By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 11, 2014 at 10:15AM
As Criticwire readers know, there was a bit of kerfuffle over Chris Nashawaty's review of "Under the Skin" in last week's Entertainment Weekly, which devoted four of its paragraphs to musing on the roles movie stars take to shore up their indie cred before writing off the movie Jonathan Glazer spent more than a decade on as an arty obscurity. Nashawaty insisted that his piece was not a review but an essay, and as labeled as such in the print edition, but until yesterday, it was still labeled as review online, including a C+ grade at the top and the bottom of the page. (The grade was removed and the rubric was changed to "Movie Article" on Thursday, but you can see the cached version here.) There's ample precedent for critics writing essays inspired by but not chained to current releases, but the problem with Nashawaty's claim is that if his piece is not a review, then Entertainment Weekly didn't run one at all.
Darren Franich's "Entertainment Geekly" column isn't a review either, but it does manage to devote over 2,000 words to Glazer and his body of work without making a single reference to slumming movie stars. (He does spent four introductory paragraphs on the career trajectories of Glazer's music-video peers, but that's by way of working up to Glazer's film, not ignoring it.) Instead of treating the movie as a Scarlett Johansson vanity project, Franich draws connections between "Under the Skin" and Glazer's previous features, "Birth" and "Sexy Beast," or rather muses on why those connections are so difficult to draw: "Part of what makes Glazer a fascinating director is that his three feature films feel like great movies made by three very different great directors -- three artists with radically different concerns, styles, even from three very different ages." (Glazer told me he thinks "Under the Skin" and "Birth" share a connection to documentary, but I'd wager he's the only one who would come to that conclusion.) And so he wonders if Glazer might be the last and truest product of the (apparently bygone) music-video era, a protean stylist accustomed to reinventing his style with each new assignment.
That era is over now, but it was a time where all manner of capitalist dollars were devoted to young directors conducting elaborate experiments: Where a young filmmaker could get a million dollars to make a bizarre short film set to popular music starring a platinum artist, and be guaranteed that young people ages 16-30 would watch that short film and maybe even notice who directed it. Maybe Glazer, in moving to features, is really the last music video director: The guy who figured out how to make feature-length films with the mixture of raw precision and improvisation endemic to filming three-minute videos with moody famous musicians.
What's interesting about this approach is that it casts Johansson less as an actress than a performer: Someone who's aware of the camera and knows how to play to it, but who's no more likely to reveal her inner self to the lens than Radiohead's Thom Yorke or a CGI stallion. It's a pointed contrast to the way Glazer's "Birth" treats Nicole Kidman, not least in the famous closeup in which the emotions rushing through her turbulent mind are clearly legible on her face:
That's not to say I'd agree with every aspect of Franich's piece, especially the defensive assertion that Glazer is "a ridiculously over stylish director." But if Entertainment Weekly wants to remain a central forum for pop-cultural discussion, this, and not reductive (and incorrect) assertions like "It makes 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' look like 'E.T.,'" is how it should be treating what by any standard is one of the most distinctive movies of the year.