What does it mean to make a movie that is a nightmare? David Lynch made one in 1977, Eraserhead, a film which on first viewing seems utterly without direction, narrative, or meaning but which draws you back again and again, seizing, with each successive viewing, on a different moment, a new feeling you can’t define, but terrifies you in a way unlike any earnest horror film. The feeling is shockingly familiar, yet impossible to articulate. The sense of not understanding is the very essence of dreams. They have their own logic, but everything stops making sense the moment you wake up, but the terror remains. There is some feeling of comfort in knowing the reason that you are afraid is because you are being chased by a ax murderer or that you will wind up alone; it’s the the knowing that safety is a simple matter of conquering or evading an adversary. In Eraserhead, there is no such feeling. There is only the raw, naked terror without the soothing sense of reality.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is just such a nightmare although unlike the surreal world of David Lynch, it contains a scientific sense of logic and is defined by elements of his characters’ real lives. Kris’ (Amy Seimetz) middle-class existence is defined by her job as a graphic designer. She works, she lives in a nice home, she runs marathons in her spare time. Here, the nightmare is the loss of this world. Drugged by a thief who infects her with a worm removed from a blue orchid, she is brainwashed into performing pointless tasks such as transcribing Thoreau’s Walden, and eventually into signing over her life-savings and cash from the equity on her mortgage. After failing to cut the worm out of her body, she is operated on by a pig farmer who successfully removes it, transferring it into the body of a pig. She wakes a week later in her car on the side of the road with no memory of what happened. Kris is fired for missing so much work and goes to the bank to discover that she is penniless. Only now can she fully realize the Thoreauian ideal of the individual stripped of her bourgeois mask.
Kris is drawn to man named Jeff, (Carruth) who is a financial broker who, like her, has an murky past which he justifies by implying his involvement in an insider trading scandal. As a result he has lost his house, family and money and squats in hotel rooms provided by the company for whom he does some anonymous work. We quickly realize that Jeff has experienced the same horrors as Kris.
We learn that the pig farmer is able to observe the lives of the various people on whom he’s performed the worm-to-pig surgery by sitting in the pen with the pigs and that the pigs and the people share each others’ experiences. Kris and Jeff have sex, Kris’s pig gets pregnant and Kris has the feeling of pregnancy even though she isn’t. When the pig gives birth, the farmer drowns the piglets in a creek and Kris and Jeff experience the feeling of loss and become hostile.
Kris and Jeff gradually realize the network of connection though Kris’s inexplicable ability to quote Walden and they seek out the other pig-connected people to make a collective pilgrimage to the farm to liberate the pigs. Meanwhile, a blue substance flows from the dead piglets, causing the blue orchids to grow. The orchids are collected and sold by farmers and everything perpetuates itself.
Upstream Color, is an ambitious, but jumbled affair. There is aspect of sound that is apparently necessary to stimulate the whole cycle. The farmer records various sounds in nature such as rocks sliding down the walls of a steel drain pipe, splashing, dripping and various contrived frictions and vibrations. He then composes musical pieces using these sounds and listens to them to attract the worms and initiate his observation of Kris, Jeff and the others. The element seems superlative and one step beyond what is necessary to articulate the cycle of worm-orchid-pig-human narrative.
What is the relationship beetween transcendentalist individualism and biological connectivity? With only a basic knowledge of Walden, I may well be missing the point, but as I understand it, the individual can only be discovered by the voluntary removal of material distractions. If the middle-class class life is stripped by force and without recollection, then what is its value? Under the circumstances of the film, Walden is only the tool of a psychopath. Either that, or an endorsement for kidnapping that would champion Ariel Castro as a hero and the economic downturn as a social high point. Beyond the kidnapping theme, Carruth uses some beautiful cinematography to show the blue substance as if through a microscope lens. We see it percolating inside a body, flowing through the water, reabsorbed by new life which creates a feeling of biological determinism. Moreover, the scenes of Kris’s firing and discovering the loss of her money happen in crisp, quick shots which create a further sense of life taken from her by forces beyond her control.
The characters understand a simpler, more genuine life only by force. True individualism must be an a conscious act of choice. Maybe that’s the nightmare. After all, reality is about control and taking for granted that the sky is blue, water is wet and that when we go to work, we get paid, buy food, have shelter and will be able to do it again tomorrow and the next day, and the next.
For most of us, a world without that guarantee is even scarier than a Lynchian world, foreign, unfamiliar and without rationale.