[SPOILERS COMING] A few paragraphs down I’m going to talk explicitly about the theme. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop there; I’ve marked it with a spoiler alert. Until then, there are no spoilers. But, this is a movie you should see with no expectations other than that it isn’t your ordinary film. So, my advice is to stop here.
Upstream Colors is mysterious and difficult to fathom, but not because it is as intricately plotted as Primer. With Primer, you have to notice that a character’s middle button is undone in one scene but is buttoned in another. (I haven’t seen Primer in a while, so I’ve made up that example.) With Upstream Colors you can let yourself relax a bit more. The salient details are flagged, generally. But how they go together, especially after the first third (i.e., after the pigs are introduced), will keep you focused.
The theme is as difficult as the plot. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone recognizing what the theme is — what the movie is actually about — while watching it. Still, you watch it enthralled. And that makes this a truly masterful movie. It is so beautifully constructed in images, sounds, and music (Carruth wrote the awesome score) that it carries you along. You are given enough narrative clues to keep you interested in what’s coming next, and you care about the characters. But Carruth has invented his own rhetoric for this movie, a correspondence of gestures and sounds that conveys shared meanings.
I had to read some analyses on the Web before the penny dropped. And even then there’s plenty left to ponder.
There are, in fact, at least two pennies. One concerns the narrative thread, along the lines of “What’s up with the pigs?” About this I shall say no more, but will instead recommend Daniel D’Addario’s article in Salon, which I liked up until the last couple of paragraphs…precisely where he goes from narrative to theme.
The second penny isexpressed eloquently by Carruth himself in a terrific interview by Charlie Jane Anders. And a second interview by her about the ending is equally important. In it, Carruth explains why the ending is subversive of narratives, but it’s also clear that the theme itself is even more deeply subversive.
[SPOILER ALERT: ]
This movie is about people who think they are controlling their lives but in fact are being controlled by forces outside of themselves, at least according to Carruth. But control is expressed in the movie as being the author of one’s own narrative. These characters are certainly not in charge of the meta narrative about what’s shaping their story. The fact that it’s pigs ‘n’ worms (and, yes, orchids) is just one more splash of cold water: the narrative the characters tell themselves when they take back control couldn’t be less ennobling. Further, one can read the ending as showing the characters becoming the next set of enablers of the cycle.
I’m not at all sure that that’s what Carruth has in mind. His interview suggests that he instead sees the pigs and worms simply as part of nature, and nature doesn’t care about what we find pleasant or gross. The transcendence at the end is not about taking back control of one’s narrative but about accepting that the stories we tell ourselves are not stories that we give ourselves. That’s far better expressed through pigs in shit than bunnies in clover.
And yet this is a movie with a highly stylized and artificial language of image, sound, and music. It is a story we have been given by a creator who, like The Sampler (the guy recording sounds), is invisible to the characters but who is shaping so much of what they experience —the shepherd of the forces controlling the characters’ experience. I can’t avoid assuming that Carruth knows that he himself is The Sampler and we are his protagonists. During the movie and then afterwards, we — like his characters — are going to think we’re taking back control of the story, piecing together what happened. We assume there must be a story, and even that it has to be about us, but suppose it’s not. Suppose there’s nothing but pigs and worms. Suppose the story is nothing but the beautiful rhetoric of an author we cannot see — an author himself embedded in a cycle he did not create.
By the way, this is a great movie — although it does bother me that I had to read about it to see why.