The Modern Pygmalion: ‘Her’ and ‘Under the Skin’

Contains spoilers for Her and Under the Skin. Also for My Fair Lady, Metropolis and more than two-thousand-year-old myths.

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The basic idea for this post has been simmering in my mind since I went to see Her back in February. In that film, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Despite the occasional sense of over-exertion in Johansson’s performance, which had the additional challenge of being audio-only in a live action film, I was impressed and moved by the film, and the story got me thinking about the depiction of artificial – in a very specific sense, man-made – women in cinematic narratives.

Strikingly, Johansson has starred in two movies this year, released in the UK in as many months, where she plays some form of artificial or essentially fabricated woman. The artificial intelligence in Her, who names herself Samantha, is brought into existence to be the computer operating system (and, essentially, personal assistant) for Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly. Her personality is calibrated to his, meaning that even though he did not design the program which creates her himself, he has a substantial personal role in the formation of her identity.

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By contrast, in Jonathan Glazer’s psychosexual horror film Under the Skin, Johansson stars as an alien seductress with a vague or even incomprehensible origin who drives around Glasgow and the surrounding countryside in a white van picking up men and attempting to lure them back to an abandoned house to be consumed in some eldritch process for a purpose which the film never quite makes explicitly clear. Meanwhile, a mysterious ‘handler’ on a motorbike keeps track of her and tidies up the loose ends of those who she targets.[1] Despite being broadly defined as science fiction, these are vastly different films in terms of style and tone. Yet they share thematic resonances which have, in fact, been recurring throughout the history of cinema, and since long before.

Narratives concerning artificial human beings seem to broadly fall into two subcategories. There are those which treat the relationship between creator and created as being primarily parental in nature, and are thus almost inevitably are about the dynamic between father and son. These I think of as the Prometheus version.[2] And then there are those which are usually motivated by male attitudes towards women, in which the artificial human character is therefore almost always female. This could be described as the Pygmalion version, and it is this latter construction with which Her and Under the Skin appear to be in conversation.[3]

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The oldest surviving iteration of the story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where he describes how a sculptor from Cyprus, called Pygmalion, creates a beautiful statue that he names Galatea, and with which of course he then falls in love with. He prays to Venus for a wife in the likeness of the statue, and so Venus brings his creation to life, and they marry and have a child and, in so far as classical mythology goes, live happily ever after.[4] Of course, it’s significant that Pygmalion had previously sworn off women after seeing the daughters of Propoetus forced to prostitute themselves after they denied Venus was a goddess, which is never the smartest move in a Greek myth. Galatea is specifically a male ideal of purified femininity that contrasts against the example of fallen or soiled women. All of which, to put it in highly technical and academic terms, is kind of messed up.

Unsurprisingly, then, iterations of the Pygmalion myth in cinema often prove problematic. In Fritz Lang’s iconic science-fiction epic Metropolis (1927), the instigator of an almost apocalyptic rebellion which nearly destroys the eponymous city is a robot made to impersonate Maria (Brigitte Helm), the spiritual leader of Metropolis’s workers. While her malevolence has overlap with the Frankenstein story, in contrast to Mary Shelley’s novel and its many film adaptations, the false Maria never turns against her creator, the mad scientist Rotwang  (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), remaining loyal to him alone.

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More to the point, she was originally supposed to resemble Hel, the woman Rotwang loved even after her death (he has – wouldn’t you know it – a statue of her in his home).  Here Rotwang’s obsessions and his bitterness, and the robot’s conflation of seduction and destructiveness, reveals the problematic truth underlying the Pygmalion myth. But, despite this confrontation with the darker aspects of the myth, it still treats the robot as nothing more than a symbol, far from being a person in her own right.

In the classic musical My Fair Lady (1964), based on the play Pygmalion (1912) by George Bernard Shaw, phonetics and language professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) trains up simple cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to pass in polite London society for a bet. Late in the film, after she has rejected him for not caring one wit about what happens to her once he’s won his bet, Higgins describes the now ‘ladylike’ Eliza as “this thing that I created out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden”. George Bernard Shaw’s original play is without a doubt on Eliza’s side here, and it is, in fact, a profoundly feminist story.

However, the musical uses the same ending as the 1938 film adaptation of the play, in which Eliza and Higgins reconcile, with her repeating the earlier line of “I washed my face and hands”. For Shaw this was untenable: “When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end.”

My Fair Lady 1

Of course, Her has been criticised for adhering to exactly the kinds of idealisations which frequently occur in Pygmalion narratives, notably by Newsnight presented Emily Maitlis who, after an awkward interview with director Spike Jonze, described the film as a “sad male fetish fantasy”. And Maitlis is correct to highlight these themes (and that Jonze could really have handled the situation better), but her belief that the film is about technology rather than relationships means she appears to have missed that the story is a critique of exactly that kind of fantasy, that myth. Indeed, the power of Her comes through its commitment to its heroine successfully transcending her original programming and purpose and coming truly alive. And, as Shaw would have it, she does not relapse. She becomes something new. And she undergoes a metamorphosis far more powerful than that of her distant progenitor, Galatea.

Under the Skin is, by any measure, a weird and difficult film. It begins with a somewhat obtuse sequence of unidentifiable technology and the sound of Johansson’s character learning to make human speech, which resonates rather remarkably with both My Fair Lady and Her. Unusually, the director, Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) decided to make the sections where Johansson is prowling around Scotland more realistic by actually having her approaching complete strangers on the road, as well as using actors.[5] The actual ‘horror’ scenes, meanwhile, are strange and almost abstract, this only makes what is happening feel more threatening and sinister.

Under the Skin 1

The effect is not just to have the uncanny invade the familiar world, but to make the familiar world itself feel uncanny, transforming an invasion into an occupation. Johansson’s minimalist performance (a dramatic contrast to the exaggerated earnestness of Samantha) is at the centre of this hollowed-out world, her effected impression of an English accent proving just alien enough to stand out in western Scotland, with the sparseness of the film’s dialogue adding to the overwhelming sense of bleakness and isolation. When one character spends too much time talking later in the story, it comes across as an unnerving warning sign.

After an encounter with a lonely man suffering from a form of neurofibromatosis, Johansson’s character begins to question herself and her purpose. Perhaps realising that she is as utterly alone as he is, she attempts to help the man escape his fate, and in doing so begins to question her own desires and sense of purpose. Abandoning her macabre duties, she wanders through western Scotland, struggling to connect with the people around her. But despite her attempts, she physically cannot share in human experiences, from the simple pleasure of having a chocolate cake at a restaurant to experiencing a real sexual relationship, rather than just the twisted mirror of one.[6]

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Ultimately, her artificial, alien biology, and the singular, dark purpose given to her by her creators, do not permit her to fulfil her desire to connect with humanity. Of course, Under the Skin is a horror story, and there is no space in horror for a monster which self-actualizes and transcends its purpose, and so in a sense it is the nature of the narrative itself forbidding the statue from coming to life. Instead, by relinquishing what pre-determined power and identity she has as a predator, she is forced into becoming the other central figure in horror fiction: that of the victim.

However, her fate does not arrive through her sinister handler, but instead, more mundanely and more horrifically, at the hands of a park ranger who comes across her sleeping in a hiker’s shelter, and attempts to rape her. In the following struggle, he inadvertently rips open her human guise as if it were plastic wrapping, and as her true self stands revealed, he murders her by burning her alive. Like the false Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, she is both the creation of some unfathomably advanced science and also an uncanny figure whose fabricated femininity condemns her to suffer a modern imitation of mediaeval witch-burning. But where the robot’s destruction was primarily a moment of catharsis, as the agent of the city’s near-destruction is herself destroyed by those she manipulated, the death of the alien creature in Under the Skin is clearly meant to be something stranger, more complex, and more tragic.

 

Next Time: Existentialism in  Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem and The LEGO Movie! Yes, really.

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[1] In the Michael Faber novel on which the film is based, the alien corporation the main character works for sells human flesh as a delicacy, which makes as much sense as anything else based on what we’re given in the movie.

[2] To keep thing simple, it’s more the stories inspired by the Prometheus myth, rather than Prometheus’s creation of mankind itself, which we’re talking about here. Obviously, the key work here is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, which has influenced so much of, and arguably invented, science fiction (of course, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein also gives us a clear moment of confluence between the two myths). For more recent examples, just look at the back-story of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the rather tellingly named character of Sonny from the 2004 ‘adaptation’ of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

[3] A rather illustrative exception to this informal division I’m outlining is the origin story of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman. In the first version of the character’s history, she was moulded out of clay by her mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and brought to life by the power of the Aphrodite. And then some other stuff happens and she goes off to fight Nazis, as you do. Anyway, the focus on the maternal relationship (and the fact the creative agents are entirely female) seems rather atypical, and it’s no coincidence that the creator of the character, William Moulton Marston, was an avowed feminist. The use of classical mythology makes it an even more evidently a deliberate counterpoint to the primarily male-driven myths of Prometheus and Pygmalion.

[4] The city of Paphos is, according to Ovid, named after their son. So what we have here appears to be an origin myth based in the cult of Venus/Aphrodite. Again, clearly not a coincidence that William Moulton Marston uses Aphrodite as the creative force to bring Wonder Woman to life.

[5] This does give rise to what is now one of my favourite film production stories, which is that while Scarlett Johansson was in the front of the white van in a wig and fake fur coat attempting to chat up random Scottish men, Glazer and the production crew were in the back, waiting to jump out with release forms so they could use the secretly recorded footage in the movie.

[6] The choice of chocolate cake is almost certainly not an accident. It is, according to pretty much every romantic comedy ever made, the ultimate in confectionery indulgence for women, and is generally encoded as a female object in film. It is, therefore, significant in semiotic terms that Johansson’s character either can’t stand the taste, or possibly isn’t even capable of digesting it. Her dislike and/or incompatibility doesn’t match the audience’s implied expectations, and suggests to us that her attempt to transform herself into a ‘real’ woman is doomed to failure.

Looking Up at the Stars: Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’

Something

Gravity is not a science fiction film.[1] And by that I mean no detriment either to it or to a genre for which I have a great deal of affection and admiration. Rather, it’s simply not the most useful way of describing a picture whose most obvious neighbour is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (still utterly gripping 20 years later, by the way), and which, out of this year’s cinematic offerings, probably has more in common with All is Lost than it does with Elysium or Ender’s Game.[2] The events of the film do not require future technology or alien interference (not that these are the only markers of SF); something that could very possibly go wrong in real life goes wrong, in the style of any Hollywood thriller; and experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, Ocean’s Eleven, The Descendants) and Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, Miss CongenialityThe Blind Side) have to deal with the consequences. It just so happens that they’re in space – where life, we are told, is impossible.

Certainly, the film plays fast and loose with orbital mechanics.[3] Significant details concerning the relationship between the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station and the Chinese space station Tiangong (primarily the sheer scale of the distances between them and the variations in their orbits) are heavily simplified. Rather than differentiate the world of Gravity from the reality of our own, however, this is done simply to make the film’s story more comprehensible. While this may hint of typical Hollywood indulgence of lowest-common-denominator thinking, it allows the audience to more easily grasp the stakes, so that when the rug is pulled out from beneath us, the shock is all the more effective.

George Clooney plays fast and loose with orbital mechanics.

And shock is one of the key ingredients which makes Gravity work. Not in the schlocky sense of a jump scare in some lesser horror movie, where tension is discarded in order to go for the cheap fright, but by making the film’s spectacular sequences a visceral and emotional experience, not just a display of computer-generated effects. Alfonso Cuarón directs the film’s carefully choreographed zero-g set pieces with both assured confidence and no small amount of flair, and the clarity of the action adds to the sense of both wonder and threat, offering a contrast to the recent popular use of documentary-style ‘shaky cam’ to convey a sense of realism.[4] 

However, this is also Bullock’s film, and though the dialogue is occasionally on the blunt side (a slight chink in the armour of an otherwise perfectly constructed narrative), her character grounds the action not just through offering the perspective of the outsider, but by providing the emotional centre of the entire experience. Her journey – and the film is a journey, more than you might expect – hits the traditional beats of a battle for self-preservation leading to the rediscovery of purpose and meaning. But somehow the extraordinary nature of her circumstances and the hostile nature of her surroundings underscores the primal appeal of that narrative as a kind of ritual, repeating the fact of our own existence back to us.

That’s why it’s important that Gravity is not a science fiction film. Because life in space is impossible. Yet here we are.

Sandra Bullock

Gravity opens in the UK today.

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[1] Proving, once again, that you can’t always believe what you read on Wikipedia.

[2] Amusingly, according to Howard, one response card from the test previews for Apollo 13 complained that the conclusion of the film smacked of a typical Hollywood happy ending, and that it was completely unbelievable that the crew would have survived.

[3] As renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has notably pointed out on Twitter (though he nevertheless enjoyed the picture).

[4] Cuarón himself provided one of the ablest examples of this trend, famously bringing a sense of verite to the bitter dystopian future of Children of Men (2006) through his mastery of long takes (also deployed in Gravity) and dynamic camera-work. Earlier, he proved his ability to place a personal stamp on the Hollywood blockbuster film when he was hired to make Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) – resulting in by far the best and most distinctive iteration of that decade-long series.

Things Long Overdue: ‘Orphan Black’ Comes to the UK (and I Write a Blog Post)

Note: Since this post is supposed to be a general introduction to Orphan Black, I’ve attempted to minimise detailed spoilers.

Easily one of the most distinctive new science fiction shows since the conclusion of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Orphan Black is a techno-thriller created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, produced by BBC America and Canada’s Space channel, and which originally aired in the spring, but is now available to watch in Britain for the first time.[1] With a vocal cult following in North America, the show’s central appeal, and its main strength, is in the phenomenal performance (or, rather, performances) of Tatiana Maslany in a break-out role (or, uh, roles) for the Canadian actress.

The premiere begins with orphan, grifter and general ne’er-do-well Sarah Manning (Maslany) returning to an unidentified city with mixed intentions: to make things right with her young daughter, Kira, and sell a package of cocaine she procured from ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando), with the intention of raising the money to begin a new life with her child as well as her loyal foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris).[2] When Sarah encounters Beth Childs (also Maslany), a seemingly wealthy suicide who looks exactly like her, with Felix’s aid she steals the dead woman’s identity, but gets much more than she bargained for as the con throws up unexpected and dangerous complications.

Maslany doesn’t quite get to display the full range of her powers in this first episode, with Sarah’s doppelgängers flitting only briefly in and out of the story here at the start. However, this does serve to ground the more uncanny elements of the show thoroughly in Sarah’s experience, as she falls down the rabbit hole of Beth Childs’ unraveling life, and begins to uncover the threads which will lead to the secret tying the two of them together.

What the first episode does showcase, then, is the show’s other central strength: the rapid, and thrilling, escalation of its plot and the use of expertly constructed narrative set-pieces which ratchet up the tension and prove earlier on that the show doesn’t need to rely on violence for engaging action (though both this and later episodes have their share). Through ever more precarious improvisations in her disguise as Beth, as she attempts to hide the deception from key figures in the dead woman’s relationships, both professional and personal, Sarah finds that every victory only leads her to become more entangled in the complexities of a stolen life. Eventually, Sarah’s decisions further endanger her relationship with her daughter, and put her own life in peril. 

Like even the most illustrious of its predecessors, there are times throughout the show’s run so far where the more absurd elements of its emerging mythology threaten to displace the human drama, but the concrete foundation of its plot turns and revelations in the experiences of the central characters, and in Tatiana Maslany’s performances in particular, prevent it from becoming too disconnected from its audience. For while the murky world of Orphan Black is based around hidden conspiracies, weird science and secrets cults, its story hinges on something more elemental and essential: the fractious relationship between the deliberate choices people make, and the uncontrollable factors which influence them – empowering and limiting their actions in equal measure.[3]

Virtually everything that happens in the premiere emanates from the choices Sarah makes, beginning with stealing the handbag of a woman who stepped in front of a trains, yet she is also increasingly trapped both by her own choices, past and present, and by a greater history which she is on the cusp of uncovering. At the end of the show’s first hour, the stage is set for a fascinating season of television which confronts the variances of nature and nurture, and explores the eternal, irresolvable conflict between pre-determination and free will – not in abstract fashion, but in the material and immediate concerns of Sarah and those like her, despite their extraordinary circumstances.

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Orphan Black premieres on BBC Three on Friday 20th September with a double bill at 9:00pm, but the first episode is currently available on iPlayer.

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[1] That’s not including the inessential 2010 Battlestar Galactica TV Movie The Plan, which unfortunately only served to show that there really was never much of one at all.

[2] With no effort made to disguise the CN tower, the city in question is implicitly Toronto, where production of the show takes place, yet it is an inexplicably Americanised version, most notably reflected in a depiction of police hierarchy which shares more with fictionalised depictions of American police departments in other TV shows than it does with the actual Toronto Police Service.

[3] Speaking of Orphan Black‘s murky world, the capturing of Toronto’s bleak skies and its elegant but cold modern buildings serves the show well in establishing a distinct texture and tone, which is at once both mundane and totally alien.