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Upstream Color (2013)



Sometimes I am able to sit through an entire film and take pleasure in it without following much of the storyline. This is because, the story is only one part of any film; it's the bowl in which the noodles is served. But as I'm relishing my noodles, should the bowl disappear suddenly and completely, I would still continue to slurp up the noodles by eating it off the table, while hopelessly managing the running soup. It maybe highly inconvenient, and arguably insalubrious (provided the table is unclean), but I am not the type to give up good noodles for the lack of a bowl!

This is one such film. Still and all, I was feeling like the character in the movie, as she was experiencing her consciousness displaced outside her body, and her life slip away from her. I felt what she was feeling because the story is bathed in the abstract and unfolds in fragments like a disjointed puzzle. It felt just like when you try to push many opposing magnets together; the more you push, the more they resist each other. And yet, you assign each bit its proper bearing, and create a whole with the help of the bonds that come out of the characters who share the same experiences.  

A few weeks ago, I watched Trance, where too a man's reality is manipulated through conversational hypnosis, and he willingly lives in an altered state of consciousness. The hypnotist puts him there by stacking many layers of "alternate" realities and repeated suggestions on top of each other until he goes so deep that he can’t get out, and doesn’t know what reality is anymore.

This brings me to contemplate how hypnosis is similar to storytelling, especially when the standard ‘beginning, middle and end’ format is broken down either in a nested fashion as in Trance, or in a parallel fashion as in Upstream Color. In both, the visual imagery, the background score, and the voice of the hypnotist create a tone of exaggerated mystery. They free up the characters unconscious and stimulate them to connect with new experiences and go on a journey of discovery. Like the characters, we too tap into own repository of associations and meanings to meet with the story! In Trance we see the hypnotized man becoming the creator of the story using his internal thoughts and memories. Soon, just as he loses his reality to the simulated world, we begin to bring in our experiences to bridge his two states, until we too get lost in them.

When listening to a story, our mind is constantly looking to close plot loops as we navigate our way from the story’s beginning to its end. And every time a new story is nested into a story, this loop is broken and a new loop is created. As more and more stories are nested into one another and more and more loops are broken, we go deeper and deeper into a state of trance, until time becomes relative and loops begin to lose meaning, and our reality is ultimately the suggested world that the storyteller wants us to believe!

Upstream Color has no nested loops, but it has parallel connected realities that seem to merge and feed off of each other, until the characters real memories are lost and they are left with new implanted memories and a substitute reality that is controlled by the suggestions implanted by the hypnotist (among other things). As a result, the characters begin to behave in odd and unpredictable ways and struggle with piecing their lives together. As viewers of this, when we experience the hypnosis that the characters are being put through, it feels as if the hypnotist is manipulating our rationality too, because
our intense sensations are improvised from the characters network of associations, inside our heads.

Both films satisfy two intentions; one, of telling stories with the intention of putting the characters in a trance, and another, of putting us in a trance with the intention of telling a story. The less things add up, the more the classical unities of time, place and action become blurred; we suspend our disbelief and stop questioning when things are off kilter. We break down our logical thought process and create a gateway into our unconscious mind to search for resolutions. The unconscious is also more receptive to suggestions by the storyteller, so we begin to assume those suggestions as the resolutions we are seeking. It’s only when the movie is over, and we are out of our state of trance that we logically workout its meaning in a way that makes sense for our reality! That is why, this story has many interpretations, none that is final.

Here's a really nice review of the movie in the New Yorker. As you will see, there is more to it than hypnosis. Do read it whether you've watched the movie or not. This isn't the kind of movie where one can give away the plot and kill the suspense. The story is nicely spelled out, although there can be many interpretations (as pointed out even in the review). I know at least one other, which is just as compelling!
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