Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 in Shit: Under the Skin

Most of what I remember about Under the Skin is that it didn't quite do it for me. That and the profusion of Scarlett Johansson sci fi movies thinkpieces this year. I didn't see Lucy, though, so I'm not really qualified to get into it any more than that.

I also remember, on walking out of the theater, saying something to the folks with whom I saw it to the effect of "I wish they had done/intensified/whatever this one thing, which would have made the movie work a lot better, I think, to me." I have no recollection of what that thing was.

So yeah. Under the Skin was a movie where Scarlett Johansson is some sort of alien and/or robot who harvests men. I vaguely recall something about the film utilizing hidden cameras, so that certain scenes (presumably where Johansson rides around in a van) are footage of non-actors walking around. There might have been an article somewhere about how it was exemplary of the surveillance society or something?

There's a strangeness to thinking of that vérité style of shooting, in retrospect, being associated with Under the Skin, which is very much a movie interested in cinematic abstraction. The 'harvesting' scenes take place in an aggressively liminal space; Johansson leads the men into a building, which suddenly becomes an infinitely wide black space. She strips while walking away, they strip while following, then they fall into more darkness, where they appear to float. At one point two men are trapped in this darkness together; they touch hands, and one is suddenly torn away and implodes into a sac of skin. There is no direct visual cause for these things (though the audio pop when the implosion happens is worth mentioning for how perfect it is), which I suppose is why I say cinematic abstraction. Though, despite its being a parenthetical there, the sound design plays into this a lot as well. As best I can remember, the early, more vérité style shots are mostly incidental sound, while the later bits include more non-diegetic music, even though most of it is rumbly, industrial style. I could be wrong about that. But those scenes of 'harvesting' are played to music -- a sort of light jazz, if I'm remembering correctly -- in a way that enhances their disconnect from the rest of the film. And that does so in a way that plays up both the constitutive dissonance of jazz while still tapping into the muzak feeling of being at work, which is neat.

My understanding, again from a friend with whom I saw it, is that the novel that Under the Skin is based on takes a much more explicit interest in the scenario and its attendant questions of class. If that is true then there is probably a really interesting essay (and about a hundred really shitty essays) out there, somewhere, about how the film translates those two categories into aesthetics and gender. Unfortunately, this isn't that essay.

The question of aesthetics is, I suspect, at the center of my ambivalence about the movie, though I don't quite know how. My suspicion is that, were I to rewatch it, I would end up reading it as a movie primarily concerned with Aesthetics, which would not be a flattering look. Not just in how that concern might interface poorly with, say, readings of the movie that position it in relation to gender, but in how it itself conflates the concepts of aesthetics and of form.

I don't know that I have a way to cleanly delineate the two concepts, of course. The tools I use to think and talk about film might be predicated on this very conflation. The silent third term, if I'm following myself, is technique. That will stay silent though.

It's a particularly dull kind of criticism that sees its tools translated into its object and uses that translation as a means to valorize that object, though. Which is to say: I don't really care much for movies that do what I like claiming movies do. Silence.

None of this is to say that Under the Skin doesn't do what it's trying (in my understanding) to do, or that it doesn't do it well. Just that what I suspect it is trying to do is something I might have a problem with if I went back to it and actually confirmed that. A very strong critique, I know.

To elaborate a little even if only to demonstrate that I'm not even really talking about what I'm gesturing toward. There are a lot of weird reasons I'm very fond of movies like, say, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, and one of them is even relevant here. I would go so far as to say that it does the sort of thing a movie like Under the Skin is apparently trying to do better than Skin itself; where Skin is content with a sort of formal exposition -- thinking specifically here of the opening abstract shots, of the 'harvesting' scenes, of the move from cinéma vérité to the more elaborate artifice of the later scenes -- as an expression of aesthetics as having narrative substance, Revelation is happy to use the narrative content itself -- thinking of the weirdly overdetermined and understated moments of videogame visual terminology or the bizarre kiss or the entirety of the content of the performances of Carrie Anne-Moss and Malcolm McDowell -- as a piece of the aesthetic whole. This is, I suppose, what I mean when I say that Under the Skin conflates aesthetics with form; the way a movie looks and feels is compositional, sure, but there are exciting things to be done with the composition of content that Skin seems to consider beneath it.

I suppose this is easily read as a sort of general fuck off to the art film genre. I suppose that wouldn't be unfair, although I don't really feel that way. Before this gets too close to an apologetics for my own (lack of) tastes, though.

None of this, of course, is to say that there aren't moments of genuinely affective content in Under the Skin; aside from the 'harvesting' scenes (and the dude who popped with its sound design), the moments where Johansson is sitting on the beach watching a family drown, where she is sexually assaulted, and where she removes her skin all stand out. The way these moments stand out though (or at least most of them) is, I think, more to do with their being crystallizations of the formal arguments (and moments of intensity of content) than any sort of contribution to the aesthetics themselves.

I don't know. I'm probably just running in circles here with speculative criticism. This seems plenty.

Blog Archive