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UNDER THE SKIN (2014) dir. Jonathan Glazer

21 Oct

Movies in Japan are a few months behind the latest release. At the moment Under the Skin is playing. Last night I was lying in bed pretty sure that the day was over when I decided to take Joe and Jonny up on an invitation to go on a midnight venture to the movie theatre. It’s been almost half a year since I saw them last. Many days. For posterity I should like to mention that for the first hour, while we waited for Joe, Jonny spent most of the time projectile vomiting in MacDonalds or a 7 Eleven. It was more fun than walking to the 24 hour post office in Shinjuku to find that passbook cash withdrawals are unavailable after 9pm, which was the other thing we did before meeting Joe at Shinjuku station East exit. When Jonny was in the toilet, I read Snow by Orhan Pamuk. It worked out well.

Joe had to lend me the ¥1800 it cost to go to the theatre. Don’t ask why it’s not possible to withdraw on Sunday nights after 9pm. I once made the mistake of researching it and it’s something mindbogglingly dull like there’s nobody to man the desk at the ATM headquarters. Walking through ni-chome to the movie theater, Joe enlightened us about the true nature of closing Yoyogi park. The government and the media have made a big fuss about dengue fever. The gates to Yoyogi are still currently shut. But this means that there’s no platform readily available to the nuclear protesters. Yoyogi is a great space for a large number of people to meet easily to demonstrate. Without it, there isn’t really anywhere for demonstrators to meet and be taken seriously. If they got together outside a station, they would be sneered at for inconveniencing commuters. Joe’s theory makes sense: it is weird that the park continues to remain fenced off now the mozzies are hibernating.

We chose three seats together in the middle of the almost empty auditorium. Jonny had sent a link to the trailer that I didn’t watch. All I knew is that when I asked if it was a period drama, they laughed and said, “no, it’s a sci-fi, kind of”. The opening sequence caught my attention. It seemed to be taking place in space. Something was emerging or focusing. Then the image became an eye – light brown amber eye – with the pupil retracted. A river flowed: a dark channel in a snow covered backdrop. A man on a motorbike collects the body of a woman from the undergrowth and places her in a van. Scarlett Johansson strips the woman and wears the clothes. Even the underwear. From there the story begins.

Scarlett’s character steps out of a building, goes to a shopping mall, selects a fur coat and pink sweater to wear, which seemed to make wearing the dead woman’s attire pointless. Wasn’t she supposed to be pretending to be her? The shopping mall wasn’t one of those fancy spacious American ones. This was clearly the U.K.. It felt crowded. The inhabitants were over-weight. Everything was under loved. Cheap grey or black fabric wrapped around almost every body. Shops displayed their tacky glamour with an inward sense of pride. Their garish products were just there to be bought. The manner in which they were loved was unfathomable to Johansson. It made me a little homesick.

Next Johansson began to drive around the city of Glasgow, talking to young men, asking for directions, taking some in the van. Her utterly heartless behaviour can be seen when she murders a swimmer who has failed to rescue a drowning couple. Their toddler child is alone on the beach crying while she drags the body to the van. Later, to great effect, the man on the motorbike returns to the scene to destroy evidence of the swimmer’s existence. The child still weeps, alone on the shore in the dark. The man walks away unflinchingly.

We learn that Johansson takes the men to empty buildings. She undresses in a room with a black mirrored floor. The men undress and follow her across the room. She continues to walk backwards on the floor as they begin to submerge into it. Very strange indeed. At one point, we’re underneath the floor with one of the victims. Something weird is happening to him. His body creaks. Is he suspended in a fluid? He appears to be able to breathe. Something is going on with his forehead. He spots another man and reaches out to touch him. The other man explodes. A lifeless skin flaps about in the fluid as though a burst balloon. We see a red fluid conveyed through a vent.

At the end of the movie I still didn’t understand this scene at all. Jonny said, “It’s simple. She was murdering the men for their skin for the man on the bike to wear. When they got taken to that place under the floor, their insides were being removed. She began to become too human and experience sympathy so she ran away. The man was looking for her.” She is, of course, an alien. We can be sure of this at the end. The certainty alone made me want to watch this movie again. As we spoke about what we’d each noticed, the conclusion drawn was that there was so much silent detail in this movie it can only end up being a cult classic. Initially though, I’m not sure that I liked it. It felt mysterious in the same way as an amateur short does. Hashed together.

One day later, I feel that I love it. There’s so much to see another time round. Things that made little sense will be clearer with the knowledge she’s not of Earth. She can’t eat human food. She’s worried that her skin has torn after she has sex. Is the man on the motorbike wearing the skin of the previous men she seduced? Do they need the skins for more aliens to wear? Are more coming? The black and white colour scheme was pretty revealing. What more can be seen through that? Did I know one of the extras talking on her phone in a doorway? Gemma from Chester, was that you? Were there scenes near the end filmed ten minutes from where my parents live? (Update – Yes, there were). The questions have kept coming all day, today, another rotation of the Earth.

Later, when were drinking on the street in the vice-laden area of Kabukicho, the thought of comparing this movie to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey made more sense than it did before we’d left the cinema. Today, after reading many reviews that say a wide range of things, I’m impressed. My favorite review is this one from The Guardian newspaper. How is it possible for every critic to say something entirely different? There’s almost no dialogue. Imagery is paramount. There’s so much always-already there. Not to leave out Micachu, who has done a splendid job of producing a soundtrack that instantly transports to other points in time.

We often feel like we’re living on a different planet by being in Japan. It was a fun evening out watching the grotesque show of humanity, people watching at first on screen, watching an alien try to comprehend Glasgow. Then in the street surrounded by strange liquids that splashed up my bare legs, vomit, urine and endless bright caricatures lit by neon signs, chatting, staring, possessing what they see with their eyes.


BRAZIL (1985) dir.Terry Gilliam

25 Aug

 Brazil is named after the song of the same name. It’s a stupid, cheery mindless song that occurs as theme music at moments of dreary monotony, symbolising the totalitarian state. ‘De de der de der dede der…’ insanely colourful in Gilliam’s vision of a grey future, in which a tendency for systems to return to disorder is exaggerated.

The irony of the juxtaposition between ideal and reality are summed up in the billboard we see in the background:

Could anything be more depressing or terrifying than losing your own identity amongst a sea of exacting others? When the protagonist, Sam Lowry, finally escapes from the dystopia he ironically hums Brazil.

The psychedelia of reminding the viewer that they are the viewer has something healing about it, a kind of self-reflexive appeal that releases our inner self, connecting to the universe in a new way. Withnail and I has this ability, The Holy Mountain also, both films remind us that we are watching actors act whilst the world turns around us. All three films are highly re-watchable – the  script has incorporated our contact as viewers, it takes a bit of our soul and we in turn take the message it contains and involve it in our lives, better people for the experience.

Brazil works upon our psyche in a subtle way. The passive theme music – as we are passive viewers – is part of another dimension until Sam hums it. Then he makes the world belong to him rather than submitting to the world. The dream sequences are symbols of his awareness of a dimension bigger than the screen (he has dreams where he is flying and fighting and in love with a woman). When the woman, Gill, comes into his life he must take possession of her. In the same way, the film comes into our sphere of reality and we must give it our attention. The underlying message is to try to make dreams realities: to believe in imagination.

Set in the future, the brilliance of Brazil is down to three things: the casting, the script and the sets. Casting Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry was an excellent choice. He is attractive without being imposing, has a lack of self-importance, is believable and likeable. The other stars in the film include Robert de Niro, Michael Palin, Bob Hoskins and Kim Greist as Gill. The script was written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown. It keeps a fast, entertaining pace. The sets are intriguing; the future world, designed in the 1980’s, is filled with imaginary items in a guess at contemporary life in the future.

Of course, much like it really is, the world of gadgets is plagued with malfunction and error. What must have been laughable twenty years ago is in 2012 the way things are. Who would have thought that using a pen and paper, our legs, or just generally doing things the long way could be more efficient than a computer? How many hours are spent staring at the screen while some engineer tries to fix it? Sam’s central heating is on the blink (alongside everything else electrical in his flat). Before Central Services can get an engineer out to him, Harry Tuttle, renegade heating engineer and suspected terrorist, arrives on the scene to work his bravado.

Brazil is full of detail masquerading as normal that is absolutely absurd. Renegade heating engineer? It’s rediculous. Sam’s well-connected mother and her obsession for plastic surgery, her ‘keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ friend, make hysterical viewing. The farce of the bureaucracy, form-filling and procedure. The irony of the child playing in the torture office. Meeting the stranger of your dreams in person and falling in love? It’s so much bullshit, it’s great!


ANOTHER EARTH (2011) dir. Mike Cahill

15 Aug

  It seems logical to me that if there were no concept of free will there would be no responsibility taken for behaviour or actions. Whether our choices are erroneous or successful largely depends upon our thinking or attitude. Not looking where you are going, with the result of killing a pregnant woman and her five year old son, is a weighty mistake for a seventeen year old girl driving under the influence. Much worse than stepping into a deep puddle whilst looking at constellations for example. How can Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, who was also the writer) turn her failure around?
  The accident happened on the night Earth II first became visible in the sky. Rhoda, an amateur star-gazer, simply gets distracted, isn’t paying attention to the road. She spends four years in gaol before serving her sentence and being sent home. By this time Earth II appears larger than the moon. “It’s a real planet” we hear on the radio as she signs her release forms. It appears to be an exact replica of this familiar world.
  Fortunately for Rhoda, life on Earth (the original earth) has continued with the usual inverted apathy, carrying on as anticipated and drying itself off regardless, apparently unaffected by the massive gravitational influence of another version of itself. Like the astronomer learns – when stuck in the puddle in the fable – looking up to the other Earth doesn’t provide explanations to life here on this.
  If I were Rhoda I would hate Earth II, blame it for turning me into a puppet, destroying a promising future in astrophysics. Rhoda, on the other hand, takes responsibility for her actions. She copes with the spilt-ego planet by entering a competition with Space Ventures to actually visit it, whilst tracking down the only other survivor of that fateful night, musician John Burroughs (William Mapother).
  The rest of the film would be predictable if it wasn’t for good story-telling based around a human desire to believe that bad things happen to bad people. There is a scene where Rhoda is puking down a toilet she is so appalled with herself and how she is dealing with life on the outside. Good people sometimes make bad choices – a colleague has chosen, for his own reasons, to eliminate sensory illusions of the external world – necessity is not always obvious, sometimes we are touched by events synchronising into place unnoticed until after the rhythm alters. Maybe actions are determined beyond our own personal influence. Maybe things do happen for a reason.
  Despite that the physical collision of the two earths (alarming aspect to earths-in-sky situation) is overshadowed by the plot putting emphasis instead on the probable cosmic collusion between events, Another Earth – no matter how far-fetched – is weirdly plausible. The score by Fall on Your Sword compliments the shaky indie camerawork.
  The film raises some pertinent questions about existence. What would our reactions be if we weren’t sat in the dark whilst multiplicities of ourselves on identical planets were whirling around somewhere within sight in space? We could shrug our shoulders to metaphysics or, as I suspect, turn our astronomical mimic into another excuse when trying to avoid the gaze of blame. As Rhoda attempts to atone for her mistakes, the ending leaves the viewer to wonder if she has, in fact, been successful.