By Max Arambulo
“That sounds like such a Catholic-boy thing to say,” my friend Anne said to me after I told her that Under The Skin was mostly a good movie, how I enjoy movies about sex that make sex feel dangerous. (If not dangerous, I’ll take campy, like Basic Instinct or Rocky Horror). Early in this movie, we watch an unnamed man ride a motorcycle, first through the rural Scotland hills at dusk, then through the M8 at full-night. Passing-cars’ break- and head-lights reflect and streak across his black helmet. Eventually, he stops on the shoulder in front of a parked van and we watch him walk out of the shot, fade into the dark marsh just beyond the highway railing. When he appears back onscreen, there’s an unconscious woman on his shoulders, the camera following behind him as he carries her to the van. Her hair and slack left arm sway back and forth. Loading an unconscious woman into a vehicle, like Buffalo Bill does in Silence of the Lambs.
The film flips this recognizable narrative (and it’s odd to realize that girl-into-a-van is a recognizable trope) in the next scene. The woman lays, still unconscious, in a bright white room that’s free of any furniture or structure. It’s either purgatory or a chamber on an alien spaceship (spoiler-alert: it’s the latter). Her clothes are being stripped off, her limp arms held over her head so her pink, fuzzy sweater can come off in one go. But it’s not the motorcycle guy doing the stripping; it’s a nude Scarlett Johansson (an alien who’s nameless throughout) being so surgical. She’ll slip her feet into the woman’s boots and zip them up. She’ll reach behind her back and clasp the bra, though I noticed the cup size likely wouldn’t correspond, but, hey, this is the movies. Scarlett will use this woman’s outfit and that van and cruise the streets of Glasgow looking for men to seduce and to feed on (like remember that other alien, the one in Species?). There are shots as if the camera is mounted on the van-dash and an early sequence of the varied men she scouts through the van-windows. One in a navy blazer and khakis on a cigarette break. Another a high school kid with a messenger bag hanging off his shoulder. There’s an old dude slouched over as he crosses the street in front of her. Later, Scarlett will drive a street loaded with rowdy men in green and white scarves, a local soccer game letting out.
This alien’s technique isn’t complicated. Often she’ll simply pull over, roll down her window and yell at the first dude she sees. “Excuse me! Do you know where the M8 is?” And she’ll interrupt their friendly direction by asking where they’re headed, who do you live with, do you want a ride? One of the things I found interesting is how fear-free each man is. There’s no fear of the van with the tinted windows or of the stains that cover the loading space inside. They never worry about being unconscious and carried on a shoulder and loaded into the back. Men don’t have those thoughts on regular Friday nights and they for sure don’t have them when a girl looking like Scarlett Johansson in jet black hair and candy-apple lipstick offers to give a lift and some flirts. “You’re quite charming,” she tells one of the men in a green-and-white scarf. “You have a handsome face, too.” The man replies, “Cheers,” and we catch him take a glance down, past the hand break, to the thigh just off-frame. There’s a guerilla feel to these picking-up sequences. The men all look rather ordinary and the actors don’t try to sound understandable through their heavy Scottish accents. And they don’t really act beyond the realest reactions of lust. These sequences have an interesting mood, in the space between these men’s feelings of safety and lust and Scarlett’s plans. The air feels moist. And most interesting, this stuff doesn’t feel dangerous or scary. If feels sort of detached and matter-of-fact, like of watching a nature show in which a spider approaches a fly.
At her house, each dude continues his blissful, blind lust, doesn’t notice the improbability of being picked-up by a lady who looks like a movie star, even when it becomes obvious she’s going to fucking devour him. These are surreal sequences, the background of the shot an unending black (as black as that other alien-ship room was white). There are no walls and no visible floor. In fact, Scarlett’s reflected in the black below her as if she’s walking on midnight-water. As each dude follows her path, hypnotized by the rhythms of her stripping off her clothes, of her hips swaying, he sinks into the black while she just keeps walking. As he goes chin deep and then past that, his expression still don’t change and his expectation for sex doesn’t abate. And then Scarlett is back on the streets to find the next guy to drown.
There is a sharp shift in the film when, one night, Scarlett picks up a man with a deformed face. It’s a very theatrical makeup job far from the documentary-feel of her earlier pickups. And it’s also far from the sequences of flashy music-video surrealism, the all-white and all-black rooms. A little bit of Roger Corman camp that stands out from everything else. The guy has some bulbous above his nose and his eyes are like slits in baggy skin. She’s still flirting, telling him how nice his hands are, asking him if he’s ever had a girlfriend when it’s obvious he hasn’t. It’s night and she’s stopped him on his grocery run. Less people at the Tesco’s at night so less people to stare at him, he explains. She puts his hand to her neck and then to her face and asks if he wants to go to her place. He’s disbelieving, unlike the men before him, and he pinches the top of his hand. For the first time, there’s fear, perhaps because her act is so transparent here. Still, this man goes along because she looks the way she looks and he’s not the guy with the kind of will to say ‘no’.
After this, the danger disappears. This pickup, without the mood of realism marks the shift. She’s thrown off, too, by the obviousness of this kill and she stops picking up men. There was a tenderness to this last interaction and some kind of guilt attached, but while the early part of the movie felt mysterious, this later part, after the deformed man, felt a bit muddled. Without all the danger, there’s a lull. For the rest of the film, Scarlett plays at being human. At a highway diner, she sits alone in a booth and orders a slice of black forest cake. There’s a POV shot of the piece on a fork then a close-up of her mouth as she holds the pastry there without chewing. She’ll accept a friendly man’s offer for accommodations and try some domesticity. I had a couple ideas of what this all was supposed to represent. Maybe it was about a girl losing her youthful sexual powers (there’s an early sequence when Scarlett goes shopping for makeup and there are images of middle-aged women being attended to, having blush and eyeliner applied, having mirrors held up to their faces). Maybe it was about the discovery of the human and emotional element to sex. Or something. The mood was the best thing in the movie and the mood had been killed. Without all that, Under the Skin is just confused and a bit grotesque, like that boy on the way to Tesco’s.
By Alex Jenkins
1) Where is the incident report from the shooting?
When the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, held a press conference on Monday to release the name of the officer who killed Mike Brown, he mysteriously also took that opportunity to release footage, along with a detailed incident report, of Mike Brown stealing from a convenience store shortly before the shooting. It wasn’t until several hours later, at a second press conference that Jackson acknowledged that Officer Wilson had no knowledge of the theft at the time he stopped Mike Brown. When reporters asked the obvious question, “why release the video if it had nothing to do with the fatal encounter?” Jackson mendaciously claimed that he hadn’t wanted to release the video, but he felt forced to because the media had filed freedom-of-information requests demanding it’s release. Astonishingly, none of the media followed up by asking, “well then why don’t you also release the incident report from the actual shooting?”.
I’ve just learned from watching tonight’s episode of “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell (the only journalist actually covering the cover-up), that the police department has just admitted that no incident report was ever made. It seems clear now that the officer and his accomplices in the department didn’t want him to be tied to a version of events that could turn out to be incriminating or would be contradicted by the physical evidence or any potential video evidence that might subsequently emerge.
2) Was Officer Darren Wilson Justified in Shooting Mike Brown as he fled?
Although the police have been extremely cagey about disclosing the officer’s account of the circumstances surrounding the shooting, they have released small tidbits of information here and there. The New York Times for example, in an article that is otherwise incredibly favorable to the police, says that department sources acknowledge that Officer Wilson fired shots at Mike Brown while Brown was turned away and attempting to flee. All of the eye-witnesses who’ve spoken publicly have corroborated this fact, and yet, it is mentioned only in passing as though it’s irrelevant to the allegation of murder. The law in the United State makes it clear that it is illegal for an officer to fire upon a fleeing suspect unless there is reason to believe that the suspect poses an immediate threat (of death or grave bodily harm) to the officer or others. It seems unlikely that Mike Brown met this criterion, given the fact that he was known (or ought to have been known) to be unarmed.
3) Where are all the witnesses who support Darren Wilson?
In a bafflingly irresponsible New York Times article published online yesterday, the paper claimed that witness accounts are “sharply conflicting” in terms of what happened. The article makes great efforts to suggest several of the witnesses versions contradict each other. The authors then proceed to cite several witness accounts, none of which are mutually contradictory, and all of which tell the same basic story. To support the ostensible thesis of the article (i.e. that the witnesses are in disagreement), the paper presents the official police version, which holds that Mike Brown lowered his head and charged toward Officer Wilson, forcing Wilson to fire the fatal shots. The article then claims that “some witnesses have backed up that account “. Yet, unlike the 5 witnesses who’ve spoken publicly, whose names and faces we already know, the article offers no information these phantom witnesses who supposedly corroborate Darren Wilson’s version. We don’t know who they are, whether they have a relationship with either party, or whether they saw the shooting first-hand. We also don’t know if these witnesses spoke directly to the New York Times (or some other news outlet) or if these witnesses’ accounts were told to the police and were later disseminated by the police to the media. If the latter is the case, then that seriously calls into question the reliability, and perhaps even the existence, of these witness accounts.
4) If Darren Wilson had been a black male, would he have been arrested already?
The fact that none of the above questions have been asked by the mainstream media (with one or two notable exceptions) is symptomatic of a pathological tendency within the media to create balance where there is none. The known facts of this case are incredibly damning and they overwhelmingly favor those of us who believe that Darren Wilson should be arrested immediately. We have at least six eyewitnesses who say that the officer shot Mike Brown while he was fleeing, and then fired several fatal shots at an already injured Mike Brown while the teenager was at a safe distance and posed no threat to the officer. Five of those witnesses say Mike Brown was shot while his hands were in the air attempting to surrender. The one witness who doesn’t claim to have seen this, admits that his view of the events was interrupted and the time when the gesture would have occurred. Four of these witnesses have been interviewed on camera, the fifth has been interviewed by several news outlets and has revealed his name. The sixth witness tweeted his account in real-time, which means it is time-stamped making it perhaps the most reliable of all. So far not a single eyewitness has come forward with a version that supports the police department’s account of the shooting.
Given these facts, my last question is this. If Darren Wilson had been a black male, not in law-enforcement, and had shot dead an unarmed teenager who had attempted to flee, and there were six eye-witnesses all describing a scene of cold-blooded murder, and all of whose accounts agreed on the basic facts, wouldn’t Darren Wilson be in jail by now?
Happy Birthday, Nate.