The secret life of objects

merry-go-round horse

You know how it is.

Driving home late from work. Rain thrashing down and the windscreen misting up. Looking forward to getting home . . . That’s when I remembered I needed to stop off somewhere to pick up some milk for the morning. It was tiresome but it had to be done. I pulled off the road and down into supermarket car park, two levels below the ground.

Twenty minutes later I was back with the milk and somehow, too, with a couple of bulging plastic bags full of shopping. On  my way to the car, though, I stopped in my tracks as a ripple of emotion ran through me. How could the sight of a children’s ride – a fairground horse – throw me into such confusion?

These rides are a common sight in shopping centres. A bulbous little spaceship.  Postman Pat’s van. When a coin is inserted, they rock gently up and down, lights flashing, with an entranced four-year old inside. It’s a poignant sight, to see a little person open-mouthed in wonder at such a humble experience. I hadn’t expected to come across a ride down in the gloomy parking basement beneath the supermarket, however, especially in the form of a brightly-coloured merry-go-round horse.

My reaction was, I realised, an echo of how I would have felt as a child towards the mechanical horse – as though it were a living thing. Poor, lonely horse, I might have whispered in its ear, while stroking its nose. Later, lying warm in bed, I would remember it standing all night under the blue neon light of the car park.

‘You should be in a busy fairground, going round to the music of a hurdy-gurdy, surrounded by coloured lightbulbs and children eating candy floss. Instead, you are exiled down in this damp and silent underground car park . Well, I at least care about you,’ I might have said in a letter which never actually got written, which was never posted to who-knows-where? Perhaps to that land where my other friend at the time, Rupert Bear played with Tiger Lily, who lived in a pagoda with her magician father.

It wasn’t just the merry-go-round horse which drew my sympathy. As a child, I regarded all sorts of other inanimate objects as having feelings too, even what I wore. When I was bought a new shirt, I would ‘introduce’ it to my other clothes. What was behind this urge to reach out emotionally to objects? To invest them with such feelings of loneliness and longing for warmth. A psychologist might offer explanations. The realisation of ‘object permanence’ – that things exist in themselves, independent of our observation? A projection of my own feelings at the time? Who knows. I prefer a more philosophical explanation . . .

Only humans have evolved to imagine how it feels to be something other than ourselves. (We shout at a cat for playing with a mouse, but puss has no understanding of the fear and pain she causes. A mouse is merely food with legs.) This capacity which we become aware of as children – imagination – is an extraordinary leap in evolution – projecting our consciousness into that which is not us. It is akin to magic. We can put ourselves into another creature’s mind and imagine what is is thinking, what it is feeling.

It’s not hard to see what an advantage this was to our hunting, neolithic ancestors. Just as I felt a flicker of empathy for the fairground horse, our ancestors will have imagined what it was to be a wild horse or deer – carving it out in chalk on an English hillside or painted in a Lascaux cave.

As well as the ability to be in two places simultaneously, this imaginative  faculty allows us the very human (and often infuriating) capacity to  ‘know’ or believe two contradictory things at once, with all the wonders and the troubles this has brought us. Mythologies and religion. Odysseus and Santa Claus. Every character in all of literature since we first started ‘making up’ stories and suspending disbelief while they were told.

That fairground horse in the underground car park has a lot of company after all.

Loving the alien

Under the Skin – the new movie from Jonathan Glazer – begins with a beautiful and eerie sequence, disconcerting the audience so that we are unsure what, or who, is on screen. This introduces the entire mood of the film.

Note: plot details revealed.

Scarlett Johansson’s character arrives on an alien planet. Here are monstrous creatures. They are grotesque and unpredictable. Though she knows their language, the gabbling, howling sounds they make are almost incoherent. Now and then they launch into random acts of violence. Yes, welcome to planet earth. These are ordinary humans going about their various business in modern Britain.

Johansson has arrived on earth to harvest us. She cruises the streets of Glasgow in a white van, looking for the lonely and the friendless to lure home. Here they are seduced into another dimension where the flesh is sucked from their bodies. She delivers her chat-up lines in a perfect English accent – who would not follow Scarlett wherever she led you? The images of streets, shopping centres and clubs are seen though her eyes, as bizarre, chaotic, noisy – Glazer makes them seem alien and strange to us too.

In the most chilling scene, she is walking at the beach and sees a child get into trouble in the water. She watches calmly as the parents throw themselves into the waves, to save him, making no move to help herself. They all drown, leaving a toddler alone and screaming on the beach as dusk starts to fall. Johansson turns and walks away. This inconceivable act shocks the viewer into realising that she cannot be called ‘callous’, simply because she is not a human. She is merely indifferent, as one would be to see ants scattering in panic underfoot on a woodland walk.

Later she trips in the street and is puzzled by the efforts that strangers make to help her. She hurries away in search of her next victim. Johansson’s unnamed character soon comes across a suitable prey: a friendless young man, disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the condition which affected ‘the elephant man’. She seduces him with remarkable sensitivity (‘You have lovely hands . . . do you want to stroke my face?’) The lonely, disabled young man at last provokes some empathy from Johansson’s character. She lets him go. After this ‘human’ act of betrayal, she flees, hunted herself now by her alien ‘controller’ on earth. She discovers the beauty of the Scottish landscape, the tenderness of a loving man and the horror of a violent one who wants to rape her, until the inevitable end.

Glazer is an elegant filmmaker. Under the Skin is not cluttered with sci-fi tropes, but delights with original imagery that is breathtaking and moving by turn. Johansson’s house: dingy and ramshackle on the outside but with an interior that is a limitless black sea. The football scarf which one of her victims innocently flies from her van window. Johansson’s fingers hesitantly beginning to tap as she discovers music. The curiosity with she examines her naked self, discovering beauty in the ordinary curves and angles of a human body. It is a testimony to the actor and director that there is nothing voyeuristic in this scene, only a curious poignancy. The final moments of the film are as beautiful as they are horrific: doused in petrol and set alight by the attempted rapist, Johansson’s alien walks through a forest as a column of fire, as tall as a tree.

As well as in its originality, Under the Skin is reminiscent of a number of films which bring an alien consciousness and viewpoint to bear on the human condition. Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Kubrick’s 2001. Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. In all of these, aliens, angels, or replicants encounter the mystery of humanity, with varying results. Glazer’s alien is first indifferent, then intrigued by the people she meets – all down-to-earth Glaswegians. In the end she discovers an empathy for our infuriatingly complex species. Like the little mermaid in Hans Christian Anderson’s story and a host of gods in mythology before her, Johansson’s alien creature is seduced by mortal life and pays the unavoidable price.