Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Under The Skin" Is Pure Cinema

Call me pretentious if you like, but in this Golden Age of dialogue-driven television,”Under The Skin” gives me an intriguing reason to go to the movies.

Scarlett Johansson

Okay.  Take any of our most beloved cable television series – Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detective, and so on.  Now, imagine removing the dialogue track.  What you are left with is mostly just pop music and pictures of people talking.  As sophisticated as our golden age of television has become, it is still a medium in which story is delivered primarily through dialogue - in the manner of a play.

Yes, all of these TV shows have wonderful cinematography, clever sound effects, and purely visual story-beats or metaphors, but the primary storytelling engines are the words characters say and the actors' performances while saying them.

As Alfred Hitchcock said in an interview with François Truffaut, "cinema" is more than simply "photographs of people talking." Cinema uses visual imagery, sound design, and creative juxtaposition to tell stories and to give the audience an experience that is unique among all other creative mediums.

Don't roll your eyes yet; stay with me here.  One example of a purely cinematic experience is the movie "Gravity."  If the dialogue were in say, Bulgarian, we could still experience 90% of the visceral impact of the film, as well as it's basic storyline and metaphors.  The problem with most movies today is cinematic devices are used primarily to create empty spectacle.  We get exciting amusement park rides, superhero fantasies, and supernatural intrigues, but for anything with deeper meaning, sophistication, and complexity we have to turn to TV. And, TV means dialogue.

This is why I absolutely loved "Under The Skin" ...and why many others may find it pretentious, confusing, and empty.

The movie is stripped-down almost entirely to its cinematic elements.  The visuals are as startling and impactful as those by Stanley Kubrick.  The sound design creates an eerie sense of dissociation.  The musical score induces almost unbearable levels of engagement, anticipation and dread.  It is a story that
is seen and heard rather than told. What's more, these purely cinematic elements create, for me at least, striking and profound metaphors about alienation, empathy, identity, and sexuality.

The problem is that for people who are used to having meaning and complexity delivered through dialogue, the film offers no easy explanations or exposition.  No one ever tells us why the aliens are abducting men and trapping them in a viscous black fluid.  Nothing the characters say (when they speak at all) gives us any indication of what they are thinking or feeling. No character helpfully sates the movie's "theme" in an easily quotable truism. The devices of the film are exclusively and enigmatically cinematic.

Granted, some people may just simply hate the film on it's own terms.  My heroes are David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Terence Malick - and they may not be yours.  However, I was truly blown away by this film, and I can't wait to see it a second time.  It got under my skin.  At a time when I could be perfectly happy sitting at home we re-watching episodes of "The Wire," movies like this one give me a reason to venture out to a theater.

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Unknown said...

Thanks Sean. I'm not sure if/when I'll get around to seeing it but it sounds like I would like it. Somehow in all the hoopla about what a "visual" culture we live in, most of the visuals we get are like junk food: offering very little in true stimulation and minimally inspiring the imagination. It's unfortunate that anything that causes an audience member to feel and questions so often gets called "pretentious."

Peter Van Valkenburgh said...

Well said.