After watching 'Upstream Color', you might imagine that the film's creator, Mr. Shane Carruth, who was responsible for almost every aspect of the film, is a wide-eyed, creepy guy who resembles an unpleasant, demented version of Doc Brown from 'Back to the Future'. Carruth is far from that as you can get. Watching him on Youtube, during his interview by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he appears more like a low-key, fraternity pledge at a local college. Carruth recognizes that some of us might regard his second bizarre feature, 'Upstream Color', as both banal and pretentious, but he doesn't care. Publicly he takes the stance of 'to each his own', but beneath the surface, I sensed something a tad bit more arrogant: 'hey, you guys don't really get it!' It would have been nice if a one or two brave, hardy souls had decided to call Carruth out and explicitly criticize him for his self-indulgence, but I can assure you, there were none of those courageous individuals on hand, at the staid Lincoln Center theater.
After polling a number of people who were at the viewing I was at, there seemed to be a consensus that most audience members simply did not understand what was going on. I rushed home and thank God that Wikipedia contained a pretty good synopsis of the Upstream Color plot. I also read a few reviews (mostly positive believe it or not) that painted a clearer picture of Carruth's narrative. Perhaps the best explanation of what the film is about is by one Mach Kobayashi, a young man, who has posted a Youtube video entitled "Upstream Color Explained (With Stick Puppets!).
Once one finally ends up having an inkling as to what this film is about, then one doesn't simply have to get upset with Carruth and blurt out an uninformed pejorative comment, such as 'this is garbage'. Rather, one can be slightly more circumspect, and point to the overall ludicrousness of Carruth's 'vision' (am I allowed to use such a word in describing Carruth's project here?—I think not!).
Carruth's protagonist is Kris, who falls victim to a narcotics producer (referred to in the credits as 'The Thief). We never see this shady character but do see him preparing a blue liquid, which contains a worm from the larvae found inside the leaves of blue orchid flowers he's been cultivating. He administers this concoction to Kris, who falls into this drug-induced stupor. The Thief distracts Kris by having her transcribe a copy of Thoreau's 'On Walden Pond"; while that's going on, The Thief cleans out her home equity account as well as a rare coin collection. When Kris finally wakes up, she can see a worm crawling inside her stomach and tries to remove it by cutting herself with a knife.
The Thief appears to be working for his boss, 'The Sampler', who, according to Wikipedia, uses low intensity sound (Ifrasonics), to lure Kris and the worm (which is drawn to the sound), to him. According to the erudite Mr. Kobayashi, Kris is 'psychically linked' to 'The Sampler' through her connection to the worm. And after The Sampler removes the worm from Kris, he places the worm inside a pig and all those pigs are psychically linked to the humans, who had the same worm in them, from before.
Jeff, a former stockbroker who was a victim of 'The Sampler' (and spent time in jail for embezzlement through no fault of his own), finds Kris and they immediately bond. Kris and Jeff fall in love but are both troubled by memories of their childhood, undoubtedly connected to their bad experiences, while in the drug-induced stupor as a result of their encounter with the 'The Sampler'.
Carruth's villain appears to have the ability to discern what humans are doing through observing his pigs and when he sees that one of the pigs has given birth, he concludes that Kris will too. So that's why he kills the pig by placing it in a burlap bag and throws it in the river. The trauma to the pig somehow affects Kris as well; a checkup at the hospital reveals she wasn't pregnant, but did have Endometrial cancer, which will probably prevent her from giving birth in the future.
Eventually more bad memories creep into Kris' consciousness (she's extremely disturbed, picking up rocks from the bottom of a pool and reciting lines from Thoreau). But fortunately Kris's references to Thoreau leads Jeff to start writing down his own recollections and before you know it, both Jeff and Kris become more conscious of what happened to them vis-à-vis The Sampler. Kris in effect beats The Sampler to the punch—she sees who he is but The Sampler is left trying to figure things out from what his pigs are doing. Since Kris figures out who and where he is, she goes and kills The Sampler.
Not quite the end of the story: once The Sampler is dead, Kris and Jeff can liberate the pig farm, send copies of Walden to other victims, who eventually recover their own memories, join Kris and Jeff at the pig farm, celebrate with a pig fest, no longer grow blue orchids with worms in them, thus depriving The Thief of the key ingredient in his blue orchid liquid narcotic.
In the end, what does it all mean? Carruth's Sampler villain is a weak antagonist because we never know what motivates him to do all these evil things. For Carruth, the symbolism is enough: The Sample represents evil in the world and Kris, with the aid of Jeff, eventually liberates herself from being confined against her will. There's also the ludicrous psychic connection between worms, pigs and humans which destroys any semblance of verisimilitude in the film's narrative. Kudos to Carruth for creating this gobbledygook on a shoe-string budget. But again critics be forewarned: more often than not, the emperor has no clothes!
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