Seeing the strings

Under The Skin with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra

by Andrew Robertson

Projection equipment through Glasgow film. Musicians from Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Industrial void venue's own.
Projection equipment through Glasgow film. Musicians from Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Industrial void venue's own. Photo: Andrew Robertson

Many of my favourite film stories are bound up in the cinema experience. There are sensational moments, an ambulance called to someone not just struck but stricken by Titane. Faintings filling in the gap left by the red square in Bryan M Ferguson's Flamingo. There are subtler ones though. Seeing Behaviour as the last film in a programme where the audience had clapped for every one before, feeling those around me grow in dread as they realised they would be obligated by past performance to applaud a film that itself is washed in discomfort. A screening of The Irishman where due to the odd angles of the auditorium and the position of my seat I could not help but see a person checking their watch again and again, more visibly affected by the passage of time than De Niro and Pesci. The dread and unease of The Color Out Of Space heightened by seeing it in a cinema that served food, waiting for someone in the front row to turn unearthly purple as Nicolas Cage or HP Lovecraft and cheeseburger conspired.

Under The Skin
Under The Skin

I first saw Under The Skin in Edinburgh. Though it had closed that year's Glasgow Film Festival scheduling is the bane of ambition. In the (currently still closed) Filmhouse, the audience reacted to the broad West of Scotland of "You're pure gorgeous" with laughter, and I know I'm not the only person who clocked that a victim who appeared to be a Celtic supporter was actually wearing a Hibernian top. That's a detail that relies on the big screen, at least to make out the club crest, unless you're the kind of person who knows that Crabbies have only sponsored two clubs and Everton have only worn green as shorts against two or three clubs in one season in the Seventies.

I mention these as, despite my fondness for Under The Skin, its willingness to, in the words of our own Max Crawford, "challenge and alienate" still make it difficult. Knowing that it was showing as a 10th anniversary with live musical accompaniment was more than enough to persuade me to see it. I had no doubt that it would be something, and I was right.

The London Sinfionetta have performed a live score for the film several times now, with shows across England and also in Malta. Sometimes conducted by composer Mica Levi, when she has been unavailable Jonathan Berman has fulfilled the role. The London Symphony Orchestra let by Robert Ames have performed the live score in Kazakhstan, in what was also a national première. For this performance it was members of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, led by Berman. His name appears in the sparse credits, which I think are a function of a specific version of the print. Well, DCP - the mechanisms of bringing cinema to a venue like the Queen Margaret Union are not simple.

Behind the scenes at the Glasgow Film Festival's special Under The Skin screening
Behind the scenes at the Glasgow Film Festival's special Under The Skin screening Photo: Andrew Robertson

I saw it from the balcony, the orchestra below me in an impromptu pit. There were perhaps fifty seats with sufficient sightlines to allow their sale, perhaps as many in the area adjacent to the dancefloor below us. Screenings like this make festivals, and even with two sessions there's something truly special in being part of an audience that small. I saw the five o'clock, not quite the matinée, introduced by Glasgow Film head and festival co-director Alison Maxwell. That this was a first performance heightened things, but elsewhere some of the strength came from flattening.

The realities of lighting in a space other than an auditorium meant that some of the film's deep contrast was lost. This was actually to its strength, it takes slightly longer for things to emerge from shadows. The figure on the motorcycle. The face in the mirror. Seeing it in Glasgow, or at least not from the inky embrace of my own sofa, had extra depth. Ten years have been kind to the film, but much less so to Glasgow. After a shot of the ABC concert venue, a poster for an MF Doom gig at the Arches is visible. The first, a former cinema, is still boarded up, a casualty of the fires at the School of Art just up the hill. Daniel Dumile died on Hallowe'en 2020, in a form of exile in his native London, after being refused re-entry to the US. The Arches too is closed, an iconic arts venue whose vaulting ambition saw promenade performances of Metropolis, stagings of Beowulf, Alien Wars (based on Alien/Aliens), and much of it subsidised by the commercial success of club nights and related performances like Beats. Not fire or age that did for it, but restrictions on its licensing conditions, itself a victim of uncomprehending neglect.

Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin
Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin

The calendar's unkindnesses to its setting are striking. In context, with the victims, the fact that Glaswegian audiences will see and note the loss of TJ Hughes or Trongate Greggs but might not have noticed young men who never came home is bleakly apt. I cannot and will not talk about the film's surprises, even knowing that they were coming does not weaken them. Mica Levi's score is abstract, but hearing it from strings in the same room, to be bathed in the void of that sound is something special. I've had the distinct pleasure of seeing a handful of films with live scores, though they could scarce be more dissonant. Asian Dub Foundation's wall of sound made the already aurally complex THX 1138 as oppressive as the society it depicts, a hammered dulcimer added an unsettling precision to The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, and here Under The Skin was given the chance to ride bow and sinew and do just that. Strings, heart and otherwise, plucked at. Washed as by the spray of the sea.

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