Thursday, March 29, 2012

Our Waking Dreams: Movies in the Digital World (Hugo, The Artist, & The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

While watching the Academy Awards this year, I was struck by an ongoing motif that seemed to run throughout the evening. Often it was impacted in the periodic jokes of host Billy Crystal, but I could also detect it in the asides by various presenters. There was a constant reference to the early origins of cinema being made just when technology has dramatically transformed the art form – and continues to do so at warp speed. Not only could a viewer detect some concern over whether the technology would come to diminish the quality of the dramatic material, the nominated movies seemed to embody the very argument that was at the heart of the show.

When I was growing up the only way you could watch movies was when they opened in theatres. Movies on television were limited then and they were often burdened by commercials. The limited window of opportunity that theatres offered you to see the picture was partly what built your enthusiasm and anticipation in going to the movies. If the picture was really good, you feared that once it abandoned the movie house you might never get to experience it again. (Part of what got me interested in collecting movie soundtracks was so I could listen to the dramatic score and evoke my favourite scenes from the film.) It was also true that when you saw something really bad, you got worried it might disappear from your city before you had a chance to try it again to test your first reaction to it. 

What made movies so appealing, and somewhat daunting, was that they were like our waking dreams. They existed only in the moments when we shared them in the dark with an audience and on a big screen. And then, just like our dreams, they were suddenly gone, as we awakened still trying to capture their fleeting power. Speaking as a critic, the sheer joy of reviewing films often came from the rush of keeping up with the images as they relentlessly sneaked behind our defenses. The pleasure, too, came surprisingly from the inability to control what a movie could do to you. Before the digital age, you couldn’t stop it, slow it down, rewind it, or put it on pause. It was instead just like the experience of falling in love. You didn’t control the rush of emotions that a movie could call up in you. You had to surrender to it and hope for the best. That’s the very quality that’s been changed by the technological revolution.

At first, during the Eighties, when the video cassette hit the market, it seemed like a blessing. Now you could own the movies you loved, just as you could books, or records, and play them whenever you liked. You could even program your own film festival, invite your friends and introduce them to movies they never had the chance to see before. But something was also lost in that experience. Since we now had control over the viewing experience, the idea of a waking dream had been changed into a more conscious and controlling experience. Movies were no longer fleeting and in constant motion but had become static text, where isolated moments could be dissected, studied and analyzed, like a carcass in a science lab. What had given us freedom had now also altered how we came to use it. 

As the years went on, and movies turned more towards genre and niche, video tapes briefly became laser discs and then DVDs with their vastly superior image quality. Before long, Blu-ray would arrive with home theatre units to replicate the theatrical experience. With the birth of the Internet and file sharing, it was inevitable that movie downloads – both legal and illegal – would further give us control over what we watched, or maybe more to the point, what we cared to watch. Except for the very curious and open among us, people tended to gravitate towards a known experience that offered comfort rather than shock or surprise. The chance to stumble upon a picture that surprised you and hit you out of the blue was becoming rarer. 

Perhaps some of the directors featured at the Oscars this past year felt concerned about that change taking place. Among the nominated group, there were quite a few movies that took the technology currently at our fingertips and applied it to the past, as if to reawaken with a new alchemy the secret power that movies possess. You could certainly feel that desire to imaginatively recast the past in Martin Scorsese’s remarkable Hugo. From the opening scene when Scorsese pays homage to L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), the Lumière Brothers’ fifty-second silent short of a train pulling into a French coastal town, he plays lovingly on the memory of movies past while giving them new meaning in the present. (Significantly the Lumière Brothers in their picture were deliberately trying to create a 3D experience before the technology could make that possible. Scorsese’s Hugo, of course, is in 3D.). All through Hugo, Scorsese weaves movie references into his delicately stirring dreamscape where the magic of cinema is continually invoked in the everyday life of the people in the story.

But it’s not just film that Scorsese draws upon here. The Victorian values of the story, adapted from Brian Selznick’s 2007 book, also pay homage to Dickens (specifically David Copperfield). While Hugo Cabret provides the image of the orphaned urchins of Dickens, the Dickensian tone itself has a link to the movies. The connection exists in how the great author’s narrative styles of cross-cutting significantly influenced film pioneer D.W. Griffith. In Orphans of the Storm (1921), Griffith openly acknowledged that debt to Dickens. “I borrowed the idea from Charles Dickens,” he said. “Novelists think nothing of leaving one set of characters in the midst of affairs and going back to deal with earlier events in which another set of characters is involved. I found that the picture could carry, not merely two, but three or four simultaneous threads of action – all without confusing the spectator.” Scorsese does something quite similar in Hugo except that he creates simultaneous threads of action out of a storehouse of film scenes. One moment, Hugo and his friend Isabelle are watching Harold Lloyd hanging from the huge clock in Safety Last (1923), then later Hugo has to act out that very scene from the picture when trying to escape the authorities. 

Overall Hugo plays to Scorsese’s major strengths as a director especially when he gets to use expressionism to heighten the realism of the commonplace. Part of the problem with his recent pictures, like Shutter Island, was that his movie references seemed arbitrary and impersonal. It was as if you were merely getting a guided tour through a museum of Scorsese’s favourite movie moments from Shock Corridor and Bedlam. Hugo did better to remind me of the best parts of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) when Jesus commanded miracle after miracle, almost as a dare to his adversaries (including even the skeptics among us in the audience). Movies are miracles to Scorsese; and in Hugo, he takes the wonders of technology and infuses it into the picture with an ephemeral passion that reminds us that even in the days of Georges Méliès – who Hugo actually centers on – it was technology that enabled magicians like Méliès to become great film artists.

Some of that same ephemeral passion can also be felt in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which won the Best Picture Oscar this year, although it’s a slighter picture than the beautifully textured Hugo. Rather than evoke the movie past as Hugo did, The Artist literally recreates the movie past. In particular, Hazanavicius focuses on the silent period just as sound was about render the silent era – and some of its actors and stars – to the dustbin. But rather than just providing a cute stunt, a circus trick, Hazanavicius tries in The Artist to make us aware of the ways we have learned to take sound for granted and what we lost (as well as gained) when the silent age passed. The Artist both incorporates the popular melodramas of the period and the stylized acting that emphasized body language. The dramatic score by Ludovic Bource, which incorporates Dvorak, Duke Ellington, and popular period songs like “Pennies from Heaven,” also accurately replicates how silent pictures were scored. Hazanavicius’s one jarring moment in that regard, though, comes during the climax when he includes Bernard Herrmann’s complete “Scene D’Amour” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo which already has such powerfully built in memorable associations that it throws the audience out of the playful realm of The Artist. (Actress Kim Novak, who starred in Vertigo, complained loudly that she felt “raped” by Hazanavicius’s decision, but I think that she is overstating the case.) But, like Hugo, The Artist sets out to remind us of the continuity of movie history. It wishes to incorporate film technology not as an end in itself, but as a means to illustrate how movies have continued to evolve.

In David Fincher’s outstanding adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which just came out on DVD), he accomplishes that transition from the analogue world into the digital one literally within the body of the story itself. Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t a fan of the popular Stieg Larsson trilogy of which Fincher’s film is taken from the first book. For me, the stories were disguised pulp masquerading as social and political commentary. (I prefer my pulp straight up.) However, it wasn't that I felt Larsson was being deliberately disingenuous in his work, but rather he was imposing his own anger and despair over the state of Sweden, his homeland, unto the narrative. He used popular visceral techniques to attract our moral outrage, to stir up our blood lust, so we could feel justified in feeling it. Since the violence was also exercised in the service of fighting a cabal of faceless Nazi psychopaths and Frankenstein monsters, we could feel morally justified, too, in excusing it. We could even cheer on a cheerless punk-attired avenging angel, Lisbeth, whose acts of revenge could be safely interpreted as feminist gestures. All of this created a churlish tone in the books that, for me, made them unpleasant reading and overshadowed the stories they told.

The Swedish films made from the books also did little to improve them. The three pictures were dour and impersonal leaving only the unpleasant violence to give them life. So when I heard that David Fincher was doing an American remake I was hardly chomping at the bit to see it. But Fincher had already emerged in recent years into a terrific director for whom technology had become if not the source of his movies (as in The Social Network), certainly something that began underlying the stories he was telling (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). What Fincher does with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not only rescue the material, he brings clarity to the very mystery in the story. It now has a dramatic coherence that Larsson’s mordant brooding had buried.

Rooney Mara's Lisbeth in the analogue world
Fincher’s version is actually a lot closer to the plot of the book than the Swedish version. The picture stars Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing journalist and co-owner of Millennium magazine, who has just lost a libel case brought against him by a crooked businessman. In exchange for incriminating evidence on the businessman, Blomkvist agrees to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of the niece of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). In order to do a background check on Blomkvist, Vanger seeks the help of researcher and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Blomkvist comes to discover that Lisbeth, while victimized and disturbed, could actually help him solve the crime. (The first time Mara’s Lisbeth gives anyone direct eye contact is when Blomkvist asks for her help bringing a killer of women to justice.) 

In the book, the pairing of Blomkvist and Lisbeth felt more like literary contrivance than it does in Fincher’s film. Fincher alters their relationship, gives it more of a fundamental meaning, and by doing so, develops a deeper reading of the text. First he contrasts both characters by paralleling the different worlds that shaped them. For Blomkvist, he comes from the analog world of newspapers, magazines and libraries, the world that’s now quickly slipping away. Lisbeth, on the other hand, is a product of the digital world. But just because she uses computer technology to peep into the lives of others, a gift that offers her the kind of control over people she can’t exercise in her own life, it doesn’t mean she’s any freer than Blomkvist. Lisbeth uses computer technology as body armour, a defense against the real world and intimacy with people – the very things that Blomkvist can bask in. (In Fincher's film, unlike in the book, it’s her inability to read people’s motivations that leads her to misjudge the danger of the guardian who brutally rapes her.) 

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig solve the mystery
What Blomkvist discovers while trying to solve the mystery he’s investigating is that he needs what digital technology can afford him in assembling the clues. So he appeals to Lisbeth to help him. (Rooney Mara is truly remarkable as Lisbeth. Unlike the opaque Noomi Rapace, who played her in the Swedish version, Mara has spooked eyes and a guarded body language that slowly becomes transformed as she draws closer to Blomkvist.) At which point, the characters begin to cross over into each other’s world. While Blomkvist immerses himself uneasily in the mechanics of digital technology, Lisbeth is in libraries doing searches for evidence that bring her closer to connecting with people in more meaningful ways (including getting intimately involved with Blomkvist). Their romantic pairing in Fincher’s film makes more sense because through their closeness he learns to expand his perception of the digital world around him while she no longer hides behind her computer screen.

Although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo still remains popular melodrama, in Fincher’s hands, the darker mystery of the story now has more personality and resonance. As in Hugo and The Artist, there is also a consciousness present; the morphing of movie art and storytelling, of how both are being dramatically changed by the technology around us. Of course, it would be too easy to say that technology is turning us all into Lisanders who become cut off from human contact with our iPads and Kobos. After all, technology is also making it possible for us to do things in the arts that were impossible even a decade ago. (I teach film courses now using illustrative clips from movies that would have been impossible to assemble years earlier without the appropriate technology.)

But there is still a cautionary tone in all of the movies I mentioned above, mixed with an exuberant guile that makes each of them vibrant and timeless in their own different way. Rather than take refuge in the nostalgia of the movie past, these pictures have found a new home for that past in the present. And it’s a home still in the process of being decorated. 

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.        

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