fate and free will in upstream color

I love the movie Upstream Color and for months, I’ve been watching it whenever I can. This is less a movie and more a fractured rabbit hole of orchids, scopolamine, pigs, and love. Using these motifs, Shane Carruth constructs a meditation on identity; it’s a movie about free will within fate, consciousness out of general unconsciousnesses, and it is an exploration of the relationship between human experiences and routine.

Before we see anything, we hear a warm thick chord in D Major. The movie opens and we see a man taking out trash. This opening already shows two aspects of routine- spirituality from the near-religious tone of the music and the daily taking out of trash. Carruth’s style has been compared to Malick, and there is a certain spiritual element, but there also seems to be something more clinical, almost aseptic in the sparseness (even the chords in the music have large ranges, adding to the sparseness) and subject matter Carruth chooses. While the music continues, we see a myriad of images… scenes of people doing repetitive everyday things like running and children playing games that involve rote calisthenics are interlaced with scenes of the complex process by which the scopolamine-esque drug gets made. Eventually, the drug finds its way to one of the main characters Kris (acted incomparably by Amy Seimetz.)

We watch first as Kris is tasered, kidnapped, and drugged with scopolamine, which causes users to become highly susceptible to manipulation, losing their free will and memory. We then watch as everything she does is dictated by the man who tasered, kidnapped, and drugged her. I was struck with the language the kidnapper used with her. Instead of ordering her around, or speaking down to someone completely under his control, he spoke eloquently and beautifully. He tells her that he has been born with a disfigurement, that his head is made of the same material as the sun and so she cannot look directly at him. It would have been so easy for him to say “do not look at me.” And she would have obeyed, but he chose to say it beautifully. In a strange, way, it seems like respect, or at least, reminds us that though something is beautiful, beautifully said, or a good story, does not necessarily make it true. His language use is also fascinating in another way…some other things he says are, “Water has lost its appeal… There are two approaching armies… The floor will support your weight now… The weather is beautiful, you feel like walking… The wall has crumbled, fallen down…” He always refers to circumstances as fateful or outside of anyone’s control (his head being born like the sun) or as changing/having changed (the floor will support your weight/water has lost its’ appeal). Occasionally, he makes it seem like it is she who has changed or he tells her a feeling or choice to have of her own (the weather is beautiful, you feel like walking.) Similar to real life, it is often true that the things we most likely obey are the things that seem logical…we are told things lose their appeal and then they do. We are told we feel like doing something or should do something, walking, etc. and so we do. We find things can support us or they can’t, and we accept all of these circumstances as truths, limitations and mostly in this movie, things that expect a certain response from us.

Over the course of the next few days, the kidnapper gives Kris many mundane tasks. She has been told that water is the only thing she needs, but that each drink of water or controlled amount of water must be earned. This prompts the question for us, when did we first learn the concept of earning, of rewards? Is this something inherent to humanity or something we’ve learned to teach one another, something to maintain at least a ruse of control? The precision and care which she dedicates to these tasks is frightening. We see her struggling to do the most mundane things on no sleep, no food, only water, which she has been told is the only thing she wants and needs…he has her writing out Thoreau’s Walden on little scraps of paper to link together. At one point while she is gluing a part of the paper chain together, she says out loud, “crown me”, which was the most frightening part because it indicated that she developed something close to enjoyment for these tasks…
At another point, the kidnapper gives her a bowl of ice and puts her in front of a painting with a horse. It is as if she is watching television as she is captivated by and intermittently bursts out in laughter at the painting.. At this point, we wonder, why does he give her variety… ice instead of water? Many things in life parade as variety and are not; many things parade as our choices but they are not. And what is the value in giving her entertainment? Though she is under the influence of a drug, her laughter and complete amusement from a static object is not that different from some of the worse reality tv we watch.

Eventually, the kidnapper has drained her life savings, bank accounts, assets and releases his compulsion on her. She immediately eats and goes to sleep. While she is sleeping, the worms that carry the drug start to surface just beneath her skin. Even the stretches and small repeated motions she makes while asleep are not her choices, but directed by the motion of the roundworms. The use of parasites is interesting because like many of our compulsions and beliefs, we may not be aware of them but they can grow to hideous sizes and manipulate us neurologically, emotionally, and behaviorally. She eventually gets them out of her body and we watch as she tries to regain normalcy. She loses her job and her funds are depleted, but the biggest loss may be her sense of identity. She seems to move with a sense of wariness and distrust now, for others and for herself. She gets a job as a copier of some kind where she does mundane and menial tasks (not unlike things she did while drugged,) and she tells another character at one point, “I’m lucky to have this job.” She meets Jeff (acted by Shane Carruth) a year later on a bus and they are drawn to each other. When we first meet Jeff, he seems to be a normal man attracted to a woman he meets on the bus. Only later do we find out that he has been drugged as well, and is also trying to return to some semblance of his old life. We see him blindly knotting straws alone in a scene after having our initial introduction to him and it is so jarring to see someone who has been presented with a degree of normalcy having hidden impulses. I appreciated their being compelled to do these mundane tasks (instead of anything more explicitly defined) because you can easily substitute any ideology or substance for these tasks.

While we are slowly watching Kris and Jeff develop a relationship, we also see montages of other relationships (where we can assume at least one person has been drugged) having versions of the same arguments and the same fights. The couples fight with such anger, love, and unhappiness; in some way, all emotions can become routine responses, and it’s terrifying to watch that happen in these scenes. This makes us ask…what is the relation between love and rote? Do we continue to love because it is routine, do they become interchangeable… is love rote, as it seems to be in some of these couples?

Or could it be possible (as it seems to be for Kris and Jeff) that love is an antidote of some kind? At first, Kris and Jeff go through the motions of any beginning relationship…in a way, their love is like tasks and routines dictated by the ways we are taught in society to pursue each other, and then they give into the more primitive automatic desires of their bodies. (In a way, it is a relief to have the automatic of the bodies and society dictate their relationship at first because they are both so fragile; this point of the movie almost seems to argue for routine- the importance of knowing what to do or giving in helps them regain a sense of normalcy.) It isn’t until the morning after they have spent their first night together that we see a first choice or conscious decision being made. Before they kiss for the first time, before going inside her house, Kris in a moment of vulnerability says, “It’s not my fault when it goes wrong.” She takes ownership of the fact that she has lost ownership before and isn’t sure she has any currently. Jeff responds, “Yes. It is.” I believe that this is the line that gives her agency again, reminds her of a world where she can mess up, and it can at least be good because it is her mess. Because of this newfound agency, she is able to make the first conscious choice the morning after. Kris, while cooking eggs looks at Jeff and kisses him. This kiss, for me, was everything. He was eating her cereal and she just kissed him fiercely at this insertion of himself into her world. It was, I believe the first, and one of the only spontaneous actions of any of the characters in the movie where they are fully in control. In a movie about compulsion, spontaneity is defiance. This small act of love, and perhaps love itself, is a defiance to our everyday. Their relationship continues to grow and it becomes clear that though they have a shared experience of losing so much from this drug, they both have a resistance to being victimized. They never talk about the things that have made them the way they are; in truth, both seem to accept responsibility for the way they are. I was amazed by the resignation of these people who had to accept things they never wanted which afflicted their lives and identities. Their voices, conversations, and eventual homemaking all seem like a resilience to damage and it’s surprising how normal they sound, knowing what they have been through.
They build a life together that seems almost normal, but they have retained some forms of the compulsions from their time of drug use. Kris swims laps and picks rocks from the bottom of the pool to bring back, all the while reciting Walden. Jeff seems to be involved somehow, observant at least of her continued habits; we are all complicit and unconscious in each others captivities and in our own. They get confused often about their stories; they keep telling each other childhood stories that belong to the other…this part of the movie was an interesting take on how we stitch together shared identities and stories because our own our broken. It is easy to forget ourselves in relationships.
Their “normal” life is interrupted when they have a collective breakdown. She breaks a glass window, and he gets into a fight; they are incredibly afraid and start to act in ways that don’t make sense to us, but make sense to one another. Similarly, we accept irrational behavior from others and ask people to understand it of us when we are afraid. At the end of this breakdown, we find them huddled together in a bathtub (after fulfilling an elaborate plan they made to get there) crowded around with supplies and things to protect them. Theirs is an extreme example, but we just as easily crowd our minds and hearts with things to protect us from outside circumstances.

I appreciated the end of the movie. There is a sense of justice when Kris gets “revenge” on one of the people who was involved in their drugging, and a sense of renewal as we see Kris and Jeff with the pigs that are now linked to them through the drug (still can’t really explain how thaaat happens…) but there is no sense of real closure and no denial of the traumas that have occurred and the new reality of their lives.

What they end up doing with their lives after the drug is not so different from what they do when they are under the control of the drug/someone else…and maybe that is what Carruth is getting at…he’s trying to tell us to wake up from this mundane existence. To be wary of the things that behave as authority in our lives. To realize that some of what we do is as futile as writing books out that have already been written, putting things together that don’t need to be together just to take them apart. Maybe that’s why that kiss meant so much to me…the defiance of it, the free will of it. This movie did not function under a supposed duality of free will vs. fate (as many do), but rather, the characters found a way to enact free will within fate. This movie gave me a great tenderness for humanity, it looks at all the things we worship and all the things we do routinely and of course, I can’t help but relate it to politics, religion, all the things we build our lives around- which control us similarly to this drug, but it doesn’t observe cynically or pass judgement. Rather, this is a part of humanity, we are part of a pattern, we look for patterns, and it is safe to remain in these parts of the pattern, to be sure of the threads of our existence. But eventually, you can make the pattern. This movie was also for me, a meditation on film-making, related to the way the characters in it observe and participate in each other’s lives. At a point in the movie, as well as making the movie, watching, passivity, and observing becomes the active process of participating…making decisions, producing, and capturing.

How do you assemble existence?
Ling Ling