Friday, July 11, 2014

Second skins

On Monday, I did what in baseball terms would be called a "day-night doubleheader." I did in fact play two games -- movies, in this case -- but they weren't consecutive, as in a traditional doubleheader. Rather, they were separate admissions in the same venue, one held in the afternoon, one in the evening. There were not, however, any peanuts or crackerjacks involved.

I finally, at long last, caught Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin at 3:10, as part of an afternoon off to renew my passport at the U.S. consulate. It was cheap $6 Mondays at Cinema Nova, but in practical terms it was the most expensive movie I've probably ever seen, because as a contractor, I don't get paid for the time I don't work. So that was two hours of lost wages -- but having taken (and needed) the first two hours after lunch to do the consulate visit, it didn't seem to make sense to return to work for just two more hours. Especially when I could sneak in a trip to the movies.

Then I returned to Cinema Nova at 9:40 for Lenny Abrahamson's Frank. (I had hoped to see John Michael McDonagh's Calvary, but I was more or less too late for its 9:20 showing.) Two trips to the theater in one day would ordinarily be quite indulgent, but this also was taking advantage of a rare opportunity: borrowing the car from my father-in-law. If we didn't use the car to do things like take trips to the movies, what was the point of even borrowing it?

It wasn't until I didn't make it in to Calvary that I realized the resulting day-night doubleheader would be thematically appropriate. Both movies feature characters wearing disguises -- second skins, as it were. But they wear them for very different reasons.

Scarlett Johansson's extra-terrestrial in Under the Skin wears her disguise -- the skin of a near-dead woman of ill repute -- as a means of remaining hidden. In order to observe humanity for, well, whatever reason (it's never explained), she must look like one of them. She must wear this disguise to hide what she really is.

The title character in Frank is up to something a bit different. Sure, a psychiatrist would say that the reason he never takes off his mask is that he's hiding something about him -- a very essential part of him -- from the world. But Frank doesn't wear his disguise to hide who he really is. He wears it to become who he really is.

In both cases, however, the destruction of this costume could mean the end of who they are.

I wish I had more profound words about my theme, but instead I'll just say a couple words about each movie.

Additional substance to my ScarJo crush

I'm a heterosexual man. This means I find Scarlett Johansson attractive.

And yes, the knowledge that she appeared naked in Under the Skin certainly contributed to my interest in seeing it. Contributed only, though -- I am a massive fan of Glazer's film Birth (though I hate Sexy Beast -- go figure).

My affection for Ms. Johansson is more than skin deep, though -- as it were.

In fact, after a podcast I listened to recently, I kind of wonder if we're soul mates.

That podcast is The Dinner Party Download, and it's co-hosted by a guy I know. It's also been getting increasingly higher-profile guests over the three or fours years it's been in existence, probably none bigger than one Scarlett Johansson back on April 19th.

As I was listening to her talk to the other co-host, the one I don't know, I was disarmed by how down-to-earth she sounded, especially for someone who walks around knowing that she is commonly considered to be one of the sexiest celebrities in the world. She could totally get away with copping an attitude. Yet she sounds like someone who is modest and grounded and goofy. She loves to make a joke and offer a flirt. She is, pretty much, the girl next door.

But what made me fall in love with her, kind of, was her answer to a question that she herself volunteered. One nice aspect of the podcast is that the hosts ask the guests to tell them something that no one knows about them, which gives the guest the leeway to offer something as significant or as insignificant as they want, and have it be entirely on their terms.

Johansson apparently isn't afraid to court talk of her own romantic interests, because she offered to tell podcasts listeners about her own celebrity crush. "It would probably be Trent Reznor," she said. "That would be my 'meet him and faint,' I think."

She elaborated, "There's something about the bleeding soul that comes through -- this reluctance to do it, and then you do because you have to, because it's what you're good at and what feels good, but maybe it hurts at the same time."

Having already been seduced by this persona she delivered on the podcast, I sat up straight in my chair when she invoked the name of my favorite musician of all time. Just randomly out of nowhere.

If I didn't already know it, I realized that this is a person of substance -- and her recent role choices have confirmed that. All you have to do is look back on her filmography from the last, my goodness, five years I would say to see an actress making smart choices rather than just financial ones. Sure, she's a big part of the Marvel universe, and the paycheck can't hurt on that -- but those movies have also actually been received very well. Specifically, the string of Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Under the Skin shows a woman very deft at straddling two worlds -- the multiplex and the arthouse.

And this chick has got balls. You might peg her as a person who would shrink away from nudity, but Skin proves that she's willing to do whatever she needs to for her art -- including star in an inscrutable science fiction film that could have just as easily bombed as blown critics away. The fact that it did the later shows just how shrewd she is.

Acting without one's face

The one thing Johansson hasn't done yet is what Michael Fassbender does in Frank -- he takes a role that does not make any use whatsoever of his beautiful face.

If we were talking about challenging oneself above, we can kick that discussion into high gear when discussing what Fassbender is doing in this film. He's not only proving that he relies on far more than his good looks to get cast in films, but he's actually proving that you can give a good performance even when no one can see your face -- and when you actually describe your own facial expressions as one of the movie's running gags.

As the eccentric frontman of the band Soronprfbs (don't worry, the actual band members don't know how to pronounce it either), Frank wears his mask -- it's really more of a full head -- all the time. Even while he sleeps. Even while he showers. He eats through a straw, just so he won't have to let anyone know what he looks like.

Yet I really believe that the hype about Fassbender's performance is justified. There is something great about this performance, even though it is primarily composed of line readings and body movements.

I don't know precisely what it is, but there's something about how Fassbender carries the head that makes it sort of brilliant. There are a few moments when the character stares at another character, or an audience of people, or something that is temporarily overwhelming his ability to speak. And even though all you see is that unchanging, blank expression of the Frank head in the poster above, there's soul to that stare. There's something Fassbender's doing that not just any guy wearing a fake head could do. He's not just David Prowse walking around in a Darth Vader suit. He's also James Earl Jones, all rolled into one person.

And yes, he's proving that he doesn't need to be so handsome that it makes heterosexual males feel awkward to connect with us as viewers. He can just be a body, a voice, and the unblinking stare of a mask.


Okay, I guess there was more thematic heft to my comparison of these two movies than I originally thought.

1 comment:

Thaddeus said...

Great review, man! This movie is supposed to be fantastic and I hope to see it soon.

Btw, would you mind taking a look at my recent Scream review? I wanna hear what you think...