Tuesday, September 1, 2015

David Fincher and Gone Girl

David Fincher is an expert director in technical terms, but he’s often at the mercy of his scripts.  He’s capable of making a weak script formally interesting, but not profound.  He also has a cynical sensibility that tends to cheapen and bog down his projects, keeping them from achieving genuine masterpiece status--Se7en being the prime example.  (Zodiac and The Social Network come the closest to greatness.)  If he’s one of our great directors, his understanding of human nature is limited.

Gone Girl does nothing to dissuade me from this judgment--it’s not a masterpiece, it’s characters are profoundly awful human beings--but it’s still a heckuva movie, and worth revisiting and discussing.  And since I listed it as one of the best movies of lat year, but never got around to writing about it on the blog, let's do just that.

Fincher’s technical precision is evident from the opening credits, a montage of buildings in a sleepy midwestern town: words are pressed down in surprising corners and shots end an instant before you expect them to.  It perfectly sets the scene and establishes tension, and we haven’t even been given any narrative information yet.  The whole film proceeds in this utterly precise, clean, rigorous fashion, like a well-oiled handgun.  

The film doesn’t really have much to say about actual marriage, though apparently the feelings of drifting apart and the concerns about disappearing jobs, judgmental in-laws, costly mortgages, etc. hit home with a lot of people.  I suspect, though, that the large number of think-pieces inspired by this aspect of the film were at least somewhat due to the writers’ inability to discuss the second half of the film for fear of spoilers--even though the second half completely undermines everything those pieces said about the film’s economic topicality.  In terms of gender politics--such a flashpoint at the time of the film’s release, with accusations flying about the film’s misogyny left and right--I actually found it to be more of a misandrist revenge fantasy gleefully skewering worthless entitled lugs and playing back and forth with power relationships and the battle of the sexes.

But maybe the best way to look at it is as a second-coming of Hitchcock à la Brian De Palma.  After all, the influence on Gone Girl of Psycho, Vertigo, and Suspicion is deep and obvious.  Suspicion is about the possibility that a spouse could be a murderer, Psycho unfolds with a similar structure of twists and reveals, and Vertigo is also a mesmerizing investigation of one particular woman who is not what she seems.  More than that, we can read Gone Girl as drawing on Hitchcockian imagery in surprising and evocative ways, deriving meaning from these images where more topical themes seem insufficient.  Amy is in fact a Hitchcock blonde who decides to reject the role imposed on her, take over the story and become a protagonist.  Rather than be trapped in the gaze of her husband and her neighbors like Kim Novak trapped by James Stewart, an idealized image of beauty and womanhood doomed to crack and drown, she executes an elaborate plan to control the nature of her own image and write a new ending for herself.  Her image is her power, and the more she resembles a Hitchcock heroine the more power she has.  She loses her blondness when she goes undercover, and consequently loses her power and is robbed and humiliated.  When she goes to Neil Patrick Harris’s house she regains her blondness and then her power, seducing and murdering him like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, another Vertigo riff.  As her madness is exposed her power paradoxically grows, until she has rebuilt her life with herself in control.  Ironically, that new life is simply a renegotiated version of the role already predestined for her, a rebuilt image of perfected beauty and womanhood.  The difference is she’s now in control of it, she defines the limits and manipulates the media’s gaze to strengthen.  In fact, she is now in control of every element of the image, including her “perfect” husband.  In a sick joke representative of Fincher, Ben Affleck ends the movie as an abused spouse still hopelessly attracted to his abuser, forced to stay in the relationship for the good of the child.  There’s a situation you don’t see many leading men get into in movies.

If I could return to that De Palma comparison, though, I must say I find the juxtaposition intriguing.  Both Fincher and De Palma love manipulating their audiences.  Both have been influenced by Hitchcock--De Palma more so, but De Palma loves Hitchcock more than anybody; half his movies seem to be tributes.  Fincher gets that formal perfectionist streak from both Hitchcock and Kubrick; he tends to be more socially relevant than Hitch, but not as cosmically authoritative as Kubrick.  All four directors get a perverse satisfaction from punishing their audiences, though not all for the same reasons.  All four have been accused of misogyny.

Both Fincher and De Palma have been heavily influenced by the Zapruder film.  Paranoia, surveillance, and conspiracies are recurring themes across both of the oeuvres.  Lisbeth Salander’s hunt through digital photos on a computer in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo finds its analogue (heh) in John Travolta’s reconstruction of magazine photographs and sound recordings in Blow Out.  De Palma’s style is generally more wild, featuring baroque camera movements and a love of excess.  Fincher is more locked down, occasionally even stately--the exception is Panic Room, where he employs digital effects to make his camera execute impossible movements even De Palma couldn’t have managed before.   Interestingly, it’s the elder director who likes to live in Movie-Movie Land, while the younger wants to seem like he’s in the real world most of the time.  But Fincher likes games and manipulations, too--see The Game and Fight Club.

In Gone Girl, many tropes that De Palma employs are evident: a bifurcated narrative, replays, cameras, ruses hinging on what people see or don’t see, a blonde woman of mystery, lust and consequences, the flipping of gender roles, femme fatales, and shocking sexual violence.  It’s a slow burn rather than De Palma’s usual florid emotionality, but by the end Fincher has left reality behind.  The violence achieves a certain Gothic grandeur appropriate to the director of Alien³ and Se7en.

In the end, perhaps the most important distinction between them is this: Brian De Palma is a filmmaker of the 20th century; David Fincher belongs to the 21st.

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