Tag Archives: Scarlett Johansson

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin, is part The Man Who Fell to Earth, part Let the Right One In. The story of a beautiful female serial killer who preys on vulnerable working-class men, it’s set in an unnamed Scottish city, and stars Scarlett Johannson and a cast of non-actors. Under the Skin seems to have polarized many film critics. Some have labeled it a masterpiece, others a complete bore. I’m somewhere in the middle.

The key to how you feel about Under the Skin is how you feel about Scarlett Johannson. I think she’s a very good, if somewhat over-hyped actress, an attractive woman but no Monica Vitti or Anna Karina. I think her willingness to strip herself naked, both emotionally and physically shows a lot of courage, but I also think she depends a little too much on raw sex appeal for the kinds of men she preys on. A plainer actress with a greater emotional range would have been far more terrifying in the same role. But your mileage may vary. If you’re a fan of Scarlett Johansson, if you like listening to her talk, watching her move, or trying to read her facial expressions, Under The Skin is the film for you.

I haven’t read the book Under the Skin, so I left the film with questions. Her motorcycle riding partner, is he her boss or her assistant? Is he human, or, like her, an alien who has taken on human form? What do her people actually do with the meat she harvests from the men she seduces? Do they freeze it and send them back to their home planet? Or is there an colony of aliens living on earth who dine on human flesh? I don’t think any of it really matters. I’m just curious.

Scarlett Johansson’s motivations, on the other hand, are key to whether or not the film works. The vampire heroine of Let the Right One In, a very similar film, is an old pedophile in the body of a 12-year-old girl. It’s genuinely terrifying because we can see exactly how and why the creature is grooming the little boy to be its companion. Under the Skin is a lot more complex. If you interpret the first half of Under the Skin as crude, misogynistic paranoia, the second half will probably confuse you. If you see the film as the transformation of an alien in the form of a heartless woman into a compassionate, and ultimately doomed human being, it makes perfect sense as a whole, but you’ll also wish the director had made better use of one or two key events in its narrative.

Under the Skin is set in a cold, grey northern country, Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands. People are guarded, alienated, closed off, their emotions as chilly as the often beautiful landscape surrounding them. The working-class Scottish men Scarlett Johansson preys on seem like a particularly homely race. They have long torsos and short legs. They move without a hint of grace. They have no masculine force or charisma. Most of them are, in fact, non-professional actors, random men who couldn’t recognize Scarlett Johannson in her dyed black hair, fake furs, and stonewashed jeans shot. A good part of the film was shot with a hidden camera. The men later signed releases. But you can find attractive looking non-professional actors. Robert Bresson certainly did. Glasgow, I’m sure, is full of good looking men. The point of the film’s narrative, however, is that they be plain, dull, and, in one instance, downright hideous. They speak in thick, regional Scots accents. They’re shy, awkward, inarticulate.

I kept asking myself is how Under The Skin would have been received if it had been set, not in Scotland, not in a white, northern European country, but somewhere in the Third World. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Scarlett Johansson’s victims, whatever their color, are still the victims of the vanguard of an imperialist takeover. They’re society’s castoffs, dross, raw material for exploitation, meat. The only thing they have in common is that they’re so desperate for female company that they’ll get into a van with a strange woman, who, more often than not, comes off like a contemptuous bully. One again, your mileage may vary. But I found her patronizing manner, her fake posh BBC, Oxbridge accent to be a dead such a dead giveaway about her bad intentions that I would have turned tail and run as soon as she rolled down her window and asked me for directions.

Under the Skin re-imagines capitalist exploitation as sexual hierarchy. The beautiful Scarlett Johansson is as socially removed from the unattractive dupes she lures into her van as I am from the CEO of Goldman Sachs. The promise of sex is the whip hand that keeps the lower-class in line. But it’s the stress of acting as an enforcer that finally leads to her attempt to escape. While she’s a highly sexualized presence who uses her female allure to hunt her victims, she’s not really a woman. She is a proletarian, an alienated worker with a cruel job who finally breaks down under the horror of what she has to do day in and day out for her far-off employer. In the film’s cruelest, and what surely will become the most celebrated scene, she leaves a screaming toddler on the beach to die after its parents had drowned in the ocean and she murdered the child’s would be rescuer. In other words, she has no maternal instincts.

Eventually, however, she feels for the men she lures to their deaths. She picks up a tiny man at a nightclub — Scarlett Johansson is 5’3″ and she’s taller than he is — and harvests him for his meat. She seduces a visibly uncomfortable young man with an obvious line of flattery about how handsome he is. The breakdown finally comes when she picks up a man with a severe facial deformity. He’s 26 but could just as easily been 100. He’s never had a girlfriend. He doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t even seem particularly keen on getting into the van. Unlike her other victims, he has no illusions that any woman would ever desire him sexually. She grabs his hands. “You’ve got beautiful hands,” she says, trying to convince him that there’s more to him than his hideously deformed face. “When was the last time you touched anybody?”

The effort it takes to bring the hideously deformed young man back to her apartment causes her breakdown. She’s had enough. She lets him live. What’s more, the amount of emotional warmth she had to show the poor creature to get him to follow her — he has no sexual vanity to play on — leads to genuine empathy. When she interrogates him about the last time he had ever touched another human being, she realizes that she herself has never genuinely touched another human being. She reminds herself that she’s an alien creature wearing the skin of a woman her partner had murdered along the side of the road. Her identification with her victim, in turn, makes her realize how she herself is being exploited. Her job, a gopher for unseen alien overlords who dine on human flesh, is brutal and degrading. The labor is relentless and unrewarding. Indeed, the conveyer belt full of bloody human guts she has to feed almost reminded me of working on the “slime line” in an Alaskan salmon cannery. She’s a predator but she’s a predator who punches a time clock and who doesn’t enjoy the fruits of her labor. She’s an alien proletarian having the surplus value of her work skimmed off by her far off capitalist overlords.

If Under The Skin has a major weakness, it’s puritanism. Sex, the desire for sex, is bad. First it makes you a dupe. I kept congratulating myself on how I never would have gotten into that van with Ms. Johansson. We don’t see any of the actual murders. The only time we see anybody killed is when she bashes a half drowned swimmer’s skull with a rock. What we do see is men being stripped naked. They’re symbolically murdered when they join her in a featureless black room for a walk over what looks to be a toxic lake of black goo. She walks over the surface. They sink. If we see a man’s penis, we know he’s dead. Keep an eye out, by the way, for which penis are erect and which are flaccid. The naked male body is ugly. Seeing it is dirty. Even the naked female body seems less than attractive. Once again, your mileage may vary but I found very little to admire about Scarlett Johansson’s fat legs, bubble butt and short stature.

After Scarlett Johansson’s character runs away from her bloody job, she becomes, not a predator, but a victim of male predation. She walks through a small Scots Highland town without proper clothing. A man feels compassion for her. He buys her a jacket, brings her home, and gives her something to eat. But, inevitably he tries to make love to her. Why? He seemed like a decent sort and she seemed to be in such an obvious state of emotional distress sex should have been the last thing to came to mind. Just as I kept hoping the men in Glasgow would “pass the test” and not get into the van, I kept hoping that this strange man in the Highlands would also pass the test and not try to try to fuck her. He fails. It’s perfectly consensual, but it still feels dirty. I suppose that’s the point. She’s an alien without a vagina. But the man’s sexual attraction feels like a moral failing. We begin to notice he’s almost as plain and unattractive as the men she picks up back in Glasgow. He lives in a crappy apartment and watches vulgar TV comedies. He carries her across some muddy water. It feels vaguely ridiculous. He takes her on a tour of an abandoned castle. Finally, thankfully, she runs away. The gap between men and women is unbridgeable.

By the end of Under the Skin, the film lost its hold over me. I kept hoping the pace would pick up, that it would have some kind of clear cut resolution. It does, in fact, have a clear cut resolution. But the pace remains the same, slow, glacially slow, Bruno Dumont slow. I also began to care about the film’s logic. I was no longer willing to suspend my disbelief. I started to ask questions. She’s terrified of the last man she meets, a would be rapist. But I wondered why. She had already murdered scores of other men. Is a human flesh eating alien no stronger than the typical human woman? Or did she lure the men in Glasgow home so that her partner could murder them. In the denouement, the would be rapist commits such a gratuitously vicious act it almost seems to justify the murder of the innocent men back in Glasgow. Female serial killers? Now rapists? Under the Skin is just so dark you want it to end. There’s no catharsis, just a slow, creepy drawn out shiver of horror.

But I suppose that’s the point.

Lucy (2014)

I suppose the best way to write about my having seen Lucy would be as a warning about the dangers of conformism, my own.

I’m riding my bike home from the park. At home, on my desk, are Cheyenne Autumn by John Ford, Ludwig, by Luchino Visconti, and Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. I have a Spanish translation of Romeo and Juliet and an English translation of The Open Veins of Latin America. But nobody in the United States goes to see good movies, or reads good books anymore. All the cool, smart, successful people on the Internet are talking about the latest HBO mini series, or writing long, earnest critical analysis of whether or not Ben Affleck’s going to make a decent Batman. To follow your mind where it leads down the convoluted maze of western high culture is to invite social isolation, to make yourself unfit to live in company of decent, middle-class people. So when I road past a local movie theater showing “Lucy” I locked my bike up to a heavy iron garbage can, bought a ticket, and went inside to make an offering to the popular taste.

Cut to an unnamed Asian city. Lucy, Scarlett Johannson, the A-list Hollywood movie star with puffed up lips and a deep, husky voice — call her the Angelina Jolie of her generation — is talking to some random dirt bag, her boyfriend. Oh why don’t girls go for nice guys anymore? He wants her to deliver a suitcase to a drug lord named Mr. Jang. She doesn’t want to. He says yes. She says no. Finally, he reaches out and handcuffs the suitcase to her wrist and tells her that only Mr. Jang has the combination. So she agrees to do it. I personally would have run to the nearest hardware store and bought a hacksaw, but that’s only me. I use more than 10% of my brain. Lucy, apparently, doesn’t, at least not yet. She walks into the hotel lobby — her boyfriend is gunned down outside on the sidewalk for some reason I couldn’t quite figure out — and goes up to Jang’s hotel room to deliver the suitcase to a menacing group of Asian men, all of whom wear Armani, none of whom speak English.

We cut to the United States. Morgan Freeman is delivering some kind of TED Talk about how we don’t experience life to the fullest because we only use 10% of our brains. If we could use more of our brains, he tells the rapt audience of the best and the brightest, we would not only have better memories and better skills at math, we might possibly develop the ability to manipulate matter telepathically and absorb information through osmosis. Freeman’s TED talk made me wonder who the target audience for Lucy is? After all, the idea of intellectual superiority is used to justify all kinds of atrocities these days. Wall Street had the right to steal a 800 billion dollars from the American taxpayers because they’re all Harvard grads who are good at math. The Israelis have the right to murder Palestinians in Gaza because they’ve won more Nobel Prizes.  Google’s techies have the right to displace people from their homes in San Francisco because they’re smarter and more deserving. I for one don’t want to see people get smarter. I want to see them get more compassionate. But who am I to argue with Morgan Freeman?

Scarlett Johannson, as most of the critics have pointed out, is a good actress, and a charismatic presence, and she does the most with the lines she’s given to read, but there’s really not much to work with. The suitcase — and sadly there are no jokes about it having been the suitcase in Pulp Fiction — contains packets of a drug called CPH4 that can increase the user’s brain function capacity. Drugs making you smarter? Perhaps Luc Besson wrote the film for hippies, not Wall Streeters. In any event, the gangsters have the drugs sewn into Lucy’s stomach — the better to smuggle them into the United States and Europe I suppose — and one of their security goons kicks her in the side. She absorbs the CPH4 and quickly develops the superpowers Morgan Freeman had predicted.  She manipulates matter telepathically. She remembers random events from her childhood. She now has total control of her subconscious. Besson restages the opening of 2001, and allows Lucy to go back in time and check out the beginnings of human life on earth. She even has access to the collective subconscious of the planet.

Lucy cost 41 million dollars to make, but I’m not sure what Besson spent the money on. I suppose Scarlett Johannson and Morgan Freeman command hefty salaries, but there’s nothing particular innovative about the film’s imagery, plot, or set pieces that seem very pricy. There are some animal images. There aren’t a lot of location shots. Most of it was filmed in a studio in Paris. There’s a lot of fairly competent if not exactly ground breaking CGI. It’s all very dull and very derivative. At least the mediocre Her, also starring Scarlett Johannson, had a few creative set designs and some imaginative city scapes. We’ve seen it all before. Scarlett Johansson is Darth Vader, or Yoda. She’s Carrie. She can move objects around with her mind. She’s any one of any number of characters in any one of the Star Trek franchises. She’s Fred/Illyeria — played by Amy Acker, a much better actress than Johansson — from the fifth season of Angel. The only thing that’s new about he character is that the more the drugs work, the closer she becomes to a god. 20%, 30%, 40%, as her mental powers increase and her body threatens to decompose, Morgan Freeman convinces her to use her superhuman intellect for the good of mankind. She creates a new model of supercomputer with her mind, uploads what she’s learned, and copies it to a flash drive. Thankfully the new model of supercomputer had a USB port. She disappears and leaves a note. “I’m everywhere,” it says.

I suppose, in the end, Luc Besson wrote Lucy as attempt to get the superhuman “job creators” and “masters of the universe” to use their super brains for good. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Larry Summers, they’ve all got money and intelligence that mere mortals like the rest of us can only dream of. Maybe Luc Besson is asking them to be more like Lucy, to become super philanthropists, and share their enlightenment with the 99 percent. Perhaps Besson is just a French version of Ralph Nader, who once published a novel called “Only The Super Rich Can Save Us.” Being French, unlike the prissy little celibate Ralph Nader, Monsieur Besson has an especially keen appreciation for a deep, husky voice, puffed up duck lips, and a superior female body that looks good in a pair of heels. La Femme Nikita? The Fifth Element? And now Lucy? Only the super hot can save us? Scarlett Johansson, in between doing commercials for Soda Stream, is as good a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as anyone.

As for me, I’ve had enough. Never again will I see a film that only requires me to use 5% of my brain. I’ve learned my lesson. And I’m sticking to it. I’m not going to condemn professional cultural critics for writing about Game of Thrones, Batman, or Miley Cyrus twerking. They have to pay the rent, after all. But I don’t have to. Bresson, not Besson, I’m going back to good movies most Americans have never heard of, the more obscure, the better.

Her (2013)

Last month, in Oakland, a group of protesters smashed the window of a Google bus, one of the private shuttles that takes employees from their overpriced homes in San Francisco to their high paying jobs at Google’s Mountain View “campus” 40 miles away in Santa Clara County. While I appreciated the methods — there’s never a bad way to terrorize gentrifiers — I was sceptical of the goal. Trying to keep San Francisco open to the working class struck me as being an exercise in futility.

After seeing “Her,” the latest film by Spike Jonze, however, I’ve changed my mind. Not only must the Google bus protests go on, they need to become even more militant. Try to imagine a world where sex is a bit like masturbating to a TED talk. Then gather your rocks, buy some eggs, smash some windows, and slash as many tires as you can before you get arrested. The scum that rides the Google buses must being driven out of San Francisco by any means necessary.

Her shows us the world that the digital oligarchs at Google and Apple will create if they’re not stopped. Set in Los Angeles at an unnamed time — let’s use that old science fiction cliché “in not too distant future” — there is no working class. There are no poor people, and no ugly people. There aren’t a lot of particularly beautiful people either. There are, of course, quite a few good looking people, but nobody who glows with an excess of life, nobody with any real passion or fire. Even though Her is technically a love story, and even though it stars attractive, A-list actresses like Roony Mara and Amy Adams, the only thing that really inspires us is property, especially the exquisite skyline of Los Angeles, digitally altered to look a bit like Shanghai, and the hero’s apartment, which hangs over the glittering metropolis like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.

The hero, a man named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix may give us a hint as to where the working class went. Perhaps they all joined the meritocracy. A former writer at the LA Weekly, Twombly now works for a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com, where he gets paid to be a professional Cyrano, composing love notes for people who, we can assume, lack the requisite literary skill to do it themselves. Twombly is not a programmer or a digital guru, and the kind of writing he does stuck me as the kind of work they’d farm out to low paid freelancers at content mills like Demand Media rather than to high powered copywriters like Don Draper. But he lives in a beautiful condominium. He never lacks for money. He travels whenever he wants. All of his friends seem to be Ivy League professionals. His ex-wife has a PHD. His blind date went to Harvard, and the receptionist at Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com is dating a lawyer. We are, in other words, deeply embedded in the American meritocracy. If anybody in Twombly’s world got anything less than a perfect score on their SATs, I’d be surprised.

Financial success notwithstanding, Twombly is an unhappy man. With his gift of gab and nice guy charm, he never lacks for female attention, but he’s still pining for his ex-wife, Roony Mara. A blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde goes bad after she reveals herself to be vindictive and emotionally needy. A newly divorced friend, a game designer played by Amy Adams, comes off like a potential soul mate, but there’s little or no sexual chemistry. Theodore Twombly seems destined to end up as a lonely, celibate old bachelor, his sex life confined to cyber sex and masturbation.

Whether or not Twombly, at any time, ever engages in anything more than cybersex and masturbation is the question Her poses. Her’s version of Los Angeles feels like a city that could actually exist. It’s been cleaned up a bit and whatever government they have has obviously spent quite a bit of money for public transportation — we never see anybody drive a car — but we can still imagine living there. Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, has advanced to the point where an operating system can act like a human being. A new system, OS1, designed by a company named Element Software, can feel emotion, even evolve intellectually. After Twombly downloads OS1 onto his smart phone, and it reveals itself to be the voice and personality of Scarlett Johansson, he quickly falls in love. It’s fun to speculate what would have happened had Samantha, the name Twombly’s copy of OS1 gives to “her” self, had had the voice and personality of Bill Gates or Richard Stallman, but that’s another, and probably better movie.

Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress. Without a single visual, she establishes a coherent personality, intelligent yet sexy, gentle yet domineering. Part administrative assistant, part second wife, part nanny, she seduces Twombly with the tone of her voice, and, more importantly, with her words, turning the tables on the professional love letter writer, wrapping him around her little digital finger before he’s even validated the software online. Johansson is so good, in fact, that there are negative reviews of Her on the Internet by “intersectional” feminists complaining they made Samantha too beautiful and too “cisgender.” She’s a collection of bits and bytes you fools. Then again, perhaps the “intersectional” feminists are onto something.

Samantha never quite works for me as a machine. She seems a lot more like a woman on the other end of a cell phone. I interact with people all the time on the Internet I never plan to meet. It doesn’t make them machines. The concept isn’t even particularly novel. Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson had a friendship for decades, even though they never met. They wrote letters. Needless to say, Twomby and Samantha are no Emily Dickinson or Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Indeed, while we’re told, repeatedly, that Twombly is a great poet — Samantha collects a group of his best love letters and sends them into a publisher — he comes off more like a talented writer of Hallmark cards. Romantic dialog in Her is a collection of insipid platitudes. “You’re sweet” or “oh you’re amazing” is about the best we’re going to get. The banal language carries over into his “relationship” with Samantha. Phoenix is a decent physical actor. When he thinks Samantha has cut him off for good, he manages to bumble convincingly enough through the lobby of an office building to demonstrate that he’s upset. But don’t expect any real despair.

“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” in the bland world of Her would probably just be labeled “inappropriate.”

Spike Jonze seems to have turned 30-year-olds into retirees, people who not only lack bodies, but who lack any desire for one. If the publisher Samantha sends the collection of Twombly’s love notes immediately decides to publish them as a book, then it has less to do with Twombly’s talent than the fact that the Los Angeles of Her has become so colorless and without passion that any man who can sling phrases like “you will always be my friend as well as my lover” is never going to want for admirers. Samantha is just as bland. Sure, we all know it’s Scarlett Johansson, but she comes off more like just another sexless denizen of the meritocracy. When she “evolves” beyond her “relationship” with Twombly — it has something to do with hanging out with other operating systems and reading Alan Watts — it feels perfectly natural. Samantha, like any soccer mom who has gotten the kids off to school, has decided that her pilates classes and her “spirituality” come before hopping into the sack with her husband, who’s probably at work anyway.

That is, perhaps, the point. Her is a dystopia, a gentle dystopia along the lines of Brave New World rather than a savage surveillance and torture state like the Oceania of 1984, but a dystopia nonetheless. There may be no poverty in the Los Angeles of the future — either that or they just manage to keep the Bangladeshis who make the clothes and the Chinese workers at Foxconn who make the smartphones well hidden — but it’s still a horrifying reality. Element software has designed an operating system that can charm any man out of his shorts right down into a masturbatory passivity. Whatever happened to the debate about the NSA and the fourth amendment? There may be no “big brother,” no malevolent machines running the matrix. There may be no Agent Smith or Skynet, but there’s no Winston Smith, no Julia, no Neo, no Trinity, let alone a Cathy or a Heathcliff, either.

What happens at the end? Well, we really don’t care. Theodore Twombly is a slave who never shows any sign that he wants to be anything more than a slave. Her is at least an hour too long. It’s a clever setup, but it has nowhere to go. After awhile, it feels like sitting on a Google bus. I kept hoping some dirty hippies would break one of the windows with a rock. I stayed with Her to the end just to see if Spike Jonze figures out a way to blow it all up, or, at the very least, to give us a satisfying resolution, but he doesn’t. The narrative isn’t resolved so much as it peters out. Jonze can’t quite figure out how to end it so he bores us to death, trying to put us in a state of mind where we’re too afraid of not “getting it” to speak up. Would I recommend Her? Sure. Go see what all the fuss is about. Would I watch it again? Oh hell no.