Under the Skin (2013) – Infected by Each Other

Jonathan Glazer’s third film Under The Skin is something of a puzzle. Loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film concerns itself with an alien who poses as a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) in order to lure single men to a strange alien space. Once trapped in the space, the men are absorbed by a black liquid that keeps them alive until the time comes for their flesh and organs to be harvested. However, the more time the alien spends in the company of humans, the more she is forced to refine her seduction techniques and this process of refinement seems to alienate her from her function.

Most (positive) reviews of the film praise Glazer’s visual panache and speculate that the film is concerned with human empathy and the process of becoming human. While I don’t disagree with this assessment, I do think it short-changes what is a very clever and unsettling film. The truth is that Glazer does not give his audience very much to work with when it comes to working out what the film is about and therein lies the point that the film is trying to get across.

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REVIEW – Upstream Color (2013)

Upstream-Color-PosterFilmJuice have my review of Seth Carruth’s art house SF film Upstream Color, which came out this week on DVD and Blu-ray. I loved the film but it also made me intensely aware of the limitations of certain styles of cinematic storytelling.

At the heart of Upstream Color is a very conventional relationship movie: Two fragile people struggling to overcome life-threatening traumas meet on public transport and immediately recognise themselves in each other. Initially quite tentative, the two fragile people orbit around each other; feeling the attraction but afraid of getting too close lest they get sucked in. When the pair do eventually commit to each other they connect on such a profound level that the lines where one person stops and another person begins begin to blur. Whose memories are these? Whose emotions are these? Am I me? Are you me? Told in a way that emphasises visual storytelling over verbal exposition, Upstream Color looks and feels very much like the type of film that European art house cinema has been churning out for the last fifty years. World cinema is a very different cinematic tradition to that of Hollywood but the techniques and themes favoured by that tradition mean that Carruth can quite easily pick up their tools and tell yet another story about alienated people undergoing the ambivalent process of change associated with love and the construction of a couple’s subjectivity. This cinematic vocabulary is a mature system and Carruth is a talented-enough director to use those tools to tell a really effective if ultimately unchallenging relationship story. However, Upstream Color is a lot more besides…

Halfway through watching the film, I pointed out on Twitter that Upstream Color felt a lot like someone using an iPad to make scrambled eggs. What I meant by this was that while the core story was really quite mundane and unadventurous, Carruth tells his story using one of the richest and most complex metaphorical infrastructures in recent cinematic history. Yes, this film is all about empathy and Carruth uses an explicitly Science Fictional device to explore how empathy can open us up to good as well as bad experiences, Carruth’s device is actually a lot more complex than a traditional relationship drama would require. Indeed, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer trod similar ground by making Buffy temporarily telepathic, Carruth cracks the egg of human relationships with the genre equivalent of a sledgehammer. A worm that, when consumed, puts people in state of such psychological vulnerability that someone can effectively clean out their bank account, destroy their life and order them to forget the whole thing. Even more conceptually lavish, Carruth explores the life-cycle of these worms and how, once removed from a human host, they allow people who understand the technology to ‘check in’ and watch the people that were once infected. Frankly, there are enough ideas and story-hooks in these worms to support and entire film festival but Carruth only really begins to exploit the thematic potential of his device at the end of the film:

Aware that his genre tropes can probably handle a lot more than a simple relationship story, Carruth devotes the final act to pushing the limits of his metaphorical infrastructure and so we are treated to an absolutely beautiful sequence in which the life-cycle of the worms is revealed and a further sequence in which Jeff and Kris confront their shared trauma and tentatively begin edging towards a less isolated way of living. Carruth handles both of these expansions quite well but the combination of oblique storytelling techniques and limited space means that much of their thematic and dramatic potential must remain untapped. Indeed, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life spends over two hours wrestling with ideas far less substantial than the ones that Carruth rushes through in less than ten minutes!

In an age when both art house and mainstream directors are making films based on tired and insubstantial ideas, it is both refreshing and slightly overwhelming to encounter a film that could easily have been a trilogy or a series. Upstream Color is not just an incredibly beautiful and well-told story, it is a film so full of ideas and thematic resonances that it is almost too frustrating to watch. Sitting through Upstream Color I was struck by the extent to which art house cinematic techniques struggle to convey new types of information. Watch enough art house films about alienated people trying to get their lives back on track and those techniques are incredibly effective at conveying mood and theme but ask those techniques to explore the psychic fallout of discovering that you are only one of hundreds of people who have been secretly observed by shadowy figures and those techniques begin to struggle. Upstream Color could have been about the NSA and Google dismantling privacy, it could have been about post-traumatic stress or it could have been about the psychic fallout from being involved in a mass event like a terrorist atrocity or a religious cult. It could have been about any of these things and yet the film ended too soon.

Zona (2012) By Geoff Dyer – Then, after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike!

Geoff Dyer is a man who knows the value of an unconventional job title. Rather than sauntering through life as a simple novelist, critic, travel writer, historian or essayist, Dyer has tried his hand at many different forms and somehow evaded becoming particularly associated with any of them. Geoff Dyer is not a novelist who writes criticism or a travel writer who produces novels, he is all of these things and yet none of them. Like a Renaissance princeling or Imperial Khan, his name is habitually appended with an ever-growing succession of baroque and idiosyncratic job titles ranging from the mundane (writer) and the old fashioned (intellectual) to the endearingly preposterous (intellectual gate-crasher). Frankly, if Dyer began describing himself as a servant of the Secret Fire and wielder of the Flame of Anor I doubt that anyone would be particularly surprised. Dyer evades encapsulation in the same way as Pynchon evades publicity… his elusiveness is central to his charm.

In a typically warm, insightful and engaging interview conducted by Colin Marshall, Dyer explains the reasoning behind his steadfast refusal to either commit to any particular form or abide by the rules of any of the forms he operates in.  Dyer’s end game is to create a body of work whose allure bears no relation to its actual subject matter. For example, you may have no interest in the life and work of D.H. Lawrence but this should not prevent you from being entertained by Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997), a book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. Similarly, you might prefer the idea of burying your face in an ants nest to reading another novel about spiritually disaffected upper-middle class people but this should in no way prevent you from enjoying Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009).

With no apparent form or subject matter to call his own, the seat of Dyer’s charm is… well… Dyer himself. As Michael Silverblatt put it when he interviewed Dyer, there is something decidedly likeable about a man who travels the world only to obsess over finding the correct local iteration of his preferred breakfast. There is something instantly recognisable about a man who loves books and films but never the ones that he is supposed to be reading at any given moment. As in the works of J.G. Ballard, this persona may change slightly from book to book and from article to article but that voice and that character are present in everything that Dyer writes. Chances are that if you like the persona that Dyer presents in all of his writings then you will happily read anything that Dyer has to say as the true subject of Dyer’s books and articles is invariably himself.

Those immune to Dyer’s charms may well view Dyer’s methodology as supremely egocentric and dishonest. Indeed, how many people have purchased Out of Sheer Rage expecting an award-winning biography of Lawrence only to discover that the book is actually the amusing tale of a hapless writer who scoffs almond croissants goes on holiday and crashes his moped? These un-named and potentially fictitious critics may well be completely right about Dyer but they are also missing the point.

There are many reasons for deciding to read a particular book (plot, characterisation, social commentary, prose style) but one of the most compelling is that the process of reading someone else’s thoughts allows you to gain access to that person’s headspace for extended periods of time. To read a book is to experience something – a time, a place, a film, a relationship – through the eyes of an author and when that author has a set of sensibilities as distinct and engaging as those of Geoff Dyer then sharing that author’s headspace can become an end in itself. If the point of Dyer’s writing is to allow us to hear the world described by his voice then his latest work Zona (2012) is his most successful to date.

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Julia (2008) – An Experiment in Unsympathetic Empathy

What can I say? I understand Lars von Trier. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there at the Cannes film festival… I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit.

When von Trier announced that he felt sympathy for Hitler, the grandees of the Cannes film festival responded by declaring him persona non grata. While much can be said of von Trier’s history of provocation, I believe that von Trier’s real mistake lay in expressing sympathy for Hitler rather than empathy. Indeed, while empathy involves understanding why someone does what they do and ‘feeling their pain’, sympathy means also seeing that person in a positive light. The slipperiness of these two concepts and their tendency to bleed into one another poses something of a challenge for writers because empathy and sympathy are quite different concepts. We should be able to understand why someone did something without seeing those actions as in any way acceptable.

Humans can be a surprisingly forgiving bunch and the more we understand another person, the more likely we are to see their actions as justified even if we do not necessarily agree with them. Because of this quirk in human nature, there is a tendency for unlikeable characters to wither beneath the glare of sustained psychological scrutiny, meaning that the more you explore a character’s back story and explain their motivations, the more likely it is that an unsympathetic bastard will turn into a big misunderstood puppy.  One could even argue that our tendency to automatically feel sympathy for the characters with whom we empathise accounts for the rise of psychopaths as anti-heroes. Indeed, by labelling a character as a psychopath, writers are making it clear that we ought not to feel much sympathy for them. Consider, for example the difference between character such as Dexter Morgan from Dexter and Vic Mackey from the Shield: Both are stone-cold killers who do not flinch from using horrific violence when it suits them. However, because Dexter has the label ‘psychopath’ attached to him, the character can never be completely sympathetic and so maintains his edge. Conversely, Vic Mackey is just a corrupt cop and, over the series, his actions take on a logic of their own that shifts the character from morally dysfunctional anti-hero to Dirty Harry-style crusader with a private sense of morality. Tellingly, when The Shield ended, Mackey’s future as an office drone was played for its pathos… we were supposed to feel sorry for a man denied access to the streets.

Based upon John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980), Erick Zonca’s Julia can be seen as an attempt to solve this unintentional drift from empathy to sympathy. Telling the story of a selfish, unpleasant and manipulative alcoholic who kidnaps a child, the film works very hard at humanising its protagonist whilst retaining the opinion that she is a wretched human who is undeserving of either our sympathy or forgiveness. While the experiment is not entirely successful and the film does eventually collapse into something approaching sympathy for its protagonist, the move towards a more sympathetic portrayal is marked by a parallel drift away from character-based drama and towards a more genre-friendly approach to storytelling, thus begging the question as to whether we are more forgiving of genre characters than we are of real people.


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The White Ribbon (2009) – The Challenge of Empathy

To understand the films of Michael Haneke, one must first understand his deep ambivalence towards the themes and techniques of genre film-making.  In The Time of The Wolf (2003) it was the post-apocalyptic.  In Hidden (2005) it was the mystery.  In Funny Games (1997) it was the slasher.  All of these films would happily fit within the genre canons that inspired them were it not for Haneke’s almost visceral reaction against the cosily self-indulgent safety of genre.

To go and see a genre film is to arrive at the cinema with a certain set of expectations.  The purchase of the ticket is a contract : Scare me.  Thrill me.  Entertain me.  Move me.  We know what we want and we happily pay to receive it.

Haneke is a filmmaker who refuses all such contractual relationships.  He uses the methods of genre to engineer not the effects that audiences have been conditioned to expect, but rather something different.  Something far more subversive.  For example, in both versions of Funny Games, the story of a family’s torture and murder allows the filmmaker to challenge his audience’s desire to watch such atrocities.  At one point, Haneke allows one of his characters to escape their fate only for the murderer to pick up a remote control and rewind the film in order to foil the escape.  Audiences are to be denied the consolations of genre even if it means that the fourth wall must be shattered in the process.  The same is true of Hidden.  Haneke apes the mystery so effectively that the audience begins to tie itself in knots, picking over clues scattered throughout the narrative as to the identity of the stalker.  However, Haneke refuses to resolve this question, leaving instead the methods, motivations and identity of the stalker unanswered.  Soon the question changes from “who is doing this to the character?” to “what has the character done to deserve this?”.  The main character begins to pick over his past until he eventually uncovers some terrible secret.  A secret that might not have caused the film’s goings on but which could plausibly inspire them.  This is the whodunit not as a form of palliative reassurance that no crime will go unpunished.  Instead Hidden uses the themes and movements of the mystery genre to imply universal guilt, not only in its characters but in its audience.  Are you, the film seems to ask, really innocent?

Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte
sees Haneke return to the same hostile and yet pragmatic relationship with genre themes and images to request of us a leap of empathy and understanding.

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