Under the Skin is receiving worthwhile accolades for being quite unlike anything that’s come before it. LA Weekly has proclaimed that director Jonathan Glazer may be “an heir to Kubrick.” Significant to the film’s appeal is the paucity of detail provided on just what’s motivating Scarlett Johansson’s sexy alien to lure men into deadly black sex ooze.
I’ve always loved movies that require viewers to commit to a long, slow burn only to reward them with a viscerally jarring pay-off. I’m not talking surprise endings like The Usual Suspect or The Sixth Sense, which can be cool in their own right, but endings that earn their devastation the hard way—with meticulously crafted but not necessarily pleasurable lead-ups.
1. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
I grew up in a culturally-isolated northern Ontario town of 70,000 people. Our lone cinema, aptly named The Galaxy Cinema, was our window to the world. Sadly, as that cinema has now been cut in half due to declining revenues, that window is now twice as small, only providing glimpses of the safest commercial vistas—big budget extravaganzas and cartoons.
When I was 13 I had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, which made me some kind of cultural seer able to predict movies months before marketing campaigns decreed their arrival. It was my purview to rail against what I considered my great enemy: “Big Budget movies.” You didn’t want to praise Titanic in my company. What I claimed to enjoy instead were, I suppose, relatively small budget movies. An example would be Shine, which I dutifully bought on DVD, and did not enjoy in the least.
Searching outside the mainstream did lead me to some gems. What remains one of my favourite films today (I’d say favourite short films, but that would imply I have this big list of beloved short films) is an adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
I hate to spoil the plot, but it’s more or less necessary, plus I don’t really care at all. During the civil war, a southern civilian is hanged from a bridge. The rope snaps. He falls into the water, and escapes his executors. The remainder of the film’s 28-minutes shows him ecstatically running through the woods en route to his wife. He sees his wife. She opens her arms in an embrace.
The rope snaps.
While the whole, “It was all a dream” device is one of the older filmic clichés, here it’s executed to such powerful effect that viewers would hardly say, “Oh, how sad, another Wizard of Oz rip-off.”
I showed it to my best friend at the time. He was my de facto rival in the whole “big budget vs. indie” debate. He played his role effectively, griping at its slow pace, its black and whiteness, etc. But when that devastating edit occurred, he did what young people in shitty towns desperate for meaning and significance must do the world over in the face of something surprisingly sublime—he stood up and performed the type of slow-clap we’d learned from afternoon melodrama and sports movies.
2. Mulholland Drive
This was the first movie I saw in a theatre other than Sault Ste. Marie’s galactic window to the world. I was in Toronto with my parents to tour potential universities. I didn’t venture more than a couple blocks from our hotel. But as luck would have it, the hotel directly abutted the venerable Carlton Cinema.
Mulholland Drive was playing. I had evolved into a pretty die-hard Lynch fan by 18-yo standards. This was years before torrents, and I’d been prepared to wait months if not years for MD to come out on DVD.
After the movie I was confounded. Despite my desire to enjoy it, I was convinced it was a lot of bad nonsense. Weird for the sake of weird. I tried to discuss this with the theatre’s other patron on our way out, but though he seemed confused himself, he was unwilling to commit to any anti-Lynchian heresy.
After reading reviews on the Internet, I slapped my forehead and realized the film also had the “waking up from a dream” structure. I’ve come to believe that Mulholland Drive is the best known use of this in cinema.
Lynch had been making MD as a television series for ABC, but they’d pulled the plug, so, necessity being the mother of invention, the former Eagle Scout took his disparate plot lines and fused them into one strange dream. This was likely the intent of the larger series as well, but this artistic constraint led to what I consider Lynch’s best film.
Why does it belong on this short list? During the 90% of the film that is a dream, the happenings are surreal, scary, funny, but often quite mundane. I remember another friend at the time, a friend whom we called Tube Diddy, saying the acting was bad, and me offering the sage-like and sanctimonious response, “It’s supposed to be. You’ll probably understand on your second viewing.”
3. The Brown Bunny
This is the only movie that I’ve ever watched until the credits rolled, picked up the DVD remote, and immediately watched it again. Vincent Gallo’s second feature epitomizes the slow-burn I’m talking about. We have no idea what his sullen and contemptible motorbike racer is doing for 98% of the film. We see him pick up a couple women just to prove he can before abandoning them. We see him pack his motorbike into a van. We see a hell of a lot of his windshield. There’s a Lawrence of Arabia moment where Gallo rides a speed bike way off into the distance until it becomes a speck.
This all plays like your standard-issue art house fuckery, albeit ambitious and beautiful art house fuckery. In the final scene though, a disturbing revelation underpins and informs everything that’s come before.
And it’s not just the blow job.
His ex, played by Chloe Sevigny, appears as a ghost to give the aforementioned blowjob and discuss the circumstances of her death. They were at a party and Vinnie saw her in a room with several men. He thought she had consented to this and leaves in disgust. It turns out she was being raped and later died as a result. He has no one but himself to blame. Suddenly, those multiple-minute shots of Gallo driving along the highway with Gordon Lightfoot’s Beautiful playing don’t seem so self-indulgent, they seem significant and powerful as fuck.
Article by Mike Sauve. You can follow him on Twitter @MPSauve