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?

So why are you studying here?

August 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

…I have been asked several times in the three weeks I’ve been here. Not an unreasonable question, and one with no immediately obvious answer, beyond the fact that I had to do something, somewhere for a year. But as it turns out, I think the faculty of philosophy and literature at UBA (Buenos Aires’ public university) will work quite well for me. There are some great teachers and courses – and it’s not quite like university at home, which I reckon is a good thing.

In fact, one of the more common discussions I seem to have with friends and family in the UK is over what a university should be for, what ‘university’ really means. This may not the place to wade into the depths of that debate (but please comment if you disagree!), one thing I have clear now is that ‘university’ in Argentina means political activism, or an appearance of it, on a scale quite unlike anything in Britain. Here are a few photos of my faculty to illustrate (not mine – from here):

As the last photo suggests, it’s not just a question of politics, but of very left-wing politics: lots of slogans about revolution and solidarity. In the run-up to the elections this past Sunday, I was a bit bewildered by the sheer variety of different socialist parties on offer: the workers’ movement, the socialist workers’ party, the ‘Consequential Left’ (my favourite). Admittedly I don’t think any of these have much force in the country or even the city, but they clearly mean something within the faculty.

Do I wish Cambridge was more like this? Not really, but it makes a refreshing change from the dinner jackets at the Union. And it’s nice to know that some people in the world are daring to think beyond the standard Western capitlalist framework (regardless of whether you think they make any sense). Oh, and they have a good sense of humour:

This is not a chair

Of course, you might equally say that they’re conforming to a standard student type in an entirely predictable way. Once I know some more people there I’ll have to ask – though from what I’ve heard from other porteños (Buenos Aires residents) the faculty certainly has that reputation.

The other reputation is has, which I’ve already had confirmed through personal experience, is that of organisational chaos. Last Friday afternoon, I was scheduled to have a class in ‘Problems in Latin American Literature’, but five minutes after the lecturer had started, an alarm went off. A student popped round to tell us to evacuate the building, and everyone grabbed the things and sauntered downstairs, merrily commenting that it was another bomb alert, what a nuisance, and that we’d have to wait a couple of hours for the police to come. So wait we did, hundreds of people completely blocking the street outside, but at the end of two hours the police hadn’t come and the impromptu group I’d become a part of decided to call it a day.

As far as I understand (and no one was really sure what was going on), it was nothing more than someone calling the police for a laugh. But I also gather it’s a pretty frequent thing (‘practically every Thursday last term’, I heard someone say) – not that the police can ever just discard it. One day there might be real wolf…though I suspect it would probably pick some juicier targets first.

What else have I been up to in the last few days? I’ve seen a couple of films (one – Ausente – excellent, and the other – Copie conforme – good but utterly bewildering). We had a somewhat larger than expected party at our house on Saturday night, and I have generally been enjoying the company of locals and fellow foreigners. I looked back at an old message from a friend about BA the other day, where she said she thought it was impossible to be lonely here. I’m sure that’s not quite true, but from my own experience of people’s warmth and buena onda, I can’t really help but agree.

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