Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Shot-By-Shot Analysis of Shane Carruth's Upstream Color - Part 7

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

Jill, Ben, and The Sampler

The Sampler's reality and his vision of The Sampled blends together on The Sampler's side. An ambulance siren sounds and its red flashes wash over The Sampler's face. The ambulance, though, is nowhere near the pig farm.

A husband and wife, Ben and Jill, are part of a sequence that highlights the unique use of repetition.

Ben stands on his front lawn holding a bag while Jill is taken out to an ambulance. The paramedic uses an air bladder over her mouth and nose. Note that the air bladder is yellow, the same color as the big chair in Kris's house. The use of yellow, though, is almost wholly tied to Kris, so the appearance of yellow here is strange.

The presence of the air pump itself visually ties in with how The Thief forced the worm into Kris in the bar parking lot. Given though that it's used commonly by paramedics, I don't think there's much of a connection here.

The Sampler observes the scene as a sort of neutral presence. He says nothing and doesn't interfere.

He continues to play his keyboard in the pig pen. We don't hear what he's playing, whether the tones are samples from his field recordings or music notes. It could be a oblique metaphor to how he's "sampling lives," which is the name of the DVD chapter.

Jill is intubated in the hospital and we have no idea of her condition or its severity. The Sampler, even though he rode in the back of the ambulance, stays outside of the room. He only eavesdropped on others' lives for a few seconds, yet he's with Jill and Ben for much longer. Is this the guilt of a "blue"-related error or factor that he caused? Is it the general guilt caused by "sampling" people infected with the worm?

We cut back in time to a series of exchanges between Jill and Ben that are nearly identical but play out many times with slight variations. They wear different clothes, Jill's hair changes, and sometimes "scenes" are intercut with these mismatches, highlighting that it's repetition but not identical, like they're trapped in the exchange.

We don't have any background on this marriage, which puts us in a place similar to The Sampler, who disappears for this montage. Each take has a different wrinkle. Jill says "I love you" with multiple degrees of sincerity. "Those are just words. They don't fix anything, Jill," Ben often replies, also with different deliveries. Sometimes he even trips on the line, like it's clear in his head but comes out slightly wrong. Also, Ben sometimes slinks out of the house and sometimes rushes out, same as the varying speed with which Jill confronts him at the door.

This is one many scenes showing effects of the "blue," which often traps everyone affected in tightening spirals. Here, Ben constantly goes out to get a lightbulb or some related hardware, and Jill seems perpetually stuck washing dishes. As for the cyclical nature of the exchanges, it comes into sharper clarity (and reaches a fever pitch) in the later "They could be starlings" sequence between Kris and Jeff.

While this seems to primarily show a strained marriage, there's one take where, while he's leaving, Ben gently kisses Jill on the cheek with obvious sincerity before leaving. Even if The Sampled are trapped in our routines, the loop doesn't have to be negative.

Cutting back to the hospital, The Sampler goes into Jill's room and sits across from Ben. He doesn't look at him, and he looks like he's trying to hear something.

The last segment from their lives that we witness is both of them at the door in a resigned sort of mood. Here's the full transcription:

Jill: Ben?

Ben: Now you want to talk? I'm on my way out the door, Jill.

Jill: I just want to say that I hope today is better and that I love you.

Ben: I want to believe you.

Ben says the last line quietly, as though the cycle - and their relationship - is doomed. He leaves the house without contest. Jill stands at the door. Ben, halfway across the lawn, stops, turns back, and says to Jill, "Hey, while I'm at it, I'll pick up that filter." It's not the most romantic thing he can say, but it implies that he still wants to move forward or at least work through the frustration.

The scene ends with Ben on the lawn, looking back at the house toward Jill. Jill, at the front door, looks out at Ben.

When we return to The Sampler, he's still out in the pen with his headphones on, though it's night.

It's unclear if The Sampler watched all those memories or if the film took a brief detour into the lives of Jill and Ben. The latter could imply that Ben was remembering - and maybe by proxy The Sampler accessed his memories, likely via Pig Ben (though he don't see an ear tag) - a minor fight with Jill, and maybe all the repetitions are just him misremembering the entire thing and having to replay all the possibilities before he reached the "happy" ending.

But the sequence with them began with Ben on the lawn with a bag in hand - possibly coming back with the "filter" - only to see an ambulance at his house and his wife being taken away. It's not shown why or how Jill lost consciousness.

There's a cut from The Sampler pressing down hard on his keyboard and Ben sitting at his dinner table with no one across from him. And while The Sampler wasn't seen in the montage between Jill and Ben, he rematerializes in their kitchen. While his prior visits to The Sampled had him usually standing or sitting right next to them, he seems to keep almost a respectful distance from Ben.

At the scene's end, we don't know the fate of Jill. She's not at the house, and Ben isn't at the hospital; we don't even know if she's still alive. She serves as a proxy for the rest of The Sampled and raises the possibility that they might succumb to some unknown "blue"-caused condition at any time.

First (proper) date

The main narrative picks up with Jeff going to the sign store where Kris works. The front is empty and he doesn't see Kris. When we see her in the back, she has sort of a blank stare, and she doesn't seem to be actively avoiding Jeff. She does seem aware of his presence, though, and she looks toward the partitioned-off front of the store. Jeff, about the leave, stops and turns back. It seems like their symbiosis pulls them together.

Jeff looks through the glass again that separates the front and back of the store. Kris momentarily looks a bit hesitant before heading to the front.

A variation on the piano music cue "I Love To Be Alone" (the [excellent] soundtrack is named entirely after Walden quotes) plays the moment the two see each other for the first time since their awkward lunch date.

There's an immediate cut to the train as they head out for their first proper nighttime date. There's still the rough edges of the beginning of a relationship, brought to the foreground when Kris asks Jeff if he really needs to hold onto the pole right behind her, since his position makes it seem he has his arm around her shoulder. The hostile courtship resumes when Jeff says, "Is it all right that I have that there?" and Kris responds, "You gonna fall down if you don't have it there?" "Yeah, maybe," says Jeff.

Both of them look more afraid than nervous. It's likely because, as evidenced by the lunch date, both have been scarred from their encounters with The Thief. Imagine you're Kris and you go and see a psychiatrist. You try to explain what happened under the influence of the "blue" and, most likely, the doctor simply won't believe you. Most people would be lucky to get out of there without being placed under a 72-hour hold. We also don't know the drugs Kris was prescribed; as a prominent armchair psychiatrist (within the armchair psychiatrist community), I'd say she was likely given a combination of an antipsychotic - to treat suspected symptoms of schizophrenia - and an anti-anxiety drug.

[Antipsychotics - as with any mood-alerting medication - can be extremely dangerous if prescribed incorrectly, e.g. if someone doesn't have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any related qualifying conditions. If Kris is mentally healthy other than her time with The Thief, then maybe this misdiagnosis can explain some of Kris's stranger behavior, such as her insistence later that her house is making a weird sound.]

Even though we're halfway through the film, the two barely know each other yet Kris disclosed her medication and Jeff said he's divorced. It would be a bit strange to go into a proper first date with both sides already telling the other something quite private about their lives.

Jeff deflects by pointing out a passenger on the train and making a dumb joke about her being a former senator and winning the Nobel Prize for knitting. "You lost me. You got a little too... cute," Kris says. Jeff agrees.

The Jack Kentala Theory of Unreliable Jeff / "The lights turn on"

They switch and it's Kris's turn to play Guess The Life Story Of A Train Stranger. It's obvious that she's trying to match her guesses with Jeff's own backstory. She zeroes in on the divorce and starts guessing why it happened. Jeff shoots down any idea of infidelity, and he becomes a bit withdrawn when Kris mentions alcoholism and drug addiction. It could be their symbiosis or a lucky guess, but I think it's rather a giant leap for Kris to go from guessing alcoholism to "some substance of some kind; the illegal kind."

"I would think that there are some marriages that could survive something like that. Maybe," Kris says. "Maybe," says Jeff. "But not yours," says Kris. "Not ours, no," Jeff admits, but slightly deflects when he adds, "from her perspective."

Jeff lays it all out, maybe to match Kris's earlier disclosure of her medication or maybe because of the symbiotic pull. Here are the lines, in full, that Jeff says of his marriage and his drug addiction.

"I mean, everything just flipped, you know? The guy she thought she married turned out to be somebody else: a junkie. And all the savings, all the plans, everything resets. The lights turn on, and I'm holed up in some hotel across town."

Here begins the proper Jack Kentala Theory of Unreliable Jeff: I don't believe Jeff whatsoever that he was addicted to heroin or any other sort of drug. My main reason is because he doesn't elaborate whatsoever; "junkie" is most attached to heroin addiction but could be pretty much anything. My thoughts on Unreliable Jeff continue later when he tells Kris about his cash-under-the-table job, which I think is grossly misstated and is part of some sort of cover story told to him by The Thief.

What really makes me not believe Jeff is the mention that all his savings and "all the plans" were made void. That sounds much more in line with an encounter with The Thief and the "blue" than losing control via illicit drugs. It makes more sense if Jeff went through the same finance-draining experience and then, like Kris suddenly conscious in her SUV in the median, Jeff awakened "in some hotel across town" once "the lights turn[ed] on."

Why he tells Kris might be because he's trying to stay level regarding some very intimate disclosures; Kris showing Jeff her medications is much more significant than Jeff's admission of a divorce. This could also be his attempt at controlling his own narrative by setting up a number of partial, little lies that obfuscates a larger truth.

At that point, Jeff has no idea that Kris was a target of The Thief. There are many ways to explain Jeff's divorce - if that itself is/was even real - but having all your money stolen requires a more involved explanation than chalking it up to addiction. Maybe Jeff did have a minor substance-abuse problem, so when The Thief ruined him, The Sampler removed his worm, and then someone deposited Jeff in a hotel, Jeff could consider his own confusion as part of some relapse or drugged episode.

Jeff himself could've checked into the hotel given that, like Kris going to several banks, The Sampled can act with a convincing degree of autonomy while still being controlled by The Thief. It's the same as how we never saw how Kris arrived in the median of the freeway. A relapse could explain a days- or weeks-long disappearance before returning to lucidity. This reawakening is described by Jeff as when "the lights turn on"; there are several points in the film where lights visibly turning on represent the same sentiment.

Continue to Part 8.