Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Zaillian

Reflections on a Dragon Tattoo

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My feelings about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are a matter of record. No other cultural sensation of recent years has left me so cold: where others see a masterpiece, I see a book that is amateurishly plotted, lurid but airless, overlong, and, worst of all, often grindingly dull. I’m not passing judgment on the novel’s many fans; only trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out what they find so compelling. I’m on the outside, looking in. Which made me all the more interested, paradoxically, in seeing David Fincher’s film of the book. As I’ve said before, with Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher has gone from a filmmaker toward whom I’ve always felt considerable ambivalence to one of my four or five favorite contemporary directors. He’s an impeccable craftsman with a nice, chilly style, and to my eyes, he seemed like just the man to pare away the worst of the book’s shortcomings to reveal the germ of a decent story at its heart.

The good news is that the movie is much better than the book. Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian skillfully foreshorten the novel’s interminable opening and closing sections, cut down on the number of meaningless suspects, and make the logic of the investigation, if not exactly plausible, at least visually comprehensible. In many ways, this is a more impressive display of Fincher’s craft than a more engaging story might have afforded: for a movie with little conventional suspense and even less real action, it’s surprisingly absorbing, and seems much shorter than its actual length of nearly three hours. Like all of Fincher’s movies, it looks and sounds great. And the cast is excellent, especially Rooney Mara as Lisbeth: it’s a performance based as much on makeup and costume design as any real conception of the character—much of her acting is done by the back of her head, and those amazing earrings—but Mara commits fearlessly to the part, and whenever she’s onscreen, the movie gains an additional charge.

Unfortunately, while the film does a nice job of addressing the story’s tedium, it doesn’t do much for its essential pointlessness. What, exactly, is this movie about? Like the book, the film ruminates endlessly on the complexities of the Vanger company and its tangled family tree, only to give us a killer at the end whose identity and motivations are completely arbitrary. The characters make wildly implausible deductions and even more inexplicable decisions, as when Blomkvist, effectively portrayed by Daniel Craig, figures out who the killer is, then rushes over immediately to the suspect’s isolated house, alone and unarmed. Perhaps most unforgivably, while the movie, like the book, is superficially concerned with violence against women, it has nothing interesting to say on the subject—aside from endorsing some astonishing forms of revenge—and often seems content to simply titillate the audience. From Fincher, who is capable of much better things, this is a particular disappointment.

Despite its obvious technical merits, then, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels like a step backward for one of our most interesting directors. If Fincher had only made Seven, The Game, and Panic Room, I might have felt differently: in that case, this film would have seemed like the best he was capable of delivering. But after The Social Network, and in particular after Zodiac, Fincher has emerged as a director who can follow through masterfully on genre conventions while also teasing out deeper possibilities. He’s still a master of mise-en-scène, and, like Hitchcock, he’s fond of nice sick touches—his use of “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” is especially inspired—but Dragon Tattoo finds him oddly unengaged. As the credits roll, we know we’ve been treated to a sleek, professional studio product, with isolated flashes of beauty and cruelty, but we aren’t sure why. And I don’t think Fincher knows, either.

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

Writing the Middle: The Story of All the King’s Men

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My recent discussion of writing the middle reminds me of one of my favorite Hollywood war stories, which I owe to the great Walter Murch, frequent collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, director of Return to Oz, and dean of American film editors. I first came across this anecdote in the book Behind the Seen, which lovingly details Murch’s use of Final Cut Pro to edit Cold Mountain—not a great movie, to be sure, but a fascinating case study, resulting in the best available book on what a modern film editor does. I expect to be talking a lot more about Murch, and this book, in the future, but for now, I want to share just one story, which involves the making of the classic film All the King’s Men. (The 1949 original, mind you, not the terrible remake.)

Murch relates a story from the autobiography of Robert Parrish, the editor of All the King’s Men, who says that the first cut of the film was a disaster—it was three hours long, boring, and made no sense. Subsequent cuts only made things worse. Finally, after six months and seven disastrous preview screenings, the movie’s director, Robert Rossen, came up with a desperate idea. According to Parrish, Rossen said:

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

The result, amazingly, worked: it got the movie down to ninety minutes and, according to Parrish, “it all made sense in an exciting, slightly confusing, montagey sort of way.” After screening it for an enthusiastic test audience, they cut a final print with all the imperfections and jump cuts intact. The result won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

As I see it, there are two lessons here:

1) The opening and closing beats of a scene are usually unnecessary. The middle is what counts. Write, or film, the middle. And if a sequence isn’t working, try cutting the first and last paragraphs—which is essentially what Rossen and Parrish did. (If Steven Zaillian, the director of the remake, had tried the same thing, he might have ended up with a salvageable movie, rather than a notorious bore.)

2) Audiences and readers are pretty smart. If they’re plunged into the middle of a scene—or story—it won’t take them long to figure out what’s happening. And if you pay them the compliment of assuming that they’ll be able to follow you, who knows? They may even like it.

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