When asked how I experienced the 90s, I often tell people to imagine being in a room with no interface to the external world – no digital devices, no mobile phones, not even an internet signal. Of course, televisions, telephones and home computers ensured that not every space was like that, but some spaces still could be like in a way that is now impossible in our hyper-connected era. Skinamarink, the debut feature from Kyle Edward Ball, taps into that same feeling, producing a pure spatial period piece – a genuinely experimental film that is almost entirely devoid of conventional characterisation, exposition or establishing-shots. The one undeniable detail we are given, in the opening credits, is that it all takes place in 1993, and while there is an oblique narrative, I’m not sure I would have been able to discern it if I hadn’t known what it was going in. For on paper, at least, Skinamarink is about two children who wake up in the middle of the night to discover that their father is missing, that the windows and doors to their house have vanished, and that other objects are starting to disappear too.
Within that austere premise, Ball captures the feeling of the 90s more acutely than about any director I’ve seen. This is surreal horror in the tradition of David Lynch, horror that is designed to work on you unconsciously, after the fact, in the same way that Ball’s 90s ramifies as a series of inchoate images and associations, long since displaced from the original moment of experiencing them. In particular, Ball evokes the experience of being a child alone in an analog space, the night terrors of the pre-digital era, forcing us to continually scan a darkness that is unmitigated by any portable devices. Watching it is like seeing a nightmare brought to life, or the earliest and most fragmented memories rendered visible – especially memories of spaces you inhabited or visited regularly as a very young child. To that end, Ball splits the difference between live and still images, alternating between the house and a lego replica of it, and adopting perspectives and angles that often make it feel as if we are inside a tiny scale model.
In other words, Skinamarink is genuinely shot from a toddler’s perspective. It’s largely comprised of still images – effectively a montage film – most of which are low angle shots, or shots of the ground, evoking the debilitating feeling of not being quite tall enough to peer out of windows or operate doors. Adults are entirely elided, with the exception of a voice and a ghost, and Ball scrupulously avoids shooting at eye level. This uncannily captures toddler consciousness, especially the inability of toddlers (at least as far as we can all remember) to properly conceive of themselves. We don’t see a single face in the film, apart from cartoons on the television, until the very end, and even then it’s only a glimpse, and rapidly absorbed back into the eerie murk of the film. While Skinamarink ostensibly takes place from the perspective of two toddlers, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the two, or to figure out whose eyes we’re seeing through, so blended are they into a common toddler sensorium.
Within that toddler mindset, everything is somewhat strange, meaning that the deeper strangeness of the film – the “wrong” kind of strangeness – only emerges in an elliptical and piecemeal way. The two toddlers are just a little too young to be completely scared, or scared of the right stuff, which makes the film itself even scarier. This threshold between the regular strangeness of the toddler world, and a more pervasive strangeness, coalesces around the parent’s bedroom, where Skinamarink, the entity responsible for this dissolution of the house, first appears as a ghostly version of the childrens’ mother. Telling them both that “we love you very much” in a whispered monotone, she sits with her back to them, and instructs them to close their eyes, as if lulling them to sleep. When they open them again, she’s gone.
Once it becomes clear that their parents are not going to return, the toddlers gravitate towards the television set in their living room. This, for me, was the kernel of Skinamarink’s spatial period piece – its ability to capture a time before digital devices when the television was the brightest object in the house at night, along with the eeriness of coming upon a television left flickering in the middle of the night. Ball does to television here what Hiroshi Sugimoto did to Los Angeles cinemas with his time-lapse photographs, abstracting them into fields of bright light that remain glary even when the toddlers manage to turn on the main lights. In the absence of windows, and with time growing increasingly abstract, the television dictates diurnal rhythms – the toddlers sit in front of it to substitute for daylight, and put a towel over it when they sleep. In a film largely comprised of still images, the only movement comes from the television too, in the endless animation sequences that the opening credits take pains to point out are public domain, as if to embed the film back in the serendipity of free-to-air television – the way that random broadcast images reflected a momentary mood.
No surprise, then, that the television is where the key supernatural plot points of the film occur, and where Skinamarink chooses to manifest himself (or itself). In once scene, Ball cuts between a dream of the children falling out of bed into a dream space, and the bright white of a television. Later on, Skinamarink tells the girl to “put a knife in your eye,” and blind herself, at which point Ball cuts to a black screen, then to brilliant white, as if the only way to capture this horrific demand is through the violent shift between a dark and television-lit living room. From here, the film gives way to a series of almost monotonal fields, a kind of cinematic suprematism, which ushers in the final act, if it even makes sense to call it that. In this last and most experimental sequence, the lights in the house go out, the screen is almost entirely dark, and it is impossible to make out anything, or even discern whether or not there is a correlation between sound and image, since there are subtitles, but no apparent dialogue.
This is where Skinamarink turns into pure unconscious static and darkness, the 90s as a barely-remembered fever dream. It’s only now that we see the face of one of the toddlers, during her first really clear conversation with Skinamarink, but no sooner does that happen than the film dissociates into full-on surrealism. The second caption appears, following the opening “1993,” informing us “572 days” have passed Images now become purely subliminal, like dream-figments that are on the verge of turning sentient, a buried 90s of dismantled lego, model houses and old-fashioned televisions in which even an abrupt cut or sound is enough to unleash a primal terror. Finally, the film collapses entirely into a gradual zoom to a blurry face that tells the toddler (if we are still even witnessing this from the toddler’s perspective) to “Go to sleep.” Never quite resolving from the gloom, this face is the terror of the pre-digital world, a world whose terror seems even more profound as it lingers decades after the fact.