Like industrial machinery puncturing the dead of night, like the oddity of hearing a baby cry in the house where you have none, like being sure of the rats in the walls, Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin evokes our most primal reactions. That the film itself seems to trap those reactions under glass only to run tests on them makes the effect all the more disturbing.
Call it industrial, call it art house or avant garde, call it horror, I don’t much care.
I also know that no climax turns on a musical cue quite like that of Under the Skin, throwing the entire meaning of the film for a loop, inverting the roles of victimizer and victim by suddenly assigning the musical theme of our alien sexual predator to another: the more familiar sexual predator of our own world. And when our alien’s true identity is finally revealed, it changes motivations, but does it change any outcomes?
No musical cue on film has sparked so much discussion in my filmgoing life…well, ever.
Yet even without that twist, Levi would win this. Her score is one of the most challenging, surreal, otherworldly, and creepy I’ve ever heard. It marries methodical pulses and bump-in-the-night knocks to teeming infestations of strings and background noise, yet manages to find beautiful soundscapes hidden in these combinations. As a reflection of the film’s hideous, largely unfeeling yet very natural beauty, it does as much for Under the Skin as any design or technical element does for any film this year.
Movie and theater critic JP Hitesman gave me some unexpected news last week. Michel Faber, author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, will stop writing after the release of his upcoming novel The Book of Strange New Things.
Faber’s one of my favorite authors. I even had the opportunity to interview him earlier this year about the movie adaptation of Under the Skin. It was an impromptu correspondence interview, so we didn’t get the chance to meet, but his eloquent and well-described answers showed an author who was tremendously open to his work being challenged and reinterpreted by critics and other artists.
I sought out some articles about Faber’s oncoming retirement from novel writing. This New York Times feature is the most complete. Most agreed it was a reaction to the passing of his wife Eva from cancer, and hoped it’s just a phase that will pass. To me, that seems disrespectful of Faber and his late wife. I understand our impulse to want more from the artists we love and be disappointed when we don’t get it, but that completely misses the beauty of the moment.
An author always has a story in him, and that story belongs to him so long as he directs its course. Once he gives it over to the public, however, it ceases to be his. It belongs to readers and critics and theorists who will love it and hate it and pick it apart at the seams. That’s what gives us our best work. It’s not simply because of how good a writer is; a hundred thousand good writers have been lost to time.
What gives a work its brilliance and defines its meaning over time are readers themselves. Every story takes place a million different ways in a million different imaginations and carries a million unique interpretations. That story is not the author’s any more, it’s ours.
Sometimes an author has to keep that story in him. He needs that story to stay his own. He needs there to be one version, not a million. I imagine that might be how Faber feels, and if you’ve been through loss, you’ll understand why.
When I speak of ownership, I don’t speak of legal possession, but rather the possession of ideas: An audience can own a novel or a film or a painting forever because those can stand the test of time. Audiences change, and so that story of ownership changes and interpretations of art evolve, but that audience cannot own a creator. They are fleeting. They are the single element in any piece of art that we can never make our own.
Yet a creator can never own his art. It’s always given to an audience. He can’t own the meaning, he can’t own the interpretation, he can’t own how it will be understood in the future.
It’s beautiful when artists keep on giving until the day they die, but there’s a sadness to that, too. Conversely, it’s sad when an artist stops giving when he could still create, but there’s also a beauty in this. Faber deserves a chance to own his own stories. Everyone does, why should artists be any different?
To be as true an artist as you can is to give everything inside yourself to others, day after day, yet feel like it’s not enough. Every act of artistic creation is also an act of terrific loss. So long as that’s a positive motivation, and the well you’re pumping dry every day is being filled back up, art is a passion. It’s the rarest combination of vulnerability and invincibility.
When that motivation dwindles, for whatever reason, we shouldn’t be sad or angry that an artist has stopped creating. We shouldn’t make demands or insistently issue hopes. We should be joyous we got to enjoy what they’ve already made. Never be upset at a gift that’s been given simply because you wanted more of it.
Yes, there’s an element of sadness to Faber ceasing to write novels, and we shouldn’t deny that feeling. It just shouldn’t override the moment, because there’s also beauty to be found in it.
Don’t just imagine what else Faber, or any artist who moves on, could have given us. Imagine what he keeps. There’s awe in that. It’s an act of creation in itself. Let Faber create a story he wants to keep for himself, and don’t wonder at what it is. Admire that, for once, he gets to keep it.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel, Noah
A lot of people hate the story in Noah. It’s too bastardized, they say. Damn straight, I say. The story of Noah doesn’t belong to the Bible. It was around long before, transmuted into a plethora of different stories across different cultures that highlight contrasting details. Noah never adopts an orphan in the Bible. This is a reference to Korean flood mythology. There are no giants in the Bible’s Noah. This is a Midrashic conceit that belongs to certain sects of Judaism. Noah doesn’t contemplate exterminating his grandchildren in the Bible. This sequence combines reflections of other Biblical books – the jettisoned baby in Exodus, the crisis of faith in Job, and most importantly the tale of Abraham in Genesis.
There are countless other details from a variety of other religions folded into Aronofsky’s retelling of Noah. It creates a Frankenstein’s monster of a myth, housing itself inside Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions alike and vibrantly socially aware of the moment in time it arrives in our world.
Feel free to hate it for not being accurate to your interpretation of Noah, but Noah was never yours to begin with. Neither is it Aronofsky’s or Handel’s, and their patchwork retelling reminds us that it’s not so much the detail in the story that’s important – those details are completely different for everybody – but it’s the common meaning those various interpretations seek to teach us that is crucial.
The narrative details aren’t sacred. They’re just as bastardized in the Bible as they are out of it. The meanings are sacred. The world’s done a horrible job of getting this through its head. We argue about the length of Noah’s ark and its width and what wood it was made from and how he fed the animals while we ignore that in all those stories, God sends down the flood because we were annihilating each other and so lost in petty bickering we ignored the needs of the helpless among us. Understand that before you come at Noah complaining it’s not accurate enough.
Devoutness of detail can often be a useless habit. Give me a new interpretation that reminds me of the old meaning any day of the week.
Best Original Screenplay: Joel Edgerton & David Michod, The Rover
We so rarely get short stories on film anymore. Our movies today sprawl, like labyrinths meant to make the biggest and most widely talked-about mark on our social calendars. Every character gets his or her own realization mid-plot, so we can check the character development box off the list and justify a dozen different character-specific posters. Even in our blockbusters, two sides aren’t enough anymore. I like my seven-sided, choatic end-battles, believe me, but there are only so many writers and filmmakers who can truly hack that.
What about the short story? What about visiting a time and place for just a moment, getting just a glimpse? What about leaving us wanting to know more? Many of our works of art have forgotten how to shield their characters from us. Characters are thrown at us with gadgets and costume changes and sidekicks for spinoffs. That’s fine…so long as we don’t forget those other movies, the ones that contain characters we should never want to see again, or that we should wish to save, or that we should pity, or that we should hate. Sometimes all at once. The Rover visits a time and place we should never want to see and delivers characters we should never want to meet. It stays long enough so that we begin to care what happens anyway, that we begin to understand why someone might be a way we never could be ourselves, and then it exits gracefully.
Like The Proposition a decade before, which also starred Guy Pearce, it crafts a haunting story from an elegant blend of poetic dialogue, stark visual, and simple structure. In a short story, every word matters. So, too, in The Rover. Every word, every shot, every cut matters, and builds to a whole at just the right moment – the second before the credits roll. It forces you to take a piece of that time and place you’d never visit back with you into the real world, to contrast the two, to be terrified at their similarities and joyous at their differences. It’s a staggering work that demands tears and silence and reverence. The Rover is a fire-and-brimstone sermon in the church of film.
My choice for this at the end of last year was Alfonso Cuaron for his pioneering work in Gravity. At least until I saw Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. But that’s another essay. This year, it’s the polar opposite of those two directors. Instead of Cuaron’s painstaking cinematic techniques, so groundbreaking they demanded new inventions, and instead of Wong Kar-Wai’s precise, artistic framing (nearly every shot is so painterly it’s worthy of its own essay), Glazer is much more hands-off. He gathered a wild array of fringe talent and let them go wild.
In various Guardian articles, and in my own interview with author Michel Faber, who wrote the novel on which the film Under the Skin is based, Glazer’s loose, guerrilla approach to filmmaking began to take shape: Conversations with passersby recorded on hidden camera. Covert microphones hidden in umbrellas picking up stray conversation on the streets of Edinburgh. An FX studio let loose to envision an alien’s digestive tract in visual metaphor. Documentarian shots of both nature and civilization. An experimental rock musician asked to score it all.
What Glazer does is invite chaos into his movie, trusting himself enough to shape it. The result is a mash of experimental techniques fused into a powerful whole. These diverse technical experiments shine through so much that you can even see how contributors’ interpretations agree and disagree. It’s rare that so loose and experimental an approach results in a film so tight and complete. The most difficult part of directing is knowing when to control chaos and knowing when to unleash it. For mastering the balance, at least for this film, Glazer does something just as impressive as inventing new technologies or framing everything with painterly perfection.
Any other year, this wouldn’t be a contest. It would be The Rover with nothing else close. But Under the Skin is the best film we’ve had in many years, the most challenging, the one that does something film is very often incapable of doing. Many films put you in someone else’s shoes. Almost none trick you into filling out the shoes of a sociopath and rapist. The film has such command of allegory, it truly makes you stop and contemplate a perspective that’s (hopefully) completely alien to you, and it transports you very uncomfortably outside of your own realm of sensation and experience.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to ask a few questions of Michel Faber, the author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White. He had responded to my review for Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. Scotland’s a long way away, so after confirming it was him, I ran things pretty informally in the comments section. I enjoy correspondence interviews because, as you’ll see, they allow for more considered responses.
Without further ado, the interview, beginning with his response to my review:
Michel Faber: This is among the more interesting responses I’ve read so far to Glazer’s film of my novel. The film is indeed experimental and, quite apart from admiring its intrinsic merits, I’m relishing the fact that such a thing has infiltrated the marketplace and reached moviegoers who might not otherwise have got detoured so far outside their comfort zone. This is analogous to what I tried to do with the novel, which lulled readers into thinking it was a conventional horror-thriller before taking them on a very different ride altogether.
Gabriel Valdez: Thank you, Michel! It’s an honor that you took the time to respond to my review. I’m a fan of how you approach genre as a form to be molded into something new rather than strictly followed. I am curious – many authors dislike when so many liberties are taken in adapting their work. It sounds like you’re quite the opposite. Do you feel as if Glazer using the bones and tone of the novel to create the film’s own message is more important than holding to the narrative details that you established? What kind of input did you seek in that process of turning Under the Skin into something so different?
Michel Faber: When readers read a novel – especially novels as visceral and visual as mine – a kind of movie plays in their heads, and the specifics of character and atmosphere (the book’s ‘casting’ and ‘cinematography’, if you like) are controlled by the author. So I would hope that anyone reading my novel would be pulled into my novel’s distinctive world rather than (mis)perceiving the book as a prose version of Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Jonathan Glazer’s film. In other words, the book remains what it is no matter what other versions are out there.
My main concern about Glazer’s movie (and, before that, the BBC series of The Crimson Petal, and the stage adaptation of The Fahrenheit Twins) was that they should be strong works of art in themselves. A mediocre or weak adaptation that tried to be faithful would have upset me; a strong adaptation that took wild liberties made me very happy. I’ve been lucky so far. My only regret is that Jonathan Demme wasn’t able to get his version of The Courage Consort off the ground, as I think that might have made a lovely movie too, especially if a good ensemble cast had improvised it.
For me, the ideal book-into-film adaptation of all time was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Ruthlessly unfaithful and yet true to the essence.
Gabriel Valdez: Apocalypse Now answers the next question I was going to ask. I’m always curious about editing, for both writers and filmmakers. It’s the stage at which the connective tissue of a piece comes together, often in ways you don’t initially expect.
For someone who researches so painstakingly, do you find that the story is written in your notes before you even begin the narrative in earnest, or is it still coming together even as you edit? I’m also curious about the point of diminishing returns as a storyteller. Your language can be so precise – is there a perfect ideal of the story that you feel you achieve, a stopping point where you sit back and acknowledge the story’s right where it needs to be…or could you just go on editing forever?
Michel Faber: Because I write on computers, the distinction between notes, drafts, and editing blurs. Also, different pieces are tackled in different ways: The Crimson Petal was rigorously planned while my forthcoming novel The Book of Strange New Things was allowed to develop more instinctively/organically. Under the Skin was somewhere in between.
As for the editing/finessing process, it could indeed go on forever. When I do public readings I often stub my toe on things in the prose that I wish I could change. Some authors hate being pushed by editors to (re-)engage with their text once they’ve “finished” it; they’ve lived with it too long already and are desperate to move on. I respect that. But in my case, I’m happy to keep working on it to make it better, as many drafts as it takes.
It’s interesting to compare this with film-making, particularly the semi-improvised sort of film-making that Glazer employed in his movie of Under the Skin. If you’re filming scenes with people who are not actors & unaware that they’re being filmed (as happened in various scenes of Under the Skin) or if you’re filming in unrepeatable weather conditions (for instance the scene where Scarlett’s alien observes the people drowning in the wild surf, which according to Glazer was a totally flat, calm ocean on the days when they weren’t filming), you are at the mercy of the footage fate gives you. You can edit it obsessively in the editing suite, to finesse the rhythms and juxtapositions, but the raw material is what it is. Whereas a novelist can change the raw material.
One of the reasons Apocalypse Now is such a successful movie is that Coppola and his team were able to adjust, and make creative use of, the many things that didn’t go as planned during the shoot. So instead of clinging to their original vision of the movie and allowing it to be sunk by the disasters that eroded that vision, they changed the vision to incorporate the fiascos. Novelists are free to discard three months’ worth of writing and all they lose is time. Film makers don’t have that leeway; they need to work with what they manage to capture in a limited time frame.
Gabriel Valdez: I had no idea they hadn’t searched out such a rough stretch of sea just for its wildness. So much of the film really is capturing lightning in a bottle.
How do you feel about the reader or viewer taking ownership of the work once it’s out of the author’s (or filmmaker’s) hands? My reading of the movie Under the Skin, for instance, relies on analyzing multiple scenes but really hinges on a sound cue. Especially under someone like Glazer, whose imagery and editing is exacting but who values improvisation, it could have been Johansson or himself or Mica Levi who saw that opportunity in the storytelling. They might all look at that moment as hammering home a different message; certainly critics have taken a variety of meanings from it.
I’m sure you’ve had moments when critics and readers have derived meanings from your work that were different than intended. Your novels have many overarching themes, but they also have these very natural moments when we catch characters in a scene that might not be crucial to the narrative, but is absolutely crucial to inhabiting the world, in feeling and sensing the texture and pace of a place. Those are very accessible moments and can invite readers to start attaching their own, personal meanings to your work. Do you enjoy when readers extrapolate something different from what you intended? Is it frustrating that readers may miss some of your own meanings or are you proud that your work lends itself to such flexibility? Or a combination of both?
Michel Faber: If you go to Amazon and browse through the readers’ responses to novels – any novels, whether simple or complex – you will soon be overwhelmed with evidence that most people are looking for very personal resonances in a book and will rate it solely according to whether it hits that spot. Often, what the author intends the book to be “about” is dismissed as irrelevant, or not even noticed.
An analogous thing happens with music, where, for the average listener, a song is “good” if it reconnects them with an emotionally significant phase of their life – and even then, maybe only a few of the words of the lyric rather than the whole thing. Notoriously, zillions of people cherish The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” or Baby Bird’s “You’re Gorgeous” as swooningly romantic anthems, playing them at their weddings as “our song”, when in fact the lyrics are, respectively, about creepy stalkery possessiveness and about the sexual exploitation of a model by her photographer.
As a novelist, I have to accept that some readers just won’t “get it”. I’ve put the book into their hands and it’s theirs to consume as they wish. Other readers will understand what I’m trying to achieve, and that’s gratifying. And other readers will see things in the work that I wasn’t aware of when I was writing it but which, on reflection, I realise are valid. It’s just like a friend pointing out something about your character that you hadn’t noticed yourself.
In any book, I hope to strike a balance between stuff that I weave very deliberately into it, and stuff that ends up in there for deep, unconscious reasons. Readers and critics can sometimes alert me to things that I am helplessly or instinctively channeling, and I’m always intrigued when that happens.
I want to thank Michel Faber once again for taking the time to respond to my review for Under the Skinand answer a few questions. Under the Skin comes out for DVD/Blu-Ray on July 15. I encourage you to see it; it is the best film I’ve seen in the last two years.
Imagine a wolf making a documentary about rabbits. The little, scurrying things will seem foreign and strange and uselessly busy. Every once in a while, the wolf gets peckish and nabs one of its film subjects for lunch. This is how Under the Skin introduces itself, as a monumental psychological horror movie that reflects the bleak, harsh landscapes of the Scottish cities and countryside in which it takes place.
The predator we follow, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a human-looking alien preying upon the damaged and homeless in Scotland. We’re told she’s an alien in a very esoteric way, but you’ll probably have it figured out by the time she’s seducing and digesting men.
Species this isn’t, however. There are no sex scenes in these seductions – plenty of equal-opportunity nudity, but no sex scenes. Instead, the seduction takes place in a sort of nothingness. It’s haunting and beautiful and visually very clever. And the digestion? It’s one of the great moments of horror filmmaking.
The visuals here can utterly command your attention. The first half, as Johansson’s predator is on the hunt, is dominated by bright figures centered in dark surroundings. It’s a binary relationship – predator, prey, nothing more. When she’s on the prowl, Under the Skin reflects Scotland’s surging visual art movement – one which recycles liberally from other popular media. Our predator is selective – no one with a family or loved one will suffer, only loners no one will miss. As she trawls the streets of Edinburgh for potential victims, we spy on her conversations as if following Dominic Monaghan or Jeremy Wade seeking out interviews from aboriginal locals, or we watch from the back of her nondescript white van as if we’re the turret camera atop a jeep waiting for some stalking creature to give chase to the herd.
The second half of the film is altogether different, and concerns our predator’s growing empathy and identification with humans. She begins to learn the limits and capacities of her body. Images now brim at their edges with light and color, yet are anchored in the middle by dark, underlit figures. It redirects our focus toward the edges of the frame, toward the possibility of what’s just out of sight, the unknown still obscured. Where we once cut relatively quickly from one shot to the next – while Johansson’s alien was on the prowl – we now linger even after characters leave the shot so we can appreciate the sound of the wind or the complex geometry of crisscrossing branches. The wolf goes native, starts wanting to play with the rabbits.
There’s also a spooky moment of inverting rape culture here. Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien gets very unnerving theme music early on, whenever she preys upon a man. When it hits, you straighten up, your fingers grip the armrests. The score by Mica Levi is superb – the best of the year so far. As the predator identifies more and more with humans, she adopts our rhythms, our weaknesses. These moments are without music, but that unnerving theme does return once more. It becomes someone else’s theme later on, when roles of predator and prey are reversed. It’s a shocking auditory moment, a double-take for the ears that sends a lump straight to your throat.
It’s vicious, but played as academic and unfeeling as her own earlier predations. It makes you realize you’ve spent ninety minutes trying to inhabit the altogether alien sociopathy of a sexual predator. It gives you a window into a psyche it ought to be utterly impossible to give us access to. In that single achievement, this may be one of the most challenging and important films I’ve seen in my life. It’s terrifying on a whole different scale. I can’t recall having seen a piece of art do what Under the Skin does.
As an adaptation of the Michel Faber novel of the same name, this is…altogether something else. I love the Faber novel, but gone are the corporate politics and alien foodie-isms. This is a sleeker beast with a different cross to bear, yet there’s a consciousness to the rhythm of each sequence, an offhand attitude to narrative, and a lingering in the most evocative moments of its cinematography that feels just like Faber’s guarded and relentless concision of speech.
It’s worth noting I saw Under the Skin with two friends – an actor who enjoys classic cinema and a filmmaker whose bread and butter are action-comedies. Two ends of the spectrum, and neither one enjoyed it much, criticizing its lack of storytelling fundamentals and the molasses-pace of its second half. I was taken aback by how much they didn’t like it, but their criticisms are accurate. As a cogent story, Under the Skin requires a lot of work on the part of the audience. It’s that work on our part, that Pavlovian training we have as viewers to try as hard as we can to identify with our protagonist, that gives the story’s later inversion its power, however.
Under the Skin is not just a weird film or an art horror piece, it’s downright, unabashed experimental filmmaking, and that’s divisive. It’s absolutely not for everyone. For the right someone, though, it’s as brutal a shock to the system as storytelling in any form can achieve.