Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hell Hath No Fury Like Upstream Color

Spoiler Alert:  I have seen Upstream Color twice.  The first time I purposefully avoided all reviews so I could watch it without expectation or bias.  I read one lengthy explainer before the second viewing which I wish I hadn't.  So if you haven't yet watched the film and depending upon your preference, you might not want to read this post.  But please, come back later after you've watched and share your thoughts.


If I was forced to categorize the film Upstream Color I would put it under Love Story. But it's more than that, obviously. Like an actual love story, the movie is about how we identify as individuals and as couples. The first portion is a depiction of two men of ill will who use a rare worm from the soil of a colored flower to drug a victim for personal gain. They target a film editor, Kris, rob her of her free will and personal wealth then use her for medical experimentation with a pig before erasing her memory and dumping her at the side of the road. As a result of Kris's lost time, which evokes alien abduction comparisons, she loses her job and is left penniless.

While each man involved in the heist works alone, they are working in concert, as is made clear by the end of the film. A pair of lesser involved boys who appear to be friends are paid for their services in the form of a heavily diluted drug from the worm which allows them to briefly lose their individual identities and function as one. It's a high for the kids and I found myself feeling the vicarious thrill while sympathizing with the trepidation expressed by one of the boys who, when asked if he's ready to temporarily give up his individuality, answers "No."

We next meet Kris about a year later. She seems more fragile, less confident and highly withdrawn. She meets a man named Jeff on a train and they are strongly drawn to one another. It's is Jeff's determination and self-confidence which overcomes Kris's inability to respond to her own emotions and they become lovers. In the course of their developing relationship, it becomes apparent that Jeff too has undergone an episode of lost time and that the pair is linked by more than spatial relativity.

Kris explains her experience by revealing that she suffers from mental illness and takes prescription medication to manage it. Jeff eventually admits that a substance abuse problem caused him to embezzle money from clients and lose his broker's license. Each character has built up a plausible scenario to explain away the bizarre episodes they suffered. I love the gender insights apparent in their explanations. The female character internalizes the loss of her identity and believes that something must be wrong with her on a fundamental level and so obtains the mental illness diagnosis and treatment.  The male character externalizes the loss of his identity and attributes it to a temporary cause, substance abuse, which allows him to function relatively normally and retain a sense of personal strength.  He was broken but he fixed himself.  Whereas Kris was broken and can only be made to function at a minimal level through the use of medications.

We are periodically shown a pig farm run by the man who conducted the medical experiments on Kris and the pig and in fact we see that same pig in the drove.  As Kris and Jeff share childhood memories, the issue of individual identity is again called into question when each accuses the other of stealing stories, e.g. both remember being held underwater by the same neighborhood kid.  The concepts of collective memory and morphic resonance both jumped into my mind at this point and I couldn't help trying to connect them to the drove of pigs.  In fact the pig farmer regularly holds out his hand near the pigs and is able to observe the lives of the humans connected to them.  It's clear the pigs are resonating the experiences of their human counterparts and the farmer is absorbing them through his outstretched hand.

When the pig connected to Kris becomes pregnant, everything starts to unravel.  Both Kris's pig and Jeff's pig become agitated and violent - behavior which transfers to their human counterparts.  At this point we learn the disturbing source of the colored flowers and the rare worms which inhabit their soil and are used to drug victims such as Kris and Jeff.  The farmer uses a catch pole to lock Kris and Jeff's pigs away from the drove and then scoops up their litter of piglets into a burlap sack.  He drops the sack into a river where the piglets drown and over time, their carcasses rot, emitting gasses which flow into the water, giving rise to the colored flowers upstream.

Meanwhile the barriers which had previously allowed Kris and especially Jeff to function normally abruptly break down.  Kris learns from a doctor that the procedures performed on her have rendered her incapable of bearing children.  She begins a frantic search for what must be her pig's missing piglets, desperately pleading to Jeff, "I've been looking for them everywhere!"  His response is not the expected, "Looking for what?" but a telling, "Looking for who?" which is the first glimpse into Jeff's acknowledgement of the unbelievable truth.  He knows, without Kris ever saying, that it's a who that is missing, not a what.

As Kris and Jeff evolve into a greater state of acceptance of what has happened to them and their connection with the pigs on the farm, it's apparent that definitive action must be taken.  That action comes not from the traditionally strong male character, who at this point is at a low level of functionality, mindlessly chewing salad greens at a table, but from the female whose newly found sense of purpose manifests in the form of maternal vengeance.  She crosses the plane from resonance to reality and shoots the pig farmer to death.

At the farm, Kris and Jeff find the records of all the other people who have been similarly victimized and contact them by mail.  The group assembles and begins a new life as caretakers of the pigs to whom they are connected.  The people are shown interacting with the pigs lovingly and it's evident that there will be no more drowning of piglets in the river.  The point is made clear at the end when the search for colored flowers upstream turns up empty and the rare worms from the soil can no longer be harvested.

So, a love story.  Involving identity, what it means to be an individual, how we identify in pairs, whether our memories are real, collective, individual or erased, and how we cope with our experiences of things such as mental illness and regret based upon gender and instinct.

I'll be watching this film again.


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