Artful Schlock, Arty Dreck

‘Under the Skin’ & ‘Only Lovers Left Alive'

As I watched Jonathan Glazer’s critically acclaimed Under the Skin, I suddenly found myself wanting to write an essay titled “In Praise of Schlock.” For the basic story unfolding on the screen—an alien who has taken on the appearance of an attractive female human seduces and destroys hapless men who wander into its clutches—was the very stuff of schlock. In fact, this story had served as the basis for more than one gratifyingly cheap entertainment. Remember the first and best of several versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed with no-frills savvy by Don Siegel and culminating with lovely Dana Wynter arising from her transformative pod to seduce a bewildered Kevin McCarthy into sharing her new extraterrestrial soulessness. And even closer to Under the Skin’s plot, there was Species, an unabashed roll in the cinematic gutter by the talented Australian director Roger Donaldson. Species featured supermodel Natasha Henstridge as a drop-dead-gorgeous compound of human and alien DNA who goes club-hopping through Los Angeles in search of horny men to help her procreate. No one who’s seen that movie can forget Forest Whitaker staring at a slime-oozing cocoon on a wall and muttering, “Something bad happened here.”

Yes, cinematic schlock can be ridiculously entertaining as long as it revels in its own lowbrow features: overblown special effects, titillating sex, preposterous plot twists, pseudo-scientific explanations, outrageous dialogue, and over-the-top acting. But when all these easy pleasures are excluded because a filmmaker believes he’s creating a work of art, while the filmmaker also forgoes the elements of serious drama (e.g., coherent narrative and compelling characterizations), then what we get is a film like Under the Skin.

Here we have the sci-fi scenario of Scarlett Johansson driving her car through drizzly Yuletide Scotland (captured to dank perfection by Daniel Landin’s cinematography), enticing young men with implicit sexual promises, and then taking them to her abode, which is equipped with a pool filled with dark…uh, liquid plastic? Alien muck? There she watches as the men are absorbed by the mysterious substance. For what purpose? I haven’t the slightest idea and, probably, neither does Jonathan Glazer. We never find out where this creature came from or what her ultimate mission is. And who, or what, is that mysterious motorcyclist who seems to be disposing of the bodies that the Johansson alien apparently can’t deal with?

The scenes of seduction provide the film’s only interest—but for reasons having nothing to do with artistry. According to interviews with the director, the young men in these scenes are nonprofessionals who weren’t aware they were being filmed as Johansson charmed them into her car. The moviegoer in the know can get a kick out of guessing what’s going through the minds of these ordinary-looking blokes as this more than ordinary looking young woman shows such interest in them. But the amusement of this candid-camera device turns sour when Glazer uses a young man afflicted, I assume, with neurofibromatosis, to show that the alien can feel the stirrings of compassion. Even though the young man obviously gave his permission (after the fact) to have this scene included, it reeks of both condescension and exploitation. And it also makes no sense, since we’ve already seen the alien murder people without compunction and leave a crying baby exposed in the wintry Scottish air. So why the sudden access of empathy? From its sense that a deformed man is as much an outsider as an alien? Can an extraterrestrial really be so sentimental, or so sociological?

That’s just one of many unanswered questions raised by Under the Skin, and apparently Glazer has convinced himself that a movie filled with unanswered questions must be profound. But profound art doesn’t leave us with unanswered questions; it raises unanswerable questions, which is a completely different matter. Is Christian love akin to madness? Read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and you get no conclusive answer, yet the question is vividly probed, and that’s what makes the novel great. Is human personality something real and solid, or is it just an easily shattered social construct? See Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and you won’t arrive at any conclusion, but your spiritual plunge into one human heart will make the question seem urgent.

What’s particularly sad about Under the Skin is that Jonathan Glazer is capable of truly good films that do pose unanswerable questions—witness his second feature, Birth. Perhaps the most underrated movie of the past decade, Birth asked if deeply felt grief can ever really be healed sanely and securely without resort to false hopes. Glazer probed this mystery by employing some of the same cinematic devices used in Under the Skin: long silent sequences; the use of tight, lengthy close-ups of the lead actress’s face to detect small changes in her character’s consciousness. But that actress, Nicole Kidman, was playing a complex modern woman confronted with choices we all have to face sooner or later. Glazer may have chosen an alien for his latest protagonist in order to ask what human life feels like when it’s experienced by a nonhuman who hasn’t been jaded by our quotidian routines. But how can the viewer sympathize with an alien’s consciousness when we haven’t been made familiar with its previous world and present capabilities? (Another sci-fi movie, Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, succeeded precisely by giving its alien some background and motivation.) Glazer may want to escape the gravitational pull of the everyday, but his interplanetary vehicle Under the Skin has no launch pad.

Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, goes right where Under the Skin goes wrong—by giving audiences something recognizably human with which to empathize in the midst of supernatural doings. So I have to restrain myself from overpraising it just because it proves a point. It’s an interesting second-rate movie, a bit of fun that keeps congratulating itself on being so cool. Jarmusch seems rooted in the same 1970s Bleecker Street CBGB milieu and sensibility that nourished Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. Like them, he worships artists not just for their works but for their lifestyles and aloofness from society’s mainstream, an attitude that shows both real courage and sheer snobbishness. And, like them, he seems to long for the late-nineteenth century Paris of Rimbaud and Verlaine, of absinthe and ambiguous sexuality.

This, at any rate, is the atmosphere of Only Lovers Left Alive. Jarmusch’s two protagonists, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), are glamorous, ultra-refined, etiolated vampires who have drifted through the past three or four centuries. Mostly nonviolent, they obtain blood not from necks but from the black market, and they drink it from long-stemmed wine glasses. Sometimes they live apart, sometimes together—at Adam’s residence in Detroit (a dying city that, like a vampire, never quite dies) or hers in Tangiers. Their best friend is Christopher Marlowe (played with delicious deliquescence by John Hurt), who, it turns out, did indeed write Shakespeare’s plays after faking his own death and now lives on as a fellow vampire. In fact, the film implies that most of the great European and American artists have been either vampires or fellow travelers of bloodsuckers. (Adam, a musical genius, contributed the adagio to Schubert’s great string quintet.) As for all those billions of nonartists and nonvampires our poor lovers have had to share the earth with, they exist only to consume or ignore the beautiful things produced by the chosen few undead, who disdainfully refer to mortals as “zombies” and deplore the way they “fear their own imaginations.” (Marlowe refers to the real William Shakespeare as “that illiterate zombie philistine.”)

It’s all rather corny in a preening way. So what makes Only Lovers watchable and occasionally enjoyable? First, though the protagonists aren’t conceived with any great originality, they are recognizable as the decadents we know from life or literature, and so we can understand what moves and frightens and attracts them. If the movie skimps on psychology, at least the vampiric conventions are in place (the shunning of daylight, Eve staring hungrily at a fellow plane passenger’s accidentally bloodied finger). Second, these arty monsters are funny in a way that Scarlett Johansson’s blank alien can never be. Third, Jarmusch is enough of an entertainer to know that he must provide plot complication and suspense, which he does by introducing Eve’s sister, Ava, who is anything but nonviolent and gets our heroes into trouble.

But the real trump card here is Tilda Swinton. With her formidably long, loping body—she looks great stalking through Tangiers in a stylish hijab—her mezzo purr of a voice, and those eyes that never seem to alight on anything in particular yet convince us that they see everything, Swinton endows this movie with a dangerousness and an unearthly beauty that lifts it above its own preciousness.

Published in the June 13, 2014 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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