Monday, June 18, 2012

J.M. Tyree: The Archive Fighter

Archive Fighter: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
by J.M. Tyree
Film Quarterly

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s latest antiblockbuster, is a baroque rethink of the serial-killer subgenre; a subtly retuned adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s penny-dreadful Millennium trilogy; a technical achievement of narrative compression and pacing in a mainstream thriller; and the most recent proof of the director’s trademark habit of unleashing bad vibes in the multiplex. It’s a sick kind of holiday movie. The story is bookended by two Christmases—a year its two protagonists pass among murderers, sexual predators, and a wealthy family with a history of sadistic brutality (and Nazi sympathies), all stirred up by a cold case involving the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old girl from a private island. With good reason, Fincher called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo “the feel-bad movie of the season.” The director renders its source material in the coolly droll yet fundamentally shocking and disturbing style of his previous films about psychos, Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and Zodiac (2007). In the manner of Tod Browning’s subversive 1931 take on Dracula, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo frightens the viewer while injecting grimly fiendish jokes into an earnest literary artifact with an intractably complicated storyline.

Like Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and The Social Network (2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie subdivided into dozens of impeccable segments, some lavishly arranged shots lasting no more than a flashing second or two. Among the first in this series of mini-films is the peculiar titles sequence that recalls both Fincher’s early days as a director of music videos and the James Bond movies’ graphic set pieces. It features a fittingly icy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” vocalized by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. Along with this gender-bending, the song’s lyrics provide signposts for interpretation of a film that will “whisper tales of gore” set in remixed Viking landscapes. The sequence’s images of black sludge dripping from motorcycle tires, laptop keyboards, electronic wires, deadly flowers, dark phoenixes, and faces vomiting coins and stinging insects (a reference to the pseudonym, Wasp, of the eponymous hacker in Larsson’s novel) suggest the stylized iconography of a world drowning in liquid evil. These and other touches of deliberate artifice—Polaroid-tinted flashbacks, talking text from the primary victim’s diary, establishing shots of moving trains and snowbound houses that turn landscapes into glimpses from nightmares, multitasking montages that playfully detach sight and sound, and Fincher’s toxic light filters—at once encapsulate and provide layers of chill to distance the awful horrors in store. The movie’s sound design often intrudes, consistently and violently, in ways that lend a surreal aura to the noise of passing trains, closing doors, and moving elevators.

These reminders of unreality also might serve as annotations to a story that is about acts of reading and misreading. Both the novel and the movie begin with a major interpretative mistake. Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal), missing for forty years from her wealthy family’s enclave, is presumed murdered. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), has been receiving mysterious packages each year containing pressed flowers, posted from around the world. He hires a disgraced investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), to look into Harriet’s case, and Blomkvist takes on freelance security consultant and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as his research assistant. Together, they uncover what Blomkvist describes as a story of “rape, torture, fire, animals, religion— am I missing anything?” Of course, everyone is missing something in this thriller, namely that the flowers are being sent by Harriet herself to let her beloved uncle know that she remains alive, rather than by a clever killer attempting to torment Henrik.

Why the most obvious assumption about these secret messages is never made could be the focus of a Derridean highlight reel about the slipperiness of writing, from the expanded definition of the word in 1967′s Of Grammatology (the flowers form a kind of living hieroglyph) to the games about letters in 1980′s The Post Card (Harriet’s flowers are messages mailed but not adequately received). Fincher’s emphasis on textual instability and the control of documents intersects with what Derrida calls the “politics of the archive” in his 1995 essay Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (translated by Eric Prenowitz, University of Chicago Press, 1996, 4). In Melancholy and the Archive (Continuum, 2011), Jonathan Boulter calls archive fever “an addiction to past events which transforms the subject into a crypt” (141), and in Fincher’s film all manner of often macabre texts, images, and objects entomb as much as they disclose, as if attesting to a semantic death drive and to haunted memory. Newspaper clippings, crime-scene pictures, binders of family snapshots or tourist photographs, corporate files and libraries, Bible codes, encrypted documents, video surveillance clips, scars, and of course tattoos record—even if they do not always spell out—nightmare crimes. Larsson’s novel mentions a “death book” that Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård) fills with research on his potential victims, but in a way the whole story is an elaborate memento mori.

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