Happy to hear you'll be back blogging for a while. And of course I'm excited for the book whenever it's ready. But obviously you gotta do what you gotta do for your family and for your own writing first. So whenever you still have the time and energy to drop in here we'll appreciate it.I hope you'll be writing a little about some of the films you've seen since last time, awards contenders you might have missed and perhaps newer releases like THE LEGO MOVIE, BLUE RUIN, UNDER THE SKIN*, NIGHT MOVES* and TRUE DETECTIVE.*(what not to do)
I found UNDER THE SKIN to be pretty near perfect, FWIW. What's the case against it?
Oh good, you two can fight it out, because I haven't seen it! (Or any of those others, the book and the baby obliterated the last three months, sorry.)
Well, Matt, you'll have to see TRUE DETECTIVE eventually and I think you'll enjoy the good parts of it enough that it could yield some new rules.BLUE RUIN might be interesting because of the way it repurposes Indie dramedy tropes in a genre context that's far more compelling than it might have been without all that violence.As for UNDER THE SKIN, I admire many things about the direction and I respect Jonathan Glazer as a director in general. But the writing and the storytelling are just a big schizoid mess. The script really really wants you to treat the protagonist as an utterly inscrutable and perhaps wholly other entity for about one hour. Then, about an hour in, when the story shifts and the relative lack of empathy for her would suddenly doom the film completely, the writing chooses to deny/ignore/erase all that's gone before and in the lamest and laziest way possible just sort of assumes we'll all anthropomorphize the protagonist now because reasons!
@j.s. For me, UNDER THE SKIN feels like an appropriate companion piece to UPSTREAM COLOR, which IIRC you liked. For me, Johanssen's alien didn't feel inscrutable for that first hour: she had a very interesting goal and an ingenious strategy for pursuing it, as an alien on a mission to lure men into her black slime pit, presumably to make some kind of food for her and her motorcycle-riding colleagues (she + them feels like they're all extrasomatically-linked parts of one physically dispersed organism; like she was the mouth and they were the limbs; maybe the dead girl in the field at the beginning was the earlier model of Johanssen unit, but it failed, and so Johanssen was created to replace it?). From there the story seems straightforward . . . there are two turning points, first when she meets the guy with the deformed face, and lures him into the pit, she pities him and takes him out (or the system rejects him as unfit?); the second is when she falls down on the street, and strangers help her up. They feel like turning points because she is learning to feel pity and accept help from humans. And so she runs away from her function and tries to elude the motorcycle men, and tries to live like a human woman, and eat human food, and have a non-predatory relationship with a man, and she succeeds for a while but in the end is done in by that rapist. So, how does the writing "deny/ignore/erase all that's gone before"? Put in the simplest terms, it's the story of a "wholly other entity" that is trying to become like us. It's as simple as the IRON GIANT ("Guns kill. And you don't have to be a gun.") Her journey of growing empathy for us mirrors our journey of our growing empathy for her. It's a predator deciding, at great personal risk to herself, not to be a predator anymore. I felt empathy for her at the beginning because her mission was risky and difficult and fascinating to watch -- you get all the Aristotelian pity and terror you can handle. And then that empathy became different and deeper when she tried to change herself, and ultimately succeeded/failed at the end, when she becomes the prey. The storytelling felt tight to me in that way, like the working out of a mathematical proof, not lame or lazy or assuming at all...
And oh my goodness, that soundtrack!!!
Interesting that you bring up UPSTREAM COLOR. There's a very mysterious and minimal scenario where we never have everything spelled out for us, but we do learn, crucially, all we need to know to care about and understand the two main characters, what they are trying to do, what they fear, how they understand the mystery they find themselves caught up in and what they decide to do about it.But I'd argue that you can contrast UPSTREAM COLOR with UNDER THE SKIN in almost the same way as Matt's theoretical (and now actual) pairing of nautical (ALL IS LOST) vs. space (GRAVITY) survival tales. Everybody intuitively grasps what a boat problem entails, whereas space problems by necessity because of their unfamiliarity need more explanation.Since the characters in UPSTREAM COLOR are human, in order to relate to them, we only need the bits of exposition about them that begin to define the minor weirdness/alien-ness they've been subjected to. But the decidedly nonhuman "characters" in UNDER THE SKIN have a much more complex backstory about which we learn even less. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's literally impossible to know much about them from the information the film provides us.You write: "she + them feels like they're all extrasomatically-linked parts of one physically dispersed organism; like she was the mouth and they were the limbs" And, of all the people I've talked to about this film, including others who liked it just as much as you, this is one of the more astute and spot-on descriptions of what it is I think the film is up to.And yet? I think it's going much too far to say that she's "trying to become like us." And I think that to take your understanding -- and the film's conception -- of the protagonist we see for that first hour seriously means calling b.s. on any later attempt to cheaply anthropomorphize her.She's an anti-hero for the first hour, perhaps the coldest least relatable serial killer in cinema history. None of the victims have a chance with her because they have no idea what's coming or what she's really capable of. Watching her procedure is interesting because of the dramatic irony inherent in the situation, because of the strangeness of her mysterious process and because of the hidden camera technique that appropriates the semi-documentary aesthetic of a film like Kiarostami's TEN for thriller/horror ends.So in your formulation, existentially, she's akin to a stray limb, a left hand that doesn't know what the right hand is doing? Or is she like a more like an organic robot, a wayward if super complex Roomba, a rogue drone? It's interesting and fun to speculate about, but, from the little the film gives us, impossible to say with any degree of certainty, and definitely not with the sort of nuance or precision it would take for the audience to create a workable theory of her mind, which for me is the prerequisite for empathy.The director is on record in more than one interview saying that he's not sure if we ever see her true form, but that if we did it would probably be more like the formless black goo than anything else. As a thought experiment, try this: imagine the formless black goo doing whatever it is you're ascribing to the ScarJo character.Which creates an interesting dynamic, to be sure, to put the viewers of the film's second half in the same spot as the victims in the first half -- conned by her looks into imagining she shares an emotion that just isn't there. For me it's just not nearly enough to pin an entire narrative feature film on.It need not have been this stark an either/or. But I'd argue that the script's construction has this contradiction baked into it. The steadfast commitment to minimalist mystery in the first half chooses to forgo setting up even the smallest details of what wants to be paid off later (does she eat? does she even want to? how easily damaged is her skin? etc.).
Obviously this is a taste thing, but your reasons for why UNDER THE SKIN didn't satisfy you are part of why I loved it. Regarding speculations of what kind of creature ScarJo is, and her relations to the other mysterious creatures, you wrote, "It's interesting and fun to speculate about, but, from the little the film gives us, impossible to say with any degree of certainty, and definitely not with the sort of nuance or precision it would take for the audience to create a workable theory of her mind, which for me is the prerequisite for empathy." But for me, it doesn't bother me that I don't get that much certainty or precision. I certainly don't want a "workable theory of her mind" and I don't really need to feel that empathy for a character like that in order to follow her with interest. On contrary, if ScarJo's psychology was too precisely spelled out, I would enjoy it less. The negative space that is opened up gives me room to inhabit the movie in a different and more satisfying way than more straightforward stories. I certainly have thought about this movie every day since I saw it, and I can't remember the last time that has happened.So I don't want to learn the complex backstory of the aliens, and I don't want to know about their psychology. Watching them in action is enough, like watching a nature documentary. Apparently UNDER THE SKIN was based on some sci-fi book that had a lot of those explanations, and all of those explanations were thrown out, thank God. The last thing I want to hear is ScarJo and the motorcycle dudes saying stuff like, "Gotta meet that quota of three adult males or Lord Quazzpopper will be mad!" Just in the same way I don't want to know anything about the backstory or motivations of the monoliths in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, nor do I care about the conditions on the home world of the xenomorphs from ALIEN, and the less I know about the aliens from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or E.T., the better, and the more the TERMINATOR franchise told us about the War of the Machines, the less interesting it got. I know that you're talking about a different gap of information, you're referring to crucial info about the psychology of the main character, rather than supporting exposition, but for me that leap of not explaining, while risky, worked.Now of course if a moviemaker decides to be ambiguous like this, s/he walks a knife's-edge. In the wrong hands this strategy of withholding too much information and causing a vacuum of empathy can be a disaster. But I feel it worked in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, in which no character except perhaps HAL was empathetic, and it worked in a different way in MULHOLLAND DRIVE or UPSTREAM COLOR -- all movies that, like UNDER THE SKIN, are less about characters and more about delineating how a hidden/exotic/bizarre system of biology/guilty fantasy/cosmic evolution works, and what happens when that system stresses and/or breaks, and how it succeeds. It's the system of relations between agents that is interesting -- if any of the characters was too much of a "character" it would ruin it. (The bureaucrats and astronauts of 2001 are not colorful or intriguing at all. The male and female victims in UPSTREAM COLOR are so dry and schematic it's impossible for me to imagine them doing anything other than being in UPSTREAM COLOR; they're like the opposite of, say, Dickens characters, whom you can conceivably whisk out of their novel and plop into any situation, and you'd have a good idea how they'd react). [to be continued in next comment]
[continued from last comment]When I read what you wrote here, j.s., it actually made me like UNDER THE SKIN even more:The director is on record in more than one interview saying that he's not sure if we ever see her true form, but that if we did it would probably be more like the formless black goo than anything else. As a thought experiment, try this: imagine the formless black goo doing whatever it is you're ascribing to the ScarJo character.As a thought experiment . . . that makes the movie even better! These are the kinds of ideas and scenarios that attract me to sci-fi. The uncomfortable chafing feeling we get when we're forced to try to conceive of inhuman systems that are indifferent to our emotions and yet influence or even threaten us.Which creates an interesting dynamic, to be sure, to put the viewers of the film's second half in the same spot as the victims in the first half -- conned by her looks into imagining she shares an emotion that just isn't there.What a brilliant way to sum up why the movie is so good.For me it's just not nearly enough to pin an entire narrative feature film on.For me that's more than enough to pin an entire narrative feature film on. Rarely does an idea that good come along! It's a more intriguing idea than whatever idea was behind CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, that's for sure!And it didn't feel cheaply anthropomorphizing for me for the second half. If I, James Kennedy, was transformed into an ant and had to go prey on other ants for some reason, maybe I would be curious about ants too, and might want to live like an ant for a while. (Maybe the ScarJo component of the disperesed extrasomatic body is the component that fails the most often, because it's the component that must interact with humans -- and therefore imitate humans -- and therefore might be susceptible to starting to act like a human, and then going rogue from its mission. You can tell, when the motorcycle guy is examining ScarJo, running some kind of diagnostic on her, that this might've happened before.)P.S. By the way, as long as I'm rambling, I was never sold on Matt's "Everybody intuitively grasps what a boat problem entails, whereas space problems by necessity because of their unfamiliarity need more explanation" distinction. First of all, of course I've never been on a spaceship, but actually I've spent precious little time on boats, so my ignorance of both is comparable. What I do know about is genre conventions of what can happen in stories on spaceships and boats, and since I've read a lot more spaceship stories than boat stories, I find space stories require less explanation for me. With much of sci-fi, the stories can make simple stuff up, instead of having to rely on complicated real-world facts. It's harder to make something like MASTER AND COMMANDER convincing than STAR WARS because when you're dealing with real sailing ships, you have to be careful to speak accurately about the real jibbleymasts and tam-o-scoonters and dingleman's roisters and whatever that make up an actual ship. "I've got to fix that hyperdrive" is a lot simpler.
James, let me say first that this is one of the best discussions I've had of this film anywhere, so thanks for your intelligent and passionate engagement. My problems with the exposition definitely tend more heavily toward the most basic information I think we need to know to understand the characters' motivations, especially in the second half of the film.It's easy to watch a mostly silent antihero type kicking ass. Less easy to relate to the same character when she seems to shift gears into being suddenly -- and I think rather baselessly -- remorseful, scared, etc.But I'd go a little further than that and argue that, while I agree we don't really need or want the quantity of world-building backstory the source novel might offer, Glazer's obsession with refining the sleek minimalism of the film's first half does irreparable harm to his conflicting wish that we understand and care about his protagonist in an entirely different mode halfway through the film. He sets up nothing. To the point where we can't even know if she's got any kind of reasonable chance of getting away once she runs (Elephant Man clearly didn't -- did she know that all along or not?) and the suspense that might have been there if we'd know just a smidgen more about the Motorcycle Man's connection to her or his psychic search capabilities or whatever, fell flat for me.When storytellers are delving into the reality of what it would be like to experience true alien contact, to even try to relate or communicate or interact with something that is wholly other, they don't tend to settle on the alien itself as a hero. And if they do, it would almost certainly work better in a novel, where we'd have direct access to whatever passes for the creature's "thoughts."Since none of that is really suited to film, I'd say there are very sound reasons that, say, the Monolith isn't the protagonist of 2001 and the planet Solaris isn't the hero of SOLARIS. We need to experience those radical others through some kind of more relatably "human" consciousness, even (robot) HAL or (projection of Kris' gulit/memory) Rheya.
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