The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ☕ d. David Fincher, 2011

Last year, I published a review of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; I also published a defense of remakes.  As my review of Män som hatar kvinnor made clear, I did not like the original film; as my discussion of remakes made clear, I have nothing against remakes in principle.  My fear was that David Fincher’s remake would essentially be beneath his talent, which would make it pointless primarily in the sense that an already-odious story was bequeathed an unearned aura of respectability by an artist that should, by now, have developed the sense to do better things with his time.  Since initially publishing those thoughts back in March 2011, another factor developed that I had not anticipated.

My review of Män som hatar kvinnor has been one of the most consistent hit collectors on my blog.  I’m grateful for the traffic.  But I’m torn between amusement and horror.  You see, a majority of the search terms that pull up my blog are Google searches for the rape scene.  I’m amused by the fact that people specifically looking for images or videos of a vicious anal rape are redirected to a blog whose subtitle is “The place where Christianity and film meet for coffee.”  I’m horrified by the fact that most of the people who find my review of the film are specifically looking for the rape scene.

This is why I’m going to spend what may seem like a frankly creepy amount of time talking about that aspect of the film: because the ethics of representing sexual violence on film ought to be considered, given that there’s evidently a sizable audience that craves it.

Let’s take a moment, first, to pay lip service to David Fincher as a craftsman.  Jim Emerson (one of the truly indispensable elocutioners of cinematic craft) appreciated the film’s sound design and the internal logic of shot compositions and how they keyed into the film’s editing rhythms.  Since Emerson’s discussion of the editing was tied primarily to an intricately-structured flashback sequence, and since he chose that sequence because it was highlighted in another online source, I think it presents a slightly skewed vision of how tightly the movie is actually crafted.  Don’t get me wrong.  The sequence Emerson discusses is, in fact, one of the highlights of the film (even though the golden-tinting of The Past is a trope I’d like to see go the way of “Freedom Fries” as a potato strip nomenclature).  Upon the whole, however, the film suffers quite a bit from the ponderous, inartful nature of the screenplay.

A contrasting sequence that, in theory, features an intricate cross-cutting of personal breakthroughs for the two protagonists actually provides a negative contrast with the flashback Emerson cites.  As Lisbeth exacts revenge upon her rapist, Mikael simultaneously strings together the sequence of photographs that show Harriet at the parade looking at someone across the street.  In my post on the first film, I specifically cited the photograph sequence as an example of something that film got right.  Here, it barely registers.  An argument could be made (and it probably has been) that by cross-cutting Lisbeth’s vengeance with Mikael’s investigatory triumph, we are getting an insight into what makes them both tick; into what makes them such a great pair.  Both are relentless, intelligent seekers of justice.  And I’m sure that Mikael felt quite good about having pieced together that clue with the sequence of photographs.  Yet spliced with a scene in which a waif kicks a huge dildo up the ass of a naked, hairy fat dude who’s strapped to the floor… well, it loses a bit of its visceral punch by contrast.

Not to mention that the physical and visual continuities of each scene are rendered more jagged — thus sabotaging momentum — by the technique.  I don’t know if this sequence was written that way, or if it was Fincher’s own stroke of misguided inspiration.  What’s more, because the content of the revenge scene is so pungent, it’s hard to recall the specifics of framing, sound, and color after only one viewing.  It’s my recollection that the harsh glare on the wood-paneled bedroom in Bjurman’s bedroom is no match for the bluish tint of Mikael’s cottage.  In fact, now that I think about it, I’m not sure at what time of day these events are taking place.  Did Lisbeth attack her warden at night?  Did Mikael string those photos together in the afternoon?  It’s my own failure that I can’t recall these details, but I still posit that a filmmaker so attuned to craft might have foreseen that such a daring attempt at crosscutting might fail in precisely this way.  It disrupts the aural and visual continuity that the editors took pains to preserve in the flashback sequence.  Is it a good aesthetic decision to fragment and neuter the respective moments of triumph of the two protagonists?  My vote is “no.”

More troubling is just how little Fincher can do to inject a sense of urgency into the many, many scenes of expository dialogue.  This is — sexual violence and Nazisploitation notwithstanding — a murder mystery, and murder mysteries, as a rule, are dominated by a succession of scenes in which the detective gathers clues by interviewing witnesses and potential suspects.  Unfortunately, Mikael is a rather bland character; apart from being ruggedly handsome (due more to the fortuitous casting of Daniel Craig than innate character traits) and exhibiting the habit of dangling his reading glasses from his ear, he blends into the background of virtually every scene he’s in, whether it’s a sitting room, a snow-covered island, or a serial killer’s torture chamber.  And since the narrative structure unwisely keeps its protagonists separated for half the film, the one character with the potential to arrest your attention — Lisbeth — is mostly relegated to dialogue-free sequences of slinking through corridors, getting equipment from her hacker friends, and getting raped by her social worker.  She, too, tends to blend into the background, but you get the sense that it’s more because she’s a creature of this horrible, twisted world.

At any rate, the elegant compositions — tributes to Sven Nykvist though they may be — did not, for me, elevate the mundane, expository dialogue.  The brightest spots in the film, apart from Rooney Mara, are veteran character actors like Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard, who supply the seedy charm.  Even the man who plays Lisbeth’s despicable rapist, Yorick van Wageningen, manages to give a nuanced performance in a role that virtually guarantees him awkward cocktail party conversations for the next two years.

The most significant advantage this film has over its predecessor (beyond Fincher clearly being a better filmmaker than Niels Arden Oplev) is its treatment of Lisbeth.  No, not in the sense that she’s venally subjected to sexual humiliation in order for the film to bolster its “edginess.”  Rather, it’s the combination of a slightly better rendering of the character in the script stage and a slightly less self-consciously “iconic” portrayal by Mara.  Noomi Rapace was all defiant swagger, with her brief moments of vulnerability mostly relegated to physical confrontations in which she was outmatched.  It was a strong performance, and it was clearly calculated to convey the internal anger and power of will that held a damaged character like Lisbeth together; more than that, it was calculated to balance out the violence to which she was subjected.  “Look how strong she is: she can take it!”  The U.S. remake tries a slightly different approach.  Mara’s Lisbeth doesn’t swagger; she stalks along, shoulders hunched, drawing as little attention to herself as possible in terms of movement.  Her gaze is steady and clear, but it gives the impression of deadness, rather than coldness; not that she’s unintelligent or unaware, but that she’s detached on a fundamental level.  That detachment in the original took the form of a domineering persona; in the remake, it takes the form of an apparent withdrawal — even though, in fact, Lisbeth is still a warrior.

Reconceptualizing the basic tenor of the character does much to justify the remake.  More importantly, Mara’s Lisbeth is given an genuine emotional arc.  Whereas the Swedish film emphasized Lisbeth’s independence and general badassery, she was essentially the same person at the end of the film as at the beginning, save that she now had a sorta-kinda-maybe friend in Mikael.  When she screws over the corporate douchebag that landed Mikael in jail in the original, it was partly to help him, but she also helped herself.  In the remake, she pulls the same stunt, but not with the apparent aim of getting a little for herself.  The sequence in Fincher’s film ends with her returning to Stockholm and buying a gift for Mikael, only to throw it in the trash when she realizes that he’s still hung up on his fellow editor at Millennium.  For Mara’s Lisbeth, there is independence and general badassery, but she also forges a deeper emotional connection with Mikael; she takes a tentative step out of the shell she’s built around herself, and it’s genuinely sad when her fragile heart is broken.  For all the horrible things visited upon her in the film, watching her drive out of sight into the inky streets is a trenchant moment, because there was a real investment there that simply did not exist in the original film.

Ultimately, I think it’s this aspect of the film that, for me, mitigates the tastelessness of the unnecessary rape scenes.  Though Lisbeth as a construct can’t help but be an avatar for the kind of vigilante fantasies the first film so artlessly exploited, it’s clear that Fincher and Mara worked very hard to give her an identity apart from her function in the labyrinthine plot.  That means, in retrospect, that the rape scenes weren’t in there exclusively for the sake of titillating those who get off on such things; they were shocking depictions of a character with severe vulnerabilities being brought low for no good reason.  That makes Lisbeth’s violation something truly sad — it builds empathy, though only after the entire film has been endured — as opposed to something used as a pandering, mean-spirited trick to manipulate the audience and reduce Lisbeth to a mere icon of postfeminist vengeance.

Was the violence necessary to the plot or character development?  No.  But at least the film treated Lisbeth as a real character.  An argument could be made that this only exacerbates the problem.  Frankly, the aesthetics of the scene are even more problematic than the first film, but in a different way.  Oplev filmed the rape in a shock-and-awe manner (exploitative, but thoughtless), whereas Fincher relied more on creeping dread, and (disturbingly) reveling in the power Bjurman asserts for himself, which suggests a more thoughtful approach.  Ethically, I think that’s a bit more troublesome, especially since in terms of power dynamics, Lisbeth’s revenge is undermined by Fincher’s technique.

As Emerson has demonstrated in his analyses of The Social Network, there are likely to be subtleties laced throughout the film that could be detected and considered upon further viewing, but since I don’t really care for the story, those minor moments of brilliance will likely not add up to a rewarding experience for me.  (A second viewing is highly unlikely.)  For others, this might not be the case.  Fincher’s Demme-like fascination with the perverse, a la Silence of the Lambs, is balanced by his careful attention to character.  While his ace editing team can’t quite massage the kinks out of the unwieldy story structure, that dedication to character development does retrospectively fold Lisbeth’s violations into the fabric of the film in a way the original never did.

In terms of the dynamics of audience response, I’m not qualified to speculate on deeper levels of meaning.  Once again, I think I’m less disturbed by the actual film than I am by the voracious appetite its audience has for its most exploitative elements.  I’m loathe to hold a ravenous pack of ghouls against a decently-constructed film just because there are elements that pander to that demographic, yet I can’t help thinking that such an expert cinematic gamesman like Fincher might have found a way to subvert their expectations.  This is only my a priori expectation, of course: yet another thing I can’t intellectually justify holding against the film.  But it still bothers me.  And I’m sure it will bother me more once I start getting hits for “Rooney Mara rape scene.” ☕


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

31 responses to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ☕ d. David Fincher, 2011

  • jubilare

    “odious story was bequeathed an unearned aura of respectability by an artist should should, by now, have developed the sense to do better things with his time.”


    Not a film I could bear to watch, I think. I will ask this question, though.
    Is it indeed possible for a filmmaker to subvert the expectations of an audience that seeks out scenes of sexual violence in a story such as this one?

    • mjschneider

      That was indeed an embarrassing typo, and it has has been fixed. :)

      You ask a very pertinent question, and I wish I had some sort of cogent response. I wish that this film *was* a cogent response. I’d like to think that, in theory, it is possible to subvert the expectations of an audience that seeks out scenes of sexual violence, but I don’t know how you’d do that without simultaneously pandering to the same group. Oliver Stone tried to skewer the exploitative nature of our media in Natural Born Killers, and his failure was monumental in the way that only truly visionary filmmaking can be. Had David Fincher attempted something similar, he might have pulled it off, or he might have failed admirably in the attempt. What is your line of thinking?

  • jubilare

    Glad to help. :)

    It seems to me that the only way to really subvert those expectations is to not contain such scenes at all. I would be very impressed if a filmmaker were skilled enough to maintain the necessary emotional impact without showing the rape, but I think that such subtlety would be lost on most of today’s audience. Also, in this case, from what I understand, the catharsis of one of the protagonists IS a scene of sexual violence. That complicates matters still farther.

    We humans are messed up creatures. We all have aspects of ourselves that are damaged, corrupted and deranged. This is not an excuse for our behavior, of course, but it explains a lot, and I am sure I am telling you nothing new. My point is simply that, given this corruption, the point of violence, abuse, or sexual violence in any art form can, in a moment, become irelevant. Whatever the intended message is, for some people it will be lost amongst the visual stimuli. Add to that our ability to single out sections of a film to view out of context, and the whole thing breaks down.

    In short, if I show egregious violence in a film to make some “point,” the point will inevitably be lost on some viewers. Perhaps it will be lost on many viewers.

    All this makes me frustrated with the current trends of accusing artists of any medium of cowardice if they shy away from “gritty” scenes. Appreciation for subtety seems largely lost on the bloodbath.

    • mjschneider

      I think what you’re talking about is really the crux of the matter in terms of an ethical aesthetic of violence. Any time you depict sensational behavior, there will be people who respond primarily to its sensationalism, as opposed to its meaning. This is inevitable. The problem is that a filmmaker may have the most serious and noble of intentions, but even those can be perverted by an audience. Is it the filmmaker’s responsibility to head those audience members off at the pass by, as you suggest, circumventing that content entirely? Or should the filmmaker simply do his best to present the content in a context that preserves its artistic integrity?

      I’m with you in that it’s a shame that attempts at subtlety are branded as cowardice; I also agree that skillful technique can convey a similar, parallel impact to the more graphic scenes. But it’s not exactly the same. And then there are those who will unapologetically argue that there’s nothing wrong with pandering; that crass exploitation is just as valid and artful as nuance, and hand-wringing for it is just a bunch of sissy prudery.

      I attended two panels on Miike Takashi at a convention this last weekend. Both of them revolved around showing clips from his films that showcased the “extreme” content for which he’s known. Very little was said about how that content is deployed for thematic reasons, how successful Miike was in developing those themes, what he was trying to say, or even the nuts and bolts of his craft. Instead, the clips were clearly selected and screened because the panelists knew that the people in the audience wanted to see a bunch of crazy shit. Nothing more. I was very disappointed, but, in retrospect, I suppose I should have expected as much. The point is that these are the kind of people that have no problem explicitly and unabashedly enjoying scenes of rape, torture, death, and sexual perversion. And even if those scenes were contextualized in a way that justified their aesthetic presentation, it wouldn’t matter. You’re right: they’d just take the clips out of context and celebrate them on their own. And if anyone dared to question it, they’d tell them to STFU.

      In principle, I think there’s a place for subtlety and a place for explicitness. In practice, the latter is clearly favored by people who have too little skill to employ the former. David Fincher is a filmmaker that I think possesses the skill to use subtlety effectively; it’s one of the reasons that Zodiac is such a great, critically acclaimed film. That’s why Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was such a mixed bag. I was disappointed that, once again, the sexual assault was retained (though it serves no narrative purpose), while at the same time sort of impressed that he managed to tell a human story, even with all the exploitative baggage inherent in the material. Could he have subverted the audience’s expectations? Yes, probably. But that would have resulted in an entirely different film. I would have preferred to have seen that film. But since it’s not fair to criticize this movie based on a nonexistent one that I hypothetically would have preferred, the best I can do is try to sort through the elements that are present in this one, and develop a consistent, defensible position from the issues it raises.

      That’s what I’m wrestling with, though. A big part of that is that I’m not sure if I’m comfortable adopting a position that effectively tells other audience members what they should/should not feel comfortable enjoying or watching. That’s why the audience response element looms over my consideration here.

  • jubilare

    Case in point that just occurred to me. The very fact that we are discussing this topic will lead people searching for it here, regardless of the manner in which we are discussing it.

    • mjschneider

      Very true. In fact, I got a hit for “rape scene man som hatar kvinnor” on Sunday. I had been considering not discussing ethics of representing rape in this review at all, but that nudged me into going through with it. Since I posted this review, the only searches I’ve gotten are much more general, but it’s only a matter of time.

      On the bright side, maybe these searchers will actually read the discussion and be inspired to reconsider their own position. One can only hope.

  • jubilare

    “Is it the filmmaker’s responsibility to head those audience members off at the pass by, as you suggest, circumventing that content entirely? Or should the filmmaker simply do his best to present the content in a context that preserves its artistic integrity?”

    In my opinion, the answer to this question is contextual. As you suggest, sometimes the explicit scenes are necessary for the impact to drive home the point of the art. Sometimes the subtle way will not suffice.
    I also think that in many, perhaps even most cases, the subtle way is actually stronger because the sensationalism, as you call it, does not distract viewers from the nuances of the film.
    When there is shock involved, there will always be a “loss” of part of the audience. Some people will be too engrossed by the images themselves to notice any point, while others will be too shocked to process anything beyond the immediate trauma. I am usually in the latter category. I do not handle violence on screen very well. It tends to blot out everything else around it like an eclipse.
    All that to say that there ought to be more discretion among filmmakers as to when violence is necessary. I feel that, at present, the assumption is that the audience is so “used” to violence that spectacular brutality is needed to have any impact. To me, that’s like creating super-bugs by over-using antibiotics. …Brutality on screen should not be used as a first resort.

    Well, you can try to tell people what they should or shouldn’t feel comfortable watching, but I think you know that A. it won’t make any difference, and B. as a reviewer that isn’t your place.
    You are well within your arena, though, to express the effect, or likely effect, of explicit brutality in a film. A filmmakers job is to consider how the film will communicate with the audience, and as a reviewer, that is something you must consider as well. As a person, you’re also free to rag your audience about the search terms that bring them to your door. :P

    • mjschneider

      I think you articulate the problem extremely well, and I pretty much agree with everything you said. Great thoughts. The one addendum I’d make is that in a lot of cases, I think it goes beyond the filmmaker assuming that audiences are accustomed to brutality; I think a lot of them aggressively push it. My own reaction to this is wildly inconsistent. I greatly enjoyed Planet Terror, for instance, but I hated The Machine Girl. But that’s on the level of straight-up exploitation cinema, and you generally know what you’re going to get if you choose to watch that kind of film. I think it’s more problematic in the case of more self-consciously “serious” mainstream films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which doesn’t cultivate the aesthetics commonly associated with exploitation, yet which presents a story whose building blocks are clearly rooted in sensationalism. There are elements in the film that are definitely exploitation, but it’s wrapped up in a package that feigns a more rarified ambition.

      I would say that Fincher, in particular, isn’t the kind of filmmaker to push violence just to push it for shock effect or for his own sick enjoyment, but there are films that do, even while they beg to be taken more seriously than they deserve. To wit, Eli Roth made quite a fuss about how his Hostel films are actually some sort of commentary on capitalism and American attitudes or something. That may be the case, but he is also unapologetic about showing messed up stuff for its own sake. He then uses the highfalutin’ sociopolitical stuff as a weak justification for his (and his audience’s) obvious bloodlust. I detect a similar strain in the apologetics for The Devil’s Rejects. Fincher’s Fight Club was controversial at the time of its release, but I think that’s because he skittered a little too close to the line Oliver Stone toed with NBK, in that he adapted his style to the material, creating empathy with the subjects he was satirizing; by giving the audience the same rush as the nihilistic characters (and wallowing in their violence), he risked seeming to endorse it, when that was not the case at all. That’s his only other film that I felt pushed the envelope in terms of representations of violence.

  • jubilare

    hope springs eternal, and it’s a good thing it does because life likes taking shots at it.

  • jubilare

    Ah, indeed. As much as I dislike the idea of filmmakers creating murder-p*** (I’ve already been mistaken for spam once, I don’t want it to happen again!) and its like, creating disturbing imagery and attempting to justify it with a weak and yet self-righteous “purpose” is worse. At least the straight up violence for violence’s sake is honest with itself and its audience as to what it is.
    The kind of arrogance that causes such justifications, though, is pervasive throughout all art forms, and all kinds of films. I’ve seen you mention a few times that you dislike Cameron’s Avatar, and while I don’t know why you dislike it, I know why I dislike it, and a large part of my problem with it hinges on the arrogance woven into its very structure, and the blindness of the majority of its audience that accepts it for what it claims to be rather than what it actually is. But I digress.

    Oh dear.

  • jubilare

    Much more coherent than my rant would have been, but you seem to have similar issues to the ones I had with the film. That is most of my underlying grievance that was so much inhanced by the wretched character-development and the fairly painful script. Ugh. I would watch it as a silent film without dialog just because it’s that darn pretty, but pretty much everything else either disapointed or infuriated me. I have never watched Titanic, but if it is half as baldly manipulative as Avatar I think I might throw something at my tv.

    • mjschneider

      Titanic is manipulative, but more in that old fashioned Hollywood way. If you like three-hankie romances set against the backdrop of historical tumult/disaster, then you might be more forgiving. One of my friends recently saw Titanic in 3D in the theater, and was blown away. It made me reflect upon the fact that I haven’t seen the film since it first came out, and my judgment now might not be as harsh as it comes across in my Avatar review (which was written, obviously, before the rerelease of Titanic, and therefore before my conversation with my friend). I do, in fact, think Titanic to be a perfectly passable piece of entertainment; just not on a level commensurate to its commercial and critical success. But maybe I’d think differently were I to watch it again.

      As far as Avatar… I’m inclined to agree that it would work much, much better as a silent film. I don’t remember, but I think my wife and I might have even had the same thought after we initially saw it. My basic objections to the film’s muddled, offensive thematic concerns would still remain, though. When you delete the dialogue, though, I think the character development would become more tolerable — perhaps even persuasive. (!)

  • jubilare

    I am very picky about romances, which is one of the main reasons I haven’t bothered to see Titanic. If it were just the disaster film, I probably would have watched it for the period-snapshot, technical mastery (which my father lauded) and the possible human interactions. Romance, though… this means so little these days, but I am an Austen fan. I am one of the Austen fans that pretends Keira Knightly’s “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t exist. You can’t water down Austen’s satire and human insight, fluff up the romance, and get anything other than your run-of-the-mill chick flick, and I mean that in the worst possible terms. Austen did not write “romance,” so much as she wrote social satire with romances mixed in. That is what I like to see: interesting romances sans fluff and, when possible, relatively little emotional manipulation.
    I am aware that some level of emotional manipulation is inherent in theater, necessary even. I suppose it is “gratuitous manipulation” that I object to as much as “gratuitous violence,” though for slightly different reasons.

    The inherent “white savior” problem would remain, but some of the “noble savage” flatness and “Eeeeeevil white corporate” might be softened sans-dialog, but I am not sure of that. It is rather hilarious that the character development might improve so much without dialogue. That speaks well to its technical construction, at least. Someone should make an experiment. Silent Avatar! :)

    • mjschneider

      I wouldn’t mind seeing quite a few contemporary blockbusters get the silent treatment. I’ve often wondered how Transformers would play with nothing but the score playing along with it. Just this morning, I watched Spielberg’s Tintin, and while I did like it with the dialogue, I also wondered just how different the experience would be without it, carried along entirely by the wonderful images and Williams’s score.

      I didn’t like the Joe Wright version of Pride & Prejudice much, but I’m not sure what my basic position is on the romance genre. I’d like to say that I don’t go in for manipulation, but since one of my favorite movies is Casablanca (if not *the* favorite), that can’t possibly be true. I also enjoy a chick flick rom-com from time to time, though most of them are not very good. Titanic is certainly emotionally manipulative, and either you’ll go with the romance or you won’t, but at least the film isn’t bogged down by so many other ideological issues. A case could be made that Cameron tries to take on class difference, but I tend to think that the class warfare guff flows from the convention of star crossed lovers being from different social strata, rather than a commentary on social strata using the romance to leverage viewers into sharing its perspective.

      Random Austen note: have you seen Lost in Austen yet?

  • jubilare

    Oh the luscious irony of the idea that we might return to silent pictures. :D

    I loved Tintin, but the thought of it silent is very intriguing… I might like that too. Removing dialog from films is a really interesting idea. It makes me want to see how films I know well would be changed without their words.

    I am picky about my romantic comedies too. I tend to hate them though there are exceptions.
    I may give Titanic a chance one of these days, if I find the time.

    Nope. I don’t know that I’ve even heard of it.

    • mjschneider

      I do recommend checking Lost in Austen out, then. It’s a fantasy about a modern-day single woman who swaps places with Elizabeth Bennett. Be warned: it emphasizes the romance, rather than the social satire. Yet I think it’s honest about how many (if not most) readers react to P&P, and while it’s not as heavy on the social critique, it does explore how “escapist fantasy” is a sort of power fantasy, in which readers exhibit control over the fates of the characters in order to fulfill their own desires, without pausing to reflect on how just or honest their own desires are. I found it to be a very witty and satisfying romantic comedy, if a bit heavier on innuendo than Austen herself. I heartell that there’s a Hollywood remake in the works, so you might consider hopping on the bandwagon before it gets crowded. As an added bonus, a good chunk of the cast has appeared in Doctor Who. Alex Kingston is Mrs. Bennett, and she is dynamite. In fact, I think it’s my favorite overall cast for a P&P adaptation.

  • jubilare

    I will prod it, then, and see. The idea sounds intriguing, though they better not have watered down the characters. I can forgive emphasizing the romance so long as the character dynamics are more or less intact. ‘

    Wooo… yeah. It’s important to realize the temptations inherent in fantasy fiction. Coming back to Avatar, the “wish fulfillment” aspects of that film were so blatant that they were ludicrous. If one is going to go in for wish-fulfillment or escapism, one should be honest with oneself and one’s audience as to the purpose of one’s creation, no?

    • mjschneider

      I’ll be interested to see what you think of how Lost in Austen reframes the character dynamics. I won’t say more than than at present.

      I agree that escapism/wish-fulfillment should be honest. I think that’s part of what made Avatar so offensive: Cameron’s misanthropy is so clear and obvious that it was impossible to view the film as anything other than a self-disclosed wish to escape from everything that he thinks characterizes humanity. The eco-fetishism of the film sets modern “humanity” in opposition to “nature” (both of which are intellectually dishonest constructions on his part, but it’s clear that he believes in them), and he blatantly privileges an anti-human worldview. I’ll give him credit for being honest about his escapist aims, with the consequence that I deem his film to be ideologically rancid. I figure that’s a fair exchange.

  • jubilare

    You feel that he was honest about the escapism? Hm… perhaps he was. I felt, though, that he was masking his escapism by mixing it with a “message.” Escapism+message is really iffy in my book unless one has a message about escapism. I may be mistaken, but my thought process goes something like this:

    If I project myself onto the heroine and then have her championing a cause about which I want to raise awareness, then my goals for the story conflict. I have one self-centered and one other-centered goal, and the two will be tangled up together and make a mess. I need to either choose the escapism, or choose the cause, they cannot co-exist without cheapening or complicating eachother.

    • mjschneider

      That’s valid enough. I guess I’m just thinking about it in different terms. The way I saw it was that, for Cameron, the self-centered emotional escape was inextricably conflated with the other-centered thematic message. By projecting himself into the hero’s place, he couldn’t leave his ideology behind. I think that for a lot of people, a proper piece of escapism is one in which the situation and characters are as close to blank slates (the better for easing the process of projection) as you can get without sacrificing actual characterization. But without bringing along all his baggage, I don’t think Cameron would have felt that the escape was genuine. The world he created into which he would feel satisfied in escaping was constructed as much out of his politics as his disconnect from reality.

      In fact, I would argue that his disconnect from reality is directly related to his politics. That’s probably true of most of us, it’s just that I think most escapist fantasies dovetail fairly well with the basic value assumptions of the audience, which is why we tend not to get hung up on what the escape would mean in political or ideological terms. Since Cameron’s basic assumptions run counter to how I personally view the world, or perhaps since I’m more attuned to how ideological assumptions are signified and coded in narrative and representation, what for him would be a relatively open and non-controversial fantasy was, to me, a hamfisted slap in the face to the human race. That’s why I feel that he was honest: as self-conscious as the message was, I don’t know that he would be capable of creating an escapist fantasy that was not heavily inflected by his prejudices. He simply assumed that his prejudices would be universally shared.

      What you describe, though, is a pretty good formula for diagnosing how Cameron failed. There’s no way that he could create an escapist fantasy that would be universally accessible (the self-orientation) because it was too closely bound with his message (the other-orientation). I might suggest that perhaps his ‘self-orientation’ — the part in which projection takes place — was actually too anchored he-himself and his values. Does that make sense? I feel like I’m futzing the terminology too much to theorize this with clarity…

  • jubilare

    It’s a tough thing to theorize about, clear language or no.

    The way you present it does seem honest but faulty. We cannot know Cameron’s though-processes for certain, but I think it is fair to assume that most creators of train-wrecks involving escapism plus message are unaware of the collision course they have set.

    I feel I ought to clarify that it is trying to balance escapism and message that is the problem. One may have elements of both, where one is clearly dominant, and create an effective story. Trying to do both at once with equal force is what is problematic. And you are right, we do tend to react more negatively to viewpoints that disagree with our own when they are represented in this way, than viewpoints that we share. However, it is quite possible to be aware of this problem even when the viewpoints fit in with our worldview. I have been bothered by this in stories before. I usually just call it “preaching,” but preaching in a story can include puppet-characters as well as escapist projections. Puppets and projections are not always found together.

    I come at this from the p.o.v. or a story-teller. I write, a lot. I write stories, and so these considerations are always before me. I refuse to project myself into any of my characters, but I am aware that they are all, by their very nature, connected to me. The pitfalls we are discussing are pitfalls I have to watch for in my own work.

    • mjschneider

      Preaching is always a toughie. And I think Avatar fully qualifies as being “preachy,” so in terms of being a problem of balance between escapism and message, I’m in total agreement. Re: Cameron’s mindset, I also agree that I don’t know his thought-process for certain. I can only go based on what he’s expressed in interviews and what is up there on the screen. What I perceived I expressed in terms of psychoanalysis, which is unfair, and I should have found a better way to do so. Another way to say it is that I don’t think this particular movie could have been expressed in any way that was at all balanced, since its message seems to have been part and parcel of the escapist premise. I also don’t know how to interpret the film as escapism apart from its themes, since they’re so inextricably interwoven. I’ll grant that it is not intellectually sound to say that “James Cameron hates humanity.” At the same time, I can’t be honest about the nature of his work or my reaction to it if I don’t form a judgment that says something along those lines. I guess I should have erred more toward the “along those lines” than the lines I actually used. Part of why I tilted into the rhetoric I did is because I also approach narrative film from the perspective of a storyteller, and I could not imagine myself writing a story like Avatar without explicitly intending to convey the impression that Avatar made upon me.

  • jubilare

    Alas, some storytellers are more aware, and more objective in evaluating their own work than others. There’s no way to know for sure about Cameron, but I think you were justified in your review by this consideration.
    Whatever is in the film, is in the film. Even if Cameron was not intentionally misanthropic in the creation of this movie, the misanthropy is there and ought to be pointed out and addressed.

    • mjschneider

      Thank you! That’s what I was trying to get at, but you put it much more clearly. What’s in the frame is in the frame, and what’s in the frame in Avatar had my blood boiling.

  • jubilare

    You and me both. It also had be rolling my eyes when I wasn’t clenching my teeth…

  • jubilare

    I was reading Orthodoxy today, by G.K. Chesterton, and a quote made me think of our conversation here re Cameron:
    “We have said we must be fond of this world, even in order to change it. We now add that we must be fond of another world (real or imaginary) in order to have something to change it too.”

    Perhaps there is a fundamental though subtle difference between fantasy and escapist fantasy. Escapism skips over the love of this world, and seeks to abandon it for another, while fantasy offers either ideals or truths (sometimes very harsh truths) meant to be applied to the real world. Just a thought.

    • mjschneider

      That’s a great insight, and kudos to both Chesterton (of course) and yourself. I think that’s a great distinction. It seems to me that perhaps, using your distinction in terms, Cameron set out to create a fantasy, but instead created an escapist fantasy instead — which might be part of its broad appeal, but might also be the source of its manifold thematic problems.

  • jubilare

    Its problems are probably more readily apparent to those of us who don’t want to escape into the world he created. :P

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