Archive for August, 2010

A Film Unfinished (2010)

DAS GHETTO (1942)

A question often asked is how did the nation that produced Goethe, Brahams and Rilke also produce Goering, Himmler and Hitler?  Another question one could ask is what is the connection between literary genius and the fascist infatuation with what they though of as “objectivity?”  Nazi “objectivity” was the act of  appropriating reality and reconfiguring it into propaganda.  Coincidentally, when I went to see A Film Unfinished (2010), I was reading the new book, The German Genius, just out this year by Peter Watson.  Watson took on the task of explaining how in just one hundred fifty years, German culture jumped from Immanuel Kant to Adolph Hitler and I took a break from his chapters on the Nazis to go to this remarkable film within a film. The “film” referred to in the title is an unfinished fragment, edited, but never completed, of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Nazi camera crews entered into the ghetto in May of 1942, mere months before the inhabitants were transported to Treblinka.  For reasons that will be forever unknown, the distorted record of the last days of the lives of the Jews was never completed, leaving us with a mystery.

Made in Israel, directed and written by Yael Hersonski, this film is an attempt to explain the Nazi film of the Ghetto.  We are not alone in our viewing of the unfinished footage; we are joined by three Holocaust survivors, called “witnesses,” who lived in the Ghetto when they were children.  The German counterpoint to America’s much lauded Greatest Generation would be the most Guilty Generation, the perpetrators of nameless and unthinkable crimes.  Many books, including that of Watson, have recounted the post war wall of silence, the communal refusal to discuss life under Hitler.  I have even seen documentaries in which the aging criminals, ordinary Germans, who still have no guilt, were still defensive of their actions.  But as Sigmund Freud pointed out a century ago, guilt may deferred and repressed, but it exists and is acted out. In 1975,  Alexander and Margarete Mistcherlich applied Freud’s thesis to the Germans after the revelations of the Holocaust.  Their “inability to mourn” resulted  in a generation of deeply melancholic people. Germany cannot mourn for its sins and its citizens are condemned to be trapped in melancholia until the people come to terms with their crimes.  But most of these perpetrators are dead by now and the remainder is fast dying out.  We must assume they have told us as much as they were willing. And yet, after thousands of books, war crimes trials, Survivor testimony, and filmed accounts, we are no closer to answering the question: how could the human soul be so dark?

The narrator of A Film Unfinished begins with commenting upon the Nazi obsession with the visual, with recording their history, including their most heinous crimes against humanity.  The film, titled “Das Ghetto,” was rediscovered in a concrete vault in the mountains in East German territory, and later extra color footage and outtakes were also located.  The identities of all but one filmmaker are lost and the participants are probably dead by now.  The structure of the film demonstrates a sub text of guilt projected onto the victims who have  no choice but to be receiving screens for racist hatred.  In a Ghetto of starving people, lying down and dying on the sidewalks, the Nazis managed to round up the few Jews who could afford to eat, who still had some meat on their bones, and forced them to be “actors” in the “objective” and completely fictitious account of  Jewish life in the Ghetto.  Here, in Warsaw, the film insists, Jews are living in luxury, enjoying their elegant spacious new homes.  In reality a half million people are crowded into a few acres, separated from the rest of the city by a wall.  Beyond this wall, in Aryan Warsaw, life goes on as usual, while on the other side of the structure, hell exists on earth.

According to the witnesses, the intention of the Nazis seemed to have been to picture the Jews as being divided between the uncaring rich and the suffering poor and/or as aliens who indulged in strange folk practices.  Well-fed Jews are compared to starving Jews; well-dressed, “indifferent” Jews are forced, as the editing process shows, in take after take, to walk past corpses.  Rabbis are forced to “demonstrate” a circumcision on a tiny newborn, and leading members of the community are gathered together in an elegant funeral procession.  Nude men and women are forced to participate in ritual immersions.  A woman is asked to pull aside a quilt to disclose a young girl in a bed, lying still in starvation, waiting to die.  Internal contradictions to the Nazi argument are freely filmed.  A group of young children caught smuggling food into a ghetto supposedly full of food are forced to shake vegetables out of their clothes.  Countering the elegant funeral hearse is a scene where Jewish workers come to collect a pair of corpses left out on the street by their families.  The wagon full of corpses is then followed to a “shed” filled with many bodies, which are then hauled off and dumped into a mass grave.  Apparently the Nazis never considered the possibility that the intended audience might have taken into account the fact that the Jews were incarcerated in a Ghetto on their own government’s orders.  Only Hitler could condemn the Jews to death, but the film blames the Jews for their own slow deaths.

The film was never finished and one wonders why it was even made.  Himmler, the master propagandist knew full well that the German public preferred wartime escapism.  Earlier attempts at graphic or crude attacks on Jews were not successful, and this film of the Ghetto would have been extremely offensive to any audience.  Another reason for putting the film away, aside from its horrifying content, was that the entire Ghetto would have been wiped out by the time of its release.  This was a Ghetto that did not give up its condemned easily and an uprising broke out in April and May of 1943, and a Jewish resistance turned the Ghetto into a war zone.  It is quite possible that authorities decided that the less said about the Warsaw Ghetto the better.  The most curious aspect of this film is the strange combination of visuality—how they filmed everything, apparently without flinching—and blindness—-how the filmmakers utterly failed to see what they, the Nazis, had done to the Jews…. even as they were filming the results of their own actions and the horror.

Today such a film seems to be nothing short of madness, but in its attempts to reflect the guilt back on the Jews as deserving their own fate only mirror the sentiments of many Germans for decades after the war.  Watson discussed the impact of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin upon Germany.  The idea of the “survival of the fittest” was horribly twisted against the Jews: they died because they deserved to die.  Perhaps the most difficult sights one must endure in this film is that of children who have somehow lost their parents.  They seem to be under six, but it is hard to tell the age of a child starving alone in the streets.  Sometimes the children grouped together—perhaps they were siblings—and lean against a building, waiting for their tiny lives to end.  The witnesses admit to a communal indifference to the suffering of others, who were outside their family circle.   But it is clear that indifference is part of survival and that loss of humanity is part of staying alive.

Peter Watson’s book, The German Genius, discussed one of the key elements of German philosophy, the introduction of the concept of a critical analysis.  In her review of this film in The New York Times, Jeannette Catsolusis, remarked that the director “embarks on a critical analysis of Das Ghetto,” and one cannot but be struck with the irony of an Israeli using the methods of German philosophers against the very Nazis who appropriated the great names of their tradition and sullied them by associating thinkers with the Nazis. A classical philosophical critique is the close reading of a document, which reveal its structure.  Classic deconstruction of a document is a close reading, which extends critique to seek out the inconsistencies that disrupt the intention of the author. Rarely has a piece of writing (if we can dignify the Nazi film by putting it into the category of “literature”) so turned against itself.  The graphic images of the condemned, the dying and the dead cancel out any possible propaganda effects.  A Film Unfinished is not for children and young people should be cautioned but this film is rarity: a preserved German-made record of their own loss of humanity.  The film, unfinished or no, is a document of guilt; it is an admission by the perpetrators of their unimaginable crimes.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Rubicon, Summer Season (2010) AMC

CROSSING THE RUBICON

AMC is giving HBO and Showtime a run for their money with Rubicon, the most recent in a series of truly remarkable shows.  The network started out modestly enough with a British show, Hustle, followed by the original dramas, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  Rubicon is just as gloomy and dystopic, just as cynical and hopeless as its predecessors.  In other words Rubicon is in keeping with the downbeat end-times we live in.  That said Rubicon is different from other cable shows.  It lacks the brightly colored spectacle of Sixties fashion and décor and sexism and racism and homophobia and anti-Semitism that makes Mad Men so horrifyingly compelling.  It also lacks the crazed frenetic energy that animates the ill-fated partners in crime in Breaking Bad. The first three series are all about rule breakers: Hustle and Breaking Bad are about criminals we learn to like, and Mad Men is about the last days of social and sexual immorality without consequences.  Rubicon is all about keeping the peace, by waging war, a job done by a strange team of idealists and the bottom and cynics at the top.

Rubicon is slow and majestic in its careful pace, mimicking the underwater occupation of the hero, “Will Travers,” a low key, depressed intelligence operative working modestly on the downlow.  Played by James Badge Dale, who was in The Pacific with a good role in an otherwise boring series,  “Will” works for one of those black box agencies that operate off the books and fight to be free of congressional scrutiny.  When his father-in-law and boss, “David Hadas” (Peter Gerety) is murdered, “Will” sets off on a quest to solve the mystery of his death.  Scattered along the way are clues in scrawled in crosswords, hidden in motorcycle seats, and left behind with a four-leaf clover, and “Will” must follow and decrypt these enticing suggestions for many weeks to come.

On one hand this is a classic conspiracy film.  Yes, there is a vast right wing conspiracy out there; possibly rich white men who are the unseen but felt power exercised  behind the empty throne of the American government.  No other group is so rich or so powerful—certainly not people of color and certainly not women—and no other group has such vested interests to protect.  In the case of the minor players, these men are called lobbyists or financiers or corporate CEOs, and they are the ones who run the country according to their own interests.  We all know that.  Rubicon suggests that there is yet another layer of secret power and manipulation of world affairs by a subterranean group we only dimly sense. But on the other hand, the series is about what the British called, The Great Game, the cat and mouse contest called spying.

This is a terrain left over from a 1960s black and white Cold War thriller, like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965). The agency in question is API, which claims to have access to all intelligence and can, therefore, find the truth, or something like it.  The agency is located in an unmarked building located on a non-descript street in an unidentifiable part of New York City, where the sun never shines and it is always night.  There is no James Bond, there is no Q, there is no M.  There is no flash and dash at this agency where “intelligence” is at least something the agents attempt to demonstrate.

As another reviewer put it, the whole show has the old-fashioned look of Three Days of the Condor from the 1970s.  There is a retrograde and nostalgic atmosphere to the sets and the actors.  The agents are intellectual and tortured nerds who are paid to talk and think.  It is shocking when some kind of technology, like a computer or a television set, is revealed. In this universe, people use actual reports on actual paper, stuffed in actual paper folders.  Regardless of the fact that one of the current “enemies” is the entire Middle East, everyone seems to be white and European.  Perhaps there is an Africa group with real African experts, but we haven’t seen those people yet.  The ones in power at API are overwhelming old and white and male.  The few women are wives, secretaries, and newcomers to API.  Since the Fifties, time has barely moved.  Men rule and America is still fencing with its enemies, all whom are playing The Great Game.  Except for the terrorists.

On a recent episode, technology—albeit unseen—entered in to an episode.  The team of analysts, Tanya (Lauren Hodges), who has a pill and alcohol problem, Grant (Christopher Evan Welch), who is sulking because he is not the team leader, and Miles (Dallas Roberts), who has lost his wife and children to divorce must decide on whether or not to recommend a drone strike.  These otherwise ordinary individuals, people just like us, must decide whether or not to take out their terrorist target, a dangerous man, we are told.  The target is yet another leader of some terrorist group, hiding among women and children in a civilian zone.  Terrorists have a long history of forcing the Americans to kill many helpless and vulnerable people in order to kill a few “evildoers.”  The somewhat distracted team is working blind, with little intelligence, and is leading the blind, a pilot, who controls the drone from thousands of miles away from the kill zone.  In the end, the team comes to terms with its scruples and recommends that the terrorist leader be disposed of.

Although using drones is a less expensive way to fight the so-called War on Terror, such strikes cause collateral damage and innocent victims die.  The terrorists have created a trap for Americans who are forced to struggle between national principles and what they think is wartime necessity.  The “Rubicon” that separated military and civilian targets was crossed during the Spanish Civil War when the Luftwaffe bombed Guernica in 1936 or in World War II when the Germans bombed London in 1940.  After that, it was an eye for an eye, ending with Hiroshima five years later.  Still, the deaths of innocent victims of the War on Terror are, ironically, few enough for us to focus on, and photographs of the deaths stir the consciences of Americans.  What the intelligence officers at API are doing is fighting a war.   The mere analysis of data and the resulting recommendations have life and death consequences.  Although fought at a clinical distance, this new kind of war has oddly personal blowback.

The War on Terror is not really a “war” and should not have been named as such.  Terror does not respond well to military solutions.  Terrorists are not enemy combatants but shadows who dart in and out of hiding, melting into the general population.  “Terror” by its very definition depends upon unexpected and unpreventable attacks on innocent and random civilians.  And yet, we delude ourselves that we can prevent “terror.”  The teams at API are on the front lines of an undefined battlefield where the best targets are the leaders and instigators, single individuals.  Traditional battles are a waste of time, money and lives and cannot touch the triggers of terrorism itself.   Under these conditions, targeted assassinations, debated in Rubicon, surely make sense and it is certainly cheaper to employ someone like the assassin in  The Day of the Jackal (1973) to  “take out” certain individuals.  Terrorism, by definition, does not lend itself well to invasion; it yields much better to infiltration by a network of spies.  But we cannot infiltrate the ranks of the terrorists.  As one character remarked, “Our intelligence is lousy.”  The question is why?

The American government surely has access to a large and assimilated population of Islamic Americans.  Here in Orange County, there are many Arabs.  I just spent fifteen minutes with a lovely Muslim woman at my local bank, who helped me open a new CD.  It is unclear to me the extent the government has cultivated these citizens to fight terrorism.  But one of the answers to the question of why our intelligence on the ground is so bad could be our unremitting hostility to the Arab world, even to Muslim Americans who have been loyal citizens.  The latest cable news firestorm or fake debate is swirling around the misnamed “Ground Zero Mosque.”  The false controversy is but one of many aggressive stances towards Arab American citizens who have suddenly become the “outsider.”   Ignorant and credulous people are whipped into an ill-advised frenzy to appease whatever anxieties the general public has about the “Other.”

To attack our homegrown Muslims—even verbally—seems counter-intuitive.  If I were in charge, and I am not; I would be in every mosque and community center that serves Islam and I would be recruiting Arab intelligence officers.  During the height of the Second World War, military recruiters went into the Japanese internment camps and signed up the best and the bravest soldiers ever, the fabled 442 Infantry Regiment.  There was no one more loyal to their country, America, than these Japanese-American soldiers.  These Japanese men were eager to prove their loyalty and they suffered far greater consequences due to their ethnicity than have Arab Americans—loss of property, businesses, possessions, and years in camps.

True, Muslim Americans have endured “only” verbal slurs, but why would any self-respecting Arab want to work for a nation that routinely vilifies you and your religion?   Why would any Muslim in the Middle East have any confidence in American motives?  Tragically, Americans are fighting and dying to give the people of Islam a better life, while at home, Americans are denying them the First Amendment.  If I were ethnically Arab, I would be tempted to keep a low profile in such a poisonous atmosphere.  So America fights in the dark, without intelligence, without our most valuable natural assets, many of whom we have alienated.  As I write, the last American troops are leaving Iraq.  Soon most of the American boots on the ground will be gone from Afghanistan, if only because we have run out of money.  We will revert to the kind of war suggested by Vice-President Biden, a war of strategic strikes via drones and fought by small groups of commandos.  Although we have thousands of Arab Americans who would be proud to help stamp out terrorist groups, they must be discouraged by the lack of support at home.  One can only imagine what the troops in Afghanistan must think of how Americans are undermining their position in the war.

Rubicon, in Episode 4, was grounded in reality.  “Will” and his boss go to Washington to protect their privileged agency, while “Will’s” team tried to decide how many women and children must die to kill one man.  And all with “lousy intelligence.”  One of the great things President George Bush did was to speak out against the persecution of American citizens who were Muslim.  President Barack Obama has likewise taken a principled stand on behalf of religious freedom.  Rubicon seems intent on following the obscure murder mystery tour, which will unravel another vast conspiracy. While we do love conspiracies, because they explain so much, Rubicon might do a better and more interesting job if it grounded itself in the real world moral and ethical dilemmas of contemporary spy craft.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

The Switch (2010)

THE SWITCH (2010) TURNS ON A FEW SMILES

Even though I am a Jennifer Aniston fan, ordinarily, I would never go see this kind of film.  But I got a free ticket and there I was, watching a chick flick.  I have written elsewhere (Garb. A Fashion and Culture Reader) about how these films are socially regressive and fix women into their proper place: barefoot and pregnant and married.  Which, in this film, happens in that order.  The only missing plot device is the woman losing her job (What Women Want) or her business (You’ve Got Mail) before she gets her man.  In The Switch, Jennifer Aniston is forty with no prospects of marriage and decides to have a baby.  Her reasoning is that her biological clock is ticking, she doesn’t need a husband, and that she has a good job.  OK.  Her Best Friend, Jason Bateman, is an appealing eunuch and there is not even the remotest degree of chemistry between them.  Ergo, “Kassie” decides to find a sperm donor, someone she has met and approves of.  For some reason, “Roland,” played by Patrick Wilson, complies with her request and “donates” the “ingredient…and his wife lets him.  Now that is a marriage in trouble.  “The Switch” takes place when the aptly named “Wally” spills the seed donated by “Roland” down the bathroom sink and must replace—switch it—with his own, gathered according to Diane Sawyer (don’t ask).

The result is merriment, which proceeds to ensue.  “Kassie,” of course, gets pregnant, with “Wally’s” baby, but she thinks the child is from “Roland.”   She then moves to the Midwest, giving up her good job, because New York City is a bad place to raise a child.  Time passes but without consequences.  “Wally” works as a hedge fund consultant and he lives through the Wall Street Crash with his job intact.  He seems to work for “Leonard,” Jeff Goldblum, being his usual eccentric self.  Why “Leonard” still has a job, much less a company, or why he has hired such an unlikely financial expert as “Wally” remains a mystery.  “Leonard” also allows “Wally” unlimited access to him and is available for all kinds of sensitive guy talk.  We need the new Gordon Gekko film, Wall Street. Money: Never Sleeps to bring the Real Men back into the gambling casinos, also known as hedge funds.

Time-lapse photography encodes the passage of the years as the odd couple lives apart but still not married.  There is a nice blind date bit about how strange it is  that “Wally” has not married yet, but, then, he is such a loser.  “Kassie” returns to New York—new job offer—with the child of “Roland” (really “Wally”), the gloomy and neurotic “Sebastian,” beautifully portrayed by Thomas Robinson.  Seven years have passed and the truth of who the real father is must be revealed, which it will, all in due course.  But not until all obstacles have been removed from forming the family that was always meant to be.

The film is sweet and forgettable, salvaged only by the lovely parent-child relationships and the charming child.  There is a much better movie hiding behind stock characters, the best girlfriend who must be ethnic, the worthy but boring boyfriend, and his too handsome to be real rival.  Although the couple works on Wall Street and in the media business, financial meltdowns and the partisanship that is contaminating television, leaves the characters untouched.  Although roomy apartments in New York City cost thousands a month, none of the characters have any money worries.  Although, taking care of a child is time consuming, both characters seem to be on call for little “Sebastian,” and there is no nanny in sight.  One can only wonder what the interjection of reality could have done for an otherwise anemic film.  Glad this movie was free.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Salt (2010)

BACK TO THE FUTURE: SALT (2010)

Having taken aboard a surplus of estrogen after Eat Pray Love (2010), I felt a desperate need for a dash of testosterone.  I rushed out to get some Salt (2010) and feel much more balanced now. Thank you, Angelina Jolie.  It is obvious that this film was originally intended for a male lead, Tom Cruise, and was only slightly altered for a woman.  Jolie, a very tough lady, makes a very credible action star.  The plot, the masochistic and persecuted wronged man theme, is one typically used for male protagonists, who, of course, are always vindicated in the end.  This tried and true storyline is deeply psychological in that it satisfies the lingering male childhood traumas of being bullied in school.  The adolescent male yearns to be the hero in his fantasies and the victim-vindication dream remains powerful, well into adulthood.

Changing the protagonist from a male to a female had interesting consequences.  When a woman is being prosecuted, in female-based dramas, it is usually by someone in her close circle, such as her husband.  She has to be isolated for the purposes of the plot, and she cannot have friends or family, or community support systems.  This isolation is necessary, because she must have no place to turn but to the Next Man, her new love interest.  Women’s films are consumed with “creating the couple,” to borrow the term from a book of the same name by film critic, Virginia Wexman.  However, in this film, the husband of Evelyn Salt is kidnapped and killed, eliminating him from the couple equation.  I have no information as to just how many changes were made in the script by Kurt Wimmer to accommodate a woman in the lead, but killing off the spouse fits into the narrative line for a male protagonist.   A dead wife sets the male lead free and allows the men in the theater to enter into the fantasy of freedom and the women in the audience to desire the hero.  The dead wife is also a frequent motive for revenge of the husband.

However, once the husband is dead, then the villain becomes obvious, because Liev Schreiber, the other big star, does not try to save Salt.  From the start, the audience, familiar with the female plot line, realizes that he is the villain because he sides with the boys in the Agency.  Evelyn Salt, Russian mole, was turned into a loyal American by love—now that is a female specific story line.  Furthermore, the death of “Mike Krause” (August Diehl), her spider scientist husband,  gives Salt the motivation for revenge against those who executed him before her eyes.  Except for the slight chin tremble when her husband is shot, Salt is as stoic and as action oriented as any man.  The bulk of the film is all run and gun, impossible leaps and falls, crazy car chases, paralytic spider venom, and a rudely interrupted funeral.  For the most part, it is Jolie who keeps this familiar “Bourne” formula  (except maybe for the spider) fresh and compelling.  Like Jason Bourne, there is nothing she cannot do—she can run, climb walls, hop down an elevator shaft, shoot and kick and punch, and she’s nice to dogs.

What makes the formulaic film interesting is that, Bourne special effects aside, this movie is totally retrograde.  If you shake and stir the film, add in the spider, suddenly the plot morphs into something rather like James Bond.  The evil Russian villain escapes with a Rosa Klebb move from From Russia with Love (1963).  Like Rosa, he has sharp knives that dart out of his shoe tips and he stabs his guards and flees.  The longing of the Cold War is palatable in Salt.  The Evil Empire can strike again, thanks to many, many mole children who have been planted, like little seedlings, here and there, in key positions in the American government like Gregory Peck’s Boys From Brazil (1978). Of course, the “boys from Brazil” were new little Nazis and there is another nod to Nazi films in the idea of faux American operatives.  The 1965 film, 36 Hours starred James Garner as an American soldier who had knowledge of the Normandy Invasion and was put in fake American hospital to induce him to reveal the “secrets” to a (Nazi) psychiatrist.   One could go on in this vein and find even more recycled plots but all the elements have one thing in common—there is a major identifiable enemy who is “like us.”

By the end of Salt, nuclear war is imminent and the countdown is on.  What a relief!  Symmetrical warfare.  Real weapons, no more stupid cowardly car bombs.  We can nuke each other again!   The Russian President was apparently assassinated by Salt and the Russians are angry.  Without hesitation, the President (now white and tall and young—very Sixties) does not hesitate to launch a nuclear strike and the countdown begins.  The film combines the current Republican talking point about “Terror Babies,” who will infiltrate the country and blow us up in some unknown future,  with the joys of having an enemy that stays in one place (Russia) and doesn’t move to Yemen, and knows how to play the game, fair and square.  All of this Cold War nostalgia is too good to waste.  We know there are more Salt movies to come because “Evelyn” could easily be declared innocent once the President wakes up and explains that it was the other bad guy who tried to kill him.  But remember, it took Jason Bourne three films to sort out his problems.

Salt will return. The last scenes show that Salt, who has been arrested for many crimes—-all done for her country, America—-has convinced Agent Peabody (the indispensible Chiwetel Ejiofor) that she is the Good Girl (that didn’t translate well from Good Guy, but that is our language—gender challenged). She warns him that there are many more Russian moles out there, “Far more than you and I can take care of,” she says.  Peabody allows her to escape.  Salt jumps out of a helicopter and swims, a long, long way, to shore and freedom.  Is there anything this girl cannot do?  Hooray! The Russian Bear is out of Hibernation. The Vindication Fantasy is complete and now we need to get to the Revenge Fantasy.   Sequel, anyone?

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Eat Pray Love (2010)

EAT, LOVE, and PRAY….TO A MUCH BETTER GOD

What can one say about Eat Pray Love?  In my experience eating makes you fat and love makes you crazy.  As for praying, well, if I were the Julia Roberts character in this film, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert, and if I prayed to My God, it would go something like this:

And God would say thusly, “You narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, privileged New Yorker. You want to be fulfilled?” He would ask, sarcastically, “Why don’t you take a job teaching inner city children for less than $40, 000 a year and get over yourself.”

That’s what my God would say.

But what did the God of Julia Roberts say?

She said, “You poor dear.  What can I do for you?  Don’t worry about being a single woman and a writer who, post divorce, has a precarious financial position in society, you have my permission to discard your cute but flakey husband and your cute but feckless boyfriend like the used Kleenexes they are, and go off to Italy, spend your money, and stuff yourself with food for a few months, and then you can move on to India, where, I promise you, you will not have to look at even one poor person, and you can receive karmic wisdom from this self-indulgent, old guy who is intent on forgiving himself for being an alcoholic, and then, you can go on to Bali—-again no poor people—-and  you get to meet Javier Bardem and fall in love and have great sex and live happily ever after.”

OMG.  I have been praying to the Wrong God.  Don’t tell me.  There is a Relationship God?  Instead of being a schoolteacher, I could have had a Javier Badam?

Want a Relationship?  There’s a God for that.  Who knew?

Waitress? Excuse me.  See that Julia Roberts woman over there?  I’ll have what she’s having.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Hollywood Does “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

and

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

(2010)

For those Americans who can’t read (subtitles), to the horror of those of us who admire good filmmaking, Hollywood has decided to remake the Swedish Millennium Series (a trilogy, so far) by the late Stieg Larsson. Hollywood has a terrible track record for seizing upon perfectly good “foreign” films and ruining them.   I am sure that someone can tell me, which, if any, European or Asian films Hollywood has improved but nothing comes to mind. The Departed came close to Infernal Affairs but was not as good.  A recent case in point is the pointless remake of the wonderful French farce, The Dinner Game, just released as the terrible Dinner for Schmucks.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, released in Europe a year ago, is a violent, brutal, and uncompromising film, reflecting the ugliness of the human soul.  By the time I saw the Swedish film, Hollywood had already decided to hijack this difficult and convoluted family drama.  I walked out of the theater knowing that Hollywood would be unable to resist prettying up a film that was often hard to watch.

The day has come and casting has begun and with it, the prettification.  The lead male, a crusading journalist, “Mikael Blomkvist,” was played by Michael Nyqvist, an ordinary sort of man.  As an actor, Nyqvist, is pleasant looking, dumpy with a pot belly.  His  character, “Blomkvist,” is an activist but not an action hero.  So who would be selected to improve this character? Well, James Bond, of course.   Handsome, blue-eyed, blond haired, Daniel Craig, who has one of the best bodies in the land of movies, an action hero with chiseled abs, is replacing a pleasant-looking but plump actor who has no concept of grooming his ample chest hair.  Nyqvist looks like the character he plays.  Compared to the female lead, the male character is relatively passive: he is a reactor and Nyqvist, who comes across as an intellectual, pales in comparison to the angry intensity of Noomi Rapach’s “Lisbeth Salander.”

So far the part of “Lisbeth” has yet to be cast.  One can only hope that Hollywood is a bit daunted at the idea of finding an actor as perfect as Noomi Rapace.  Rapace, a lovely woman in real life, completely inhabited the character, a tiny and tough little woman, hard as nails, aggressive and quick moving.  Her look goes beyond Goth in that she is not stylized, just tough looking and unfeminine.  And the actor has natural boobs.  Searching for a young actress with natural boobs in Hollywood will take years and finding one will be nearly impossible.  Perhaps Hollywood will go to New York, to the theater, to find an unknown without implants.  It is hard to think of which of the crop of young Hollywood starlets would even begin to be right for the part.  Maybe the search will extend to the British Isles, where they found Daniel Craig, because nothing says “Swedish” like a British accent.

Larsson was frankly writing “pulp fiction,” a potboiler that would earn money, which it has.   Unfortunately he died before he could enjoy any of his earnings and his family and his mistress are fighting over who should get what.  Originally titled, “Men Who Hate Women,” (“Man som hatar kvinnor”) the series lives up to its name.  “Lisbeth” is everything that arouses fear and dread in the male.  She cares not about being attractive to male eyes, she is ambidextrous sexually but cares more for women than men, she is neither feminine nor masculine but more neuter.  She does not need men and is completely independent and totally alienated from humanity.  She is a computer whiz, a skill usually reserved for the boys.  Indeed she is the one who comes to the rescue of “Blomqvist,” using her tech savvy to help him prove his case against a powerful man.   Although it is possible for a Hollywood actress to de-prettify (remember Charlize Theron?), the actor who takes on this role needs to be very good indeed.  The strength of the “Lisbeth” is formidable and needs to vibrate off the screen.  Craig is an excellent actor who can possibly temper his good looks but will his role be rewritten to make him a stronger character?  Will his part be expanded so that the female character will be subordinated? The woman who takes the role of “Lisbeth” will have to be prepared to dominate James Bond.  And Craig will have to be generous enough to let her.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is violent towards women in a fashion that one rarely sees in an American film. To be fair to American entertainment, the theme of serial killers doing horrible things to women is a constant, from films to television programs.  There is an outlandish quality to the elaborate murders that shields the viewer of American television.  But we expect Europeans to be less preoccupied with slaughtering their women folk.  But Larsson, supposedly, was attempting to show that Sweden was no paradise, like we think it is.   But that justification for violence against women is hard to believe.  We don’t think Sweden is a paradise because of gender equality, we think Sweden is paradise because they have health care.  Because Larsson was a crusader (like his hero) against right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis, he lived with the hourly threat of violence.  The Series is a manifestation of the violence that hovered over the author’s real life.  Hollywood prefers stylized violence but the Swedes have strong stomachs, apparently.  There are scenes in this film that are difficult to sit through, especially if one is a woman, for the violent hatred of women is demonstrated unsparingly and goes on at length, in excruciating detail.

It is hard to imagine how Hollywood will deal with the rape scene and the consequences of the rape.  The film, as it is now, skated past the extreme edges of the “R” rating, probably because it was not intended for a general audience.  What makes the violence so affecting and disturbing is that it is not stylized, Hollywood style, but is naturalized in all its unnaturalness.  As objectionable as the violence against women is, the hatred of key male characters towards “”Lisbeth” is a necessary device which propels the story across four books.  Larsson wrote like Charles Dickens, sprawling across the novels and spinning a tortured convoluted story, a true Freudian “family romance.”  I went to see The Girl Who Played with Fire with a colleague who remarked that the series reminded him of Raymond Chandler’s dark noir novels of corrupt and criminal Los Angeles families.

My colleague’s point is a very perceptive one.   In the second film, connections and coincidences become annoying, as the arch villain is revealed to be “Lisbeth’s” father.  What had been a serious investigation into political corruption devolved into a particularly grotesque soap opera.   But the family connections are also pure Raymond Chandler who always found the heart of darkness in the home.  When the second film ended, “Lisbeth” and her father are both in the hospital and we are left with a cliffhanger.  The third film, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest will arrive in America this fall.  As for the fourth book, the mistress of Larsson is holding it hostage, negotiating her way through her own family drama with her lover’s children.  By the time we get through the third film, we may not care about a fourth.  The second film was not as strong as the first, which could, and should stand on its own.  Meanwhile, we await the casting of “Lisbeth Salander,” Hollywood style.  Be afraid, be very afraid.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger