Under the Skin Jonathan Glazer (UK 2013) Scarlett Johansson
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema, 25 March 2014; Ticket: £8.80
Sort of 20-50 vision
A vampire movie manqué with ETs playing zombies as slinky Scarlett cast as Laura the unnameable, po-faces her way through the movie as a white van vamp woman. After zeroing a few guys in black sump oil Scarlett finally disintegrates both mentally and physically, in the traditional way that vamps wilt in the midday sun. As an successful exercise in vacuity, her death is hard to beat.
Viewing Jonathan Glazer's 'Skin' movie I saw all the signs of a post-modernist conceit. It's an art ref movie drawing primary inspiration from installation art. 'Skin comprises of a number of cameo sequences that are a series of spectacles, disconnected events and situations, that are less cinema more 'walk through'.
In so far as it is 'walk through' spectacle the film is made complete only by the gaze of the audience. The gaze and the presented image are one, in the sense that a firework display as spectacle, must be validated by an audience. Their gaze is directed at and is part of the spectacle, whose justification is usually not part of its expression; the viewer gazes on an abstract expressive form. Understanding the event for the audience means referrence to socio-cultural knowledge extrinsic to the spectacle. For instance, connecting a firework display to the 14th July or Guy Fawkes night. The gaze has to refer extrinsically for an events signification, and is in opposition to seeing.
Seeing connects with immediate effect to an understanding of what is exposed or revealed. Seeing involves, a direct connection with its object; it is an extrapolation of the self into the experience.
Jonathan Glazer's movie exists for the gaze. It is a post-modernist exercise in film pointing the viewer to signifiers outside of itself. Taking the form of an installation 'Skin' exploits signs symbols and icons drawn from the worlds of art and populat culure to reference itself.
Watching 'Skin' it looked like the primary frame of reference for Glazer was the installation works of Bill Viola and their unity with 'gaze'.
Some recent works of Bill Viola such as Reflecting Pool or the Crossing, have as the defining feature of their form, exteriority, and of their content, their Weirdness. Viola installations create a situation or an event: Within these there is no context other than the setting; the event is self contained; there is neither explanation nor engaged emotion. Gaze is confronted with 'the Weird.' The works are beautifully fabricated and both these cases involve 'wetness'.
Viola as artist provides a similar spectacle for the gaze (stripped of justifying mumbo jumbo) to that given by Spiritualist performers of the nineteenth century, such as the Fox sisters. This form of Spiritualism was always a performance event, an 'installation' even. But in Viola's work, an 'Art' belief system rather than 'After-life' belief system, is the 'Frame'. Viola's 21st century water spectacles are a sort of transposed 19th century ectoplasm, and as with those strange photographs of 19th century Spiritualism, images capture gaze. With the Crossing and the Reflecting Pool, Bill Viola suggests a notion of 'life' that stretches beyond the rational into a metaphysical realm, a realm that can be claimed for 'Art'. The which claim, just like the performances of spiritualists, provides comfort of a sort to those seeking such comfort. For everyone else, there remains the aesthetic of fabficating the ineluctable.
Under the Skin, takes its cue from the metaphysical suggestions implicit in Viola's work. The form and the content resonate within the same spheres. No emotion, self contained, no context (setting yes in Arbroath area) no meaning other than 'Art'. But whereas Viola's work is confined to a single event or situation, Glazer's movie chews through a multiplicity of events and situations in his desperate attempt to concoct a scenario. And as the film lurches on from scene to scene, situation to situation so the project becomes increasingly troubled, until the hopelessly meandering script runs out of road and the decision is taken to put the thing to death.
If the form of Under the Skin derives from work by artists such as Bill Viola then its content owes much to contemporary British art, pop art, referential film iconography and Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. A derivative menu of references cobbled together in a stylistic potpourri.
At the core of the film's stylistic referents is Richard Wilson's seminal sculptural piece 20/50, one of the signature pieces of Saatchi's collection. It is a sculpture that comprises a large reflecting pool of black sump oil with a viewing platform that allows viewer to stand directly over it. Richard Wilson's idea of a viscous black pool plays a central role in the 'Skin' scenario. Glazer uses a similar sort of liquid black ectoplasmic pool into which Laura draws her male prey. These scenes of seduction, thrice repeated, comprise the glossy visual centrefold of Under the Skin: Scarlett's victims lured and entranced by her body step down into and then under the overfolding black viscous substance. It's a spectacle of implied finality but interestingly it has a metaphysical afterburn in that the victims don't seem to die immediately, but something other happens to them. In the 20/50 version of inverse ectoplasm, the victims seem to deform and coagulate. Of course it's not at all clear what is going on, but again that's just like those old 19th century photographs.
Also thrown into the 'Skin' plotpot are Cocteau's motorbike leather angels from Orphee. And the glaring white backgrounds via David Bailey from Antonioni's Blow Up (also the rather arch dialogue spoken by Scarlett was very reminiscent of Sarah Miles' delivery in Blow Up). There is also Scorcese's fascination with night time reflected and refracted light, played out repeatedly as seen from the interior of the white van.
From the Pop art side there's the invention of White Van Woman as serial killer. The only problem is that Scarlett after she's lured her prey into the 20/50 pond, has nowhere else to go.
There is a current fashion in films with Art pretensions to include a lot of 'meaningful' landscape shots. Glazer's 'Skin' is replete with such shots. When used by film maker Peter Strickland in Katalin Varga landscape does interlock with the script. But in 'Skin' the use of the forests the seas the mountains look like polyfilla, just something to toss onto the timeline to show you're trying to make something of the material. In 'Skin' the trick does not work.
Lastly the plot, if you can call it that, has something of the crazed lurching quality that characterised the sort of plays that Ken Campbell used to put together for the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. But with live actors the script was an pretext to present and develop ideas; he tongue in cheek ethos of the ensemble allowed a fine intermix of farce and serious propositions. This is hard to achieve in film, and is certainly not accomplished by 'Skin' . But imagine my surprise at the finale of Skin, when a dead ringer for the late Ken Campbell appears on screen as a character in the woods and meets Laura. Having failed to get his wellie over, he proceeds to hoy a bucket of petrol over her and torch the bitch. Very interesting. Even if it wasn't that funny.
My reading is that Glazer intended Under the Skin to be a cool detached referential vehicle for “Art” with a nod towards the absurd. It ends up a jumbled farrago of motifs, less than the sum of its parts, that looks like it has been rescued somewhere in the cutting room. The danger is when you have a project that comprises and hangs on a wide range of source material, you don't end up with a film, you end up with a vanity project.