Somehow over the past decade or so, Scarlett Johansson has emerged in film as the ultimate human.
She shook Bob Harris (Bill Murray) out of a late-life lull in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). She repeated Logan’s Run in The Island (2005). She’s the voice of the artificially intelligent operating system in Spike Jonze’s her (2013). She transcends her own brain and body in the woefully disappointing Lucy (2014). And she is rumored to be starring in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, which is currently in production. In short, when we think of machine-aided human perfection, Johansson is what we picture.
The photographic lens makes you immediately indifferent to yourself — you inwardly play dead. In the same way, the presence of television cameras makes what you are saying seem alien or a matter of indifference — Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV
Johansson begins an interview with Tim Noakes at Dazed & Confused magazine reading from Jean Baudrillard‘s America, his collection about feeling an alien in a foreign land. It’s a famous quotation about smiling from page 34. Further down that same page, Baudrillard (1988) writes,
The skateboarder with his walkman, the intellectual working on his wordprocessor, the Bronx breakdancer whirling frantically in the Roxy, the jogger and the body-builder: everywhere, whether in regard to the body or the mental faculties, you find the same blank solitude, the same narcissistic refraction (p. 34).
Johansson plays a man-eating alien visitor in Jonathan Glazer’s stunning 2014 film, Under the Skin (A24), what Lucy Bolton describes as “a viewing experience that is mediated by the emotional, moral and corporeal alien eye” (p. 1). While Glazer’s adaptation is an intriguing interpretation, Faber’s original novel (Harcourt, 2000) is versatile, lending itself to many others. Taken in tandem though, they inform each other. “[The Book] was a jumping-off point,” Glazer tells Chris Alexander at Fangoria. (p. 43). “Under the Skin is trying to represent something kind of unimaginable—this infinite and alien entity,” he says. “It’s not something for words, really. It shouldn’t be explained away. Our intention was to protect its alienness” (p. 45).
Johansson often feels an alienness herself. “When I finish work,” she tells Dazed, “I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re done, let me try to regain my sense of self!’… I’ve certainly had roles which have become all-encompassing, when I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, where’s my life?’, and felt like the floor had been swept from underneath me. But the more experience you have, the less carried away you get.” (p. 128X). As one review parenthetically notes, “The film is nothing if not a knowing, subversive use of Johansson’s celebrity and screen persona.”
Glazer says of her performance, “When she saw the film she said to me that she didn’t recognise what she was doing in it… she said she had no idea what was going on in her mind at any point” (p. 130). In a film so focused on alienation, it’s interesting that Johansson felt it as the actor, as the alien, and as the viewer of this film. Through the lens, the narcissistic refraction: The alien gaze turned in upon itself.
Baudrillard (2003) continues, “When some future scientist expresses the idea that the generations of clones and artificial beings that succeed us are descended from man [sic], it will be as terrible a shock as when Darwin announced that man was descended from the apes” (p. 107).
Alexander, Chris. (2014, May). The Skin He’s In. Fangoria Magazine, #322, pp. 42-46.
Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). America. New York: Verso.
Baudrillard, Jean. (2003). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso.
Bolton, Lucy. (2014, January). Under the Skin and the Affective Alien Body. In Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas.
Noakes, Tim. (2014, Spring). Under the Skin of Scarlett Johansson. Dazed & Confused, p. pp. 118-131.