“Under the Skin” and the Trouble with “Weird”

In a spin-off of our “Great Expectations” blog entry, Ryan looks at Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin and some of the negative criticism it received. Consider this a defense of the abstract, unconventional, and otherwise “weird.”

While many critics named Under the Skin one of the best films of 2014, others took issue with the film.

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Newsday‘s Rafer Guzmán: “‘Under the Skin'” clearly does not intend to telegraph its meaning, but meaning may not be the movie’s strong suit.”

For the Independent‘s Kaleem Aftab, the film was simply too perplexing. “Now that it has finally debuted, it appears that in the end Glazer simply gave up on trying to find a cohesive story.”

Finally, Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor says the film “would have been a lot better if it wasn’t so excruciatingly arty.”

To summarize the negative criticism’s threads — the movie is a meaningless, confusing, and arty hunk of shit. Let’s consider these threads a little more.Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 4.07.12 PM

A movie, or any creative work, can never be meaningless. Meaning and all its trappings infects everything we do. Sure, maybe we don’t explicitly intend certain things (or are purposefully vague or obtuse), but our ideas and actions come from, take place in, and then exist in society and culture at a certain point in time. We cannot escape this.

This ties in with confusing. A work is not “bad” simply because its meaning is not immediately apparent (to some people). Of course, if something does not make sense in our heads, it is frustrating. But having to do mental work and ponder about a film does not automatically make it awful. Having to think should not be a con.

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“Excruciatingly arty.” In other words, the film would have been better if it was something that it’s not.

Similarly, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) received its share of mixed and negative reviews.

TIME said of the film:

“Like Space Odyssey itself, the ambiguous ending is at once appropriate and wrong. It guarantees that the film will arouse controversy, but it leaves doubt that the film makers themselves knew precisely what they were flying at. … Thus, though it may fail as drama, the movie succeeds as visual art and becomes another irritating, dazzling achievement of Stanley Kubrick, one of the most erratic and original talents in U.S. cinema.”¹

Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic praised 2001‘s visual effects, but called the film “a major disappointment.” “What is most shocking is that Kubrick’s sense of narrative is so feeble.”²

Yet, many saw it’s worth, and now it’s among the best of the best in the cinematic canon.

Abstraction, unconventionality, and what we might call overall “weirdness” are not necessarily negative qualities. What’s so bad about being weird? Being different?

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Britt Hayes wrote an excellent review of Under the Skin for ScreenCrush. Her summary on the film’s meaning:

“‘Under the Skin’ is a surprisingly poignant, layered and heartbreaking work that uses science-fiction to explore feminist themes and gender dynamics in ways that feel innovative — there’s never been a film like this, one that’s taken these themes of being a woman and trying to take agency over ourselves, and aptly refracted them through the lens of an alien inhabiting a foreign skin; reconciling who we are on the inside with the body we’ve been given on the outside, a body that seemingly exists to be objectified — a body that doesn’t feel like our own.”

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What a film or creative work “is” doesn’t have to hit us over the head. It’s there. Think about it.

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-Ryan Pumroy

Under the Skin (2013)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Running time: 108 minutes
Rated: R
Produced by: Film4, BFI
Distributed by: A24 (US)
Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States

¹TIME (April 1968, vol. 91 issue 16).
²New Republic (May 1968, vol. 158 issue 18, p. 24).

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