The Curious Case of the Criterion Newsweek Article
In December of 2009, Newsweek published an article called “The Curious Case of the Instant Classic”, which detailed a brief history of the Criterion Collection, but went on to question its choice of films, specifically David Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of the Benjamin Button. The article revealed that the induction of the film, which is probably one of the “most controversial” of their collection and often their least expensive, was kind of a deal between Fincher and Criterion honcho Pete Becker. Fincher’s film The Game had originally been part of their collection when they released LaserDiscs, but the article seemed to accuse the company that if they kept releasing films like Benjamin Button and other films they could pick and choose from their IFC deal, they’d “get younger and younger until they just fade away”.
The article recognizes the importance and cultural stature of the film publishing company, which, in its enormous 660+ collection, has released such classics by Kurosawa, Renoir, De Sica, Chaplin, Bergman, etc., and that the company has done a great deal in aiding to the preservation and restoration of important films. But, positing that the company’s IFC deal would make the company’s reputation would shake and then lose its credibility? Looking back on it four years later, despite one or two questionable choices that shook up the blogosphere, the article seems silly and very dated. Fade away? Nonsense. Criterion is stronger than it has ever been in its company history.
Dozens, even hundreds of websites devote themselves to Criterion all by itself, my personal favorite being CriterionCast (as well as other art films), even more sites have Criterion based columns (my favorite being Criterion Corner), and there are also dozens of podcasts on iTunes (and beyond). Their future release slates, which they announce three months in advance, are debated over, predicted, and I imagine there are some bookies making money on them as well. Their Facebook page has more than 129,000 likes. They have more than 100,000 followers on their verified Twitter account. So, yeah, it doesn’t exactly look like Criterion has faded away at all.
The “controversy” of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture was eloquently discussed in David Ehrlich’s article on the film, and a point Mr. Ehrlich makes is that our perceptions of how prestigious Criterion is as a company should not change. That, as opposed to being those stiff and stuffy intellectuals who balk at something unfamiliar and “questionable”, it should be accepted as something entirely possible, new, and exciting. So, why did Newsweek not do that? How could they be so wrong?
At the time that the Newsweek piece was written, Criterion was already fairly respectable. They’d made their Blu-ray debut that year with films like Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. They had introduced their vamped up website for the first time. They sent email newsletters which teased at future releases. Criterion was hardly a small company and, at the time, if you went to the library looking for something like High and Low or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, chances were (and still are) that they would have the Criterion edition. Because, they are the platinum standard. While having extra features isn’t exclusive to Criterion anymore, how enlightening those features are still might be. So, why acknowledge the company’s importance and then posit that, just because of one film, or one deal, they’ll disappear?
It’s known that the IFC deal was made, primarily, so that the money they earn with the IFC releases is used to restore and preserve the sets and editions that they hold dear to their heart. But saying that the IFC deal was a bad choice is kind of silly. Sure, the films might fluctuate in how “important” they are, but it’s really all semantics when it comes to dissecting Criterion’s credo, which is on the back of each set. Criterion’s IFC releases might, contrary to the article, save films from obscurity: because it has that label. And, again, how deserving a film is totally subjective.
But, at times, IFC’s choices have been incredibly successful. Take a look at Lars von Trier’s psychological nightmare Antichrist. Although, in my opinion, they probably would have picked the film up anyways (they already had The Element of Crime and Europa in their collection prior to the IFC deal), it’s one of the best films they’ve picked up from IFC. There’s Christopher Nolan’s debut feature Following. Although the film isn’t as satisfying as Nolan’s sophomore effort, Memento, but seeing his first unlocks some of the ideas and techniques that would make him one of the most profitable Hollywood auteurs in the business. Mind games, non-linearity, etc. IFC’s investment into the film also gave Nolan the chance to go back to his film and clean up the print from the original 16mm negatives. Other notable inclusions that were good consequences of the deal include Wim Wenders’ 3D eulogy Pina and the Dardennes Brothers realist fairy tale The Kid with a Bike. The former film marked the very first 3D release and combo pack for the company (an element I wish the company would embrace fully), and the latter film’s release, though it was lauded at its release, allowed Criterion to snap up the Dardennes’ films Rosetta and La Promesse. Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s film, is a wonderful romantic drama that doesn’t ghettoize its subject; it just portrays it as it is.
So, sure, you have your Benjamin Buttons, your Tiny Furnitures, your Life During Wartimes, and your endless Wes Anderson films (who I like, actually, and who Criterion just loves; he’s not part of the IFC deal, they just love him), but Criterion’s ability to either predict the longevity or solidify the legacy of certain films is, to me, what loving film is all about: loving it all and championing stuff that you think should be recognized.
So, even realizing how wrong Newsweek’s article was, it’s important, I think, to realize how condescending, disingenuous, and wrong that piece is. Criterion isn’t snobbish about film; it seems more to be a residual effect on its fans or something. So, even if Criterion includes a couple of Michael Bay flicks, Criterion does what the best cinephiles do and what all of the rest should aspire to: love cinema, all of its facets, and power as an art form.
Special thanks to the wonderful Josh Brunsting for being a helpful film encyclopedia!
This entry was posted in Art House, DVD, Take One and tagged Akira Kurosawa, Antichrist, Bernardo Bertolucci, Chungking Express, Dardennes, David Fincher, Europa, Following, François Truffaut, High and Low, Ingmar Bergman, La Promesse, Lars von Trier, Lena Dunham, Life During Wartime, Memento, Michael Bay, Newsweek, Rosetta, The 400 Blows, The Criterion Collection, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Element of Crime, The Game, The Kid with a Bike, The Last Emperor, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Tiny Furniture, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar-Wai.
Re(a)d “Dragon”: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Her eyebrow is pierced. So is her nose. So is her lip. And so are her nipples. Her eyes are sinister. Her face is as cold and sharp as the winter wind in Sweden, and she is the female heroine equivalent to one of those inexplicable cultural zeitgeists that somehow sweeps nations the world over. Lisbeth Salander, the intense, almost punk-like female protagonist of the best-selling Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, is reincarnated in David Fincher’s own adaptation of the first novel in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. No, Fincher’s film is not a remake, it is a re-adaptation. Many questioned the point of making an American version of the Swedish film (which they spoke about erroneously), and without Fincher, there would have been no point. Though overtly a mainstream exercise in sadomasochistic filmmaking, it would have been nothing without David Fincher’s distinct brush strokes on the film. It unavoidably draws some comparison to the Swedish incarnation, starring Noomi Rapace, but it is best to think of it as an entirely separate entity. As aforementioned, this is a re-adaptation. And it is one hell of a re-adaptation at that.
Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is called upon by the wealthy patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of the Vanger family to find the murderer of his dear great-niece Harriet. The cast of the Vanger family is like if you put Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums into a Swedish horror film and gave them hard liquor. At the same time as Mikael begins his search for Harriet’s killer, damaged hacker Lisbeth Salander is trying to make ends meet when her caretaker suffers a stroke and she is, once again (it seems) deemed incompetent, unable to take care of herself, and in need of a social worker. As the two storylines intertwine and cut from one to another, Mikael and Lisbeth eventually team together to create a bizarre Mulder-and-Sully-esque relationship.
It is difficult to shy away from comparison between Fincher’s film and the Swedish film from 2009, so I shall keep it short. In essence, the two are not comparable at all. Yes, here and there, you find various things to compare, mostly because they are based on the same story, but the two films offer very different experiences. That is honestly the most one should say if one is forced to compare the two: they are different films and offer different experiences.
Fincher’s film is distinctly Fincher-esque. From the slow tracking shots outside of a door with the sounds of a wailing young woman, to the scene composition of two men and a snowy outside chat (medium long shot showing the sides of both men with the door to a luxurious house in-between), to the yellow-green color palette of the past (as in the 1950’s) and the past (Lisbeth and Mikael’s past, being their former jobs and interiors of their jobs); it has David Fincher written all over it. It is this unique and singular style that separates the film from its Swedish counterpart. That is not to say that the Swedish film is not stylistic at all; it just was not directed by David Fincher. Rather than employing the same kind of kinetic energy from Se7en and Fight Club, or the romantic style of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the style in Dragon Tattoo seems more languidly paced and thoughtful, almost as gloriously lucid as his film Zodiac. Though, Fincher has honed his skills since then, and it seems far more polished. Granted, as polished as it is, and perhaps because of the film’s inherent mainstream nature, it is not Fincher’s best film. Unique and inventive to a point (as much as you can be with such a sprawling story), it just is not his best. It is plenty excellent, plenty enthralling, but not his best. And I hope he is fine with that, because this film is far from a waste of time.
When speaking about how the Swedish adaptation and the Fincher adaptation offer two unique and different experiences, I mean, primarily, this: the Swedish version is a long, drawn out, sprawling, and epic mystery procedural film. It sifts through evidence and suspects like the best episode of any procedural drama on BBC. The American rendition, however, offers elements of this but seems to ruminate more on the basis that it is a character study. It concentrates and focuses its energy on Daniel Craig’s Mikael and Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth. The film digs deeper into both characters’ psyches and motivations, and does so in the most expert way; the only way that David Fincher would allow it. You can think of his previous films as character studies as well, films that examine closely the actions of their protagonists with a Kubrickian microscope. And what Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian observe is satisfying and a little bit unnerving.
Enter Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist sued out of his brains for libel, and thus running away from his demons. He is, as Salander says to the man who hired her to do a background check on him (for the sake of the Vanger family, who would then employ Blomkvist himself), “He is who he presents as.” But, of course, he’s a little more than that. The affair he’s been having with his co-editor has broken his family and thus his relationship with his daughter is fractured, and then fractured even a little more by her interest in going to a Bible camp. He is not an Atheist, he is a journalist; a man who has seen and written about far too much evil within the world (mostly corporate evil, we are led to believe) to acknowledge anything else than the written word of an honest reporter. Daniel Craig, who may be most recognizable to some as Bond, James Bond, sheds that suave exterior in place for a more hardened kind of character. Though, Craig seems to be still adjusting to this kind of procedural mystery story, almost as if he is not quite used to the feeling. Nevertheless, he does play the part fairly well, a part which requires him to be anything but that British spy. His look, a mix of seedy yet rugged handsome, fits Blomkvist in that he is the kind of man you want to trust, but would find yourself having a little trouble doing so at first.
And we have our heroine, our unorthodox hero, Lisbeth Salander. She has many holes in her body, and not just the physical kind. Maybe a little brutish and barbaric, she is not familiar with a constant state of happiness. The fact that she has a checkered history is written all over her. She does not wear this fact with pride. She wears it with the same kind of demeanor that one of her shirts reads in the film: “F*** you, you f***ing f***”. She does not give a damn, clearly. Or maybe she does. What I like about Rooney Mara’s performance is that she it is able to embody the coldness and harshness of the character that is obvious and, maybe, overstated to a degree. But she is also able to tone that part of the character down a bit and fit in a sense of vulnerability. There are moments in the film where her defense is down and where she honestly looks like she has been hurt, both physically and emotionally. Even with the cost of probably getting kicked in the groin, you kind of just want to give her a hug. There’s a fragility, an angelic quality behind the piercings, strange hair, and layers of makeup. This is who she is now, and she may have created it for herself as an escape, but Mara’s beautiful and intense performance makes it more evident that she was not always this way. (Luckily, this lovely performance is a completely different taste from that of Rapace’s. Something akin to pierced apples and pierced oranges.) The androgyny of the character is a fascinating aspect of the film. She does not look too polished or Hollywood as one may have feared, and the cheekbones Mara has allows for a complete transformation. Mara takes on the role with force and dignity all the while, and her emotional acumen for the character is deftly shown in the film at all times. In short, yes, I do think she deserved her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
The look of the film says Fincher. One may note this is the second film in a row that David Fincher has done that features heavy typing. The interiors are mostly sparse and immaculate, with the interior lighting reflecting either a cold blue or a stinging yellow, both of which are reminiscent of the look for The Social Network. Jeff Cronenweth (who has worked with Fincher previously on Fight Club and The Social Network) takes the sterile and frigid motif of immaculate, minimalist space and applies it to the film. The shots are marvelous, going back and forth between the grotesqueness of Lisbeth’s lifestyle to the perfection of the Vangers. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is frighteningly good, utilizing techniques that, for better or worse, send shivers down the audience’s spine.
Regarding the brutal and much talked about rape scene, I found the techniques used quite fascinating. It is one of the most viscerally harrowing scenes I have watched in ages, at once repulsive and yet captivating. What David Fincher does here is he makes the scene at times explicit and graphic and at others, completely suggestive. It is in these suggestive moments, where sound design plays a critical role, that the film becomes most uncomfortable and unpleasant. Because the viewer is unable to see “everything” as it were, the worst is left to the imagination in the same way that the absolute worst was left to the imagination in the castration scene in Hard Candy. Playing with facial expressions, sound effects, and musical score is the way to be completely sadistic to your audience, and it is done in grand fashion. Fincher, though, does not allow the audience to revel in these moments. One step and one cut at a time, he does not linger. Which makes the audience question which would be worse: the cutting away from expression and sound from one to another or if it would have been worse to have it linger on one long shot for the entire time and witness the entire thing like a fly on the wall? I am most satisfied (or at least as satisfied as one can be during a scene like this) with Fincher’s interpretation.
The main title sequence is extraordinary. Using visual motifs from the film, Lisbeth is projected in animated and oily glory, with wasps coming out of her pupil, the Dragon Tattoo she has on her back coming alive, the phoenix of her soul bursting into flames, many a USB cord throttling her, and the horror of male assault being suggested at various turns. It is a brilliant title sequence, one that pretty much sums up who Lisbeth is as a person/character. Reznor and Ross’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” plays during this, with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O on vocals, and it screams and wails, almost as if Lisbeth herself were singing. The song fits, though I do not know why. The cover employs a much more electronically manipulated sound, and that seems to fit the theme of the film. Lisbeth is a harbinger of death, angst, pain, and fury, just as the song seems to suggest.
David Fincher’s vision for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an interesting, unrelentingly ferocious film. It combines the book’s languid, slow pace but includes the brutality of the characters and their psyches. Rooney Mara makes a star turn as Lisbeth Salander, a performance that is able to show both the character’s fury and fragility. While it may not be Fincher’s best work, it is nonetheless an example of his ability as a director. Here, Fincher directs a film as multifaceted as its female protagonist. Sinister, damaged, pierced, fragile, and fantastic.
Main Title Sequence, feat. “Immigrant Song”
This entry was posted in adaptation, drama, mystery, thriller and tagged Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, David Fincher, female heroine, Fight Club, Hard Candy, Immigrant Song, Karen O, Led Zepplin, Lisbeth Salander, Men Who Hate Women, Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium Trilogy, mystery, Noomi Rapace, rooney Mara, Se7en, Sweden, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Game, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, thriller, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Zodiac.