious, neck-bearded Transcendentalist.

Walden contains lines that dazzle with a kind of ecstatic truth. Of course we should simplify, and yeah, this other bit about cultivating our souls sounds good. Perhaps these little glimmers of truth wouldn’t be possible without mom’s apple pie, Emerson’s company every now and then, and a guarantee of clean clothes each week.

On the other hand, Carruth’s own methods of asserting control on the narrative of Upstream Color are like an exclamation point. Carruth wrote, directed, composed the score, did the cinematography, and starred in the film, and then self-distributed and marketed film, both of which he views as an extension of the storytelling. Briefly on marketing as a kind of storytelling, there’s some truth to that. Crassly, ads are meant to sell narratives to people. There are good examples of this in two of Douglas Rushkoff’s Frontline pieces: The Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders. Both of these works of documentary journalism are about how marketers and advertisers use narratives to entice consumers and how consumers can inadvertently take on those invented narratives to define their real lives.

While there may be lots of confusion about the movie Upstream Color, at least its moody trailers and its tender-yet-paranoid poster are honest presentations of what the film is trying to communicate. The narrative of the text and the events outside of the text are consistent: thematic concerns of personal narrative in a work of fiction are also existential concerns in the real world. Form, content, the molding of form and content, and the presentation of the work have merged.

In addition to text working with or against the events outside of the text, I should get back to the importance of subtext. Carruth mentioned in our interview that one of the things he loves to do is use music to subvert the text on screen. It’s sort of the same way that symbols become jammed with multiple potential meanings, even contradictory meanings. It results in a fascinating and necessary tension in enigmatic movies that makes them worth watching again — no symbol is so easy to define since intriguing works are ones that always slip from immediate or simple comprehension.

So let’s just talk about the ending of Upstream Color and how the text subverts the presentation, but not completely thanks (I think) to the subtext.

The Subversive Endings of Upstream Color and The Prisoner

I’m going to paraphrase what Carruth said about the end of Upstream Color during our interview. Everything about the resolution seems idyllic: the pigs have been liberated, Amy’s performance is joyous, the music is uplifting, the cinematography is sun soaked. The Thief is unable to find the worms, meaning this cycle of control and ruin is over. The last shot is Kris cradling a piglet. She makes faces and coos at it like she would her own baby while it falls asleep.

And yet Kris will never be able to have children of her own. These piglets won’t be able to reciprocate the love she shows them. She may have killed The Sampler, but apart from his voyeurism, he didn’t do anything directly negative to her or the Sampled per se. Most importantly, The Thief has gotten away and no one knows he even exists.

“So everything about the text of that ending is not happy or idyllic at all,” Carruth said. “But the idea of subverting that… I mean, if we subvert it, that means that she’s just replaced one false narrative with another. But she’ll never know that she’s found her own personal resolution that, objectively, we know is just another narrative.”

Kris’s assertion of personal narrative has liberated her only so far. In the end, she’s freer than before but still trapped in a larger narrative that’s not her own.

There’s a kind of contentment for Kris and Jeff even if it is tainted by the circumstances, but the tension of text and subtext is unavoidable. It leads to a number of possibilities of what role personal narrative plays in real life. We can assert ourselves only so far, but on all sides we are subsumed in other narratives, some larger than our own and many entirely outside of our knowledge. I’m reminded both of how much we can achieve and become if we give ourselves the opportunity, and yet how small and limited we are in the universe — mere pigs, mere worms, all too human.

This brings me back to The Prisoner, which shares a similarly upbeat/downbeat ending. Number Six’s resilience in the penultimate episode kills Number Two, and he is taken to see Number One. He goes down into a subterranean lair where he meets a few other Village rebels. There is a confrontation with Number One who gets away. The Village is completely evacuated, and Number Six and his fellow rebels return to London, supposedly free.

The music is triumphal in this episode, and includes a jaunty victory march, “Dem Bones,” and The Beatles’s “All You Need is Love,” all three of which are played twice. In one of my favorite moments of the episode, “All You Need is Love” is played as Number Six and his small team of revolutionaries mow down Village forces with machine guns. (Just one bit of subversion featured in one of the most subversive hours of television ever aired.)

And yet Number Six is called a “Prisoner” at the end. The mute midget butler of The Village seems to be his servant now, and the door to Number Six’s flat opens with the sinister automation of his apartment in The Village. No one has any idea who or what ran The Village, no one ever will.

Everyone may have escaped The Village, but Number Six is still a prisoner in society. Like the assertion of personal narrative, our freedom can only go so far even for the most stalwart individuals who create useful disharmony. People will revolt, but they will continue to be reduced to numbers, to cogs, to machines, to functions; on goes the pushing, filing, stamping, indexing, briefing, and debriefing; we are under surveillance, we are always under someone else’s control. This is a cycle that cannot be broken.

But even if the text is complicating the subtext in both these works, that doesn’t mean that an upbeat read is entirely false. Like the poetic truths that come through in Thoreau’s work in spite of outside circumstances, there is something valuable to asserting your own narrative. Better that than to cede our narratives to some other entity. There are brief victories and there are worthwhile battles and there are even helpful fictions that can make life a little more tolerable. Many would rather have those than become an extension of a machine.

Similarly, there are moments in which we can recognize controlling forces and turn the methods of control against those in control. These powers are briefly forced to regroup, and individuals can reassert their individuality. There’s nothing shameful about resistance, even if there’s also something futile about it.

Perhaps both The Prisoner and Upstream Color are reminders of the importance of personal victories in the face of larger entities attempting to control individuals. A little more freedom, a little more self-actualization, a little more narrative, and a little more ourselves. That’s a cycle that continues as well, and one that won’t end so long as there are people who believe that struggle is worthwhile.

And these victories aren’t so insignificant. There are times when I feel really, really down, and it’s the people close to me who help pick me up out of that funk. A friend of mine keeps saying something I found really helpful. I’m paraphrasing, but even if we can’t affect change at a global or political level, we can at least do our best to take care of ourselves and the people that we care about, and to help each other out when possible.

No one is quite as lost as they think, or as alone. The whole lot of human existence is a constant stream of narrative, a sea of numbers, waters so vast and infinite, and each particle in this multitude has its own story to tell.

Epilogue: Putting It Together On Your Own

I’ve written a few thousand words on Upstream Color now and I still feel like there’s more to write. There are half-formed thoughts in my head about the flowers and their life cycle, but I don’t have the language in place to really explore these ideas. I also wonder about the use of color. There are lines from Walden repeated in the film about prevailing blues and the yellow of the sand, and I still have yet to determine what that could mean (or if yellow is just yellow and blue just blue). There’s also the matter of the film’s title, which sort of makes sense given the nature of the plant cycle and the larger themes at work — there’s a fount of some kind somewhere, and it’s a source of life and vibrancy — but the phrase also just sort of sounds cool and right without having to be explained.

Like I keep saying, what I’ve written isn’t definitive or complete. I hope other people come up with interpretations regardless how my own ideas align with theirs. That’s part of the fun — here are the bones of some strange art-beast, now figure out what it was.

I’m sure when I watch Upstream Color for a fourth time I’ll be able to get more out of it, and also the fifth and sixth and so on. Mostly what I’ll get out of each watch will be the pleasure of the mystery. Earlier I quoted Daniel Barenboim from The New York Review of Books, and it might be fitting to repeat it here at the end:

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.

I think that’s what makes enigmatic films like Upstream Color so attractive to obsessives: it’s a work that broadly gets at something human and universal by filling itself with complicated possibilities, and it conveys all of these ideas through sound and vision; it may even change in our minds as we get older as if it too was some kind of living thing. I’ll never be able to get my head around all of Upstream Color, but I’m not supposed to: these are the kinds of animals that can’t and shouldn’t be caged.

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