These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.
The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.
The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.
The latest statistical yearbook of film in the UK is now available for free download (or online access) from the BFI website. The 2012 yearbook has all the details of film in the UK in 2011 – a particularly good year for the UK industry.
I’m already on record as arguing that this was a pointless production, so I wasn’t an impartial observer on my cinema visit to see this film. However, I felt I had to see it and having done so I must slightly revise my original condemnation. In preparation for watching the Scott Rudin/Steve Zaillian/David Fincher film, I first looked at the DVD of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. When I first saw that film in the cinema, I don’t think I really appreciated it because I was still wrapped up in the novel trilogy (see comments on this posting). I then, on the same day, watched the Fincher film and consequently went back to the novel. There is so much plot in the novel that I couldn’t keep all of it in my head and I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of what I first read in 2008/9.
My first surprise was that I really enjoyed watching the Swedish version again. I was very angry at the rather dismissive tone of many critics towards Oplev in both the promotion of the Fincher version and the reviews of that film. Oplev is treated as if he were almost an amateur. In fact, the Swedish film is a highly competent piece of filmmaking and works very well. I also found myself quite emotionally involved with Mikael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace as the principals. The Oplev film runs to 152 mins. The Fincher film is only 5 mins longer but it includes quite a lot more plot as well as an extended title sequence. I was surprised to discover that the Zaillian script for Fincher is actually more ‘faithful’ to the book – although it can’t, of course, include everything in the very densely plotted 500+ pages. One odd point is that despite what I read in some interviews about Zallian/Fincher not wanting to watch the Oplev film, they seem to have taken certain scenes from the first film rather than from the book. (One example is the scene in which Lisbeth Salander’s computer is trashed on the Stockholm rapid transit system.) We seem to be in the same territory here as with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. The big Hollywood production attempts to distance itself from the original film by claiming fidelity only to the book. All this posturing seems quite silly to me.
The Zaillian/Fincher film is highly competent. It looks good and moves along at a fair lick over 157 minutes. I wasn’t impressed by the music or the stylised credit sequence that everyone seems to be raving about – but that’s probably just a matter of taste. (The squirming black oiled objects in the title sequence made me think about Nazi paraphernalia – not sure if this was the intention.) The music in the Oplev film is not memorable – but it isn’t obtrusive either. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara perform their roles as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander very well. But that’s what they are – performances. I didn’t feel for the characters as I did with Nykvist and Rapace. I was quite taken with Robin Wright though – she was much closer to my idea of Erika Berger. In the end the Fincher film kept my attention but I didn’t really feel engaged. It was just another Hollywood crime thriller. Despite the Swedish locations it didn’t feel like a Swedish story. I’m aware that this is dangerous territory for a critic and I’m sure that there are Swedish audiences who prefer the Hollywood film with its stars (see audience figures below). Mikael Nykvist is something of a Swedish everyman appearing in many films – he doesn’t look or act like an action star. This means that Swedish audiences might be bored with him, but he is ‘fresh’ to overseas audiences. Daniel Craig has to ‘act’ as if he isn’t a big star and I think the shtick with his spectacles, stubble and bewildered look sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous.
The major issue for me is that this Hollywood film doesn’t seem to know what to include/what to leave out of the story. Symptomatic of this quandary is the way in which some actors use an accented English ‘suggesting’ Swedish and others don’t and how certain documents appear in Swedish and others in English. Nobody uses Mikael’s nickname ‘Micke’. But perhaps the best example is the depictions of the Nazi past in the Vanger family. Where the book and the Swedish film refer to the ‘Winter War’ (between the USSR and Finland/Germany in 1939/40), since this wouldn’t mean anything to the multiplex audience in North America, it’s left out of the Hollywood version. In one interview Fincher states quite clearly:
“The mystery of this movie wasn’t that interesting to me. You know, Nazis, serial killers, and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools wasn’t the thing that . . . the thing that was first and foremost was this. I hadn’t seen this partnership before. I hadn’t seen these two people working before to do anything. So I liked the thriller and I liked the vessel of that, but I was really more interested in the people front and center.
. . . I had read a lot of stuff in The New York Times and in different magazines about the Steig Larsson story. But I think that the actual sort of political leanings of the material are probably not the reasons why the book was optioned or the reason why everybody waiting for a plane at La Guardia are reading this book. It has less to do with everyone’s fear of the ultra-right in Scandinavia. So no I didn’t . . . like I said, my interest was that it had a ballistic envelope and it had aerodynamics to it. Obviously, 60 million people thought it was a ripping yarn. I thought that part was a ripping yarn. But the thing that interested me most was these two people. (From the interview here.)
I’ll return to Fincher’s interest in the couple a little later but here’s another example of missing the point – the Millennium offices in Fincher’s film are opulent and styled to the nth degree. In the book and the Swedish film they more accurately reflect the parlous financial state of the magazine. I wonder why the Hollywood production spent so much money on beautiful photography on location in Sweden which doesn’t seem to capture the feel of Sweden as presented by Larsson and Oplev? And when it isn’t beautiful, the photography and editing tend towards the tricksy. The Swedish film leaves out large chunks of the novel’s plot and possibly distorts the narrative but it still feels ‘right’ as a representation – perhaps because the small details are authentic. The Swedish adaptation also exists as a two-part mini-series for Swedish TV running at 180 mins (in 2 x 90 mins parts). I’m not sure what is in the extra 38 mins, but the cinema film seems coherent to me.
Now that I’m re-reading (skimming really) through the first Larsson book again, I’m beginning to recognise the overall structure of the trilogy much more clearly and the way in which everything points towards ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ – the literal translation of the Swedish title of the first part of the trilogy. Zaillian’s script includes more plot than Oplev’s film but doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – and Fincher clearly isn’t interested in the politics. Overall, I think that I prefer the Swedish version but having seen the Danish TV series, The Killing, I think that the best format for the Larsson adaptations would have been as weekly serials on television in 1 hour episodes. Then we could have seen everything, including the magazine business issues which are largely ignored in both adaptations, but especially in the Swedish film.
Will Sony/MGM make films of the other two books? The Fincher film has taken $140 million worldwide so far with major markets like France still to open. It did very well in Sweden and Norway and in the UK. However the budget was $90 million (Box Office Mojo) so it is still some way from even covering costs (only around 30%-40% gets back to the producers). Fincher says he wants to make the other two films back to back in Sweden but there must be some doubts about whether Sony will stump up the cash. Book 2 is action-orientated and would veer even more towards a Hollywood thriller with more focus on Lisbeth but Book 3 is essentially a courtroom drama/legal investigation. If Fincher can transform it into a mainstream $90 million movie, he’s even cleverer than his reputation suggests. But since he’s not interested in the politics perhaps he will just focus on Mikael and Lisbeth. Hmm!
Remakes are irresistible as study texts because they allow us to ‘compare and contrast’ and to demonstrate that there are specific choices that casting directors, production designers, directors, cinematographers etc. all make. The two adaptations discussed here would be very interesting to compare, though the sheer length of the films would probably put off many classroom teachers. However, if students could be persuaded to watch the films in their own time, several interesting explorations are possible. One would be to question what is ‘political’ about the films. Larsson himself was clearly a political animal but do either of the films really carry through his exposure of the decay of Swedish society? Possibly only the novels themselves do this. My guess is that most students could be more interested in the creation of Lisbeth Salander as a certain kind of young female character – who finds herself in a world dominated by evil men who need to be ‘brought down’. In turn this poses the question, how does Lisbeth relate to Mikael as a potential partner in her principal objective – and in an intimate relationship? (OK, the project is mainly his, though Lisbeth has two very personal projects to bring down the men who have oppressed her.) This relationship is what Fincher has identified as his main interest.
I’ve seen reviews that claim Fincher shows us much more of the Mikael – Lisbeth relationship developing than in the Swedish film. I don’t accept this. There is more overt sexual activity in Fincher’s film (and even more in the book) but less about the joint investigation of the Vanger family in which we see the two edging towards each other. My focus, however, would be on the sequence towards the end of the film when Lisbeth has to decide to whether to save the villain or let him die and how Mikael accepts or questions her decision. Again, I think that the Swedish version offers the better presentation of this narrative development. I would also consider the difference between the two films in the use of flashbacks. The Swedish version uses flashbacks to show us various aspects of the story but especially how/why Lisbeth has been placed with a guardian because of what she did to her father. Fincher leaves this out (I think – I’m already getting confused as to what I’ve seen!). I think work on these scenes could prove highly productive for film and media students.
Also useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments).
It’s good to see that one of the most useful innovations of the UK Film Council, the free downloadable Statistical Yearbook for UK Film, has been taken over by the BFI – at least for now. The latest version, which deals with last year’s activity, is now available to download here.
I’ve long maintained that this is the best free resource for film and media teachers and students and the new issue fulfils that promise. Perhaps the most interesting change this time is that mindful of the downward trend of budgets for British films, the BFI have decided to take notice of ‘micro-budget’ films under £500,000. Previously these were ignored by UKFC but now they are a significant element in British filmmaking. In 2010 there were 147 films made in the UK with budgets under £500,000 – in fact half of these films had budgets under £100,000. This compares with only 79 ‘domestic’ features made on budgets over £500,000. Using these new definitions, UK filmmaking looks a lot healthier in terms of production numbers with over 200 ‘domestic’ features, not counting Hollywood films made in the UK (the bulk of the production spend of course).
The statistical guide is a must read. Download yours now!