Monday, 15 November 2010

Digitally Yours

Yesterday I had some rare time alone, and decided to make use of it to go to the multiplex and treat myself to a double-bill of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Neils Arden Oplev) and The Social Network (David Fincher). My selections were purely based on the considerable acclaim these films have received, but I also managed to chance upon two films to which information technology is central to the plot. Another connection which didn't enter into my decision-making is that Fincher has announced plans to remake Dragon Tattoo for Hollywood. Social Network deals with a controversial, but unavoidable, reality of the digital age; social networking, whereas the Swedish film, Dragon Tattoo, details how hacking may be used as a tool to find a serial killer - whose crimes are so horrific that I sincerely hope they have little to do with reality.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I settled into the movie at first pleasantly surprised by what appeared to be a flawless picture, in perfect focus, till I realised that it was going to be a digital presentation. This seems to often be the case with smaller titles, although this time the digital projection was considerably better than when I went to see Mongol (Sergey Bodrov) at a different branch of the same group of cinemas, the most obvious difference being that the objects in the background weren't obscured beyond recognition. I still stand firm in my belief that slightly scratchy reel projection is much more satisfying than flawless digital. I'm not some kind of traditionalist who is against progress, but the inferiority of digital projection is obvious even to untrained eyes like mine.

I have a bigger complaint against the presentation, not the film itself, being that the censor had managed to remove any references to actual dragon tattoos from the screen! I'm fairly certain that something must have been redacted, given that the original Swedish title of the film translates as Men Who Hate Women. Sitting through a film which contained scenes of forced fellatio, rape and particularly gruesomely mutilated bodies (it should be added that the murders are all based on descriptions found in the bible), the best reason I can come up with for why this obviously key plot strand was removed, is that it would have involved showing some actual nudity, which evidently is more offensive than the other items mentioned. Mind you,  there was a shot of a photograph of a nude corpse in the film which managed to sneak under the radar - showing the parts of the anatomy which matter. I've never seen the actual censorship criteria written down, but it seems to go something like this (from most to least offensive) nudity (but not sexuality of which there is an abundance in all Indonesian media), blasphemy, then heroin/cocaine abuse. Violence is almost never censored, and can frequently be viewed on daytime television.

That the film never failed to keep me under its spell, despite the above disappointments, is a testimony to its story and telling. It presents and solves a mystery in a way that kept even this jaded viewer interested. Noomi Rapace, the girl who might have a dragon tattoo is, as many have pointed out, one of the most compelling fictional characters of recent times, and could easily be the most compelling heroine since Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme). Her exceptionally gritty individualism, as portrayed in both her appearance and her actions is what drives the film. It's possible that many of the elements which make up the murder mystery have been seen before, but I can't remember ever before seeing, or even hearing about, a protaganist such as this one.

Despite having seen most of Ingmar Bergman's films, I don't often get to see modern Swedish films. Not that I avoid them, but with limited time on my hands, I tend to gravitate to whatever my favourite film writers are telling me to watch. There is also the fact that a large amount of my viewing time is devoted to catching up with classic, and not so classic, films of days gone by. There is at least one other modern Swedish film that I watched a few years ago, and that is the original Insomnia (Erik Skjoldbj√¶rg). I thought about it  during Dragon Tattoo, as they both suggest that Scandinavia is home to some very nasty criminals. Given the grim efficacy of these films, I also wondered why you don't see more films from Sweden taking the spotlight nowadays.

My longish day at the cinema yesterday yielded surprisingly few trailers, and I must confess, I enjoy watching trailers, even though so many of them are better films than the ones they're advertising. In fact, during two films, both longer than 120 minutes, I only saw one preview and it was the sequel to Dragon Tattoo - The Girl Who Played with Fire. A couple of things came to mind when watching the trailer in conjunction with the predecessor to the film it was advertising: there was a fleeting shot of what looked very much like a large dragon tattoo on Ms Rapace's back, while in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo itself, there is a long flashback of a girl playing with fire.

Yes, I was left feeling a bit confused, but in no way has this confusion put me off the idea of going to the sequel, nor the final instalment of the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, which has already been released in the West. And the estate of the late Stieg Larrson might smile slightly if they knew they had persuaded at least one punter to seek out the books written by him on which the trilogy is based, as well as an unredacted version of the first film! I understand that because the films were originally made for Swedish television, there is a version available that is much longer than that which was put into theatrical release. It's probably twice as long as the version I saw here in Jakarta.

The Social Network

The second part of my double-bill was undoubtedly the better movie, despite its most eye-brow raising imagery being some excellently dressed women and drug abuse (at least in the version I watched!), it evoked from me even greater edge of my seat anticipation than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had done. Christopher Nolan may be Hollywood's most popular auteur of the 21st century, and having now seen every one of his features, I can say that there isn't a bad one among them. However, it is in the works of David Fincher, a director who has been around a little longer, where I find myself losing serious track of time. Unlike Nolan, he has made at least one unequivocal stinker in the form of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was not only boring but also discomfiting. I was happy to see that in Social Network, Fincher has returned to the medium of an atmospherically shot movie of characters essentially doing little more than engaging in taut dialogue, a feat he pulled off equally well in the undervalued Zodiac. That film, as it happens, was also about a serial killer, but contained next to no gore.

In Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg plays the founder of Facebook and the youngest billionare in history, Marc Zuckerberg, and in doing so shakes off any lingering comparisons between himself and Michael Cera. For the portrayal of Zuckerberg is a far cry from the endearing teenagers which I had hitherto seen Eisenberg depicting in movies like Adventureland and Zombieland. Indeed, many viewers might agree that the deletive expletive with which a young woman addresses him in the opening scene of the film is an understatement. I couldn't help feeling a nagging empathy for Eisenberg's Zuckerberg. Granted, his financial success eclipses mine at least a billion times over, but on many occasions I've felt what it's like to be the outsider in the room, and be somehow socially out of sync with my companions. 

And while the character has some boderline sociopathic tendencies, if you look at his actions themselves in the film, the worst things attributed to him are his public venting when spurned by a woman, and some shark-like business tactics. One should certainly be careful about how one behaves on the internet, a fact which I'm sure the real Zuckerberg is acutely aware of by now, and as for his business practices, whatever he may or may not have done (the film makes sure to avoid any certainty when it comes to assignation of guilt in the real legal battles, still unresolved), he hasn't been using his fiendish intellect to rip off this customers to the same degree as many a familiar face that has been making headlines during the last couple of years.

While Social Network is easily one of the best films of the year for me so far, as is often the case when one is close to a subject - I use Facebook every day - some moments in the film made me wince a little. Most notable of these were the eureka! moments which Zuckerberg has every time he's found a way to distinguish his product from the competition, such as publishing your relationship status. Having said that, there were definitely moments of familiarity when a character is being berated by his girlfriend for listing himself as 'single'. The one feature of Facebook which the film doesn't mention, and is generally the first thing I notice when I open my account, is its ability to let you tell your friends 'What's on your mind?' whether they like it or not. This feature would also appear to be the basis for the next big thing after Facebook, Twitter, though it's difficult to imagine a film based on the origins of the fail whale being quite as interesting as Social Network.

Much has been made of the veracity of the movie, and it's funny how the better the film, the less we care about such things. It seems clear in this case that there are indeed many instances where screenwriter Aaron Sorkin strayed from the truth. My general feeling is that anyone hoping to use a Hollywood drama as a credible source of reference is more than a bit naive. Facebook themselves have remained relatively quiet in their reactions to the film and its much publicized inaccuracies, perhaps wisely realizing that any kind of backlash from them would only serve to reinforce the negativity about the company as it exists on celluloid. 

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