Anyway, lucky for me, I have chosen a major which allows my schoolwork to double as content, so please enjoy my latest essay, which I wrote for my Classical Film Theory class!
Choose two of the four theorists you've read so far and explain what you think their assessment would be of Under the Skin.
Early film theorists developed the rules and philosophies of cinema in a time when the art was in its formative stages. The black and white, silent works that occupied the minds of many theorists are a thing of the past, and cinema has developed beyond the scope of their opinions on the nascent technology. However, their philosophies on the nature of storytelling and the artistic qualities of film remain essential in the discussion of modern cinema, especially when applied to fringe genre or experimental films that push the envelope, like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.
Although not every facet of their writings may apply today, theorists like Béla Balázs and Hugo Münsterberg would have had a lot to say about the state of 21st century filmmaking, and it’s important to use their theories as a sounding board for narrative and aesthetic criticism of current films that challenge the nature of the craft. While Balázs and Münsterberg would have undoubtedly mixed opinions about a film like Under the Skin, portions of their theories work in tandem to prove that, despite its radical nature, the film taps into the inherent qualities of the art and harnesses the potential of cinema to create a unique, outsider perspective on humanity.
Hugo Münsterberg in particular would have severe doubts about Under the Skin from the very beginning. Aside from the fact that he considers color and sound to be superfluous because they don’t activate a new level of the mind, his tendency toward realism would bias him against the film’s more experimental moments. Because the film is so distinctly non-narrative, comprised largely of improvised conversations displayed in no particular order, he would have qualms about the film’s value, considering his opposition to arbitrary choices driving a narrative and his predilection for films that tell a clear-cut story.
However, this view ignores the central tenet of his theory; that a movie is made in the mind of its spectator, mirroring mental events – or emotions - as it overcomes and organizes the outside world. In fact, in his work The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, he clearly states that, “To picture emotions must be the central aim of the photoplay.” (48) Far more than any narrative or structural considerations, Under the Skin excels at curating emotion. Although the central character is an impassive observer travelling through the messy human world, the deliberate muting of emotions that should be manifestly present (and would be in any other narrative) incites heightened emotion in the viewing audience.
The best example of this concept in practice is the scene on the beach, in which a dog, a woman, and her husband all drown in quick succession, leaving behind a crying baby on a rocky Scottish beach. The alien protagonist observes these events from the sidelines, but it forms barely a background hum in her perceptions, as her focus is on a lonely diver whom she intends to ensnare. The backgrounding of this evocative, life-altering event gives it muted importance in the narrative, but creates shrill alarm bells in the minds of the audience. They perceive this occurrence as brutal and powerful, but the scene’s conscious removal of emotion creates discord within the viewer, heightening their distressed reaction to a fever pitch.
Münsterberg’s own words lend credence to his potential support of this method of storytelling: “The photoplay tells us a human story by overcoming the forms of the outer world, namely space, time, and causality, and by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world, namely attention, memory, imagination, and emotion… [These events] reach complete isolation from the practical world through the perfect unity of plot and pictorial appearance.” (74, 82) If there’s one thing that can be said about Under the Skin, it is that it successfully isolates itself from any aspect of the real world, through its eccentric small town Scotland setting, its ice cold protagonist, and its challenging, experimental visual schema.
Under the Skin’s violence, eroticism, realism of setting and dialogue, and lack of causality likewise find a friend within his theoretical works, although its ambiguity doesn’t allow the film to come full circle and satisfy the energies it creates in the audience. This is purposeful on the part of the filmmakers, intending to leave the audience with a lasting, indelible sense of unease, but Münsterberg would not have been pleased. He may have never fully supported the film because its ambiguous narrative and thematic structure clashes with his fervent belief in filmic unity, although it does satisfy his prime concern of depicting the inner emotional workings of the mind rather than simply representing real events.
Balázs, on the other hand, would have an almost entirely opposite reaction. The fundamentals of his theory perfectly mesh with the film, but his esteem would be undone by opinions located at the fringes of his work. He would adore the film as an adaptation of an inferior literary work transformed into a work of high cinema, and appreciate its delicate use of its material to draw attention to unnoticed details of the human experience.
Its close-ups take on the perspective of an alien presence, watching the minute interactions of human beings as if they were entirely unknown, especially in the scenes where the woman is driving around the streets closely observing the male passersby, eventually shifting to the females as she comes into her own identity. This perspective is key to Balázs theory on close-ups, which he explained in his Theory of the Film by saying, “The close-up shows your shadow on the wall with which you have lived all your life and which you scarcely knew.” (55)
The soundscape, in which sounds are either muffled through the van’s glass as if it’s driving underwater or speech is shrill and garbled, powerfully attacking the senses but not transmitting meaning, also acts as a sonic close-up. One particularly memorable moment is when the woman is swept up in a crowd of women heading to a dance club. Their happy chatter is rendered unrecognizable by a sort of aural blurring effect that renders the recognizable, pleasant sounds as harsh and unfamiliar.
This is a concept that would have delighted Balázs immensely, considering that he was one of the only early theorists to welcome to presence of sound in film. In fact, he wrote fervently on this topic, saying, “Only when the sound film will have resolved noise into its elements, segregated individual, intimate voices, and made them speak to us separately in vocal, acoustic close-up; when these isolated detail-sounds will be collated again in purposeful order by sound montage, then will the sound film have become a new art.” (198-199)
The sound design, use of close-ups, and presence in an outlying genre would have made Under the Skin a film of incredible interest to Balázs, but the stricter tenets of his philosophy jar against the experimental, ambiguous nature of the film. While he believed that distortion and transformation of reality was necessary because “only by means of unaccustomed and unexpected method produced by striking set-ups can old, familiar and therefore never seen things hit our eye with new impressions,” (93) he also believed that this distortion should function to advance and support a structured, orderly plot.
Under the Skin has no truly recognizable plot structure to speak of, existing only in moments of human life glimpsed from behind a pane of glass or moments of human death and despair in the dark, terrible void of the woman’s lair. The plot, insofar as there is one, is languorous and obtuse, refusing to adhere to recognizable structures. And many moments, especially the colorful kaleidoscopic view following the first victim’s consumption and the lengthy opening scene in which a series of syllables is spoken over the image of an eye, have very little concrete narrative value whatsoever.
Balázs would object to this very much, having said that “distortion… must always be distortion of something. If that something is no longer present in the picture then the meaning and significance of the distortion is also gone.” (102) He would consider moments this experimental to be a “degenerative phenomenon of bourgeois art… like visions seen with closed eyes.” (108, 179)
Although this inhuman style of filmmaking deliberately and effectively displays humanity through a cold and unusual lens, the style is just far too unnatural for either Balázs or Münsterberg to truly be capable of appreciating. But despite their potential ardent dislike for Under the Skin, their theories support the film’s validity as a piece of cinematic art in many startling and timeless ways. Although cinema technology has advanced far beyond the scope of their imagination, their central tenets continue to hold true throughout the ages, because even as the materials of film advance, the ancient techniques of storytelling and evocation of emotion remain eternal.
Word Count: 1613
Balázs, Béla. Theory of the Film; (character and Growth of a New Art). Trans. Edith Bone. London: Dobson, 1952. Print.
Münsterberg, Hugo. The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. New York: D. Appleton, 1916. Print.