I finally streamed Upstream Color (netflix), and found it as mesmerizing, perplexing, and infuriating as it was made out to be. Mesmerizing because the filmmaking is beautiful. Perplexing because the plot is really confusing. Infuriating because it stays that way. On the other hand, it’s refreshing not to be spoon-fed the moral of the story. Does it have to mean anything at all? After all, no one asks a symphony or a painting or a Stan Brakhage film to make sense. What am I saying? Of course it has to make sense. It’s an hour and a half long. Plus it feels like it should make sense, or at least tell a coherent story. Interpreting Upstream Color has become something of an internet sport (and could be a cool game show, like “Summarizing Proust”). Some say it’s all about Walden, others that it’s about abuse, addiction, or codependence. They’re probably all right, or wrong, whatever that would mean. Before I start my own reading of the film, I should put in a SPOILER WARNING. Although I doubt that in this case any plot revelation could ruin someone’s experience of the movie, since it’s equally confusing before and after hearing what happens. Nonetheless, if you haven’t seen the film, and prefer to go into these things cold, stop reading here.
Again, I should emphasize that Upstream Color probably isn’t an allegory at all, so my efforts here may be way off the mark. But there are some details I’m trying to wrap my head around, and this is how I do it. Here are the questions that stick out for me, and seem not to be answered by the interpretations of the film thus far.
Question 1: Why are the flowers blue?
Blue flowers are really loaded, at least if your background (like mine) is in the German tradition. In Novalis’s novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (written around 1800), the hero becomes obsessed with a blue flower.
The young man lay restless on his bed, thinking of the stranger and his tales. “It is not the treasures,” said he to himself, “that have awakened in me such unutterable longings. Far from me is all avarice; but I long to behold the blue flower. It is constantly in my mind, and I can think and compose of nothing else. … I never have heard of such a strange passion for a flower here. … Would that I could explain my feelings in words! … I might think myself mad, were not my perception and reasonings so clear; and this state of mind appears to have brought with it superior knowledge on all subjects. I have heard, that in ancient times beasts, and trees, and rocks conversed with men. As I gaze upon them, they appear every moment about to speak to me; and I can almost tell by their looks what they would say. There must yet be many words unknown to me. If I knew more, I could comprehend better. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31873/31873-h/31873-h.htm
In Novalis’s novel (and, I would argue, in Carruth’s film), the blue flower offers the possibility of conversing with beasts,
After Novalis, the blue flower took on a life of its own, and became one of the central motifs of German Romanticism, an immediately recognizable metaphor for artistic inspiration and creation.
If they were metaphorically connected to the blue flower of Romanticism, the blue orchids in Upstream Color (and the worms that inhabit their roots) would not (only) represent a malign force. There would be some positive effect to hosting the worms—they might reveal what Novalis calls “words unknown,” a “superior knowledge on all subjects.” I would suggest that the scenes pictured above speak to these “words unknown,” to the heightened sensitivity to sights and sounds brought about by the parasites. Although as Heinrich von Ofterdingen found out, exposure to the blue flower can have unpleasant results: obsession, “unutterable longings,” even madness. Which brings us to our second question.
Question 2: What does the Thief actually do?
Actually, a better question is: what does the Thief not do? Via the worm, he has total control of his victims. But (as far as we know) he doesn’t hurt them, humiliate them, molest them, or do any of the other sadistic things that usually go along with the trope of mind control. Instead, he drains their bank accounts and forces them to read and write (well, transcribe). Which is odd, because there are lots of simpler ways to take people’s money and make them read Walden (just ask my students).
The Thief tells Kris (a brilliant Amy Seimetz) not to look at him, because his “head is made from the same material as the sun.” She turns away. It’s a clever way to keep her from recognizing him, but it could be more than that. Carruth has spoken about the “mythical elements” in the film. I’m tempted to take this more literally than he probably intended by associating the Thief with the Greek god Apollo. Apollo is the god of the sun, and of poetry and music (there’s plenty of both in this film). And Apollo speaks through the Delphic Oracle, which is (literally) synonymous with “deliberately obscure or ambiguous” (Oxford American Dictionary), which perfectly describes Carruth’s modus operandi. To go a little further down this worm-hole (so to speak), the Oracle at Delphi was created (according to legend) when Apollo slew Python and cast him into a fissure next to the Castalian Spring (another symbol for poetic inspiration). Let’s turn to Wikipedia for the rest of the story:
Apollo spoke through his oracle: the sibyl or priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia; …. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied.
At the risk of reductionism, we have our upstream color right there: the fumes arising from the decomposing python (worm/pig) create the blue flowers that allow the sibyl (Kris) to be possessed by Apollo (the Thief).
Now we’re back to the blue flower of inspiration. Here’s how Walter Benjamin takes up the theme in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility”:
The shooting of a film, especially a sound film, offers a hitherto unimaginable spectacle. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment not directly involved in the action being filmed-the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew, and so forth… The illusory nature of film is of the second degree; it is the result of editing.
That is to say: In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality, free of the foreign body of equipment, is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology. (263)
Via Benjamin, the blue flower becomes a vision of cinematic art (or artifice), the impossible dream of a film that can show “immediate reality” without bearing the mark of its industrial production. We’ll come back to this.
Kris, it turns out, works for a film company. In fact, the one time we see her at work, she’s tinkering with a special-effects clip that has some technical problems. The clip, Carruth revealed, came from a film he wrote and pitched but never made, a science fiction piece called A Topiary.
When the Thief possesses Kris, she empties her bank accounts. Isn’t that what happened to Carruth when he got inspired to make Primer, his famously self-financed debut? He learned his lesson. “I have to raise money,” he said in an interview, “because you know, you pay for a film one way or the other. Either with money or time and sleepless nights, and I would like to pay for it with money next time.” That’s the other thing the Thief does to Kris: he won’t let her eat or sleep: “There are two approaching armies,” he tells her. “Hunger and fatigue. But great wall keeps them at bay. The wall extends to the sky, and will stay up until I say otherwise.”
The filmmaker has this thing inside of her: it’s eaten up her money, her memories, her identity. She can’t tell if she’s even herself any more—maybe she’s that other guy, the guy from Primer. (Kris and her lover Jeff [played by Carruth] discover that their memories have become entangled. They can’t tell which belong to whom. Carruth also played the lead role in Primer).
And now the thing has to come out somehow. Can we read the wonderfully visceral and cringe-inducing scene of worm-removal as a visual metaphor, in which the removal apparatus becomes the two reels of a movie projector?
The third question: Who is the Sampler?
The Sampler is the one who moves the worm from the victims to the pigs. He’s the middleman. If, as I’m speculating here, this movie has something to do with moviemaking—in particular, Carruth’s particular experience of moviemaking—then we could expect a lot of ambivalence about this character. He would embody the systems of financing, distribution, and marketing that Carruth has so famously spurned. From the beginning, Carruth has taken extraordinary pains to circumvent this whole industry. With a nod to Benjamin, we might say that Carruth has a romantic, blue-flower vision of the pure Auteur film, untouched by cinema’s industrial mode of production. Which might account for the Sampler’s ambiguous role in the film. Is he helpful or exploitative? Good or evil? Or a necessary evil?
The fourth question: What’s up with the pigs?
After the filmmaker reels out part of her/himself, of her/his vision, it belongs to the audience. It’s our worm now. I am insinuating that (at least within the interpretation I’m reeling out here) the pigs stand in for the film’s audience. If this were the case, Upstream Color would testify to the fraught relationship between the filmmaker and the audience, who become the final hosts of his/her painfully, painstakingly extruded experience. At the risk of stretching this allegory beyond its tensile strength, we might even see the pigs’ offspring as the continuation of this cycle, the return of the filmmaker’s investment. Is that why the Sampler (the middleman, the industry) expropriates the piglets?
In any case, the pigs go in lots of different directions, mythologically and metaphorically speaking. A pessimist could look at Matthew 7:6, where the pigs are precisely the wrong audience for the artist’s inspired vision.
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast
ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them
under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
Matthew 7:6 (King James Version)
Or later in Matthew, where the pigs get the short end of the stick:
And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding.
So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine.
And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.
Matthew 8:30-32 (KJV)
Or we could look at The Odyssey, where Odysseus’s quest hits a bump when his crew gets turned into pigs by the sorceress Circe. On the other hand, all’s well that end’s well, and the sailors come out ahead in the end:
At this, Circe, taking her wand, went out of the hall and opened the gates of the sty, and drove out what seemed to be full-grown pigs. They stood there and she went among them smearing each one with a fresh potion. Then the bristles, that Circe’s previous hateful spell had made them sprout, fell from them, and they became men again, younger and handsomer and taller by far than they were before.
Homer, The Odyssey Bk X:348-399
This is the challenge put to us by Carruth’s exquisite, excruciating film. Will we trample and rend the filmmaker? Will we be driven mad by the artist’s demonic vision? Or will we come out better, more human than before?