He Took His Skin Off For Me (2014)
Written by Maria Hummer and Ben Ashton
Directed by Ben Ashton
He Took His Skin Off For Me walks that line between grotesque and beautiful, a contemporary fairy tale with relationship dysfunctions working underneath. The story is told entirely in voice-over from the unnamed female protagonist. She explains that she asked her male partner to take his skin off for her, a move that is never questioned and makes sense in the magical realist logic of the narrative. He does so but immediately encounters problems. There are bloodstains everywhere, sanguine footprints and crimson smears on the floors and furniture. His job is public-facing, and he tells her clients are pulling their business because of their discomfort with the man’s appearance. The woman tries to look on the bright side of all these setbacks, but her partner is withdrawing. During a dinner party, he answers in monosyllabic single word responses, a behavior that is very unlike him.
The film keeps the specific metaphor ambiguous. We know this about how partners in a romantic relationship will make demands and requests of each other. These propositions often involve one partner becoming more vulnerable or shifting the dynamics and routines of their life. The man removes his skin without much hesitation when asked, but later we see the woman contemplating doing the same, a move to show solidarity with her partner’s struggle. She doesn’t. In the final scene, it is the man pulling at the skin of her belly with the implication he will make her remove it.
While details are ambiguous, the message is pretty on the nose, though told in a visually pleasing and disturbing way. Colin Arthur, a special effects artist on 2001 and The NeverEnding Story, consulted with creating the skinless man makeup and it looks fantastic. The moisture and fiber of the muscles are very tactile, you feel the stickiness of seeping blood as it smudges bedsheets and couches. It’s hard not to recall Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and its “inside out” man makeup.
Written & Directed by Janicza Bravo
There’s no detailed back story or exposition needed. A man acting strangely watches a woman as she approaches his apartment building. It turns out she lives there with her boyfriend but locked herself out. The strange man, named August, buzzes her in after an awkward meeting and she asks if she can call her boyfriend from August’s phone. From there, things spiral into complete madness and horror, yet everything is tinged uncomfortable humor. This is a trademark of filmmaker Janicza Bravo who has also directed the short film Gregory Go Boom and the feature Lemon. She’s adjacent to the work of Tim & Eric but with a much darker and cynical worldview, particularly of privileged men.
The magic of this short comes from the performances of Bret Gelman and Katherine Waterston. The script is relatively basic in terms of structure with some nice bits of dialogue, but it’s the acting that propels this short into the next level. There is an ever-present tug of war between August and Claire. While she is definitely in a situation where the potential for her to victimized is looming over every moment, Claire still has strength and authority. She is unnerved by the unpredictability and lack of social skills shown by August, but she also wants to have empathy because it’s clear he is a mentally ill person. Gelman can find humor in a character that could be played as a cliche monster. Because he accesses those moments for the audience to laugh, we, in turn, develop an unsettling sympathy for August.
The final moment is an emotional gut-punch, a crescendo that the film is hurtling us towards as the walls of the dingy apartment close in on the characters. It’s a standard horror movie beat, but because of the character shorthand done by these brilliant actors, we feel it resonate more than some feature horror flicks can do. Bravo is one of those specifically stylistic filmmakers who is likely always going to produce niche work; however, the elements she is comfortable in are fascinating and click with my own sensibilities. I suspect I will keep coming back to her work because it presses all the right buttons for me.
The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011)
Written & Directed by Ari Aster
It is clear even from his first short film that Ari Aster was going to be a director who trafficked in the taboo, mixing light visual elements with some of the most pitch-black subject material. This film presents itself without any restraint, boldly telling its story while still exercising discretion to create something remarkable. Sidney is a poet, husband, and father who accidentally walks in on his son masturbating. He takes the opportunity to make this a teachable moment about not feeling ashamed about your body and desires, but emphasizing this is something all people do. Then the story goes off the rails in the best way when we realize the image Sidney’s son was pleasuring himself too, recontextualizing the interaction and informing the audience that we’re about to go on a dark journey.
Isaiah, the son, has grown into adulthood and is a newlywed. But he still holds a chilling power over his father while his mother has resigned herself to blissful ignorance. Sidney pecks away at his typewriter, composing an autobiography that also acts as a confession and cry for help. Isaiah has become a full-on sociopath blocking his father at every move, asserting his dominance as the head of the household. There’s a dinner scene early on where the mother serves everyone at the table, except for Isaiah who serves himself. Additionally, her salts his food and then his wife’s without ever asking her if that’s what she wants. This small bit of physicality makes a statement about the dynamics of power in this family.
Even though we’re watching a film about one of the most horrible and obscene things you could center a short around, Aster finds strange humor through his camerawork and the innocuous nature of the musical score. I was reminded of Midsommar’s score, which has moments of pastoral beauty and softness that counter what we see on screen. There are shades of Todd Solondz’s uncomfortable suburban dark comedies like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. Aster has cited Solondz’s work as an influence as well as John Waters and Douglas Sirk. Sirk is a very interesting influence as he was a director whose latter work focused on examinations of 1950s American suburbia and social conflict that was bubbling up. Those movies were often lumped into the genre of “women’s melodramas” but have a profound influence on contemporary directors, most notably Todd Haynes (Safe, Carol)
You will definitely have an opinion after watching this short, either you’ll love it or be reviled, and I don’t think Aster expects less than that. This is a movie that is wonderfully crafted for a first major short film and previews the immense talent Aster would come to showcase in his feature work. With his third film in the early stages of pre-production, Aster has expressed interest in making a comedy. I can only guess at what sort of shocking dark comedy he’ll present audiences with.