I’d like to separate the entire world’s population into five categories.
A. People who are unaware of my last blogpost.
B. People who glanced at my last blogpost but didn’t bother to read it.
C. People who read my last blogpost but can’t be bother to check out any of the movies listed there.
D. People who read my last blogpost and want to check out the movies listed there but haven’t gotten around to it yet.
E. My peeps, eeeeyyy!
Categories A, B, and C consist of well over 7.3 billion people, but they were never my crowd anyway. They’re the ones that are interested in all those other “important” things like politics, science, education, career, and family. Boring!
If you’re a D or E person, then you’ve made it to the next round. Congratulations! There’s no prize, boo hoo, so what? Admittance is its own reward, right? You, my lucky lucky star, get to do MORE READING! Yay! Confetti!
Nawww, look at you all excited. Alright, so what’s on the menu for today?
Well, it’s partly a recap, really. An expansion, if you will, on the final act of my last article. If you’ll recall, I ended it by recommending Under the Skin as the best film of 2014. If you’ve seen it by now, then hopefully you’ll know why I loved it so much, but may find yourself wondering what kind of deviant mind could conjure up such a thing. Well, that would be…
Jonathan Glazer is a filmmaker I was unaware for a long time, but holy shit I’m certainly a devout follower now. The most amazing thing about this man’s career is how sparse it is.
First off, the man is clearly insane. Except he’s not “Hitler” insane, he’s more “Van Gogh” or “Kubrick” insane. Calm, collected, and articulate as he may be, his imagination and originality is incomparable.
Glazer started off doing Music Videos and TV Adverts with a heightened sense of style and artistry to them. They can all be seen on Youtube, and are…unique. Many of you will recognise his Sony Bravia Ad, below. Bright, beautiful, colourful and fun, but never more than an arms length away from sheer madness.
Did you see the random insert shot of the running clown?
See? Madness! And yet so majestic. That’s why I love him. He’s my favourite kind of auteur; teetering on the precipice of pretentiousness but never forgetting to entertain you. So what happens when you take all that twisted talent and apply it to feature films? This:
What you’re looking at is the Jonathan Glazer Trilogy! They’re the only three feature films that Glazer has ever made. Three wildly different plots within vastly disparate genres, there’s nothing else to link them besides the following; they’re all masterpieces!
While reflecting upon his work, I’ve tried to nail down what the most impressive thing about Glazer is. I think I’ve got it; he’s a master of tone.
The three films I’ve laid before you each have a very unusual but precise tone. Sexy Beast is half an art house film and half a geezer gangster romp. Birth is somewhat sweet, dramatic, mostly sad, and all kinds of creepy. Finally, Under the Skin plays with the uncanny void between all that is warmly human and that which is chillingly alien. I’ve never seen any other filmmaker blend the genre equivalents of oil and water so impressively well. I’m genuinely dumbfounded, because it shouldn’t be possible.
The best way to sell Jonathan Glazer’s directorial debut, Sexy Beast, is as a marriage of Donnie Darko and Guy Richie. I don’t have much love for british gangster films. I find that they lean heavily of cockney lingo, humourless profanity, and boring predictable violence. Sexy Beast puts all that on the back burner. It’s almost entirely set in Spain and features very few characters, worlds away from the typical Snatch ensemble meeting in darkly lit rooms and London alleyways. Best of all, there is a real artistic approach, and all notions of genre expectation are thrown to the wind.
“Ex-villain Gal Dove has served his time behind bars and is blissfully retired to a Spanish villa paradise with a wife he adores. The idyll is shattered by the arrival of his nemesis Don Logan, intent on persuading Gal to return to London for one last big job.”
With an energetic cinematography that mirrors the style of Boogie Nights, Sexy Beast skips along and doesn’t waste a second. Straight to the point, we’re introduced to two actors playing very much against type. Ray Winstone, who is typically the very face of hardened “gangsterness”, plays Gary “Gal” Dove. Dove by name and dove by nature; he’s calm, considerate, and genial. Ben Kingsley on the other hand, who’s most famous role was Gandhi, plays an absolute roaring psychopath. Don Logan, gangster or not, displays the most unpleasant selections of traits ever assembled into one character. He shouts, swears, prods, rambles, and violently attacks people all in the pursuit of his goal; to bring Gal back into the crime scene. Most annoyingly, he’s stubborn and he loves to repeat himself.
Give Sexy Beast a go, but be prepared for a lot of “four letter words”. Also, ask yourself…why is it called Sexy Beast? There is an answer.
Remember Nicole Kidman before she became a wax statue? I do. In fact Birth may just be the last film she made while she was still completely human.
So, after Sexy Beast Glazer was no-doubt flooded with British-crime film scripts. A lesser artist (GUY RICHIE!) would have lazily repeated himself (GUY RITCHIE!) and never done anything else (GUY RITCHIE!) because they’d rather play it safe. Well, not this guy.
One day while working in his kitchen, Glazer had the vision of a little boy confronting a woman and telling her that he was her dead husband. After four years of development it became Birth.
“A young boy attempts to convince a woman that he is her dead husband reborn.”
Birth is probably the most accessible film on this list, so if you’re an unadventurous filmgoer then this might be the best place to start.
Unbelievably, Birth is even better than Sexy Beast. Since it’s totally different in every way it becomes hard to compare the two, but I know that I enjoyed Birth a lot more.
When the film premiered at Cannes, many critics booed and hissed at it. Several walked out of the screening in disgust. Why? Well, because on some level the film flirts with the concept of pedophilia. That’s not to say that the movie is in any way about pedophilia, but it certainly ventures into that dangerous area of discussion.
The central questions are; if a child came to you and claimed to be a deceased loved one, what would it take for you to believe them? If you did, would that even allow you to treat them the same, or love them the same? How could you recognise the person you loved and lost underneath all the superficial differences? How much of their fundamental characteristics need to remain intact for you to re-establish your personal connection with them? Finally, how well do you really know the person you love(d)? Might your own sense of loss be filling in the blanks for you because you need their return to be true?
It’s an interesting concept no matter which angle you come at it from, believing in supernatural occurrences like reincarnation or dismissing them with objective scepticism. I’m always a sceptic myself, but I loved the experience of not knowing where this film was going to land. Is he really her dead husband reborn? Could he just be a weird child? How could he know so much about his life? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
One thing is certain, though. This kid is wickedly creepy:
“It’s me, Sean!”. *shivers*
Well, maybe he’s creepy, or maybe he’s just desperate to reconnect with his wife. Again, it all depends on what you believe about his claim, and your allegiance is bound to flip flop throughout the picture. This is due, in large part, to Alexandre Desplat’s emotionally acute musical score.
From the moment the movie starts, you know you’re in good hands. Glazer gives us a 1 minute and 48 second uncut shot of Sean running through a snow-covered park. I’d normally call this editing decision a self-indulgent one, except that it gives us apt time to reflect on Desplat’s overture, which plays through all of its peaks and lulls in order to tell us exactly what tone we’re in for over the next 90 minutes. Beginning with the flighty sound of ethereal flutes flapping like pigeons in the upper ranges, it later slips into warm comforting violins and ultimately confronts us with bombastic skeletal drums. It’s a lovely melodic introduction that filmmakers and musicians alike can appreciate.
Upon analysis, Birth is above all about loss. Kidman’s performance in the movie highlights one thing; while she may project and inject the artifice of closure…she has, in fact, never recovered from losing the love of her life. Worse yet, she probably never will.
I loved Birth. Most filmmakers couldn’t do much better, and that would be perfectly acceptable. Glazer, against all odds, can’t help but outdo himself. Ten years after Birth, he made what is clearly the best film of this decade as well as the last one; Under The Skin.
Oh, shit…you saw it, huh? Alright, no, fuck it, if you didn’t like it then you’re just wrong! Let me forcibly educate you as to why, with a little crash course in film school:
Film was not always an art form. It was initially invented as a piece of scientific technology. It was not immediately recognised as a form of artistic expression, much less as a medium for storytelling. In its first incarnation, film was merely used to document reality and project it back to audiences for amazement. However, it gradually changed as artists were able to adapt it for other purposes, and probably made its greatest stride with the discovery of the “montage”.
We all think we know what the term “montage” refers to. Some may begin to hum the Montage song from Team America, while others remember the compressed training sequence from Rocky. That’s not, in full, what the word “montage” is referring to. “Montage”, in film terms, means the mere compositing of images to tell an overarching narrative. You may take it for granted, but your brain is actually doing a hell of a lot of work in order to understand the relationship between each shot in a movie. The fact that a movie can be intuitively understood says a lot about a human being’s ability to comprehend visual patterns. The question is, how much of the legwork can you let the audience do for themselves before the whole thing becomes confusing?
There are five types of montage; Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal, and Intellectual. I’ll let you look up the meaning of these on your own time, but they all hang upon the peg of what’s known as “The Kuleshov Effect”.
Lev Kuleshov was a Soviet filmmaker who experimented with the psychological effect of film on its audience. What he discovered was the hidden participatory element that the audience member brings to every editing decision a filmmaker makes. That might sound like mumbo jumbo to you, but it’s actually really fascinating when you understand it. Here’s how it works:
Kuleshov experimented by showing these three different sets of images to three different audience groups:
Three different mashups; a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, and a beautiful woman, always followed by the same static shot of a man’s face.
Those who saw the “soup” version commented on how hungry the man looked, those who saw the child in the coffin remarked at his obvious sadness, and those who saw the beautiful woman were moved by how much the man appeared to be in love.
So what’s going on here? It turns out that this is the psychological phenomenon on which film editing is based. Firstly, as a viewer you are making the connection that the two shots are happening in the same local space and sequentially happening one after the other. It’s an assumption you will always make unless the filmmaker has made it clear, somehow, that they are separate incidents. Then, you deduce that since the man is staring slightly off camera then he must be looking at the following subject. Then, you contemplate the effect of his observation on his mood and project that onto his expression. It’s even freakier than that. The girl lying in the coffin could just as easily be asleep, but the fact that she’s in a coffin gives your brain the signal that she must be deceased. The woman lying on the couch appears to smile, which is why the viewer sees a loving connection instead of a sad one. Then there’s the bowl of soup, which is full and not empty. Had it been empty, we may have deduced that the man looked satisfied with his meal.
This is what filmmaking is, and every single filmmaker should be trying to cut his or her film back to this basic concept. If you tell the story visually, and not explicitly through dialogue, it will be a more engaging experience for the audience and they will be able to have their own subjective impression of it…and that’s exactly what Under The Skin does.
“Disguising herself as a human female, an extraterrestrial (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Scotland and tries to lure unsuspecting men into her van.”
Under The Skin is a prime example of Jonathan Glazer’s trust in the power of the image. He never resorts to exposition in order to tell you what’s going on, but instead trusts you to make all the connections yourself. Beyond that, the film is exploring ideas of perception and how much the limitations of your perspective effect how you experience the world around you. The film begins with a very cold and distant tone, then gradually heats up as the protagonist changes.
It’s not a movie that you’ll likely be able to comprehend entirely upon first viewing, I’ll give you that. I can only hope that you appreciate how much this really is a master at work. Every frame, every moment, and every cut is painstakingly assembled and streamlined into this bare-bones collection of images. Many shots are held for a long time, but it’s all done in order to make you think about what you’re seeing and why Glazer is showing it to you.
As for Scarlett Johansson, I was already sold on her talent and artistic choices when she provided the ever loveable voice of Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her. This takes it to a whole new level. She completely inhabits the role of Laura, the alien, by switching from an inanimate to an animate face whenever she’s approached by another character. Again, remember the Kuleshov effect, where the man’s face really didn’t do much at all, and yet we read so much into it. Johansson’s expressions are minimal, if existent at all. Counterintuitive as it may be, this is a very brave choice for such an accomplished actress to make. Doing so little shows an immense level of trust in the film and it’s director.
Also, she’s like totally naked…a lot.
If that’s the only way I can get you to see Under The Skin, then so be it. To those who are averse to nudity, however, let me also speak directly to you. It is in no way gratuitous and most definitely not sexist. There is at least as much male nudity as there is female nudity, and it’s all there for a reason.
But enough about the nudity, that’s so not the point. Under The Skin has had a very bittersweet reception. While those who have seen it have really loved it, most people have passed right by it. If you do have access to it and would like to check it out, I recommend that you get hold of the best quality version you can. The imagery in this film is extraordinary, and needs to be seen in it’s full glory, so unless it’s too much to ask you should be getting hold of a full HD copy. Remember what I’ve told you, also. Be prepared for 90 minutes of very challenging material, probably unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Even if it doesn’t make for a good blockbuster, it’s a worthwhile education and above all; a participatory event. Don’t switch your brain off, switch it on!
This is a movie that I can only hope will grow its audience over a long time and become recognised as a grand work of art, just like Psycho and 2001: A Space Odyssey, or perhaps it will sink into the blackness and be forgotten by all but a few. Who knows? Well, I’ll keep telling people about it no matter what happens.
Above all, never forget the name Jonathan Glazer.
You’re bound to see it show up again!
– Rant Over!