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?

The problem with ‘world cinema’

March 23, 2014 § 6 Comments

the rocket

So that things are clear: I will yield to no one in my love for the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. It’s a great cinema with a really good mix of commercial and arthouse films, and has a brilliant student membership scheme (and a bar!). I was one of the more than 15,000 people to sign a petition protesting at the Competition Comission’s decision to force Cineworld to sell it off. I don’t know what the outcome of that process was, by the way, but for the moment the Picturehouse is still with us.

All that said, a page on their website raised my hackles the other week. It was the description of a film from Laos called The Rocket, which, the Picturehouse tells us, is ‘a feel-good world cinema treat’, and ‘shot through with vibrant local colour’. Both of those phrases are, for me, indicative of a worrying attitude to foreign film productions.

‘World cinema’, in much the same way as ‘world music’, most often seems to denote non-Western cultural production, and as a result, creates a kind of us-and-them approach to cinema where, bizarrely, Anglo Saxon productions are not seen to belong to the ‘world’. It is an apparently meaningless phrase which hides, I think, a fetishisation of what is seen to be ‘exotic’. An assertion of superiority, in other words.

The conversion of ‘local colour’ into a marketable commodity is perhaps even stranger. The transnational nature of cinema makes this inevitable, of course, and I am glad that a film from Laos can be seen in the UK. And not having seen The Rocket, I don’t want to suggest that is guilty of what some films in the ‘world cinema’ category, such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, have been accused of: offering a glamourised version of severe hardship as ‘local colour’ to the international market.

The reason the phrase ‘local colour’ unsettles me is because it reminds me of a rather surreal experience I had in Malaysia in September of last year. I was in Malacca, a fascinating old city, by myself for a few days. There are plenty of historical and cultural sights on offer, but one day, after a busy morning of museums and ruins (and two weeks of travelling prior to that), I decided to go to the cinema.

The cinema was to be found in an enormous shopping mall just beyond Malacca’s historic centre. Wherever I’ve seen them, these super-malls seem to have the same design: several floors of shops, with a food court and then a multiplex cinema on top (I imagine the blueprint is probably from the US). The food court in this one is what I found particularly strange and sad.

Malaysia is justly famous for its street food. My favourite thing about visiting the country was, without doubt,  trying the huge array of dishes available, usually for about 80p, from makeshift stands in places like Malacca and George Town. In this mall, the food court was designed to resemble one of these street markets, complete with mocked-up stalls made from moulded plastic. Needless to say, the prices were rather higher than in the real-life equivalent, there were fewer people, and it was all, for want of a better phrase, much more boring.

It is this co-option of  tradition into bland international culture that is in a sense lurking behind the ‘vibrant local colour’ of ‘world cinema’. It probably has to happen, to an extent, for traditions and local particularities to survive. But I wonder if abandoning that particular terminology might not be more helpful.

The Super 8 footage of memory

April 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while…

Back in March, I saw Submarine, a film directed by Richard Ayoade (Moss from The IT Crowd). If you haven’t seen it, go – it’s the most original film I’ve seen in ages.

I particularly loved it because I have a bit of a soft spot for films that deal with youth and romance, even if they’re actually sickeningly nostalgic – which is most of the time, since  films on wide release tend to be made by grown-ups. Shame. Submarine‘s not one of those, though. In fact, it’s kind of meta-nostalgic. I realise that this sounds like the worst sort of wanky academic terminology, of which I’m particularly wary since my last post had the honour of being described as ‘a particularly facile example of intellectual masturbation’. Bear with me, though: I think it makes sense.

Meta-nostalgic, because the film is clearly very aware that films present adolescent romance nostalgically. There’s a particular, already much-commented sequence which best encapsulates this. The 15 year old narrator, Oliver Tate, tells us about an afternoon spent on the beach with his girlfriend Jordana. He says that he has already transformed this experience into ‘the Super 8 footage of memory’. And sure enough, right on cue we see some charming, scratchy Super 8 footage of the two kids fooling around on the beach. The point is that we arrange our memories the same way a director arranges his/her film: we choose where to cut, where the camera zooms in, what the soundtrack is (pushing it, perhaps). Luis Buñuel said something about films working in the same way as dreams, which is a similar, if more subversive, line of thought.

Meta-nostalgic, then, because Submarine draws attention to the ways films can be nostalgic (or that nostalgia can be cinematic), and then suggests something far less neat or cutesy. For instance, at a low point in their relationship, Oliver laments the fact that without Jordana, he won’t have anyone to singe his leg hair. Which is touching, but in a slightly spooky way. Submarine‘s incredibly pronounced colour-coding (things related to Oliver are blue, things related to Jordana are red) also highlights the artificiality of film  as a way of presenting and organising life. Which might be the artificiality of memory as well – it does feel, as Oliver says, like he is directing the film of his life, and we are watching it. (The colour scheme is also very reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris, which  does an equally good line in blue and red.)

Another Godard nod

The reference to Godard is but one of many cinematic nods (the titles above being one). In that sense it is a very meta film (I hate that expression…there must be a better way of saying that). The main reference that sticks out for me, though, is to François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups, which is arguably the ‘big daddy’ of all youth-nostalgia films. In the several scenes where Oliver runs across the beach, you half-expect him to turn and the shot suddenly to freeze and zoom in, as in the earlier film. It’s the sort of technique Ayoade uses anyway.

Which film am I in?

Anyway, as well as all that, Submarine is a very touching, very funny film. Go watch it.

P.S. Another film which is both of those things is The Kids Are All Right, which I saw yesterday. Might write a post on it soon.

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