The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Dir. David Fincher
My grandfather forged the tracks that the 4:30 train will take you home on. We stitched this country together. We made the steel, milled the lumber that built modern Sweden.
The oak tree near the bridge is the only tree around here as frightening as some of the sun beaten pines up north. To the other side are Totara and empty lots of overgrown weeds with rats and butterflies, but the path is lined with oaks all the same. Ann Shelton did a photographic project tracking down all the oaks that were born of the seeds handed to winning athletes at the 1936 Summer Olympics. What surprised me about her work is that she never decided whether people or places were haunted, or if she did she used her practice to question the assumptions of her own position. She used the camera to photograph a place like it was guilty, the photograph holding however deep down the status of an epistemological tool for the viewer- try as we might, we believe these things have something to tell us. What stops her from being to my tastes at least one of the significant living landscape artists is her bizarre fixation on display conceits, specifically her use of mirroring. Shelton already suggests an underworld in every image, an absence and with it an incriminating buried perspective, and yet she prints each image again and flips them to be displayed next to or underneath the original.
Hide the past like they do. Under a thin, shiny veneer. Like an Ikea table. I’m the most honest of all of them.
It’s true that the eye sees the world upside down and the brain flips it- is it not enough to conclude then that the SLR is the tool that best mirrors our brain, even as, or particularly for, the way it contrives a method for presenting back to us our own skewed, flipped sense of the real. Of useful data. The landscape in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could generously be described as present through its immateriality, through its already being turned into a symbol both internalised and verbalised, personal and historical. Because for Fincher it’s all crude data, Mikael shoving a photograph of a fourteen year old girl stripped bare into the face of a sexual assault survivor and demanding to know Is this you. The coming together of his research fetish and feeling (borrowed from horror more than anything) that against our will we are being sucked into something more sinister and frightening than the screen could ever hope to picture, is so effective that I wish I could overlook the things that I find irredeemably awful and can pin on him as an auteur*, as well as the stretches of the film that feel like an airport literature screen adaptation not attributable to any author, redeemable or not. True, it wears its thesis on its sleeve, but he is the best and worst person to bring it to life because he’s so suggestive when catharsis counts, and so descriptive when it doesn’t. It’s broken in all the wrong ways until its final march when it finally elevates the material in the right direction- to a darkness both concealed and expansive.
Isn’t it interesting how fascists always steal the word freedom.
Because the furniture, the glass, the shiny veneer have all been guilty from the very start. The landscape gets pushed away, ignored, built upon, but there’s only so long that can last. As Mikael approaches Martin’s house, the beacon of ‘modern Sweden’, we see the oaks of the forest so sharply reflected in the glass that they looks painted on. Past and present, fascism and capitalism, distance and proximity, the immaterial and the material, data and information, are all finally explicitly present in one another. Like the curtain pulled from the mouth of hell in an Elizabethan tragedy, a reminder that it’s been there waiting all along.
Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Guadagnino and Kajganich went out to make a work inspired by Argento’s Suspiria but which would otherwise be its own thing, and their film is emphatically true to this, mostly in its treatment of the relationship between text and meaning. Where Argento’s film was written by omission, minimalist in structure but maximalist in texture (and so suggestion), Kajganich writes to tell of its implications, and Guadagnino gives each telling surplus attention to the point of convolution. Frustratingly but perhaps predictably this inverse method for telling results in something inversely effective (and affecting), as it says a lot on the surface but at its core means very little- an iceberg seen from upside down. The viewer’s imagination runs through the events of the first Suspiria, taking them toward their ineffable cosmic source, and as a consequence the viewer comes out of the film feeling heavier. This one takes care to broaden the scope and as a consequence ends half an hour before the credits roll.
The Holiday (2006)
Dir. Nancy Meyers
Meyers’ workaround for her instinct that England is a frozen shithole is to set the courtship of the more ‘compelling’ couple there. Conversely her belief that Los Angeles is so rad that it speaks for itself allows her to let Jack Black and and Kate Winslet just hang out there and not do very much except bask in the LA sun that is the best sun because it’s from LA. Jack Black cast as a romantic interest is nice, and it’s super depressing that his next supporting role would be in Margot at the Wedding where every effort is made to remind the audience that he is fat and therefore boorish, a phony, a pig person. Like whoops my mistake I forgot he was actually subhuman for one whole movie! The other thing is that The Holiday is like Tarantino if he wasn’t really bad, but also it is weird that the reason for the two characters with personalities/desires for being twisted, the cause of their woes, is divorce, and it’s revealed and played out like god damn you poor things I can’t even begin to imagine. At least an hour too long, but Jude Law’s tan is wild.
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Its cheapness feels less a twee gimmick than an attempt to pick up and run with the spirit of low budget genre pioneers emulated expensively in e.g. Grindhouse, using readily available tools to churn out images that feel ‘real’, now (mediating fiction according to the same visual logic of how we daily perceive reality). The front camera in particular distorts the body when used for anything outside of the selfie, and otherwise the hi res ugly images have that sense of immediacy- of faces bulging into prominence and distracting backgrounds clawing into focus. Woven into the tool and its gross textures (or perhaps enabled by it) is shaky self-perception, surveillance as ‘connectivity’, distraction as passivity, even apathy. The film’s presentation of capitalist realism is potent enough to be blasé- what might’ve been the unveiling of a grand unspeakable conspiracy in a thriller from some other decade is now accepted as pretty humdrum, devoid of paranoia because we’re willing to believe the worst, and worst of all put up with it. Foy is a raw nerve who’s learned how to function as such, and the simplest thing about it is also the smartest- involuntary incarceration is not a new setup, but centring it on someone who actually needs help is moving as it is futile.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Dir. Mike Flanagan
Three hours of good television, four of good content, but anyone can tell you that Flanagan’s better than content. Netflix does that, I suppose, and I’m relieved but not grateful that so much of it can be salvaged as you go. He and the writing team insist on an obsessive circularity of events, on a series of told and retold narratives about the same ineffable thing, the hold of which we are pulled into at an ever increasing velocity, but of course they’d never be allowed to make repetition the form entirely. That’s for movies, books, music, sculpture, photography, painting, anything else to handle. So as television it’s repetitive but also oppressively linear, it occasionally finds a rhythm (and with it, meaning), but then forgoes flawed memory for exhibited flashback. When it’s not bridging something it labours its pause in present-tense where present-tense itself is otherwise treated with doubt. It’s about memory after all. A hack would’ve worked in the opposite direction to make it spiral outwards, using Netflix’s compulsion to content to ply the viewer with superfluous data, or they might’ve even settled for linear sequencing in the style of pre-streaming syndicated television. Which would’ve made for something less frustrating by the end, but also less rewarding throughout. And it is rewarding across those three hours. Flanagan is both very literate and completely sincere with what he wants to do, and even if you can’t buy the images through their obligatory Dark category colour grading, it’s hard not to appreciate his approach to space. It’s frequently staged as the area of potential, with players occupying the uneasy middle ground, surrounded on all sides by yet unrealised threats to their person or evidence of their not being so well. This might seem dull to some, but I get a kick seeing a Resnais lover use Wan like others quote Hitchcock.
Day of Wrath (1943)
Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
Dreyer’s pristine restraint within the context of totalitarianism might as well be called repression. There is the suffocating sense of frailty as it glances the surfaces of anger, violence, which if the anger were to become too great then violence would breach frailty, but also if frailty was not correctly performed then violence would take its place. There is the insistence that what we are seeing, a purity of simple action and gesture, is the world as it can be understood, but that these actions are all recitals. Which means that what can be understood about one another, expressed to one another, is strictly symbolic if not an outright sham. The film’s emphasis on strictly lateral movement within interiors mimics this broken language, gliding and alluding but strictly never penetrating. Only Herlofs Marte screams, but only Herlofs Marte breaks the surface of Day of Wrath‘s terrified order when she interrupts the reverend and flails about that she wants desperately to live. And then only Anne is entirely stranded, bound as she is to the act, to experiment with its limits in the pursuit of knowing someone/something beneath it, to reveal her hand with nothing to back it up but her life.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Dir. Ron Howard
There is a darkness to this abetted by its recklessness which feels like an aimless lashing out, a call with no response. The dullest director in the world forces himself into faux George Miller kinetics but without a sense of fun or exploration, and Carrey understands this version of the Grinch as an anti-capitalist hermit living under the weight of the town’s material waste, and so struggles to communicate anything other than empathetic disappointment. He can after all only define him self and his routines according to their being opposite the Whos, and so instead of forging an alternative to that which he despises he eats its trash and leaves it shitty voice messages. Howard’s sense of compulsory fun is either intentionally oppositional or he got there by accident, but there is something to be said for the way it becomes abruptly, eerily smooth once everyone gives up and submits to doctrine. The film is punishing and even funny enough (in that punishing way) that it might be up there as far as anti-Christmas films go, but/and it is so effective that I can already feel my head hurting just thinking about ever returning to it.
Dir. John G. Avildsen
Rambling minutiae. This thing screams for life.
How Do You Know (2010)
Dir. James L. Brooks
Feels like a weird, empty perspective on the familiar: Brooks opts to parallel Lisa’s predicament, which is (spelled out) that she doesn’t know what she wants much less how to ask for it. He knows what he doesn’t want from the romantic comedy but can’t propose a positive in negation’s place, making for something rote but fundamentally unfulfilling, frustrating even. Rudd’s routine from this distance is uncomfortable minus cute, Wilson’s without darkness is a slobbering dog, Witherspoon is commitment to a strictly determined disappointment. They’re articulate but they speak only in circles, so where neuroses tend to screw tightly, these ones all miss the target, the validation, the connection. Because without purpose it’s all just sound any way.
Dir. Mike Flanagan
Lean and chewy, a rubber bone. Notable as it is disposable for the way Flanagan experiments with an action-oriented form of space- elsewhere the location is a palimpsest activated by a person, revealing overlapping layers of time within, but in Hush it is just the fleeting threshold between present and future tense. Which I’m aware sounds like the vast majority of narrative films ever made, particularly as it is so disinterested in scrutinising its now-time, but I’ll take Hush‘s consciously empty formal warm up over traditionally staged location-as-backdrop filmmaking any day. This is barely narrative cinema after all, at least in the dramatic sense, more a discrete series of actions and reactions recorded in wounds. It was allegedly ‘written’ through Siegel and Flanagan just moving around their house, and this stripped down approach to architecture and movement will mean something different to each and every viewer. Siegel’s generosity sells this way more than it needs to, and Gallagher Jr is brilliantly miscast as a woman-hating nerd with a survivalist fetish.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
Dir. Mike Flanagan
Ouija: Origin of Evil‘s counterfeit cigarette burns and imitation analogue textures should grate, but the film opens with its thesis on artifice without fraudulence: it ultimately matters where we’re going, and why. Zooms for movement and split diopters intoxicate as surfaces make-pretend shimmer, and we’re the ones who can’t help but buy it because it’s giving us what we deep down already know. What we know is not pandering when it comes to losing someone, it’s a confrontation: an I miss you followed by an I miss you too. An I forgive you, followed by I’m still sorry, I’ll never stop being sorry, and I’m still here and you’re still gone. Outside of this, dressing things up makes for an atmosphere of appreciation where the director’s always perfect compositions and quiet pace can announce themselves, instead of disappearing into clean function. Inside of this, he is still resolutely interested in the missing, in the no longer present, and so there’s a discomfort in the way the director handles supernatural entities. A more forgiving viewer might find Ouija‘s possessed child and lanky ghouls to be on the right side of classical silliness, and someone more game might submit to what these things make manifest. I don’t necessarily go in for either, diverting as they do attention from an already generous treatment of grief and storytelling, but then that’s personal: drawing parallels between the search for the unknown in the space race and the occult is delicious, particularly within the context of a world that’s still denying the bones buried in its walls.
Dir. Dario Argento
Autocritical game toying with giallo critics both valid and blandly kneejerk, Argento returning to the genre from psychedelic mood-pieces renders a more recognisable sense of the real, coldly unreal. His sleaze is present but cut off from the desires of an aroused seer (or directorial stager), and his fetish for architectural spaces renders even the outdoors an unrealised future playground. This counts for more metatextually than hysteria might (even if something like Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness does wonders with a distinctly higher pitch than usual), but here I am defining the successes of an angle I care little about. Anyone in it for Argento’s eerie ambient world building will find catnip in Tenebre, which is an alien chill somewhere between Tati’s Playtime and 2007’s Mother of Tears, again with the chaos dialed frighteningly down.