Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin and Sci Fi/Genre Art Cinema.

The premise of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is as old and familiar as the hills: a seductive, supernatural predator leading men to their destruction.  The idea is as old as the siren of mythology and the succubi of folklore, and as comparatively modern as the enduring fascination with the vampire as a figure of sexual potency and threat.  Since all the traditional functions of supernatural entities received a fresh coat of paint in the twentieth century via its new mythologies of science, technology, and space exploration, it is unsurprising that the succubus would reappear in the guise of an extraterrestrial.  Although there are probably countless examples, two spring immediately to mind: Mathilda May as the permanently undressed space siren in Tobe Hooper's under-seen 1985 pulp joy Lifeforce, and Natasha Henstridge's cloned catwalk alien Sil in 1995's Species, a film which was considered essential viewing by adolescent boys and not widely treasured outside that demographic.

Lilith (1892)  by John Collier, Lifeforce (1985) by Tobe Hooper, and Species (1995) by Roger Donaldson.

The material underlying Under the Skin is thus familiar and generic, but Glazer's approach to it is daring, original, and disorientating, so much so that the film defies any easy generic categorization as science fiction.  First of all, Under the Skin eschews any fleshing-out of its sci-fi premise: the sci-fi, extraterrestrial elements of the story receive no explanation, no exposition, and no back-story.  We don't know where the aliens come from, how they got here, or what precisely they require human beings for.  In fact, the very idea that Scarlett Johansson is an extraterrestrial is something which we bring to the movie, either from the pre-publicity we've read, or an awareness of the source novel, or our awareness of the general conventions of science fiction films; there is nothing in the film itself which explicitly suggests that this is the case.  This reticent or minimalist approach to standard plotting is crucial to the experience and impact of Under the Skin.  In one sense, it conforms to the film's astringent air of realism; the story of Johansson and the other aliens is, like everything else in the film, a fully realized world which we cut into randomly and observe from a distance, just as the various locations and victims which Johansson encounters along the way  are random intersections with people and things whose full histories exist outside the margins of her point of view.  On the other hand, by removing all conventional exposition, Under the Skin's science fiction conceits function primarily as images rather than literalized plot-points or ideas.  As such, their effect approaches more to surrealism than conventionally plotted science fiction, and by focusing its generic elements in the intuitive, murkily powerful realm of images, it might be argued that Under the Skin brings its genre conventions back to their source in the subconsciousness, and away from their subsequent reification as literalized aliens or vampires - back to the kind of powerful, inchoate images from which these archetypal stories emerge in the first place.

Yet, at the same time that Under the Skin abstracts its sci-fi into surrealism, it anchors this surrealism in a world of gritty, humdrum realism.  (Actually, anchor is the wrong word, since the film's surrealist and realist aspects tend to unsettle rather than equilibrate.)  Some places on earth are more down to earth than others, and Glasgow, surely, sits at the antipodes of Hollywood.  This, I think, is part of what makes Under the Skin such a distinct and disorientating film.  We associate this type of realism and milieu with independently produced dramas by directors like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach; we don't associate them with science fiction, surrealism, or Scarlett Johansson.  (Is the nearest Johansson has previously come to a British film Woody Allen's mangling of London in Match Point?)  Realism is in some senses always a relative concept.  The type of realism which Under the Skin strives for is to give us a palpable sense of the reality of the Scottish locations through which Johansson moves.  In terms of how it utilizes and evokes location, Under the Skin really is a remarkable achievement.  Making films requires a great deal of control.  Traditionally, a director must have an absolute control of his or her set or location, because the script must be adhered to without interruption, and the specific effects which a director has envisioned for a scene must go according to the director's intentions.  A certain amount of experimentation and spontaneity is always tenable, but in general, because of the extreme time and budgetary constraints to which the film-making process is beholden, a director has to know what they want in advance, and have sufficient control over their location so that they can achieve precisely that when the cameras are rolling.  Necessary and useful though this control is, it has a subtle but definite effect on how the location feels to the viewers.  It feels, often on a subconscious level, like a controlled movie location, rather than how locations actually feel when we experience and interact with them in the real world.  Of course, the skill of the director plays a crucial part in the extent to which a set feels like a set in the finished product, but nevertheless our minds on some intuitive level instantly recognize a difference in texture between the closed-off, rigidly controlled location film set, and the dense, dappled spontaneity of real places.

In Under the Skin, this distinction appears to break down; the locations have a sense of palpable and spontaneous reality almost as never before in a motion picture feature.  In order to achieve this effect, Glazer and his cinematographer Daniel Landin developed a radically new guerrilla methodology for shooting a feature, one which effectively combines elements of verite documentary, hidden camera television, and conventional feature film-making - while nevertheless maintaining at all times the core identity of a feature film.  Using their van as a kind of mini-studio, and developing a very small camera which could nevertheless record high-quality images (the One Cam, about the size of a box of matches), the pair sought always to cause the least amount of disturbance to the environments in which they were shooting.  Employing these methodologies allowed them to shot Scarlett Johansson - one of the biggest stars in the world - interacting on the streets of Glasgow with various non-actors who were not initially aware that they were participating in a feature film.  Now, this is an exciting and extremely risky approach to making a feature with a big star and any kind of budget, but it could easily have been nothing more than a meta-textual gimmick if it didn't contribute to the effect of the finished feature in some kind of meaningful way.  Even if you were unaware of how the film was shot, as I was when I saw it, you intuitively get the difference that these filming methodologies contribute - that sense of the spontaneity and "live", unvarnished complexity of the environment gives the whole film a distinct feel - its fiction begins to feel like a disconcertingly vivid lucid dream.  Landin's achievement as a cinematographer is one of the most remarkable I've seen in a long, long time.  One of the major challenges that faces a cinematographer is how to balance creating a beautiful image with capturing one which is true and faithful to the reality of what is being filmed.  (The problem is especially pronounced in a era where digital intermediate colour grading processes often generate a glossy, air-brushed image which is neither beautiful nor true.)  Landin gets this balance just right in Under the Skin - his images are coolly beautiful, but they have that remarkable sense of fidelity to location, that vivacity and spontaneity of real environments, which characterizes the film as a whole.

At this point, it would probably be customary to try to unpack what Under the Skin is really about, what precisely  it means to say about sexuality, gender, empathy, alienation, what it means to be human, and so forth.  While there is much to be said in this regard, I found Under the Skin such a powerful, haunting, and satisfying experience that I feel almost reluctant to analyze it too much.  It's just one of those slightly ineffable experiences that seems to lose a little something when you try to translate it into a neat and linear argument or position.  Under the Skin presents us with an utterly inscrutable alien presence hidden in the skin of an attractive woman - in reality, a major Hollywood star disguised as an anonymous figure on the streets of Glasgow - and by viewing the world entirely from this elusive vantage point, it shows us how cold and alien a place the human world often is, and how weird it is, as Alejandro Jodorowsky once observed, to have skinUnder the Skin evokes the icy, disconnected ambience of urban life which is nevertheless a kind of austere, paradoxical beauty, and finds similar bleak poetry in beaches and forests, in natural spaces which almost wholly eclipse the human world, a concept which feels tenuous from the outset in this film.  One of the things which makes Under the Skin so powerful is perhaps the sense that it is a fully modernized folk or faery tale.  A very common motif of folk tales is one in which a denizen of the Otherworld attempts to live in our world.  Usually, the creature of the Otherworld, be it a mermaid or a faery, marries a human being, sometimes out of love, and sometimes out of duress.  But the creature of the Otherworld can never live in our world in the long-term - the faery maiden loses her powers, and the mermaid always longs for her natural home in the ocean.  In Under the Skin, Johansson's alien - due to her encounter with the young man with neurofibromatosis - somehow falls out of whack with her normal behavior pattern, her identity, if the expression is applicable, as an alien.  Does she experience the tentative beginnings of empathy or compassion?  It's tempting to think so, but difficult to really be sure.  One way or the other, she abandons her own world, and begins to enter ours in a more meaningful way than before.  She encounters a man who for the first time does not jump immediately at her apparent sexual availability, and has intercourse with him.  This experience puzzles her, and seems to further root her in our world, as opposed to her own.  But the denizen of the Otherworld always loses their power when they enter fully into ours.  Johansson's "power" as as an alien - if you can call it that - is a total lack of empathy, engagement, or compassion for her victims; the perfect poise of a natural predator.  Entering our world and losing that as a consequence, she is transformed from a position of power to one of vulnerability, from a predator to a victim - in a sense, the same transformation which has occurred to her male victims when they realized that it was they, and not her, who was to be the notch on the bedpost.  Perhaps part of the sorrow that hovers over the alien's demise in Under the Skin derives from a sense of folk inevitability - from our folkloric awareness that the paradoxical being cannot survive for long between worlds, and that beauty, airplanes, or something always has to slay the beast with one foot in the human world.         

Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void (2009) and Panos Cosmatos's Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010).

Speaking of paradoxical, composite beings, it seems to me that Under the Skin emphasizes yet again that the best science fiction movies being made at the moment all fall way aside the pale of generically conventional, mainstream science fiction.  Much heralded revivals of mainstream science fiction such as Duncan Jones' Moon and Neil Blomkamp's District 9 never amounted to much to write home about in my books, neither achieving anything like the originality, depth and formal daring of Under the Skin and last year's Upstream Color.   These latter films, however, are not easily categorized as science fiction, and are best understood as fusing elements of science fiction and art cinema.  This marriage cuts both ways, and it might be argued that some of the best, or purest, art cinema in recent years is emerging from the mixture of art film aesthetics with those of generic forms, be they science fiction, Italian giallo horror films, or the gonzo experimental spirit of Midnight Movie figures like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger.  With this in mind, one might argue the existence of a loose cinematic movement in recent years, beginning with Gaspar Noe's mighty Enter the Void, and incorporating Panos Cosmatos's Beyond the Black Rainbow, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Amer, Nicolas Refn's Drive and Only God Forgives, and Shane Curruth's Upstream Color.  What these films share in common is a tendency to give a creative shot in the arm to genres like science fiction and horror which have grown moribund in their mainstream incarnations, coupled with a revival of the art film's movement away from conventional narrative and psychological realism, and towards a cinema of greater formalism, abstraction, and sensory richness.  Also common to many of these films (and a sort of general characteristic of contemporary culture), is a strong cinephilia, coupled with an obsessive nostalgia or fetishisation of the past.  This tendency is particularly noteworthy in Beyond the Black Rainbow, Amer, and Drive, all of which are encyclopedic in their influences, and aim for a kind of creative re-imagining of the past - even the less overtly cinephilic Under the Skin clearly evokes experimental sci-fi's of the past like Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), and Bernard Tavernier's Glasgow-set Death Watch (1980).    


Beyond the Black Rainbow is set in 1983, in a experimental New Age faculty called the Arboria Institute (imagine the Esalen Institute reborn as a early Cronenberg nightmare clinic) which is devoted to the exploration of better living through “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting.”  Summarizing the plot is not hugely helpful - director Panos Cosmatos (whose father George directed such less explicitly avant-garde fare as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra back in the 80s) establishes the barest bones of a narrative in order to facilitate a jaw-dropping spectacle of pure, immersive cinema trance - a science fiction film re-imagined as psychedelic art installation.  Although it has a cult following, Beyond the Black Rainbow still feels criminally obscure - it's not even available, so far as I know, on any European region blu-ray or dvd release.  For a debut film shot in three weeks, the visual imagination, design sensibility, and mastery of mood and form on display here are staggering. 

Upstream Color

The multi-talented  Shane Carruth made his name with 2004's micro-budgeted hard sci-fi puzzle Primer.  In the long awaited follow-up Upstream Color, the director moved decisively away from hard sci-fi in terms of plotting, and became far more experimental in his film-making approach.  The plot of Upstream - exploring the life-cycle of a parasite which manifests itself at one stage of its journey as a mind-control drug - was easier to understand, but far less literal, and more poetic, symbolic, and emotionally resonant in effect.  Upstream is also far more explicitly an art film than its predecessor, adopting Terrence Malick's elliptical, non-linear editing patterns, and an experimental foregrounding of sound-design of a type also recently explored in Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio.  The resulting film falls somewhere between a downbeat romantic drama, a weird Gnostic fable, and a bold formal experiment - but it works magnificently, and reaches a genuinely moving conclusion.  


Moving from sci-fi to horror, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Amer is often labeled an homage to the giallo films of Dario Argento and Maria Bava.  This is reasonable enough, as the pair have obviously steeped themselves in the iconography, style, and period music of those films.  However, Amer is something very distinct from a giallo - like Beyond the Black Rainbow (but more so) it jettisons plot in favor of enveloping the viewer in an immersive, hypnotic, and extremely sensual experience.  As the film progresses, dialogue is largely abandoned, its dramatic function taken up by a constantly inventive and complex sound design.  The story of a woman's sexual awakening told from three different junctures in her life, what continues to fascinate and impress me about Amer is the way the directors use a kaleidoscopic array of formal techniques to heighten the most banal of situations, and infuse them with a barely suppressed hidden life of erotic and nightmare delirium - the film's opening half-hour being perhaps one of the screen's all time great evocations of a nightmare.