Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

(Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/2011)
          The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a highly addictive soundtrack. It has Sharon O belting out Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” with Trent Reznor’s techno blabber to match it up. It has her screaming erotically towards the end. The remainder of the film features droplets of trancey techno, and one darkly humorous usage of Enya’s “Sail Away.” This music lends the scenes it is matched to a distinctive thump; that sort of conniving sense you get, when all your senses are taking in too much at once, that the images in front of you are leading to something. Is it a distressing sign that they so often lead to nothing? What of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is all thump and no sense whatsoever?
            It seems tedious to summarize the story, again. We all know about Stieg Larsson’s smash hit of a trilogy, or at least it feels like we do.  Some may be unfamiliar with the story of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), the disgraced Swedish journalist who is hired to find a missing girl from a wealthy family, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the antisocial youth heroin who is raped by her case worker, exacts bizarrely horrific revenge, reports on Blomkvist himself, and eventually teams up with him. For these Tattoo virgins, this film might look like a revenge-fantasy turned feminist action movie, with insistent diversions on journalism, Nazism and cyberpunk ethos. That is not a bad distillation of the book or the Swedish film, either, but the problem is that it’s a distillation, period. The book sustained itself as hugely entertaining trash mainly due to the thrill of watching it become about this disturbed mystery girl, and because of the kinky, genre-laden grab bag that constituted its structure. The whodunit, the family saga, the revenge thriller, the sadomasochistic horror story; all these genres were thrown in by Larsson; the story that emerged was a thrilling mess. Film is better at getting away with making a thrilling mess of genre than literature. Lighting can go from high contrast to low contrast, cameras from static to handheld, costumes from shiny to bloody and nobody gives a hoot so long as it flashes across the screen. Director David Fincher seems only somewhat more willing than Niels Arden Oplev (director of the Swedish film) to let his film be a mess; what both directors unwisely chose to do was smooth out the narrative sloppiness, which is, if anything, more than half of the story’s ridiculous charm. The weird family dynamics gradually explored in the novel are skimmed over; the sense that Lisbeth Salander is actually a fractured individual who gets sucked in to being a hero is replaced by the idea that Salander is a hero. With her black, close-upped to death motorcycle and helmet, her dark attractiveness (this person is meant to look un-pretty) and her perfectly timed one-liners, Salander is a movie archetype, not a genuine outcast who becomes an archetype. One gets the sense that the filmmakers and actors understood this progression, but they didn’t feel like communicating it. Motorcycles and explosions and extensive rape look better.
(Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/2011)
(Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/2011)

            The main issue, though, is that David Fincher has no patience. For a long time now, he’s been the most intimidatingly revered director in North America. He is the type of director lauded in film schools for his technical precision and perfectionism; critics and audiences love him for his ‘ability to cut to the chase’ and the way he rebels successfully in Hollywood; he gets final cut, he works with whichever actors he wants. But is Fincher a perfectionist or an opportunist? He takes the entire range of ‘film language’ so literally that to him, any story can be told with any degree of technique. That technique usually means an unmitigated kineticism that gives his films the feel of very long music videos and not cinema. This might explain his admitted talent with music (he started off directing music videos), but it doesn’t explain how he gets away with making such straight-jacketed films. For a director who apparently utilizes storyboards so well, his films are the excess of just that; Fincher has never met a shot that does not look like it was once a storyboard. The result is that his images are sleek moving panels, not moving imagery. They do not require one to see for themselves what’s unfolding. We need not be interested in delving in to the particulars of his style; Fincher strapped it to our eyes. This dishonesty, this pure arrogance does not go away in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it doesn’t look like it will go away over the course of his filmmaking. He’ll continue to get away with it, and continue to get a free pass on his essentially cold and clinical filmmaker’s soul. He’s the most intimidating major director today, and the most depressing.
            The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a franchise movie. Whether or not it matters what the sequel will look like is now entirely in the hands of studio executives. The franchise movie might be its own very perverse genre by now; the newest Batman film will be rolling out next year, along with at least two others. They are product movies; they showcase certain music, brands, and lifestyles the average viewer may wish to follow. They are shiny; the cinematography is unblemished, un-ironic. Every character, even the bad guys, is essentially a hero in their uncomplicated way of fitting in to the film’s world, and the popular imagination. Lastly, they are cash cows; they make a lot of money. But no franchise film has yet transcended the concept of the franchise film. With Stieg Larsson’s books, it felt like we had material that was begging to be franchised in cinema, but which, more importantly, might be that transcendent film. Multiple plotlines, a broad, bombastic sense of social commentary, characters in trouble in their lives rather than in the mere mission they are assigned to; this is the stuff of an exciting franchise film. And when asked whether we should prefer the Swedish film or the American film, the answer looks irrelevant. The only realistic answer is that we should scrap it all and start over.

Thursday, December 22, 2011



I am not going to make a top-ten list of the best films of 2011. I outright, point-blank refuse. However, here is a list of some films I saw this year that I believe may be more worth viewing than most others. This is not to say they have any heirarchy, any immediate standing in the history of cinema, or that I'm right at all. It means they were films that, due to my enjoyment of them, seem to have used the form in a methods that are startling, risky and interesting. Because of those three essential qualities, they may or may not have contributed something to the larger sphere of moving imagery.

The Skin I Live In
The Tree of Life
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives
Possession (originally released 1981)
Le Quattro Volte

Which films did I forget? Possibly several. Which bad movies are worth talking about? None.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Films: Vampire Cuadecuc

(Vampire Cuadecuc/1971)
            You just have to let Pere Portabella’s Vampire Cuadecuc (1971) fog its way through you. The second half of the title refers to the tail end of a reel of film; the part where frames get bleached out. It’s an appropriate title, because it can feel at times like we’re watching stolen images from that forbidden end. Portabella overexposed some shots, blurred-out others, mashed together a sound mix that sounds like it comes from a basement (a basement with a sense of humor), and allowed his documentary on the making of the notoriously schlocky Jess Franco film Count Dracula (1970) to be a documentary only in the sense that it questions that very term. This oddity is more of a 67-minute element. You observe it for what feels like a while, then it’s gone.
            The main players in Vampire Cuadecuc: Christopher Lee, the star of Count Dracula (1970); Maria Rohm, a Franco regular who plays Mina Harker, the much distressed love-interest in Bram Stoker’s story; Soledad Miranda, as Lucy, her friend with lesbian overtones/undertones; Herbert Lom as professor Van Helsing; and various cameramen, makeup artists and extras. These main players are seen mostly in footage from the actual film, but shot in black and white and from differing angles, making the film an interesting comparison piece to the actual narrative film on the most superficial level. But Portabella is not too concerned with making a comparison—or a companion—piece to the work of filmmaking it portrays. He is after something more self-conscious and nightmarish. As the credits state, the film is based on an ‘idea’ by Portabella and Joan Bossa. What that idea is, beyond the idea of documenting the making of a film, may be to create a horror-document, rather than a made-up scary story. The film is dotted with shots of Lee grabbing a swooning Rohm and biting in to her neck, followed by the camera operator circling in to the frame. It shows detached hands—never the bodies they belong to—dusting Lee’s face with makeup before he settles down in to his coffin to continue his ungodly vampire existence. As Dracula creeps around his large parlor, talking to a mystified Jonathan Harker, who has just arrived at his castle, the camera pans to lights in the background. But those are not lights of a film set. They are spidery technological enablers of a vampire. Those are not quite hands of paid artists on a film set either, or camera operators trying to tell a story. Indeed, the most peculiar implication of Vampire Cuadecuc is that all the main players—actors, technicians, objects, elements—by creating fictional evil are in fact enabling actual, abstract evil. This must have been Portabella’s overarching idea and his inquiry in to this weird game looks, literally, almost black.
(Vampire Cuadecuc/1971)

            It is because of the seemingly critical nature of Vampire Cuadecuc that some have read in to the film an allegory of Franco’s regime (the dictator, not the director, though the coincidence is amusing). But this interpretation is beside the point when we get down to the real meat of Portabella’s imagery. Practically speaking, he aimed to recap the story of Dracula via documentary filmmaking. This he did, but along the way he was boldly unafraid of experimentations with sound, with film stock, and with the apparently serious-minded nature of his project. Vampire Cuadecuc is not afraid of making a joke, or admitting that it’s all just a film after all. Near the end, we are treated to shots of the cast and crew gathering on a wide stage for what looks like either a break or a celebration, followed by Lee removing his fake mustache and his plastic eyeballs with a certain bemusement. The last scene is of Lee sitting in his dressing room, reading from the final pages of the original novel in a surprisingly mannered actor’s voice. That we realize this was all just a story being told is either a cop-out on Portabella’s part, or an admission he had to make to save his film from criticisms of pretentiousness. Whichever it is, his film is a dazzle; today, it is treated as both an obscure artifact and a provocative work of pseudo-non-fiction. It is concerned with the art of creation rather than the art of journalism or politics; it prefers wild images, at times for the sake of wildness, to the concept of sticking to the main theme. There is no main theme; there are only main rhythms, repetitions, objects, and faces. Vampire Cuadecuc is a document to be experienced; it fogs its way through you.
(Christopher Lee in Vampire Cuadecuc/1971)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Motion Studies: A Celebration

         For Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981), a slow miscarriage against the backdrop of an ongoing tunnel of the German subway system need not be a simple performance piece. It should be a feat of full-body conniptions, and by extension, a celebration of bodily derangement. She starts off looking distrught as she exits a subway and walks in to the tunnel carrying a brown bag. Then she cackles to herself. She moves further in to the empty tunnel, a stretch of grays and blacks that curls around in strange reminiscence of other images that populate Andrejz Zuwalski’s film. When her cackles turn in to strange noises of pain, it is like watching a seizure as opera. When she smashes her bag against the wall of the tunnel, and it spews white material everywhere (what is that?), it is like watching forbidden performance art. When she falls to the floor and rolls around in the white residue, now a victim of spasms that must lead to something horrible, it is like watching something a woman might privately fantasize of doing to relieve frustration. When, in the next shot, she finally miscarries some ooze of blood and yellow murk on the tunnel floor, it is like watching this celebration come to an end we still didn’t want to consider. But it was inevitable.

Sunday, December 4, 2011



               The Irish filmmaker Steve McQueen looks to have a fairly histrionic career cut out for himself. He has so far made two films with singe-word titles suggesting undesirable states of being, both of which are about, imagistically and thematically, emotional excess, physical collapse, crying, persistence in the face of sheer madness, shit, metal, granite, self-destruction. To believe that he does not get a joyride out of his beautiful moving photographs of male (so far, male) misery would suggest that, as a filmmaker, he has nothing in common with the compulsive, emotionally flattened protagonist Brandon of Shame. But in spite of the fact that the instincts of Brandon and McQueen are similar, Shame is not self-expression, it is not a portrait, it does not have a message. I don’t know what it aspires to be, but at least it’s enthralling cinema.
            Rather than make a work of art-film porn, as was the case with his first film, Hunger, McQueen has this time opted for an art film about porn. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a Manhattanite with a nice apartment in Chelsea, a white-collar office job, an interest in classical music and Don DeLillo novels, a reserved but charming demeanor, and an out-of-control addiction to sex and pornography. The latter trait is one he keeps private, but not too private. When he goes out for a night on the town with his boss (James Badge Dale, whose contribution to this film must not be underestimated) and some coworkers, he manages to pick up a pretty blonde who snubs his boss; later, his boss returns his computer with a clean hard-drive and observes to Brandon that his had drive was ‘filthy.’ At the same time, Brandon’s estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has shown up in his apartment, bringing some of her own emotional baggage and interrupting his cultivated regime of sexual release. This inevitably causes Brandon to lash out at her—though it also forces him to violently reassess his priorities. This reassessment is accomplished in one frantic, somewhat funny montage of Brandon dumping every porno magazine he has stashed in his closet, every sex toy and picture and finally, his laptop, in to a trash bag which he plops on one grimy sidewalk of many in New York.

            After this point, the film becomes a brisker and more conventional narrative in which we start to fully root for Brandon.  He takes a real girl, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), on a real date and tries to form a real connection. This development is a welcome step forward for Steve McQueen, who directed Hunger toward a tiresomely rigid conclusion. He allows Fassbender to explore his character in front of our eyes; this is because the character, Brandon, is exploring his own character in front of our eyes. This is one of the more enjoyable ways to watch an onscreen performance. But it is not to say there are not still problems with McQueen’s style; at its worst, Shame looks like a very expensive student film. A sex scene against a brick wall with the word ‘Fuck’ scrawled on it, and a melodramatic conversation between Brandon and Sissy in front of their television, which plays a cartoon, shows that McQueen is still not above kitsch imagery. But there isn’t far too much of it and Fassbender’s grace as a performer actually elevates some shots that might otherwise be kitsch in to the realm of film poetry. When he stands alone on a Chelsea pier in the pouring rain, tears at his hair and collapses in to a puddle, it isn’t just an image of a man at the end of his rope; it’s a fall on to hard, wet ground.
            For all its seeming agenda—it explores a taboo subject! Millions suffer from this disease!—Shame quietly manages to avoid the trappings of an agenda film. It is not quite The Lost Weekend of sex addiction films, because it is not really a film about sexual addiction. It would not be too trite to call it a variation on the theme of a man who wants to escape himself, finds a woman who fails to help him escape, and slides back in to his torment even further, before seeing, maybe too late, some kind of clarity. In other words, a tragic love story in Greek drama form. Its attention to detail lets it stay grounded in the reality of New York life; the black grime of the subway tracks, the way walk signals, broken lights and broken trains constantly delay us. They also keep the story moving, and what more can we ask from a film? 

            But all this sound construction is not even what makes the audience leave this film so quietly, and with such shellshock. It is the profound sense of loneliness one gets from the eyes of Brandon, and from Sissy. It is from the reckless anxiety one senses in Brandon’s boss and the quieter anxiety we feel in Marianne. We can’t be sure if there’s too much addiction in this world, or too much need.