Monday, August 22, 2016


This morning I woke in a strange amber smoke world, a little nacreous, with an acrid stifling and alarming reek.  I would be totally weirded out if it hadn’t been predicted by the weather forecast last night.  It’s thinning now (9AM) and is supposed to be clear and windy by afternoon.  I don’t know where the fire is, but smoke is not unprecedented in August on the Montana prairie.  Usually it’s from the far north, where there are no settlements, no reason to stop the fire from consuming boreal forest.  Snow will put it out soon enough.

I would not be as weirded except that my late movie last night was “Under the Skin.”  It’s pure sci-fi in the way that I’ve only found in writing before.  That is, the narrative is metaphoric and leaves reality, but even the metaphor is not easy to interpret.  My copy of the DVD was way too dark, so I couldn’t really tell what was happening.  Luckily, YouTube has so many clips and spoiler-analyses that I slowly realized what was going on, what I had not-seen.

An alien is played by Scarlett Johanson, casting that would pull in unsuspecting people who didn’t know this wasn’t a cop show, maybe from Iceland — always a little inscrutable with hard bare scenery, very beautiful but abstract.  (“Lava Field”, a series, is what I mean.)  In the back of a van she undresses a body that looks like her, and puts on the clothes herself.  She sees an ant on the body and looks at it closely.  It looks back.

As the narrative goes along, she is plainly picking up men who won’t be missed and now the strangeness really begins:  she lures them into some dark liquid where everything but their skin dissolves.  The effect is totally convincing.  Eventually she lures a rough logger man who manages to seize her and begin to rape her, but now it’s HER skin that comes off.  In pieces.  Inside is an ebony transfiguration, hairless but whole and beautiful as a pure sculpture.  The man is horrified and sets her on fire.

So it’s about identity, the sexual aspect.  How we want to seize each other, sometimes losing ourselves and sometimes destroying what surprises us, frightening us with difference, like a trick who doesn’t expect a trannie and has such an emotional explosion of horror that he kills.  What if the man who finally grabbed this creature were an artist who could recognize and honor this unique form?  Who is the man on the motorcycle who shadows this “woman” as she goes through the streets in a van?  A pimp?  Some kind of handler.

Not everyone has a taste for this sort of film and reflection, but I’ve been surprised how often young people, particularly those with atypical lives and maybe even those who’ve done a bit of luring and exploiting themselves, can really get off on what it means and whether it works.  It’s just abstract enough to see the reality of it, but also to pull out the pattern.  

Before the vid games that so absorb adolescents with their possibility, the readers of sci-fi often began to explore the genre at about junior high.  (I did.)  Often a chord is struck that is strongest for the loner, the exceptional one.  Darrell Kipp used to say that the book most accurately describing what it was like to be a Native American was Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.”  But Heinlein was also the author of “The Red Planet Mars” which is clearly a prototype for “Star Wars” so near-universally beloved by everyone.

Obviously, the transformation of adolescence when sex is added to identity, is something like being dissolved internally, only one’s appearance seeming the same.  Almost.  Distorted.  Approaching others and hoping for intimate understanding can result in one’s assumptions dissolving, revealing someone unrecognizable: oneself.  That can be horrifying.

This film was adapted — more like “distilled” — from a book by the same name, written by Michel Faber.  The first chapter of the book is at  Faber was born Dutch, grew up in Australia, and as an adult has lived in Scotland.  All three countries claim him, though the expected characteristics of each nation’s people are quite different.  He says he’s simply “European.”  

This specific novel (his first among many) is based on the Scots highlands — not QUITE Iceland.  He’s worked as a nurse and has a vivid sense of embodiment, but a tough one with a strong spine of social justice.  Traveling with Médicins Sans Frontiéres, he confronted the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Ukraine in 2004.  The intended anthology of writers facing tough subjects was abandoned by the publisher.  (Freaked?  Politically frightened?)  But Faber’s article, entitled “Heart of Darkness” was published in the English Sunday Times“Bye Bye, Natalia”, a fiction version, was published in Granta.

The same material in different media can be quite different, as different as the same events seen through the eyes of two different people, and maybe that’s what Faber is after.  In his book the Alien examines her body in private ways and reflects on the way humans treat life forms around them, like the sheep on the Highlands.  The film is much simplified and the Alien says nothing except to check out the male prospects for digestion.  We simply see what she sees.  To her, sheep are not edible — the meat is human.  The result of image rather than word is much more immediate, colder, the intense feelings are in the viewer instead of analyzed on a page.

And yet there is so much to think about, and — ideally — to share with others who are interested in analysis and the political horrification that can often get criticism past the defenses of the media-owners.  This IS a polemic, meant to open the viewers’ eyes.  One can approach these images through the sensibility of the Alien or (weakly) through the horror of the stunned victims.  Many critics say the hardest episode to watch is the one where a mother drowns while her child bawls on the rocks of the shore, a child simply ignored by the aliens.  Not big enough to eat.  Too human to touch alien sensibilities.

The Alien could not do this job if she were empathic, able to feel what others are feeling.  It is torture to really share the inner world of some people, but empathy is insidious, it creeps into a person quietly through the eyes, until one is “seeing” almost against one’s will.  A photograph of a little boy: drowned, stunned — and we embrace him, even though he is a victim of human hatred and our own unseeing.  It’s not surprising that Scarlett’s usual fans quickly dropped this film. is the link for “Under the Skin” Explained.   I recommend it.  It was cheating to go here instead of just reacting, but my version was so dark (literally) I felt justified.  Anyway, this film is dense enough that it will reward and support many interpretations.  Try  

At the end the flaming body of the skinned alien runs through a snowy forest.  The image is a metaphor, but one deep in the instinctual life of humans.  With relief I hear the wind begin to rise outside though it is fanning flames somewhere.


Whisky Prajer said...

I'm resisting those YouTube links, as Under The Skin was one of those movies that felt intensely personal as I watched and re-watched it. I don't want it explained. The one review I read of it said it was clear the alien was taking these victims into the house to have sex with, then kill, them. "Have sex"? Then why was she so taken by surprise when sexual congress began with the care-giver character? Much of what appeals to me is the dark intuition the filmmaker runs with, including the improvised dialogue. There are reasons for why this is what it is, but "The heart hath reason..." etc.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Knowing your sensibility as I do, I'm not surprised by your reaction. I don't think you NEED this movie to be explained to you. I agree that there was nothing about sex beyond the lure -- the men were clearly dissolved, "eaten," metabolized.

What reaction did you have to "Her," in which Scarlett was a computer program?

Prairie Mary

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm having trouble recalling what I thought of SJ's performance in Her. I think I appreciated the almost playful expression of curiosity, which necessarily alters to a sort of jovial disinterest by the end. I have to wonder how she and Joaquin Phoenix worked out the interaction, or whether they had anything at all to do with each other. (I was surprised some years ago to hear Ricardo Montalban express disappointment in the experience of filming Wrath of Khan, because he was never given the chance to physically work across from his nemesis -- apparently a female stage-hand sat off-camera and read all of William Shatner's lines to him, while he tried to summon up how his character might react to Captain Kirk's taunts.)

I should probably give Her another viewing. I remember wondering why it had been made into a movie -- a difficult and expensive undertaking -- when it could have been a terrific short story in the New Yorker or somesuch. I figured the reasoning must have been more people watch movies than read short stories.

That same year SJ played a girl who artificially evolves into a state of heightened intelligence, in Lucy -- more of a comic book affair, but still curious to see since she embodies someone who's an unthinking party-girl flake undergoing a radical transformation into something incomprehensible. My younger daughter loves the movie, but then she has the same name, as well as a slight crush on Morgan Freeman (also in Lucy).