Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Girl immersion

It had always been my intention to read Stieg Larsson's novels about Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. You may have heard of them: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.

Then after I was done, I'd watch the Swedish movies based on Larsson's wildly popular novels.

I don't normally prioritize such things. If I did, I'd probably watch a lot fewer adaptations. But with these novels, for some reason, I felt it was important. Maybe that's because the novels are considered more of a phenomenon than the movies, and if I wanted to experience the story in its truest form, I should go into the novels fresh.

But then I had to be honest with myself. I'm a really, really slow reader. Not only that, but I barely budget the time for it. It's been so bad that the last new novel I started was almost a year ago, when World War Z was supposed to be my 2010 summer reading. I just couldn't get it into it, but stubbornly refused to abandon it. Finally this past April I allowed myself to move on, to read an old favorite (Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye) to jump start that part of me that likes to read. I read about 200 pages of it on vacation in Mexico ... and about 15 in the 2.5 months since I've been back.

So even if I'd started Larsson's novels when I first got the urge, it's possible all three American remakes of these movies would be released before I'd finished reading.

So I came to the realization that I'm going to be the guy who sees the movies and understands the phenomenon based on that only. Oh well. That's just who I am.

Which cleared the way for us to have a themed watching weekend this past weekend. That's right, we watched The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Friday night, The Girl Who Played With Fire on Saturday night and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest on Sunday, thanks to all three being available for streaming on Netflix. And each night prepared a Swedish dinner to go along with the theme.

So instead of honoring the United States on 4th of July weekend, we honored Sweden, even kicking things off on Thursday night with our screening of the Swedish film Together.

The first time we'd used this template was for our Godfather weekend, back in the summer of 2008. On Friday night, we watched The Godfather and my wife made a pasta dinner. On Saturday night, we watched The Godfather Part II and I made a pasta dinner. Then on Sunday night, we ordered pizza, which turned out to be an appropriate level of respect for the vastly inferior Godfather III.

In that case we'd both seen the first Godfather but none of the others. This time, neither of us had seen any of the movies, though my wife did read all three novels. That background provided an interesting contrast for how we might receive the movies.

First let me tell you what we ate. Friday night, since we'd both been working that day, we decided to keep it simple. I stocked up on a trip to the Ikea grocery on Thursday, and that night we had their famous meatballs in their signature gravy, with mashed potatoes on the side. Scrumptious. I was amazed at how well their mashed potatoes cooked up in the microwave. For desert we had Frodinge cakes with raspberry filling and marzipan topping, seen here. They were even better.

Saturday was supposed to be the day I ventured into genuine Swedish cooking, making something both authentic and tasty from scratch. I'd settled on something called Swedish Chanterelle Mushroom Pate. We agreed that the ingredients sounded good, and it was decided. But my trip to the grocery foiled us. I figured I wouldn't find chanterelle mushrooms, and was prepared to accept a substitute. I felt the same about shallots, hoping that scallions could take their place. But when I couldn't find ground pork, and asked my wife if we could just grind pork cutlets in our food processor, she made the wise suggestion that this recipe just wasn't meant to be. So we shifted our planned Sunday night dinner to Saturday night: Smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast with a salad.

Saturday may have been noteworthy for a different thing we did not eat: herring in mustard sauce. I'd procured a jar from Ikea and we intended to eat it on something called Skorpor Fullkorn, which is a pretty flavorless crusty oat bread, at happy hour time. However, I could only stomach a single slice, at which point we threw out the herring sauce without my wife even trying it. Hey, there's a reason herring is not more popular. At least the Swedish cheese I'd picked up livened up the Skorpor Fullkorn.

We also had our only Swedish themed drink on Saturday night, when my wife made a vodka drink with lingonberry syrup over crushed ice. She flavored it with lime and ginger and it was delicious. Our desert was also good, a Swedish chocolate almond cake, but it could not live up to the standard set by the Frodinge cake from the night before.

I determined not to let the whole weekend go without preparing a Swedish meal from scratch, but we cheated a bit on Sunday night. Wanting to use up some leftover ingredients, we made something called Pasta Med Ost Och Skinka, which just translates as "Pasta with Smoked Ham and Cheese." It ended up seeming more Italian than Swedish, but we got it from an online Swedish cookbook, so it counts. We ate it with garlic toast and the whole meal was pretty yummy. And for desert we relished the remaining two Frodinge cakes.

To close out our consumption of Swedish foods, we had Swedish pancakes with lingonberry preserves on Monday morning. Man, were they good. They were like something you'd get from a creperie, and a good one at that.

Oh, I suppose you'd like to know what I thought of the movies. Warning, thar be spoilers ahead.

First off, since there were three books before Larsson died, that made me naturally think "trilogy." I now know that perhaps there were other Lisbeth Salander adventures planned, and possibly even a fourth unpublished manuscript. Knowing that might have changed my expectations going in. As they were, my expectations were that events set up early in Dragon Tattoo might not fully pay off until the end of Hornets' Nest. As those of you who read the books or saw the movies will know, it doesn't exactly work that way. The second and third stories have a lot to do with each other, but the first has little to do with either of the others. I guess that was sort of a disappointing realization as I went on in the films, because the first story is the most interesting in terms of a traditional mystery, where Salander plays the role I expected of her most (a hacker investigating things that might get her into trouble). In the second and third movies, she's either on the run or already captured, and I felt like neither of these is the best use of her as a character.

Overall I found the films to be more like extended procedural television programs than real movies. However, I wouldn't call this a criticism, as I was interested the whole time. I guess I say this because they generally have a small amount of action and a large amount of talking, meaning they were easy to complete under shorter production schedules -- though I still don't know how all three movies came out in Sweden in the year 2009. That seems nearly impossible.

As with most people, I really liked Noomi Rapace as Salander and Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist. However, I found it strange that they spend most of the series apart from each other, with Salander basically disavowing her eternal champion for the last two chapters of the series. It's consistent with the books, I'm told, but it's a curious narrative choice in any case. Each has interesting stories and each has big moments in terms of taking down the bad guys, but they interweave only a few times after the end of Dragon Tattoo. I have to conclude that this was a problem for me on some level.

During the weekend I told a friend that I thought the events of the series would be more epic than they were, but later realized that the events are more epic than I was giving them credit for. In fact, it's damn near operatic in the sense that Salander's father, Alexander Zalachenko, is trying to kill her as revenge for her trying to kill him when she was a child. (He abused her mother, you see.) Not only that, but he's doing it with the help of her heretofore unknown half-brother, a huge, hulking man with a congenital disease that prevents him from feeling pain. So I guess it's the execution that leaves things feeling less epic than they should. As I said previously, there's a lot of talking and a lot of plot development, and while most if it is interesting and some of it is easy to follow, the lack of big set pieces gives it something of a smaller scale. I guess that's what some people like about the movies. Me, I appreciated that aspect, the sense that most of the things that happened could actually happen -- with the exception of a rather unbelievable occurrence at the end of the second film. However, it did make the whole thing feel a bit less cinematic to me.

One thing I found interesting is that the movies were each over two hours long, yet I did not get bored nor check my watch. The drama is kinetic enough that it keeps you involved even though it isn't "exciting" in the traditional sense. I do have to admit that we got a later start on Sunday, and eventually I just couldn't stay awake any longer (it had already been a busy weekend). So I watched the last 24 minutes of the series over coffee the next morning.

Even though I probably liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo the best -- I think that's also the story readers connect to most -- I did find its twist to be somewhat strange. The investigation by Salander and Blomkvist is designed to uncover who may have murdered Harriet Vanger. Turns out, they do find a murderer in the Vanger family, even though the reason they started looking for him -- the presumption that he killed Harriet, whose body was never found -- turns out not to be the case at all. In fact, they find Harriet alive at the end, living in Australia. Does that mean there's something less valid about the clues they've been amassing through the story? It almost ends up seeming like they found a murderer by dumb luck.

A former journalist myself, I liked the series' old-school casting of a journalist as a hero. These days, it seems that members of the media are treated with great suspicion in Hollywood -- they tend to be venal villains who only want to gum up the works. Nowadays, if you want to have a character turn the establishment upside down and risk his/her own safety to find the truth, you usually cast a cop or a private eye in that role. Glad to see Larsson make Blomkvist a genuine hero whose brilliant detective work is in service of no other gain than punishing the wicked and clearing the names of the innocent.

I felt the non-Hollywood ways of these films in other ways, such as the fact that many of the cases being discussed were cold cases to an extreme degree, involving people who were now extremely old. In a story that originated in Hollywood, the Harriet Vanger disappearance would be something that happened recently. Here, it happened in 1966, more than 40 years earlier. I don't think it detracts from the story, it's just curious to note.

I shouldn't close this piece without a word or two about Noomi Rapace. I thought she did great work, reminding me of a young Gina Gershon. I loved the way she gave Salander a hard shell, but not an impenetrable one. One way to interpret this role would be to have her be some kind of badass superhero who just goes around kicking the asses of people who deserve it. In fact, maybe that's what I was expecting. Since I was familiar with the poster for Hornets' Nest, specifically Salander's hairstyle, I guess I was expecting her to have some kind of rampaging Travis Bickle moment at the end, where she goes in shooting, expecting not to come out alive. I think these movies deserve credit for being more life-sized than that, and Rapace deserves credit for bringing subtleties to her characterization that may not have been required, or that a lesser director wouldn't have asked for. There are pretty evident stylistic differences between Niels Arden Oplov (who directed the first film) and Daniel Alfredson (who directed the last two), but both directors get a consistent portrayal out of Rapace, who seems to have really thought about this character and lived the ostentatious details of her life. I'll be eager to see if Rooney Mara can do the same when David Fincher's version of Dragon Tattoo comes out in December.

Is there probably more I could say? Yeah. But have I said enough? Yeah.

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