Alien-Nation

May 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

Scarlett-Johansson-in-Under-the-Skin-2012-Movie-Image

A few months ago, I watched Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and have been wanting to write about it since. Coming back to my blog to do so, after an absence of several months, I notice some strange similarities between my last post (on the Scottish independence referendum) and the fragmentary thoughts which follow here: an underlying emphasis on difficult questions of identity, nation, and self-definition.

To be clear: Under the Skin is not a film about Scottish politics. Over its two hours, an alien in the form of Scarlett Johansson drives a white van through the streets of Glasgow, engaging in conversations with young men, some of whom she lures back to a warehouse where they are consumed. (It’s difficult to know how better to describe what happens: they are absorbed into a black, viscous substance which also collapses the spatial dimensions of the warehouse interior.) Eventually, however, the being Johansson plays deviates from this repetitive process and is pursued by her ‘minder’ (who takes the form of a man in bike leathers) into a forest, where the dénouement occurs.

So far, so oblique. The film certainly eschews any obvious narrative structure, and it is precisely its ambiguity that makes it so fascinating: what is Johansson? Why has she/it arrived on earth? What happens to the men?

In one sense, however, there is a relatively clear ethical movement in the film: the alien deviates from her programme because of an increased sense, and appreciation, of human intimacy (although it is never fully consummated). I won’t delve here into the theories of cinema’s use of the figure of touch as an emotive strategy that do the rounds with the academic sphere. Suffice to say that the close-up shots of textures and surfaces (from human skin to the ruins of a castle) grow increasingly frequent through the film.  At one point, the alien accompanies a man into his home, where she watches Tommy Cooper on TV and has a failed sexual encounter.

How, then, does all of this relate to Scotland, and to politics? There are two moments in the film which suggest that the choice of location is not entirely arbitrary. One is an overheard snatch of radio on a Glasgow street, which locates the action in 2014 and mentions the upcoming independence referendum. The other comes much later, in a walkers’ refuge in a forest: inside, draped over one of the bare stone walls, is the Royal Standard of Scotland (the one with the red lion on a yellow background).

These moments introduce a sense of the documentary, of real’ place into this fictional narrative. In this respect, it is crucial to point out here that much of the footage of Johansson in Glasgow was shot covertly: so many of the men she talks to through her van window are not actors, and are not aware that they are talking to a Hollywood star (who is disguised with a black wig). The self-interested sexual desire on display is not always acted. The line between reality and fiction thus becomes still more blurred – there is little, for me, that matches the strangeness of seeing Johansson, in a leopard-print coat, wander past Claire’s Accessories in a Glasgow shopping centre.

My hunch, and I can’t yet articulate it as more than a hunch, is that in this film Glazer is making a subtle comment on people’s disengagement from the world, and from each other, in Scotland/the UK/the ‘West’. The blurb on the DVD jacket suggests that Under the Skin is ‘about seeing ourselves through alien eyes’. What we see is the unsettled, vertiginous nature of our relationships to each other. And this is what politics is (or should be) about: although after this general election campaign it might seem otherwise, there is more to it than the cutting of deficits and taxes. There is, fundamentally, the problem of what to do with one another.

Sadly, there seems to be little space in the traditional political forum for discussion in these terms. Is it entirely naïve to hope for a change?

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