Zones of Bliss

I hope that the idea of guilty pleasure is dying. Not only is the term a copout, it puts up a wall between us and what Joseph Campbell might call our bliss (though I wouldn't be the first to misinterpret his famous statement, so forgive me, eh?). Our enjoyment of art leads us down a path toward better understanding our needs and desires (or anyway, it can if we let it), things we may not otherwise have learned to articulate. I think placing something under the banner of 'guilty pleasures' unintentionally obfuscates clues to the kind of art we find most meaningful or more accurately the properties, shapes, sizes, colours and places that we want to see more of. Recently the brilliant critic Aaron Cutler defined something for me that retuned my antennae, so to speak. He told me a simple difference between poetry and prose: blank space on the page. The second he said it, so much about the films, music, books and paintings I loved came into focus and I think I understood a little more about who I am as both a hyperactive consumer and a person. Cinematic space that makes you feel at ease tells you a lot about the kind of environment that makes you the most comfortable, which may end up helping you decide where you want to live and in what conditions. Or maybe that's just me? The 'blank space on the page' has come to mean a lot to me in the last few months. More and more I see films and feel as though I've been waiting to discover them all my life, namely František Vláčil's Marketa Lazarová, John M. Stahl's Leave Her To Heaven, Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell and perhaps most profoundly Kristina Buožyte's Vanishing Waves, which spends a lot of time and energy inventing dream spaces for its characters to inhabit unperturbed by earthly concerns. Every new material and surface the dreamers conjure is a clue to who they are. Each sunrise or sunset a pretty big indicator of how and where they like to spend their time. We make the same choice everytime we put a DVD or Blu-Ray on. I can't go to the humid South Pacific and take a boatride down river to a sun-coated, foliage-enshrouded manse, so instead I watch Wake of the Red Witch, Apocalypse Now Redux and Donovan's Reef

Everyone's preferred zones are different, naturally, which is why the best critics rarely agree on anything. I've learned about myself that many of my favourite films are also home to the environs I'd like to mentally vacation in. Last summer I went to Film Forum's essential 35mm screening of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura with the express aim of nodding off before the two lead characters meet each other to start searching for their mutual friend, when the plot changes gears entirely. I've seen L'Avventura more than a dozen times and knew exactly what I wanted from this particular screening: to wake up in the middle of the film. I felt as if I'd been living in the movie's vacant Italian landscape for days. There are few pleasures as rare, and those satisfactions are permanent. Just as I can always search for images of Edward Hopper paintings or listen to Fleetwood Mac's Pious Bird of Good Fortune, anytime of the day or night, I can drink in the technicolor silence of Leave Her To Heaven, drift around James Mason's house in the cold night air of North By Northwest or walk the delectable beaches of M. Hulot's Holiday. There are several movies that posses this stillness, the ability to display a setting and create a mood that fits it like a glove. They're not just works of art, they're places. They needn't even be good movies if they do it, so long as they capture the timeless signposts of the era and frame faces and objects properly. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes that cover the last two films of misanthropic auteur Coleman Francis, Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba (Originally titled Night Train to Mundo Fine), for instance, may be terribly made, horribly bleak visions of this country, but they don't lie about the desert, the cars, the pug faces of men, the depression plainly evident in every look and halting line reading. Mike and the bots commentary make it feel like home (it helps that I grew up with these episodes). I've learned that when a film hits that part of my brain and creates a place I'd love to live in I can become willfully blind to its faults. Or rather, they stop mattering. They're subsumed into the idealized viewing experience and I can't imagine any one part being removed. On Tour, Contempt, Inception, Pandora & The Flying Dutchman, The Lady With The Little Dog, Tabu, Johnny Guitar, The Red Shoes, L'Eclisse, The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey and many, many more allow me to become weightless and live a few feet above the ground of beautifully alien landscapes, the kind only cinematographers can create. 

Those last three examples are important because their influence has become a hallmark of a few of my new favourite films. The chain of events starts with L'eclisse, which abandons the characters for the final scene in favor of gorgeously off-kilter street scenes and lifeless architecture. The audience is denied closure and forced to recognize the hopelessness of the narrative, meanwhile Antonioni chases his fascinations down abandoned alleyways, following Joseph Campbell's advice. Knowing how rarely major directors halted their narratives for an experimental flourish that consumes the story makes it no less gripping a divergence after the sixth, tenth or fortieth viewing. It's one of cinema's great endings and the ripples were immediately apparent. The following year Henri-Georges Clouzot began planning a movie called L'enfer that would make extensive use of experimental photography, but he had to scrap it. The techniques he researched would resurface in his final film, 1968's Women in Chains. With a quarter of the film left to go our heroine is in a crash that puts her in a coma and has a colourful nightmare filled with beautiful, geometric abstraction. In the meantime Hiroshi Teshigahara had started experimenting with similar endings to his films The Face of Another and Man Without A Map, visions of apocalypse courtesy of bizarre juxtapositions, the music of Toru Takemitsu, over-exposures and vacant architecture seemingly on loan from Antonioni. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a major event film from one of the most popular American artists, surrenders its plot to a pre-Laser Floyd freakout. Soon stunning tricksy photography begins to warp narratives in progress, as in Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, as filled with perfectly symmetrical compositions as it is mind-altered scenarios and off-colour philosophy and myth-making. Saul Bass' Phase IV films the-endtimes-by-insect with graphic precision, beginning and ending with unnerving suggestion and jagged electronic music. The most obvious thing that unites these films is that they could only work as movies and take full advantage of what a camera can do, and incorporating a full range of poetry, painting and music besides to augment their artistry.
Fast forward a few decades; Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem feels under attack from the gods of John Boorman's Zardoz and ends in a heavy trip from witch burnings to Ken Russell to black metal. Ben Wheatley's A Field In England slowly lets madness creep over it until it finally grabs a handful of mushrooms and bakes under the heat of a black planet while the film regurgitates itself under the influence of strobing effects. At the 45 minute mark Ari Folman's The Congress ditches the 3D world for a splashy cartoon indebted to Ralph Bakshi and allows literally anything to happen to its dogged lead. Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess has its share of hallucinations, not to mention a deadpan leap into colour film for three hysterical minutes at the end of act 2. Last but not least, Jonathan Glazer returned to cinema after a decade with Under The Skin. Glazer has been one of my favourite directors since I was a kid. I loved his music videos back when their was a place on television that ran them, then realized he was the same guy behind Sexy Beast. His follow-up was the textural delight Birth, which I've maintained since the day I saw it is one of the great films of the modern era. That was 2004 after which he made nary a peep but at last the sleeper has awakened with his boldest dare yet. Depending on your point of view, its biggest selling point or its biggest gamble is its myriad reference points. Cinephiles have picked up on them because they're impossible to ignore, but the casual moviegoer interested in a movie about aliens? 

We open on a melding of forms that looks very similar to the eclipse that opens Phase IV, which we see is the creation of a human skin, specifically an eye, as Scarlett Johansson's alien lifeform - Monica Vitti in Mick Jagger's Performance hair - practices human diction beneath the unyielding score by Mica Levi (which often sounds like Jon Brion and John Cale adapting the theme from Gilbert Gunn's The Cosmic Monster). As if the Phase IV connection weren't clear enough, we then get a close-up of that film's nemesis: an ant on Johansson's fingertips. Though it looks like it's ready for a close-up at the start of Ingmar Bergman's Persona. And just like the creatures in Bass's psychodrama, its intelligence is an extraterrestrial gift. All throughout I was reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Women in Chains, Luis Buñuel, Nic Roeg and Eadweard Muybridge, John Carpenter's The Thing, The Face of Another and Glazer's own work as a music video director. Crucially none of these influences ever got in the way or subordinated the purity of Glazer's vision. I'm as suspicious of the term 'pure cinema' as I am 'guilty pleasure' but there is a kind of purity in Glazer's art. It could only be attempted in a film, and only by someone who was probing the outer reaches of the medium's capability, possessing some of Johansson's curiousity about what it's capable of. It may occasionally name drop, but it never feels remotely close to second hand. Knowing that Glazer had taken the time to offer an old-fashioned out-of-plot experience immediately put Under The Skin in my good graces. Practically achieved synesthesia. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin, quite obviously, pointed their camera directly into lights, producing visions in the midst of a dramatic arc. That's worth a lot to me. 
The main body text is Scarlet Johansson's interactions with unsuspecting Scotsmen, playing The Vanishing with a big van on teeming high traffic areas (concealing our director, probably, looking at the hidden cameras he's placed all around his lead). Like The Tree of Life, the film's acting feels like the product of practiced naturalism put to the test, and has cosmic motives on its mind. Unlike Terrence Malick's masterpiece, however, its focus is rather more unclean, like a thirsty flea on the back of religious art, biting its thumb at divine creation. Johansson's improvised interactions, captured in murky digital, have the purposeful aimlessness of Pedro Costa's documentaries. Like the addicts of Fontainhas, Johansson and her mostly willing captives sit and talk in darkness, unaware of their own power, fueled by the urge to do evil, deafening industrial humming often just out of earshot. The van is unsafe, filled with mystery and the fear of the game ending. Johansson drives away as often as her potential partners walk away, just as full of fear as they are. Her purpose beyond, as we learn, collecting bodies for some twisted, incomprehensible harvest, is to create a zone of constructed mutual fantasy. She must make the men believe in her as a real woman who has taken an interest in them. The space only becomes solidified and false when she enters the mirror-smooth room where the men are collected in a pool of predatory liquid. But by then it is too late. "Why come here?" She asks a tourist of the beautiful rocky vista she's located him in. "Because it's nowhere." Which is certainly true of the sleek studio where she ends her seductions. What causes her to break out of her cycle is when one man doesn't buy into the fiction she has prepared. It takes all of her wiles to get him to submit, and because of his perception of himself. He has a condition that makes him resemble Joseph Merrick and views Johansson's pick-up as the ruse it is, even if he ultimately can't say no. When it's over she looks at herself (after having stared into a face different from her usual subjects) and wonders what it is about her skin that coaxed these men into her company. How many were reluctant? How many couldn't say no? Is it their fault? Reflection turns to empathy and the mission is over and done with, though thankfully the film is not. She can no longer look at human life objectively. Nor can Glazer maintain his distance from her. His camera begins sympathizing with her crises of identity and conscience, and the tricks he used to give us insight into the mechanics of alien existence (which look a lot like some of the imagined spaces and cosmic orgies of Teshigahara, Kubrick and Clouzot) give way to a softer digital embrace, displaying neither the sheen of the draining room nor the Costa-ist roughness of the claustrophobic cruising scenes. The high and low are forced to meet in the middle just as Johansson sheds her solipsistic view of humans. Glazer cares more for her than he has any of his heroes, but in a thematic rhyme with Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, cruelty runs deeper than any of us can reasonably counter. Lose the distance you keep from your fellow man and they'll quickly attack. 

I loved Under The Skin, but it is such a peculiar, specific vision of what cinema can do and be, that it was destined to polarize and has with gusto. Under The Skin, it turns out, is one of those films I love so much that I'm blind to its faults. Neil Young, a friend and one hell of a critic, hated the ending after greatly enjoying the set-up, and it's hard to argue that the shift from the alien pick-ups to the search for meaning at the end is jarring to say the least. Dan Sallitt, someone I look up to hugely, confessed to hating it but even he found Glazer's direction impossible to write off. David Cairns, who I love like a father, very reasonably points out that Glazer's aim, to show earth through the eyes of an alien, isn't really what winds up on the table. And Richard Brody, in whose direction myself and any half-way smart young film writer genuflects, wrote a perfectly reasoned and typically great pan that I cannot find much fault in. Yet even as I recognize that their opinions aren't wrong (and I don't mean in a diplomatic sense either; I think their charges stick) I can't help but love it all the same. It exists perfectly to me, and I felt compelled to simply exist in the state of suspended animation it reserves for willing viewers, in the blank space between lines. Between its spiky, Duchamp-inspired abstraction, and softer, Romantic portrait of innocence I found something like bliss. 

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