A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #25: Psychopaths (2)

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Sometimes they come back: since our last episode, where we discussed black and white movie psychopaths, couldn’t contain all the cinematic psychoses, we’re dedicating a second episode to our favourite psycho killers. Starting from the question what we consider the archetypical pop culture psychopaths, our three intrepid pop culture baristas embark on a journey, beginning with the capo of New Jersey from HBO’s The Sopranos. Is Tony Soprano a narcissistic psychopath or does he really care about those ducks? We then move on to ’60s and ’70s San Francisco and gaze into the absence at the centre of David Fincher’s Zodiac, before the episode finally ends on American Psycho and the dark, cold, empty heart of Wall Street psychopathy.

If you haven’t already done so, make sure to check out episode 24, where we talked about movie psychopaths and psychopath movies, from Night of the Hunter via Fritz Lang’s M to the psycho granddaddy of them all: Norman Bates and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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And when she was bad…

David Fincher’s Gone Girl is yet another example that Fincher is one of the most skilled directors working in Hollywood these days. It is gorgeous to look at, with the various elements of cinematic craft coming together almost to perfection. It is also a film that I found at turns annoying, ludicrous and distasteful, and that’s almost entirely due to the material. Similarly to Fincher’s previous film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s impossible not to admire the sheer craft while wishing that he had chosen better material to work with.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl, that is, the story and storytelling, is not without merits, but it’s too glib for its own good. There’s a lot here that individually is interesting, clever, engaging, amusing and chilling, but much of the time it doesn’t really add up: one moment it’s amoral and cynical as hell, the next it turns to moralising with a misogynist slant; in one scene it’s an effective if obvious satire of the media and the audience’s complicity that goes for the uncomfortable laugh, the next it’s a psychological thriller veering into outlandish melodrama, with only the most superficial similarity to reality. There’s an OCD quality to the story, as if Gone Girl didn’t quite trust itself to hold our attention if it decided to be one thing only. Not that films can’t strive for different things at the same time, but in this particular case we end up with a bit of a Frankensteinian creature on screen.

Gone Girl

Which is a shame, not least because to the extent that the film coheres it’s due to the dark, sharp performance in the emptiness where a different movie’s heart would be. I’d enjoyed watching Rosamund Pike in earlier performances, but I wasn’t prepared for how good she is in this. Again, though, there’s a tension here between the nuanced intelligence Pike brings to the part as a performer and the lurid, trashy quality of the material. For all its polish, Gone Girl is Grand Guignol, made up to look like, well, a David Fincher film, and one of his best-looking to date. Look beyond the aesthetics, though, and the one Fincher film that this most resembles is The Game, another movie of very effective individual parts that cohere less and less the more you look at the whole.

Gone Girl

Arguably Fincher’s a stronger, more skilled director at this stage than he was when he made The Game, so Gone Girl holds together better by the sheer quality of the filmmaking, but as I left the cinema, more than anything else I was hoping that next time round he’d decide to film a better script. His particular skillset is well suited to clever writing (as, say, The Social Network shows), but ideally his scripts have to be as clever as they think they are, and I don’t think that’s true for Gone Girl. I hope that whatever he decides to do next he runs like hell from material that in the final analysis is glib more than anything else.

We need to talk about Lisbeth

In my heart of hearts, I knew it. There may be many girls with dragon tattoos, but there is only one Lisbeth Salander. David Fincher’s take on men who hate women is too slick and too self-assured to get anywhere close to the 2009 Swedish original, directed by Niels Arden Oplev. While I cannot recommend parts two and three of the original, the first part is pretty damn good entertainment sprinkled with bits of character studies. We meet a determined but far from bullet-proof journalist who cannot believe the story he has been dragged into. Michael Nyqvist gets his role just right: He knows what he wants to do next, but is far from sure whether it’s wise to do so. I always had the sense that with him, he kept thriving on the difficulties. His dogged determination seems to melt the snow around him. There are many moments where you can see him think, and then act. Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist is too sure about himself; he is never really scared, never really surprised and never really drunk. He isn’t even too fazed when someone tries to shoot him in the woods. He is the wrong choice for this role.

Of course, the Swedish movie will always have the advantage of having introduced us to Lisbeth Salander, on of the most intriguing characters in popular movie-making in a long time. I don’t know how, but Noomi Rapace has exactly nailed the character (now there’s a painful pun) and I pitied Rooney Mara as soon as her name was up for Fincher’s movie. Rapace plays her damaged and in self-chosen isolation, but highly self-reliant; I’ve never been able to see the character behind the role, which is a very good thing. With Mara, I felt I was looking at a goth runaway with an attitude problem and random bouts of Asperger’s. I could see the clockwork behind her acting, and it made the scenes where she brings Wennerström down less credible. The original Salander was surprised at herself that she could feel something akin to love for Blomkvist; the other Salander’s love for him comes to her like an afterthought and finally only stops short of a soppy Christmassy gesture.

Comparisons aside, I also had a number of problems with Fincher’s movie itself. The first three minutes play like Lord Voldemort’s idea of a Prodigy video. As the story unfolded, I could not shake the feeling that this must have felt like watching Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake: the same camera angles, the same lines, the same plot points – heck, there were moments where I was almost sure that the two Salanders and the two Blomkvists inhabited the very same hut, shooting on alternate days. The only good thing they left out were the scenes where little Mikael has Harriet Vanger babysit him.  There are some other changes, but they are insignificant – except, except… they changed the ending. Remember the scene where the original Blomkvist stands in full sunlight for the very first time in the movie, approaching a woman who has her back to the camera whose hair is ablaze with sunlight? Remember what happens then? They cut it. They cut that and turned the ending around. That, and giving Lisbeth that soppy street urchin ending. And while we’re at it: It is a huge, huge mistake to let the characters talk English with a Swedish accent. Once I know the main characters are Swedish, I can suspend disbelief and think of them as Swedes, even if they use proper English – that’s especially true for a movie that engenders a whole lot of disbelief.

I don’t know why I felt that Fincher’s version is longer than Oplev’s. Maybe it’s slower because the atmosphere is so much more subdued. I know a certain drabness and coolness is Fincher’s trademark, and it is essential to Se7en and Zodiac, but here, it sabotages the feel of the whole movie. Blomkvist and Salander are not cool characters – they may just behave like normal people, but they are churning with stuff. They need to be, because otherwise that cold Swedish winter and the shock-frozen Vanger family will get to them.

Get rich or die coding

The Social Network could be a great movie if it wasn’t for its trite plot. There is that computer geek at Harvard called Mark Zuckerberg who will never ever get a second date, and so takes his revenge by setting up a ranking system for the female students on the net. Him and some like-minded fellow students can smell the big bucks from where they’re coding, and so they bend over backwards to become very rich very fast. This is a movie about greed. It features that one-dimensional ambition from Wall Street, but makes Gordon Gekko look like a piece of antique furniture. As soon as these guys realize that there is not only big money in working alongside, but against each other, they sue each other for ludicrous amounts. None of these characters is even remotely sympathetic. They were never friends, not on Facebook, and not in real life. They just happened to live in the same dorm at the same time, bumping ideas off each other. Zuckerberg may have a brilliant mind for computer ideas, but his biography is still one from glorified hacker to billionaire (while still being a glorified hacker). It’s not a coincidence that even the screenplay starts and ends with the question if this guy is an a-hole.

Pop quiz: How many lawsuits does the movie show? I think they are all depositions, but it’s hard to tell who’s suing who at any given time. The movie is too slick and self-absorbed to slow down and let us know exactly where we’re at. There is not one shred of criticism about how these idiots behave, which is just as well, because otherwise the movie might self-destruct.
It takes a very good cast and crew to make a bad movie look so good. The screenplay is well-informed and smart and always one step ahead, although I have a suspicion that Aaron Sorkin has no idea about how computers work. Apparently, David Fincher is unable to make a visually boring flick. Almost every main cast member has made at least one movie that is noteworthy: Andrew Garfield has made that fabulous British flick called Boy A, Jesse Eisenberg was in the very funny Zombieland, and John Getz will forever be the remorseful cheater in Blood Simple. What’s more, I’ve yet to hear a better score than that by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. That bit with the Henley boat race is an atmospheric masterpiece, but deserves to be in a better movie. Here’s a thought: It could have been a great movie about rowing, with countless geeks watching a live-stream from their laptops, simultaneously writing in their blogs about how they really wish they could have made it into the rowing team.

Eagles on Pogo Sticks likes this.

Yesterday evening, before we went to the cinema, we were discussing David Fincher’s other films. Which did we like best? Which least? I came up with my personal Top Three films directed by Fincher (in no particular order): Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac, with Alien 3 receiving special mention. (It’s flawed but the bits that I like I pretty much love.) Seven is probably the moodiest of his films, Fight Club the most enjoyable and Zodiac is perhaps the most perfectly crafted Fincher film.

Since yesterday evening, I’ve added The Social Network to the Top Three (which therefore contains four titles now, risking a possible world-destroying mathematical paradox), albeit on probation. Will I still like it that much in a week’s time? In a year? Once I’ve seen it as often as the other films? (Zodiac I’ve only seen three times so far, but Seven was my film for bad moods for a while when I was often in a bad mood.) We’ll see, but for now I would say this: it’s Fincher at the top of his game (Ebert rightly calls the movie “splendidly well made”), working with a script that complements his considerable skills. This makes for an interesting comparison: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was decried by some because that film’s script pulled it in the direction of a mawkish sibling to Forrest Gump (scripted by the same writer, Eric Roth, not to be confused with Eli Roth). I thought that Fincher’s cerebral approach made for a fascinating film that was pulled in two different directions, namely sentimentality on the one hand (script) and a weird sort of Verfremdung on the other (direction), resulting in a tension that didn’t always work in the film’s favour.

Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network, though, is sharp and witty, with little trace of mawkishness. It’s not cold or unemotional in any way, but it doesn’t do the Spielbergian brand of emotion that requires heartwarming performances and a John Williams soundtrack so obvious it makes you feel a little queasy because the sentiment is laid on so thick. The film thrives on repartee and verbal barbs that is delivered at breakneck speed – I’ve rarely seen a movie that is so dialogue-driven and feels this fast (though not rushed).

I’ve seen TV series like this, though, especially one little known one about the president of some far away country. I think it’s called… let me see… The West Wing? Which, coincidentally, was also written by one Aaron Sorkin. Having watched the first four seasons of The West Wing (the ones during Sorkin’s time at the helm of the series), I find The Social Network‘s fictionalised Mark Zuckerberg a dark twin of Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff to President Bartlet. Lyman is more likeable because he’s got a strong sense of ideals and ethics, but he shares so many qualities with Zuckerberg: the sense of intellectual superiority that goes hand in hand with deep-seated insecurity, the way that every conversation is seen as a battle, the intense need to win, to be right, even if it means being a dick to others – the atrophied social skills and emotional immaturity that is fun to watch with Josh because he works in an environment and with people that ground him every now and then.

While the origin story for Fincher and Sorkin’s version of the Facebook founder is perhaps too simple – Zuckerberg basically gets started on the road to Facebook because of the Girl That Got Away, throwing his social dysfunction right back in his face – it makes for an interesting foil with Josh Lyman. Without his Girl Friday, Donna Moss, would he become increasingly insufferable as Zuckerberg does, ending up a sad, pathetic geek with a brilliant mind?

You can’t handle the truth!

Remember what I wrote yesterday? Well, watching some of the making-of features on the Zodiac 2-disk edition, I started to wonder whether I shouldn’t reconsider. On the one hand, my disdain for all of those inspirational “Based on a true story” flicks that especially Disney seems to love so much is still very much there… but then you get a film such as David Fincher’s Zodiac, one of my favourite movies of 2007, and you wonder.

Of course there is the obvious difference: Zodiac is helmed by an immensely talented (and apparently quite obsessive) director. It’s  amazingly well crafted. But the fact that it is based on facts does have an impact. When you watch a young couple get stabbed brutally by the hooded Zodiac killer, knowing that this happened changes what you’re watching. The scene would be effective but probably sadistic if this was simply made up. The mere fact that what we’re watching did take place, that the guy survived and is still alive to talk about it, while the woman succumbed to her horrific injuries – it does change the tone, the dynamic of what happens as you watch the scene.

Perhaps the difference lies in this: the vast majority of “Based on…”movies seems to believe that this, its often tenuous link to something that actually happened, is enough to justify making the film. It’s this laziness coupled with an attitude towards truth/fiction that is naive at best, cynical at worst. A good film based on real events will not pretend that it tells the complete story; it will stress its own gaps (for instance the unclear identity of the Zodiac killer), it will emphasise that it only gives one aspect or perspective of the story. It will be an interpretation, but it won’t assign some clear-cut meaning to events.

Bad, hokey and especially inspirational “Based on…” films will try to provide a complete and exhaustive version of events, and it will often provide some simplistic meaning that can be summarised in a simple phrase: One man loses his family and finds himself. The true story of the brave scientists who found a cure for halitosis. Eight dogs fighting the elements, as the man who loves them mounts a daring rescue. They’re facile celebrations of the heroic individual or tear-jerking explorations of the individual fighting against his or her fate. In the end, they’re facile and fake and cynically engineered to appeal to people who would ask: “What’s the point of a story that isn’t even true?”

Anyway, that’s the end to my rant about truth, fictionality and halitosis. Hope I haven’t just made you reach for the “Unsubscribe” button. More fun tomorrow… and pictures!

The first rule of Fight Club

So, I’ve been rewatching Fight Club. (Best way to listen to commentary tracks? Work out while you’re listening to them. You’ll feel like a fit couch potato.) I still think it’s a very funny, very clever and extremely well made movie. But one thing about it tends to annoy me… and that’s many of its male fans.

So many guys I know who like the film buy into Tyler Durden’s fashionable nihilism and reactionary chic. They see the film as a critique of a society that brings forth the silly, ridiculous “Let’s all grouphug and cry into each other’s t-shirts!” self-help groups and subscribe to the “You are not beautiful, unique snowflakes” existentialism that Tyler preaches.

Bob. Bob had bitch tits.

But, essentially, is there much of a difference between the fight clubs and the self-help groups? Aren’t both basically places where people come together, feel sorry for themselves and their lot in life (perhaps even with justification) and then make each other feel better by either hugging each other or beating each other? Aren’t both simply schemes to make you think “Yeah, there’s others out there who feel like me?” The guys who join Tyler’s clubs are losers, and they think that beating each other up and being about as nihilist as a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt turns them into men.

“We’re still men.”

“Yes. Men is what we are.”

The only real difference (apart from the blood and snot vs. tears and snot, depending which brand of self-help group you prefer), it would seem to me, lies in the ideological veneer that covers either. But those guys who think, “Yeah, that Tyler is cool, we’re not beautiful and unique snowflakes, consumerism sucks, and I’d quite like to beat someone’s face into a pulp, because that’ll make me a man” – I’d say that a lot of Tyler Durden’s joke is on them. If you have to beat someone up, or be beaten up, to feel like a man, if you have to demolish coffee shops in order to feel you’ve got a sizeable penis, then good luck finding new teeth.

Rock bottom, and lovin’ it!

It happened at the movies… (1)

In the past year I haven’t really been to the cinema nearly as often as I would have liked to, for several reasons. All in all, this year somehow seems to have happened without me. I did catch a handful of movies that stayed with me, though, and they were all by directors whose work I’ve liked a lot in the past: David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Michael Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. Here’s the first of them:

Zodiac

Let’s get this out of the way: I like Alien 3. In many ways I like it better than Aliens; the latter is a great ride, but beneath its well-oiled craft it isn’t that different from many other ‘80s action movies, leaving gender politics aside for the moment. Most of the characters are broadly drawn cartoons. That’s okay, they don’t need to be anything else for the purpose of the film, but while it’s a fun film, it’s not an interesting film. It’s not an uncomfortable film. Alien, by comparison, has left its mark on many an impressionable filmgoer. Like its titular creature, it’s highly efficient, it’s vicious, and it gets inside you in unpleasant ways. At its best, Alien 3 also has that effect. It may be the most unsettling of the Alien movies. I’m certain that if it had followed directly from Ridley Scott’s nightmare rather than James Cameron’s rollercoaster, it would have been better received.

David Fincher is a highly talented formalist. His films are meticulously crafted and tightly controlled. Most of them are also rather show-offy. Especially Fight Club has a somewhat adolescent quality, wanting to impress you in spite of its fashionable nihilism: “Look at me! Not that I care, though.” It’s just a tad too infatuated with itself.

Zodiac is just as intricately crafted, but it doesn’t need to show off. In spite of its impressive running time, it’s a lean film that is immensely well made, and it impressed me all the more for not having to remind me again and again how well it is made. It is also an eminently frustrating film – it is about frustration, and it’s frustrating for the audience. The serial killer genre thrives on some sort of closure: at its most generic, it provides you with a neat ending, where the killer is caught (and, ideally, killed by the film’s hero). If it’s minimally clever, it’ll give you some sort of twist: it wasn’t actually John Smith after all who skinned all those women – it was Frank Jones, in the pantry, with the serrated knife! Zodiac instead doesn’t satisfy its protagonists’ obsession, nor ours: we don’t learn who the killer is. We only get a maybe. And since the suspect is dead, chances are we’ll never know for certain. Fincher’s film denies us a neat, comforting conclusion, so Robert Graysmith’s obsession isn’t validated in the end. All we’re left with is loose ends. Fincher’s Seven was already loathe to serve up a neat ending, but by comparison, it’s practically “… and they lived happily ever after.” The bad guy may win after a fashion, but he dies. We know he was the killer. In Zodiac, what we’re left with is an irresolvable question mark.

By the way, if you liked the film, you may want to check out Alan Moore’s comic From Hell. Do not confuse it with its film version, since the movie does something very different. Once you’ve read From Hell (it’ll take you a while, since it’s one big book), read the second appendix, also presented as a comic. It makes for an ideal companion piece to Zodiac.

From Hell

Also, look out for the continuation of this series in two or three days. In the meantime, we return you to our regular programme. Read you tomorrow.