Saturday, December 11, 2010

Let Lisbeth Be Lisbeth

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (2009) provides a good argument for the American industrial method of film development and production. No American filmmaker (and we will see the proof of this as the American re-makes start to come out next year) would tolerate a film with so many foregone conclusions and so little suspense, even given one's natural expectations in a melodramatic mystery series.

Moreover, the Swedes have a touching faith in a government's goodwill and competence in the investigation of a rogue intelligence squad. (And I'm a progressive.) Sure, there are some bad guys hiding the crimes of the Soviet defector the recruited 40 years ago, but there is a whole gang of young, vigorous well-financed government investigators ready to take them down. If there was an American film (as it will be soon), the next thing would be the call from the shadowy senator or captain of industry speaking to an unseen official, telling them to shut that investigation down. Then the idealistic crimefighters would have to go rogue, pursuing the bad guys outside of the blessing of the law. But remember, this is Sweden, so ***SPOILER*** the good guys win without any opposition.

Then there's Lisbeth's trial and hearing. The bad guys have accusations and false dignity. Lisbeth and her lawyer have mountains of incriminating evidence against the bad guy so -- surprise -- they win.

Worst of all, Lisbeth is reduced to a passive object for most of the movie, and only gets decked out in full Salander-goth rig about 1-1/2 hours into a 2-1/2 hour movie. And she gets into her full leather-and-razor-blades gear in order to...go to court. It makes no sense -- in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she proved herself an excellent and dogged investigator. How come she's not put to work to investigate her own case? Worst of all, the key to the whole case is discovered by a minor character called Plague, who is completely unnecessary and redundant in the narrative. There's nothing Plague does that could not have plausibly done by Lisbeth. (I hope the American remake writer reads this!) Overall, the hard-won improvements of the second installment over the first, especially in making Lisbeth the center of the action, and the person who can resolve her own problems and questions, has been dealt away by a rather flabby and inefficient approach to suspense.

There is an action sequence, which comes in the oddest place, at the end of the movie after most of the story is over. It's somewhat satisfying, but we've already seen Lisbeth vindicated, so it is really no more than an amusing coda.

I presume most of this narrative lumpiness comes from the source novels. Larsson has the strangest procedure as a writer of suspense and action. Usually the protagonist makes a clear plan toward his goals, then turns a corner and complications and problems stretch out into a seeming abyss before them. But Larsson reverses that. When you can see a long and difficult path of difficult complications and obstacles on the way to the goal, Larsson suddenly shuts that down. How will Lisbeth escape the clutches of her homicidal father, who is only a few doors down in the same hospital? One envisions a complex sequence of cat-and-mouse as father evades the rather thin defenses of the Swedish security forces. But no, some guy we've never met before comes and shoots the old man in the head, then shoots himself and we're left saying this story over now? Nope, because Larsson has a deep sack of stuff from out of nowhere that he continues to reach into.

Clearly Larsson never took an American playwrighting or screenwriting course, in which 3rd act threats must be made evident in the 1st act, and every little character detail pays off, e.g., the hero's hobby of whittling, as we saw in the second scene of the movie, means that he will whittle a way out of his predicament in the second-to-the-last scene. Americans write movies the way Indians live off the bison -- every little scrap is used. This is why, although Europeans are producing more and more commercial blockbusters, at least on their own continent, those hits have to be rewritten and remade here. (The exception here is Jean-Luc Besson, who clearly has studied mainstream American filmmaking with passion and insight.) It's not just the language of the words, it's the entire language of narrative which must be adjusted for American expectations.

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