'Under the Skin,' 'Birth,' and Jonathan Glazer's strange brilliance
Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
Should we start with the music videos? Does anyone in college or younger understand why music videos were important? There was a significant portion of the ’90s spent agonizing over how cinema would be forever altered by the onrushing influx of young-turk hotshot music-video auteurs, and the quick-cut glitter-grit really-just-too-much style they brought along.
Now it’s 2014 and music videos are dead, unless you’re a bygone spiffy-clean tween star nakedly straddling a spheroid metaphor. The career trajectories of the great ’90s music video directors have followed every conceivable direction: Journeyman professionals with minimum personality (David Slade, F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua); journeyman professionals with occasional tantalizing flashes of personality (Francis Lawrence, Tarsem Singh); artsy types with minor followings (Anton Corbijn, Chris Cunningham); worst directors ever (Michael Bay, Brett Ratner); whatever McG is. A couple of the greats continue to work steadily in music videos: Hype Williams directed two of the Beyoncé videos you downloaded and then immediately ignored, while Jonas Åkerlund directed Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” and “Telephone.” (Francis Lawrence directed “Bad Romance” in between; there was a point somewhere around 2009-10 when it was possible to think music videos were cusping on a New Renaissance.)
The legacy of music-video auteurs now mainly rests on a pair of directors whose late-’90s rise is matched only by their recent early-2010s re-rise. Today, David Fincher makes Best Picture nominees and literary big-budget R-rated thrillers with commercial appeal, while Spike Jonze just won an Oscar for his latest work of utter uniqueness. (I guess you could throw in Michel Gondry, if you live in a world where 2004 never ended).
Of course, pretty much every director I just named has a body of work that goes far beyond feature-length film productions. They direct commercials, and they direct short films, they direct drama pilots and they produce art installations in London or New York. (It’s entirely possible that Spike Jonze’s greatest and most important cultural influence derives from his status as a co-creator/co-instigator of Jackass.) This is how directors are now — how most creative types in Hollywood are, really — less defined by a single body of work in a single medium than by a vast assortment of projects crisscrossing screens large and small and smaller.
And then there’s Jonathan Glazer — British, commercial director, won “Director of the Year” at the 1997 VMAs. In 2000 he directed Sexy Beast, a very flashy and very stylish crime film, which hit at a cultural moment when a Flashy And Stylish Crime Film was the thing that every young director wanted/had to do. Watching it in 2000, it was easy to say that Sexy Beast was Tarantinoesque, or to assume Glazer was another Guy Ritchie. The film wasn’t, Glazer wasn’t, but we’ll come back to that.
Lots of young directors made cool low-budget thrillers in the early 2000s. Some of them made a low more cool low-budget thrillers; some of them brought that Cool Low-Budget Thriller style to superhero movies. Jonathan Glazer’s next movie came four years later. It was a chilly chamber drama set in the bleakest possible version of the Upper East Side, starring Nicole Kidman as a woman with short hair and a ten-year-old boy who claims to be Kidman’s dead husband. The film came out at the precise moment when culture reached Kidman Overdose. In the year before Birth hit American theaters, Kidman films flooded the market: The Human Stain, Cold Mountain, Dogville, The Stepford Wives. At least one of those movies is great; at least one of them is shameless awards bait. But nobody doesn’t agree that The Stepford Wives was toxic. So nobody really felt like seeing a movie about Kidman falling in love with a ten-year-old, is what I’m getting at. (Her troubles continued: 2005 would bring The Interpreter and a mostly-forgotten controversy about Kidman playing an African woman from the country of Fakelandia, all of which was mere prelude to the horror of Bewitched.)
Birth lived on in a certain corner of the film-loving internet, but Glazer didn’t make another movie for ten years. That movie is Under the Skin, which just opened pretty big on very few screens. Like Birth, Under the Skin is a movie that is difficult to explain, unless you want to try and just get people to go see it, in which case Under the Skin is a movie in which Scarlett Johansson is very, very naked. Such a description misses all kinds of points, not least the fact that, between Birth and Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer has made two of the most interesting and unusual movies of the modern age, two movies which don’t immediately appear to have very much to do with each other.
Indeed, part of what makes Glazer a fascinating director is that his three feature films feel like great movies made by three very different great directors — three artists with radically different concerns, styles, even from three very different ages. Sexy Beast is by far the most explicable of the three — for a certain age group of British dudes or anglophiliac American dudes, it’s a legitimate millennial classic — but it’s also the polar opposite of the cool-kid crime thrillers that flourished in the Tarantino ’90s. It’s about a group of middle-aged people who would be happy spending their days by the pool trying to learn Spanish; it’s an advertisement for the joys of retirement, shot in sunbaked bright colors. Everyone always looks too tan in movies now, either because of digital color-correction or greater scientific advancements in spray-tan technology; in Sexy Beast, Ray Winstone’s tan is the whole point of his character, suggesting both inner peace but also the secret hope that the hot Spanish sun will just burn his past all away.
Compare that to Birth, a movie that seems to actively despise the sunlight, which begins in the snow and mostly takes place in darkened apartments, with the camera constantly shooting through open doorways and other frames-within-frames. I finally watched Birth last month, and I suspect the film has aged well only in the sense that it was always kind of timeless. Kidman’s character lives in the sort of pre-digital Imperial New York milieu that simultaneously suggests Woman of the Year and Annie Hall and Gossip Girl, galas and operas and piano recitals in gigantic living rooms and operas.
Birth is a weird, slow film: That’s the best pitch I can give you, besides saying that it’s great. I opened this essay with a list of Glazer’s fellow music video auteurs largely as a way to contrast what Glazer does with what everyone else has done. Fincher and Jonze are fantastic directors, but especially in their later work, something about their style is always “cool.” Fincher shoots everyone like an android draped in shadow; Jonze has trended the other direction, color-blasting Her in hipster tones and Shanghai skylines.
What Glazer does is much trickier. He’s a true formalist — half the scenes in Birth are shot with embryonic imagery. (You can see it in the image at the top of this post: The Central Park arch where Kidman’s husband dies, and where she goes to meet the boy claiming to be her husband, is rendered with very little subtlety as a birth canal.) But for all the Kubrick comparisons that come up with Glazer, he also strikes me as a humanist. To be less vague: He’s a ridiculously overly stylish director who spends years preparing specific shots, but who seems most interested in the faces of his actors. The best moment in Birth is a two-minute-plus shot that’s really just a close-up on Kidman’s face, her eyes registering microcosmic shifts in her emotional state while the never-seen orchestra macrocosms those emotions into the stratosphere.
We’ve gotten very used to weird things in our popular entertainment now — “Weird” being a purposefully vague term that can encompass the relatively popular Rick & Morty and the ridiculously popular dragons-and-funny-names megahit Game of Thrones. But Glazer is up to something more than weirdness. “Surrealism” is a word that gets thrown around a lot/too much by everyone, but Glazer is the one filmmaker who returns to the source. Birth was co-written by a frequent collaborator of Luis Bunuel; on his Scanners blog, the great Jim Emerson put together a fantastic visual comparison of Birth with Bunuel’s landmark surrealist work Un Chien Andalou. What Glazer seems to take from Bunuel most of all is the idea that art can be a stealth missile. Le Cinema du Fincher/Jonze is filled with lavish set designs and overt digital effects. Glazer’s films often look weirdly normal by comparison — which makes their flourishes all the more effective.
And so to Under the Skin, a film that combines sequences that resemble avant-garde art installations with sequences shot verité style on the streets of Scotland. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who picks up men and lures them into a trap. The precise nature of her alien-ness, or the ultimate purpose of the trap, is never really made clear. There are long scenes that are just close-ups of Scarlett Johansson driving a car — simultaneously reminding you of the Kidman Birth close-up, but also of Glazer’s “Karma Police” music video.
Under the Skin‘s environment is as different from Birth as Birth was from Sexy Beast. It’s set in Scotland, mostly in places that even Scottish people might not recognize: Anonymous streets, anonymous roads, anonymous suburbs that could be anywhere if it weren’t for all that fog. Johansson doesn’t have much obviously in common with Kidman: She’s purposefully sultry but also emotionless, a Terminator pretending to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The film holds her at a distance — until the second half, when it fully assumes her perspective, and the predator becomes the prey. Glazer composes his frame for the big screen: Especially in the second half of the movie, there are extreme long shots where a tiny figure is moving across a landscape, the kind of thing that might not even register on a TV screen.
To hear Glazer tell it to The Guardian, the reason why it took him ten years to make another movie is because it literally took ten years to figure out how to make this movie. (He keeps busy with commercial work, too.) Of course, the best music videos represented considerable planning for relatively short running time. And so I wonder, again, if the answer to the Jonathan Glazer enigma is in music videos. That era is over now, but it was a time where all manner of capitalist dollars were devoted to young directors conducting elaborate experiments: Where a young filmmaker could get a million dollars to make a bizarre short film set to popular music starring a platinum artist, and be guaranteed that young people ages 16-30 would watch that short film and maybe even notice who directed it.
Maybe Glazer, in moving to features, is really the last music video director: The guy who figured out how to make feature-length films with the mixture of raw precision and improvisation endemic to filming three-minute videos with moody famous musicians. I wonder if Glazer will spend his career very gradually releasing semi-inscrutable, proudly acontempory, leisurely-paced arthouse midnight movies — because Birth and Under the Skin are either horror movies pitched at Bunuel fans or comedies about the human void. I have no idea who Jonathan Glazer makes his films for, which probably explains how he makes movies everyone should see.