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.

1 comment:

  1. I feel like the scene where she is harassed in the woods serves as juxtaposition to her earlier actions. Does her being threatened sexually and physically feel the same as when she herself had been the pursuer? Why or why not? I think the scene inspires the audience to further examine the issue through a "gender reversal" lens, had such a perspective not been immediately evident. There is also something to be said about pain, pace, violence, treatment of the body, and maybe colour and temperature when comparing the two.

    With regards to Mr. Nice Guy, I don't find it to be some kind of cop-out or regression to a weaker kind of femininity, but as her learning to recognize and accept the care of a man who is without agenda or artifice.

    For me, the most thought-provoking parts of the film were those in which a simple gender reversal fell short. I think in these spaces there are some really potent reflections on gender and humanity, and bodies and violence.