Monthly Archives: June 2013

Swimming Upstream

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a rare beast – a science fiction movie with essentially no exposition. The scenes and images that are displayed are sometimes metaphors, sometimes dreams, and it is up to us to sort out what is true, and how it all fits together. Some things are relatively clear, but motivations and causality often is not.

Watching this film brought to mind a page in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud explains his view that by juxtaposing two images, an author creates some sort of meaning, no matter how disparate those images might be:

non sequiturThis movie seems to be an exploration of this concept. We see things that happen in a sequence. Some of these things have a clear narrative relationship to each other, but others, less so. The characters move through a dreamlike space, all soft lighting, eerie instrumental music, and low camera angles. Dialogue is muttered, characters are sometimes inscrutable, and the screen is littered with strange images.

scenes from upstream color

Throughout, there are images of parasitic worms, worms which infect the heroine, Kris, and her lover Jeff. Parasites have some amazing abilities to manipulate their hosts. Many have complex life cycles that require them to pass through multiple hosts. In order to move from host to host, some parasites can cause strange and suicidal behavior – if it needs to get from an ant to a cow, the liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum causes the ant to cling to the top of a blade of grass, the better to be consumed by a passing ruminant. Toxoplasma gondii makes rats to lose their fear of cats, the better to be eaten, letting this protozoan enter its preferred feline habitat. Amprulex compressa is a wasp that turns cockroaches into zombies with its sting to provide a living meal for its young.

Strange as the natural world is, the worms in Upstream Color are odder yet. These mealworm-mimics appear to dwell in the soil near the roots of certain plants, notably orchids. When eaten by a human (or other mammal, presumably), they almost instantly change their host’s behavior. Not only do they affect their hosts neurologically – leading to a state of extreme susceptibility to suggestion – they also have psychic, even spiritual consequences. When Kris’s worm is surgically transplanted to a pig, she becomes somehow spiritually linked to the animal, as if part of her soul was moved as well. Not only is she linked to the hog who has her own worm, she seems to be somehow metaphysically entangled with a man who had been infected with a different worm.

Perhaps the worms themselves are not the sole cause of strange behavior of Kris and Jeff. Instead, I interpret all of them (human hosts, pigs, and orchids) as being carriers of something else, something I’ll call the Blue. Throughout, there are images of spreading blue color, blue crystals on the leaves of plants, blue pigment oozing from the bodies of worms, blue spreading over cells inside Kris’s body, blue spilling from the rotting body of an unfortunate piglet, blue coloring the petals of once-white orchids. The Blue is what ties together Kris and her pig, and her lover. But what is the Blue? A virus? An alien force? A magical one? An allegory?

The Blue

In Carruth’s previous movie, Primer, the premise is very clearly explained, but the plot becomes difficult to follow, even on multiple viewings. Primer involves a time machine, and the rules by which the machine operates are precisely delineated. However, following the consequences of those rules (and the motivations of the characters) is an increasingly complex endeavor, and the last twenty minutes may require a flow chart and a penchant for logic puzzles. Upstream Color is an experiment in the opposite direction. There is never (much) question about what is happening, but it is entirely unclear why. This leads to an interesting collaboration between author and viewer. It is always necessary to fill in some gaps in movies – what happens offscreen, what happens behind the characters’ eyes – but this film leaves the gaps wider than most dare to.

The gutter


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More Little Houses

This is the continuation of my readthrough of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. In the next three, Laura grows older and wiser and becomes a young woman.

On the Banks of Plum Creek

One of the most interesting aspects of “Little House” (besides the inherent interest of learning how people did things way back when) is the way the perspective of the narration changes as Laura becomes more aware and grows into a young lady. In “Plum Creek,” Laura is seven and the book spans nearly three years. For the first time, Laura is aware that Ma and Pa are really rather poor. She is forced to learn to stand up for herself against the snobbery of more fortunate town children, but she still considers herself rich, with the bubbling creek and the prairie grasses so close to her door. At the beginning of the book they live in a dugout sod house built into the side of a hill. Eventually, Pa builds a new, beautiful house. It is interesting that circumstances seem to have changed Pa. Perhaps it is the constant moving, perhaps it is the desire to see his wife and children in a real house, but whereas the Pa of “Little House on the Prairie” wouldn’t borrow a penny, in “Plum Creek” he goes rather severely into debt to buy the materials for the new house. He wagers that the land is so rich and so bursting with possibility that in one crop, he can pay off all his debts. It is therefore the most devastating moment thus far in the series when just before the harvest, the grasshoppers come and destroy everything, eat every speck of green down to the earth, and destroy all his hopes of a bumper crop. All the summer’s work is ruined, and the next summer is a loss as well, now that the ground is swarming with eggs. Pa is forced to leave his family and walk three hundred miles to find work. Ma and Laura and Mary and baby Carrie are left to struggle on on the stripped world. Once the grasshoppers come, the book and Laura’s childhood are split in two – the first part is full of childhood games (even if life is sometimes difficult and dangerous), but in the second part, there is hardship upon hardship.

By the Shores of Silver Lake

This is perhaps the strangest of the “Little House” books, a time of loneliness and strangeness and change. Laura is twelve, and they have lived by Plum Creek for five years. Pa has never had his bumper crop, and he struggles to keep ahead of his debts. Far worse, a wave of sickness has come through and taken Mary’s sight. Pa is given an opportunity to work for the railroad, and despite Ma’s doubts, he jumps at the chance. Pa heads west first, and Ma is left to take her four daughters by train. The train ride is exciting and strange, and after their journeys, they settle down on the edge of a railroad company town on the shores of Silver Lake.

Silver Lake is a strange and bleak place, the marshy edges of the water blending into the high, cutting grasses of the prairie, a shallow, boggy pond where there is only one tree as far as the eye can see. It is a place that is in the middle of irrevocable change – the buffalo are already gone, but the wildness is still there. It is the last time this place will be wild. The dream of manifest destiny is underway – soon, this will all be gone, ploughed under and turned to fields and farms and suburbs and there will be nowhere like this anywhere in the world – the prairie was unique and it will be changed forever, soon, soon, as soon as the railroad is built. Although the Ingallses live near a town, everything is lonely, almost desolate. There is a temporariness to everything – they are living in a temporary house, with a temporary place of employment in a town full of rough, dangerous men who will disperse before the end of autumn.

And the Ingallses, too, are preparing to leave and find yet another place to live before the winter comes, but Pa finds a new opportunity. The railroad surveyors have a house, a real house stocked for the winter, and they aren’t going to live there. The Ingalls are allowed to stay through the winter, a hundred miles from their nearest neighbor. At the end of the winter, Pa plans to make a claim on a homestead, and he finds the perfect one. But before he can file, the empty wilderness is suddenly, bizarrely crowded. Hundreds of people cross the prairie, trying to find and file a claim on the land. The surveyors’ house is the only place to stay, the only permanent building of any kind. They are swamped with guests who pay for meals and a spot on the floor to sleep. Laura and her sisters must lock their door at night, and you can feel Ma’s almost palpable fear for them, as these men come across a house full of girls in the middle of the emptiness. Pa manages to make his claim. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a town appears, and the empty land is filled. At the end of the book, the Ingalls move into yet another temporary home, the tiny homesteaders shack they have to occupy in order to mark their piece of the land as theirs.

The Long Winter

This was the last “Little House” book I read as a child, and I don’t think I managed to finish it. If “Silver Lake” is rather bleak, “The Long Winter” is desolate. The title says it all – a winter comes in that is like no other winter. The Ingallses move off their homestead and into the town, where Pa owns a store which he has been renting out. It is fortunate that they have an insulated building, because the storms are frequent and terrible. The train can’t make it through, and eventually, it stops trying. The winter is cold and dark and terrible. Food runs short, then shorter. The firewood runs out, so Laura spends her days with Pa, sitting in a cold, dark shed twisting grass into bundles to burn. Flour runs out, so Mary must grind raw wheat in the coffee grinder for hours and hours and hours. There isn’t even music, as Pa’s hands are ruined with the cold and the cutting grasses. Everyone almost starves and almost freezes and the winter is like a terrible living beast outside the door, beating down on every window pane and stealing every speck of light and warmth. Mary is a beacon of goodness, Laura and Carrie are pillars of strength, and they endure. Until it thaws again. In this book, family becomes invaluable. Even though the winter is terrible, it is not so terrible, because they all try to lift the darkness for each other. Even in the cold and dark, Laura still believes that if she works hard enough, she will be able to send Mary to a college for the blind – that her struggles will be worth it if she can bring light to her sister’s life.

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