Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Monday, April 21, 2014

Antichrist in Translation: UNDER THE SKIN, HABIT

Showing off scars, from top: Under the Skin, Habit
Under the Skin (2014), the new slick dark green opus from Brian (Birth) Glazer, is a film that links up one's panic attacks before and after itself (as seen by you, the viewer) and signals the future of cinematic horror-science fiction as less about acting and thrills and more about the viewer's brain dissolving itself in a pool of black oil in the middle of a dark forlorn forest, wondering as it fades how it hears the rain and sizzle without ears. 2014's first official trans-humanist off-world 'chance to begin again' at that Crystal Peak moment of post-modern social decay, the screen on which it's showing as permeable as a jet black oil-filled swimming pool, Skin is not just mercury mirror from ye auld Cocteau Orphee, not just the menstrual matrix of Shauna Macdonald's Descent. It's the next step deeper. Just don't expect to climb out in the same skin you wore when you dove or were sucked in, because you're not just wet but changed. You emerge as different from your old tar pit-stuck self as a tetrapod is from a placoderm.

I collaged this image/s together/m and are real prowed
I know how it is, bro. I began the weekend with a terrible panic attack. Friday crashed down around me in hailstorms of at-work red tape hot potatoes, allergies, depression, and free-form anxiety based on the need, ignored for years now, to take my girlfriend anywhere other than our couch in front of the TV, realizing the pressure was on. She wanted to go out to the movies this time. My blood ran cold and I shook like the gallows pole was sliding up me arse when I got home from work, trembling on the floor in a ball 'til she tossed a half-a Xanax down in front of me and like a good dog I went scrambling after it. And so we caught the late show of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin down at the BAM. Wandering back home afterwards, up Flatbush around midnight, through half-deserted and strangely-lit Good Friday-empty Brooklyn, cutting through the uphill haze of alienated liquid light Flatbush Ave reflection, stale popcorn nausea and post-half Xanax glow wobbliness pulsing through our hamstrings, we knew something weird had happened. 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, but it was certainly art. Instead of a flow there is--buried in mossy 'membrances of Basil Twist-y underwater shirt twirlings--the sense of drowning in place, and that's all art can ever hope to convey. The darkness of the theater swallowed my soul right up behind itself, each block behind us falling into Blitz-era blackout, and even as we floated up to the smoky safe squalor of our flat, it was still there, the cord between the Twisty twirling and my body stretched to G sharp and Carpenter-ominous.

The paranoid terror red hot potato Poe-level paranoia was waiting, at home, arms crossed,  workplace anxiety-focused fury unabashed, for that X-half to wear off.

I felt half digested, like it.


Then, I realized where my paranoid terror was coming from: it was coming from Mad Men.

It was related to rewatching all six seasons of 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 at-work woes. So it's true, then. I'm already half-sunk into the black oil image, I can't always remember where I end and TV begins - since I live in NYC I get confused too and think people I know from TV or movies are people I know from work if I see them on the street (there's a lot of traffic through each).

But when things get too intense at home, by which I mean onscreen, I can 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." To our cat we at home must look often like statues, frozen in seated positions on the couch, before the glowing square, awaiting our orders.... hours and weeks at a time pass in addled bemusement.


But away from the safety zone of our apartment, the world is cold, dark, harsh: Glazer lures us into a dark and alien theater on the power of Birth and the sexual allure of Scarlett Johansson, and suddenly we're not even safe in our own simulacrum. Set mostly in and around the dark shroud of Glasgow, Skin is rich with bleakly beautiful panoramas of bowling alleys, cobblestone streets with sad pubs, panic attack strobe dance clubs, 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, it's so harrowingly existential 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 were swept away with nary a sympathetic string to let us know that the filmmakers, too, are horrified rather than mountain-level indifferent. We're not given any indication Glazer cares about the fate of anyone, even himself, even his film's success or failure, and that kind of ambiguity is chilling, and even somewhat original. And there's also working class yobbos: their slang as indecipherable as an alien tongue, setting up a class divide against Scarlett's posh Londoner accent and... damn, I can't move on. How do you get back to a film's familiar Devil Girl From Mars plot after seeing that poor bereft toddler screaming, abandoned to the incoming tide on a deserted stretch of beach 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 deformed lion boy pick-up throws us yet another mickey. Whole reels 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 compassionate Ann Bancroft at the Lynchian epidermal symbolism carnival moment? 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 forest-ward for safety! Wrong way! Take the shot - melt into the forest couch so Robert Carlyle can't find ya. I'm no great lover of children, but to let that child get sucked off to its death purely to illustrate your hard ambivalence one minute makes me not care that you suddenly care the next, even if you are the divine Miss ScarJo.


That's the problem with this film, though I respect others who love it. Lourde knows I would have followed Miss Scarlett 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 her alien here seems to have very little real power and decays in ways that make us hope 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 vengeance. Instead all we're left with is the unsettling and dispiriting idea that Scotland's working class might be collectively more dangerous 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 like 2001 when you're not in the right mood for slowmo "Maisie."


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 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. If you want a real movie that does real things these days, you need to stay home and just imagine it. 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 tighten around your neck like a dominatrix dog collar. If they don't tighten 'til you're gallows engorged, they're worried you won't feel anything at all - like we're a collective of autoerotic asphyxiation addicts.

The next stage will be where you spend your ten dollars just 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 in parking lot circles, you grow furious that this hypothetical almost-movie would subject you to such violence, that are such awful people in the world. Dig, the movie is you, mate! Deep, man Ten dollars anyway, a foot.

Locke 
Another problem with UNDER THE SKIN: what's with the mean male handler (Jeremy McWilliams) with the motorcycle humpsuit? There's a kind of icky chauvinist undercurrent--like male filmmakers aren't comfortable with castrating Venusian bitches unless there's a man in charge of her/them (see my expose of cinema's pimps both before and behind the lens). Scarlett's voluptuous body, stripped to black bra and skintight black jeans, becomes the whole show--just her and the black box rooms with the wet floors --so we really don't give a shit about this handler with his smug countenance. Ain't right he should have such power over her. The first film of this ilk that transcends the pimp factor head on and smashes it? Daughters of Darkness -- the most recent -- Neil  Jordan's Byzantium!

Under the Skin tries hard to puncture some hidden and vital vein in our decaying culture, and it does get down to the way any sense of a dislocated universal all-seeing eye (locus of identification/camera) dissolves when one is alone in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere. When no one can hear you scream, you're not screaming. So Scarlett's web-mobile rolls slowly through Scotland, trying to snare the dusty bodies of hunched-over men, pummeling their way on foot through the darkness towards home from shopping or the bus or working long after normal people go to sleep. This Scotland seems as abandoned as some lifeless corner of the galaxy. She's all alone, and between the darkness of an experimental intro that's just drones and a pinpoint of light, and the rainy woodsy 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 going to be so easy this time. Aside from 'in Scotland' we never know where we are, except that we're treading the line between modernist ambiguity and hedging indecisiveness... Glazer indeed.

In his second feature, the Kubrickian Birth, Glazer gave us a real soul in Nicole Kidman, whose gamin innocence ruptured all his shady attempts to modernize her. Beautiful with her Rosemary buzz cut and with Anne Heche as a brassy Lady Macbeth that colored the painting of our fear that nothing was true, Birth was more Kubrick than Eyes Wide Shut, but still it lacked the feeling of being aware of Earth's planetary orbit. In The Shining and 2001 you can actually feel the world turning below the feet of the Steadicam operator, 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 orbits meet and eclipse each other until both disappear, and with them, the sense that any kind of stasis or stillness is anything but illusion.


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 spell's broken there's nowhere to go but towards macroscope finality. It's the kind of film that depends on Wikipedia and summations of the original source novel for its post-mortem autopsy translation. My GF read them to me afterwards but I was sick off too much stale popcorn, and was coming down off that half doggie Xanax, and the terrors of bureaucratic power mixed with Mad Men bleed-over finally besting me and my office fuckup DTs. My weekend was ruined... forever minus two hours. 

At any rate, I appreciate a film that needs a drive or walk to and from itself to cohere. But if even then there's no real coherence, except that which we give, out of our longing to not disappoint sweet Scarlett, then it's not even itself.


Before that, there was Larry Fessenden's 1995 low rent horror opus, Habit (Netflixed after admiring his friend Wingard's You're Next). As befits its post-Blank Generation style and Liquid Sky content, Fessenden wears all the hats and stars as Sam, a bartender and witty drunk from the era of the 90s. Hey I drank the same way, at the same time, in his same neighborhood (he bartends at the Hat, the great Mexican restaurant in the LES with the super strong take-out margaritas, though in parts it looks like Ludlow Bar, and Max Fish rolled together.) I think I've even used his great line about booze and cigarettes being a form committing suicide on the installment plan. Great minds, man. And, with his wild hair and missing front teeth, Fessenden is a great shaggy antihero, of the rare type where intellect and the ability to succinctly share one's inner feelings are not the marks of a square, nor missing teeth the mark of a townie scrub. He must have been really drinking 'cuz I think he's amazing here, and not as paunchy as he is now (drinking will do that), in things like The Innkeepers. And there's some really great drinking scenes, wherein chats with his friends, about his new girlfriend Anna (Meredith Snaider)'s habit of sucking his blood during sex, come out as organic and low-key as any normal conversation, neither forced, melodramatic or otherwise.... and she doesn't need a pimp to wave his wand and 'allow' her to feast like in The Vampire Lovers. Fuck that.


Fessenden also has a great gift for framing shots within the tight confines of small realistically dilapidated apartments. The Halloween party sequence wherein he first meets Anna is a masterpiece of tight economical framing. We've been to that same party before--20-40 people in the 20s all crammed happily into a long but thin railroad apartment set up with streamers and kegs--and the sustained conversational tone Fressenden captures is nothing short of a post-no-wave marvel. Sounding like an early Jack Nicholson but not trying to, Fessenden navigates his way through the start of a sexy relationship with Anna and into a rapidly downward spiraling series of options, as boozers often will. The hand job in Battery Park was one of the hotter punk rock sex scenes I've witnessed in some time, too, for being so sudden, realistic, intense, and out of left field, i.e. real. 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. Still, 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 films' femme fatales of course is the weird dichotomy they represent in a male auteur-verse: 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 emerge 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 popular culture). So if in the end it may not be effective as a scary horror film, it does work as an authentically booze-engulfed LES twentysomething denizen depiction, wherein the sense of world-weary isolation is so acute that the vampire metaphor is almost redundant.


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 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... just poisoned by panic... 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. Maybe 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 bed bugs and junkie fingers, the film has to seamlessly link up to all those things, to forge a doorway between our lives, where we are inside our own skins and their outer furs, wherein our seeing the film and the film itself merge. If a film can't make the walk home resonate 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? Underground nuggets from the 90s like Habit, on the other hand, go the other way, to link up to our memories of being in our 20s in Manhattan in the 90s, a time when trekking to the neighborhood video store in the wearying sunshine of a hungover Sunday afternoon used to help create some kind of anticipatory context, some ceremony, even for old favorites. Both those trips -forward to theater and back to the rental place, are forgotten now in favor of Netflix, the delivery system that sluggens down to a slow-mo swim our escape path through the tar pit black quicksand stasis of reality. One day maybe soon we won't even need our own memories, our own darkness, our own seat, speakers, ears, ossicles, neurons. We'll be the viewer and the viewed in one looping orbital motion, the entirety of our senses transferred onto a stack of DVDs on a dusty shelf, and hopefully none of them, not ever, will be Transcendence. 

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