Unhappy with Pop Culture? Make Your Own | Ghost in the Shell & Fanboy Pandering

GHOST IN THE SHELL

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

This essay contains spoilers for Ghost in the Shell (2017). For my spoiler-free review of the film, click here

One thing that struck me in the aftermath of the live action version of Ghost in the Shell — controversially starring Scarlett Johnasson, formulaically directed by Rupert Sanders though undeniably beautiful to look at — is just how dearly some people cling onto their beloved pop culture properties, especially when a Hollywood adaptation comes around as does its thing with them, as it is wont to do.

Of course, this isn’t at all something new.

Neither is it something that I don’t myself recognise.

I’ve been guilty of it in the past, and I understand the strange cocktail that washes over a fanboy’s consciousness when these stories they’ve committed to, these stories that have carved an intimate wedge in our hearts and minds, are suddenly plucked out of their designated cubbyholes and thrust up on the big screen for all to see.

You feel as if your ownership of them is no longer a certain thing. In other words, you feel stripped of a privilege that was previously unassailable.

You feel like you should be the one telling people what this thing is really like, what it should really look and feel like, and how whatever adaptation has appeared on the scene is cheating people out of the ‘authentic’ experience of the original artifact in question.

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

But in the recent past, this was no longer all that much of a ‘thing’. Canny studios have realised that pissing off fanboys robs them of a crucial revenue stream, and so fidelity became the new thing.

Ironically, Robert Rodríguez’s Sin City could arguably be the finest example of a direct and entirely faithful comic-to-film adaptation, but the system in which it was made could be broadly described as ‘pulp arthouse’.

But with the likes of Marvel simply up and deciding to set up their own filmmaking arm, fanboys could finally breathe a sigh of relief and revel in the knowledge that their beloved properties will be projected onto the world stage more or less unchanged.

They were finally able to tell their peers, “Look, that is the thing I’ve been obsessing over for so long. Isn’t great?”, instead of mumbling some irritate thing about how this is all horrible and skewed and why are you enjoying it?

So in a way, Sanders’ take on Ghost in the Shell felt like a refreshing jolt of nostalgia for a time when nerd butthurt was an automatic reaction to whatever adaptation of a beloved property came out in Hollywood at any given time.

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

It was all salted by a juicily political polemic too — the whitewashing accusations that are awkward because, you know, she’s a robot but then they’re also justified cos, you know, Hollywood so White — so that it suddenly felt like we were on contested terrain once again: this wasn’t just a motion comic/live action cartoon for fanboys to lap up, it was an adaptation through-and-through, and thus open to criticism from all sides.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attemps to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal

In a cinematic landscape so aggressively framed by well-oiled franchises holding fanboys close to their hearts, even something otherwise equally a part of the blockbuster machine like Ghost in the Shell begins to feel like something of an outlier.

And ironically enough, its attempts to have the cake an eat it too — even if we assume the most cynical interpretation to be correct, that all of this would be in aid of raking in as large and diverse an audience as possible — only bolster its status as something of a more vibrant collage than its ultimately more successful counterparts.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, because it’s guaranteed success so far, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attempted to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal.

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

As if to compensate for casting Johnasson in the lead role, the rest of the cast is actually a pretty diverse international mix. ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is wonderful as the mentor figure Daisuke Aramaki — and gets to speak Japanese throughout — while Johnasson’s closest friend and ally Batou is played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, with the rest of the main cast rounded off by Juliette Binoche (France) and Peter Ferdinando (UK).

Also, the script allows for a notable mirror-image diversion from the standard Campbellian trope that most high-concept blockbusters of Ghost in the Shell’s ilk operate under.

Effectively, [Ghost in the Shell 2017] flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole

In this East-meets-West collage, it’s somewhat expected for Sanders and co. to take a more ‘American’ tack to the philosophy that underlies the entire Ghost in the Shell enterprise, and go to great lengths to humanise Johnasson’s Motoko in an attempt to give the audience a fully-rounded emotional arc for the character; as contrasted with the more nuanced approach to the cybernetic subject that we might find in the Japanese source material.

So, as things turn out, Johansson’s Major/Motoko discovers her human roots and sets out to reclaim them fully; rediscovering ‘her’ biological mother and embracing that her memories as genuine — which were previously suppressed by the Corporation that kept her as an agent in their employ.

Effectively, this flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole.

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Instead, Motoko’s trajectory is more akin to a journey FROM the Special World (as a cybernetically enhanced agent operating in a highly rarefied dystopian-cyberpunk universe) BACK TO the Ordinary World (when she discovers what really happened to her ‘organic’ self and rushes back to the warm embrace of what’s left of her human family).

As the film’s coda reveals however, this about-face does not mean Motoko will quit being an agent. What the ending suggests — apart from a lead-in to a sequel that is unlikely to happen given the film’s dismal box office showing — is that Motoko will continue to ply her skills with, presumably, a renewed peace of mind and a wider understanding of the world around her.

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

She is no longer a cog in the Corporation’s machine, so the Hero’s Boon she in fact brings back — and which she’s aided in giving full bloom to by Daisuke — is the ability to do her job freed from the agendas of the agency — to actually do her work for the ‘greater good’ instead of doing dangerous work in service of the Corporation’s bottom line.

Certainly, this is a small enough innovation on the concept. It’s a modest and tacked-on twist that ultimately, didn’t pay off enough at the box office, for whatever reason.

But it does point towards a realm of possibility that opens up once you give slavish fidelity the boot.

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Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Pop culture artifacts like superheroes and even properties like Ghost in the Shell enjoy a mythic status in our consciousness which sometimes even spans generations.

The laws of intellectual property of course bars us with tinkering with them liberally — though the very nature of the internet runs counter to this idea, but that’s a discussion for another time — but licensed adaptations should at least be allowed a take on them that brings in something fresh.

We could make the mechanical vs organic metaphor here once again: with Marvel Studios and the like producing functional and successful but ultimately uniform fare while those filmmakers allowed to do something different are making wonderful work out of the unpredictable organic matter of Story.

But what it also brings to mind is, if you want something done differently, you should just up and do it yourself.

Unlike the dazzling but oppressive cybernetic interface that gives Ghost in the Shell its dystopian kick, the internet provides those willing enough to go the extra mile at least some leeway to producing their own stuff based on the things they love.

And if what you love is genre fiction, there’s plenty to play with there that will not, in fact, get you in copyright-related trouble…  

 

Permission to exhale | Under the Skin

Under the SkinIf Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac implores us to “forget about love“, then Jonathan Glazer’s acid-sharp body-snatcher thriller Under the Skin seems to be asking us to forget about sex too, at least “as we know it”, both in real life and movie convention.

Adapting Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, Glazer casts Scarlett Johansson as a woman on a mission to seduce and kill as many male Glaswegians as she can manage, working on the orders of what appears to be an unsavory research team of some kind (whether they’re aliens or just morally bereft scientists is never really spelled out in the film itself).

Beyond that, however, the audience is as much in the dark as Scarlett’s victims (the protagonist is never named), and this is the key to the film’s appeal: a journey through complete emotional disconnect which seems to suggest that something may just be developing around its edges.

Species it certainly ain’t, but is it just an art house variant of the cheap slasher film?

Throughout the film’s first half – which I would perhaps somewhat paradoxically argue is its strongest – one is tempted to answer “yes” to that question. Though devoid of cheap thrills and ultimately meandering – and therefore non-sensational – in how it presents the predator-prey encounters, Glazer knows how to calibrate our response to imminent menace, and his finely-tuned aesthetic sense is exploited for terror wonderfully here.

Playing into – rather than playing up – Johansson’s status as a Hollywood sex icon, Glazer derives both suspense and humour from the central conceit (ScarJo cruising for men).

A key scene, which takes place on a beach, will probably be among the most-discussed segments of the film. Actually not spurned by an ostensibly sexual encounter, it’s a depiction of complete callousness that cuts to the bone, with our (alien or otherwise) protagonists looking on impassively as tragedy unfolds right in front of them.

The scene is also another example of Glazer’s calculated vision. It’s a mathematical arrangement of unpleasant details: crashing waves over a dangerously rocky beach, a thwarted rescue, a screaming child left behind. Genuinely gripping, or just well-curated contrivance? It really is up to you to decide, and I think that a film which exists on such finely-tuned polarities is worth exploring.

That said, its second half is substantially weaker. A plot development is allowed, which – perhaps necessarily, perhaps not – deflates some of the tension and attempts to wrestle with themes that deserve a full film in their own right, not the tail-end of one.

But that an aura of mystery is maintained throughout can certainly be appreciated, and in developing the idiosyncratic atmosphere of the film, Glazer owes much to composer Mica Levi, whose score is by turns minimal and overwhelming (the signature tune bursts in almost as if it’s been snuck out of an Italian ‘giallo’).

But it’s Johansson, of course, who turns out to be his bravest and most consistently compelling collaborator. The Guardian’s Leo Robson used “prick her and she doesn’t bleed” to describe her performance, and I won’t bother trying for a more economical or apt descriptor. This isn’t a wooden performance masquerading as ‘laconic’ or ‘depressed’; this really is a consistent, stark display of non-being.

Though Faber’s (and now Glazer’s) story is at its core an old one – think Frankenstein, better still, think Pinocchio – Glazer is to be commended for going full-bore against that most comfortable of narrative short-hands: making characters and situations ‘relatable’.

Chilly and immersive in a way that can only be fully experienced on the big screen, Under the Skin is a sinister blank canvas. What you see most definitely not what you get. Or is it?

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Under the Skin will be showing at St James Cavalier, Valletta on 28 June and 3 July

Got the Itch | Under the Skin

 

Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson is dropped into Glasgow dressed as any other woman and ready to be picked up by the nearest gentlemen. Jonathan Glazer, the director, follows her with a string of hidden cameras, and turns the street into a theatre. A fiction about desire, the object of wonder, and that pale extraordinary woman with red lips who just happens to take a fancy to the passer by.

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Good news: my adoptive country will be getting to see the Scarlett Johansson-starring, Jonathan Glazer-directed Under the Skin from this Friday onwards, by which time it would hopefully have not hit the pirate networks and will entice a generous-enough audience to St James Cavalier in Valletta, where it will be showing for a total of six screenings from mid-June to early July.

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Glazer’s film – based on the book of the same name by Michael Faber, whose prose has previously been adapted into BBC’s rather good ‘R-rated Dickens’ mini-series The Crimson Petal and the White (2011) – has intrigued me for quite some time, not least because of its seemingly arch approach to genre: it seems to have elements of both sci-fi and horror, but the overall arc of it appears to suggest something ultimately undefinable and definitely eerie.

It also appears as though the team behind the film – and this includes the star herself – appear to be keen to strip the glamour off Scarlett Johansson’s persona.

This interests me because a) it appears to play against the way stars are constructed these days, which is only a metonym for how we consume and internalize them; and b) it’s a reminder that Johansson wasn’t always a sex goddess (remember Ghost World?) and that her on-screen transformation into one was, I think, signaled quite clearly with that opening shot of Lost in Translation. Does it mean it can be unmade just as easily now?

By making her play an alien who preys on men, will Jonathan Glazer succeed in letting her career and aesthetic direction develop into something more substantial?

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Either way, Glazer will always have the benefit of being a curio, of being someone who operates from at least one remove from the standard Hollywood system; even, perhaps, beyond the indie film festival carousel.

His music video CV is thicker than his feature-filmography, which suggests that he can’t be bothered with the grind of narrative cinema and its corresponding industry, only approaching a project if it really interests him through and through.

There’s always risk involved here (music video directors-turned-feature film directors run the gamut from dazzling to dire), but this makes them an interesting phenomenon either way.

Personally I found his debut Sexy Beast (2004) to be a style-over-substance kind of experience. Save Ben Kingsley’s blistering turn as a deranged gangster who pays (an ultimately unwelcome) visit to his former colleagues’ idyllic island getaway, the film could easily have been directed by Guy Ritchie – the Brit-gangster tropes are very much in place (with iconic tough guy Ray Winstone leading the show, they can’t help but be) and the narrative is thin.

Birth (2004), on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish entirely. The premise grabs you: Nicole Kidman’s husband comes back to life in the body of a 10-year-old boy just as she’s about to get remarried.

But instead of being blunt or exploitative, it’s a delicate experience; the music and the affluent and snow-capped New York surroundings making the whole thing feel like a fairy tale. And here fairy tale does not mean Disney cartoon with a happy ending tacked on; it means the simple but ominous build-up of otherworldly doom that suffuses the story as each element of it clicks inevitably into place.

Different as they are, what both Sexy Beast and Birth share is the theme of an intruder disrupting our protagonists’ comfort. You could say that Glazer enjoys existing – or, at least, of telling stories – in this zone of discomfort.

In terms of Glazer’s archetypes, so far we’ve had Nemesis (Sexy Beast), a Ghost (Birth) and now we have an Alien (Under the Skin).

The latter promises to be the most foreign, the most unsettling. Let’s hope it lives up to its title. Because we’re all masochists at heart, aren’t we?

Click here to book your tickets.