Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Elegance of Understated Cinematography

Something which truly impresses me about Swedish filmography- or perhaps it's only that of directors Niels Arden Oplev and Daniel Alfredson, as I'm not that familiar with Swedish films in general- is the understated simplicity and elegance with which it tells its story. The film versions of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played With Fire" are simply exquisite because they do not fall prey to the maudlin sentimentality and looming soundtracks that often characterize Hollywood blockbusters. Salander is not sexed-up; her awkwardness, innocence and frightening violence are all represented matter of factly. This fact struck me most when watching the torture scene in "The Girl Who Played With Fire." It is not night outside. It is not thunderstorming. There is no sense of classic horror to the scene. The scene is kept the same as it was in the book; Salander is simply a girl going about her business, acquiring the information she is looking for. It is the fact that there is no clashing crescendo of trumpets or instruments, that her predicament is not weirdly exaggerated but is presented as a simple truth, that affects us so powerfully. We relate to Salander because our emotions have not been manipulated at all. The film tells a story but it doesn't tell us how to feel about it. While in Hollywood, Berger's open marriage and her affair with Blomkvist would have been played up big time, it's hardly mentioned in the Swedish film at all. And Lisbeth's violence is not glamourized- it's not action-popping glorious and therefore unbelievable- but is factual.

Here's the torture scene I am referring to:

See how factual, clean and clear that scene is? Notice the sunlight, the lack of terrifying music, and the simplicity with which Salander goes about her task. That elegant and horrifying truth gets to us because it is presented so honestly, without any glamour or any dressing it up.

Compare to the scene where we see another painted face talking- compare to Hollywood.

There's good reason that The Joker is a comic book character whereas Lisbeth Salander can be seen as a real human being. Notice that the Joker needs to be in a background suitable to his violence- in a bare prison cell, with harsh fluorescent lights upon him, and eerie music building up to a feverish pitch- in order for us to take the scene seriously. Not so with Salander.

Here's an excellent example of where America gets it terribly wrong:

This film should have been the story of the horrors of physical abuse. It should have been simple, understated, elegant, featuring Rihanna and Eminem with Rihanna as the abused victim and Eminem as the abuser. Instead, we get pretty people trying to act out some sort of love story- Megan Fox and Dominic Fee- which is patently absurd and not even remotely true to how domestic violence actually plays out. We get Rihanna in reddish-pink hair and pink claws baring a lot of skin outside the artfully designed burning house. We get Eminem in some random field in the middle of nowhere. And what they've done by presenting this travesty, this utter mockery of a music video, is killed the power of the song. They've alienated the listeners. The reason we were interested in "Love The Way You Lie" was because we felt that the people who were singing it really knew what they were talking about. Anyone who has listened to Eminem's "Kim" knows that he has the vicious feelings of a potential abuser. And we all know about Chris Brown and Rihanna. It should have been them acting out this video- and acting it out in a way that left us sickened, disgusted and horrified by the trauma and pain of domestic abuse. It should have had the understated elegance of the scenes in Daniel Alfredson's movies, not the blowsy color of a whore decked out in cheap polyester, rayon and a thick layer of clown makeup.

Alas, here in America, we've been given this arty, pathetically inaccurate portrayal which makes domestic abuse look kind of sexy- and which makes houses burning down kind of cool.

Way to go, Joseph Kahn. Great job directing a film that's going to make every girl in America wish she were abused- as long as it's the abs-baring Dominic Fee who wanders around punching the odd mirror and mournfully consoling her with rose-bearing teddy-bears.

It's about as tasteful as pretending rape is fun.


George MCCasland said...

Now he should consider making one showing that nearly half the batterers are women. Such as the Major League Baseball Pitcher who was beaten on by his girlfriend, a super model, while driving in their car on a California freeway at the same time it was happening to Rihanna. I guess it male victims don't make all the news. It was just a back page story in the LA Times.

Annette's Story: The Other Face Of Domestic Violence

shualah elisheva said...

domestic violence [perpetrated by both genders] is still largely ignored by the media, despite "domestic violence drives" and shelters and purple ribbon days.

it's a nasty, depressing blight, so we'd rather romanticize it as best we can [see: eminem video]. it affects people across the spectrum: frum yidden, homosexual couples, long.married heterosexual parents.

kudos to you for pointing out the problems with depictions of violence in the media. i wish more people were so aware.

M said...

Different cinematic styles accomplish different things, and skilled directors and editors use the techniques appropriate to their films. American filmmakers by no means "get it wrong"; they simply aren't, by and large, of the minimalist school that many Europeans are.

Chana said...


But it follows, does it not, that certain styles are more suited to certain portrayals? For example, a period piece should certainly be lavish, but a film that is meant to horrify *should* be a minimalist venture- as the best ones are. There's a reason "Schindler's List" is still the best-known Holocaust film; it has a great deal to do with the use or lack of use of color. I'm willing to bet American remakes of the Lisbeth Salander series will be terrible in comparison to the European (which is not measured in terms of how many theater-goers there are;
American taste is hardly refined); that's because this isn't the right story for that medium.

M said...

Certainly the style of the film should reflect its genre and thematic goals. But minimalism can be expressed in many ways, not only through the absence of a significant score. There is much to be said for a balance of the atmospheric with the minimalist-- as you seem to have enjoyed Inception (as did I) I would mention that I consider Chris Nolan to be very adept in blending these two approaches.

What I'm saying is, there is more than one way to create moving cinematography, whatever one is filming. Certainly, the minimalist approach can be intensely powerful, but it is not the right way to do things. In my opinion (however much that may be worth) effective films are created when the expectations of the audience are successfully manipulated by the filmmakers in order to create cinematic texture. This can just as easily ask for a minimalist approach in a torture scene as it would for a fantasy sequence in a romantic comedy; there is no prescription for successful tone.