Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Dark Night in Aurora, CO

I am profoundly sad to hear of the tragedy that occured in Aurora, CO, during the midnight premiere screening of "The Dark Knight". This tragedy has touched my heart in many ways, for numerous reasons.

I, too, was at a July 20th midnight screening - and much like victim Alex Sullivan, I was ringing in a new year, celebrating my birthday. The difference was, I got to go home. 

I consider movie theaters sacred places. I am an avid fan of the "movie theater experience" which like many rituals, is at the mercy of change. Sure, people still attend theaters, though the process has become much less "ritual" and more of a chore. I remember the days of the movie theater ushers in vests, who ripped cardboard tickets to stubs, and the buckets of freshly popped kernels that shared your seat (or guarded one for a friend). Believe it or not, there really was a time when silence was golden, and people generally understood that the movie theater was a time and place to stop talking and indulge in fantasy in a dark cavernous air-conditioned space. Despite the rising ticket prices and more environmentally-friendly packaging used at concession stand, less people appear to see movies as simply an experience you lose yourself in - but rather a social space that allows you to keep one foot firmly rooted in the "real" world of gossip and gadgets. $15 dollars now buys you a chance to share a row with a glowing cell phone screen, ringing mobile, chatty guest, or the occasional patron who invested so little in hygeine preparation for a theater visit that he has failed to shower or decides to floss his teeth mid-movie (yes, this has happened). I am a big believer in the ritual of the movie theater and its innate magic, still present in an increasingly small number of screens (mostly art house establishments) tucked away in unassuming streets, overflowing with history and personality - as opposed to those homogenous cineplexes. To sum up the romanticism - movie theaters are meant to be fun and full of surprises - on screen. Audiences are meant to partake in their suspension of belief and let themselves go - real life isn't supposed to exist outside those four walls for the duration of the picture. Perhaps this made the unprecedented events of July 20th even more confusing to moviegoers watching an action sequence when rounds were fired that claimed innocent lives and injured countless more.

In the wake of such inexplicable and maddening tragedy, the public will undoubtedly scramble to find sense and meaning in such a horrific act where often, there is no logic or reason to be found. Talk will inevitably spread and fingers will be pointed. In such a scenario, the media is always the first to be blamed. Norway's mass shooter was reported to have played 'Modern Warfare 2' and the Columbine school shooters were known for playing 'Doom' and listening to Marilyn Mansion; violent puppets strung along by their addictions to modern media. (For the record, Aurora's shooter was reported to have an addiction to 'Guitar Hero' - yes, the innocuous rock and roll guitar game.) During difficult events, the public wants answers immediately, and they look for simple answers to complex problems and situations. No one is denying that media does have some impact on our behavior and perception - we can look no further than the real-life decimation of the shark population following the on-screen arrival of 'Jaws' or the insecurities many girls feel about their bodies as a result of being subjected to constant media portrayals that represent an unrealistic body type shared by only 5% of the general population. However, when someone commits a violent act, they are ultimately responsible. Many people are rushing to judgment about the killer's mindset, insisting he is insane. That is for a team of mental health experts and a courtroom to decide, studies have shown that those afflicted with mental illness are no less violent than any other segment of the population and these attacks were clearly pre-meditated and heavily calculated. Again, this is not for me to decide nor does gossip achieve fast answers, but there is a danger in assuming someone is simply crazy and writing them off as absolved of blame. Gun control issues and political debates will also swirl. The 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution allows citizens the right to bear arms. Certainly, America's Founding Fathers lived in a different time and couldn't have imagined such an event - or the advent of an AR-15. The debate will rage on, the public will pick sides and argue, and none of this banter can bring back the innocent lives lost or forever changed by these horrible cowardly acts.

Changes to movie theaters will also inevitably be drawn up and discussed, as will policy alterations. Supposedly, the killer used an Emergency Exit though no alarm sounded when he entered, security detail was clearly lacking on this fateful night. The public will clamor for solutions; including increased security guards, bag checks or metal detectors, all too reminiscent of what happened in post-911 America. Is any of this truly "American"? Why has the instinct to tragedy been to overprotect and allow fear (the intention of those who commit terrifying acts) to win out? Many citizens have expressed fear at seeing the film or going to movie theaters. It's a sad fact that bad things can happen in any place, at any time - Yet we continue to wake up, leave the house, and go about our lives - we move forward. "Moving on" does not have to mean forgetting a tragedy or dishonoring the fallen. If they had a chance and a voice, I imagine those who perished would want their family and friends to continue to enjoy the precious gift that is time, breathing, and living.

Censorship at movie theaters will no doubt be discussed - paranoid reactions include comparisons to the Roman Empire that reveled in the sight of blood - only for them it was a stadium (and real) and not a movie screen. "Are movies too violent?" Parents and concerned citizens ask. They speak as though the world was once an idyllic place where violent acts never occured in the romantic past. (Nevermind the World Wars or gang violence that swept the country during the Prohibition Era... How many violent movies were people watching then? And what of music - There was a time when Elvis was blamed for causing juvenile delinquency for swinging his hips...) Naturally, investigators are combing through Batman comics trying to find references as to what might have "inspired" such a killing and will look for answers and a link anywhere they can - including new reports an old Batman comic features a theater shooting. Coincidence or comics as villain? As a proponent of media literacy, I must concede that media does have some impact on us, and that our individuality, sanity, and life experiences (and family intervention - or lack thereof) play a role in how we internalize what we see. Parents do have a responsibility to discuss violence with their children, who sadly will grow up in a world where violence and negative happenings do exist, regardless of the presence of media. Does shielding them from reality help or hurt? More debates. What is known is that a 3-month old baby was harmed in the event and a 6-year old girl was killed, both were taken to a movie that was neither G or PG, and past midnight. Clearly, these parents had no idea such a tragedy was waiting for them, yet one has to wonder why these children were there to begin with. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children what is appropriate, educate their children about violence - both in real life and on screen - and must take an active role in molding their children to be effective citizens and decision-makers, this is not Hollywood's job nor is it the role of the music industry or media. The killer was not inspired to go on a rampage because of "The Dark Knight" - he had not even seen it, it was premiere night. Naturally, the media will take full advantage of this awful night to promote their own agenda as only they know how - inciting more fear and sensationalism to sell papers and gain ratings. In the blame game, there are no innocents.

The bottom line is that no simple answers abound nor do instant solutions, and no quick fixes will bring the lost back. The best we can hope for (and do) is to not allow this tragedy to get the best of us or allow fear and evil to win. Even in the movies, the bad guy rarely comes out on top. Lets put down our pointed fingers and remember and honor those affected by such an unfathomable event. Lets embrace the cinema and continue to live our lives as we always have - with an awareness that tomorrow is never a guarantee, and thus we owe it to ourselves and those who are no longer with us to seek comfort in the challenges of creating new memories and experiences with those we love and to indulge in our passions, simple pleasures and rituals. This is how we win and overcome.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

There's Something about Salander...

The world can't seem to get enough of Lisbeth Salander, the main character of Stieg Larsson's
books (The Millenium Trilogy; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), whose adventures have resulted in international bestsellers, three Swedish films, and one new American remake (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or 'Men who Hate Women', as the book is titled in Sweden). Salander is one of the most interesting literary and film heroines to appear on the landscape in years, a goth hacker and Ward-of-the-State turned vigilante.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I will be careful not to reveal all its secrets - they are worth unraveling on your own. The first book/film tells the story of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist trapped at the epicenter of media scandal, accused of libel. He finds an unlikely ally in cyber hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth, who believes he has been set up. The duo team together to solve the mystery of a tycoon's missing niece, believed to have been murdered 40 years prior by a member of her family.

Author Stieg Larsson met an untimely death at the age of 50 of a heart attack, himself having been an investigative journalist like character Blomkvist. The books were written as a hobby and were published posthumously to massive acclaim (Larsson was in the middle of the 4th book when he passed, and had supposedly outlined 10 books total for the series, forever leaving audiences curious about Lisbeth Salander's future). Larsson witnessed the brutal gang rape of a young girl he felt powerless to stop, which haunted him for years and supposedly served as the basis for his creation of Salander, a youth who falls through the cracks of a broken system and suffers a lifetime of abuse at the hands of family, guardians, and doctors. Lisbeth Salander doesn't see herself as a victim, she chooses to fight back, and exacts revenge on those who have harmed her (or seek to harm others).

There are countless reasons audiences are so drawn to the mysterious female protagonist of the books and films; Lisbeth is altogether different. Unorthodox and unapologetic, Salander is in a class all her own. On the exterior, she is anything but conservative - her gothic design seems to be a reflection of a life of hardship - her dark clothing, piercings, and tattoos intimidate while offering an inner glimpse at Salander's physical and emotional pain and societal disdain. Described as "boyish", about 4'9", with small breasts, anorexic weight, and the occasional mohawk, Salander seems to defy convention yet is accepted whole-heartedly by the mainstream, who seem to overlook her peculiarities and love her, regardless - and despite being an unlikely heroine or sex symbol, finds her place in the public's favor as both, quite the accomplishment.

Salander's piercings and tattoos are her personal wallpaper - her war paint in a seemingly neverending battle of personal and societal torment.

In fact, Lisbeth physically dons war paint in both the American remake of Dragon Tattoo (in the infamous scene with character Bjurman) and in the Swedish film The Girl Who Played With Fire, while interrogating a suspect. It is as if Salander has to visually transform to mentally detach and work up the intensity to serve up her own dish of personal justice against societal predators.

How she is written in the books versus the Swedish and American screenplays differs slightly. Having seen all versions, my personal favorites are the original Swedish film trilogy -notably the first film, all portrayed to perfection by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace in one of cinema's most electrifying performances of recent years. I wondered if any actress could live up to such a tour de force - American actress Rooney Mara breathes an altogether different energy into Salander that while unique, does not quite capture Salander as pictured in my mind (I anticipate an Oscar nomination). Sweden's Rapace brings the unpredictability, uncertainty, frightening intensity, and a social awkwardness to this complex character while Rooney's Salander is overly matter-of-fact, perhaps a bit more designed for mainstream likability (telling the occasional one liner for audience kicks) and overall, more action hero than believable troubled girl. Both portrayals are noteworthy and intriguing, but Noomi Rapace seems to understand Lisbeth and inhabit her skin to an uncanny degree - her Salander is strong and guarded yet fearful - she reminds me of a squirrel - small but incredibly muscular, ready for anything, and convinced an attack is inevitable so she must be prepared - a ticking time bomb ready to detonate. The sculpting of Rapace's body for the role makes a great deal of sense and everything right down to her dragon tattoo is far more intense than the US remake.

Part of the success of the Swedish films comes from the remarkable chemistry of actors Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. Both are actors who have the rare gift of saying a lot through mere glances, words are unnecessary to peg the complex relationship between the two. The backstory of the characters is more fleshed out in the Swedish film, where we come to understand the public's fascination with Blomqvist while Salander remains enigmatic. In the American remake, Daniel Craig portrays a far less charismatic Blomqvist [than Nyqvist] and plays the journalist as an extension of his character James Bond - an overly confident man with little vulnerability - and zero chemistry with Rooney Mara, though you'd never guess that from the racy promotional materials that seem to bring far more heat to the union than anything that materializes on screen. While the American version has a longer and more graphic intimate scene between the characters, the lack of screen chemistry, misconstrued relationship, and poor onscreen representation of their connection suggests that the point has been altogether lost in translation, as evidenced by the promotional materials.

Note the American poster of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I have censored it here). I can't recall an American poster for a mainstream film bearing this much nudity - which is often more of a problem for American audiences than European ones. Lisbeth Salander is an abused young woman yet here, she is being exploited by the very person who could perhaps be the only man in he life that would never harm her. If Lisbeth were a real person, she would never have allowed such an invasion of her privacy and would have been quick to kick the photographer - I'm certain this poster would NOT meet with her approval. The poster and subsequent photo shoots are completely out of sync with Larsson's brainchild and example, which sought not merely to entertain but also to draw attention to the societal issue of violence towards women (at the hands of men) and misuse of power by those in authority positions. The promos, like much advertising, use sex to sell Lisbeth Salander to an audience - cheapening her existence and dulling the point. The sex appeal Lisbeth harbors comes largely from the fact that she doesn't try to be sexy - her attitude, brains, and talents are enough to intrigue and attract. Compared to most of her contemporaries, Salander fascinates because what is inside of her is far more interesting than what is on the outside, so to see the poster and promotional materials err in such a fundamental way is tragic - Salander is about the prevention of abuse, not the encouragement or objectification of women, which her character detests.

In general, the Blomkvist/Salander connection was flubbed in the remake and their connection lacked credibility. In the Swedish version, one tends to see more of their personalities and backstory and can understand how such a seemingly mismatched connection (on the surface) could materialize in reality. Both Blomkvist and Salander are, in their own way, outsiders, both are sharp minds and intellectually curious investigators who oppose the establishment, and both find themselves in positions of vulnerability they don't simply accept - they are both defenders and speakers of truth, who believe in justice and understand it has an inherent cost and one they are willing to pay - both would die for their convictions. In the American remake they are wooden, cold and hollow cardboard cutouts trapped in an action movie who exude far too much confidence, ultimately making the characters less interesting and mysterious; The film is essentially an action movie peppered with sex to sell the characters, while the European version kept the focus where it needed to be and humanized its leads, while still allowing them to share a secret or two. The Swedish version focused more on Salander while never revealing too much, and the film enjoyed a more heroic ending for its lead. That said, both Mara and Craig's performances had impressive moments - even if at times misguided, and the American version is still quite good in an altogether different sense, especially if you have no point of reference for the story - and is an interpretation that, while entertaining, misses several points that made the Swedish films and books great, though it has its own strengths (notably the opening credits sequence, one of the best I've seen in a long time and the perfect way to set the tone for the film). Sexuality and violence are graphic in both films, yet the Swedish scenes appear to have purpose while the American scenes feel more exploitative. The books were written, after all, to draw attention to the plight of abused women - not to encourage it. As with many things in the American remake, the script also has misguided moments (When Blomqvist first meets Lizbeth, she threatens "if you touch me, I'll more than zap you" as she hides a taser, even though Blomqvist has pointed out "I'm the guy you know better than anyone." Indeed, Lisbeth knows no harm will come to her from Blomqvist, an innocent.)

In summary, I applaud the efforts of both the European and American cinematic attempts to tell this story - which I consider to be an important one, and I am grateful for Larsson's contribution and wish he would have had more time to tell this unique story. Salander is an incredibly empowered, capable, and brilliant young woman who uses more than just fists to fight against societal corruption. She gives abused women a voice and options and I find her story heartbreaking and her journey compelling. I admire her, as much as you can any fictional character, and while I am personally glad I am not Lisbeth Salander, it gives me hope that there are women out there who can learn something from her. She doesn't simply accept circumstance or that she is "unlucky", she does what she can with what she has and uses her skills to try to find solutions to her most vexing problems (and those of society). She is also a reminder that you can't judge a book by its cover.

I am most reminded here of the jury's assumptions of her in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and how she uses her ingenuity in the most horrid of human conditions to expose the truth and prove she is more than they can ever assume.

Indeed, Lisbeth Salander is a character that both men and women can respect - and they better, she won't have it any other way.