It’s the prerogative of arthouse films to refuse to offer ordinary narrative gratification. Their hallmark is often the enigmatic, the unresolved, leaving the audience to make what it can of the experience. This is fair enough if that reflection becomes rewarding. The risk is that it won’t, that we’ll be left feeling we have witnessed the emperor in his new clothes, or at best (as it’s often put) the triumph of style over substance.
Two films I watched close together this week have left me wondering about style and substance. On the face of it they are very different: Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) is now considered a cult classic, the story of a Coney Island gang having to fight its way back from the Bronx under assault from all sides. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin was released last year to critical acclaim, a carefully disturbing film about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) preying on Glaswegian men for their skin (whether Glaswegian skin has special properties was one of the many questions the film did not care to answer).
Under the Skin works with an idea that was always going to court frustration, that we might follow a story without fully knowing what’s going on. This can be very effective, as in Russell Hoban’s explanation of the difficult language in his great novel Riddley Walker, that he wanted to give the reader something of Riddley’s stunted comprehension in the face of the things he saw. Similarly the unexplained mysteriousness of much that we see in Under the Skin approximates how strangely our ordinary life might come to alien eyes. It then uses this concept to let the camera probe visually how we know ourselves in our bodies.
It probes: these are questions without answers, because the film’s not really working in a verbal dimension. The pacing is often glacial, part of its alienation technique, sometimes absorbing, other times just irritating. But it is intrinsic to the film, and because the real business of Under the Skin is an evocation of alienation, including alienation from your own body, in a sense the style is the substance of the film.
There are many things to like about it, much that it is unsettling and creatively disturbing, and Johansson deserves credit for her willingness to put her beauty to such uncommercial use, but in the end it’s hard not to wonder how much latitude we should give to something just because it carries the arthouse tag. After all Blade Runner dealt with some similar ideas, without sacrificing audience engagement. Or to put it another way, Under the Skin could have been a more complete film had it been prepared to push beyond its guiding aesthetic, to use that aesthetic to take its audience to a new place, and then do something with that positioning.
The Warriors was released a couple of years before Blade Runner, and quickly garnered a cult reputation, not least for provoking copycat gang violence. I saw it at the time and thought it was feeble, a response that stayed with me as I watched it again for the first time last week. But it’s also an odder film than I remember. At first I thought that it had aged particularly badly, that the ridiculous near-bouffant hair of the oh-so-hard Warriors might have seemed simply fashionable 35 years ago, until it began to dawn on me that the film had no interest in gritty realism, despite is dripping nighttime New York settings, no interest in the real world of street gangs. It’s more like West Side Story than The Wire, a world where threat is more or less stylised out of existence.
There was quite a bit of it about back then. Coppola in different ways seemed gripped by the idea, with The Outsiders, Rumblefish and The Cotton Club, all films that were visually absorbing but foundered on the slightness of their narratives.
Although Walter Hill went on to do some great work (Southern Comfort, 48 Hours, The Long Riders) The Warriors is not in the same class as Coppola’s failed-but-always-interesting experiments. There are aspects of the script too which really have dated badly, not least the dreadful sequence with a lesbian gang (“the lizzies”). All the same I think it fails for similar worthy reasons as Coppola’s films of the period, that it wants to do something with the magic spectacle of cinema, its fundamental surrealism, but then can’t link this style-driven imperative to the real substance of its setting, where shit really does happen. The most powerful moment in the film is when some late night yuppies sit down opposite the battered Warrior leader and putative girlfriend in a New York Metro carriage. Nothing is said but for a few moments you’re asked to feel the poverty and struggle for dignity that’s driving these young people. We’d have to look to The Wire for a work which could marry exactly this idea with an epic sweep surpassing the classical inspiration for Walter Hill’s urban fantasy.
All of which makes the copycat violence more surprising, but then there’s no accounting for the real world. Stanley Kubrick was apparently so dismayed by the possibility that A Clockwork Orange could have inspired copycat violence that he withdrew the film. It’s another piece where style struggles with substance, but that’s generally true of Kubrick. The design of The Warriors shows some direct influence (the Baseball Gang evoke the Droogs), but for all its faults The Warriors remains a more likable film than A Clockwork Orange.
Then again I have never really been able to “get” Kubrick, in much the same way that I can’t get Sinatra; with the latter I understand that I’m supposed to be impressed by his brilliant phrasing, but all I can hear are derivative mannerisms. You have to go to the source for the real thing, to Billie Holiday for a performer with style and substance, Body and Soul.