Movie Mahal

An online film journal for Indian Cinema

the films of david fincher

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INTRODUCTION (this features three posts on fincher’s film from my first blog)

The term ‘Tarantinoesque’ is a euphemism that has firmly become part of film culture today, and though Tarantino seems to have lost the postmodern edge that had made him so popular with critics in the 90s, the term continues to point to any film with a certain level of irony, playfulness and ‘Godardian’ cool; Godard being an inspiration for both Scorsese and Tarantino in their philosophising of world cinema authorial creativity. Unlike Tarantino who certainly seems to be an exception to the rule when in comes to breaking in to the Hollywood film industry, the vast majority of directors busy at work today in the mainstream have taken the formal route of film school education, and David Fincher, started out working in the special effects department on Lucas films like ‘Return of the Jedi’; the Star Wars saga epitomising the epoch of commercialism.

It is of little surprise why Fincher seems to have such an impressive, if not slightly nerdy, control of the technical aspects of his films, especially since his formal film training was largely expressed in the most brutalised and derided of media forms, the MTV music video. However, such an experience in a stylised and simplified medium would provoke criticisms to do with an unhealthy obsession with visual aesthetics, but unlike his MTV counterparts like Michael Bay and Antoine Fuqua who shifted into big budget filmmaking without feeling compelled to tone down their brash, overly stylised approach, Fincher’s reluctance to become just another director for hire on the production of Fox studio’s Alien franchise ended in commercial disappointment.

‘Alien 3’ was certainly a studio film but his public distancing from the final shape of the film underlined the problematic nature of the authorial presence of Fincher. Debuting with ‘Alien 3’, Fincher’s conflict with the commercial pressures that came with a notably successful franchise succeeded in determining the anxious trajectory he would take as a film maker, strengthening his resolve to never dilute his vision for a film or be forced to unnecessarily compromise his directorial preoccupations. The choice between commercial and personal auteur cinema in the constraints of a Hollywood industry that feels it needs to pitch most of the types of films it makes today to a juvenile teen audience means that a director like David Fincher performs the difficult balancing act of maintaining some kind of commercial and critical consistency by alternating between studio and auteur films.

Such a creative tension that exists between the two types of cinema is applicable to numerous film makers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg who seem to endorse the idea of a split career. Not only does this make commercial sense for many studios, it also means that film makers like Fincher who challenge the status quo by choosing to experiment with new digital technology and explore contemporary cultural anxieties, can do so with a certain degree of impunity. Though it could be argued that Fincher has very little choice when it comes to casting decisions, his on-going collaboration with the Hollywood mainstream actor Brad Pitt has been a fruitful one for both of them, and the addition of a bankable name like Brad Pitt has helped to minimise studio interference whilst assure investors that Fincher also has one eye on the international film markets.

After the ‘Alien 3’ debacle, Fincher paused and buried his head in the sand, choosing Kevin Andrew Walker’s neo noir serial killer screenplay ‘Seven’ as his next project. Starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, ‘Seven’ exceeded industry expectations by becoming one of the biggest commercial success stories of the 90s. Featuring Kevin Spacey in an un-credited role as John Doe, a genuinely frightening twist ending and revealing a more serious side to the acting chops of Brad Pitt, ‘Seven’ was the most unlikely of hits especially considering how dark the film was in its de-saturated, morbid visual style. However, the impressive visual aesthetics and control over what was quite a conventional narrative finally seemed to confirm Fincher’s previously over stated potential as an emerging new talent. The commercial and critical success of ‘Seven’ led many to believe that Fincher had secretly had his revenge, making a film outside the traditional studio system, by opting to endorse New Line Cinema as an independent production organisation that was not afraid of financing edgier, more risky films like ‘American History X’ and ‘Boogie Nights’ aimed at an unashamedly specialised adult audience who were desperate to embrace up and coming contemporary indie auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson.

Released in 1997 and starring Michael Douglas as Nicholas Van Orton; a self obsessed, apathetic corporate suit, ‘The Game’ was Fincher’s follow up to ‘Seven’. Perfectly cast in the role of a middle aged man who is manipulated by forces unknown to him, Michael Douglas, was superbly effective as the snobbish Van Orton, delivering one of his stronger performances in a career that seems to have nose dived into self indulgent films like ‘The In Laws’ and ‘King of California’. Beautifully realised and shot, Fincher collaborated for the first time with Gus Van Sant cinematographer, Harris Savides, capturing the architecture of the night scenes in San Francisco with a striking degree of clarity.

If ‘Seven’ signalled a real turning point in Fincher’s career then his next film, ‘Fight Club’, based on the cult novel by Chuck Palahniuk, earned him the status of a fully fledged film auteur and with ‘Fight Club’, Fincher produced his most mature film to date. 1999 is looked back by many critics as a key year in a decade that offered very little in terms of quality Hollywood output, yet this was a year that broke new ground, producing exceptional films like ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Three Kings’, ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘The Insider’, ‘Rushmore’ and ‘Magnolia’, with many of them having attained a certain cult following especially Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Referred to as a zeitgeist film for a generation of disillusioned young men, ‘Fight Club’ aimed its collective anger squarely at the raging apathy of a decade in which male identity had been at the forefront of a gender crisis. Financed by Murdoch’s Fox studio who thought they were getting a hip new Brad Pitt film, ‘Fight club’ was smuggled in under the radar and into cinemas. Fincher’s subversive satire defied conventional mainstream narrative cinema by advocating a Marxist critique of consumer culture.

Presenting a deeply politicised and bleak vision of a bankrupt American society, ‘Fight Club’ prefigured the terrorist attacks of 9-11 in the final images of a tumbling corporate skyscrapers devised by the insanity of Project Mayhem, a scheme designed to ferment revolutionary ideals and attack the corrupt, superficial ideologies of today’s media obsessed capitalist system. ‘Fight club’ seemed to sum up a decade of social frustrations in an entirely convoluted and schizophrenic narrative, proving that at heart Fincher was really a rebel and a maverick who had no options but to make the films he wanted to in a system which worships commercial ideas.

The terrorist attacks on 9-11 seemed to affect all facets of American life and Hollywood was no different when it came to trying to respond to the events through cinema. David Fincher had originally planned to collaborate with Jodie Foster on ‘The Game’ but scheduling problems meant that Sean Penn stepped in at short notice. Released in 2002, ‘Panic Room’, starred Jodie Foster as a wealthy, New York urbanite who rents a brownstone apartment with her daughter and who is trying to come to terms with a recent Hollywood style separation. Shot entirely within one space, ‘Panic Room’, seemed to be perfect in its timing especially in how the story revolved around a mother and daughter battling against a group of determined burglars who break into the apartment.

‘Panic Room’ is considered to be one of the most pre visualised films ever shot, with Fincher utilising state of the art computer technology to achieve complex and endless tracking shots so that he could move around the different levels of the apartment with great fluidity, achieving a relentless claustrophobic intensity that permeates what is in essence a straightforward, conventional thriller. Though ‘Panic Room’ panders to the woman in peril star image of Jodie Foster, it was nevertheless a commercial success and one of the first films to cash in on the post anxieties and fears of September 11.

ZODIAC (2007)

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After a five year hiatus, Fincher returned with what many consider to be his defining film to date; Zodiac. A real labour of love, Fincher’s ambitious and multi layered study of the zodiac killer who stalked the benign streets of a 1970s San Francisco, was met with widespread critical acclaim. Perhaps this was the only time that critics voiced a consensus about Fincher’s maturity as a film maker, but just like ‘Fight Club’ had been too subversive for audiences, Fincher’s obsessive study of police procedure alienated viewers as the film underperformed commercially. Costing a hefty $65 million, Fincher recreated the 1970s era with a precision for detail that is beautifully captured in a film entirely shot on digital. Fincher like Michael Mann have been real exponents of new technology especially shooting digitally, and it is of little surprise, that they have achieved staggering and at times groundbreaking results which certainly suggests that digital film making offers new and exciting aesthetic possibilities.

‘Zodiac’ is hugely ambitious in its scope and the narrative breadth is supported by a series of deeply affecting performances from Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo. Though the narrative is about determining the true identity of the zodiac killer, Fincher seems more concerned and fascinated by the complexity of the crimes, spending most of the time representing the struggles faced by the investigating detectives in a case that consumes and haunts them. The only compromise Fincher makes is in the casting of Jake Gyllenhall as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist, whose obsession with the case leads to some kind of ambiguous closure.

Though Jake Gyllenhall may be a competent actor, he simply does not convince as Graysmith, purely because he is not mature enough to be able to take on a role of such complexity. His performance maybe subordinate to the demands of the peripheral characters and visual style, but his casting feels like Fincher had to try and please the studio so that he could secure the kind of financing he was seeking to complete a project of such depth. In this case, his commercial sensibilities seem to have got the better of him, but Gyllenhall’s dopey and emotionless performance as Graysmith does little to take away the emotional power of Fincher’s finest film to date.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

The Social Network

It came as a real surprise to fans of David Fincher when he announced what was initially titled ‘the Facebook movie’. The films of David Fincher have responded to the zeitgeist in more ways than most of American cinema. Whilst Fight Club was a Hollywood induced Marxist response to the emasculation of men and rabid consumer culture and Panic Room reacted to the post 9-11 anxieties of homeland terrorism, The Social Network taps into a culture of social networking, victimisation and male egoism that has become pointedly associated with the Internet. Positioned in the body of Fincher’s work so far, The Social Network may appear as somewhat of an authorial anomaly but on closer inspection, many of the familiar thematic traits that unite his films are evident in what is a compelling narrative. It has to be said that this feels like a film Fincher has made for the studios, almost as returning a favour for the creative freedom given to him to make films such as Zodiac and Benjamin Button. In that sense, it seems less personal and engaged than his last few films and recalls more of the clinical precision of Panic Room, a slight film made purely as a genre piece and star vehicle for Jodie Foster’s women in peril persona.

I have always positioned Fincher alongside Michael Mann as they both seem to continue a tradition of utilising technology especially cinematography as a means of aiding the storytelling process. Whilst Mann has respectively attracted greater critical attention, Fincher’s background in music videos and his close collaboration with Brad Pitt on a number of films has meant he has labelled as a mainstream visual stylist, very much in the vein of Ridley Scott. With only one published account of Fincher’s work to date, a book that merely skims the surface, Seven continues be the one film upon which most critics have continued to judge the aesthetic and ideological credibility of one of American cinema’s most technically adept film makers. Whilst The Social Network is very much the story of Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook, Fincher’s choice of material does reflect a preoccupation with exploring male relationships and friendship that he first started to deconstruct in films such as Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac. Aaron Sorkin’s script has been getting a lot of attention for its fierce command of language but I wasn’t to sure if such literary sensibilities seemed comfortable in the rich and detailed landscapes of the film, a director who has a trained eye for mise en scene extrapolation.

In terms of genre, film noir has often been associated with Fincher and with The Social Network, the convention of the doomed noir protagonist finds a twisted affinity in the insecure yet egocentric loner of Zuckerberg. In addition, themes of paranoia and partial guilt emerge and consume the young entrepreneurs, yet again recalling familiar psychological characterisation common to the language of noir. Digital cinematography has arguably benefited directors wanting to shoot at night and in The Social Network, many of the sequences shot at night have a startling clarity and luminous feel to them that directly echo what is possible with the increasingly popular Red One camera. One aspect of the film that slightly irked me was the casting of Max Minghella as Divya Narendra (one of the people to sue Zuckerberg for intellectual property theft) – I am sure they could have found an Indian actor to play this role (Abhay Deol, anyone?). This is not one of Fincher’s best films but it does tell a riveting story and yet again points to Fincher’s masterful technical expertise. Of course, the problem with making zeitgeist films is that they inevitably have the danger of dating very quickly and becoming viewed as another case of Hollywood opportunism.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

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Like with every David Fincher film, there is so much to say about the approach taken and also the wider context. Prolific is not a term used lightly when referencing the work of David Fincher. He is a director who works at a leisurely pace, picking and choosing film projects very carefully. This of course has been proven in the success he has enjoyed over the years. Unlike The Social Network which came as somewhat of a surprise when Fincher was announced as director, the same cannot be said of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s best selling crime novels titled the Millennium series have become some of the most widely read fiction. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo was the first in a series of books which have already been adapted for the screen by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev. The film was widely acclaimed as a successful adaptation of the novel and performed well at the box office. Larsson’s work has been pooled under a recent wave of Scandinavian crime fiction, television and cinema dubbed Nordic noir. It was inevitable that Hollywood would present their own adaptation and the dark themes at play in the story fit perfectly in the noirish oeuvre of Fincher. To be honest, I am not a fan of Hollywood setting out to remake films which have already been successful with critics and audiences alike. For many fans of the novel, this Hollywood version may seem like a pointless adaptation when the Swedish film is such a brilliantly directed thriller. However, I have not seen the original film and neither have I read any of the novels. So I approached this adaptation with a mind set unclouded by previous literary or cinematic experiences of the novel. Nonetheless, my interest was primarily with Fincher as a mainstream American auteur. The narrative is very complicated and tricky to explain without having to go into details about various plot points so I’m going to focus on thematic, technical and genre aspects which I found particularly interesting.

Before I move on, I will say that the narrative is strongly reminiscent of classic film noirs and uses the classic binary oppositional conflict between the past vs. present, the old vs. the new and faith vs. modernity. Thematically, and given Larsson’s experience as a journalist, the film in many ways offers Fincher with one of his most ideologically complex narratives involving sexual violence towards women, the perversion of the extended family, the corrupt ruling elite, history and ancestry, patriarchy, and sadism. We could label such themes as epic and universal, especially in European society, as they trace a lineage through the Nazis and World War II to the accumulation of wealth by an elite set of industrialist families. It is a fatalistic and doomed ancestry, which passes down power, only to be faced with a generation of children who are desperate to escape the tyranny of their past crimes. If the past is something many of the younger generation wish to mask then a futurist like Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is on a mission to uncover the past and hold it up to the present. Lisbeth is a modern day equivalent of a private investigator but she is someone who uses technology as a means of uncovering the truth. It is an electronic truth which can easily be erased with the touch of a button or fabricated to manifest a specific ideological agenda. Lisbeth’s morally dubious computer hacking restates her marginal position in wider society – she is a loner seeking a sense of belonging but also desperate for a human connection that would in a strange sort of way abolish her potency as a feminist icon. In many ways, Lisbeth is transformed into a guardian and protector and it is her distinctive Goth identity that pushes her character into the sphere of comic book anti-heroes who punish the male transgressors that she comes across in society.

Thematically, what also links the past to the present is that the sexual violence towards women is both continuous and brutal. The rape of Lisbeth by Nils Bjurman, a monstrous lawyer, is depicted graphically and it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable (I guess that was the intention) but I would still argue that it might have been much more powerful to have simply cut away, not because such sexual violence should not be represented in a film, but because depicting violence in such graphic details can be seen as exploitative and an easy way of manipulating audience emotions. However, I think this is a film that could have easily trimmed away such darker elements in order to maximise its commercial appeal but those involved in this project were brave enough to remain faithful to the original source material. Nevertheless, Lisbeth’s rape is not filmed in an exploitative or sensationalist way because her character has a voice and a vengeful response that controls the narrative. Her violent retribution may show her transgressing the social order but the fact that most of the men in the film are shown to be exploiting women for their own needs makes her position dubiously justifiable and sympathetic. Lisbeth’s position of self defence echoes the past, merging with the actions of Harriet – both Lisbeth and Harriet are victims of a twisted and corrupt patriarchy that seems perpetual.

If Lisbeth fits the persona of the angry young woman then journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) seems more like a traditional opportunistic middle class alpha male. Although Blomkvist hires Lisbeth to aid his investigation into the disappearance of a young girl and grisly murders committed in the past, he does purely as a means of also reeking revenge on powerful businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. In many ways, Blomkvist takes on the job of writing Henrik Vanger’s (Christopher Plummer) memoirs so he can seek redemption for his failed investigation into Wennerstrom’s corrupt dealings. Blomkvist may appear to be a noble knight with a love for old journalistic values of transparency and the truth but fundamentally he is working to restore his male pride. In the final moments of the film, Lisbeth’s judgement equates Blomkvist with the laws of patriarchy – he may have appeared to be different than rest of the men in Lisbeth’s life but his gaze is singular, linear and predictably safe. What separates Lisbeth from Blomkvist is her fearlessness – death does not come into her life equation but it does for Blomkvist who does fear his own mortality.

Blomkvist’s investigation into the Vanger dynasty uncovers a narrative that stretches back to the 1940s and an involvement with fascism. The Vanger family and its anti Semitic sentiments that it still harbours does come to the surface on many occasions, underlining a nasty relationship between industrial wealth and right wing politics which says that ancestral power is forged on a culture of xenophobia. This may seem like a familiar theme today – equating the power of the ruling elite with racial prejudices but it works frightening well in offering a portrait of family that is decadent. However, this is a family that lives on an island owned by them. The island as a private community, separate from normal mainstream society, not only becomes a metaphor for their relative immunity but constructs an image of the ruling elite who are above the law and cannot be prosecuted for their crimes. Similarly like the gated island for the elite, the glass house in which Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) resides is another key visual motif used to brilliant effect by Fincher in the final sequences. Vanger’s domain, looking over the town, is a glass house and the wide glass panels that give the house its postmodern look point to a transparency which is nothing but a grand illusion – the truth is that beneath the veneer of transparency is a lie of quite literally torturous dimensions. Such political and economic immunity makes Lisbeth’s violent retribution at the end even more class based in its punitive response. Nevertheless, as we are in the universe of film noir, not even someone as powerful as Martin Vanger can escape his wretched past. It is the past, in the lexicon of noir, which eventually catches up with those who try to hide their crimes. And it is the puzzle of the crime that intrigues Fincher the most.

If Zodiac was a police procedural obsessed with putting together all the intricate pieces like an extended jigsaw puzzle then the same principles of micro investigation can be applied to the gradually unfolding narrative of Fincher’s latest film. In genre terms, the noir accents are readily identifiable but if the convention of the femme fatale is central to the iconographic discourse of film noir then the likely suspect may well be Lisbeth Salander. However, if we judge the femme fatale on qualities to do with her sexuality, power and manipulation of men then it makes Lisbeth increasingly unlikely as the femme fatale. Since the 1940s, the femme fatale has changed radically over the years into a much more complicated and morally ambiguous figure. In one way, Lisbeth could be a new kind of femme fatale, one who depends and relies on technology as a tool to exact her revenge. Such a claim is supported when Lisbeth records her rape using a micro fibre camera and then plays it back to the rapist. What separates Lisbeth from the traditional femme fatale archetype is that her sexuality is never overtly manifested. Given the film noir context, perhaps then Lisbeth is a new age femme fatale who is more cyber punk than retro chic. Of course, if we interpret the femme fatale archetype alternatively and reverse gender assumptions then maybe Martin Vanger might fit the mould particularly if we consider the way he uses power to manipulate those around him. It would be wrong to be right off Vanger simply as the bogeyman. For me, another significant convention of a traditional film noir is that central characters tend to be doomed from the outset, usually resulting in their death by the end of the film. In a way, I had expected Blomkvist to die, but both the hero and the heroine live to see another day. What is resolved is the murder mystery enigma of the narrative and in that respect, the ending ends tentatively rather than fatalistically. Absent then is the classical noir finale.

Resolving the murder mystery, the film seems to offer us yet more endings and this is where I felt the film seemed to falter. In the epilogue, Lisbeth is transformed into a Carlos the Jackal like figure, impersonating and emptying bank accounts. Lisbeth gives Blomkvist his muted victory against Wennerstrom but this sudden transformation is way too implausible and outlandish for me to take it seriously. Additionally, and I’m not sure if it is deliberate (maybe it is a sly postmodern reference) but Lisbeth’s blonde look at the end of the film recalls with uncanny precision none other than Lady Gaga; another gender outsider. On the most basic level, this is a superior thriller and its brilliance in terms of constructing a compelling narrative is through the way old and new media merge together to re-present a new truth and a new reality with far reaching consequences. This is a film, like many great thrillers, especially ones by Hitchcock teaches us to look, to gaze at the evidence presented before us and participate in a narrative of disclosure. Technically, Fincher is the best film maker working in American mainstream cinema today. I always pair him with Michael Mann, another visual stylist but Fincher for me has shown a greater consistency than Mann. Much of the production team from The Social Network also worked on this project and cinematography, sound design, editing and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are top notch. The digital cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, who narrowly missed out on Oscar night to Will Pfister for Inception, is the son of Jordan Cronenweth who shot influential films such as Blade Runner. The film’s visual look is a familiar when one glances over recent Fincher films. Shot using the Digital Red ‘One’ and new ‘Epic’ Cameras, the wintry backdrop and predominant use of greys gives the film a striking austere and muted look that fits perfectly with the twisted sensibilities of the narrative. The innovative opening titles is a work of art in itself, juxtaposing abstract images from the film to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ – this extends a familiar Fincher preoccupation with using the titles as part of the narrative storytelling. This is a rich, compelling and at times sophisticated noir that understands the complexities of narrative and genre storytelling. It is also a film by David Fincher.

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This entry was posted on September 26, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged .

OMAR AHMED

PhD Researcher (Indian Parallel Cinema), The University of Manchester (AHRC 2015).

Teacher of Film & Media.
Freelance Writer & Cinephile.

Contact:
oahmed5@gmail.com

STUDYING INDIAN CINEMA (Auteur, 2015)

DIRECTORY OF WORLD CINEMA: INDIA (2015)

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