Friday, January 6, 2012

Dragon Tattoo violence: is it worth it?

There's a post up at What Tami Said about Straw Dogs and the violence therein. She read some reviews that ascribed "challenge" and "lessons learned" to what she saw as basically pointless violence (man I've thought the same so often when reading reviews). She asks, "What criteria are there that confirm whether a piece of art celebrates a negative bit of culture (violence, sexism or regional bias) or instead challenges or analyzes it?"

I haven't seen Straw Dogs but I did just see the American version of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I saw the first Swedish film in the series a year or so ago). To answer Tami's question, I think a large grey area exists where the interpretation depends more upon the individual viewer than the intentions or skills of the filmmakers. What does the viewer bring to the table? What if the movie makes a real difference to some but most people just have their prejudices confirmed? I'm thinking of films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; maybe possibly The Help; Juno. Is it worth it?

But sometimes it's obvious, at least to me. If the action were happening to a white able-bodied cis etc man would the plot be the same? The camera angles? The music? When something terrible happens to a woman and it's filmed from an imaginary man's point of view-- shot from slightly above, including parts of her body that are unnecessary to the shot, objectifying, etc, that's a tip-off for me. Such a point of view can make even distress that is in no way scintillating, at least tongue-cluckingly condescending rather than empathetic.

Or if a character's experiences are portrayed as part of a "both sides" debate where in real life the person doesn't think of themselves as up for debate, such as Muslim characters in Law & Order who immediately explain their way of life in the context of Western Christian morality to the presumed white Christian viewer for no apparent reason. That just seems too easy to really be "challenging."

Sadly the most challenging thing I can think of films doing in regards to women and minorities is depicting people as fully-formed characters who exist on their own, and to put the audience in their shoes. And it's so rarely done! A catcall filmed with real actual empathy for the victim (and not what the scene means to a presumed white male viewer) would have much more of an impact on me in this sense than a rape scene that objectifies the victim. Because of this I'm wary of films that use big theatrical incidents of -isms rather than banal realities.  I agree with What Tami Said commenter Sparky that such films allow people to say, "well I'm not as bad as that! I'm a good one!"

I thought the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a gray area for me. The rape scene could have gone either way but the lingering scene afterward, when she's shaking and smoking alone, clothed, in her apartment was so devastating and and revealing of her experience that I felt a case could be made that the violence served a purpose. The happy sex between Lisbeth and Michael afterward was such a stark contrast I got the message that, "see, this is what sex is supposed to be. Isn't this what we all want for ourselves?" It's a message that needs to be said since rape is equated with sex so freaking often.

A scene from the American GWTDT-- not sure if this is the rape scene or not. But similar camera angle is used.

A scene from Swedish GWTDT. The office sexual assault scene. The camera angle creates empathy with her and objectifies the man for the viewer.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth. I thought she did a great job. But I wasn't thrilled with the director's decision to emphasize her delicateness with her constantly open lips, bleached eyebrows that make her eyes look more childish, and weight loss for the actress. I'm pretty sure a female audience doesn't need to be constantly reminded that women are still, even with weapons, skillz, genius and a motorcycle, so freaking vulnerable.

But in the American version I was unconvinced that the rape wasn't being glamorized as horror film/thriller smut. Still though, it was somewhat well-done. And then they breezed right though the scene of her alone afterward. Like they were saying the horror of the rape was ONLY the pain and humiliation experienced in the moment... and then it ended when the rape did. Then the happy sex later in the film was objectifying to her only! Besides being a waste of Daniel Craig's naked torso it was like they're talking to a male audience saying, "see, consensual sex can be sexy too." VERY different message. (I know lots of people have completely legitimate disagreements with this interpretation but that's how I see it.)

Some other things irritate me that should be minor but aren't. American Lisbeth has an elaborate new hairstyle for every scene but is never shown fooling with her hair. It's out of character; Swedish Lisbeth has a roll-out-of-bed-and-go cut. American Lisbeth's is slightly freakish; she's a freak on the outside, vulnerable on the inside. Swedish Lisbeth's isn't really that weird; she's passable on the outside, twisted and interesting on the inside. And at the end of the film Swedish Lisbeth lights the villain's car on fire with him inside. American Lisbeth intends to shoot him but-- whoopsie-- the car just bursts into flame on its own accord so... I guess US audiences don't have to grapple with their vulnerable pretty little freak committing baldfaced murder.

Swedish Michael and Lisbeth. Depicts driver and passenger.

American Michael and Lisbeth. Depicts owner and pet.

ETA: Oh and another thing. I HATE when Hollywood hires an actress who looks like a model and then "uglifies" her. What, they're unwilling even to give parts that specifically call for un-model-y women to un-model-y looking actresses? I guess it would be a bad investment; after all, Swedish Lisbeth, who is still quite pretty but not Hollywood-pretty, would never have made the cover of Vogue, and wouldn't be a good investment as far as star power, cause then she can't just dye her eyebrows brown again and go on to star in every other movie that calls for a model-y actress. American GWTDT just had to point out how Lisbeth is really totally pretty by showing her go, step-by-step, through a makeover to become a sexy blonde spy character. Like the audience has taken in a little street urchin into their hearts, and polished her up into a Patriarchy-approved little jewel. "I knew she could do it," we're supposed to think. Vomit.

Oh and another thing. What's this I hear about the costume designer for GWTDT launching a Lisbeth fashion line for H&M?! What's next, rape survivor Happy Meal toys? We'll be sucking down burgers till we collect them all: Gina Davis from Thelma & Louise, Lisbeth from GWTDT, Uma Thurman from Kill Bill, and a teensy little Dakota Fanning from Hounddog! Yeesh, America.

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