Hey, it's Art! (Or is it Just Stupid Storytelling?)


Guys…Under the Skin is a weird movie.

For those that don’t know, Under the Skin is a surreal art film starring Scarlett Johansson about her walking around Scotland spending half her time seducing men and the other half of her time staring straight ahead like some kind of soulless, wooden mannequin.

Now, not that I care much for what critics think of a movie, but I’m presuming the movie is being pretty well received since it has an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time I’m writing this article, which isn’t terribly surprising.  This is a movie that will draw the art film crowd away from their digital copies of Beyond the Black Rainbow for just enough time until Mike Cahill decides to make another movie (too late).  There’s really no way to recommend this movie to anyone that I know, unless they’re already familiar with these types of films.  Do the words “psycho/sexual sci-fi horror” sound appealing to you?  They do?  Oh...well...in that case I guess we don't really have a whole lot to talk about.

  Scarlett Johansson in  Under The Skin .

Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin.

Anyway, this isn’t really a review of Under the Skin as it is a reflection on when does an art film stop being surreally intelligent and just become beautifully stupid.  There are a few types of films designed to make you think.  One kind stretches your mind, forcing you to pay attention in order to figure out the message of the movie.  This kind of movie has an enormous payoff, as once the viewer figures out what the movie is trying to say, he has a sense of accomplishment.  It’s like finishing a Rubik’s Cube; it might take you a while to get it sorted out, but once you do, you have a sense of pride in finishing it.  This kind of tactic also works well if you want to hammer home a point, as not only will the viewers feel accomplished in themselves, but the takeaway will stick with them because they spent so much time on it.  This is partially why I love films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick, because the result of the thought put into the film is as rewarding as the journey to get to it.

Then you have movies that do the same thing, but when you figure it out, you realize it’s just stupid.  Imagine if…say…Troll 2 had been made in a surreal, mind-bending style with layers of allegories.  After chewing over the movie and agonizing over what it means for hours on end, imagine your soul-crushing disappointment when you realized that it’s nothing more than a crappy movie about a bunch of goblins that turn people into plants.

 Although  technically  this is a form of art, I guess...

Although technically this is a form of art, I guess...

When you break a movie like Under the Skin down to its bare bones, is it really anything more than a story of an alien suffering an identity crisis as she lures young men to a gruesome death?  Just because it’s told in an unconventional way doesn’t make it good, it just makes it confusing.  It’s like looking at some piece of modern art that’s…say…a giraffe made out of dollar bills done in shades of red. and titled The Fall of Concupiscence.  It might look cool and weird and all, but after looking at it for hours you suddenly realize that there’s no hidden meaning behind it, and that it’s just a red picture of a giraffe made out of dollar bills with a pretentious title.  You probably should have spent that time doing something else, like grabbing a hamburger or something.

But there is something even more unforgivable a movie can be than pretentious, bloated crap, and that’s boring.

Now, bear with me for a moment, but what if I told you that style is more important than substance in a movie?

Now, obviously an ideal movie should be a perfect blend of both.  Some of my favorite movies are ones which are smartly made, thought-provoking, and genuinely entertaining at the same time.  Hell, I’ll even give up the thought-provoking if enough thought was just put into the story and characters.  A smart movie doesn’t need to be”deep” to be intelligent, it just needs to demonstrate that its creators have put time into making it unique and interesting.

However, what if a movie missed one of these two attributes?  Well, let’s take a look.

Case one: a movie is the most brilliant piece of thoughtful cinema ever constructed.  It opens the floodgates to revelations in moviegoers everywhere.  Peoples’ worldviews are entirely changed based on this one film.  One problem: nobody watches it because it’s about as interesting as watching paint dry.

What’s the point of making something people need to see if no one is going to see it?  I may love watching  Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but I know plenty of people who can’t make it past the first half hour because it includes a 10 minute sequence of traffic.  Just straight up watching cars drive down the highway.  I can defend the characters, themes, and camerawork in Solaris until the cows come home, but I can’t convince American audiences to watch a movie in Russian where the characters spend the majority of the time staring at walls.

However, a piece of entertaining schlock with no thought put into the characters’ motivations will not be a “good” movie, but it can get people to keep their eyes on the screen.  Some of the movie I re-watch the most aren’t high class entertainment to any extent, but they’re damn entertaining.  Film makers like Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez stuff the market with movies that are all about the show and take little time to dwell on anything of actual substance.  Does that make them bad movies?  Not at all, it just makes them fluff.  And there’s nothing wrong with fluff if it’s well made, just like there’s nothing wrong with something heavy and theatrically boring but has real value.

Now I’ve argued that if there has to be a war between style and substance, style wins out.  But then again there are plenty of arguments to be made the other way around.  For instance, if a movie has no real substance, should it be seen at all?  Is it actually taking something away from the general audience’s taste in film?  I don’t know.  That’s for you guys to argue about.  I’m done for now.

I’ll just leave with one thing I think we can all agree on: style and substance should be ingrained with each other.  Genuine entertainment can and should be well made and thought-provoking.  There’s no reason schlock can’t be smart, and there’s not reason art can’t be fun.

Joe Campbell is a short film director and movie enthusiast.  You can follow him on Twitter@CredoFilms or on Google+