|Showing off scars, from top: Under the Skin, Habit|
I know how it is, bro. I began the weekend with a terrible panic attack as my whole world crashed down around me in hailstorms of at-work red tape hot potatoes which I just couldn't drop. Maybe it was the April allergy cruelty depression but when my girl wanted to go out to the movies, my blood ran cold and I shook like the gallows pole was sliding up me while old Vlad applauded. She tossed a half-Xanax on the floor and like a good dog scrambling after a treat, I found it, and it barely helped, but we caught the late show of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin down at the BAM and wandering back from it around midnight, through half-deserted and strangely-lit Good Friday-empty Brooklyn streets in a haze of alienated liquid light reflection, stale popcorn nausea and post-half Xanax glow wobbliness. Time to talk over what I thought I would love since I have a vast catalogue of sexy alien maneater movies at home... but I admit it I couldn't quite get past the feeling Glazer's film was more of a video art installation swerving towards an And then the Darkness detour than an actual movie. Sure it's the most beautiful and strange thing I've seen since Tree of Life, and maybe if I was shrooming and feeling guilty as my dad lay dying three states south I might have swooned for Under the Skin as I did during Tree. But I also winced at Tree. And there's no wincing Under the influence of Under the Skin. Instead, buried in mossy 'membrances of Basil Twist-y underwater shirt twirlings, I floated back home up Flatbush back to the smoky din, the paranoid terror red hot potato Poe-level paranoia waiting, unabashed.
Then, I realize where my paranoid terror was coming from. It was related to rewatching all six seasons of Mad Men in prep for the new and final season and realizing I'd mixed up don Draper's forced hiatus from Sterling Cooper with my own work woes, not being able to smoke for a week, and spring allergy medicine depression. It all swirled together in the dark liquid of my subconscious and left me frigid with terror. I had to drop the potatoes and submit to the tyranny of R.J. Reynolds to escape the unrelenting sense of doom. Now I'm better, but I can't tell where the TV ends and my life begins anymore. I'm realizing I'm already half-sunk into the black oil image, so why front. When things get too intense at home, by which I mean onscreen, I move to the kitchen to fix a drink or go to the bathroom and repeat to myself, "it's only a movie, it's only a movie - I'm 'here.'" But seeing and hearing is 10% of the full experience -- imagining is 10%. And 10 x 10 is forever, dissolved into each next image as they whiz past. To our pets we look like statues, frozen in seated positions before the glowing square, awaiting our orders....
Glazer's film lures us into a dark and alien world like Scarlett lures men, viewers, channels our collective longing for the lost Lenore or whomever. Set mostly in and aroung Glasgow, a land without sunshine, but beautiful, Skin is rich with bleakly beautiful panoramas of drenching rain over misty mountain moors and lashing surf rolling and crashing down in fast accelerations on a family at play (at first), sucking them all into their presumed deaths in a chain of failed rescues, sans suspenseful music or any indication they've drowned, leaving only a screaming infant behind, a sequence so harrowingly existential Herzog-level dark that it kind of crawled inside my stomach like a nightmare I had as a child and suddenly all the layers of assurance and support that nothing bad can happen to an infant onscreen is swept up and away with nary a sympathetic string to let us know that the filmmakers too are horrified. We're not given any indication anyone cares, and it's chilling. And there's also working class yobbos, slang as indecipherable as an alien tongue setting up a class divide against Scarlett's posh Londoner accent and damn I get back to that infant -- the cheap shot of a crying utterly distraught abandoned baby about to be swept off into a harsh surf after being left behind by parents as they try to rescue first their dog, then each other. How do you get past a dog being swept out to sea, dragging the parents with it and this poor child's terrified screams, abandoned? How do you get back to a film's familiar 'Mars needs Men'-style plot (the rural UK-set Devil Girl From Mars coming instantly to mind) after seeing that poor bereft toddler screaming, abandoned in the primordial surf as the sun sets down around him like an evil shroud? This poor kid's screams hang like a torture-tricked sucker punch cheap shot over the remainder of the film --until the sheer weirdness of the mutant Elephant Mannish boy pick-up throws us for yet another mickey -- is this that Daft Punk video with the dog boy? Whole reels of what the fuck seem to have been edited out, though based on our familiarity with films like La Femme Nikita and The Man Who Fell to Earth we can deduce those missing pieces, but why should we have to if it's only so Scarlett can suddenly turn Ann Bancroft at the Lynchian carnivale of epidermal symbolism? I'm not an animal! See me! Feel me! Touch me! I'm dreaming. Take the shot, Miss Moneypenny, Glasgow is for drunks and junkie loo divers but too dangerous even for a black oil seductresses. Run, (into) forest! Not that one!
That's the problem with this film though I respect others who love it - lord knows I wanted to love it. I would have followed alien Scarlett J. anywhere, even over to the commercial multiplex wherein she's seducing Captain America and kicking ass instead of playing Venus Flytrap to some juicy soccer hooligans. It's strange and scary but she seems to have very little real power and decays in ways that make us wonder if Lars Von Trier is waiting in the wings to snatch her from the Kubrick coldness and douse her in the Charlotte Gainsbourg womb of old testament Griffith mortality. It woulda been nice, instead we're forced to reckon with the idea that we humans, men particularly, might be far more terrifying than any carnivorous alien sexually hypnotic prowler. Still, I saw some things I don't usually get to see at the movies - things so weird they're like the dark rural cousin to Matthew Barney's Cremaster. But I guess I'm on the fence (after one viewing) as to whether this is a real movie, a work of staggering foresight and genius that will one day be regarded as the 2001 of our era, or just a long experimental hot mess of nonsense. Then again, I've seen 2001 dozens of times and only thought it was a masterpiece about half those - other times it's dead boring. Whose to say what's real? Can we trust the critics who love it? Or are they pods?
The string of previews BAM showed before the film included something for Locke, which is set entirely inside Tom Hardy's car in real time as he talks on the Bluetooth. A whole hour and a half no doubt of artsy glistening street lamp reflections on rainy dark streets looking like luminous watercolors dripped on a black canvas whilst techno throbs hypnotically and family members and work acquaintances shout their panicked exposition at him via Siri's surreptitious digital strands and signals and strings. Is this preview meant to prepare us for the endless driving shots and slow loop to nowhere repetitions of Under the Skin? It seemed an ill omen. I felt the whole of Under the Skin was trying to escape that Locke, the idea that if you want a real movie you need to stay home - movies are now about big screen compositions set within cars and the minds of predators --they don't expand your horizons but shrink them until they grab you by the neck like a dominatrix dog collar. The next stage will be where you spend your ten dollars to sit in your car and think about what the movie you paid to see might look and sound like if it was ever made, while you drive around. Dig, the movie is you, mate! Ten dollars!
All that aside, Under the Skin tries hard to puncture something hidden and vital in our culture, the way any sense of a dislocated universal all-seeing perception dissolves in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere; Scarlett drives slowly trying to lure into her SUV figures of hunched over men, pummeling their way on foot through the darkness, shopping or working long after normal people go to sleep, for good reason, and Scotland especially seems as abandoned as some lifeless corner of the Milky Way. From the darkness of an experimental intro that's just drones and a pinpoint of light, onwards to the rainy finish, it's hard to get a straight bead on anything. We're used to that pinpoint of light becoming a tunnel, but it's not. Aside from 'in Scotland' we never know where we are, except that we're treading the line between modernist ambiguity and hedging indecisiveness. In Glazer's debut, the Kubrickian Birth, we had a real soul in Nicole Kidman, beautiful with her Rosemary buzz cut and Anne Heche a brassy Lady Macbeth that stirred the painting of our blood. It was more Kubrick than Eyes Wide Shut on some level, but still it lacked the feeling of planetary orbit of The Shining and 2001 -- films where you can actually feel the world turning below the feet of the Steadicam operator, and your own seat, the orbit of the Earth spinning around the sun and the longer orbit of the sun around the lip of it's galaxy as the universe expands outwards, and how one orbit --the film--and the other--your head-- meet and eclipse each other until both disappear. Under the Skin has only one decaying orbit, and lots of flashy editing tracks and scars are displayed out from under its sleeve, including an extended melange of overlapping images through which Johansson's strange and lovely face gradually appears, but when the charm's unwound there's nowhere to go but towards the macroscope finality ala the end of Easy Rider. It's the kind of film that depends on Wikipedia and summations of the original source novel for sense. My GF read them to me afterwards and frankly the book sounds pretty repulsive... but I was sick off too much stale popcorn, and was coming down off a doggie Xanax, and the terrors of bureaucratic power finally besting me am der werkhaus. My weekend was ruined! At any rate, I appreciate the hypertextual angle - a film that needs a drive or walk to and from itself, and also the internet to explain the source novel demands to be judged accordingly, thereto...
Before we get to all that: Larry Fessenden's low budget Habit (Netflixed after admiring his You're Next) in post-Blank Generation style and Liquid Sky content, it's very promising. Fessenden wears all the hats and stars, as Sam, a bartender and witty drunk from the era of the 90s well, when I drank the same way, in his same neighborhood - (he bartends at the Hat, the great Mexican restaurant in the LES with the with the super strong margaritas --they'd give them to you in plastic cups for take-out!!!) I think I've even used his great line about committing suicide on the installment plan before. And with his wild hair and missing front teeth Fessenden is a great shaggy antihero, one of those where intellect and the ability to succinctly share one's inner feelings is not the mark of a square nor missing teeth the mark of a working class yobbo. He must have been really drinking cuz he's amazing. And there's some really great drinking scenes, where concerns about his girlfriend Anna (Meredith Snaider) and her habit of sucking his blood during sex come out organic and low key as any normal conversation, neither forcedly so or otherwise and she doesn't need a pimp to wave his wand and 'allow' her to feast on poor Larry, either.
Fessenden also has a great gift for framing within the tight confines of small realistically dilapidated apartments -- the kind you and I did a lot of drinking in back when - the Halloween party early on is a masterpiece of tight economical framing - we've been to that same party before and the low key conversational tone is also a marvel; sounding like an early Jack Nicholson but not trying to, and believably trying to navigate his way through a rapidly downward spiraling series of options, Fessenden! The hand job in Battery Park with Anna was one of the hotter sex scenes I've witnessed in some time, too, for being so sudden, realistic, intense, out of left field, punk rock, real - exciting --it left me bleeding psychic energy from out my limp imprisoned genital matrix in a way I've not been bled since Lydia Lunch in Kern's Submit to Me Now!
All that said, there's still the issue of the horror, the weakest element of this otherwise strong and moving film. The vamp fangs are clearly the two dollar plastic variety and while that could have worked --like if he was too drunk to tell if she's just joking or really trying to bite him -- plastic or real - etc., they play it straight and by then the film's run on kind of long, there's still no denying this is a significant and impressive low budget work; if the climax is a let-down it's only because the rest of it is so much better than it has any right to be.
The main issue with both these femme fatales of course is the weird dichotomies - Scarlett rocks the posh accent but dresses like a waterfront Lars Von Trier prostitute, and why is her spaceship an SUV? And as vamp Anna, Meredith Snaider is too short to be scary; I would have liked to see her taller, or more mature, played by a real gravitas-bearing actress who somehow seemed separate from the murky twentysomething slacker low-key characters in the film, none of whom seem to emerge from the murk to become any archetypal vampire types (the one kid tries to be a Van Helsing rescuer of sorts but it never pans out though he does get in a great stream-of-babblelogue about the real vampire being all around us in the choking overreach of society and popular culture). So in the end it's not as effective as a vampire or horror film but does work as an authentically booze-engulfed LES twentysomething denizen depiction, wherein the sense of world-weary isolation, the cultural vampire metaphor, works.
The reverse is perhaps true for Under the Skin, which has a few striking visuals involving black goo (are the aliens merely tar babies drawn from this murk, as in they're all one giant amoeba that occasionally splits off and dons a pelt like a wolf in sheep clothing?) and in one climactic shot we're able to realize the way even the most horrifying sight can blend in perfectly with twisting sunless old growth forest. Critics have noted the way our earth becomes so easily alien and terrifying through Scarlett's eyes, and how inherently alien she looks to begin with, and the weird similarities between these alien seduction / immersions and the reality of reported alien abductions, and the similarity between these aliens and the weird eye thing in Liquid Sky. While I get all that I'm still not convinced. Were my expectations too high? I wasn't high at all... was that it? Days later I'm still thinking about it, and the film did help strangeify that long walk uphill from BAM to our Park Slope digs on a late night Good Friday, half the locals seemingly gone upstate to visit relatives for Easter, leaving the neighborhood feeling very abandoned and surreal like an alien world. It wasn't quite the same surreal walk home after the midnight UES showing of Mulholland Dr. ten years earlier, but it came damn close, and in the end, I guess, that's the best movies can do if they want to be both artsy and get us to not wait for video. To get us to trek out there into the dark foreboding night and pay over ten bucks to spend a couple hours parked next to strangers, our purse and coat pockets easily accessible to them and to bed bugs, the film has to seamlessly link up to all those things, to forge a direct traversable doorway between our lives, where we are inside our own skins and their outer furs, wherein our seeing the film, and the film itself, become merged. If a film can't make the walk home resonate like we're seeing the world through a different pair of eyes than the ones we came in with, then why did we ever leave the safety of our homes to begin with? Wherein films of the past, like Habit, can link up to our memories rather than our tomorrows, and trekking to the neighborhood video store in the wearying sunshine of a Sunday used to help create some kind of anticipatory context, all that is forgotten in favor of Netflix, the delivery system that sluggens down to a slowmo swim the last vestiges of our impetus to move through the tar pit black quicksand stasis to actually pursue a film down its sprocket breadcrumb trailers rather than let it come to us like lazy Charlottes. One day maybe soon we won't even need our own memories, our own darkness, a seat, speakers, ears, or the screens in our retinae. We'll be the viewer and the viewed in one looping orbital motion -burnt onto a stack of DVDs on a dusty shelf. And hopefully none of them, not ever, will be Transcendence.