Gilbey on Film: I'm a Girl refusenik

Why I won't be watching - or reading - any of the Stieg Larsson trilogy.

A commercially daring marketing strategy has been announced this week by the distributor Momentum Pictures. In effect, it's a cinematic loss-leader.

In an effort to whip up interest in its forthcoming thriller The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, which is released on 26 November, Momentum is putting on free double-bills of the preceding instalments in the Stieg Larsson-adapted "Millenium" trilogy (that's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire). Forty-one cinemas in the UK will screen the two films this Sunday; all you need to do is claim your tickets, climb into your motorcycle leathers, hop on your bike and burn rubber in the direction of your nearest participating cinema.

Well, I say all that about leather and motorbikes but I am exactly the sort of Girl refusenik at whom this unusual promotion is aimed, so what would I know? Through a mixture of cunning and ineptitude, I have managed to miss out on the series -- can we call it a phenomenon, or has that word now gone the way of "icon"? -- in both literary and cinematic form. There was definitely a week earlier this year when I was considering reading the first book or watching the first film, but then a pair of witty writers rained on that idea before it had even become a fully-fledged plan.

First, Nora Ephron -- sparkly on the page, even if her directing (You've Got Mail, It's Complicated) lacks that same fizz -- wrote a knock-out pastiche of the series, entitled "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut", in the New Yorker. Even my Larsson-resistant eyes could recognise it was knock-out, merely from having watched the trailer for the first movie, and from all the time-consuming sneering I've done at commuters reading Larsson's books on trains and buses. Ephron nailed the exaggerated pomposity and forced cool that anyone will recognise from even a passing acquaintance with a potboiler:

Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe. Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Etc...

That alone would have been ample justification for my avoidance of all things Girl-related. Then a few weeks later, Will Self piled in after Ephron in this most amusing literary scrum. In this very magazine, he summarised Larsson's series thus: "[A] lot of tedious Swedes cutting each other to pieces." One distinguished comic writer steering me away from the Stieg Larsson section in the bookshop, or from the cinema showing a Girl movie, would have been quite enough: I'm easily swayed. But two? The damage was done.

There is undoubtedly a contrarian thrill to finding oneself out of step with a popular craze; the rise of Dan Brown has done easily as much good for half the world's feelings of superiority as it has done harm to the remaining half's vocabulary. And in a world that makes increasingly unrealistic demands on our time, there is something empowering about resisting those entertainments of which simply everyone is partaking. (I hadn't read a word of J K Rowling or seen more than one of the Harry Potter films before I was called upon to review the fifth movie for the NS. In preparation, I received a crash course from my children, but what I saw only confirmed that I had not been missing much. It's government-regulated fantasy really, isn't it? Fantasy with the corners sanded down, the fantastic sucked out.)

On-demand viewing has made that level of assertion easier; the dominance of the boxed-set is also proof that we all like to regulate our interests and obsessions, gorging on an entire season in a day or two if we so desire.

The problem Momentum is trying to address with the free Girl giveaway is to stem the fatigue that must inevitably set in among audiences when the three parts of a trilogy are released in such a short space of time (the first Girl opened here in August). At least the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and James Bond films typically have a year or two between each outing. But I wonder if the Girl brand isn't irrevocably tainted among the uninitiated. I doubt I'll be setting aside five hours on a Sunday to submit to a marketing campaign.

That said, I love the idea of the double-bill making a return in the form of a primer. Multiplexes might show a brace of past Palme d'Or winners to whet our appetites for the upcoming Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Or a couple of movies set in hotels to get us in the mood for Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, which takes place largely in the Chateau Marmont.

The double-bill is a luxury in which too few cinemas indulge these days. I'm a sucker for them. But when it comes to Momentum's generous offer, I may just be washing my motorcycle leathers that day.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.