There is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a holy trinity of Davids working within American mainstream cinema at the present time. Fincher, Lynch and Cronenberg. For me the one that has had the greatest cultural impact in the last 20 years has to be the former. He is that very rare director blessed with both box-office success and a cult classic following.
Born 1962 in Denver, Colorado, it was BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID that gave him the film-making bug and he started shooting 8mm shorts at the ripe old age of eight. After getting a job at Industrial Light and Magic where he worked on RETURN OF THE JEDI, he went on to direct high grade music videos, for the likes of Madonna and Micheal Jackson and commercials, one of which, for the American Cancer Society in 1984, featured a foetus smoking a cigarette. A young Marla Singer, perhaps?
Being the only commercial director Bill Hicks would have time for and a film director who’s self confessed interest is to scar rather than entertain, David Fincher has managed to work with huge budgets yet still maintain his own subversive vision.
So, sitting here with the clock ticking down, in the classic thriller sense, I’ve been asked to write a retrospective piece. This is my life and it’s ending one minute at a time. I realise I have to be choosy.
So I could explain the films I have chosen but I’ll let David do it for me –
‘Panic Room is a movie as opposed to a film. A movie is made for an audience and a film is made for both the audience and the film-makers. I think that The Game is a movie and I think Fight Club’s a film. I think that Fight Club is more than the sum of its parts, whereas Panic Room is the sum of its parts. I didn’t look at Panic Room and think: Wow, this is gonna set the world on fire. These are footnote movies, guilty pleasure movies. Thrillers. Woman-trapped-in-a-house movies. They’re not particularly important.’
So with those out of the way I’ll also skip over ALIEN 3, a film that was fated from the start, both by Fincher’s late entry into the production and stifling studio control. The film, however, is not without merit and I for one pray for a time when Fincher will relent and release a director’s cut, his own vision.
Meanwhile lets head straight for the masterpiece that is …
If you’ve not had the joyous discomfort to see it recently you could be forgiven for entertaining the notion that 16 years on from its release, this dark, foreboding tale of a serial killer and the cops that hunt him down would be starting, like Morgan Freeman, to show it’s age. Its style and narrative having been ripped off by every second rate cop series on TV (Yes I’m talking to you CRIMINAL MINDS)!. This movie remains as fresh as the day it was spewed upon the earth.
The film’s central conceit is surprisingly simple, the seven deadly sins used as a basis for seven murders over seven days. The setup is one we have seen many times, most notably in the LETHAL WEAPON series, two polar opposite characters, the reserved worldly wise cop on the brink of retirement and the young brash partner intent on saving the world.
In lesser hands this could have turned out as just another thriller/exploitation flick but Fincher’s masterful handling of the script turns it into nothing less than an existential morality play.
At the time of its release the world had already been graced with THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – as SEVEN’s writer Andrew Kevin Walker notes, the first Academy aAward-winning film to show semen chucked into its female protagonist’s face. This obviously gave Fincher some license. SEVEN goes one further, its murders so wonderfully conveyed, but not viscerally, although like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, you could have sworn you saw the act. Each killing is shown only in its aftermath, the true horror revealed through grainy black and white crime scene photographs or the words of our world-weary protagonist, Somerset (Freeman) who in fact is not so far away from John Doe (Kevin Spacey) – serial killer re-invented as an extension of God’s wrath. Somerset, like Doe, is all too aware of the iniquity of the world, they are two sides of the same coin, it is only in their reactions that they differ, Doe’s contempt versus Somerset’s empathy. There are even times near the end of the film where we are left wondering just who is the more moral of the two.
One of the joys of this film is that there is no attempt to explain why John Doe does the things he does, there is no coda like so many films where we learn the killer had a terrible childhood, a dominant mother etc. Take note Hitchcock. All we really know of Doe’s background is that he is ‘well educated and independently wealthy’. His eloquent dialogue whilst being driven to his fate makes us think about just how many sins we’ve committed today and who will come to make us attain for them.
Fincher loves his twist endings and this first became apparent with SEVEN, every foreboding frame of the film lures the viewer, as well as the protagonists to a conclusion that is both disturbing and grimly inevitable.
I was scared of the postman for weeks.
THE GAME followed with its lesser denouement, more of a shaggy dog story but compelling none the less and then came the post modern punch in the ear that is FIGHT CLUB.
FIGHT CLUB and SEVEN (SE7EN if you’re feeling pedantic), are undoubtedly two of the greatest films of the 1990’s with the former being one of the definitive American films of the twentieth century. Released just after the Columbine massacre, the film struck fear into the old guard, a modern day ACLOCKWORK ORANGE.
Like SEVEN, the film immediately burns itself onto your retinas, the opening credit sequence is a visual tour-de-force as we journey from the primitive amygdala of the narrators brain, past his sparking synapses, and out through a clogged pore in his forehead finally zooming down to a set of lips – it’s hard to talk with the barrel of the gun between your teeth.
Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk this darkly comic tale follows a thirty something, who shall be known only as The Narrator, insomniac, alienated from the big wide world, unable to find solace in the perfect IKEA apartment he has manifested, his only respite from the world is in the terminal disease support groups he frequents. After meeting the irrepressible, uber-cool, if-I-could-fuck-one-man-it-wouldn’t-be-Elvis-it-would-be Tyler Durden, things start to spiral frantically out of control.
Brad Pitt, who must have blessed the day he met Fincher, is perfect for this role. The hard bodied poster boy of his generation. One of the ironies in this film is his perfectness, stood in front of a Gucci underpants ad on the train, the audience is surely thinking, you are the advert. He is the Ying to Edward Norton’s Yang – the Jungian shadow self unleashed.
The actors that Fincher manages to recruit for his films speak volumes about his talent, pulling Morgan Freeman, Jodie Foster, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow all playing against type, into his dark obsessions.
FIGHT CLUB is about lack of fathers, lack of God, a society that promises everything but conspires to leave you numb, a society of pop promos, men’s moisturiser, talk shows.
In the words of Fincher, ‘We’re designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping. There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman is created.’
Aside from Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES there is no other film that is so stylishly self-conscious about its own medium. The breakdown of the narrator’s ego is manifest through the breakdown of cinematic form itself. The knowing nods to camera, the film unspooling, Tyler even lets us into the projectionist’s cigarette burn secrets.
After leaving the cinema as a twenty seven year old having watched FIGHT CLUB I immediately understood the sense of release that the characters felt after a particularly brutal bout, numb, battered, yet invigorated and alive. In the words of Tyler Durden – ‘ I just had a near life experience’.
While fight club manages to give us a feel good ending out of complete carnage, his next film has no such closure.
‘What follows is based on actual case files.’
Unlike the last two films this has no option but to have a sense of place. The San Francisco skyline is unmistakable and from the vintage Paramount title card we know this is the 60’s.
Already made into a film twice before, its first incarnation a deliberate ploy by the film-makers working in conjunction with the police to bring the Zodiac killer out of hiding, purely by its sheer awfulness. Based on a novel by Robert Graysmith that charts his own personal crusade to find the identity of the Zodiac after the authorities had given up, the story and characters were obsessively researched over 18 months by Fincher and its writer James Vanderbilt, who put nothing onto the screen that didn’t have a witness or survivor.
Unlike Fincher’s previous films this one is based on real events, the Zodiac Killer was a modern day Jack The Ripper, his body count was low but he was a media whore, writing cryptic letters, ciphers that to this day have yet to be solved. The first 20th century serial killer to understand the power of the brand and create his own logo.
Like SEVEN the film is not so much about the actual killer but the people around him, the press, the inefficient police, who would have no career without him. It is not so much a serial killer story as a story about justice, obsession. Long after the police have given up, Graysmith – played to perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal – follows his obsession to the hilt. More of a slow burner than Fincher’s previous films, it demands that you spend some time with it and really live with the characters for a little while.
In true Fincher fashion this is a film defined by unknowing it leaves you with a sense that everything isn’t going to be alright, no definitive answers, the Zodiac could be dead or he could be your milkman, about to deliver a very fragile cardboard box.
Throughout his career David Fincher has made his films his very own, re-inventing the thriller genre, bringing a new blackness to our screens, pioneering digital effects whilst staying true to the humanism that made cinema meaningful in the first place. As well as an army of fans he has many detractors. A lot of ‘auteurists’ shun him, based not on his body of work but his commercial background. They’ll happily cite Nolan though. This lack of auteur status is probably a good thing because it doesn’t allow him to believe his own hype, just look at the film’s Hitchcock made after his Truffaut interviews.
His characters, like him, are obsessed with changing the game, trying to mould the world into their own image , it doesn’t always work, but screw it. It’s all about the bruises.
More recently his work has taken on more of an epic feel, though still characterised by a brooding dark underbelly. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and the modern day fable THE SOCIAL NETWORK were both academy nominated proving what we all knew anyway.
In the fifties the aspiration was to write the great American Novel, with the advent of digital the desire has switched to film. It seems that Fincher has already done it.
Returning to his roots and the films he makes best with a thriller, based on the highly successful Stieg Larsson novel, Fincher has again chosen to tread the darker path. Hollywood has a terrible track record of financing foreign language remakes for the sake of the subtitle shy, already its clear that this isn’t just a remake but a reimagining.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara will be released on the 21st December, as well as being the feel-bad movie of the year it is sure to be a masterpiece.
No matter if it’s a film or a movie I can be sure of one thing I’ll never leave the theatre the same person as I entered.
I look forward to a fresh scar.