by Sean Lindsay
Sean Lindsay recently completed an MA in Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He now lives in Calgary, Alberta, also known as the land that film forgot.
| It is an understatement to claim that the films of director
David Fincher are reminiscent of classical film noir. The canonical
texts written on the subject, notably Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton's
Towards a Definition of Film Noir (1955) and Paul Schrader's
Notes on Film Noir (1972), read like 'how to' guides
for understanding films like Alien 3, Seven, Fight Club,
and to a lesser extent The Game and Panic Room. Schrader points
out that film noir's techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia,
lack of clear priorities, insecurity; then submerge these self doubts in
mannerism and style. In such a world style becomes paramount; it is all
that separates one from meaninglessness. (1) If this
is true, Fincher has created a series of films that are anything but meaningless.
His slick and glossy treatment of a dark world frequently garners accusations
that his films are shallow experiments in style. It is more accurate to
say that Fincher absorbs the fleeting styles and tastes of Hollywood, reflects
them, and twists them. He pulls back the curtain, revealing a mechanical
process at the core of the filmmaker's art, leaving us to wonder how we
lost our humanity in something we love so much.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Fincher is his proven ability to buy artistry at $7000 a second. The idea that a film can cost $50 million-plus inspires nausea in most critics and it is tempting to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that all that cash doesn't really make a film any better. But, while many directors with fat studio wallets are falling over themselves to get the biggest bang for their bucks, Fincher is lacing his films with effects that are subdued, moody, and often transparent. He is mapping out impossible camera movements with CGI, commissioning intricate sets that would make Dario Argento drool, tweaking every last detail in postproduction, and re-shooting copious amounts of footage after the principal photography has wrapped. He appears to have the studios figured out and is able to make films the way he wants, with or without the final cut.
Fincher cultivated a healthy respect for big-budget filmmaking as a teenager when he landed a dream job at Industrial Light and Magic. He worked on special effects cinematography for films like Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). As if this experience didn't already place him at the chewy centre of his generation's pop culture, he then went on to direct music videos for, among others, Madonna, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones. Fincher also found a place directing lavish commercials for corporations like Nike, Levi's, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola; this profession has since sheltered Fincher from the whims of the studios, giving him time to choose his projects and negotiate a decent amount of control over them. It has also provided those who disapprove of Fincher's films with a convenient justification. There are dissenters who simply object to all films of quality and Fincher's work with commercials and music videos leads him to produce films with extremely precise lighting, editing, and décor.
Fincher proudly stands behind all of his work (except Alien 3) and defends himself against his detractors. He says, [t]here's this assumption that commercials are just close-ups of celebrities holding products up to their faces. But some of them are great art. It's not the art of the surrealistic painting or the poem, but it is art. (2) Fincher's definition is refreshingly inclusive. At the same time, Fincher hints that the relative importance of a film is fleeting and indeterminate:
Maybe that's why he continues to make thrillers, even though he believes that [c]omedies are probably more important to the human psyche than movies that scare people. (4) Or maybe he aspires to exorcise our demons by showing them in their entirety. The unique combination of despair, cynicism, and the occasional burst of calculated sadism that pervade Fincher's films has surfaced only on rare occasions in Hollywood cinema during the past 50 years and each time it leaves a scar.
Alien 3 replays much of the content of Ridley Scott's original Alien (1979). The outgunned and unprepared humans, unable to flee because they are adrift in space, overcome the odds and destroy the creature that is hunting them. However, the originality of Alienthe shock of a living man giving birth to the creature as it bursts from his chest, the betrayal of the crew by its android companion, and the strength of the female protagonist that ultimately casts the creature into spaceis intentionally absent. Imagine a stock horror film where the defenseless teenagers simply surrender to the serial killer at the outset. They do eventually destroy the creature, but only because they have nothing better to do.
The visual language of the film was carefully planned to nourish the paranoia and isolation of the film's plot. The camera is always looking up at the smooth lines of the neo-gothic interiors, but the angle only makes the film more claustrophobic because the camera never gets far enough away to make us feel comfortable with the surroundings. Even if we weren't always so close to everything, it's unlikely it would make any difference. As the film's cinematographer, Alex Thompson, pointed out, Fincher was always saying 'Keep it dark, keep it dark!' making it very difficult for him to maintain any sort of color in the image. (6) The end result is a gritty, chiaroscuro sepia that doesn't let up.
In the last few minutes of the film, a curious attempt is made to resurrect an SF atmosphere. Men in white suits (à la E.T.) arrive after the destruction of the alien to take Ripley and her 'child' away. They want to develop the alien life form into a weapon. Robin Wood's comments on the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) seem particularly relevant here, when he says that the Hollywood ideology is shattered beyond convincing recuperation. (7) This sudden influx of guns and enemy soldiers is too little too late. As Ripley jumps to her death, clutching the newborn alien to her chest, Alien 3 is unable to find resolution in this or any other context. Since that moment, fans have prayed nightly that a director's cut of Fincher's original concept will be released. Fincher, however, would just as soon see the film's original negatives destroyed.
Foster Hirsch has high praise for the setting of Seven, because it may well be the most richly rendered symbolic space to date in the history of neo-noir. (8) However, he concludes that Seven is compelling if morally hollow. (9) I would instead argue that Seven floods us with morality, not all of it palatable. The fragmentation of narrative voice is extensive and the only authoritative storyteller we can cling to (Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman) is the one who believes that the violent aspects of human nature are incomprehensible, yet unstoppable. Frighteningly enough, even the killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), has a powerful and convincing voice in the film. He, at least, envisions an end to violence.
Seven conforms to the definition of the progressive text as one that challenges the conventional means of representing reality in the cinema in such a way as to expose those means as a practice, as a product of ideology, and not as a manifest replication of reality. (10) This label is easier to apply to Fight Club (1999), where the style of the film directly influences characters and the narrative structure, but the seeds of this visual progression are planted in Seven. The film's protagonists, detectives Somerset and Mills (Brad Pitt), are from two different worlds and the lens alternates between their two disparate perspectives. Somerset's world is smoky and dark; his crime scenes are littered with grime and decay and his precinct, cluttered and cramped, is a monument to unsolved cases. Mills' approaches police work as a profession, rather than a solemn duty. He has the hot cups of coffee, the beautiful home, and a beautiful wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). His first crime scene is bright and media saturated and his attitude is reflected in the words that echo from a nearby television: [t]his will be the very definition of swift justice.
Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Jeunet and Caro's Delicatessen  and City of Lost Children ) worked to create a new aesthetic that would successfully convey the mood of the characters without falling into kitsch and cliché. Khondji comments that they moved toward a roughness, a grittiness [and] didn't worry about making things beautiful. (11) Towards this end, Khondji applied a new re-silvering process to the negatives, revealing more grain in the celluloid and making the black impervious to light.
The noir world and the clinical world of the police-procedural compete until, gradually, Somerset's historically proven pessimism wins out. It is unclear at which point the killer takes control of the film. Possibly, he has always had the upper hand and we have simply been following his directions. At any rate, we are certain that his final ghastly actshipping the head of Mills' wife by courier to this final destination in the middle of nowheresymbolizes nothing but victory for Doe's machinations. Mills executes Doe, shooting him several times. The fall of an innocent man is complete, but we can't forget Doe's venomous remarks that only in a world this shitty, could [his victims] be considered innocent. In most Hollywood serial-killer films, the death of the madman at the end seems to tie up all the loose ends. In Seven, Doe's execution fulfils his master plan (he claims that he is a victim of envy) and completes the story that he set out to tell. Somerset's voiceover as the film closes cannot regain the confidence of the spectator and is unable to mitigate the impact of the tragedy.
The Game is an apt title; the audience is playing its own game as Van Orton is playing his. We happily sign ourselves over to the events we see on screen and are drawn through the absurd sequence of events without a second thought, gaily eating up the illusions of the movement-image. Fincher exploits the game that is inherent in the noir mystery as we try to figure out the twist, the trick ending. All the while, he proudly displays the tools of his machination. Van Orton is being manipulated by costumes, sets, props, characters, and soap opera tragedies. This should highlight the fact that we are manipulated by these same elements. We should know better than to go along with it. But, just because we know that we are watching a film doesn't make us any less susceptible to the illusion. If anything, knowing the rules makes us even more gullible. Hirsch evaluates The Game as a dire prediction for the future of film noir:
When noir is simply something that we use to confirm the pleasantness of the reality that we live in, something in the language is certainly failing its potential. This is not to say that it will always fail. Certainly, Fincher's next film, Fight Club, confirms that there is still some revolutionary potential in the noir mode.
Fight Club is possibly the only film in which a happy ending is comprised of the literal self-destruction of the protagonist and the possible end of civilization. In this world, the American Dream is even further out of reach than it was in the noir world of the 1940s, but rather than fighting to obtain it, Fight Club's solution is to destroy it utterly.
As Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) stroll down the street at night, they hit obvious status automobiles with baseball bats. And the assaults do not stop there. Every form of consumption suffers mass casualties: the computers, coffee shops, and furniture that we trade in as frequently as we change our underwear are blown to pieces. Fight Club declares as ethos something that the classical noir protagonists discovered long ago: the quest for the Maltese Falcon or the Great Whatzit, even when it succeeds, is a failure. Rather than simply accept that there is no such thing as a fair fight, Fight Club reinvokes it as a revolutionary gesture. The fights are without glory or explicit reward, but all of the participants are willing, and in fact pleased, to be part of a physical conflict.
In Fight Club the American Dream that the narrator has followed all his life is an illusion; the remnants of it hang in the form of faded or bleached flags over the attendees at testicular cancer meetings or in the command center of Project Mayhem. Such a situation, some would argue, could lead to a loss of one's identity. The narrator's identity crisis and his insomnia lead him to narrate the entire film as a list of alternating tragedies and banalities. Two of the structuring principles of film noir, the flashback and the voiceover, reflect the narrator's confusion, cynicism, and narcissism. The narrator's reason for telling us this story is the same as his reason for attending the self-help groups. He tells Marla, the ostensible femme fatale, When people think you're dying, they really, really listen to you instead of . Instead of just waiting for their turn to speak, she says, finishing his sentence. The narrator finds in us a receptive audience.
This is not to say that we entirely trust the narrator. His words are filled with contradictions and a very subjective morality. The narrator's condemnation of Marla is immediately ridiculous. After all, his problem with Marla is that she is a tourist in the same self-help groups that he is frequenting under false pretences: her lie reflected my lie, he says bitterly. The narrator's obsession with Marla shadows, conveniently, his obsession with Tyler.
Fight Club constantly exhibits the battle for the narrative voice, even if it is not apparent until after the narrator's revelation that he and Tyler are actually the same person. Karen Hollinger's observations on the impact of the voice-over in film noir are pertinent in this context. She writes:
Fight Club is told as a flashback, with occasional footnotes. The narrator reminisces while Tyler shoves a gun in his mouth. The unnamed narrator speaks, while Tyler periodically dips his hand in to dally with the visual images. Tyler's subjectivity adopts a reflexive edge. He controls the very medium of the story. Frames of Tyler are spliced into the film that we are watching (we later realize what these are when our narrator tells us of Tyler's penchant for splicing single frames of pornography into children's films) and, during his most impassioned speech, the film jumps the sprockets of the projector. Realizing the inherent contradiction between Hollywood film as an escapist medium and noir language as a subversive mode, Fincher calls on more radical techniques to get his point across.
According to Gavin Smith, Fight Club belongs to a distinct moment of both dread and rupture in American mainstream cinema. (15) His comments echo the words of those early critics who mapped out the territory of film noir. But times have changed. Fight Club is packaged to make us drool. After watching it, we want to buy the theatre, not burn it down. Maybe Tyler Durden's sermon to just let go is the ultimate solution, but it will take more than a vicarious journey of self-discovery to make it happen.
Fincher's most recent film, Panic Room (2002), is more conventional than any of his previous films. It is, in the words of the film's producer, Scott Rudin, a cheesy popcorn movie produced within an inch of its life. (16) It is a concept film, a 'woman-trapped-in-a-house film'. I won't say too much about it other than to applaud Fincher's attempt to make a 'perfect film' and to critique it for being too simple to convincingly fill 90 minutes. The plot revolves around a home invasion robbery, which finds Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) trapped in the safe room of their New York brownstone townhouse. The three intruders, of course, want to steal something that is in the panic room. The film presents the battle to control this home space. It hinges on knowing what the enemy is up to. Surveillance is key. The camera glides through walls and floors, down airshafts, and through keyholes, to create a clear geography of the home and its occupants. The suspense hangs on these effects and largely succeeds. But, with the exception of how well the cast holds the film together, there's nothing to it. There is no edge, no question, nothing left unsaid. Frankly, Panic Room has all of us Fincher fans a little concerned. We don't go to sleep any easier these nights knowing that Lords of Dogtowna film about skateboarders in Venice, California, in the 1970sis slated to be Fincher's next project. But I shouldn't speak too soon. Fincher is full of surprises.
© Sean Lindsay, June 2003
Beat of the Live Drum (1985)
Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, Towards a Definition of Film
Noir in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds), Film
Noir Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 1996, Fifth ed., 1999,
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