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Peter T Chattaway

Upstream Color (2013)

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The aforementioned "roundtable" never materialized, so I took some of my thoughts and put together this short essay on "The Emergent Subjectivity of UPSTREAM COLOR."


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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After a first viewing, I think this might be the shit-filled Malick film I was looking for.

I'm so happy to hear you say that.


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Wow. That is fantastic. Thanks, Darren.

I've also been wondering if there might be a connection to Richard Mitchell's brilliant book-length argument against the dangers of bureaucratic language, Less Than Words Can Say, which begins with a warning about "The Worm in the Brain" ...

Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.
Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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My own initial interpretation runs alongside a view summarized in the comments to that New Yorker article:

... the "reading" I am currently finding the most satisfying is this: Nature is a weird, often cruel beast with life cycles overlapping life cycles and the Thief is nothing more than a participant in these cycles -- whereas the true villain in the story is the Sampler -- the one who tries to control it all -- the industrial farmer, the technician, the scientist -- who presumes to stand outside the grand scheme and flow and who attempts to control it to the point of nonchalantly murdering innocents when his will is challenged.

Nature wins out and the flow is re-established with *his* murder (the Thief who is only given power through the Sampler's initial distortion of nature's flow, is now also left powerless).


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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In this interview with IO9, Carruth explained the basic mechanics of the plot.

There are like these three points on the triangle: There is the worm-pig-orchid life cycle, and each of these have characters that are continuing to perform these little tricks in nature that keep the cycle going, but none of them know that the next one in the line exists.

This article from Slate also explains things pretty well.

At the same time, though, Upstream Color isn't a "figure it out" movie in the same way that Primer was. There is a story, and it's kind of difficult to piece together (in a way that puts you in the same boat as the characters), but the real impact comes more from the feelings and associations the film evokes than from understanding the plot.


It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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Watched it again today, and it was much easier to follow what was going on. That freed me to think more about what the movie means.

What I think I was supposed to feel at the end of The Tree of Life, I genuinely felt at the end of Upstream Color.

The Sampler was the most intriguing character both times through for me, but the reasons why were different. The first time, I kept wondering if he was some kind of mystical/dream/supernatural character (I also thought of him as more malevolent); the second, I focused on what his motivation could be. Or to put that another way, what he gets out of the worm/pig/orchid triangle. The rewards for the Thief and the Orchid Ladies are pretty obvious--money--but as far as I could tell, the Sampler doesn't get money from the pigs. He sells the Quinoa Valley records, but I don't think that's directly related. Instead, I think the reason he does his part is because of the connections and insights he gets from the pigs/people. It seems to be filling a desire he has that wasn't getting filled some other way.

Other stray thoughts:

There's another married couple in the movie (they appear during the "look into lives" montage in the middle), but their relationship is different from Kris and Jeff. For one, only one of them (the husband, I think) had been sampled. I also thought the sampling might have occurred after they were already married, which could help to explain the problems we see in their marriage.

When Kris and Jeff confuse the stories of their pasts, it's because both of them are combined in the piglets, which in turn makes them combined as people.

I think the "thesis," to borrow a phrase from earlier in the thread, only becomes clear in the final moments. The Sampled people have been living in a world that doesn't seem to have a place for them; their lives were violated and uprooted, and they're stuck in patterns of behavior that don't seem to have any purpose, but that they still can't break out of (Kris with the diving for rocks, Jeff with the straws, etc.). When they meet at the pig farm, though, the thing that has brings them together is precisely those parts of their lives that didn't seem to have a purpose before. And not only has it brought them into a community, it has reconciled them to themselves (pig/human counterparts), as well.

I wonder if the worm/pig/orchid organism has intelligence and volition of its own, or if it's just a blind force. If it does, it would be something similar to the worm in Julian Barnes's book A History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters.

Edited by Tyler

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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I'm just gonna throw out my initial impressions cause I am not sure if I have any kind of foundation to really unpack this movie...so be gentle with me.

I was reminded of A Scanner Darkly, the place of recovery being the place of the addiction in the first place.

I did see Sampler as more malevolent, or perhaps, "alien" is a better descriptor...almost as if he is there to observe human frailty, but in order to create moments of frailty, he has to engineer the situation with addictive mind destroying "worm" drugs. These worms are brought about by the destruction of piglets, themselves representative of humanity itself. The decay of them seeps into the water/bloodstream, and agents distribute the "drug" throughout, sometimes by means of force.

Then the Sampler observes. It's like Wings of Desire, but less of a observation and more experimentation.

Somehow Walden becomes an archetype of "awakening" to the wrongness of this expermentation, and the woman and man (who ironically only found each other because of that same pain, but perhaps the question is, is that worth the pain?) and they seek out the Sampler by using/eating his music, the pieces of his observations in sound.

Much like he earlier drew the woman to him so he could extract her worm, and sample her "pig" (maybe the pigs were the way he saw us?)

Then the woman, most wronged by him, kills him(very Nietzsche), and proceeds to find other victims, and their representative pigs, and take care of them and love]them in a way he never did. The worms die, the agents have nothing to distribute, and people are left to their own devices.

My interpretation.

Edited by Justin Hanvey

"The truth is you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin Ringo, I'm tryin real hard to be the shepherd." Pulp Fiction

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Hello everyone,

I have been lurking around these forums for around a year now and reading all of the insightful comments has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of many films.

Although I lack anything like the depth of knowledge that many on here possess, I have finally decided to come out of the woodwork and make my first post!

The discussions on Upstream Color have been particularly fascinating because although I really liked the film I was having real trouble putting my finger on why I did. A lot of the comments on here, as well as the reviews that have been linked to have helped to crystallize my feelings on the film. Anyway I have a few thoughts I would like to throw out there:

-Carruth really is his own voice. While some of the stylistic and aesthetic choices evoke Malick, Tarkovsky and Lynch among others, Upstream Color easily transcends mere imitation (something I am not sure one can say about other recent efforts such as Beasts of The Southern Wild). As Brody notes (and Carruth has said in interviews) his films contain a far more scientific sense of wonder and curiosity, much rooted in the material than any of the above mentioned directors. Carruth mentioned in an interview somewhere (I forget where unfortunately) that he felt his films did contain a 'faith that everything can be explained'. This is in stark opposition to the viewpoint articulated by Tarkovsky who once said in an interview 'I don't believe in this possibility of knowing. Knowledge distracts us from our main purpose in life, the more we know the less we know'. This divergence is fascinating, especially given the evident influence of Tarkovsky on the film's form. That said, I do feel that this also gets at the reason that I was unable to fully embrace the film in the same way as I do Malick and Tarkovsky. Both Malick's and Tarkovsky's films feel intuitive, fluid. They all have a sense of expressive, ineffable flow to them which makes for a unique cinematic experience. I never had this sense with Upstream Color, instead it felt like I was watching a very complicated, brilliantly put together machine. Very expressive at points, yes, but still mathematical, calculated in a way that I found slightly off-putting. Perhaps because of this the film never came even close to the emotional and spiritual experience I had with films such as Stalker, Mirror, The Tree of Life and The New World. It was something altogether different and I am not really sure how I feel about that. I still pretty much loved the film though, I am just trying to articulate why i'm not fully convinced that it is a true top tier masterwork. Michael Koresky's complaint at Reverse shot that the film lacks the 'totalizing force' of a Malick film still sticks more than I would like.

Koresky's review: http://www.reverseshot.com/article/upstream_color

Tarkovsky interview:

-I am not sure I fully agree that The Sampler is intended as a malevolent character. Although he certainly does profit from the 'cycle' and he is culpable to some extent for what is happening, I also feel a large degree of sympathy for him. I was particularly struck by his curiosity about the experiences of the sufferers; while this did seem somewhat predatory it did also seem to contain empathy. The ending is also very interesting in relation to The Sampler but as I can't work out how to hide spoilers I had better not talk about that.

-I agree with many of the points made here about the way the film deals with identity. The way the film was able to evoke the disorientation and terror of losing this foundation is still haunting me. I could not help but ask myself what I would hold onto in such a circumstance.

-The last 20 minutes or so are fantastic. With almost no dialogue, it left me in awe at the complexity and power of what it was doing with sound and image.

-I have seen some complaints about Carruth's performance but I thought he was pretty good throughout. Seimetz is superb, she has such fascinating, haunting features.

-The score was superb, I have been listening to it on a loop ever since I watched the film. Similar to Badalamenti's Mulholland Drive score, I could not decide whether I found the score comforting or terrifying (or maybe both). It provided a kind of stabilizer through the fragmentation of the images and some of the other sound design.

-There is surely a lot of fun to be had while reading the film as a metacommentary. The use of sound alone could be the subject of an essay in this way.

These are just my random initial thoughts, I love the discussion on this board, perhaps from now on I can be part of it sometimes :).

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Welcome, David!

Great stuff.

I remember being surprised that the Sampler seemed to be treated like a villain near the end, when earlier scenes had treated him as, above all, curious... almost endearingly so. I love his sound-gathering activities. I am troubled by his scientist-to-lab-rat relationship to the two leads, and so something isn't right about him. But the thing I have the most trouble with in this film is the climactic scene, the scene with

the empty room, the table, and the gun. It threatened to reduce the story to something like The Rapture, in which human beings finally have the guts to stand up and kill an Authority.

I completely agree with you about the off-putting sense that "everything can be explained." The film does feel like a closed system, like it's important that the artist convinces us that at least he could explain how it all works together.

I hope that in my earlier references to Tarkovsky that I didn't suggest I thought this to be the equal of a Tarkovsky work. I was only hoping to point out the need to interpret the film in ways that reach beyond the literal, and that just because it isn't easy to identify a premise the first time through shouldn't prompt us to conclude that their isn't one.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I remember being surprised that the Sampler seemed to be treated like a villain near the end, when earlier scenes had treated him as, above all, curious... almost endearingly so. I love his sound-gathering activities. I am troubled by his scientist-to-lab-rat relationship to the two leads, and so something isn't right about him. But the thing I have the most trouble with in this film is the climactic scene, [spoiler/]the scene with the empty room, the table, and the gun. It threatened to reduce the story to something like The Rapture, in which human beings finally have the guts to stand up and kill an Authority.

carruth said at a q&a that kris was wrong for killing the sampler but he wanted her freedom to be messy. or something like that. and he said it would have been cleaner and too perfect if she killed the person more responsible, the thief.


"I am quietly judging you" - Magnolia

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Huh.

Wow. That's a brave storytelling decision. I'm not sure that, in this case, the choice of "messy" does more good than harm.

(And I say that as someone who likes messy, and who has been frequently accused of writing a conclusion for The Auralia Thread that was "too messy.")

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Just learned that my friend Emmy-award-winning Pete Horner, a friend of IMAGE and a regular at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, was a sound mixer on this. And that makes so much sense, considering what he said when I interviewed him. (Here’s Part One, and here’s Part Two.)


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Regarding the Sampler and the ending, from an interview with Carruth:

The idea that Kris would find him culpable, and make him pay that price for what's been done to her, is hopefully an interesting coda. I mean she's basically supplanting one false narrative with another. But she will never know that, and she can't know that. And it's only for the audience to realize, hopefully, after some reflection, that although the ending felt and looked like somebody finding the culprit, and getting their own peacefulness and resolution—in reality there's almost nothing positive about what we're looking at. The wrong person is "gotten."


"I am quietly judging you" - Magnolia

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Hi Jeffrey,

I had a similar concern about the ending.

(spoiler)I also thought that it was supposed to represent Kris growing beyond the authority. On a blunt level it almost seemed that she had literally 'killed god'.

Carruth's comments rather shatter that idea though (thanks for the info Javaflix). I am not really sure what to feel about that, it certainly complicates the sense of closure which was so well painted in the closing images. I suppose that there is a kind of statement there about the human tendency to attack what is not understood. There some ideas about perspective there as well, Kris would have no way of knowing that The Sampler was not fully (or even mostly) responsible for what had happened to her. Hmmmm, I need to think about this some more.(/spoiler)

No, no your comments about Tarkovsky made perfect sense, I totally agree with you about the need to look beyond the literal with this film (and others). The Tarkovsky comparison was more of an attempt to work out my own feelings on why I didn't quite go all-in for the film. I am only really starting to explore cinema in this vein so I still find approaching films in this way to be difficult, but stunningly rewarding. I watched Sans Soleil, my first Chris Marker film a few weeks ago, and my exposure to Tarkovsky is also relatively recent (around a year). I feel like my eyes have been opened! I would consider Mirror to be among my 5 favorite films and the fact that Upstream Color bears some comparison to such a wonderful work is a recommendation in itself.

Thank for the interview links, the experiment with closed eyes kept me busy for a good five minutes! Fascinating stuff.

Edit: My attempt to use the spoiler tags failed, so I have just turned the text white so it cannot be read, apologies to anybody that I caught in the meantime.

Edited by DavidH

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Edit: My attempt to use the spoiler tags failed, so I have just turned the text white so it cannot be read, apologies to anybody that I caught in the meantime.

For spoiler tags, and any other text feature on this site, use brackets [like this] and [/like this] instead of parentheses.


It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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Now on Netflix (in Canada, at least).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Edit: My attempt to use the spoiler tags failed, so I have just turned the text white so it cannot be read, apologies to anybody that I caught in the meantime.

For spoiler tags, and any other text feature on this site, use brackets [like this] and [/like this] instead of parentheses.

Ah I see, thank you.

This is an excellent review of the film:

http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=1747&fulltext=1

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- For those of you who have written reviews for this, congratulations. I have no idea how I could write a review for this film.

- Even after reading the explanations, I still don't understand the "life cycle" that underlies the story here. However it is supposed to work, I can't understand it as anything other than a scifi device used the explore other themes.

- The theme of being programmed into behavior, of being forced into social roles, or of being trapped into expected but meaningless routines was the first immediate theme that jumped out to me. This is a film for the readers of Sigmund Freud. That this happens by combining some sort of worm and hypnotism increases its sickening factor, but what was powerful was how helpless the victim was even after the hypnotism was finished. Kris, and apparently everyone else in her position, couldn't fix anything afterwards. She was going to the most drastic of extremes - literally and physically trying to cut it out of herself. But she needed someone else. She couldn't do it alone. But once "The Sampler" is done with her, it's not really out of her. It takes her relationship with Jeff to find even a little bit of healing. Anyone thinking about how Freud discusses how identity is maintained in the midst of social convention could have a field day with this film.

- I don't understand what tying each victim to a pig - or creating some kind of psychic connection with a pig - means or accomplishes exactly. It makes them experience emotions related to what's happening to the pigs but is not happening to them. They feel like it's happening to them when it's not. So Carruth has the idea here of experiencing emotions that do not belong to you .... or maybe experiencing emotions that belong to you but that shouldn't ... or experiencing emotions that simply have no rational explanation ... or ...

- We do often think that all of our emotions have rational explanations, don't we? At least, that is what many people would like to think. But one of the essential defining aspects of emotion is that it is not rational.

- Walden Pond, ironically used by Carruth because he said that nothing really happens in it and it would go well with hypnotizing someone, still has beauty within it. It's also, I think, profoundly a book about isolation - intentional isolation from other human beings and community. There is no doubt that Kris and Jeff and the other victims are now isolated from everyone else (including, as demonstrated in one example, from their spouses). Jeff and Kris are drawn to each other because of their common experience, but a major element of this experience is isolation. There is one sense in which this is an unhealthy basis for a relationship - it puts pressure on both members of the relationship to provide something that they cannot necessarily provide. But, there is also a sense in which their relationship could draw them back into community - enabling each other to relate and feel empathy for others again. This does sort of play out in the end, when they seek to help other victims.

- This is the best film I've seen of 2013 so far. I think others here have already said this, but it's staying with me weeks after I've seen it.

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- I don't understand what tying each victim to a pig - or creating some kind of psychic connection with a pig - means or accomplishes exactly.

I think it was the Sampler's way of tapping into or observing emotions, possibly because he didn't have/understand emotions himself. In other words, he samples feelings as well as sounds.


It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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