Monday, December 19, 2016

A Shot-By-Shot Analysis of Shane Carruth's Upstream Color - Part 6

by Jack Kentala

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

The Sampler and the sounds of daily life

An audio match takes us out of the previous scene, going from the sound of Jeff handling straw wrappers to the flutter of crisp leaves on a treebranch. We're back with The Sampler, who, true to his name, is literally sampling sounds of nature to use in his strange nature-sample-based music. This is in conflict with his earlier role in the film as either a collaborator with The Thief or simply someone who knows the process of transplanting worms into pigs from humans. That version of The Sampler had the slight menace of a mad scientist, though here he's completely docile with his mic and recording equipment.

I'll admit that The Sampler largely remains a mystery. His name plainly describes his musical process, yet calling the group of drug-affected people as "The Sampled" gives it a different element. This is also made clear in the strange sequence in which he sort of eavesdrops on the daily activities of other people, as though he's "sampling" their lives. It's also telling that his character name isn't "The Pig Farmer."

What is more mysterious is that he makes sounds through very intricate processes, such as setting up a stack of bricks to tip over or rolling rocks down the side of a corrugated-metal culvert. Even stranger is that, when Kris and Jeff drive around at the film's end, both immediately recognize the exact sounds that are heavily distorted through The Sampler's mixing board and keyboards. There's no evidence to suggest that either Kris or Jeff heard those sounds before - that is, prior to listening to The Sampler's Quinoa Valley CDs, which likely don't feature these specific sounds in a raw form - so there are a handful of possibilities. In one, Kris and Jeff were exposed to the music at some point during their worm removal in The Sampler's makeshift tent. The other is that The Thief used it during his control process and, obviously, we didn't hear it. Either version doesn't yield much discovery.

Another idea is more abstract and relates more to the aesthetics of the film than any thematic element. I've mentioned how a lot of the post sound is very loud and abrasive in unexpected moments; the ADR is very high in the mix, doesn't have much room tone, and often comes off as obviously, deliberately artificial. There's also a strong emphasis on repetitive sounds in both Kris and Jeff's lives, with Kris in the sign store and Jeff at work; Kris hears a large printer crackling as it outputs a banner, and Jeff listens to the scanning noise of the mail sorter, just to name two instances.

If I go down the rabbit hole, I could try and make some connection between repetition and routine in daily life, and how that's represented with the repetition of certain noises that we usually only hear in the background. I'll go back to the very beginning of the film, when the kid with glasses drives past a truck that, on the soundtrack, is about four times louder than most passing trucks would sound like in any other movie. How many times do we all pass cars every day? We're so used to the sound that we don't even notice it. Of course, tying that into a relatable theme in the film is a huge stretch; huge enough that I could say that, if this is the case, then that's where Walden fits in, in which both that book and Upstream Color are concerned with the details of daily life that distract us, and details that we should pay attention to but don't.

The scene begins to intercut The Sampler, Kris, and Jeff. This is where all their sounds play off each other and suggest that they're bound together. This is made explicit when Kris cuts a thread on a sign and The Sampler, unprovoked in his real-life setting, reacts to it as though he was in the same room as Kris.

Within the sequence, we also see the first time Jeff having a connection to water. He simply stands in a bathroom and turns a faucet on and off. There's an immediate cut to The Sampler recording a stream running through a culvert. There's no immediate direct connection, but it does foreshadow that the Quinoa Valley recordings have a strong effect on Kris and Jeff.

What's strange here is that Kris, who's the more erratic character, looks completely lucid. Jeff, as seen in the bathroom at work, is totally spaced out. Kris is just printing a sign, and maybe the water affects Jeff more than he (and we) realize.

Another trip down the hole: When Kris uses the boxcutter to cut the thread, the reaction of The Sampler could suggest yet another way how the three are connected. Even though he's the one to play the worm-attracting cassette and knows the technique of removing the worm - playing the tape, giving the affected person the milk-like drink, pulling out the beginning of the worm, then transplanting it to a pig with the ratcheting device - maybe he was, at one point, "sampled" himself? We don't know and don't ever know who taught him the worm-removing sequence. All that he seems to know is that the pig-infected worms are directly connected to their original hosts - hence his files on The Sampled and clearly labeling one pig as "Kris" - and can pass down the "blue" inside them through their young. Maybe he tries to break the cycle when he later drowns the pigs, only to unknowingly create the flowers that are picked and then sold to The Thief.

Of course, the obvious question is: How many times has he done this? How many times have the cycle fully completed itself?

But given that he has his files and knows the worm-removal process, it questions what he knows about the entire cycle. If The Thief taught The Sampler, then who taught The Thief, and viceversa? Also, if the Sampler has been "sampled" himself, then why doesn't he seem to have a connection with a pig counterpart or any relation to Walden? And if he hasn't been drugged at all, how does he have a connection to The Sampled? He seems to be able to warp into their lives by interacting with the corresponding pigs.

So Kris cuts a thread and The Sampler decides that his music is shit.

The Sampler brings his torn-out sheets of music to a bridge and tosses them into the creek below. This looks very much like the same bridge where he later throws the piglets, and he also walks in the same deliberate manner. Yet when he gets rid of the music, he throws it wildly into the air, whereas he drops the sack of piglets into the water without ceremony.

The Sampled

The Sampler goes into the main pen upon returning to the farm, and without even touching a single pig, he's transported into an office. We see no one specific, though. Very early into the order of shots we understand that he's not actually physically at those locations, since no one interacts with him.

The Sampler has to physically touch a pig to get into the life of its human counterpart.

First, The Sampler sees a man driving when he experiences it through the pig. When the scene cuts back to the man driving, The Sampler is in the passenger seat, completely ignored by the driver. It's unclear whether or not he's simply imagining these lives in realtime or can access some memory or an approximation of the present. Given the sort of magic we've seen before, it's not difficult to accept this as sort adjacent form of reality.

The snapshots of the lives of The Sampled all begin as very boring and routine. After riding in the car, he sits next to a woman eating lunch, stands by a woman looking at a mannequin in a shop window (unlike the other encounters, there's a shot showing him leave the scene, suggesting a general disinterest), watches a man put a coin in a parking meter, and sits aside a woman drinking coffee.

Continue to Part 7.