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VISUALISING SOUND Pt. I : Under the Skin

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VISUALISING SOUND Pt. I : Under the Skin

The moving image and music have been entwined with one another ever since the first major motion picture to use sound, The Jazz Singer, heralded the commercial end of the silent movie era. Be it the all-too-easy pairing of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ with the wide-open highways of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, or the increasingly familiar irony of juxtaposing grotesque violence with upbeat pop music, a la Tarantino’s use of ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ (also see: any other Tarantino film), music and film have formed a symbiotic bond, albeit an uneasy one. Lean too hard into the vault of popular music and it can overwhelm the image on display, as in the paradoxical pairing of film faceplant Suicide Squad’s catastrophically hyperactive soundtrack with its completely flat visual style. Alternately, adopt the bland palate symptomatic of the prevalence of temp tracks in Hollywood blockbusters, and you end up with safe, stirring orchestral scores that serve no purpose other than to prompt the requisite emotion from the audience.

Simultaneously, music videos are increasingly adopting filmic qualities – in the past few weeks we’ve had both the dense, racially-charged imagery of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Element’ and Tyler, the Creator’s raucously overblown, body-horror-aping ‘Who Dat Boy’. Admittedly, Tyler has never been much of a rapper, but he’s certainly a performer, and his eye for aesthetic only serves to further the nightmarish quality of the track’s foreboding 80s-era synthesisers. Even the simplicity of the video’s coda section for B-side ‘911 / Mr. Lonely’ shows an awareness of how to balance a shot, forcing the viewer to question just what Tyler is. Musician? Artist? Director? In an age awash with trite observers deploring the ease of creation when everyone owns a video camera, distinguishing by discipline has only become more elusive. Flying Lotus is making feature-length movies that provoke mass walkouts at Sundance, whilst Paul Thomas Anderson is crafting hauntingly beautiful videos for melodic misers Radiohead.

What struck me in each of these pieces were the occasional moments of sublimity, when melody and mise-en-scène coalesced in a manner than transcended the limits of both. Sometimes this goes beyond the need for explanation – John Williams’ incendiary ‘Imperial March’ will always evoke the cutting figure of Darth Vader, just as Yann Tiersen’s gently-squeezing accordions can’t help but recall the lurid greens of Amélie. However, there are questions about the way sound and image interact that often go unanswered. A film critic must cover all bases, treating the soundtrack as a box to be ticked alongside acting ability and the competency of the direction, whilst a music critic typically refers only to the film in absentia, analysing the score removed from its context – in either case, the aforementioned symbiotic relationship is too often brushed past. In this new series, I hope to engage with this unspoken bond, to think about why music affects tone so much, and to focus in on one specific scene from each film that speaks to the larger themes of the work as a whole, and the music that accompanies it.

When considering where to start this project – the oft-parodied strings of Psycho’s shower scene or the too-twee eccentricity of increasingly maligned indie flick Garden State, the pulsing synthesisers characteristic of John Carpenter’s oeuvre, or the wonderful country reimaginings so central to O Brother, Where Art Thou? – the one film that kept swinging back into view was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. A wondrously subtle portrait of human desire as told through the manufactured eyes of an extra-terrestrial, Under the Skin, more than any other film, set the tone for the now unrelentingly high quality found at A24 Films (if you’re not familiar, you should peruse the list of everything they’ve produced in the past few years). Though Glazer exerts himself perfectly behind the camera, and Scarlett Johansson swells into the joint role of femme fatale and fish out of water, it is Mica Levi’s score that lends the film its captivating blend of stomach churning fear and rapturous revelation.  

Levi first garnered acclaim as the driving influence behind Micachu and the Shapes, an often brilliant, chaotically experimental pop outfit that gained minor success around 2009, touring with the likes of Late of the Pier and Connan Mockasin. Their debut record, Jewellery (produced by perpetual purveyor of electronic oddities, Matthew Herbert) remains an eclectic, if purposefully frustrating listen, though admittedly this is more than can be said for a lot of the British indie scene from that specific era. Opening, as it does, with a furiously strummed, half-muted, out of tune acoustic guitar, Jewellery serves to familiarise the listener with Levi’s penchant for provoking discomfort, a habit that would become fully realised several years later on her 2014 soundtrack for Under the Skin.


On the surface, Under the Skin is a quiet, slow movie, albeit one that maintains tension throughout even the simplest of conversations. We view the borderline-greyscale hellscape of Glasgow through the eyes of a confounding being that lacks empathy, that knows our social mores and graces, but executes them with clinical efficiency. Levi's score is a component part of that. It acts only when necessary, and when lingering notes and simple diegetic sounds are most effective, Levi allows the scene to breathe – or choke, as it were. But her atonal music lurks at the edges of each scene, indicative of a predatory impulse that reflects the terror inspired by Scarlett Johansson's unnamed character’s placid stare. It's never clear what will punctuate the silence next – a sharp, rolling drum, a wavering violin, another ill-fated male caller – and in that sense, the score complements Glazer’s vision perfectly.

Whilst the move from “polished pop songs” (Shapes drummer Marc Pell describing Jewellery in an interview at Fact) to scoring an avant-garde science fiction flick is not quite the same shift as the multidisciplinary musicians mentioned earlier, it still speaks to the same blurring of fields. Where once Levi’s strained vocal tone was the guiding force for her music, her work on Under the Skin is defined by its rejection of anthropocentrism, destabilising the human subject’s accepted position as focal point. Verbal articulation is remarkably absent throughout the film, not only on the soundtrack, but for long stretches distinguished by the main character’s silence. Cars purr; trucks howl; people say indistinguishable nothings into the void. It’s a horrifying cacophony that sounds so like everyday urban life, and yet so removed from it also.

Interestingly, Glazer got his break as a music video director in the 90s, doing videos for acts such as Massive Attack and Blur, placing him in that previously noted narrative of musicians meeting visual artists. As a medium, music videos require the visuals to function as storyteller, perhaps explaining the largely dialogue-free Under the Skin. Indeed, as a piece of visual art, its impact has already been felt elsewhere in popular culture; Stranger Things’ sensory deprivation tank scenes are clearly indebted to the bottomless darkness of Under the Skin's sex-dungeon-come-meat-grinder. However, though Stranger Things might ape Glazer’s stark visual style, it loses something in translation, a hollow pastiche of Glazer’s execution that misses a component part of what makes it so effective – Levi’s score. More than any other, the scenes revolving around Johansson’s seduction epitomise the film’s synergy of sight and sound. 

Stranger Things (Left) vs. Under the Skin

The first portion of the film sees Johansson cruising the streets of Glasgow in her white transit van, her highly-cultivated good looks standing in direct opposition with that familiar symbol of old wives’ tales. She asks solitary men revealing questions about their relationship statuses as filtered drums echo loosely in the background. She grins. She leans in enticingly. But, more than anything, she hunts, until finally settling on a particularly forthright specimen. After a transparently-forced flirtation that sees Johansson state outright “You have a handsome face”, the viewer recognises that something underhand is transpiring, even as it passes by the classically hungry eyes of the male gaze. Levi’s score responds to this with a series of simple string patterns that linger in the background, moving in and out of focus like a half-remembered nightmare. Rather than instructing the audience to feel frightened, Levi revels in uncertainty, mirroring the classic horror credo – the monster you can’t quite hear is all the scarier for it.    

As they enter Johansson’s decrepit domicile, the music slows to the footstep-pace of a raindrop drumbeat, before the dissonant chords puncture the rhythm of the unwitting hard-on’s swaggering gait. Johansson reveals little, letting only a portion of her clothes fall as the camera follows her swaying thighs, but it’s more than a provocation. She is the one leading, never losing grip on control, both empowered sexual being and terrifying siren. The fever pitch is reached as the completely nude would-be-seducer is swallowed by his surroundings, but the camera is as beguiled by Johansson as her victim is, rarely moving from her form. Then, relative silence. The song-and-dance ritual is over; what sounds like a drafty window exhales steadily in the background; Johansson stoops over and picks up the leftover clothes, and as an audience we struggle to understand what has transpired.

Later scenes in the black box better serve to elucidate the purpose of Johansson’s ostensible nymphomania, but it is this scene that taints all that follow it. The mixture of total darkness with aural dissonance gives rise to a sickening form of the uncanny. We’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times before – the impossibly beautiful woman leading a blinded man practically by his genitals into a room he won’t return from – but the consummate dread of his uncertain fate reaches new levels under Glazer and Levi’s watchful eyes. The pace of Levi’s scratching strings feels fundamentally opposed with the simple rhythm provided by her echoing drums, but it works because they are ever-so-slightly off kilter. It feels like how an extra-terrestrial might compose music if required to – the requisite parts are all there, and they're largely in the right places, but there's something unearthly at every juncture.

Even after multiple viewings, when the first stirs of that central theme come to the fore, it elicits a visceral reaction that goes beyond simple skin crawling. The melody first emerges minutes before we get to see the dark room proper, as we watch Johansson probing another lamb on his way to slaughter. The smash cut from Johansson crudely goading her male fare into boastful declarations about the virtues of single life, to his unexplained absence from the passenger seat, provokes unease and a series of half-formed realisations in the viewer. We could almost believe she simply left him at his destination, but Levi knows this is the moment to pile on the existential dread, forcing the viewer to contemplate the missing time. Whatever is transpiring has something of the unspoken to it, something that, as an audience, we’d rather ignore, but Levi holds it in our peripheral vision, keeping us in a state of claustrophobic limbo.

Horror has had something of a resurgence in recent years, with films like The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch all aiming their sights at subtler scares that steer closer to fears born of human psychology than born of dissecting human biology. Similarly, Under the Skin’s success is in taking an immanently ridiculous concept – an alien temptress cruises the streets of Glasgow looking for eligible bachelors – and grounding it with a universal tale of the temptations and hazards inherent to lust. Levi complements this with a tangle of inharmonious sounds that point to the sordid desires that underpin human interaction, constantly holding the other-worldly and the recognisable in tight contradiction. Thanks to Glazer and Levi, Under the Skin is a deeply disquieting film, plagued by a tapestry of sounds from the ether, and for that, Levi deserves recognition as an auteur in her own right.

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Released April 15, 2014