Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Essay Day - "Absolute Contingencies: The Double Life of Veronique, Under the Skin, Proteus, and the Wonder of Internalizing Art"

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time for ‘Essay Day’ here at Fade to Lack. As explained here, I have written a large number of essays during my time at the University of Colorado as a student in film studies, and I thought it time to share the best of those with my readers, so throughout the summer, I’ll be posting a new essay every Wednesday, all focused on film in one form or another, but often incorporating other research and fields of study.

This week’s selection take a little bit of explanation. This was the final project for a Graduate seminar on “Magic, Wonder, & Cinema,” taught in the Spring of 2014. The class dealt with representations of wonder in film and in writing, and the assignment was to write an essay that summarized what we got out of the course, by synthesizing both assigned readings and artworks of our own choice. This essay therefore references the course itself on a few occasions, but that shouldn’t make it inaccessible – the three art works discussed are all readily available, and one of them – Under the Skin – is still playing in theatres (I reviewed the film here – this analysis expands upon those thoughts heavily). This is the most ambitious essay I have ever written, and also, probably, my favorite. Please enjoy.

Read “Absolute Contingencies” after the jump...

The finally secure object of wonder is the totality of laws and entities, the world as a whole. Explanation runs towards the totality, but there absolutely ends ... We can give no reason for the world’s being rather than not being. We can meaningfully ask why it exists, but we have no resources for answering the question. Wonder is generated from this sense of absolute contingency; its object the sheer existence of a world. I shall call it ‘existential wonder.’ All reasons fall away: wondering is not a prelude to fuller knowledge, though the generalized interrogative attitude may persist. (Hepburn 140)

When I initially read R. W. Hepburn’s “Wonder,” I cannot say I fully accepted or comprehended the points being made; they were difficult for me, seemingly limited in one sense, overly broad in another, and impossible to internalize on the whole in the moment. Now, at the end of this course on wonder and its myriad forms, having pushed and prodded the topic in dozens of new ways and from a wide variety of directions and perspectives, I return to the passage only to rediscover and embrace these words as the truest summation of all I have encountered on these intellectual excursions. What once felt incomplete or slightly off the mark now appears to me as simultaneously the most succinct and all-encompassing definition of an impossibly vast topic. From philosophical haziness, coupled with initial dismissal, has come clarity and realization.

True wonder, as well as its agents, does that to us. In particular, art that manages to fulfill this definition of wonder – both internally, in the diegesis, and externally, as an immersive aesthetic marvel for the viewer – does more than merely astonish us. It shocks us, challenges us, disorients and intoxicates us, ceasing to exist only as an external artistic object and instead sublimating into our innermost selves. Many works have done this to me over the years, though three in particular come most forcefully to mind (in part because they are always and already there): Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique, Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 film Under the Skin, and Ed Key and David Kanaga’s 2013 experimental video game Proteus1. These works fully exist within the boundaries Hepburn defines, each exploring a world in which the experience of wonder comes from either moving towards or basking in the midst of ‘totality,’ without ever arriving at a set destination. They are works that, through their aesthetics and style, create a sense of ‘absolute contingency’ in the viewer or player, engaging their audience so fully and experientially, on such profoundly sensual levels, that one feels purely and utterly in tune with the infinite intricacies and possibilities of existence while under their spell.

Moreover, they are works that refuse to ‘end’ just because the credits have rolled; the cinematic or interactive object itself was only the beginning for me in all three cases, as the totality of each burrowed deep inside my brain, only to grow exponentially and take control of my thoughts – sometimes in an instant, sometimes over the course of weeks or months – until I could do nothing else but return to them. Each now feels like an inseparable part of me, fully internalized into my intellectual and spiritual being more than they exist externally, and whenever I start to think of any of these three works, my head begins swimming with images, sounds, and ideas from them – with, in short, wonder, some of it terrifying, some of it uplifting, all of it impossible to nail down, quantify, or fully express in words. But I shall, nevertheless, give it a try, and in so doing, hopefully uncover a certain truth about how the art that wonders most completely – that is most in awe of existence itself and most content to let the mysterious be mysterious – passes along its wonder to us, never to leave or to lessen.

Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique is about two young women, identical but unrelated, one Polish and one French, metaphysically connected to each other but geographically disparate. Weronika, the Polish woman, is an expert in the art of wonder, accepting the totality of the world around her and constantly basking in its glory without searching for a concrete goal or destination. Rebecca Solnit would admire Weronika as an expert at being lost. “To lose yourself,” Solnit writes, “a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away ... to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery” (6). This is Weronika’s gift. When a torrential downpour begins while singing with her choir, Weronika does not recoil like the other girls, but lights up, joyous at the rain suddenly expanding the world around her. Riding a train to Kraków, she gazes upon the landscape outside through the filter of a transparent toy ball, distorting the world to see and enjoy it in new and different ways. Attending an opera rehearsal, Weronika is so overcome she has to quietly join in with the tune (which opens up a fateful opportunity for her when the conductor hears). Walking through an underpass, gleeful at having been given the chance to perform with a large professional choir, Weronika bounces the aforementioned toy ball, happy and completely in the moment, before bouncing it hard enough to shake dust from the ceiling; it showers her, and she basks in it. Later, feeling nervous about the concert, she calms herself by putting a hand against her window, closing her eyes, breathing slowly, and surrendering to the world, allowing herself to be present in infinity, and comforting herself through the mere act of existence.

‘Not Knowing’ is fundamental to wonder, argues Emma Cocker, and “[inhabiting] the experience in affirmative terms is not an easy task ... To navigate an uncertain ground requires some skill, due care and attention” (126, 131). Weronika, it seems, has been practicing the sensation of ‘not knowing’ her entire life. Whenever there is an opportunity to give herself over to wonder, she does so, even when such impulses are based on unknowable intuition, like the “strange feeling” of being “not alone ... in the world,” which compels her to visit Kraków, where she will both flourish and die in the same instant while singing with the choir. Though her life ends prematurely, Weronika is a woman completely in tune with wonder, as defined by writers like Hepburn, Solnit, and Cocker, and that puts her in contrast with her double – and primary subject of the film – Veronique, who, although physically identical, is much less experienced with living in wonder’s grasp.

The dichotomy is made clear from the opening sequence, which depicts the two women as young girls. Weronika’s mother playfully holds her upside down to get a new perspective of the city skyline (this evocative image is, not coincidentally, the first shot of the film), pointing out a particular star and the haze emanating from the city, but encouraging her daughter to take in the totality of such vistas. Veronique’s mother, on the other hand, shows and tells her daughter about a leaf (in a much tighter, more claustrophobic shot), emphasizing an engagement with minutiae that quietly contrasts Weronika’s lesson. The adult Weronika and Veronique are the products of these disparate attitudes, and their only meeting in the film – crossing paths in the Kraków market square – further conveys the underlying differences between them. Weronika passes by a large political protest, unconcerned with the minutiae of the day, while Veronique takes pictures of the protest, fully engaged with the immediate excitement. Not only are the two interested in different things while moving through the same space, but the contrast between engaging with a moment through photography and engaging with it through one’s eyes and senses is vast. Weronika is not the type of person to stop and take pictures in such a situation, for when in the midst of an aesthetically powerful experience, photographs tend to ensnare us in snapshots, sacrificing the totality of the moment for the goal of a potential future archive; technology, rather than memory, is relied upon to make the moment meaningful. It runs counterpoint to her communion with wonder, and it is no coincidence that Weronika, the one not taking pictures, is the only one of the two to see and recognize her physical double. 

Weronika’s sudden death the next day prompts an existential awakening within Veronique. Just after making love to her boyfriend, Veronique senses something, a feeling she cannot quantify, explain, or contextualize beyond sudden, immediate grief. For a moment, she is in touch with something greater – the spirit of her double, now deceased, passing through her –and while it is an initially uncomfortable sensation for Veronique, she will, from this point forward, increasingly exercise her ability to, and capacity for, wonder. Giving herself over to such sensations “is not an easy task,” as per Cocker’s argument, and the thing most viewers of the film probably miss on initial viewings (if they ever catch it at all), is that Veronique’s arc towards giving herself over to wonder is a rough, bumpy road, in which the primary action of the film is a series of red herrings, misdirections, and unfulfilling climaxes meant to strip the veneer from sequential, goal-oriented storytelling, and to expose the beauty in marveling at existence itself (126).

Veronique believes, initially, that her new, increasingly powerful instincts are pointing her in the direction of romance with puppeteer Alexandre, whom she meets when he performs at her school. Certainly, such an arc is enforced when she keeps receiving mysterious packages – an old shoelace, and empty cigar box, and finally a tape filled with seemingly random sounds – which lead her to meet Alexandre again. We must remember, however, that wonder is not a straight, sequential path with a set destination – “Explanation runs toward the totality, but there absolutely ends” (Hepburn 140). As such, the actual meeting with Alexandre functions as a deflation, rather than an affirmation. Alexandre sent the packages, manufacturing scenarios of wonder and mystery to play an experimental game with Veronique, one he is using as research for a new story. This understandably upsets Veronique, and while the two briefly reconcile and confess love to one another, Veronique’s ecstasy collapses once again when Alexandre creates a new marionette story about Veronique and her double.

Here is the key to the film. As Alexandre recites his story – which closely mirrors what we know about Weronika and Veronique – the camera stays set on Veronique’s face. As he reads, she becomes visibly perturbed and upset, and while it is impossible to enumerate her exact feelings, the moment is clearly a comedown, a realization, and at the moment of resignation, she walks away, likely feeling manipulated. She knows this story at this point, even if that knowledge is largely instinctual and emotional, and simply hearing it again is not the disturbing part. It’s the realization that every part of her she thinks Alexandre finds special, he instead takes and turns into something else (a game, a story, a puppet show). He cannot simply love her for her – there is no ‘absolute contingency’ in this love, no free and total acceptance, and it shakes Veronique’s faith deeply. These are ideas she has come to believe in and internalize, having started to live in entirely new ways over the course of the film (Kieslowski even includes remnants of a larger, more convoluted subplot about Veronique assisting a friend with some legal troubles, but only to demonstrate how Veronique’s lack of attention towards the issue mirrors her growing dissociation with the minutiae of everyday life). Realizing that Alexandre – and, by extension, the ethereal notion of love – is not the end-goal understandably shakes her faith.

Only after this crushing realization does Veronique stumble upon true meaning. In this moment of sadness, Veronique drives out to her father’s house, but instead of going in, she parks next to a tree, closes her eyes, and slowly touches the bark, in a moment that clearly mirrors Weronika calming her nerves by touching the window. For the first time, Veronique is in touch with the totality of her surroundings by her own accord, basking in existence without the need to identify and pursue one particular goal. The wonder she taps into is so strong that even the father, who has no physical way of knowing his daughter is outside, notices something at work. “Confidence,” Cocker writes, invoking the word as a key skill in the experience of not knowing, “is the knowledge that the right decision will be made when required; it involves trusting that a response will be performed intuitively at the propitious time” (131). Weronika had this kind of confidence, giving herself over to totality, to intuition, to feeling. After a long, emotionally draining journey, Veronique has it too.

The audience is likely right there with her, for the film itself is its own wondrous object, one we cannot entirely stratify or explain or categorize, which is what keeps its many wondrous qualities burning bright throughout. Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography is rich and deeply sensual, bursting with colors that, due to the use of a green lens filter, are gently otherworldly. Every object in the film seems to glow with the power of an inner light, constantly emanating life, vitality, and mystery. Many individual images stun us with their compositional magnificence and evocative balance of light and color. Countless shots, for instance, are framed through windows and mirrors, with light and reflections refracting back towards the camera, cascading light and imagery over Weronika’s or Veronique’s face. Others, quick and fleeting, shock us into a state of instant reverie. In one such instance, Weronika is seen running down a street, the camera barely able to track with her, when she (and the camera) pass between two buildings, the sun bursts through, and for a fraction of an instant we are blinded with a brilliantly colored lens flare, a visceral visual punch that literally makes me gasp. The photography does not take us to a different world – it merely filters our reality through the eyes of two characters who see it as something profoundly, unceasingly wondrous, and when combined with the many narrative uncertainties Kieslowski wisely leaves to the vastness of totality, rather than trying to explain to our finite human minds, The Double Life of Veronique serenades the viewer with wonder, lingering, paradoxically precise and fluid, in the mind and spirit from first viewing onward.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin does not serenade. It hypnotizes, sublime and terrifying, exploring the darkest and most intimidating terrains of existential wonder. Like The Double Life of Veronique, Under the Skin takes our world and renders it foreign, but where the former film does so to expose the underlying, rarely accessed ecstasy to the simple act of living, Glazer’s film exists in the haunting, unknowable shadows of society and of the self. Narratively minimalist and aesthetically radical, the film follows a nameless alien visitor2 in the visage of a beautiful human woman who, while on a mysterious mission to seduce and abduct lonely human males, undergoes a profound existential crisis. The film is powerful because it allows us to see our world through her eyes, placing us within the ultimate mind-space of ‘not knowing,’ where our culture, familiar and mundane, is forcefully rendered otherworldly and haunting.

Edmund Burke defines the sublime as being rooted in unpleasurable sensations like fear and obscurity, and his description of sublimity is eerily similar to the experience of viewing and digesting Under the Skin.

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. (Burke 101)

Under the Skin is both about this dark experience of sublimity and a sublime object in and of itself, for the film is filled with astonishments, and continually suspends the viewer’s thoughts and motions in moments of horror, mystery, and unsettling opacity. Some of the astonishments are small, such as the ways in which the alien, as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, gazes upon humanity while prowling the streets. From the way she dons a certain ‘face’ when communicating with strangers – versus the cold, analytical gaze she wears in isolation – to how she views death as something curious, clinical, and experimental, to how she blinks, in rapid rhythmic flurries, so that we notice (perhaps unconsciously) that this is not a natural action for her, everything about how this creature moves through and engages with the world is truly, shockingly alien, precisely because the only differences between her and us are so hauntingly subtle and subliminal. Other astonishments are large and visceral, such as the process by which the men the alien lures back to her hideout are consumed into an inky black void, where their insides are then mysteriously, instantaneously removed, leaving only a thin, disturbingly formless skin floating behind. In moments like these, Burke’s assertion that “no passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear” seems apropos, and the general aura of mystery that surrounds nearly every action in the film – Glazer’s heavily opaque narrative never cues us into the particulars of the alien’s mission, nor where she comes from, nor for what purpose the men’s innards are being used3 – also calls to mind Burke’s reasoning that “to make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary” (101, 102).

It is through the alien’s existential crisis that obscurity most powerfully enters the picture; the more time we spend inside her headspace, the more our world feels alien to us. One of the most perceptually potent images in the film comes near the midway point where, for the third time4, the alien stops looking for individual males and is instead absorbed by the sheer number and variety of humans around her. On each occasion, the camera takes up her point of view, darting from person to person, place to place, as the alien takes it all in, and on the third recurrence, the visual data becomes overwhelming. Images of people going about their day – young and old, male and female – begin to crossfade over one another, slowly at first, but with increasing rapidity as the sequence goes on, until finally the countless layers of crossfades are superimposed upon Johansson’s stoic, calculating face. It is an ingenious, extremely effective visualization of the alien’s thoughts, wordlessly demonstrating how she is, ever so gradually, becoming more and more obsessed with humans and their society. The image also helps us to see the world as she does – rendering mundane human movements obscure and, inevitably, sublime – and suggests a certain ‘totality’ to daily human life that we cannot ourselves sense, living in the midst of it all. Along with another standout shot late in the film – an extended, still image of trees swaying violently in the wind, with Johansson’s sleeping body slowly superimposed over them, like a giant resting in the woods – Glazer’s visuals put us in touch with the ‘absolute contingency’ of existence, and make the world wondrous (albeit darkly so) as a result.

The alien’s interest in humanity is piqued when she sees herself for the first time, accidentally encountering a mirror after a particularly lengthily seduction. Like the protagonist of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider – who describes his own image, when he unknowingly sees it for the first time in “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass,” as “all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable” (6, 5) – the alien’s entire inner life is thrown into crisis by seeing her exterior self. Deeply psychoanalytic in its implications, the moment recalls Jacques Lacan’s theory of mirror stage development, which posits that an infant’s initial recognition of its body, through a mirror or other reflective surface, throws the infant into turmoil and alienation, until such time as the infant can reconcile itself with its image (Johnston). Lacan’s idea remains a provocative one because it probes at a moment most of us scarcely remember or can even fathom going through, but one that must, of course, occur for all of us, as recognizing and reconciling our external selves in relation to our internal selves is not something that happens automatically or unconsciously. The alien’s mirror stage crisis follows the same steps Lacan describes occurring in infants – “anxiety, distress, [and] frustration,” followed by a sense of “alienation” (Johnston) – but at a much more intense magnitude to the sheer degree of separation between the alien’s inner and outer selves (imagine what it would be like to see oneself not only wearing another’s skin, but wearing the skin of another species altogether). She frees her last seduction victim, abandons her mission, and flees to the Scottish countryside, where she starts to try reconciling her image and identity by experimenting with common human experiences like eating, sex, and sleeping (only the last of which she is able to do with any true degree of success).

Even as darkness closes in around her during this final stretch of the film – brief cutaways continually show the alien’s steely, efficient partner pursuing her – there is a certain liberation to her wanderings that recall Solnit’s advice for being lost. “Not till we are lost,” Solnit writes, “...not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations” (15). The alien’s travels will ultimately be interrupted, but Solnit’s assertion holds true. The only hope the alien has to resolve her existential crisis is to remove herself from the world – from her mission, from urban centers, etc. – and with each successive experience, the alien moves further and further into remote regions, with the final scenes taking place in the middle of a vast, 2000-acre forest. Glazer continually, from start to finish, emphasizes deeply sensual images of nature, with compositions that draw our attention to how waves crash upon rocks at the beach, how mist swirls in arcs upon lakes in valleys, how expanses of road and country profoundly dwarf the human(oid) form, and how entering the depths of a dark, dense, and expansive forest are akin to visiting another world. The alien is almost always defined by the settings she explores, bringing to mind Solnit’s description of the Wintu philosophy, a tribe of people “who don’t use the words left and right to describe their own bodies but use the cardinal directions ... In Wintu, it’s the world that’s stable, yourself that’s contingent, that’s nothing apart from its surroundings” (17). This is the truth the alien seems to be working towards, and the more time she spends lost in the world around her, the more her capacity for ‘not knowing’ seems to increase. “Not knowing is the state from which we strive to make sense,” writes Cocker. “Yet, the sense of what is not known can increase rather than diminish through experience; the limits of one’s knowledge become more palpable the more one knows” (126). This perfectly describes the alien’s experience. Curiosity about humanity and about herself leads her to explore; exploration only increases her inquisitiveness about all things (during an aborted attempt at sex, she is shocked to discover her own vagina5); and that inquisitiveness fuels further exploration, in a ceaseless loop of experience and feedback.

Ceaseless to a point, at least. The film climaxes when a logger – the only other human the alien encounters in the forest – attempts to rape her and tears her human skin in the process, revealing the alien body underneath. While the alien is distracted further removing her skin and engaging in one final moment of mirror identification – literally pulling off her own human face and staring at it with her alien eyes – the logger runs away and returns with gasoline and matches, dousing the alien and lighting her on fire, killing her6. Humanity itself, then – or specifically, humanity’s violent nature – is revealed to be the fundamental element of darkness at work in the film, the force that prevents the self, as embodied by the alien, from reconciling its external image and surroundings – which, in short, prevents wonder from sustaining in this world. Dark as the film is, there is a certain sublimated ecstasy to seeing the world through an alien’s eyes, to the process of being lost in the most literal and profound of ways, and while the alien and her partner are clearly doing something terrible to the humans they find and abduct, the logger’s actions are even more feral and senseless (I can at least assume the aliens have a logical point to all this, horrific as it may be, while the logger is out for base pleasure).

When one applies the film’s story to a larger allegorical context – critic Kristy Puchko argues the film is an inversion of “contemporary rape culture,” where men, typically the perpetrators of violence towards women, become easy prey for the alien because they do not expect to be victims of predatory behavior from women – the connection between human violence and the suppression of wonder becomes all the more obvious. Under the Skin shows us an Earth that is intensely wondrous, vast and astonishing and filled with many strange and marvelous things, but which is also tainted with a certain sublime darkness – a darkness that stems, we may conclude, from the planet’s inhabitants. Such is the degree of the film’s sublimity, so hypnotic and haunting it is as a sensual aesthetic experience, that Under the Skin, like The Double Life of Veronique, relentlessly lingers, leaving us to look at and think about the world very differently than we ever did before. Both films double as profound explorations of wonder and powerful objects of wonder in and of themselves.

Proteus, a video game7, has no such split between diegetic and experiential function. Both are one and the same, for there is no possible separation between the player’s experience with the game and the player’s interpretation of it. A film remains itself when not being viewed – remains a distinct, concrete entity separate from the phenomenological object it becomes while being watched – but a game like Proteus has no definite, individual form when not being played (this is not necessarily true for all games – level of interactivity and degree of permeability matters). Not only do the player’s movements, decisions, and play styles within the game world contribute to this eternal variability, but the game’s fundamental design ensures it. The open world of Proteus is procedurally generated, meaning that every time a playthrough is started, the game’s assets (what a tree looks like, the contours of hills or mountain, the color scheme, various plants and creatures, and the sounds associated with all of them) are randomly formed into a unique layout, ensuring that the setting will be geographically different, if aesthetically similar, every time. Like the Greek sea-god Proteus, capable of changing his shape at will, the game never pertains to one pre-existing, predetermined form. And just as the God Proteus is an allegory for the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of the sea, Proteus the game takes on its own immediate layers of meaning as a representation of nature’s fluidity.

Played in a first person perspective, controlled with only the thumbsticks for three-dimensional movement, Proteus take place on a colorful, calm island, mostly inhabited by trees, flowers, and hills, but with the occasional creature to follow (I think of it as a rabbit because it moves by jumping, but the simple graphics leave the form vague). There is no goal other than exploration, and the soundtrack is generated based on one’s movement and what one sees – a tree triggers a certain sound, which is different than what a batch of flowers prompt, while the general tone and tenor of the music differs based on location (being atop a mountain sounds different than being in a valley). As one plays, day turns to night, and at the end of each night, the season progresses, starting with Spring, transitioning to Summer, then to Fall, and finally to Winter, at which point the player begins to slowly, gradually rise into the air, leaving the island behind to gaze upon the stars. The music becomes low and soft and lilting, a comforting sort of otherworldly hymn that plays until blackness envelopes the screen, as if one’s eyes have closed.

This is what literally happens on any given playthrough (which, for me, usually takes about 45 minutes). Any meaning beyond that is personal, and through its gentle, open nature, Proteus quietly encourages players to find personal definitions within. To play the game is to meditate, to lose oneself, to become free from conscious thought. I find that, on any given day, I have a thousand thoughts racing around in my head, a mixture of stresses and ideas and concerns that are always rattling around, but after just a few minutes of exploration in Proteus, that all melts away. I do not even notice it happen. One moment I am starting the game, and the next I am relaxed, my muscles loose, my mind cleansed and calm, not focused on anything in particular, but enjoying the sights and sounds of the island. The gorgeous visuals and tranquil rhythms the game offers provide one with a clear head, a mind at once empty and infinite with possibility, open to fully absorbing the beauty of the game, and better able to tackle the particulars of reality once a play session has ended. When I first played Proteus, I had been having a rough day trying to complete some articles I never expected to be a challenge. After the game ended, I felt so utterly serene, in both mind and body, that the words flowed freely without the slightest bit of stress. Typing these words now, about fifteen minutes after playing the game again, my entire body just feels light and sedate, my thoughts nimble and relaxed. I have never managed to successfully meditate, but I imagine the sensation is a little bit like Proteus.

The game puts the player in a state where “all reasons fall away, (and) wondering is not a prelude to fuller knowledge ... ” (Hepburn 140). One simply exists in the game world, taking joy and comfort in the sights and marveling in the totality of their existence. Perhaps one ponders the potential meaning of the abandoned house or tower that always appears somewhere on the island, but one never gives it too much thought. The moment is what matters. The self exists only in relation to the surroundings. One is lost, beautifully and peacefully so, in “a state of suspension, comprehension stalled,” happy to ‘not know’ what this island is or why one is there, and more aware of and receptive to one’s real-world thoughts and physical body as a result (Cocker 128). Proteus exists at the crossroads of wonder, a perfect summation of the philosophies of Hepburn, Solnit, Cocker, and so many others. Though it tells no story and has no characters, it is a profoundly emotional, perception-altering experience, one just as powerful and lingering as Under the Skin or The Double Life of Veronique. It teaches one something about wonder, about how to bask in the totality of existence and enjoy, if even for 45-minutes, an experience without any goals or rewards (which, in our modern, busy world, seems absurdly valuable).

Proteus also solidifies, for me, a theme common across all three works – the connection between wonder and death. While Proteus is, for the most part, a quietly cheerful game – brightly colored, chirpily scored, and utterly devoid of conflict – there is a certain unshakable melancholy that sets in when winter arrives, and one sees the beautiful island one has spent at least the past half-hour immersed in withered and decayed. There are fewer sounds now, because all the flowers are covered in snow, and the baseline soundtrack is lower and gloomier. There are still some breathtaking sights to be had here or there, especially atop a snow-covered peak, but it is hard to shake the sadness that sets in when the beauty of nature has given way to death. The more one walks around, the more death comes to the forefront of one’s thoughts. This is what happens in the real world too, one thinks. We go through three seasons of varying beauty, and then the snow takes much of it away, killing plants and reducing the splendor of trees, at least for a time. And that seems sad, tragic even, until one realizes – because the game has relaxed us into such a calm, receptive state – that this death is natural, cyclical, beautiful even, a necessary step for there to be rebirth. We have likely recognized the profundity of such a cycle in the real world, but Proteus, in its simplicity, helps us to perceive it more clearly.

And then, crucially, Proteus denies us the opportunity to see that rebirth, as we begin to levitate above the ground, floating higher and higher, until all sensations fade away and the game closes our artificial eyes. Death is simulated for us here, the ultimate and inescapable end goal in every Proteus session, just as it is in life. And yet it is not an emotionally distressing moment, but instead an uplifting one, for because the game also simulates the experience of wonder so completely, death is rather easy. With that sense of ‘absolute contingency’ filling our hearts, having basked in the totality of existence over the course of the seasons, the anxiety of death fades away, just as all other anxieties do. Death is a part of existence, and if one lives amidst the totality, death, too, is wondrous, just another part of the glorious natural cycle we have been basking in.

This is one of wonder’s powers – conditioning us to greet the arrival of the inevitable with inner calm and acceptance. In “The American Denial of Death,” Richard G. Dumont and Dennis C. Foss argue “that Americans cope with their emotional responses to death by developing an attitude of denial of their own deaths” (33). This assertion is clearly self-evident in contemporary society, but I wonder if the reasons Dumont and Foss give for this denial – America’s focus on science and medicine as a savior, a family system that outcasts the elderly, the promise of immortality through religion, etc. (46-7) – fail to recognize the larger issue at play. Is it dying we have a deep-seated aversion towards, or is it living? A good life, lived in wonder and openness, has the potential to profoundly demystify death, and thus take away its fearful influence over us. For instance, in The Double Life of Veronique, I feel sad for Weronika having her life cut short at such a young age, but my mourning is mediated by the fact that she clearly lived a happy, wondrous life up to that point. In harmony with the contingency of all things, she would die fulfilled no matter what her age, which is a gift that lessens the blow of her death (Kieslowski stages and photographs her demise with the same wondrous aesthetics he does every other scene, so overt sadness is clearly not the intent). And it is something Veronique, through the intuition she gains from her double’s spirit, takes to heart – her life will mean more now that she it attuned to wonder, no matter when her physical body perishes. I would mourn more for a figure like the alien in Under the Skin, who dies in unnatural conditions in the midst of an existential quandary, still identifying and sorting out her place in the vastness of existence. Death would be scarier to her, I think, than it would to Weronika.

That death is scary to most of us speaks not only to how little we are attuned to the ways of wonder, but to how averse we are to seeking such attunement. The ideas posited by Hepburn, Solnit, Cocker, and others are lovely and empowering, but hardly easy to actualize, and there is something overtly intimidating about giving oneself over to ‘absolute contingency’ that is undoubtedly frightening for many people (in a sense, that fear is foundational to Under the Skin). For instance, when The Double Life of Veronique was released in America, distributor Harvey Weinstein asked Kieslowski to revise the ending, thinking many Americans would be uncomfortable with it. Kieslowski added four additional shots, showing Veronique exiting the car and running into her father’s arms, and though the addition is miniscule, the impact on the film’s meaning is immense. The original ending is an affirmation of wonder, a call to give oneself over to the many ethereal forces we can sense but never explain, while the American ending is all about putting one’s faith in the physical world. Kieslowski’s ending basks in totality, unconditionally accepting existence for what it is; the American ending tries to manufacture a concrete goal, an end-point to totality, and runs completely counter to the themes of the film in the process. And yet it would undoubtedly be a more reassuring to a repressed culture like ours, full of people who would be just as afraid to place a hand on a tree in meditation as they would to face death. Perhaps dying isn’t the problem. It is not, after all, a force we can control. We can determine the way we live, however, and living in wonder, as these three works teach us, stands to make all the difference in the world.

This, of course, is the power of art at its boldest and most experiential. There are many films and video games I love with all my heart, including ones I would often choose to experience again over the works discussed here, but when it comes to art that genuinely, irrevocably affects me, Veronique, Under the Skin, and Proteus are near the top of my list. The more I learn about the nature of wonder, the more I recognize how completely these works exist in perfect states of astonishment. Challenging and uplifting, radical and thought provoking, visceral and haunting and impossible to forget, these are the sorts of works that change us when we encounter them – just as wonder itself tends to do. Because they both beautifully explore wonder and are wondrous in and of themselves, these works become part of our own ‘absolute contingencies,’ the totality of the art subsumed into our own individual totalities. It is a rare, unmistakable sensation, and of all the emotions I am apt to feel when watching and writing about film and other media, this feeling, of the art becoming part of me, is the one I think I chase most intently, the one that keeps my passion for these mediums alive and motivated. Wonder, then, is paramount to who I am – an integral piece of my own absolute contingency.


1 - These three seemed most pertinent to the substance of the course, but there are plenty of other films and/or games I could list here that have had a similar effect on me. In no particular order: Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon and At Land. Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale. Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited or Rushmore. And on the Video Game side: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Persona 4. If we extended the net to music, I would list pretty much anything Bruce Springsteen has ever recorded. All prime examples of films or games or music I feel I do not just love or respect or am obsessed with, but have internalized, which live inside me, which rattle around my brain as integral, formative parts of not only how I judge and look at art, but how I experience the world. Art has that power, I fully believe, and wonder is an inherent, essential part of that experience, as my musings here shall hopefully demonstrate.

2 - After multiple viewings of the film, I remain uncomfortable using the term ‘alien’ to describe the character played by Scarlett Johansson. Every narrative element of the film is so fundamentally oblique that the only definite conclusion we can draw about her by the end is that she is not human, which does not necessarily amount to extraterrestrial. For a film that so effectively renders our world unknowable, it seems regrettably limiting to call this character an ‘alien,’ which suggests a certain archetypal origin that reduces, at least in part, the mystery of her existence. That she could be organically of this earth, in some strange, fantastic way, is a possibility I would not want to preclude. Yet seeing as ‘alien’ is the easiest and most connotatively direct way to describe her, it is the word I shall use here, given the lack of superior linguistic options.

3 - Under the Skin is based on a novel of the same name by Michel Faber – extremely loosely, as I understand it – and while I initially considered reading the book as a point of comparison for this analysis, I ultimately felt that doing so might jeopardize my intoxication with the film. Faber’s novel, from what I could gather, is a much more conventionally told story, with named characters and clearly delineated motivations. While that obviously would not preclude it from being a good and interesting story, I worry that contextualizing anything that takes place in the film by reading the more narratively developed book might rob the film of its magic. The gaps in Glazer’s film are everything – even giving a name to the alien would rob some of the mystery, and therefore lessen the sublimity. Surely a comparison between the film and novel would be a fascinating study in adaptation, one I might tackle further on down the road once there is more distance between the movie and myself, but now is not the time.

4 - Major turning points in the film are often precipitated on the third recurrence of a similar event. The scene described here is the third such interlude, we are shown three seductions within the alien’s lair, and the alien engages in three Lacan-esque mirror stage self-identifications. All of the tripled events amplify in intensity with each recurrence. Each successive man being seduced requires a further state of undress on the alien’s part, while the alien lingers longer (and sees more of herself) with each mirror encounter. The third seduction is also the one in which she ultimately chooses to set the man (a disfigured outcast) free, precipitating much of the action of the film’s second half, while the third identification – where the alien looks at her human face with her alien face, the skin having been removed moments earlier – is immediately followed by her murder. Other possible triads in the film include the three basic human actions the alien attempts in the second half – first food, then sex, then sleep, finding more success with each – and recurrences of vague, mysterious creations – of eyes, of bodies, etc. – that appear to be related to the alien mission.

5 - This scene can be read in multiple ways – it is also possible that her human form lacks a vagina (as potentially implied by her male partner’s seeming difficulty finding the vagina while on top of her), which is what causes her shock when attempting to make love. As with all other scenes in the film, nothing concrete is spelled out beyond the alien’s shock and fascination with her own genital region, but the general takeaway is the same either way. Either she knew of sex, but lacked knowledge of the particulars, and is therefore unprepared to experience vaginal stimulation (which seems most in line with the mirror stage identification arc), or she does know the particulars, but never thought to examine her own genitals beforehand, and is confused as to why her human form is genitally androgynous. In both cases, a moment meant to help her further understand human experience only alienates and confuses her more.

6 - Another note on verbiage: I use the pronoun ‘her’ in talking about the alien, because Scarlett Johansson is of course a woman and gender is extremely important to the film, but one of the most provocative implications at play is that gender itself is something the alien does not understand, perhaps because the alien’s race is genderless. The alien is assuming a role so completely that femininity itself could be part of the performance, and the character’s existential crisis becomes vastly more complex when one adds gender itself – as the abstract concept it would be to a genderless creature – into the gaping dichotomy between outer-self and inner-self. The pronoun ‘her’ is inadequate as it fails to express any of this, but seeing as there is no pronoun that expresses not only lack of gender, but lack of certainty about the fundamental existence of gender, it is the word I have stuck with. 

7 - Since Proteus’ initial release, there has been much debate over whether or not it should truly be categorized as a video game, since it contains almost none of the elements commonly associated with the art form (goals, obstacles, enemies, narrative, etc.). I find the debate rather baffling. As co-creator Ed Key explained, “encouraging a strict definition of ‘game’ does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a culture already notorious for both” (Good). Rejecting Proteus as a game would, to me, be like rejecting Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger as filmmakers, equating a nontraditional use of the form with an absolute formal separation. Doing so would, of course, be ridiculous. Proteus is, quite clearly, a video game.


Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and
Beautiful. Ed. David Womersley. London: Penguin Books, 2004. 85-7, 101-27. Print.

Cocker, Emma. “Tactics for Not Knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected.” On Not Knowing:
How Artists Think. Ed. Elizabeth Fisher and Rebecca Fortnum. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2013. 126-31. Print.

Double Life of Veronique, The (La double vie de Veronique). Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski. Perf.
Irene Jacob, Phillipe Volter, Claude Duneton. Sideral Productions, 1991. The Criterion Collection, 2010. Blu-Ray.

Dumont, Richard G. and Richard C. Foss. “The American Denial of Death.” The American View
of Death: Acceptance of Denial. Richard G. Dumont and Dennis C. Foss. Cambridge: Shakman Publishing Company, 1972. 33-49. Print.

Good, Owen. “Proteus’ Creator Defends His Game – As a Game.” Kotaku. Gawker Media, 2 Feb
2013. Web. 25 April 2014.

Hepburn, R.W. “Wonder.” ‘Wonder’ and Other Essays. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
1984. 131-54. Print.

Johnston, Adrian. “Jacques Lacan.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University,
2014. Web. 25 April 2014.

Key, Ed, and David Kanaga. Proteus. Curve Studios, 2013. PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.

Lovecraft, H.G. “The Outsider.” Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York:
Ecco, 1997. 1-6. Print.

Puchko, Kristy. “Review: Scarlett Johansson’s Under the Skin has a special message for men.”
The Mary Sue. TheMarySue LLC, 4 April 2014. Web. 25 April 2014.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Open Door.” A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Rebecca Solnit. New York:
Viking, 2005. 3-25. Print.

Under the Skin. Dir. Jonathan Glazer. Perf. Scarlett Johansson. A24 Films, 2014. Film.

Read All 'Essay Day' Entries Here:

Jonathan R. Lack has been writing film and television criticism for ten years, for publications such as The Denver Post’s ‘YourHub’ and the entertainment website We Got This Covered, and is the host of The Weekly Stuff Podcast with Jonathan Lack and Sean Chapman. His first book – Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film is now available in Paperback and on Kindle.  Follow him on Twitter @JonathanLack

No comments:

Post a Comment