So I woke up this morning to find it was 1° F outside. (That’s -17° C. Can we say “yikes!”?) Naturally, two things crossed my mind:

  1. (Sarcastically.) It’s really too bad the gym is closed and I’ll have to stay inside all day in my pyjamas.
  2. (Seriously.) Why is everyone calling Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady an “impersonation” of Margaret Thatcher?

I know, you’re thinking:

  1. What a geek.
  2. Yeah, why “impersonation”? Please tell me, Feminéma!
  3. It’s just a little cold — put on a few layers and go for a walk already, wimp.

Blogger JustMeMike pointed it out in his review of the film, noting the term’s appearance in virtually every review (just google it and you’ll see). “How come no one referred to Leonardo DiCaprioimpersonating’ J. Edgar (Hoover) in the same way?” he asks. Exactly!

Impersonation. It’s one of those terms that skirts between flattery (“an eerie job of inhabiting that real-life personage”) and a backhanded slam against such close attention to accent, appearance, and personal tics as less than true acting (“it’s only a parlor trick”).

It reminds me of the problem of the “uncanny valley” in modern 3D animation (I’m looking at you, Tintin) whereby audiences find themselves revulsed and disturbed when an animated character looks too realistic. Impersonators, after all, are the kinds of low-level entertainers who appear in Vegas or on Saturday Night Live. Impersonators emphasize exactitude rather than artistry. A great impersonation gets all the details right — but can’t go further to impress with real acting skill.

Let’s also remember that there are female impersonators — that category of campy performer who dresses as Liza Minnelli or Dolly Parton in order to get a lot of whoops from a drunken audience. These performers are not associated with manly acting talent.

As near as I can tell, those critics who are also good writers have used the term impersonation not to complain about Streep, but to contrast her strong performance with the utterly disappointing film. Roger Ebert writes, “Streep creates an uncanny impersonation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but in this film she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.” A. O. Scott likewise uses his flattery of Streep’s work as a rhetorical pivot to detail the film’s shortcomings. “Ms. Streep provides, once again, a technically flawless impersonation that also seems to reveal the inner essence of a well-known person,” he explains, before complaining about “the film’s vague and cursory treatment of her political career.” In other words, these writers seek to make it clear that Streep did what she could with a lame script.

Since then, however, critics who are less aware of their vocabulary’s connotations have jumped on the impersonation wagon to use it all the time in describing her role. “Meryl Streep’s performance as/ impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it,” writes Roger Moore. John O’Sullivan also admiringly notes that Streep’s “uncanny accuracy … goes beyond brilliant impersonation” in his piece for Radio Free Europe. These pieces blur the boundaries between impersonation and acting; yet my actor friends bristle at the notion that they are equivalent or that performing in the role of a real-life person demands impersonation. After all, numerous flattering reviews of My Week With Marilyn state something to the effect of, “Michelle Williams doesn’t so much impersonate Marilyn Monroe as suggest her.” None of these statements seem overtly to associate impersonation with acting that leaves something out. I truly don’t think these writers use the term to complain about Streep (or Williams, right), at least not consciously.

But this returns us to JMM’s question: why don’t these writers use the term impersonation when they discuss Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar (or, for that matter, his Howard Hughes from The Aviator)? Why wasn’t Michael Fassbender “impersonating” Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, or Colin Firth “impersonating” King George V in The King’s Speech, or Jesse Eisenberg “impersonating” Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?

Here I can only speculate, as I don’t know the inner souls of all these film critics, but I want to suggest that it can be attributed to an unconscious bias in favor of the superlative acting skills of male actors. An enormous percentage of published film critics in the US are male. Combine this with an industry seriously tilted toward male success and you have conditions within which even the most female-friendly critics are less inclined to celebrate an actress’s accomplishment without using terms with complex connotations. (Would a male critic really associate a male actor with the term impersonation so long as there are “female impersonators” out there?) This bias may be unconscious and not intended to express sexism, but we can see its effects nevertheless.

Until I started this blog and educated myself on the issues, I was unaware of the extent to which men dominate filmmaking and film criticism. It’s not just the fact that women appear onscreen less, behind the camera less, as producers less, as writers less — and that they get paid less overall. It’s also the more subtle things — the ways a woman’s subtle performance will get overlooked as male critics fall over themselves to praise her male co-star. The ways that female actors inhabit such a severely limited range of body types — I dare you to come up with the female equivalent of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, much less Cedric The Entertainer or Gérard Depardieu.

These critics may not be consciously demeaning Streep’s performance. But the term impersonation is not a wholly flattering description of what she does — if it were, we’d have seen it appear in reviews of men’s biopics.

Now, off for a walk while it’s still a balmy 11° F (-11.6° C).

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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.

A room with a view

13 September 2011

Once upon a time, an old friend let me use a seaside house she’d rented. I had a whole week to myself, and it was going to be a writing retreat during which, essentially, I would write my whole book. I set up my laptop and all my notes at the kitchen table, which had a view looking out over the sailboats, and then failed to concentrate on my writing for the entire week.

What is this fantasy of the room with a view? I am utterly, romantically dedicated to this fantasy, yet I’m also quite sure that as with my failed Rhode Island retreat, my own great views have been directly tied to periods of severe writer’s block. Give me a view, and I’ll daydream.For a single year in grad school I was given an office — my own office, a true luxury — and perhaps because it was a miserable, tiny, windowless room lit with a quite feeble fluorescent light, I wrote like a demon. To finish my book, I arranged myself at home with the desk facing a wall. Anytime I tried to move to the back porch or to that one coffee shop with a view of the river, the writing slowed to a standstill.

Yet the fantasy remains. I write, really write, in a tiny windowless cave of a room with lights that buzz. But when I go home I sit in a nice sunporch and try to read scholarly literature — and instead I stare out the window at the woods across the street.

Or I force myself through that draft of a chapter from a grad student by saving it for a rainy day, when the sunporch offers no view at all. Yet the romance of interiority of reading (“I am reading on a rainy day! I am cozily arranged under a comfy blanket with a cup of tea!”) takes over, and I feel so incapable of following the argument that I retreat to a less distracting room.

I can remember every great view I’ve had, especially the ones I had only briefly — glamorous cityscapes, charming neighborhood scenes, oceans, or that one time when my upstairs apartment seemed so surrounded by trees that it was like a treehouse. It was great. Just not for writing.

I’d like to suggest that our fantasies of rooms with views are cinematic — directly evocative of all the art and photography and film that portray individuals thinking and emoting while posed in glamorous windowsills. In front of each one of these images, we can imagine ourselves in that cinematic scene (of course A Room With a View was such a great central motif for a film). But the pleasures of looking are very different than concentrating and writing. Writing is a decidedly uncinematic act.

After The Social Network was released, someone brought up the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to portray cinematically the act of writing code on a computer screen. It’s just so dreary. Yet we insist on imagining that other forms of writing and reading can be romantic. And even though I should know better, I still hanker for a room with a view.

How does Black Swan lose Best Film Editing to The Social Network? Did you voters see these films? Do you understand what editing is? The editing of Black Swan was extraordinary — it made the film. Those claustrophobic shots quick-cut in rapid succession with the sounds of Natalie Portman’s ballet shoes hitting the floor and her breathing edited on top such that the film became a visceral experience. In contrast, The Social Network’s editing could have been done in any number of other ways without changing the terrific acting, dialogue, and directing.

One other note: the dresses were great this year. But on seeing Halle Berry’s gorgeous dress I couldn’t help but remember this great story in The Onion on the widening gap between best dressed and worst dressed from a few years ago. It explains that the Oscars show “in recent years a high concentration of couture in the hands of a few, with Halle Berry alone commanding over 57 percent of the nation’s supply of sexy yet exquisitely tasteful gowns.”

Living outside of New York, LA or Chicago means I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of this year’s critics’ picks for best film, like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Even given those gaps, however, I want to make an argument for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone as the year’s best film and as the right film for the award during a hard year of financial crisis and jobless recovery.

I could have chosen a film that exemplified the movies’ capacity to tell great stories that take us outside ourselves to that place of pleasure and wonder. Winter’s Bone might not have been so feel-good, but it was just as great a tale as Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, or The King’s Speech.  It made a better and more unpredictable thriller than Black Swan or A Prophet, and much, much better than The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, and Inception.

In my mind, its real battle is with David Fincher’s The Social Network, a battle it will surely lose. The Social Network benefits from a timely story, massive ticket sales, an all-star directing/writing/production team, and — let’s face it — the focus on dudes and those epic battles involving testosterone and enormous sums of money that make voters for the Academy cream their pants. In contrast, Winter’s Bone has a little-known female director and co-writer, an unknown female lead who doesn’t prettify herself, and an all-poverty setting in the Missouri Ozarks where meth dealing and squirrel-eating are ways of life. The film appeared in theaters all the way back in July rather than late this fall. In short: no matter how much it might be the better film, or at least just as good as The Social Network, Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a chance.

But here’s why we should vote for it: because it tells one of the real stories of 2010: of poor people clinging on by their fingernails. It doesn’t have lines like “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (And here I’m thinking about how much I objected last March to the fact that Sandra Bullock beat out Gabourey Sidibe for best actress — a choice that reveals our determination to feel good at the movies.) The story it tells — of a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together with a roof over their heads — doesn’t distract us from our own problems, sure, but that’s why the film’s terrific storytelling and perfect cast are so crucial. The fact that she succeeds in the end makes it even more appealing for our troubled times than the deeply ambivalent conclusion of The Social Network.

I have other reasons for pushing the film. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker, 2010 turned out to be a comparatively great year for female directors — with Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Coppola, and Granik releasing top-notch films. But unlike last year, there’s little grassroots movement to push female-directed films into the top level of competition for an Oscar, no matter how superior their films might be. For me, the battle isn’t won until women are nominated more often, and when women directors get nominated for films that have women in them. (Just like it was great in 1981 to get the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice with Sandra Day O’Connor, but even better when Ruth Bader Ginsberg brought a feminist consciousness to the Court in 1993, a choice that truly benefited other women.)

  • Best film:  Winter’s Bone
  • Best director:  Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone
  • Best female actor:  Kim Hye-ja for Mother (Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  • Best male actor:  Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
  • Best female supporting actor:  Dale Dickey for Winter’s Bone
  • Best male supporting actor:  Matt Damon for True Grit

I have more to say about what a great year it was for interesting female parts and terrific female acting — my choices for best actress and supporting actress were really hard to narrow down, whereas Firth simply has no competition for best actor. But that’ll wait till another time. In the meantime I’m going to keep arguing for Winter’s Bone, and I hope you do too.

Who knows what possessed them to do so, but when I was about ten my parents sat me down to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.  If it was cotton candy for its 1935 audiences, it was no less so for me:  I was riveted by everything from the corny jokes to those awkward segues into elegant Irving Berlin songs to that famous dress made of feathers in which Ginger dances cheek to cheek with Fred.  Even all these years later I can’t quite put my finger on why the ten-year-old me found this Depression-era relic so compelling — yet the quest to plumb what movies mean to us is irresistible.  In my case it was Fred & Ginger who began a lifelong love of film, and for some reason I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing the Coen brothers’ True Grit last night.  Clearly, my tastes now run much darker than they did when I was ten, but I still find myself moved beyond easy explanation by this tale.  (And what can I say?  I’m perversely entertained by the contrast of the two films.)

There’s an awful lotta road between them, but I’ll talk your ear off over a few beers to convince you that these films are both about the joy of watching movies.  Whereas John Wayne dominated the 1969 original, the Coens people their story with much more modest actors such that the film focuses on telling a great tale.  And what a tale it is. 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes to town looking for someone to track down a man named Chaney (Josh Brolin) who killed and robbed her father, and she chooses U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man later referred to as “a one-eyed fat man.”  Cogburn drinks too much, kills too many of the men he was supposed to pick up, and might even cheat Mattie out of the $50 she gives him to start looking — but she believes he has the true grit for the job.  Things get more complicated when a self-aggrandizing (yet oddly self-conscious) Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) shows up hunting the same guy, determined to take Chaney back for some Texas justice rather than to Mattie’s home of Yell County, Arkansas.  And we’re off.  (I could say so much more about the terrific 13-year-old actor Steinfeld, but I want to emphasize here that this is truly an ensemble cast — part of her gift is knowing that she’s part of a triumvirate.  She’s already won eight supporting actor awards for her part [sidebar: why supporting?  that’s downright insulting] and has been nominated for a pile of other prizes, so I’m hardly the first to notice.)

Maybe this sounds like it combines every Western cliché you’ve ever heard of (in a genre that loves clichés), but don’t quit on me now.  It’s got the best dialogue I’ve heard since the Coens’ last 15 movies, except without the cussin’.  The Coens wrote the screenplay without using many contractions, leading to such locutions as “He has abandoned me to a congress of louts” — conversation that only gets funnier when it’s ricocheting between the whipsmart Mattie, the growling Rooster, and the slightly out-of-his-league La Boeuf, and funnier yet again when La Boeuf’s lines are slurred due to badly biting his own tongue in a tussle.  The Coens love three-way dialogue; just remember the exchanges between Donnie, Walter, and the Dude in The Big Lebowski or between Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to remember the greatness.  But I’m not sure it’s ever been as even-handedly delicious as in True Grit.  In an early scene the two men sit on their horses, watching the indomitable Mattie charge across a roaring river on her horse with only her head and her horse’s above water; Cogburn says dryly, “By God.  She reminds me of me,” to which La Boeuf responds, “Well then, we might just not get along.”  The relations between the three are always strained, just enough to keep the barbs flying.  Except when Rooster’s drunk, anyway — then he simply resorts to long-winded retellings of past adventures.  It’s at those moments when you feel no tension between the three main characters that you get anxious that the story is about to plunge us deep into a tight spot.

Great storytelling, terrific visuals, three equally great main characters held in perfect equilibrium, and that sparkling dialogue that gives The Social Network and Aaron Sorkin a run for the money — but those aren’t the only reasons why this movie made me think so much about why I love movies.  It’s something else, a magician’s gift for sleight-of-hand.  True Grit keeps distracting you with one thing and then producing rabbits from nearby hats — plot twists, a little gruesome bloodletting, a surprise appearance by a bad guy, a shoot-off.  Whereas some films practically flag that left hand working sneakily off to one side (hello, the utterly disappointing The Ghost Writer — how did that end up on so many best-of lists?), in this one I simply settled back to let the words, scenes, characters, and conflicts wash over me.  When Cogburn stands over the bruised body of La Boeuf and curses, “Damn that Texan; when you need him, he’s dead,” we’re relieved to find out he’s wrong — but your mind gets stuck on that sweet line, wishing you’d thought of it first.

A long time ago I saw Smoke in a Cambridge theater and throughout the film some jackass behind me kept turning to his friend saying, “I’m really enjoying this, aren’t you?”  As annoyed as I was, I know what he meant.  Sometimes a film creates a whole world that you just succumb to, childlike, without trying too hard to second-guess outcomes.  The words are so great and so unusual that you run them over your tongue like hard candy, and you let yourself get swept up.  That was my experience of True Grit, and that was my experience of Top Hat all those many years ago.  Don’t get me wrong:  True Grit isn’t a cheery movie with a Fred & Ginger outcome; I could say much more about the Coens’ love of cynicism and other themes that dominate their films, but that’ll have to wait for another day.  Still, I walked out of the film feeling buttressed up, somehow.  Maybe it’s because the new school year’s beginning and I could use some true grit myself.  Maybe I just need to take a tip from Rooster, who was partial to pulling a cork for comfort.  On these gloomy early January days — dark even here in the normally sunny Texas — we could use a tale that takes us outside of ourselves.

Here’s what I’ll take for granted for the rest of this piece:  this is a tight, fascinating film about a Citizen Kane-type character capable of extraordinary brilliance, caustic wit, and whiplash-inducing revenge.  As anti-heroes go, Jesse Eisenberg’s rendition of Mark Zuckerberg ranks up at the very top with Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II.  You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard already that the writing is vintage-crisp Aaron Sorkin, the directing is vintage-creepy David Fincher, and (less discussed) the editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall makes it feel like an action movie rather than what might otherwise have been a ponderous, “Rashomon”-like multiple-viewpoint meditation.  It’s great — a really good movie.  But I want to talk about its depictions of manliness and women, which are alternately profound and utterly tossed off.  Guess who gets tossed off?  To cut to the chase:  I think it’s more useful to think about this as a love story between men.

In his interview last week with Aaron Sorkin Stephen Colbert commended him on the opening scene, in which Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara), who is breaking up with him, have a conversation that’s more like a boxing match than a typical film conversation:  they’re two exceptionally sharp and flinty characters, and she can’t stand him anymore.  Yet, as Colbert noted with the kind of forthrightness we wish we’d see elsewhere, “The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say because they’re high or drunk or [bleep]ing guys in the bathroom.  Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?”  In response, Sorkin hawed for a moment, then copped to it:  “The other women are prizes.”

Colbert and Sorkin weren’t joking.  As much as this breakup matters to the story, women in general are utterly objectified by these Harvard men, primarily serving to propel the story forward only when they prove to be crazy, underage, or appearing briefly to utter something true, as Rashida Jones’ character does near the end.  (Sidebar:  I maintain that last is more an example of the Magical Negro trope [as Spike Lee and Dave Chappelle have most brilliantly laid it out]; it’s no accident that Jones’ character is not just sexually unavailable to Zuckerberg but, famously, mixed-race:  her real-life father is Quincy Jones.)  To be clear, none of the objectification of women is criticized by the film; the fact that beautiful women throw themselves in the way of powerful men is portrayed as one of the natural by-products of a man’s arrival to popularity or status.  The way the film treats women of Asian descent is especially abhorrent, using the cheapest stereotypes in the book.  Women are forgettable, throwaway prizes, like a ribbon or a certificate or a trophy-ette one puts on a shelf.  Granted, these are prizes one can [bleep] in the bathroom; the point is, what matters is the competition between men to get those prizes.

And that’s what I love about Fincher’s movies:  as much as he often finesses his female characters, he’s brilliant when it comes to subtly tracing the alternately loving, eerie, homoerotic, or twisted aspects of men’s relationships with one another.  I still think Fincher’s “Fight Club” (1999) remains one of the best analyses of 20th-century manhood we’ve got.  Okay, an easy criticism here would be, “Great — yet another elaboration of manhood.  We sure didn’t have enough of those.”  Don’t worry:  I’ll advance that criticism of a lot of those other films, but not this one.  As much as I throw up my hands at its treatment of women, “The Social Network” is punctuated with moments that reveal Zuckerberg’s complex relationships with men, relationships that could appear in Eve Sedgwick’s formative, brilliant academic work, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, published back in the early 90s.  Men’s relationships with each other are perhaps of primary importance, Sedgwick suggested, as it is there that men find their most likely access to both financial reward and prestige — but also to fraternal bonds that may matter just as much as material advancement.  For part of the film, the main affective relationship is between Zuckerberg and his wealthy best friend from Harvard, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield); yet when Zuckerberg meets the power-prettyboy-Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a terrific casting decision), he falls just a little bit in love, and the chips fall from there.  Tenured Radical calls Parker Zuckerberg’s “soul mate,” an utterly accurate depiction.

It’s no surprise that Zuckerberg struggles with a social life, as he seems inherently antisocial in an Asperger’s way.  He wants more than anything to be “punched” to be a prospective member of one of Harvard’s prestigious final clubs; too bad he’s so unattractive on so many levels.  (“Punched”!  honestly.  No one could invent material this apt.)  Saverin, however, does get punched — prompting Zuckerberg to respond with an almost manic, nasty combination of derision and predictions of his ultimate failure to make the final cut.  Those ugly personal qualities beg the question whether Zuckerberg is driven at least partly by revenge when, asked by an elite group of finals club men to create a social network website for them, Zuckerberg steals the idea and creates what he calls at first TheFacebook.  He basically treats everyone as falling on a spectrum from stupid to objectionable; but when TheFacebook proves to be wildly popular and he’s getting pressured to find ways to make it profitable, Sean Parker appears to offer advice and direction for the young startup.  Parker is eminently cool and easy with women, both things that Zuckerberg can envy from his lonely perch; more important, Parker articulates with exceptional clarity the college kid’s vague thoughts that hadn’t yet cohered into a game plan.  It’s like a classic love story:  Saverin hates the new guy, but Zuckerberg is willing to listen to every word, even when it leads to pushing Saverin out, and it’s that breakup that ultimately becomes the central tale in this story.

So it comes down to this:  why does a film that says so many smart things about manliness and power have to rely on debasing women?  Women are never irrelevant to the dramas between men; they help to remind love stories like this one that we’re not talking about homosexuality per se, or even a homoeroticism that any of its characters would recognize as such.  “Fight Club” was much more explicit about the erotic bond between Jack (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  Here, the erotic tones are covered over with triumphal uses of women as objects — affirmations of heterosexuality, yes, but affirmations that help to confirm emotional bonds between men.

On a different note, I asked my students this week if they were planning to see “The Social Network,” and one of whom exploded and said, “No way!  There’s no way I’m giving that guy any more money!”  He continued to insist, despite mild protests by his peers, that Zuckerberg would find a way to reap millions from it.  I think he’s right.