brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.

Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself: she’s watching films like Magic Mike and Ted? Mainstream comedies in regular theaters oriented to general audiences?! Has this blog been hijacked by an evil-minded imposter?

(I admit: in retrospect it appears that watching Ted at the theater goes against all my principles. All I can say is that my friends chose it.)

But I must defend my anticipation of Magic Mike — because it’s being eagerly anticipated by so many of my favorite gay and/or female film critics, including Louis Virtel’s videos The Weeklings:

[Sidebar: I’m relatively new to The Weeklings, but I have now scanned about one-third of these 2- to 4-minute videos and they’re so quick-witted that sometimes you have to watch the videos 2 or 3 times to absorb everything. To wit: the episode in which Louis Virtel takes issue with moron Adam Carolla’s views on whether women are funny. Or when he proposes to do a proper interview with Anderson Cooper about coming out — his list of questions is genius! “How do you feel about forcing straight kids to come out as uninteresting?” Or when he joins the rest of his troupe, The Gay Beatles — oh, the episode in which they explain which Beatle they would be … which leads them to explain which member of Sex and the City they would be, or which Cosby Kid, or which Fanta Girl….]

But back to the issue at hand: Magic Mike. Because I believe it is my duty as a woman — nay, as a human being — to hand over my money to see a film about male strippers. I fully expect that within a few days’ time, I will be back reporting that Magic Mike is, indeed, the Citizen Kane of male stripper films.

I confess: that is not my line. It really belongs to film critic extraordinaire, Libby Gelman-Waxner.

My most secret and powerful desire might be to get paid to write film reviews not just with a nom de plume, but an entirely made-up persona like hers. When I was in college I discovered Gilman-Waxner’s genius reviews in Premiere magazine. She is a middle-aged wife of a dentist, mother, suburban New Yorker, and buyer for the juniors department (also: “she” is secretly screenwriter/ humorist Paul Rudnick). She’s always spot-on with her criticism, like when she describes Daniel Craig in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: “He wore reading glasses, which on a dreamy guy like Daniel are the male equivalent of a nurse’s uniform or a schoolgirl kilt.” In short, Libby is the perfectly melded combination of gay man and straight woman.

Tanning salon-driven dramatic tension in the dressing room between Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey — but over what? I can hardly wait!

That’s the real secret, you see: Magic Mike represents the sweet spot where the interests of people like Libby Gelman-Waxner, The Weeklings, and Feminéma converge. Libby and I agree that there’s basically zero chance I will not enjoy this movie. Moreover, it is SO much fun to anticipate seeing it. I mean, just listen to her imagine the possible plot points:

And I’m praying that one guy is stripping his way through medical school, and that another guy gets drunk and falls off the runway, and that finally all of the strippers pull together and become a family and strip to rebuild a local orphanage, and that someone declares, “We’re gonna help those kids because, dammit, that’s what male strippers do.”

I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? I walk out and say, “The dancing was awesome, but it wasn’t gay enough.”

Want to know what I concluded after seeing it? Here’s the answer!

Girls vs. women

8 May 2012

I’ve been thinking back to my first semester of college, when I met a confident, gorgeous, funny 3rd-year woman student in my dorm named Maria. She had long, beautiful, straight hair and a penchant for practical jokes, and she was a standout geology student (which made me, temporarily at least, also a geology major).

The fact that I refer to her as a woman is because of her. “There was this woman in my high school,” she’d begin a story — and for someone like me who’d grown up refusing to call myself a woman, this casual reference was mind-blowing. At the first reference, I actually found myself wondering if this “woman” in her high school was a middle-aged mom who’d gone back to school. Gradually, it occurred to me that embracing the notion that I was a woman rather than a girl could be liberating. “Want to go out with me and a couple of women from the frisbee league?” she’d ask, and I’d feel like I was part of a new and very, very cool club. A club of not-girls.

Is it corny to believe that adopting Maria’s term woman — and abandoning girl — was one of the most meaningful moments of my feminist education?

I got onto this line of thinking because of Lena Dunham’s show Girls, of course, but also because we have an epidemic of girls underway in film and especially TV:

  • Two Broke Girls
  • New Girl
  • Bad Girls Club
  • Girls Gone Wild
  • Gilmore Girls
  • Gossip Girl
  • The Girls Next Door
  • Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

It strikes me that my ongoing use of woman won’t have the same effect on my 18- or 19-yr-old students because I’m not one of their peers. I’m a 40-something professor, not a 20-yr-old with long, straight, glossy hair. But I wonder if I should bring up this topic explicitly.

Corny or not, I still think that teaching that simple linguistic shift could be mind-blowing for young women. Oh, if only Zooey Deschanel (TV’s New Girl) or those glamorous bitchez on Gossip Girl referred to themselves and their friends as women. That would be interesting.

The forthcoming Feminéma La Jefita statuette, based on genuine Cycladic art!

Here’s the thing about Best-of-the-Year lists: people like me haven’t seen half the motherfucken films because we live in Regular America, where they dribble great indie films out to us as if they’re rare commodities that only goddamn Newyoricans and Angelenos get to see.

This is too bad, because I’ve just invented the soon-to-be-coveted La Jefita statuette, to be awarded sparingly and only in person by me to artists of my choosing.

When I finally get a crack at these films of which I have heard so much good stuff, I have a big plan for categories of:

  • Best Feminist Film (will it be Girl With the Dragon Tattoo??)
  • Best Female-Directed Film (once I get the chance to see We Need to Talk About Kevin and Pariah, dammit)
  • Best Female-Oriented Film (will it be Poetry?? or will Hanna or The Lady edge it out? is it even possible I could see Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret??)

In my heart of hearts, I’d also like to add far more idiosyncratic categories like:

  • Most Feminist Period Drama That Avoids Anachronism
  • Sexiest Scene in Which a Woman Eats Food
  • Best Fight Scene in Which A Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass
  • Most Realistic Dialogue That Women Might Actually Say
  • Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep

Stay tuned on that one. I have to gird myself for controversy.

Only one award is ready to be given: BEST ACTRESS! Because no other performance by an actress can possibly beat out Joyce McKinney — as herself — in Errol Morris’s Tabloid.

She’s amazing! Is she BAT-SHIT CRAZY or BARKING MAD, the way one tabloid journalist portrays her? or a hopeless romantic, which is how she describes herself (and how she seems to have lived her life)? Does she really have a genius-level IQ? What really happened in that cottage in Devon in 1977? And who’s been threatening bloggers like me with lawsuits ever since the documentary was released?

Joyce McKinney is riveting, beautiful, clever, and unforgettable. I don’t care if it was a documentary: McKinney is playing the part of McKinney, and she’s doing it brilliantly.

Congratulations, Joyce — you are the first-ever winner of Feminéma’s marble La Jefita statuette!

There are two kinds of movies in the theaters right now: the highbrow ones seeking out Oscar nods, and the heartwarming Christmas ones.
Then there’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In one early scene, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) greets Mikael (Daniel Craig) while wearing a t-shirt that says, FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING FUCK.
So with that in mind, perhaps you won’t be surprised that I ♡ GWTDT. The real question is, how did our friend JustMeMike feel about it?

JMM: Like you, I find Lisbeth compelling. At the same time, I’m a bit scared of her. She is fierce, as was Noomi in the same role. That comes from knowing what she’s capable of. But while Lisbeth has that don’t fuck with me attitude, much of the time, she appears to be drawing herself back in, like a turtle might do.

Didion,  I knew you be all over this one, which was probably why we agreed to do a joint review/discussion on this film all the way back in September, knowing it would be released just before Christmas.

To set some background, let’s briefly discuss how we independently came to the Stieg Larsson books and films.

I kind of fell into them by accident. In early November of 2010, I somehow lost the book I was reading in Riomaggiore — in Italy’s Cinque Terre area. The next day, back in Milan, I went to the American Bookstore to buy another copy of Nelson DeMille’s The Lion. Only they didn’t have it. The lady who ran the shop asked if I had read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I hadn’t, so I took her advice. Within the following six weeks , I’d read all three books, and have since seen all three of the Swedish language films made from the books about seven times. So I was very eager to see this brand new version directed by David Fincher. How about you?

Didion: I’d never even heard of them when one of my best friends sent me a copy back during maybe February of 2009 — she’d read it while in Europe, long before it was released in the US, and knew that we shared a penchant for Scandinavian crime stuff. We now share an unholy love of Lisbeth Salander, one of the most unexpected and great heroines of recent history.

JMM: Back to the present. I saw the 7:00 show on Tuesday night. This was the opening night in Sarasota. The theater was about 90% filled. When did you see it and how was the crowd?

Didion:
Just the opposite! We raced to the theater on Wednesday the 21st for the 7:30pm show, and when we walked into the theater 15 minutes early there was one guy — ONE! — who’d beaten us. By the time the film started there were maybe 12 or 15 people in a theater that probably holds 300. (Let me say: this was a very happy 12 people.)

JMM: My brother even sent me a survey a few days ago that stated that 75% of the women that were asked said they weren’t eager to see the film. Well then, there are reasons for that which we might explore later. Let’s look at a few headline reactions from some well known or outspoken critics before we get into the particulars. Roger Ebert wrote, “Hey girl, that’s a cool dragon tattoo”. A.O. Scott wrote for the New York Times, “Tattooed Heroine Metes Out Slick, Punitive Violence”. Kenneth Turan for the LA Times wrote, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is too frigid.” One more — Kyle Smith for the New York Post called the film, “Rubbish”. So Didion, do you have a headline in mind?

Didion: How about, The Perfect, Laconic, Tattooed Heroine For Our Sins. First reactions: Rooney Mara was terrific and made this part her own; David Fincher teaches all filmmakers a lesson here in how to translate a sprawling book for the screen; and the scenery was spectacular. I’ve got some quibbles, but on the whole I was entranced. I don’t know what Smith & Turan are talking about.

I’m the worst of all possible viewers: I know the books really well; I loved the first Swedish film; I thought Noomi Rapace was amazing in the role. Mara and Fincher were really going to have to knock my socks off to please me. (My socks: knocked off.) Now I’m thinking that the Swedish film will pale in comparison when I see it again.

How about you? First reactions?

JustMeMike:
Worst possible viewer? I would think just the opposite about you. Your experience would be an asset. At least that’s how I read Fincher’s intentions. My first reaction or headline? Loved It But Not More Than the Original.

Didion: Walking in, the first thing I wanted to know was whether I’d like Mara as Lisbeth, having loved Noomi Rapace in the role so much. Rapace’s black eyes did a lot of great work for her — she was so clearly angry. Mara has a little-girl face with big bluish/grey eyes, which made me fret Fincher would turn her into Little Girl Lost. But actually she truer to the Lisbeth of the books: a kind of emotionless, blank expression, which reads to some people as if she’s autistic. And she’s also capable of incredibly vicious, economical violence when necessary.So I thought Mara was fabulous. What did you think of Daniel Craig as Mikael?
JMM: In the featurette about the film, Fincher called the Blomkvist character middle aged. I thought that Craig did not appear as middle-aged as did the Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist. But that wasn’t a negative. Craig seemed less vulnerable than Nyqvist. He was slimmer, and seemed tougher physically even though he didn’t play the role that way.

Didion: …and Craig took his shirt off far too often?

JMM: Well then, far too often? Not really. He did have the body for it.

Didion: I kept thinking of a silly line from the film Galaxy Quest in which one of the side characters says dryly to the Capt. Kirk-type lead, “I see you got your shirt off.”

I’m with you on Craig as a far more glamorous Mikael. Which I didn’t mind eye-candy-wise but I don’t know about his acting choices in certain spots, either. I liked Nyqvist in the role much better.

JMM: Bingo! My take is that between Craig and Fincher — they decided to make Mara’s Lisbeth the star. In fact Fincher stated that while Lisbeth begins as a secondary character, she quickly rushes to the forefront of the movie even though Craig’s character is the lead actor (story-wise).

Didion: Okay, can I burble for a moment? There are a couple of things I thought were done really well and which need to be highlighted. Spoilers ahoy! If you don’t want to know about plot details, get your butt off NOW.

First, the rape scene. And lordy, how I hate a rape scene. I have a whole series of rants about how they should be eliminated from film altogether — the gratuitousness of the violence, the vision of a helpless woman…don’t even get me started.

JMM: Sorry — you started this one yourself, but go for it —

Didion: So how does a director do this one, which is absolutely necessary to the story? The scene in the Swedish version was hard to watch, not less for Lisbeth’s painful walk home after being victimized.

I thought this one was handled really well — considering. (Maybe I was dreading it, so it didn’t seem as bad once I saw it?) It shows Lisbeth writhing around on the bed and doesn’t underplay the violence in the least. But it also doesn’t feel as gratuitously detailed and humiliating as the Swedish original, or the rape/violence in some other films like Monster or Boys Don’t Cry. So kudos to Fincher for including it in a way that moves the story along to Lisbeth’s quick and utterly satisfying revenge (ahhh, a good revenge scene).

And second (quickly): this film did a fabulous job of highlighting what was so great in the book — a crazy fascinating mystery. The story is always front & center in this film.
JMM:
Well, as for the rape scene — Fincher gave us a built in break — which allowed us to prepare ourselves. For those unfamiliar with the story it was key — and for those of us who knew what was coming it was still an excellent decision. After Bjurman slaps the first handcuff on, Fincher backs the camera out of the room, even has the door closed. So we don’t see the real violence needed to get her on the bed and completely shackled. I thought that was a marvelous choice.

Didion: And another thing: this film did a fabulous job of telling a feminist tale. It’s a story about how she saves him. And that’s after she saves herself after being raped. The ending is all about Lisbeth racing off to rescue Mikael, who’s been chained up by the bad guy.

I could probably count on one hand the number of movies where the girl saves the guy (in most of them, she doesn’t even help). So hooray for GWTDT.

My quibble: the film undermines that a bit at the very end by having Lisbeth appear to get jealous of Mikael’s relationship with his editor (Robin Wright). Which is an odd time to put that in, and different enough from the book that I bristled a bit.
JMM:
Hold on a bit — you lost me. You referenced how “she saves herself after being raped”. Not right after — it took a while for the revenge scene to come. But as for the girl saving the guy — you’re right on that score. But I’ve a small quibble about how that was set up.

I believe in the original, Lisbeth didn’t set up the spy-cams until after Mikael was shot — when they realized how dangerous this really was. In Fincher’s version — she had the spy-cams already set up when he stumbles back in after nearly being killed.

As for Lisbeth’s jealously at the end — this is a matter of interpretation, no? I read it differently. I thought that Lisbeth saw them and thought he’s moved on, so I guess I have to as well. So she tossed the leather jacket she’d bought into the trash, and rode off. Question is this a clue that makes one think there will be a sequel?

Didion:
I wondered that too. I haven’t heard anything either way (and IMDB doesn’t list them on Fincher’s page). If I were Fincher, I don’t think I’d want to commit to the whole series, especially since Lisbeth kind of becomes more unknowable by the 3rd.

But here’s another gushing bit of praise: Christopher Plummer. This is the second great role I’ve seen him in this year (last summer’s Beginners). As the head of the nightmarish Vanger clan and the one who hires Mikael to figure out the mystery, he’s both funny and ominous about the details of the family history. It wasn’t necessarily a big role for him, but I thought he nailed it. Actually, considering how few Swedish actors they used — Stellan Skårsgard was the only major one — everyone, including Robin Wright, looked satisfyingly Swedish to my American eyes.

JMM: Okay — let me catch my breath for a second and gather my thoughts …. okay — First I agree that Fincher, Craig and Mara would be wrong to do sequels. Even though I’d love to see them again. But I’ll let go of that.

Second Plummer — I can still hear that line inside my head — “You’ll be investigating thieves, misers, bullies. The most detestable collection of people you will ever meet — my family.” Yeah Plummer was marvelous. Nailing the role as you say — and a complete departure from the original. The Swedish Vanger seemed meeker, frailer, and less dynamic.

Third the non-Swedish cast? Once the decision is made to do the American version, then the necessity of more Swedes in no longer in play. They’re going to be speaking English, so anyone is in play.

Okay, I toss one to you — Lisbeth seems to pick up the girl in the bar — She sits there, sending out a visual “I’m interested”. and moments later she has her hand between the girl’s legs. Did this surprise you — did you see her as the sexual aggressor?

Didion: Actually, that completely worked for me. It’s a bit of a fantasy, I think, that a woman might recover from being brutally raped that she’d engage in sex so quickly (and with a man, later, when she seduces Mikael). But that’s a fantasy that belongs to Steig Larsson, the book’s author.

Larsson wanted a heroine who was absolutely iconoclastic. She heads to that gay bar because she likes sex and wants to enjoy herself. It’s a nice scene in which she takes back her own sexuality and has sex how and with whomever she pleases. Again, just because most women would be traumatized after what Lisbeth has been through doesn’t mean that this scene didn’t work; for me it seemed yet another instance of Lisbeth taking control of her life, not letting other people rule her.

JMM: Lisbeth didn’t seduce Mikael. It was more like she jumped on him. He crawls into bed, unaware that she’s taking off her clothing, and to me, he was genuinely surprised. I also didn’t think it was a gay bar. But I agree that she was taking control, if not of her sexuality, than  certainly of her emotional state.

Didion: Fair enough!

You mentioned above that you thought it wasn’t better than the Swedish version — and on that we disagree. I thought this one had a more disappointing Mikael, and told a better tale. I also liked it that this one showed more of Lisbeth’s dogged pursuit of Wennerström’s money at the very end. Why didn’t you think this one trumped the earlier version?

JMM:
First of all, they solved the case too easily. Did Mikael figure the Old Testament angle in the book or in the first one? I didn’t like that he moved right ahead – after his daughter gave him the clue when she said — the bible references as she was boarding the train.

Didion: In the book it was Mikael’s religious daughter who solves the bible verse question; in the first film it was Lisbeth. A quick note: I don’t know my bible very well, but this aspect of the story never seemed persuasive to me. Does anyone refer to bible verses in telephone-number format? But that’s a side issue.

JMM: Okay — And I disagree about Lisbeth’s ‘dogged’ pursuit of Wennerström. She said she’d already dug into him, and when she asked Mikael for the money, she already knew everything. What was left was the execution of stealing the money – not the pursuit of finding it.

As for the actual references — it was a short hand — she left out the book, the chapter, the verse.

But back to why I didn’t think the new version trumped the old one. The ending — I kind of liked that he had to go to Oz (Australia) to find Harriet in the old one. This new ending was a nice twist — but maybe it was a cost saving twist, as well as a completely new ending.

Didion: I liked that twist too. And goddamn, if Joely Richardson as the London financier/Vanger relative wasn’t amazing. It’s fabulous that she’s such a ringer for her gorgeous mother, Vanessa Redgrave; but here she uses a slight twitch in her eye to convey that big emotions are passing through as she hears news of the family. Amazing. And I was fooled — that’ll teach me for being such a Larsson completist.

If I were going to quibble, I’d point out that there’s something a little too easy about the idea that Harriet assumed her cousin’s identity. But whatever.

Here’s a more valid quibble (but it matters to me, anyway): the chess scene! Early on Lisbeth is bringing a copy of Bobby Fischer’s book on chess to her former guardian, indicating that she knows from chess. But at the very end when they play a game, their first moves — to shift the rook pawns (at the edges of the board) into play — are the dumbest of all possible first moves. Was there no one on that set who’d ever played chess??

JMM:
I missed the eye twitch. Very good on your part to have noticed. The whole guardian gambit was a bit confusing. When she visited him I wasn’t sure who he was. In the original Lisbeth got a call announcing that he had a stroke, and was being replaced – did she get this call in the Fincher version?

Agree on the chess — but if we consider that (Palmgren) made the first move, and he had the stroke, maybe it was rationalized that way….

Didion:
That raises a really good question: is this film, as well as the Swedish version, written and produced for fans of the books? I may be so inside the box that I can’t rightly tell.

It seems to me that Fincher was in a tight spot. I mean, look at the film versions of popular books with millions of crazed fans — shall we call this Harry Potter syndrome? or, at the risk of alienating many of my own readers, Pride and Prejudice syndrome? — directors are left trying to figure out how much of the original plot elements and/or dialogue to include.

Fincher had to explain how Lisbeth ended up with that appalling Bjurman as her guardian without distracting us from the real story, which was the mystery inside the mystery. So, JMM, do you think this film is intended for fans of the books, or is it also just a great stand-alone film?

JMM: I think you are asking a series of questions. The motive for making the film. That’s easy — the producer Scott Rudin could easily see that book sales (65 million copies) far exceeded the amount of money that the Swedish film and sequels took in. That could mean but one thing — many more people would see the film if they didn’t have to bother with subtitles.

Didion: Here’s my own opinion: Fincher is a total top-shelf director who gets to choose his projects. And although he’s best-known for his films that deal with manliness on interesting levels — Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network, even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — he’s also regularly done film projects about some awesome kick-ass women (Panic Room, Alien III).

I wouldn’t be surprised if he read the book and/or saw the Swedish version and said to himself, “I love this Lisbeth Salander. I can turn this into a phenomenal film.” That is, I doubt mere ticket sales entered into his thinking, because he doesn’t need to care a whole lot about that, especially after the crazy success of The Social Network — and I’ll bet he just started to imagine how to make a great film with a great heroine that tells a great story.
JMM:
Okay, I have to back off then because I don’t really know who first got the idea. But back to your other thoughts. Bjurman being added was a decision made by the authorities in Sweden. If we think about that — Lisbeth would get whoever was assigned. She’s have no part in that decision. It was her bad luck to get one of those Men Who Hated Women.

Finally — the third part of your question — Yes the film does work as a stand alone. It isn’t necessary to know the story or to have seen the originals to enjoy this one. Although knowing the story certainly helps you. Didion, have a look at this image — and tell me what you think when you see it —

Didion:
I’m struck by how giant Craig appears next to the teeny Mara, and how trepidatious they both appear. And I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t quite remember when this scene took place in the film. What do you think this scene conveys?

JMM: I don’t recall the when either. But I think it is clearly before they had sex. But maybe not. But I just like the look of it. Mara seems a bit more closed in than Craig does in the shot. But maybe it was just a scene in the transitional sense. And only that.

Didion: Okay, I’ve got a scene for you:
Mikael has been shot at, and there’s a lot of blood coming out of that head wound — especially because he’s been running away. I loved, lurved this shot, and it makes so much sense that it immediately precedes the sex between them. In any other film this would have been a tender moment of clarifying their gender roles: brave, injured man allows gentle, care-giving woman to care for and heal him. But this one is vintage Lisbeth: she takes a reel of dental floss, “sterilizes” it with some vodka, jams the bottle into Mikael’s hands, and starts stitching him together in the most efficient, unsentimental and brutal way imaginable. No bedside manner whatsoever. Loved it — because it jars your memory of all those other fixing-wounded-men scenes, and imprints Lisbeth on you in the most vivid way.

JMM: Wow. I loved that scene too. The physicality sets us up for the sex that followed (even though Blomqvist was still surprised). When you mentioned other films about a female care-giver, I immediately dredged up Lara from Dr. Zhivago in her war nurse time. But you‘re right about it establishing and clarifying Lisbeth. To me it WAS standard Lisbeth. Full throttle — no concern about to how to do it — only that is was necessary and needed to be done asap.

Didion: Actually, your thoughts there make me think about the sex in a slightly different way, and you’ve reminded me that when she unceremoniously jumped him, he’d been in the middle of fretting about the case, their safety, his own pain. I remember thinking, as she climbed on top, “Well, that will get his mind off the pain.”

That is, I don’t think she jumped him as a Lisbeth version of caregiving — I really do think she just wanted some sex (after all, stitching him together may have been the first human contact she’d had since much earlier with the hot woman from the bar), but it was also helpful to get Mikael to shut up already about the pain/the case/their safety.

JMM:  Well we won’t have an answer to the why — shutting him up, easing his pain, or just that she needed the sex. All or any worked and fit.

Taking us back away from sex for the moment — I liked both Stellen Skårsgard and Steven Berkoff as Frode. I considered both a vast improvement over their predecessors in the original.  What about you about Berkoff as you’ve already mentioned Skårsgard…

Didion: Oh yeah — he was fabulous. I especially liked it that as the Vanger family lawyer he appeared somewhat inscrutable, even suspicious at times. He really helped to add to the general atmosphere of the film as full of memorable faces and shadowy motives. Really, the entire supporting cast was amazing.

I’ve always loved Fincher’s films for their use of lighting and atmosphere. One of the other reviewers you quoted above complained that the film was overly cold; but I loved the sets (that Vanger family compound-qua-island was just perfection) and the fact that so much of the film takes place in winter, with snow falling. (There’s even a lovely scene in which Lisbeth says, “It’s Christmas again,” and you think to yourself, wow, that’s the weirdest Christmas moment in film history.) And let me say how much I liked it that the scenes from 1966, when Harriet Vanger disappears, scenes during which Fincher uses a washed-out Kodachrome-style color that looks old but cutesy or fake. The original Harriet was also a perfect casting decision.
JMM:
The supporting cast was indeed terrific. Even Armansky was an upgrade.

Didion: Yes! Good for Goran Visnjic, who also made a great move from Beginners to GWTDT! He looks excellent in grey hair, IMHO.

JMM: As for the winter aspect — that’s what makes the story great. This couldn’t have worked on a Caribbean island. As for the flashback to 1966 — this had to done that way — the washed out look seems to takes us back in time. At least it does for me.

But to bring you back to the winter — and this will be a philosophical question about Larsson’s motives — When Skarsgard’s character is discussing (maybe ‘bragging’ about his earlier victims) he uses the term ‘immigrant women’ and says that no one will care for or miss them. And when Mikael is talking with Harald — it is Harald who describes himself as the most honest man in Sweden — is this Larsson taking his countrymen to task  for their not so hidden racial and ethnic philosophies — and is this an off-shoot of having to endure long and severe winters — that the Swedish society had more indoor time on their hands … ??

Didion: I wish I could say for certain — sadly, I know just enough about Swedish cultural politics to make me dangerous. With the hope that Scandinavians will write in to comment and correct me, I’ll say that Swedish crime fiction seems to me fascinatingly obsessed with the theme of how a vision of “traditional” Swedish culture is having to come to grips with a new reality of multiculturalism, immigrants of many colors, and social change. And all of this has dredged up truths about the Swedish past that many people would prefer to keep buried — the the large number of open Nazi sympathizers among the population, etc. Anti-immigrant action and violence has reminded many Swedes of an ugly past they wish would go away. In that respect, I think Larsson’s GWTDT is of a piece with contemporary anxieties.

I’m not convinced this has anything to do with the long winters. And I’m not sure Swedish winters are any harsher than those in Massachusetts or Chicago (many Europeans are appalled by what New Englanders/North-Midwesterners live with). Swedish winters are darker, though, that’s for sure — much closer to the North Pole.

Interesting that this anti-immigrant posture comes up in a European context. I hadn’t considered that perhaps Fincher is also slipping in a warning to Americans about their own anti-immigrant tendencies, and where they lead. This isn’t altogether convincing, but who knows?

JMM: Okay. Maybe this is too far reaching a topic for us to go any further with it. Just thought I’d ask. Back to the film — and we can begin our descent towards closing — What was your favorite scene?

Didion: Whew. This is a tough one, but let me say three things: 1) the scene in which Lisbeth stitches Mikael up, natch. 2) The scene in which she enacts her revenge on Bjurman. Which requires some explanation: it’s a tough scene to watch, but what I liked was how clearly she had planned out every possible way to prevent him from ever, ever touching her again. She laid out the new terms for their relationship in an almost unemotional way and had covered every single possibility for his resisting. I could live without the scene of her tattooing him, but who doesn’t love the idea that such a man is now permanently scarred with details of his own crimes?

And third: I loved the fact that this film was so creepy, so thrilling, so nerve-wracking that I shivered through the entire thing and walked out of the theater in serious need of some yoga. It’s the perfect filmic version of a creepy, thrilling, can’t-put-it-down book.

How ‘bout you? Do you have a favorite scene, or three?

JMM: Of course, I wouldn’t have asked if I hadn’t. The first is within the revenge scene — when she says, if the terms weren’t met or if she was harmed that the video would be uplifted to the net. Second, when Berger is at the cottage and she heads off to the bedroom, strips down, and asks Mikael if he’s coming to bed, and he gets up and heads in immediately. And Three — I think when Bjurman gets into the elevator and finds he’s locked up in a small space with Lisbeth. He probably figures she’s already got the stun gun in hand, so he can do nothing. It is here that Lisbeth tells him that if she finds him with another woman, she will kill him. That was my single favorite moment.

Didion: Oh! you’re too right about that elevator scene. My favorite part: that he was literally shaking in his boots during it — yet again the scene reversed the typical gender dynamics of such a moment, as it’s usually it’s the raped/traumatized woman who’s got to face her victimizer, which feels yet again like a kind of assault. Loved it.

So if I had to conclude, I’d say again: loved the film, loved Mara’s Lisbeth, loved the story-like-a-house-on-fire, loved the scenery/moodiness, loved the feminism. I’m so-so on Daniel Craig, chesty as he is. I’m not sure I’ll buy the DVD — I rarely do — but I’ll probably watch this film three more times when it comes out on DVD. One final thing: go see it in the theater, because it’s worth seeing all that snowy dark creepiness on a big screen. After seeing with only 12 other fans, I’m concerned it’s not going to hit the box office numbers it needs/deserves.

Any final thoughts?

JMM: I attribute the sparse crowds in your theater to the fact that it just a few days before Christmas. However that doesn’t explain the nearly packed theater that I saw the film in. I expect the numbers to increase post Christmas. But my brother did state that the survey stated that ¾ of the women surveyed were NOT hot to see the film. I’m sure I will buy the DVD.

I will also say that I loved the film too. Whether or not I think it is better than, same as, or less that the original is really a separate. question. My last thought was that the opening imagery was truly creepy – maybe this was a part of the reason you have used the word ‘creepy’ so often.   

Didion: So, JMM, here’s to a film that gets us all off to a very interesting start to the holiday season! Hope yours is full of eggnog and spice cookies and fattening foods, and less inflected with the rape/revenge/Nazism/terror of a Swedish winter with Lisbeth. I, for one, found this film to be a refreshing palate-cleanser for all the saccharine holiday movies and Little Drummer Boy music I’ve been hearing. And now I’m fully prepared for a happy visit with the family.

Feliz Navidad! and enjoy what I hope are easy travels, as this is a terrible time of year for travelling.

JMM: I wish you a happy holiday too. I’m hoping to avoid snow in Northern Connecticut. As for the holiday fattening foods, I probably won’t be able to avoid them. But I’m fairly certain I won’t seen any rapes or Nazis in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The War Horse, or Ghost Protocol.

Didion: That’s the best holiday wish of all: that we both might see some excellent new films. I’ll drink to that. Cheers, and I’ll see you on the flip side.

JMM: See ya! And have a cold one for me.

Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors?  “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters.  The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.”  Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen.  This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness.  Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.

Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard.  Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …).  The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre.  Other than that?  Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?

I can’t.  As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me:  ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively).  Get it?  Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved.  Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen?  And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?

If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months:  the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN).  At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations).  This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men.  Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.

If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät.  It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope:  shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while.  You know what?  I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.

So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women:  the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates.  They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).

Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
  3. Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
  6. Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.

Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?).  I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.

As during most summers, I haven’t found much more than a few films that pass The Bechdel Test — that is, a film 1) with two or more women in it, 2) who talk to each other, and 3) about something other than a man.  In fact, even some of the best ones pass only by a slim margin, like “Winter’s Bone” … and that was pretty far-flung from summer movie fare.

But then there’s “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the second installment of the Swedish film trilogy version of Steig Larsson’s three-volume Millennium series that has sold cadrillions of copies worldwide.  Look, don’t get the wrong idea:  this film is inferior to the first one, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and it gives only short shrift to some of my favorite parts of the novel, like Lisbeth’s relationship with Miriam Wu.  But c’mon, it’s a hot summer and our critical defenses are down, as we’re tacky with sunscreen and eager for a couple of cool hours inside a blessedly dark theater.  Saintlike, the brilliant character of Lisbeth Salander is fighting our battles for us, veering back and forth between her unparalleled tech savvy in hacking computers and kicking the asses of bad guys ten times her size. 

For me, the character of Lisbeth addresses head-on a lot of the problems I have with our otherwise limited range of female action heroes (and here I’m also thinking about recent comments by Snarky’s Machine and Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency).  She’s gay, she’s an intensely focused computer-smart researcher, she’s come through a horrific childhood of abuse, she’s barely 5 feet tall, and she doesn’t dress in clothes that send anyone mixed messages.  Her fury against men who hate women isn’t played for comic effect with a series of great one-liners; in fact, she’s very often silent, like the laconic heroes of old Westerns.  When her father abused her mother one too many times when Lisbeth was 12, she set him on fire.  She doesn’t try to get anyone to like her — and if there’s any message we can glean from this film, it’s that people like and trust her anyway.  Thinking about these things out loud is like Alison Bechdel articulating her Bechdel Test for films:  once you think about it and realize how few characters do much more than confirm men’s ideas about what makes a sexy or compelling woman, you want to become Lisbeth yourself.

Like I say, I’m not going to make any claims about the high quality of this film, which in some ways is a placeholder for the final film, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” (2009), which still has no release date set for the U.S. — a shame, as next year we’ll be subjected to David Fincher’s American remake of the first film, starring Daniel Craig as the muckraking journalist (depressed sigh).  The novels become increasingly focused on Lisbeth as they go along, and this film mirrored that tendency, delightfully.  As we left the theater last night, we burbled about all the parts of the novel that can’t help but make that final film better than this one.  As we wait for it, let’s all channel a little Lisbeth the next time that male colleague waits for you to laugh at his joke, one of those offensive Jim Beam commercials pops up on TV, or you feel a racial tension headache coming on from the latest right-wing nutbag ideas about repealing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  Ladies, turn on your computers and brush up on your kickboxing:  your skills may be needed soon.