Monday, January 16, 2017

A Shot-By-Shot Analysis of Shane Carruth's Upstream Color - Part 10

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

"How are you supposed to help someone like that?"

Kris goes to the hospital because she thinks she's pregnant. The doctor immediately tells Kris that she isn't, though Kris is quick to say that she took a home test that told her otherwise. The doctor responds that their blood test is more definitive.

The doctor then asks if Kris had any procedures like a biopsy or a cyst removal. This leads to a series of tests and what looks like some sort of surgery. [Note that the interior of the scanner is close to the shade of yellow associated with Kris fighting back against the "blue."]

Another doctor thinks that Kris is post-cancer. He seems fairly certain that a tumor was removed. The first doctor repeats that Kris said she never had any medical procedures to fit that description. The second doctor is certain she has, saying, "Someone was in there." The first doctor ambiguously says, "How are you supposed to help someone like that?" It likely refers to her disbelief that Kris is totally unaware of any past surgeries. It could also dovetail on the likelihood that Kris had to mention the medications she's taking and that the doctor is trying to grapple with all those multiple factors: a false-positive pregnancy, mood-altering drugs, and a complete blindspot regarding any previous medical procedures.

Jeff waits in the hospital while Kris goes into surgery, though the film doesn't explicitly identify what is being done to Kris. As the surgeons begin, Jeff starts to feel uncomfortable. He gets up from his chair and walks down a hall. He sits and holds his side. This shows that they are linked not just emotionally but also physically. Maybe this developed suddenly because their pig counterparts are beginning to feel their own stress about Pig Kris's upcoming litter.

Jeff turns aggressive. He pushes over a mail cart. This mirrors both the actions of Pig Jeff (breaking the fence) and the upcoming breakdown for Kris, which also turns semi-violent.

There's another visual reference to when "the lights turn on" with the appearance of the operating theater lights, since this sequence connects Kris's unknown medical issues to her time with The Sampler. It hints that either the worm removal was more traumatic than it appeared, or that The Sampler did more than that.

The first doctor informs Kris that, "by all accounts," she the survivor of "stage three endometrial cancer." Quick Wikiresearch reveals that the cancer begins in the lining of the uterus or womb, and then, "It is the result of the abnormal growth of cells that have the ability to invade or spread to other parts of the body." While it can't be caused by some sort of magic worm [though, spoiler alert, this is in a movie with several quasi-magical elements], the description sounds parasitic. What starts very small develops into something much bigger and dangerous; this is the same as how the worm forced into Kris by The Thief was tiny, only to grow considerably larger inside of her.

This raises some questions about how "someone was in there" and Kris has no recollection. The Sampler had the medical acumen and equipment to sedate a pig before the worm transfer, and there was also the strange milk-like liquid Kris drank. It's still a huge jump from that procedure to imply that The Sampler essentially sterilized Kris through a very invasive surgical procedure. I doubt that this simply happened to Kris by natural causes, especially since, to repeat, "someone was in there." In that scene, the second doctor did mention signs of trauma inside Kris, meaning that if The Sampler did indeed do the procedure, he might not have done the best job.

So if The Sampler is actually sterilizing women, what about men? It's seems that when he (soon) kills the piglets he's trying to break the cycle. There's still too much missing information - such as whether The Thief and The Sampler know each other, the only evidence of which were the blue lines on glasses - to fully understand the entire process.

While Kris is still recovering from the operation, Jeff leaves the hospital. He seems a bit confused, since one shot shows him walking across the street, and the next shows him coming back in the same direction. He then engages in the noble pursuit of getting hammered by doing shots at a nearby bar. There might be some truth in Jeff's story about substance abuse, since the screen grab shows that he's consumed four shots and has two more lined up.

The scene switches between the first doctor talking to Kris post-op and Kris leaving the hospital. Adding to Kris's distress is her inability to find Jeff. The doctor then lays out some harrowing news: it would be a miracle for Kris to become pregnant, and it'd require a second miracle to carry a baby to full term.

Jeff, in a cab, has the driver pull over when he spots Kris. Both are still wearing the same clothes as when they were in the hospital, so this scene likely takes place right after Kris leaves and sometime after Jeff is finished at the bar.

Jeff calls for her - using the pet name "Krissy" - though Kris seems stuck in a sort of trance. Neither seem to have previously exchanged information about what happened at the hospital. Kris, her voice blank like she's lost in a dream, mutters, "Something happened to me." Jeff, seemingly because of their symbiotic connection, says, "I know that. I don't care." They continue to speak, but their dialog overlaps and it seems that neither is listening fully to the other.

When Kris keeps speaking, we quickly realize that she isn't talking about the hospital but rather about everything. "Something happened to me," she begins, then she adds, "I don't know what happened. I can't see my niece and nephew." This implies that, after her ordeal with The Thief, she was cut off from her family in some capacity. Jeff keeps asking variations on "What are you talking about?" and Kris, her voice still bleached and brittle, says, "I have to go there." Where there is is unknown; to see her niece and nephew? to find out what happened to her?

Jeff tries to cut through the static and says, "Okay, listen to me: I want to marry you. I'm married to you right now." Kris, still fixated on finding something, says, "I need a car." The crosstalk continues. Jeff reiterates, "I'm marrying you, do you understand?" Kris remains fixed on getting a car for reasons largely unknown.

"I'm gonna go wherever you go. You know that."

After buying a used car, the two park on the side of a highway near sundown.

Here's the first - and maybe only - dialog scene between Kris and Jeff that is anywhere near (traditionally) romantic. Here's the exchange in full:

Kris: Do you know this place?

Jeff: I want to say yes... for you. I want to.

Kris: Is there a direction that you feel drawn to?

Jeff: Is there one you feel drawn to?

Kris: I say right.

Jeff: Left.

Kris: You sure?

Jeff: No... Then let's go right. I'm gonna go wherever you go. You know that.

Kris: I feel like you know.

"They could be starlings"

After another brief cut to black, "I Love To Be Alone" returns in its unaccompanied, two-piano form. This begins the most interesting and enigmatic sequence in the film. It introduces the concept that Kris and Jeff start confusing their childhood memories with each; Kris tells a story, Jeff claims it happened to him, and viceversa.

The symbiosis between the two, so far, has been more bad than good. While it did initially bring them together, it triggered the trauma of Kris's pregnancy/surgery (and the reveal to Kris that she's been sterilized), which gave Jeff physical sympathy pains. There's also this sequence (which is described as "shared memories" as the disc's chapter title) which makes them realize that they maybe can't trust their own memories.

"We should go on a trip," Jeff says while the two lay on a comforter on the floor of their new house. "Get somewhere," he adds, which becomes a familiar refrain. "Where would we go?" Kris asks. "Somewhere... bright," says Jeff, which could obliquely refer to when "the lights turn on."

Does Jeff want to go back to that? What was it like, for him, to wake up after his worm was transplanted into Pig Jeff? "The lights turn[ed] on" could simply mean that Jeff awakened from The Thief's control, same as when Kris awakened in her car in the highway median.

Kris underwent a horrible ordeal, but what if not all of The Sampled were negatively affected? Sure, Jeff, with his story - which might not have any shred of truth given the many muddled instances of Unreliable Jeff - mentions losing his savings, his marriage (also a possible lie) and nearly his job. We didn't, though, see him wake up in that "hotel across town" and navigate the immediate, confusing aftermath.

In this sequence, despite some distressing partial conversations, Kris and Jeff are still very much honeymooning. Intercut with the main action are brief shots where they kiss or hold hands, often in public.

So begins the sequence when Jeff, looking at birds in a tree, says, "They could be starlings." Kris responds, "They could be starlings," with a slightly different emphasis. Those two lines are repeated several times in the sequence with nearly identical inflections.

Kris is the first to start sharing her childhood memories. She tells Jeff about a friend named Renny who, when he came over, would eat all the cookies baked by Kris's mom. Jeff briefly interjects that he once knew a kid named Renny. This is already strange because "Renny" is a pretty specific, unique name. Jeff mentions that Renny was a "big fat kid," and Kris thinks that Jeff is playing some sort of joke by mentioning what Kris is confident is a story that is entirely hers. In the beginning of the sequence, both laugh about it and find it amusing, which is far from how this ends. Kris briefly stands her ground saying that she already told Jeff the story, implying that Jeff is inserting false details to throw her off.

There are very brief glimpses of other scenes, like Kris trying new makeup and the two out eating. The film cuts back to a second round of the two watching birds, scaring them off the tree by loudly clapping, and then Jeff repeating, "They could be starlings," and Kris responding, "They could be starlings." They both seem oblivious to the repetition.

Quick Wikiresearch on starlings turns up the interesting fact that starlings are considered an invasive species in certain parts of the world. The entire film is about invasive things of all varieties: worms, The Thief's home invasions, Jeff shoving his way into Kris's life, and, here, the two inadvertently invading the personal memories of the others. Starlings can also mimic up to twenty different other bird calls, which is a strong parallel to the mimicry happening between Kris and Jeff.

Kris continues her Renny story. Once when there were swimming in Renny's pool, Kris used a waterslide that Renny failed to mention was covered in bird shit. Jeff seems a bit confused as Kris playfully wars for the right to that memory. Jeff, though, adds the detail that "the kid almost drowned me." Kris doesn't dispute that part, but tellingly, that later shows up in her recollection of the memory.

Intercut are shots of Kris and Jeff moving furniture into a new house. There's also a return to the scene of both on the floor, and Jeff repeats, somewhat blankly, "We should go on a trip. Get somewhere."

This is a strange shot that sticks out. On the TV is something that looks like a family vacationing near the ocean, though the picture is heavily distorted. The TV itself, though, is ancient. It has big dials for changing channels and looks like a relic from the 70s or 80s.

Kris asks where they would go on their trip. "Vermont?" she asks. "That place that you know?" Jeff slightly shakes his head and says, "Yeah. Maybe." Jeff previously described the Vermont family vacations as "historical," with mention of museums. Why would two adults want to go there? That is, I'm picturing one of those fake colonial towns with everyone in period dress. The shot of the ocean on TV looks more vacation-y than some "historical" place in Vermont, though Kris and Jeff seem to be at a complete loss of imagining an actual destination; that's reinforced by the image distortion of the TV image which obfuscates the needed clarity. Jeff earlier said he wanted to go "somewhere bright." It seems like Kris mentions Vermont because it's literally the only thing she can think of.

This seems to be a prominent feature of The Sampled. While they all seem to manage to get back to their lives and jobs and routines, they're trapped within them, and even the small amount of creative thinking required to break out seems almost impossible. Here, Kris is fixated on Vermont, and Jeff can't think of an actual physical place to go.

"How do you get there?" Kris asks regarding Vermont, setting her trap.

Back by the tree with the starlings, Kris mentions Renny eating all the chocolate chip cookies baked by her mom; Jeff sort of corrects her and says he's talking about "a different Renny." They both try to sort out their details, and suddenly Kris inserts the bit about Renny nearly drowning her, which was previously said by Jeff.

"I tell a story and then you've taken it and you've made it your own. You do this all the time," Kris says, suggesting that they may have gone through this routine before.

Back home, Kris repeats, "How do you get there?" Jeff says it's a drive and Kris asks what road to take. Already their individual pasts are confused; their collective future becomes increasingly clouded.

Kris continues to bother Jeff about specific details relating to the Vermont trip. It's part of her plan to reverse the ownership of the memory from Jeff to her.

"I would have to get a map," Jeff says regarding a specific route. "You don't remember?" Kris asks, which sounds unreasonable. Jeff dismisses it and says, "It's just some country road. I was six."

Whereas the Renny story was told in fits and starts, Jeff told the entire Vermont story to Kris at the hotel where Jeff was staying. It's significant that, when Jeff began the story the first time, Kris distantly asked "Vermont?" after Jeff mentioned the destination, like she already had an impression of the memory.

At the house, Jeff is frustrated with Kris's insistence on specific details. After Jeff gives up on the details and says, defeated, "I was six." Kris springs the trap and says, "No, I was six."

In their bathroom, Kris and Jeff continue to argue about Renny. Outside, in a public space lit by glowing billboards, the two quietly spar about how they don't like it when this happens. Each warns the other not to talk about their separate childhoods. Gone is the playfulness from the start of the sequence.

They begin to divide their memories with some hostility. "What about the trampoline, with Mick?" Jeff asks. "Nope, that's you," Kris immediately concedes. "That's me. Thank you for that," Jeff responds sarcastically. The major point of contention continues to be Renny. Kris demands that the story is hers, as though the memories themselves are physical objects that can be negotiated. "That happened to me," Kris pleads.

The sequence is brought to a screeching halt in the plaza. Kris and Jeff are interrupted by someone loudly whistling offscreen. Both Kris and Jeff freeze and look toward the disruptor, who isn't shown.

I give Carruth 99% of the credit for crafting every moment and frame of this film, but I'm convinced that this was a happy accident while shooting. Whenever you have a big camera and a boom mic in public, people tend to hover in the periphery, like they're expecting George Clooney to show up any second. I think that, right here, some random passerby whistled just to be a dick and ruin the take. While it seems that Seimetz and Carruth initially went with it, they appear to lose track and partly break; this frame grab here shows Seimetz smiling at Carruth in a way that's slightly out of character for the scene. They were, after all, heatedly arguing only a few moments before.

The sequence ends after one more round of "They could be starlings" / "They could be starlings." Kris and Jeff never fully reconcile the ownership of memories. Given that Kris mentions that Jeff did this before, it probably isn't the end of such arguments, even though we never see any more of them.

The concept of shared memories doesn't quite fully re-emerge anywhere else in the film. It's presents some fascinating ideas left for the viewer to pick apart. Kris and Jeff are mostly defined by their recent pasts and memories, namely the trauma of surviving both The Thief and The Sampler, but what if those pasts and memories are wrong? What if it's more than disputing childhood tales? Maybe Jeff is confused as to his own past, and his roundabout story of addiction, divorce, and whitecollar crime are really the memories of someone else?

Continue to Part 11.