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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Fuck You You Fucking Fuck": David Fincher's Cyber Fairy Tale of (Mis)Communication, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

“There are several consequences to taking seriously the imagery of cyborgs as other than our enemies. Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity. Cyborgs are no exception. A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted. One is too few, and two is only one possibility. Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment. The machine is not anything to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment.” Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Women.

The English-language title of Stieg Larsson’s book (published in Sweden as Men Who Hate Women) indicates that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about the power of images, and images being the focal point while discussing the film brings me to one of the most aggravating things any film critic or maker has to explain or defend. That one of the finest filmmakers alive has punctured a sacred cow and is adapting Larsson’s book when a much-beloved Swedish version already exists is more proof for some people of Hollywood’s cynicism and lack of substance. On online articles, readers comment how people are just too lazy to read subtitles. This assumes, I guess, that subtitles automatically make your movie a good one. But remakes ruffle feathers, understandably. Maybe someone should have more often attacked Shakespeare’s lack of originality, adapting scenarios (such as Hamlet and Lear) that had just recently been authored and performed by others. 

            The original Dragon Tattoo adaptation, starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, Larsson’s already iconic hacker heroine, Michael Nyqvist as journalist detective Mikael Blomkvist, and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, is an intense, entertaining, but over-processed television movie, held together in a congealing liquid aesthetic representing some of the most tiresome action-movie/TV tropes. Plot driven, it sets out to do nothing more than accomplishing proper Aristotelian dramatic goals. There is very little detachment between viewer and movie when we are uploaded into the narrative, much like Salander uploads herself into other peoples’ computers and private lives. Rapace is great as Salander, but the movie gets off on its high-tech hacker gadgetry instead of exploring the meaning of the Information Age, the "Millennium." We are caught up in the plot's convolutions, which is a skin-deep affair. Abused, intelligent, and traumatized, Rapace’s Salander is still a part of our world, and whatever the film could illuminate about our world is absent because of its sheer escapism. In spite of Salander’s freakishness, we can almost have an identifying agency with her, just as her sexiness makes her more conventionally attractive as a punk misfit, a lethal Joan Jett. I can go to my local goth club and find a similar looking – and maladjusted – person. The Swedish trilogy is so beloved, I think, because Lisbeth remains lovable, wide to receive our pity. Meanwhile, the film’s invocations of Nazism are no more complicated than what one finds in Indiana Jones

            This is why Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s new “Hollywoodized” Dragon Tattoo takes Rapace to the fuckin’ cleaner, if you’ll pardon the expression (but Lisbeth Salander is supposed to be affronting and not accommodating, so the vulgarity is fitting. Hence my title). Listen to Roger Ebert explain his preference for Rapace. The great critic writes, “Rapace seems more uneasy in her skin, more threatened.” To which I say: “Exactly.” Fincher has given Larsson’s bestseller the rich subtexts that were only skin-deep in Oplev’s version (I should say that I haven’t read the book, though have read much about its history and historical references), his The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo becoming a fitting, genre-based successor to The Social Network, the 2010 Information Age masterpiece where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is less human than post-human, a machine man, the HAL-9000 in a hoodie and flip-flops. Mara, who played Zuckerberg’s vindictive ex-girlfriend (saying that dating him was “like dating a stairmaster”), becomes Zuckerberg’s Swedish Gemini twin, a cyborg neuromancer lacking empathy and feeling (or our common definition of whatever those things mean), laser-focused in her directives and only silently mourning an inability to find a relationship in the fleshy, “normal” world. Both films are about communication, and as dialogue in the “straight” world rings hollow and duplicitous, the alternative becomes an isolation channeling the technology charging civilization’s empty symbolism and subverting the system to fool itself. This is a society where honored frat houses are in fact debauching pads with women bused in like meat, and the corporations constructing modern civilization have suspicious and inhumane ties. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Lisbeth Salander are rational answers to a world where the inanity of “being sociable” is transparently hypocritical. Mara, with her bleached eyebrows, hard features, and determined if affectless glare, is alien (while paradoxically being more realistically human), and so more closely doubling the fearsome tattoo on her body than Rapace’s characterization.

            But Fincher’s critics are unmoved. Fans of the original will go on preferring Rapace, insisting that this is an English overdub, a redundant and expensive project instigated by Hollywood idiots, a propped up enterprise with an unnecessary and inappropriate James Bond-like credit sequence, etc. My frustrations with such criticisms are hard to contain, considering that the Swedish film is far more – for lack of a better phrase – petty bourgeois fast-food, with some upsetting violence and rape thrown in for good measure. Its accessibility may be why it’s appealed to so many people. In the big theater chains, did the mass audience prefer The Social Network to the tears of The King’s Speech

            Even sophisticated moviegoers complained that no one was likable in Fincher’s Facebook drama. So it is with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where the ending shows how distant Blomkvist remains from Salander in spite of their history: the socially well-adjusted person is more emotionally compartmentalized after all. There is the truth in it: Salander rejects notions of lost Edens or rooted historical links to the past for reasons we must understand; she is honest about it, whereas the whole of Sweden, including the sincere Blomkvists of the world, are just as susceptible to that idea of “apathy,” explained by Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in Fincher’s first great success (and serial killer spectacle of interpreting gruesome scenes), Seven. The cub in training, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), adopts the audience’s assumed attitude that the killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), is an aberration and has nothing to do with any larger picture: “We’re talking about people who are mentally ill, we are talking about fucking crazies,” he says. “No,” Somerset insists, “we’re talking about everyday life here. You can’t afford to be this naïve.” 


What’s disquieting about John Doe’s murders in Seven is similar to the corpses in Dragon Tattoo. The crimes are mirrors to cultural currents, relating to a general discontent about their larger, general historical context. John Doe’s religious spectacles of murdering the city’s “apathetic” citizens by model of the seven deadly sins finds the most troubling dynamic in the killer’s relationship to Mills, the handsome and seemingly well adjusted family man with a beautiful wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). Seven is influenced by the abortion fixation of fundamentalist Christians following 12 years of "pro-life" presidents.


            Outside of the theater, we are just as carefree and confident in ourselves as Mills, righteous however unexamined, with clear notions of right and wrong – to say nothing of a stern dislike of reading: he tries reading Dante, and then tosses the book in frustration, uttering phrases like “fucking faggot poetry.” He’s the guy who goes to the movies “not to think” but “to be entertained.” But he is – unconsciously – a victim of the apathy that agitates the aware Somerset. The Sweden of Dragon Tattoo is just as murky, where the good citizens go about fooling themselves and hiding from history; at least the older generation was haunted by their repressions, whereas in the present people – and historical records – are digital. The original film doesn’t extend beyond itself to give a sense of its time. Fincher’s does. 

            The end result is an enriching genre piece about communication, cyborgs, dehumanization, and how nations and people are alike in their repressions. The exit music is a cover by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music project, How to Destroy Angels, of Bryan Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough?”, the end-credit song for the U.S. release of Ridley Scott’s 1986 visually amazing fantasy folly Legend, indicating that what Fincher set out to create was, perversely enough, a cybernetic fairy tale of innocence lost in the world of darkness: a Norse fantasy saga where heroes blend into the land, islands are enchanted, princesses are emblems of purity, manipulation, and fallen grace, and the Prince of Darkness monologues his evil plans on a demonic throne. If the clichés are aplenty in Fincher’s film, he shrugs and admits that he’s embracing – and subverting – fairy tale or folkloric archetypes.



            The stunning opening credit sequence establishes the film’s priorities in addition to its rocking and hard-edged momentum, absent from the Swedish version. The music track is “Immigrant Song,” Led Zeppelin’s classic as covered by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Karen O, and if we passively dismiss the song as a convenient random pop selection, we miss out on some of Fincher’s possible intentions. The director is conscious that he is remaking a popular film from a foreign culture, based on an internationally successful novel that most of its audience has, after all, read only in translation. Zeppelin’s song, with references to “the land of ice and snow,” “the midnight sun,” and “Valhalla,” is an English-language appropriation of a foreign ancient culture, specifically Scandinavian Vikings (who are plundering and invading other places). The song to which we are listening, with a woman adopting the vocals and Reznor and Ross’ industrial knife infecting the instrumentation, is another appropriation, just as How to Destroy Angels’ “Is Your Love Strong Enough” (again with a woman taking the vocals) is a cover of Bryan Ferry’s Legend single. The intertextuality in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s opening and closing pop music tracks not only applies to lyrics, but points to a corporate cycle of mass reproduction, simulation, reverberations of the past in the present, and a procession of technology reformatting and retranslating old texts. There is a cycle of pillaging, translating, and adopting things to suit one’s own language. Seeing the original Swedish film’s producers credited alongside Scott Rudin, we can wonder if Columbia Pictures financing and distributing Larsson’s story is strangely equivalent to Henrik Vanger’s corporate money financing and helping out Millennium, the struggling left-wing publication for which Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) writes, and is edited by his girlfriend, Erika Berger (Robin Wright).
            The opening establishes links between the organic and the mechanical, solid and liquid, substance and ether, all chaotically stirred together in a nihilistic science fiction stew of communicative media: black ink falling over a keyboard, the written word and typed hypertext, and the primal scream of a humanoid submerged in the same ink. We see birds, insects, reptilian scales, blooming flowers, USB wires that spread out as tentacles. The imagery evokes the art of Alien artist H.R. Giger with its extraterrestrial savagery. The assault on the senses is replete with creation and destruction incessantly moving, and we may again think back to Seven, which opened with a similarly fantastic credit montage set to a remix of Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails single, “Closer,” mutilated bodies blending into endless scrolls of words, words, words. If we are to take the opening of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as a representation of Lisbeth Salander’s mind, it’s worth wondering if one of her closest kin in Fincher’s cinematic universe is, in addition to Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, with his mysterious history of presumed abuse and malfunction, leading to unleashed wrath (identified by himself as a form of “envy,” at least in one killing). John Doe’s contemptuous envy of Mills may double for Salander’s envy of “Harriet Fucking Vanger,” from whom she turns away in disgust during the climactic "Hollywood Happy Ending" moment of sentimental closure and reunion.

            The cyborg imagery of the beginning made me think of the philosopher Donna Haraway, whose “Cyborg Manifesto” sought to find a suitable feminist language distinct from the informatics of traditional patriarchy. Fincher’s imagery mirrors Haraway’s often esoteric – though entrancing – words: “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile – a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore. People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.” The visual prologue displays the confusion of us and the electromagnetic waves of the machine, where Lisbeth Salander makes her domain. This is a cyberpunk hero who is less in physical space than she is in the wires of cyberspace. In physical space, she doesn’t care about her appearance (we first see her wiping a runny nose) or the content of her nutrients, as she sustains herself – on a minimal basis of basic need – with Coca Cola, noodles, and junk food (pay particular attention to the McDonald's happy meals). She is without an identity, or our Western Humanistic categorization of identity. Haraway writes, “Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.” Identities, “contradictory, partial, and strategic,” are tools of power, and considering that themes of patriarchy (abusive father figures), colonialism/xenophobia (which could apply to Nazi invasions and dislike for immigrants), and capitalism (the billionaire industrialist who bankrupts Blomkvist) are the three antagonistic forces in the story, it’s very possible that a politically active and educated Trotskyite like Stieg Larsson probably read Haraway’s influential essay, which proposes to use the cyborg as a revolutionary tool. 


            Lisbeth Salander, who is linked with the mechanical surveillance eyes she sets up to scoop information, doesn’t care to be the subject of erotic gazing. Her scummy and molesterly guardian, Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wagenignen), is pestered by her looks and comments on a piercing, “Do you think that thing in your eyebrow is attractive?” It’s her eye, and to gaze and gather information is her power and talent, but still she is subjected to sexual objectification and abuse. The pierced eye has its revenge when she uses a camera to record Bjurman raping her at his flat, and then, after stunning him and tying him up, making him watch the video of his foul deeds. With his beard and strung up and bloated naked body, Bjurman is Salander’s decorous parody of Judeo-Christian iconography, the double-binding oppressive agent of contradictory ideals in a faithless world (a crucifix is displayed at the same tattoo parlor where Lisbeth has her work done; her body art and piercings are of the same stuff as more acceptable – though equally perverse – icons). 


            During this torturous revenge scene, it’s her vision and point of view that is exacted on the Other, defining him: "I Am A Rapist Pig." Fincher alludes to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the definitive android cyberthriller, by having Lisbeth’s eyes painted like Darryl Hannah’s replicant. Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick is similarly filled with “eye” references, in addition to existential questions where humans are confused with automatons. Most importantly, Fincher has Lisbeth look directly at us in an intense close-up, with her replicant eyes. The audience is not innocent, as we double for Bjurman. She tells us that the official reports were right. She is insane. The gaze is reversed, and while I think a lot of viewers of the 2009 Swedish original are erotically gazing of Noomi Rapace, Fincher and Rooney Mara are less tolerant of our adoration. Haraway’s essay concludes, “Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” 


The mystery narrative is a red herring, and if we’re to be critical of Larsson’s plotting with its superfluous convolutions and aimlessness, and so then critical of Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian, the new film at least is interested in the irony of misdirected communication, a flaw inherent in human interpretation. The story is set up by two misinterpretations, one based on a visual image, the other on words. We begin with aging Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) being affected by a birthday gift, a flower crushed into a picture frame (Nature tamed by aesthetic will, instincts at war with polite form being an important idea here), the accent on vision punctuated by Henrik’s glasses lying on top of the picture. The other misinterpretation is in the writing of Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing journalist whose controversial expose of billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerstrom does not lead to its subject’s undoing, but Blomkvist’s. Wennerstrom had a stooge informant feed Blomkvist false information, which has come back to destroy the journalist with a damning libel suit. He is sued for the damage he’s done to the billionaire’s character. The substance of the object, either as picture or magazine piece, has evaporated. 

Henrik Vanger’s misinterpretations are based on a private lack of judgment. The floral pictures were birthday gifts given to him by his niece, Harriet, who mysteriously disappeared in 1966. And yet Henrik still receives a picture every year, anonymously. To him, it is apparent that Harriet was killed and the criminal is bent on tormenting Henrik by mocking her memory. This is the set-up that propels the whole plot into motion, as Henrik hires Blomkvist to find the killer, whom Henrik believes to be a member of his prosperous Nazi-ridden family. But in the end – at the expense of giving away the plot – we learn that Harriet did not die, but had disappeared in order to flee from the abuse of her brother Martin. The pictures were, contrary to Henrik’s beliefs, meant to communicate how Harriet was still alive and thinking warmly of her genteel uncle. 


            Blomkvist’s journalism shows the trouble of the public’s consumption of images and texts, which are reduced to vapor when economic power looms over them, able to manipulate public opinion through the wired frenzy of media sound bites overlapping each other, as we hear when the story breaks ("What is this? The media event of the year?" a frustrated Blomkvist says while pushing through festering reporters). Wennerstrom himself is a man with no substance, as we mostly see him surrounded by media cameras, buffered through camera eyes and email hypertexts. The one time we don’t see him under the camera eye is through Lisbeth’s voyeuristic surveilling of his building, and her gaze is itself machine-like. Whereas Blomkvist, regardless of any truth-telling in his journalism and life (“He’s who he presents himself to be,” Lisbeth, hired to do Blomkvist’s background check, says of him), is disgraced and sued for his life savings, the unethical Wennerstrom remains dignified in the public eye; a theme of Fincher’s film is how human beings are also texts to be analyzed, written on (and so abused). The meaning of print and images is strong, but for the wrong reasons. It’s telling that Fincher has Blomkvist, freezing in Vanger’s unheated cabin, burning pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country (in translation, mind you) for needed heat: words reduced to ashes and smoke. The irony is strengthened by how Vonnegut was a humanist who wrote about dehumanization (of which there is a lot in this story), imbuing his novels with science fiction, which is what one could say Fincher does here and in The Social Network.


            Lisbeth Salander’s existence testifies to the emptiness of language and inherent hypocrisies that the culture hoists atop a signpost of normality and sociability. After being assaulted by Bjurman (“Do as normal people do”), Lisbeth is alone in her flat. The camera moves in and arches over her until we see her upside down; later, after the infamous anal rape, she takes a shower, the composition deliberately horizontal. In the “straight” world, Lisbeth experiences up as down, just as truth is fiction for a fact-finding journalist like Blomkvist. The paradox is verbalized in darkly humorous sociological critique, applying to the modern day United States just as it applies to historical Sweden. In explaining the Nazi beliefs of some of the previous generation’s Vangers who joined the “National Freedom League,” Henrik remarks, “Isn’t it interesting how fascists always steal the word ‘freedom’?” Whoever controls language and the national conversation controls the world. The analog pen is an assaulting old-world weapon: we notice how Bjurman is bordered by two of them as he sits at his desk, or how Blomkvist chews on one while researching Harriet’s disappearance.  Old-school penmanship contrasts to Lisbeth’s mastery of the keyboard and the digital terrain. It’s in the digitalization of old photographs, on an Apple computer, that Blomkvist is able to open up the Vanger mystery, as meanwhile the chief antagonist Martin uses analog video and audio equipment in his torture den.



            Because of these absurdities and murky histories, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fits perfectly into the noir genre, which becomes more playful in a setting where the days are long and the landscapes are not laid in shadow. Blomkvist’s relationship to a pestering and precocious cat even feels a little like the early scenes of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, where a reimagined 1970s Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) tries to fool his cat with an unfamiliar brand of cat food, and is soon after played the fool by society and friends in the archetypal noir universe where nothing is as it presents itself. As “Immigrant Song” indicates, the fields so green whisper tales of gore. In daylight the duplicity is only more mocking, a feeling exhibited by a previous Nordic noir, 1997’s Insomnia (starring this film’s Martin Vanger, Stellan Skarsgard), which was also effectively remade by Christopher Nolan for Hollywood in 2002. In this clutter of contradictions and daylight mockery, it’s only in the coded pattern recognition of a computing automaton – like Lisbeth Salander – that an accurate depiction of the world can be painted.

That depiction is probably skin-deep, based on only facts and absent of emotion, a pure and cold analysis that rejects ideals of humanism, with motives and remorseful nuance. It’s a counter-attack on a “real-world” whose authenticity is merely a simulation. Lisbeth ceases dialogue. She understands that opinions, for example pertaining to her invasive research of Blomkvist, are susceptible to what Kubrick’s HAL calls “human error.” She’s not paid for that opinion, so she’s resistant in giving it to her employers. When Henrik's assistant Frode (Stephen Berkoff) asks about speaking personally to Lisbeth, her employer Armansky (Goran Visnjic) says, “I’m afraid that [conversation or speech] doesn’t mean much.” Her interaction is best epitomized by the aforementioned t-shirt, wonderfully displayed in her first dialogue scene with Blomkvist. He wants to talk, feed her, and ask for help. Fincher cuts back to her and we see “Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck.” She wears dialogue instead of speaking it, and we may remember the opening visual montage where the screaming humanoid has a horde of insects flying out of her mouth. Allusions to communication are elsewhere seen in Blomkvist trying to find a phone signal in a place where relatives, living next to each other, do not speak; or Lisbeth using dental floss to stitch up Blomkvist’s head-wound; and Martin’s teeth flying out after Lisbeth hits him in the mouth with a golf club. She is always subverting communication.


            In his director’s commentary, Fincher says of Lisbeth, “She’s specific to the Information Age.  She not only has a photographic memory, but if she’s going to take a record of something, she’s not going to write anything down.  She’s doing to take pictures of it, and she’s going to carry this camera with her…She’s able to take those photos and then put them on her laptop…She deals with information in a photographic way as opposed to the written word.”  Frode, wearing his suit (a marker that Fincher says is something Lisbeth has learned to distrust), is looking for an opinion, but Lisbeth does not function that way. When pressed for an opinion, it relates to how Blomkvist uses his body (he does not perform oral sex enough). Says Fincher, “Part of her inability to deal with the world has to do with [how] she doesn’t have opinions, she doesn’t trust opinions, she doesn’t trust hearsay. She only trusts data.” 


            But this isn’t to say that she is devoid of sentiment. (When I say Lisbeth is a cyborg, I'm referring to the metaphor; Mara and Fincher create something beautifully human). Her communication is highly symbolic, and when she offers a gift to one of her guardians, it is genuine. She clearly has some attachment to her original guardian, Holger Palmgren (Bengt C.W. Carlsson), though we never hear them conversing. It is indicated that their interactions are based on a highly analytical language played out in chess games. For his Christmas gift, she is attaching a ribbon not to a volume akin to the entertaining humanism of Vonnegut, but Bobby Fischer’s My 60, Fischer being an analytical chess genius who also got displaced from reality and sensible dialogue after blowing his internal mechanisms (and, maybe pertinent to the subtexts here, had an anti-Semitic streak). Tragically, just as Fischer’s internal mechanisms blew a fuse, and Lisbeth’s have before and may again, Holger is first found inert on the floor, having suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage. His brain, the analytical hard-drive, has crashed and Lisbeth is forced to be in the protective hands of the cold and hypocritical State and Nils Bjurman. 

            There’s a noticeable pattern of people telling others to quiet themselves, particularly with Lisbeth, whether it’s when she tells Bjurman to shut up (“Don’t speak. I don’t want to hear your voice. Just nod,” or earlier when she presses the MUTE button while showing him the video of his brutality to her) or when she surprises Blomkvist by jumping his bones (“You need to stop talking,” she tells him). Any communication with her is detached from the labyrinth of false words and made visceral by force of her body. The body is the text of truth. It’s where Bjurman’s identity – as a Rapist Pig – is scrawled. It’s through her aggressive sexuality that she shows her trust to a character like Blomkvist. She’s very specific about how she exacted revenge on her father, burning "80% of his body" (a figure fitting for an exacting cyborg like her). And of course, her body is texted with her dragon, the metaphor for her drive, in addition to her jewelry, hair coloring, and idiosyncratic gutter-punk clothing style. If she has an opinionated critique of Blomkvist, it has nothing to do with his lifestyle, but rather how he is a little inadequate in reciprocating with his body. Though he performs oral sex on Berger, he doesn’t do it often enough, “in my opinion.” 

            Conversely, in the duplicitous and superficial media, there is nothing but talk, talk, talk (at the reveal of Martin as the villain, we see him framed with a recording video camera, as if to tie him with the media). The movie’s key villain, Martin, has a marvelous gift of the gab, endearing Blomkvist in the company of kindly Henrik. You could say that Martin’s guilt is a little predictable for a genre film, where the most trustworthy character turns out to be the vicious antagonist (other examples off the top of my head being The Fugitive, The DaVinci Code, and of course The Long Goodbye). Instead of repressing discussion about Harriet, he amiably says “We can talk about it now.” His love for conversation is fitting for this film’s ruminations about honest/dishonest discourse. When he has Blomkvist – who, come on, is James Bond/Daniel Craig! – tied up and suffocating under a plastic bag in his sterile and stark basement dungeon, the typical critical response is negative, being that this is the tired moment, so common in Bond films, where the villain gets to explain his evil plans, allowing the hero time to find means for escape. “We can talk,” Martin says to his victim, “or we can just get on with it.” The absurdity of conversation is punctuated by how Martin places a glass of scotch in Blomkvist’s hand, which cannot possibly reach his mouth. 

            Fincher knows the James Bond cliche (though Craig’s casting is still probably nothing more than a nice coincidence). The scene works because of how it’s more revelatory about the narrative’s attitude about communication than the mystery’s solution. Martin controls the language and the image, as he records the moment on an old VHS camcorder. A master of manipulation, Martin can point out a lie in polite discourse. Blomkvist says that the dirt he has on Martin is on a secure website and that Lisbeth, perfect prey for Martin, is in Stockholm. “That’s a lie,” Martin says of both assertions, and is right. “People lie all the time,” while they also depend on their words to save them. Referring to his numerous anonymous victims (all apparently immigrants), Martin says they believe that “maybe if I say the right thing, I’ll live.” Martin’s truth is silent and only exposed in this white basement where the analog tape captures and seals it, selfishly containing it away from digital promiscuity. Even his music, a recording of Enya, is old-school analog tape.


            The art direction of Martin’s house is markedly different from the other Vangers; for example, the openly fascist Harald (Per Myrberg) has a house filled with shameless historical photographs. “I’m the most honest of any of them,” the frail Harald tells Blomkvist. “The family?” “Sweden.” In reference to the Nazi photographs documenting his past and beliefs, Harald distinguishes himself from the rest of his homeland. “Hide the past like they do? Under a shiny veneer, under an Ikea table?” The statement continues the motif of global relationships between Swedish and American businesses, as Ikea regularly decorates a lot of American homes. It also infers how corporate masks conceal undesirable truths. Martin represents the more lurid repressed side of corruption, racism, sexism, and violence. Unlike his father, he’s not interested in creating trophies and only wants to satisfy his urges, urges which make the same demands as they would on anybody else. “Mine just require more towels,” he says. His windows are transparent walls, the white spaces decorated with abstract paintings. The sense is much like the one created by Fincher’s hero, Roman Polanski, in The Ghost Writer, perhaps the other great movie of 2010 alongside The Social Network. 

            In Polanski’s Ghost Writer, the Martha’s Vineyard house of the Langs (Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams) is stuffed with abstract art, while language is thrown around in the media, ideas and opinions being read more than thought. As in Martin’s house, there is a lot of form in the Lang house, but no content or substance. The Ghost Writer, as I wrote about it last year, was about the end of history, where print, media, and propaganda reformat all contextualization, something that means a lot to a Holocaust survivor (and pariah criminal/fugitive) like Roman Polanski. This is also the theme, I believe, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, mainly embodied by Martin but also enacted in likable characters like Blomkvist, whose detachment from Lisbeth at the end, after their intimate life and death adventures together, could be misinterpreted as a chief dramatic flaw. Rather, it suits the post-human dimension of Fincher’s vision. (As a sidenote, when first I saw Oplev’s Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, its tiresome trope-laden action-television style made me think that the material, of victims, victimizers, and ugly truths, could work with the disciplined and commanding eye and darkly nuanced perspectives of two directors in particular, Roman Polanski – whose The Ghost Writer had just come out and impressed me immensely – and David Fincher). 

            Lisbeth silences the duplicity of speech and texts. Her computing nature shows itself when she memorizes the visual information Blomkvist provides. She points to her head and says, “Got it.” When she asks for Bjurman’s address, he asks if she has a pen. She says that she doesn’t need one (a rejection of the printed word, which can only be truthful when she uses the tattoo needle on Bjurman’s body). The lies and sexual violence of a respectable public figure like Martin Vanger are embodied in his house, its own kind of duplicitous text with whispering wind sneaking through (“I must have left something open”), where the opening doors sound strangely like shrieking women, as if the architecture were trying to yell its secret. The soundtrack to Martin’s tortures is Enya’s New Age hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” a perverse selection that hits a cultural nerve of relaxation, positivity, and self-help bourgeois escape, hilariously contrastive to the blood and guts we imagine were spilt during its playback. Lisbeth silences Martin not only by hitting him in the face with a golf club, but in the mouth, something accented by how Fincher has a tooth flying out of his face. When we next see him in close-up, his jaw is distorted by the injury. Lisbeth shows society’s speakers, be it Bjurman, Martin Vanger, or Wennerstrom (who is murdered off-screen because of Lisbeth’s cybernetic trickery, a disembodied virtual character then disembodied from his own corporeal existence) as they really are. Martin finally ends up like Blomkvist’s copy of Kurt Vonnegut (or Lisbeth’s fabricated passport in the film’s final Act), in a fire, a body whose text withers into floating ashes.


            A disquieting theme in Information Age cinema, be it The Departed, The Insider, The Social Network, The Ghost Writer, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the reduction of lives to texts, pieces of paper, where years and emotions are coded like one of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facemesh algorithms. The reduction of a Self to coded pattern recognition, as Lisbeth does for a living, saps beings of substance and is the ultimate invasion of privacy. Lisbeth was created by the State, which may have much to do with author Larsson’s thoughts on unsettling social programs in Sweden’s past, where progressivism marries Nazism through social engineering and eugenics. The "way of the future" and "progress" is a deformation, which may strike back at its creator with a vengeance. 

            Families are not beings linked together through a chain of biological relationships, but are stranded on an island together, isolated and not speaking (“Does anybody speak to anybody else on this island?” Blomkvist asks Henrik). Dialogue is stifled, and human care is impeded by money and ideology. After the libel suit, Blomkvist sits with his daughter Pernilla (Josefin Asplund), who says that “Mom’s worried.” “About me?” Blomkvist is surprised. “About the money.” Married couples are in relationships – but not with each other, which we see with Blomkvist and his editor/girlfriend Erika (the affair ruined his marriage, not hers) and unmarried Martin and his married lover Anna (Eva Fritjofson), unashamed to show her ring. Harriet’s relationship with her father and brother was an incestuous and abusive one, and a similar kind of abuse appears to be behind Lisbeth’s maladjustments. Any facts being what they are, people are agitated by having themselves written down, and one Vanger tells Blomkvist that she is “uncomfortable with this chronicle.”

I'm tempted to over-analyze things and, amidst themes of tribalism and the use of bodies as texts, comment that I think Fincher may have deliberately been alluding to Joe Pesci’s murder in GoodFellas, as Bjurman’s body, after being electrocuted by Lisbeth, falls almost exactly like Tommy DeVito’s. GoodFellas is a film about a tribal culture where violence is visited upon you under a friendly mask, sometimes by a good friend. The bodies afterwards either leave messages (as during one GoodFellas montage or corpses being found), or are buried as if the person disappeared without a trace. History is written in flesh, or eradicated into nothingness. 


            The relationship between words or texts with truth is something that can play into the ongoing debate of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s status as an adaptation of a popular book, or remake of a popular movie. Oftentimes there is the preposterous remark of how a movie completely neglects information in a book, and Fincher’s film is the latest victim (one of the best examples is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a canonical motion picture betraying its source material, and though in youth I hated Kubrick’s film because of my liking for Stephen King, the more I studied the film, Kubrick’s superiority to King’s fiction became more evident). The cliché in the debate is “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” but the point of Fincher’s film is “Which words?” Again, the narrative is based on a gross misinterpretation by Henrik Vanger of pictures. With his surplus of capital, Wennerstrom is able to control perception of himself and of Blomkvist (as the United States Supreme Court admits, Money counts as Speech). The honesty of pictures is questionable, and a picture with its amassment of words only proposes more open-ended questions and, in this film, leads to the interpretation of countering images. Fincher evokes Antonioni’s Blow-Up when Blomkvist tries to deduce a narrative from family albums, and then successfully creating a movie out of stills after he digitizes the albums, animating them on a laptop. In the moving image, Harriet Vanger comes to life and her vulnerabilities and concerns are clearer. She is no longer disembodied from the mystery of her disappearance, but obviously aware of impending danger.

            The mystery of Harriet Vanger, of Lisbeth Salander, of the floral pictures, or of Hans-Erik Wennerstrom relates to the biblical connotations in the story. Again, the cross is an important motif and can mean different things to different people. It obviously means something positive and assuring to Blomkvist’s daughter Pernilla, who is a member of the Light of Life Christian organization, and something negative or suspect to Lisabeth, who mocks the cross with Bjurman’s torture. In Harriet’s diary, she says “The world was created by the Word of God,” and yes, words create worlds that then rely on faith for their stability, faith being, Harriet writes, “the assurance of things unspoken.” Words and meanings are cluttered, however, continuing Fincher’s conscious irony of an English-language film for a predominantly imperial Hollywood audience, set in Sweden. Written words are in English, while official words, on checks for example, are in Swedish. The story told is always different from the story heard, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo blends the meaning of Seven with the uncertainty of Zodiac


            As in Seven (and like/unlike the deliberate uncertainty of Zodiac), the killer is communicating without using words, something that makes him a kind of archaic double for Lisbeth Salander, who communicates in code. Bodies are like ink: the first scene of Seven has Somerset investigating a “crime of passion,” where he says, “Look at all the passion on that wall,” referring to blood; in Fight Club, Edward Norton looks at a car that caught fire, his associate pointing out a victim’s fat on the backseat which he jokes is “very modern art;” or in this film, Martin informs the tied up Blomkvist, whom he will soon butcher, “You’re going to make quite a mess.” Bodies are meant to be deciphered, the contents of flesh disembodied from personhood or “essence.”


            Leading up to Harriet’s disappearance in 1966, there was a long string of missing women, whose corpses conveyed cryptic biblical parallelisms. Pernilla’s religious knowledge gives Blomkvist the hint (through, importantly, misinterpretation) of relating the bodies to Leviticus verses, where transgressors of the Law are given gruesome executions, the style of the execution meant to communicate the sin of which the perpetrator was guilty (stoning, dismemberment, burning doves, beheadings, etc). Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth, the woman who was able to put his life on paper (and so lead Henrik Vanger to hire him), as her analytic genius, comparable to that of a chess master, enables her to look at the data and construct an objective pattern recognition. The anti-Semitic Nazi pathology of the culprit, however, does not explain Harriet’s disappearance. 

            The procedural aspect of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is captivating, and it’s through this that Rooney Mara’s commanding performance of ferocious economy is exemplified. Fincher seems to again be in dialogue with his past films as Lisbeth goes to the public records basement to peruse data that has not been digitized. The scenes recall Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllanhall) problems with gathering stored information in boxes throughout Zodiac, but whereas Graysmith had to beg police officials to let him see documents, being severely limited by time and access to writing materials, Lisbeth Salander, so direct and robotic, unmoved in her mastery of any linear procedural, cannot be so easily removed. She knows the protocol of whatever she is doing more than the lowly secretaries and officials waiting on her. She arranges the world by analyzing images, setting up her own surveillance system around Blomkvist’s cabin (the glow of her eye doubling for the hard objectivity of the camera lens). When the friendly adopted cat is found massacred on Blomkvist’s doorstep, he is apoplectic and shocked, whereas Lisbeth cooly takes her camera and photographs it. It is another gruesome spectacle to be analyzed and interpreted for meaning, memorialized in digital permanence. 

            Her “processing” of information, whether biblical, forensic, or public data, reinforces her status as a cyborg and new kind of human being. Her physicality is similar to her mental habits, and Mara has developed a thoroughly unique body language for Lisbeth. The efficiency of her movement, for example on a train station escalator when she fights a thief who's nabbed her laptop (the computer being a vital organ of her existence), is demonstrative of a kind of cleanly linear and mechanistic quality miles removed from the conventional do-what-it-takes humanistic heroics of Noomi Rapace’s interpretation of the same scene, where the human desperation is more apparent and conventional. The quickness and economy of Mara’s Lisbeth in the same scene reminded me of the determined cyborg men of another Information Age filmmaker, Michael Mann, for example the contract killer Vincent (Tom Cruise) in Collateral during a nightclub shootout, or the reinvention of Crockett and Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx) during physical encounters in Miami Vice, one of which is appropriately scored to a song called “Strict Machine.”



            Mann, like Fincher with Salander, emphasizes the laser-focused machine-like quality of all three characters, the content of their violence having its protocol in landscapes where Romantic humanism is dwindling under electronic digital gloss and global economies depending on circulation without closure or fulfillment. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo shares Seven’s compositional symmetry, but with distinct graphic vectors of forward movement (usually on lit streets or dark hallways). The movement through space is like the linear, mechanistic processing of Salander. She economically compartmentalizes. She does not scream while fighting off the station thief, but she stops her punching, grabs him, and then screams in his face. It’s an A to B to C to D movement of action. 

            Her robotic physicality also makes the famous sex scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo more effective. In the Swedish version, Salander’s take-charge aggression with Blomkvist, where she walks into his bedroom and begins to furiously make love to him, feels like a gratuitous token sex scene. Rapace’s Salander is just a damaged woman whose sexuality is born out of her lurking pain. Both performances certainly evoke father-issues, which is central to the story (Pernilla has a relationship with the Christian God, praying before meals and studying her bible, but she also has a good relationship with her father, to the extent that they agree to be honest in their communication; this is the polar opposite of Salander's relationship with paternal figures).

            But with Mara’s interpretation, Lisbeth has the cold semblance of a walking, eroticized hard-drive. Like with her train station scream, the sex scene is a moment that is eerily appropriate in the atmosphere Fincher has created. The function and context is more examined, and certainly less gratuitous, in spite of Mara’s attractive appearance. Her performance is so effective and strange, that at times any erotic attraction to her (via Sucker Punch) is non-sensical, because she's like a new kind of hominid in a zoo with brutal human beings as zookeepers (for me, the performance's strange equal this year is Ryan Gosling's similar machine-man, neutered of human sexuality, in Drive). Her sexuality is as direct as her movements. "Fucking" is a form of communication, on a t-shirt that says Fuck You You Fucking Fuck, in bed with Blomkvist, at a nightclub where she takes initiative and puts her hand up a woman’s skirt, or during one of her recon adventures with Blomkvist as they close in on Harriet, who has been masquerading as Anita Vanger in London. Blomkvist’s code through the air of walkie-talkies is, suitably, “Fuck Me Fuck Me Fuck Me.” 



            The manifesto of Haraway points out how the dream for restoring a lost Eden is of no concern to the cyborg. All Edens are constructs of the same patriarchy seeking to mold and corrupt women. The cyborg’s plasticity exists moment-to-moment, adapting and reformatting in accordance to however she can subvert the oppressions of the malignant system that wears a benign mask. I do not think that David Fincher is necessarily a proponent of Haraway’s socialist-feminist schema, though elements of her manifesto are abounding through his film (and I’m certain they were an integral component of Larsson’s original ideas). His ironies are ahead of one-dimensional critics and commentators who would accuse his Lisbeth Salander of being softened and eroticized for Hollywood lenses, in addition to socio-political subtexts, but he is not philosophically dogmatic.

            Fincher himself represents a certain kind of cyborg, a technophile using new digital devices in filmmaking while also keeping in mind the line of his inheritance, which I believe was the theme of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, just as a link to the past is something that sets a Detective Somerset, spending hours in a library with Dante and Milton, apart from a Mills, who calls Dante a “faggot-poet.” Robert Graysmith’s time in the library sets him above accomplished reporters and police in interpreting the Zodiac killer’s puzzles. The dichotomy in The Social Network is between the Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers of the world, eager to create a new time with avatar identities (“the true digitalism of real life,” says Parker), and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who is concerned about friendship and family, and understands that “the silicon valley sluts don’t care about your relationship status.” It’s Michael Douglas’ confrontation with the repressed past that leads him, a callous man of wealth, to “win” at the conclusion of The Game. David Fincher, like Mann and Scorsese, is more of a Romantic than the post-modern insurgent Haraway prophesies. 

            But he empathizes enough with Salander that one can see how the embrace of cyborg digitalism is her only path to survival and victory. Like any “terrorist,” she was created by the perversion of myths. Mark Zuckerberg’s revenge on the meatspace world with his Facemesh website is a fitting rebuke to his enemies, as we see how men treat women at the respected Harvard fraternities, but it’s far less justified than what Lisbeth Salander does. Her whole life, her body has been manipulated by patriarchal culture; she assumes the role of manipulator, altering her own body so that her flesh becomes a weapon (for example, during the story's last act when she changes her appearance to foil Wennerstrom). In the alchemy of how Mara and Fincher collaborate, they avoid the pitfalls of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch where the women assume the role of empowered females, but are nevertheless gazed damsels in distress privy to an abundance of comely thigh-shots.

            When we first meet Salander she is far removed from the “normal” world of respectability, sticking out in her attire, treading corporate landscapes otherwise filled with suits and expensive apparel. Her presence as something other than human is emphasized by the music, which is a droning electronic pulse growing louder as she gets agitated. With her skills she is a ghost floating through walls and treading the virtual ether of electronic grids which give her more fitting kinship than familial relationships. Outside of Wennerstrom’s home, she is able to access a security code simply by hearing the bleeps of another resident entering a code. In electricity she is omnipresent and all-knowing, an individual panopticon counter-maneuvering the oppressive systemic panopticon. Is Fincher in dialogue with himself, as he was with Zodiac, which was arguably a commentary on Seven? The Social Network despaired over the digitalization of real life, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button mourned the ties to the past, the lost Eden of the blind clockmaker whose train station clock goes back in time, the analog time tying our present to everything preceding us. Clocks are abundant in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and rarely are they digital. The analog specter of a created Eden is in the hands of men like Martin Vanger, whose music and video recording equipment is tape, physical substance. 


            Nevertheless, Lisbeth Salander grows close to Blomkvist and sees him as a new guardian, a lover and father figure for whom she has blooming affection, in spite of the sexual relationship’s subversive character. Her liking of him is represented in the care she takes in making breakfast for him, and then later when she buys him an expensive leather coat, an emblem that would symbolically bind them together (and of course, Lisbeth is able to fulfill Blomkvist’s desire for revenge on Wennerstrom). During a chess game, she confides to her ailing former guardian Palmgren, “I am happy.” And it’s not a compartmentalized happiness, such as we would see in the neatly boxed McDonald’s Happy Meals she eats throughout the picture (as deliberate a reference to the compartmentalization of her emotions as her screaming). For a moment, she drifts into the intuitive realm of fulfilling fantasy, “normal” stability with another human being. 

            We see her use a pen, writing content on a card for Blomkvist, underlining “M” on the envelope. While sitting with him in a café, there’s an intertextual commentary going on with the faintly-heard music, which I recognized as the Swedish alternative band Shout Out Louds’ “A Track and a Train,” the title tying into Fincher’s visual approach of linear graphic vectors in the film. The lyrics to the song perfectly express Lisbeth Salander: “Everyone’s got someone, I’ve got no one / But I try to find out what to do with my life / Here it comes at last / And my heart beats faster than the train in my mind / Everyone can see me when I’m numb / And tell me what I look like / When I stumble while I try to find out / What I do to your life.” Lisbeth is numb, devoid of untrusted expressions, as normality for her was like the mechanical droning of the consuming vacuum cleaner outside of Bjurman’s office. Now her heart is not Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ electronic pulsing, but it’s beating to the Shout Out Louds, moving faster than the linear trains of her machine nature. 


It’s short-lived, and the feeling is disposed of like those Happy Meal boxes. Like the psychopathic Francis Dollarhyde in Mann’s Manhunter, she sees her love walking in another direction with a more socially suitable girlfriend, Erika Berger, and the bitterness swells, becoming blinding. She throws away the leather jacket, her token of symbolic exchange, and gets back on that steel train-track, hopping on her bike and moving away from the redemptive fairy tale myth of a restored domestic paradise of “home.” Others memorialize the past, their “Rebecca” cases (an allusion also to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, where the uncertainty of the past lingers in the form of a missing woman), but for people mistreated by whatever system in power, memorials and the past are anathema. Harriet Vanger, upon hearing of Martin’s death, says that she’s “not interested in memorials.” But she goes back to Henrik, the two reunited and the circle closed in its consoling loop of restored patriarchy. Once more, Harriet Vanger becomes Harriet Vanger, getting off the rails to elsewhere. But the sentimental image leaves a foul taste in Lisbeth’s mouth.

            David Fincher’s vision of Lisbeth Salander is dually tragic and empowering, unable to fit into our definition of “human” but acknowledging that whatever is accepted as “human” has a foul history deserving of its subversion. On her motorcycle while chasing Martin Vanger, Lisbeth recalls James Cameron’s Terminator, menacing and invincible in the task of obtaining its quarry. Too honest by virtue of the patterns in her highly advanced thought structures, she cannot be a part of our world, and flies away from us. Her ability to assume different identities is because she lacks essence, her riddance of a stable identity a defense mechanism. Most of us have two selves active all the time, though we’re unaware of it. Witness how Blomkvist, on a flight to London, pours two bottles of liquid into a cup at the same time, like he were drinking for two people: the polite social self, and the instinctual self. Martin points out how our natural instincts are foiled by politeness, even if it means walking into a serial killer’s house once he offers a drink and some small-talk. For him, also a victim of abuse, the performance is conscious.

            These characters -- Martin and Lisbeth -- were created, Lisbeth being Sweden’s Frankenstein’s monster molded by representatives of the polite and normal world of patriarchy and “home.” Her post-human alienation punches us in the face and she flatly defines us for what we are, as actions and characteristics are too often wiped under our Ikea furniture. She mirrors approved corporate dehumanization that we take for granted, and when one of her transgressors realizes he’s gone too far, like Bjurman, pleas of forgiveness are useless (“I feel quite bad about what happened,” followed by a ZAP). Mara is unsettling with her unblinking stare, addressing our hypocrisies and repressions. She is a portent of what lies down the tracks of the new millennium, waiting for us in a numb new world of packaged emotions and empty dialogue. 

            Finally, comparing the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to David Fincher's film is like comparing the Cliffs Notes of Hamlet to Shakespeare’s written poetry (I would say a more immediate example would be like comparing Brett Ratner’s by-the-book hack adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon to Mann’s masterful Manhunter, or Mick Garris' author-approved version of The Shining to Stanley Kubrick's; or how about comparing Salieri's composition of a tune for Emperor Joseph II when compared to Mozart's revision?) For those who still insist on the packaged emotions and limited resonance of the Swedish film, I should refer you to that t-shirt Rooney Mara's Salander wears. Interpret the message as you will.