Saturday, April 26, 2014

Under the Skin

Under the Skin, dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2014. BAM. Friday, April 11, 2014.

This entry is done by request. There will be spoilers.

Woah, dude, what if, like, men were women, and we were the ones who had worry about getting raped on the street at night!

This thought experiment sums up Under the Skin, which is technically about a fembot from outer-space, played by Scarlett Johansson, who prowls the streets of Scotland in a windowless van, seducing men and leading them to their doom in abandoned warehouses full of black goo. The film's facile gender-swap premise brings to mind that issue film White Man's Burden starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta in which the black people are white and the white people are black (Can you believe it?!)--a film I've never seen because I have too much fun imagining how awful it must be.

Scarlet Johansson’s performance is all right. There is a touch of Brent Spiner's Data in the way she twitches her head, widens her eyes, to convey "LOADING." Her character is not a lip-licking succubus. She has no appetite, she doesn't even know what appetite is--she can't eat cake, and she can't use her cunt. It's simply: seduce, destroy, repeat. She's like an angler fish, attracting prey with a lure that means nothing to herself, the appeal of which she is not even cognitively equipped to understand--she just knows, through habit, that it works. That is certainly the way I understand sex! But seriously, what's at stake in this characterization? Is it a sex-negative representation of sexual attraction as a blind, physical force exerting an irresistible and destructive power over human animals? Or is it more about allegorizing the impersonal nature of systemic violence, of sexual violence as an social system? It does not matter to Johansson's whom she rape/kills. It's a lottery.

Of course we know from the internet that the film itself was something of a lottery--many of the scenes were filmed candid camera-style, with Johansson actually just chatting up strange men on the sidewalk and trying to get them to step into her van. This is one aspect of the film’s gender-swap premise that I think is kind of creatively done because of the way it appropriates a familiar fantasy from pornography—that of the “Bang Bus," a reality-TV style porn in which a group of men drive around in a van and offer “real” women (actually paid performers) money for sex. By fictionalizing the real exchange of money for sex that goes into its production, this type of pornography produces a more fundamental fantasy about what all women “really” are: whores. The viewer is not necessarily supposed to believe that the encounters seen on screen are “real,” in the sense of not being staged. Rather, the viewer is supposed to pretend to believe that they are “real,” is supposed to take pleasure in this act of make believe, and, by taking such pleasure, thereby effectively does believe in the deeper "truth" of the porn's fantasy: women are whores, whores are bad, women are bad. Under the Skin inverts this process at each step. We are not supposed to believe that Scarlett Johansson really trapped all those guys in black goo, but our knowledge that some of her encounters were unstaged allows us to pretend that she might have, indeed to know that she could have, really, if she had wanted to, and in savoring this possibility, we accept the film’s message about the deeper truth of men: they are all sex-obsessed brutes who’s total lack of fear of being sexually predated upon is conditioned by their own freedom to prey upon others--therefore they are all potential rapists.

But what sort of men? Neds. Whatever is suggested about class and geographical antagonisms in the contrast between Johansson's London accent and the nearly unintelligible speech of her Scottish victims is undermined by the film's relentless anti-chavism. All her victims are urban, hoodie-clad scumbags or greasy club guys who basically have it coming—there’s even a scene of a youth gang attacking her car—whereas the one good guy in the film is tasteful, middle class, and suburban. This is much more damning of the film than the no-duh quality of it "critique" of patriarchy and rape culture, which was well intentioned even if it was clumsy.

That said, I liked all the dicks. It was almost hard to believe that we got to see so many erect penises in a mainstream, commercial film. Good for them. As my roommates pointed out, the dicks were filmed in a way that made the male characters seem vulnerable: “No matter how buff you are, you still have a stupid pink little puppy dog dick.” This was also a good movie in which for Scarlett Johansson to go, for the first time, in the buff on screen because that’s “meta.”

Under the Skin begins as a rape-revenge film. Why doesn’t it end as one? Recall the film starts with Motorcycle Man collecting an apparently dead female or fembot body from the side of the road, and ScarJo has this “I will avenge you” moment the corpse. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know what the score is: Men, 40; women, love. Scarlet Johansson goes around abducting and murdering dudes until she develops a conscience and falls in love with a Nice Guy. (It’s unfortunate that as she becomes more humanized, she also becomes more conventionally feminized—passive, helpless, dependent on men. It seems to cut against the film’s aspirational gender politics.) After that Bad Guy tries to rape her in the woods, shouldn’t she realize that men deserve to be destroyed? Shouldn’t she then resume her planetary killing spree, starting, for extra tragic pathos, with Mr. Nice Guy? Why isn’t that the way this movie ends? Does it tell us something about the times we live in that it doesn’t end that way--something about the way things have slid backward? Does the film deserve credit for that?

Miscellany: The scene with the deformed guy was great, and it’s too bad there weren’t more scenes like it in the film because dialogue is one of Glazer’s strengths and the whole silence thing didn’t quite work out. The images in this film were often beautiful, in a vacuous, Apple-smooth kind of way. It had an excellent color palette--muted hues for the Scottish countryside, Easter-egg pastels for night lighting, stark, vivid, laser lights for the more sci-fi moments, and many variations on the color black. There seemed to be a suggestion that Nature was in on it with the space aliens, that ScarJo was the embodiment of some deeper cosmic doom, but it wasn’t really fleshed out. The film’s most accomplished aspect was the manner in which it moved through space and time, particularly the way the world fell away in the abrupt transitions to goo-land and how music gave continuity to the experience. If I ever see the film again, it will be for that. Ultimately, I guess I liked the music video for Bjork's "All Is Full of Love" better.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Useless - dir. Jia Zhangke. 2007. Lincoln Center.

A documentary clothing and China. Divided into two ha(l)ves: the haves and the have-nots.

I find the better a film is, the less I have to say about it. Speech seems superfluous.

Jia Zhangke is by reputation one of the greatest filmmakers working today. He is of the so-called Sixth Generation of Beijing Film Academy graduates. (Mainland Chinese film history tends to be divided up by decade-long blocks of graduates from this, the main film school.) He makes slow-paced, moody, nearly non-narrative films with gorgeous, patient tracking shots about youth, alienation, and China Today. Equally skilled at documentary and narrative, which he usually intermixes in any case. He began as a hardscrabble independent filmmaker and now makes foreign-funded prestige art films, alternating between pictures that can and can't be distributed in the Mainland's state-censored system. He's not a total fucking sell-out yet, but there is some worry that he's on his way there. Some of his films I have found the most moving and indispensable works of art of our time (Still Life, which was distributed in the Mainland, is my favorite). Sometimes I find his observationalism a little too on-the-surface. Useless is somewhere in between.

The first half consists of footage of Chinese garment-making factories and luxury fashion stores interspersed with an interview with a young Chinese fashion designer, Ma Ke, whose brand, "Useless," gives the film its title. Jia could film anything and make it beautiful. He makes the rough seem smooth; the crude, elegant; the hot, cool; the raw, finished. He looks upon the upheavals of History with the placidity of Time. He films the garment factories with love, taking in the faces and hands of the workers, and he films the luxury stores with mild derision, focusing on objects rather than people. Jia's ability to make something out of nothing is the beginning of the implicit parallel between himself and Ma Ke.

Ma Ke says that China makes most of the world's clothes but doesn't make any Chinese clothes, in the sense that there are no Chinese clothing designers of note. Ma Ke wants to make her mark not just for herself but also, to an extent, for China--a wounded nationalist sentiment that, even where it seems in certain respects justified, is suspiciously consistent with the ideology of state power. She says that mass produced items have no soul, no story to tell, which is why all her products are hand-made on old-fashioned looms. She buries some of her clothing in dirt to age it--never has "authenticity" seemed more conceptual. She regards her work as a kind of "protest," although really she is just a petite bourgeois capitalist in a necessarily limited, boutique market. The first half of the film concludes with the presentation of her more artsy work at Paris Fashion week, where models cover their skin in paint that looks like mud and wear her very medieval-looking, burlap-like clothes.

The film transitions into its second half in what appears to be a staged sequence in which Ma Ke drives out to the country. She says something about needing to get inspiration from the people there. We see her car drive over a wooden bridge and pass a leather-faced old coal miner. Rather than continue to follow Ma Ke, the camera stays with the coal miner, who watches Ma Ke drive away and then walks off in the distance towards what seems to be a mining settlement. The rest of the film is about that mining settlement and the shitkickers who live there, centering around the tailor's shop.

My readings and viewings--though not really my personal experience--have informed me of the existence of many different types of oppositional rhetoric in China. Chin Kwan Lee's Against the Law acquainted me with the tendencies among older people to invoke Mao and the broken promises of traditional state communism, and among younger people to use the rhetoric of human rights and rule of law. The writings of Wang Hui generally and Verso's roundtable of the Chinese New Left, One China, Many Paths, did much to inform me of the broad spectrum of ideological positions in China which, compared to the CCP line, may count as dissent: voices calling for liberal democracy and social democracy on the left, and voices calling for neconservativism and laissez-faire economics on the right. The daily news tells me that there is separatism inspired by ethnic and religious sentiment among the Uigars and the Tibetans, and the half-sincere, half-contrived Falun Gong phenomenon.

It is thanks to the remarkable MoMA series Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions and the film scholarship of people like Chris Berry that I can place Jia in a milieu of socially concerned artists--including Wang Bing, Liu Jian, Zhao Liang, Wu Wenguang and his acolytes--whose work reflects not coherent ideological positions but the disaffected individualism of people unable or unwilling to compete in the neo-Darwinian free-for-all of contemporary China. Jia and his generation focus on the experiences and problems of individuals, or of pseudo-coherent, internally fragmented, irreparably broken, marginalized, doomed, hopeless, soon-to-be-erased communities of individuals. (Re: communities: I’m thinking of Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks, Zhao’s Petition, Jiang Yue's The Other Bank, Xu Ruotong & JP Sniadecki’s Yumen). The work is more personal than political, with an awareness, but not necessarily an insistence, that the personal is political. Sometimes this individualism manifests in punk-ish expressionism, as in the earlier work of Ai Weiwei and his scene. In the case of film, this individualism has more often manifested itself in a kind of empiricism. In lieu of analysis, observation. In lieu of ideology, no comment.

I sometimes find myself dissatisfied with this approach and have to work through the inevitability of my dissatisfaction and in order to get beyond it. As a Western Leftist, or something like one, I am inclined to voice my dissent using the rhetoric of Marxism and communism. My imaginary counterparts in China have been situated in and by history such that the very same rhetoric that appeals to me is unappealing, unpalatable, or ineffective for them. The individualism and empiricism of the kind of cinema in question, it’s lack of overt ideological posturing, is on the one hand a survival strategy, not just for evading the wrath of the CCP, but possibly even for just existing in today’s China, for trying to carve out a pit of personal autonomy in the absence of any larger, credible, at hand meta-narrative of resistance. On the other hand, individuals/empiricism also has a concrete tactical usefulness. It allows some degree of social criticism to be slipped in under the guise of “seeking truth from facts,” a slogan that has shaped CCP rhetoric and policy in the post-Deng era. Which is cool.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Redemption - dir. Miguel Gomes, 2013.

I don't mean to brag, but this film is my other blog, If You Can Read This, You're Lying.

This 26 minute-long short film consists of the following four segments of found footage with voice-over narration:

1. Documentary-seeming footage of the lives of white children in Africa in the 1960's and 1970's with the Portugese voice-over of a young boy reading a letter to his parents. The boy grew up in one of Portugal's African colonies and is currently in boarding school in Portugal. He's implausibly precocious. "Portugal is a very sad place and it will also be so." He was raised to believe that Portugal was the font of civilization, so his discovery that Portugal is actually just "a bunch of poor people leading on skrawny oxen, unable even to feed themselves" has not only disappointed him but retroactively robbed his childhood in Africa of its charm. His family will soon be kicked out of the colony by "evil people" interested in "revolution." But he has already lost the idea of home.

2. Footage seemingly lifted from Italian Neorelist films of Italian modernity--factories, telecommunications centers, printing presses, hospitals with all the then-latest technology, crowded piazzas. A voice-over, in Italian, of a man reading a letter to his lost love, Alessandra. The voice we hear seems seems younger than the author of the text, who says that he has lived a long, full life, which has naturally earned him the envy of others and the persecution of authorities. He has loved over a thousand women--this is "a public fact"--but no one really knows him, he says, unless they know the story of his true love. When he was a boy during the post-War period, he threw a rock through the window of the home of a fascist family. The family was chased out of town, and the daughter, Alessandra, was his true love. He's never gotten over her. What happened to you, Alessadra? Do you have children? Do men whistle at you? "Did you vote for me?"

3. Super 8 home movies of a father playing with his children accompanied by the French voiceover of a man reading a letter written to his daughter on the eve of him quitting his job. The daughter is still a child, but the letter is clearly meant to be read when she is an adult. The father begs for forgiveness for how absent he was during her childhood. He makes extravagant "promises of future love"--to connect her with the top instructors in Europe if she wants to be a ballerina, with the European Space Program if she wants to be an astronaut. Just do not resent me if you remember back to when you were a child, playing in the park, and you find me absent at your side, he says. Do not blame me that I wasn't there for you to ask me what my favorite color was, what my favorite animal was. I no longer had a favorite color or a favorite animal, and I don't know when I stopped having one, he says. Like in the first segment, this is a story of loss twice over.

4. Footage of weddings and lovemaking in the 1970's superimposed with images of scientific experiments and physics equations, accompanied by the German voiceover of a woman reading what seems to be a diary entry made on her wedding day. "Today is the happiest day of my life." She is marrying the man she loves. Her parents are pleased. Senior members of the University of Leipzig and and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik Communist Party will be there. But her happiness is imperiled by a song stuck in her head: the prelude to Wagner's Percival (which plays, gloriously, on the film's soundtrack). She recalls the time she saw Percival live in a trip to West Germany--a trip she only got to go on, she says guiltily, because of her father's connections. She felt conflicted for loving Wagner's music even though she'd been taught he was a fascist. She thinks about the pair of jeans she brought back to the East and feels guilty. Everything suddenly feels false. It's not just that she feels as though she has somehow unconsciously betrayed the revolution, but that she knows that the revolution has already been betrayed by the corruption and impotence of the East German leadership, the very guests at her wedding.

As the prelude to Percival climaxes, a text appears on the screen listing the authors of the above-described voice-over narrations:

1. Pedro Passos Coelho
2. Silvio Berlusconi
3. Nicolas Sarkozy
4. Angela Merkel

A few shots from home movies of a man pouring a glass a champagne, and then another text:

All texts are the products of the imagination of the filmmaker.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Real - dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2012. Lincoln Center.

Protagonist must rescue lover from coma, metaphysical peril by entering lover's mind using a sci-fi dream machine.

Blissfully zany, wild nonsense. As you might guess from its title and premise, the main action takes place on different planes of reality and the film constantly keeps us guessing as to what plane we're on. It has like four fake-out endings, one of which comes about half-way through the film. Each fake-out end initially seems annoying but then What Happens Next ratchets the film up a whole 'nother level of crazy. I think it would spoil the fun to say too much more about the plot.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of my favorite filmmakers. He is well known for having worked in an astonishing variety of genres. I've seen yakuza films (The Revenge, Serpent's Path), horror films (Seance, Cure, Pulse, Retribution), a screwy comedy (Doppleganger), family dramas (Bright Future, Tokyo Sonata), pink film (The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl) and unclassifiable combinations of all of the above (Charisma). Real is another genre-masher, equal parts love story, sci-fi, and horror.

One never knows what to expect in Kurosawa's films. With the exception of the terrifyingly tight Cure, they are all strange yarns, unrolling haphazardly in odd digressions, bizarre twists, slow burns punctuated by the baffling. They may sometimes be thin on substance. What holds them together is mood, feeling, atmosphere. His comedies seem to trot on the air. His horror and gangster films are suffused with dread and melancholy. Anything might happen at any moment--usually something frightening. He's a master of the obliquely-framed, blurry ghost in the background, the shot that lingers just a little too long, the subtle slow camera lurk. And behind it all there is usually some kind of philosophical attitude or social concern.  Seance uses ghosts to explore mid-life crisis and childless marriage. Pulse uses ghosts to talk about anomie and suicide. Cure and Charisma use psychism to explore alienation, aggression, and apocalyptic yearnings that lie under the surface of the everyday. Doppleganger is happy existentialism, The Revenge is a bit more nihilistic on that count. Real is about, what? Love, probably. But mostly a good time.