January 27, 2010

The uses of Avatar

"I would defend Cameron's film at the level of the Idea: it is better to make a statement against colonialism and imperialism (yes, even on behalf of the Other if you mean it) even within (since where is there authentically an outside?) cultural productions of capitalism than not."

This comment from EM at Giovanni Tiso's blog strikes me as perhaps the sharpest comment I've seen emerge from all of the lively ideological to-ing and fro-ing over Avatar this past month. The film scholar David Bordwell talked last year about the sheer volume of discussion around Inglourious Basterds as an internet-age phenomenon -- not just the volume and the quality, but the speed at which it emerged compared to the snail crawl of academic publication -- but that was a drop in the ocean compared to the Avatar discussion. Counterpunch had at least four separate pieces on the film within a week, including one from Gilad Aztmon that called it:
The biggest anti War film of all time. It stands against everything the West is identified with. It is against greed and capitalism, it is against interventionism, it is against colonialism and imperialism, it is against technological orientation, it is against America and Britain. It puts Wolfowitz, Blair and Bush on trial without even mentioning their names.

Go to Tiso's blog for summaries of and links to some of the key arguments, as well as a great photo of a lone Avatar dissenter who might even be taken as a stand-in for the author. Overall, the imperialist/anti-imperialist dimension seems to have been the most widely discussed. But some have tackled its obvious spiritual ambitions. You heard that the Vatican worried about nature worship; as others have said, it's a film that makes pantheism's metaphors literal and transparent. Erik Davis gets the shamanistic connection -- maybe Cameron was reading Carlos Castaneda while he listened to those old Yes albums. This guy is one of many to take off from the coincidence -- but surely nothing here is a coincidence ... -- of the word "Navi" meaning prophet in Hebrew, extending that into a messianic interpretation. Which isn't the feat of over-reading you might suspect if you remember that Cameron had a messianic figure with "JC" initials in both his Terminator films (plus a Grace Augustine here). Hinduism reminds us that it has its own traditions around the (Sanskrit) word "Avatar" and blue gods ... The success of Avatar: it's hard to find a culture that doesn't think Cameron has taken something from its tradition.

January 19, 2010

Men who hate women: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Another day, another dead girl. But Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestselling thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is cold, brutal and serious -- well-acted, clearly-told, efficiently-staged -- against the frustrating indirectness and twee over-elaborateness of Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones. There are other differences. In Bones, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is killed; we know who the killer is but it takes everyone else the rest of the movie to figure it out. In Dragon Tattoo, left-wing investigative journalist Michael Nyqvist is hired by a member of the wealthy Vanger family to investigate the disappearance, 40 years earlier, of blonde 16-year-old Harriet Vanger. Unlike the supernatural speculations in The Lovely Bones, Larsson's book is clearly one of those thrillers that depends on the clinical, fact-based possibility of its story, even if to get there we need to bring on a young super-hacker with conveniently all-knowing, all-seeing powers (the tattooed girl of the title, Lisbeth Salander). But the key difference between these two mysteries is the why. In The Lovely Bones, our killer is a lonesome and secretive drifter, taking teenage girls at random from various eastern states, just one very small manifestation of evil in a world that is otherwise charmed and beneficent; in Dragon Tattoo -- and what follows is surely a spoiler only for those remote tribes in the New Guinea highlands who have not yet read the book and its sequels -- the Harriet crime is connected to a decades-long pattern that is itself directly linked to the conversion to the Nazi cause in their youth of now elderly and powerful members of the Vanger family. Here, girl-sacrifice becomes one more form that institutionalised evil has taken and I was reminded of a couple of scenes from Roy Andersson's 2000 film Songs from the Second Floor. Andersson's film is surrealism as you would expect the allegedly dour Swedes to practice it -- told in mirthless sketches and vignettes, it runs like a heavily depressed Monty Python. One sketch, set in what we assume to be a version of contemporary Sweden, has an elderly industrialist who lived in neutral Sweden during the war paying homage to Hermann Goering and greeting others with a Nazi salute; another sketch has a young girl sacrificed -- literally sacrificed -- for the economic good of a business.

According to Wikipedia, the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translates from the Swedish as simply "men who hate women". That would be a very hard sell as a movie title but it gives you a sense of Larsson's agenda. It sounds more like a treatise than a novel, which might be apt. A left-wing journalist himself, Larsson paralleled the treatment of Harriet and other girls at the hands of the Nazi Vangers against the treatment of Lisbeth Salander in the present by a male establishment figure -- in the film, his tastefully minimal apartment is the picture of wealth and refinement against the squalor of Salander's flat -- who demonstrates his total control of her in scenes of awful sexual violence.

Of course, Hollywood will adapt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rather than expect American audiences to sit through a film that requires them to read as they go. You would also expect that the story will shift from Sweden and that the Nazi background will disappear accordingly. A story is always portable but a milieu is not, and so the shifting of Dragon Tattoo out of Sweden really makes as much sense -- ie not much at all -- as Ridley Scott's plan to restage the films based on David Peace's Red Riding series in Pennsylvania. On the surface, the Scott decision might make sense too: the industrial cities of America's rustbelt might correspond easily enough to Peace's coalmining towns of west Yorkshire and you can find or at least set police corruption anywhere, but the unexpected occult element in Peace's series was of course the Yorkshire Ripper. Although the timeframe of Peace's four books stretched to before and after Sutcliffe's crimes, running from 1974 to 1983, those murders tainted the entire story, they poisoned the atmosphere, they revealed a wider picture about power and social structure, just as secret fascism does in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

January 4, 2010

Dead girl metaphysics and the prog rock beyond: The Lovely Bones

Funny this: everyone has been making a fuss about how James Cameron’s brave new world of Pandora turned out to be something cooked up by Yes sleeve designer Roger Dean in the early 70s but no one seems to have told Peter Jackson that the land-between-life-and-death visions in his film of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones look like the worst ideas Storm Thorgerson never had. If that Lovely Bones image of giant ships in bottles crashing into a beach isn’t an Alan Parsons Project album cover waiting to happen, then I don’t know what is.

But seriously: in its bizarre tonal inconsistencies, Jackson’s much-vaunted return to human-scale realism after four oversized fantasy remakes is less the Heavenly Creatures flipside – getting inside the teen-girl mind through the murdered this time not the murderer – than a revisit of The Frighteners, still Jackson’s worst film. Both Frighteners and Bones are clumsy mixes of the supernatural, the sentimental and the comic. But this one is a little more persuasive thanks to some emotional investment in the core relationship – the killer (Stanley Tucci done up like a pervert out of central casting as George Harvey) and the killed (Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon) with effective acting by Ronan especially, working alone with just the effects team for the most part. But Jackson’s afterlife imagery, removed from any obvious religious or metaphysical system, is twee and literal – and when not literal, meaningless – with the dead Susie acting as detached and awestruck observer of the cosmic wonders around her (meaning that both this and Avatar have metaphors for their own consumption built into them: central characters as audience surrogates and fellow consumers) while the terrestrial scenes are strangely lightweight. This is a murder film with no body, no funeral and no tangible sense of grief. Back in the Salmon house in suburban Pennsylvania, life just kinda goes on. Nothing happens until all of a sudden something does. It’s weirdly indirect: for the most part, it seems to be doggedly not about the rape and murder of a teenage girl or even the mind and motives of a killer, or the Salmon family's dysfunction.

Or do we have it all wrong? Last month, it was reported that the wide US release on January 15 will follow disappointing early reviews and word of mouth that have caused a quick rethink of the marketing: now the target is the teen-girl audience. When I read that report, a film that had struck me as a failure suddenly took on a new dimension. This kind of treacly, morbid and fantastic material -- and I should add that “morbid” has never been a pejorative in my book -- is teen-girl catnip and you can see its characters working at some archetypal level for that audience: the evil neighbour, the doting dad, the remote mother, the nutty grandma, the loyal sister. Also, something in the sad roll-call and reunion of murdered girls near the end of the film tells you that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens might have their fingers on the pulse of some quality of teen-girl morbidity, especially as they set the scene to that classic ‘80s weepie, This Mortal Coil’s cover of “Song to the Siren”. These days, teen-girl sorrow and sensationalism is the vein mined very profitably by Stephenie Meyer, while in my day they were all about the sickly novels of Virginia Andrews – maybe Walsh was reading that stuff while Jackson was unravelling the mysteries of progressive rock album covers. We may never find out how Jackson really feels about having his grown-up would-be art film re-angled by the studio but he might just have made an accidental teen-girl cult classic. Who knows -- they might even like the cutesy topiary animals and the leaves that turn into birds and back into leaves.

Speaking of morbid, some news that could be a sequel to
this -- RIP Rowland S Howard.