Saturday, June 20, 2015

Great Directors: David Fincher

David Fincher.

I am somewhat hesitant to use the term "great directors" at all because it suggests a kind of auteurism that favors the works of a few so-called "great" filmmakers over films made by lesser-known or less consistent talents. Despite my love of certain directors (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Kurosawa, Korine, Soderbergh, Holofcener, etc.) and my tendency to seek out films by directors whose work I know I have enjoyed in the past, I am not ONLY interested in the work of directors I know by name nor do I believe that a "great" director is required to produce great work. However, I could not include this appreciation of David Fincher in my "Overlooked Directors" series because he is certainly not overlooked, not since 1999's Fight Club anyway.

I further acknowledge that greatness is always culturally determined and historically contingent. I recently wrote a piece about the lack of greatness I see in Quentin Tarantino's post-1997 output. In that piece I compare QT's late-career works both to his own earlier, better films AND to several other independent, studio, and non-U.S. directors and films with which I am familiar. To me, as a filmgoer with a fairly deep exposure to many of the same films from which Tarantino borrows his style, his post-1997 work seems derivative, two-dimensional, and not that interesting. By contrast,  I assume his films must feel like an edgy, inventive breath of fresh air to someone who mainly only watches big studio blockbusters and other mainstream stuff.

In addition to a viewer's assumptions and background knowledge, time also changes how we view films and bodies of work. In 1997, Quentin Tarantino's work seemed lively, clever, amazing. In 2015, the novelty has worn thin.

Therefore I judge Fincher in his present moment and context: he is a commercial, studio director with an extraordinary degree of technical and artistic mastery who really really loves to make dark, noirish crime thrillers, often about serial killers.

It might be best if we start off by watching this excellent video:

Tony Zhou, the whip-smart narrator of that video, remarks of watching David Fincher's films that "it's great to watch someone who's actually great at their job." Zhou concludes that "even if you don't like Fincher, this is some of the best craft in directing right now and it is absolutely worth studying."* I couldn't agree more. I will state openly that I think Fincher is one of America's most talented and skilled directors, and he may sit very close to the top of the heap now that Steven Soderbergh has supposedly "retired" from filmmaking.

Let's look at a few of Fincher's best efforts -- chosen quite subjectively by me -- in an attempt to sum up what makes his work so consistently superb.**

"Its production history has usurped its impact." --Scout Tafoya on Alien 3

Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 is one of those films that it is fashionable to hate, probably due to the rock-solid construction, immense popularity, and lasting influence of its two precursors, Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). Yet I have always liked Alien 3 and have never quite understood the outcry against it. When I first saw the extensive behind-the-scenes footage of how difficult this threequel was to make, I was surprised, for to me the finished film does not reveal the tumultuous struggle that brought it into being. Like this reviewer, I consider Alien 3 to be on par with the first two Alien films, and in fact I personally prefer it over James Cameron's Aliens.

Of course, much of my preference is surely attributable to genre: I categorically prefer horror films to action films. But like Mr. Constantine says in the review linked above, Alien 3 is a perfect capstone to the Alien trilogy (like him I deny the existence of the abysmal and, ironically, lifeless Alien Resurrection) and a superb stand-alone gothic horror film, especially in its extended version included in the Alien Quadrilogy boxed set:
While it’s admirable of James Cameron to do something different as opposed to a traditional sequel, I do feel that [in Aliens] the aliens became a bit less threatening by having so many of them. [. . .] With Aliens, although there are some surprises, you’re pretty confident that Ripley, Hicks and Newt will all survive. But in Alien 3, like in Alien, it’s made very clear that no one is safe. We’re now in a situation that is just as desperate as the first film.
Indeed. To continue in this vein, let's check out this great video essay about the greatness of Alien 3:

As Scout Tafoya writes in the essay accompanying the video, 
Because the third film revolves almost entirely around Ripley's desire to protect the integrity of her body—specifically her womb—"Alien 3" feels more purely feminist than the previous two movies, for all their innovative images of a badass heroine fighting bugs whose bodies fused male and female genitalia into a Freudian nightmare. In the first movie, she's fighting to save her crew. In the second, she's fighting to save a little girl, and in so doing, embracing her own latent potential for motherhood; the climactic action scene even brings her face-to-face with another mother, the alien queen, in an egg chamber. These are all engaging, relatable motivations, but they're culturally conservative, because they play on the traditional image of woman as potential victim or maternal protector. 
In "Alien 3," Ripley is fighting for Ripley, period.
I agree with this assessment. I have always felt that, while Ripley is undeniably badass in Aliens, the feminist implications of her role in that film have tended to be overstated. I think she is a more progressive figure in the first Alien film, where her gender is barely even at play -- she just does her job as first officer of the Nostromo and her femininity and/or maternal instincts have nothing to do with it. In fact, I think that Alien makes clear that she is a better leader and officer than Dallas, since he makes the devastatingly bad call to insist she admit he and the alien-infested Kane back onboard ship, while she has the good judgment to refuse him. The only way the first film might be seen to "sell out" Ripley on the basis of her gender is when it depicts her in her underwear near the end, subjecting her to the objectifying, erotic masculine gaze germane to all Hollywood cinema.***

The one sexually objectifying series of shots that mars Ridley Scott's 
otherwise perfect horror masterpiece Alien (1979). 

All that said, and to broaden the scope here a little, we should ask: is David Fincher's work sexist? I admit that a couple of his recent works, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, have given me serious pause: the former is about an adolescent-minded guy who treats women misogynistically at every point along his rise to the top, and the latter depicts rape in ways that I find unnerving (especially compared to its Swedish antecedent).† Beyond that, I am inclined to read Gone Girl, Fincher's latest psychosexual thriller, as another of the director's works that leans too heavily in the misogynist direction.††

In this context, Fincher's work reminds me a great deal of Alfred Hitchcock's, both in terms of its technical perfection and in its tendency to be both woman-positive AND misogynist at the same time. Like Hitch, Fincher seems drawn toward stories featuring well-rounded and interesting women characters (e.g., Alien 3, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the Netflix TV series House of Cards) most of whom are dark, edgy, gender-bending, and sexually dangerous in ways reminiscent of the femme fatale of film noir. As such, Fincher's women characters, despite their complexity, often end up getting tortured, raped, and/or murdered at some point in their respective films or programs. I discuss Gone Girl at length elsewhere, but must note here that, despite its technical perfection and edge-of-your-seat thrills, it has drawn a substantial feminist backlash (e.g., here, here, and here) that I find difficult to downplay or refute.

But in any case Alien 3 is great and I strongly suggest that you lay your hands on a copy of the extended 1991 "Assembly Cut" and check it out.

Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart star in David Fincher's 
somewhat under-appreciated thriller Panic Room.

The Game (1997) and Panic Room (2002)
I am quite fond of these two underrated gems, especially the latter. They are genre films, tightly made thrillers with few, if any, deep thoughts on their minds, yet they are so damn well directed and visually rich that they stand out purely for their level of craft.

One of the most remarkable shots in Panic Room is a digital "long take" in the film's first act, just before the 16-minute mark. The shot lasts about three minutes, tracking backward out of Meg's (Jodie Foster) bedroom, between two banister rails, down two stories, past the front window (seeing intruders outside) and into the front door keyhole, back past the front window (still seeing intruders), through the kitchen to the back door, up a story to see an intruder climbing up the fire escape outside, then up a few more to the skylight, then back down into the "panic room" on the house's top floor. What I like about this shot is that it is clearly an impossible shot to get via traditional means -- no camera could fit between those banister rails or inside that keyhole -- yet what Fincher and his team do here is create a mostly digital (computer-generated) shot that attempts to look like a traditional, analog camera move that achieves the physically impossible. I wish more directors and films took advantage of CGI to accomplish stuff like this rather than to overwhelm us with robots.

Aside from his general virtuosity and inventive use of cutting-edge digital effects techniques, I also like that Fincher clearly understands the roots of the genre in which he works, paying homage to other thrillers and noirs such as Kubrick's The Killing:

One of the last shots from David Fincher's Panic Room . . . 

. . . pays homage to this famous, climactic shot from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956).

Fincher's early thrillers and neo-noirs such as Se7enThe Game, and Panic Room ultimately pave the way for his greatest achievement in this area . . .

A beautifully lit and composed shot from the opening sequence of Zodiac
David Fincher's 2007 neo-noir masterpiece.

Zodiac (2007)
Zodiac is Fincher's hands-down best film in my view. I really don't know what to say about it except: see it. It may be that I am ill-equipped to speak critically about Zodiac because I am too close to it -- it is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is essentially a film noir (more precisely a neo-noir, that is, a noir-like film made after 1958), which is one of my very favorite film genres / styles. Briefly glossed, film noir is a style that emerged as part a cycle of crime films starting in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Structurally, the noir is an offshoot or adaptation of the crime thriller, especially the police procedural. What makes the film noir distinct from its antecedents is its high-contrast lighting style, its rain-soaked nighttime city streets, its morally ambiguous characters, and its focus on the process of an investigation as opposed to its outcome (a great many noirs end ambiguously or with the real culprit uncaught). According to French film theorists Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton,
the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience that anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir. All films of this cycle create a similar emotional effect: that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed. †††
This applies oh so well to Zodiac, in which everyday guy Robert Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case of the Zodiac Killer and utterly loses touch with his family life in the process. He finds the killer, but does he catch him? Watch the movie to find out.

Note Zodiac's noir-like high contrast lighting that plunges 
Robert's (Jake Gyllenhaal) face into shadow. 

For those of you who have read my American Hustle review, you will recall that I critiqued that film for over-doing its "70s-ness," going too far over the top, creating something that felt off-putting, hyper-real, and historically wrong. Zodiac is my positive counter-example for how to get a 1970s period piece exactly right.

Zodiac represents neo-noir at its very best. Its aesthetics are a masterful mixture of neo-noir style and a perfectly rendered 1970s period piece -- kind of like the serial killer plot of Dirty Harry shot, lit, and paced as if it were Night Moves or Chinatown.

Mark Ruffalo walking in front of a bluescreen in San Francisco shooting Zodiac

Equally interesting as what we see onscreen in Zodiac are the cutting-edge processes used to bring them about. I could attempt to explain in detail how Fincher and his associates created 1970s San Francisco via complex bluescreen technology etc., but why not once again defer to an informative video?

Deliciously twisted and sprawling, intelligently scripted, and (as always) boldly shot, lit, and edited, Fincher's Zodiac is a masterpiece for both Fincher and the neo-noir tradition writ large. Please see it.

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in season one episode two of House of Cards.

House of Cards (2 episodes, 2013)
Folks who know me will attest that it is difficult to win me over as a regular watcher of dramatic television shows (comedy is a different story). I am well aware of the "quality TV" revolution and have watched a few pivotal series, like Oz and The Shield, to completion, but I swear I've made several earnest efforts to get into The Sopranos and have never made it past season two. I made it three and a half seasons into Mad Men and got bored. Dramatic shows, no matter how well-produced, just don't typically seem to hold my attention for long.

Fincher's Netflix Original Series House of Cards is an exception. I don't even normally like Kevin Spacey -- I usually find him too "actor-y" and over-determined in his onscreen performances -- and yet I like him here. (I also basically like him in Se7en as well -- his hamminess meshes well with that somewhat fantastical / fanatical character.) I watched all of seasons one and two of Cards and enjoyed them both quite a bit.

That said, my interest in House of Cards has flagged a bit as it heads into its third season. Part of my issue is that I think Claire Underwood's (Robin Wright) story got compromised in season two. As Karen Valby's critique of Claire's season two story arc makes clear, she is such an awesome, compelling, uncompromising character to begin with that it is a major letdown to discover that a past sexual assault may be a motivating factor explaining her present-day edge. As Valby asks: "can’t we enjoy standing aghast in the face of Claire’s ruthlessness without saddling her with such an excruciating foundation?" I sincerely wish we could. I join with Valby in asking "quality" television shows to quit falling back on rape as a stock story device imposed upon otherwise extremely compelling and interesting female characters.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood on House of Cards

I guess that brings us back to the misogyny point, and it is an issue that continues to haunt Fincher's latest works. I must acknowledge Fincher as one of the greatest living American filmmakers. His mastery of his craft is exceptionally high, his films consistently superb, and even when he makes sexist missteps, his films are never anything less than emotionally and visually provocative. Even when I am troubled by some of their gendered implications, I nevertheless enjoy and marvel at (most of) Fincher's films. Yet that sexist vibe is palpably in there, perhaps nowhere more so than in Gone Girl. That troubles me and may, for me, somewhat diminish Fincher's cinematic achievements over time if it continues.

* Zhou has a Patreon site where he solicits financial support for his superb and essential "Every Frame a Painting" video essay series.
** Note that I am not discussing Fight Club (1999), because frankly, I don't like that film much. I find it thematically pretentious (with its false "anti-capitalist" message), and ideologically dangerous (striving to be a satire I think but presenting Edward Norton's character too sympathetically to work as a critique of his white, hypermasculine bullshittery). I am not discussing Se7en (1995) because, while I like it a lot, I think Zhou's video essay says enough about what makes this generally well-received film great.
*** Here I refer to the well-known feminist analysis of Hollywood cinema by Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which correctly points out that Hollywood objectifies women onscreen via sexist camera and costuming techniques Mulvey calls the "male gaze."
† For more on the sexism of the geeky protagonist of The Social Network, see my co-authored article, "Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity."
†† I capsule-reviewed Gone Girl in my 2014 end of year roundup, concluding that it is "an amazingly well-wrought thriller with an unfortunate, mile-wide misogynist streak."
††† Borde and Chaumeton, "Towards a Definition of Film Noir" in The Film Noir Reader (Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1996) p. 25.

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