There’s a slick predictability about Hollywood films. The tired three-act structure of the by-committee screenplays are engineered to lead viewers from external conflict to internal conflict, from contrived rising action to inevitable resolution.
It’s a bland formula that’s making billions upon billions of dollars even as it grows progressively more and more stale.
What’s worse is that Hollywood is now increasingly catering to a global box office with a focus now centered in Asia and bending the content of our mega blockbusters accordingly. Nonsensical, but action packed movies now dominate abroad. Call it the Transformers effect, and get used to loud, noisy, empty vessels such as Michael Bay’s latest robot slugfest, because that’s what the market demands. (Admittedly, I’m a sucker for the super-hero stuff, but even I have about had enough.)
Of course, box office champions never tell the whole story of the cinema landscape.
Take two curious films that circulated through select theaters briefly and now have offered themselves up for quiet consumption via home video: Under the Skin and Upstream Color.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin caught some attention because of its big name star, Scarlett Johansson, leaving the super-budget territory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and showing off the versatility she’s displayed in efforts by Woody Allen and Gorden Levitt. Primer auteur Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color on the other hand features no big names, and in fact was produced 100% outside the Hollywood studio system.
Both films are ponderously dense. Under the Skin follows a woman–apparently an extraterrestrial–as she travels Scotland seducing male victims to take back to her otherworldly apartment where they are consumed by a black pool with a ravenous red light.
Upstream Color is more perplexing still. Most of the film follows a couple as they deal with the emotional roller coaster of their relationship. The catch, though, is that many of these emotions do not belong to them. Both have been infected by one stage of a parasitic organism that travels from orchid to human to pig and connects these different stages through a kind of empathic or psychic bond.
Pacific Rim, it is not.
Both films regard humans as crudely biological, but both offer some possibility of slipping beyond these limitations.
Upstream Color’s couple–played by Carruth himself and actress Amy Seimetz–seem in the end to thwart the systemic forces to which they have been subject throughout the film. One could read this allegorically in a number of ways, of course, but with the heavy undercurrent provided by sections of Thoreau’s Walden which become entangled with the flower-pig-human hive mind, it seems a challenge to the social and political forces that drive human beings into programmed roles, with the biology serving as a metaphor for all things hegemonic.
Under the Skin is a bit less optimistic, as Johansson’s alien femme fatale is eventually destroyed after refusing to sacrifice a deformed, lonely man to the pool and fleeing her programmed biological purpose. Before that demise, though, she seems to find some human connection, and her fiery demise after escaping attempted rape transitions to a plume of smoke that might indicate freedom from the nearly faceless and certainly speechless master who had compelled her into her earlier role.
Beguiling, frustrating, mesmerizing. One could argue that both of these pictures are overly concerned with being unlike the kind of cinema that floods the market and so remain only puzzle pieces.
What is important, though, is that both films offer a window into a world of cinema as singular expression, offering reminders of the possibilities of an artistic medium, the power of which is inestimable, but which has, to date, been largely lashed to the ship of commerce and hence, reduced from art into mere product.