Monday, January 9, 2017

A Shot-By-Shot Analysis of Shane Carruth's Upstream Color - Part 9

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

"I've been very careful not to lie..."

Kris sits on the bed in a hotel bathroom while Jeff gets ready. Kris then brings up a company banquet in which Jeff is expected to attend. He downplays it and mentions how long it'll be and how it's basically work, effectively dissuading Kris to possibly attend. Jeff then takes the hint and invites Kris.

Kris, wearing more makeup than usual and wearing earrings for the first time, takes a cab to the banquet; she's certainly not taking the train.

But before there's a single shot of the banquet, we're on the street at night with Kris and Jeff looking downcast. It's beautiful that all we need are their expressions and for Jeff to keep repeating "I'm sorry" for us to imply that nothing went as planned.

As they walk away, Jeff tries to deflect some of the blame by blandly declaring, "I like you so much," but Carruth's delivery twists it back toward something positive. It's Kris turn to be hostile when she glares and says, "You're kidding, right?"

There's more of the repetition similar to the the Jill and Ben sequence. This scene between Kris and Jeff, though, takes place in two separate locations but features the same dialog. In one location, they're sitting at a table at a coffee shop.

The other location we later recognize as the blank floor where Jeff works, and he talks to Kris as they both look out at the city. He hesitantly begins to say that there are things he hasn't shared with Kris, and while he didn't want to outright lie, he hasn't told her the full story behind his job.

Here begins Jeff's story about his work, which, even disregarding my own Theory of Unreliable Jeff, seems partly true and partly false.

First, Jeff prefaces the whole story using a very strange choice of words. He says, "I've been very careful not to lie about something, but, through omission, I may have given you an impression that isn't quite real." Sure, it might just be the word-salad roundabout way to say "I didn't want to lie to you initially," but the fact that he says "isn't quite real" is strange.

It's worth quoting at length what Jeff says to Kris: "I work here, I work on 29... C&L Crowne... I'm not an advisor. I don't broker. I do interdepartmental reports, okay? I don't have an office. I work in common space. I work with interns. Greg pays me in cash to keep me off their books, because if there is ever an audit, I am a liability."

When he describes where he works and who he works with, he makes it seem like it's obvious what he's hinting at, but the clues at that moment are far too sparse to make complete sense. The implication is that Jeff is doing something illegal - though Jeff's "interdepartmental reports" sound little more than nonsense paperwork - and that working with interns means that they can be discarded and discredited at a moment's notice if there's ever some cause for alarm. It's telling that when Jeff tells this to Kris, he looks over his shoulder multiple times with a touch of paranoia.

Here's the rest of Jeff's explanation, which is slightly more damning than the first part: "I stole money, Kris. Shifted it from account to account until I could grab it." Kris says, "Right, because you..." and Jeff somewhat cuts her off, continuing: "I lost my broker's license and they covered for me. But if I was anybody else I would be in prison. So I am lucky to have this job," he finishes, echoing Kris's sentiment that's she fortunate to have her job at the sign store.

Before I get into my disbelief of Jeff, it's very telling that we see the above shot while he's talking to Kris. While making the paper rings could be somewhat hidden from her, note the substantial pile of straws on the left of the frame. Kris, though, doesn't react whatsoever to the rings. What's more interesting is that he's still having a conversation with Kris and is fully lucid.

This is different from the end of the film, in which Jeff comes across Kris's routine diving for stones. There, she's barely aware of him - and she whispers lines from Walden - while Jeff is the opposite in his disclosure about his job. Maybe Jeff is following a script and is parroting lines fed to him by The Thief or The Sampler. Maybe, since he seems to have be "blue"-stricken first, that when he makes the paper rings it's more of an unconscious gesture than lingering aspects of The Thief's control. But then that conflicts with an earlier scene where Jeff, visibly spaced out, unwrapped straws and made rings in his hotel room.

Therein lies the basis for my argument that Jeff's story is total bullshit. (For now I'll ignore the shots of him at work later, which also somewhat contradict his confession about where he works and who he works with.) Advance warning of my wildest theory: While Kris, as seen with the pool routine, is still acutely affected by the lingering effects of the "blue," Jeff is starting to break free. The greatest evidence for that are the two separate straw-wrappers-into-paper-rings scenes, in which he acts at completely different levels of awareness in both. Sometimes he seems beholden to parts of what was likely the busywork assigned to him by The Thief (when he sat blankly in his room and made rings on mental autopilot) and other times he seems to do it as a nervous, empty gesture (at the coffee shop, though able to hold a conversation with Kris). Part of his old, pre-"blue" has surfaced yet some is still underwater.

Of course, there's the wrinkle that, despite the film's opening showing the same sort of rings Kris eventually made, The Thief might have changed his control methods over time. Jeff could've received Method A and Kris was Method B.

Jeff's rings echo how Kris managed to complete her "bank assignments" while under the suggestion of The Thief; there's also an element of The Thief's targets operating at a level of self-awareness as to eschew suspicion. Remember also that Kris drove her own car to the banks, and when she rattled off the first interaction with a bank employee to The Thief (albeit verbatim, which is odd), she went through the entire range of inflections. The Sampled have some degree of at least appearing in control - as to not alert others - while guided by The Thief's hand.

I believe that Jeff was given a cover story, and when he does his routine with the straw wrappers, he gives himself away. We don't know if Kris ever believes him. But I think that Jeff is simply repeating a story that he was told to repeat, in a similar way in which Kris could remember the exact wording of everything during the bank visits.

Is this the entire story? What about when Jeff mentions being a junkie, getting divorced, waking up at "some hotel"? Are the experiences of Kris and Jeff both unique yet similar, same as how all of The Sampled seem to respond to their copies of Walden later received in the mail? Is Jeff being worked in a different way because, at least according to him, he has a job in finance and that could be lucrative to The Thief? Both are still under control - Jeff with the straws, Kris with the rocks in the pool - but is one moreso than the other?

There's also another reason: Jeff's story is almost too simple. He sounds like a mustache-twirling cartoon villain who "stole money" and "shifted it from account to account" as part of white-collar crime afforded by his job. According to this abridged account, he was caught, the company prevented him from serving jail time, he lost his broker's license, and he remained at the company off the books because of some loyalty.

With all that said, none of this matters. Is Jeff a criminal? It doesn't matter. Upstream Color devotes barely more than a handful of minutes at the workplace of both Kris and Jeff because it's simply not important to the story. All that matters is that it's implied that Kris went from a salaried position - at least enough to own a house - to a nametag-wearing job at a store that probably doesn't pay much or doesn't pay enough to let her move out of her small apartment.

All that matters regarding Jeff is that he lost something because of the "blue." It could be his marriage, his job, whatever. All that matters is that he, like Kris, is a survivor of a trauma so weird that no one would ever believe them.

The final passage of Jeff's monologue refers back to their isolation in the modern world. The lines, taken separate from any discussion of Jeff's wrongdoings, summarize the loneliness of The Sampled: "You walk into that hotel, you're gonna know. You walk into that banquet, you're gonna know. Because everyone there knows. And they look at me in a certain way. And they talk to me in a certain way, in a way that you don't look at me yet."

Over the lines, we see the actual actions that led to the beginning of the sequence. There isn't much. Kris rides the escalator up, smiling. She sees Jeff waiting at the top with a grim look. She doesn't quite know what's wrong, and before anything is said, Jeff immediately takes her hand and guides her to the escalators going back down. Presumably that leads right into the shot on the street where Jeff repeats "I'm sorry."

While Jeff didn't have too much of a reaction when Kris revealed the medication she takes - if anything, he's the one who felt more awkward during that exchange - Kris, here, has a strong reaction, likely since Jeff phrases everything like he's a criminal.

"That was smart," Kris says in the coffee shop, "to wait to tell me." Jeff can only say "I'm sorry" again. This also supports my theory that he's sticking to a script; in this case, whenever he's backed into a corner, those might be the only words he can manage to speak. Kris cuts through it, though, when she says, "I think you might be using that wrong."

The above shot - while Kris says "That was smart" - removes any doubt that Jeff is going through his own routine with paper rings. It's interesting to note that maybe Kris just sees it as a nervous habit; there's no evidence to suggest she remembers every detail of the time in her house with The Thief. When she first returned, she looked at the table and the painting of the deer with a hint of recognition. But since The Thief took her Walden paper rings, there's no concrete answer as to whether or not she recognizes what Jeff is doing.

We cut to the two on - presumably - the 29th floor of C&L Crowne, where Jeff works. The city past the windows is out of focus, rendering all the traffic and streetlights as circles of confusion. There's no indication about the timeline of the shot, specifically where it falls during Jeff's disclosure of his job, since both seem to be back on good terms after the scene in the coffee shop. There were two shots preceeding that showed them holding hands, and here Jeff has his arm around Kris.

Back at the hotel with both Kris and Jeff in bathrobes, Kris sees Jeff's ankle scar. It looks more like Kris's scar and not the plus-shaped one seen earlier. When Kris reaches to touch it, Jeff's foot pulls away. We don't see if he's awake or asleep, so it's unknown if it was an automatic reaction or not.

What's interesting is that, in the same shot, the tilt up to Kris has her, in closeup, say that she thinks she's pregnant. That information ties into the scar, the worm, and the worms transplanted into Pig Kris and Pig Jeff, who are about to have a litter of piglets.

"They can get very protective"

After another cut to black, we're back at the pig farm. It's nighttime, and there's an unusual amount of anxious noise outside. As evidenced by the reaction of The Sampler, it's something out of the ordinary.

The next morning, The Sampler discovers the source of all the noise, caused by Pig Kris and Pig Jeff breaking through part of the pen fence. They're all by themselves on the other side.

As seen earlier, the pinkish-brown pig on the left is Pig Kris and the reddish-brown pig on the right is Pig Jeff.

[I'm trying to write this in a vacuum - e.g. no IMDb or Wikipedia hunting - but I'm contractually obligated to express my disdain that one of the trailers for the film completely spoils the human-pig symbiosis of the film. It makes the explicit connection between Kris and Jeff and the pigs. I suppose they had to market this somehow, but it ruins the fun of mentally piecing the mystery together.]

The Sampler talks to another pig farmer. "Won't let anyone near them," says The Sampler. "Just crowd back in the corner." The other farmer feels Kris and is confident that she has a litter on the way. "They can get very protective," he says.

While The Sampler clearly knows that he's part of the cycle, Pig Kris and Pig Jeff are different if only because they broke his fence; there's no mention of other behavior of that sort with the other pigs that have worms transplanted by The Sampler.

The Sampler lies - as seen later - about selling piglets to another farmer. The other farmer present scene mentions that he knows petting zoos that would be interested in piglets. The Sampler, though, keeps walking away with his back turned, halfheartedly agreeing, though he clearly has other intentions for the litter.

Continue to Part 10.