Under the Skin
About 18 months ago, I was trying to work in Foyle’s Café in London when a man started an hour-long phone call in a loud voice next to me. I would have been annoyed except he turned out to be an agent for director Jonathan Glazer, describing his next project as “like Casino meets The Shining” (something to do with a guy who can see ghosts from Las Vegas’s glory days). It sounds ridiculous, the man said, but in Glazer’s hands would obviously turn out wonderful. And if it happens, that man will surely be proved right, because Glazer is a bloody genius.
The conceit of “Under The Skin” is also pretty frivolous – Scarlett Johansson as an alien wandering the streets of Glasgow luring men to a bizarre death in a black pool. But lurking under its icy exterior is a fierce genius and knowing grin. Johansson might as well be playing herself, looking utterly alien and confused in the drab real world. The unflinching look at Glasgow nightlife, never captured as honestly as here, is perhaps the most horrifying thing in the whole film.
This is arthouse cinema – the pace is slow and the tone downright weird and uncomfortable – but it’s compelled along by the fact Glazer never explains too much, making a mini-puzzle out of each scene. His advertising day-job (he made the iconic 1990s Guinness commercials) means he knows how to tell a story with just a few brushstrokes. The introduction is a master-class in concision – just a shot of an eye opening and a few lines being practiced to describe the alien taking human form. He also has the ad director’s feel for simple, striking ideas – the most powerful being the scene in which the alien obliviously seduces a man disfigured by facial tumours (played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis). It’s a far cry from his universally adored debut Sexy Beast, but after a long decade away from cinemas, Glazer once again proved he is Britain’s most exciting director.
Paris Stories - Mavis Gallant
Not much time to read fiction this month, what with everything happening in Paris, aside from a few stories by Mavis Gallant. Written after her arrival in the city from Canada, they look beyond France towards the whole of postwar Europe, expertly sketching everyday characters that are increasingly forgotten the further we move away from that time. She spies on budding entrepreneurs failing to ride the boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s; or Germans returning to ordinary life and seeking to bury the past (“they saw they had been tricked … it was as simple as that to them – the equivalent of an insurance company’s having failed to meet its obligation”). Gallant’s subtle, unshowy style sneaks up on you, reminding me of the Stefan Zweig stories I read last year, but the radical touches which made her a major figure in the development of short stories reveal themselves by stealth.
Who is William Onyeabor?
It is surely near-impossible not to love this stuff: African beats set against early electronica, it’s light and easy-going and danceable. And the backstory is incredible: Onyeabor made a string of albums in 1970s/80s that were barely heard outside his part of Nigeria, and then disappeared into obscurity until an enthusiast tracked him down a few years ago in some non-descript town where he ran a semolina factory. He spent two years refusing to allow the re-issue of his music before relenting. Its wonderful stuff, with a fair dose of political and rebellious messaging in there and the artwork is great. If you can escape the nagging sense that you are of a piece with a horde of Guardian-reading hipsters who experience a self-satisfied erection every time they see it in their record collection, this is one of the best album purchases you can make.
This is a monthly feature. My choices for the year were published on my (very) short-lived Medium page here.