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:
I think the movies I make are trifles. They’re footnote movies. I’m not making big important movies, I’m not making Bridge on the River Kwai. I’m not dealing with big noble themes. But again, I couldn’t imagine somebody wanting to remake Psycho, so maybe I’m wrong. (3)
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.
Fincher’s first feature film, Alien 3 (1992), was a critical and commercial failure. Wrought with agony under the iron fist of Twentieth Century Fox, Fincher’s vision for the sequel was demolished by the studio. Fox was plainly unwilling to gamble on an even darker version of an already depressing film, especially when handing over an unprecedented budget to a first-time director. By the time the ordeal was over Fincher reportedly “swore he would rather have colon cancer than direct another picture.” (5) Fincher’s later film career may not have been so successful, nor his fan base so large, if Alien 3 had been a benign success. After all, there is no better way to gain sympathy as a director than to have your dreams crushed by heartless studio executives. However, greatness, or even the possibility of greatness, does not typically descend from sympathy. Alien 3 taught Fincher a valuable lesson. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. New Line Cinema and Fox Studios executives put their careers on the line to give Fincher extra time and money to tinker with the endings of Seven and Fight Club.
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 Alien—the 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 space—is 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.
Fincher proved his aptitude for moody set pieces with his next film, Seven (1995), a drama about two detectives who track a heaven-bent serial killer who chooses his victims and their deaths according to the seven deadly sins. The film is viscerally repellent due to the viciousness of the killer’s crimes—for the first murder, he feeds a man for days until his stomach bursts—but it is more horrific than gory. It comes as a surprise, watching the film more closely in later viewings, that so much of what we thought we saw the first time is never shown.
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 act—shipping the head of Mills’ wife by courier to this final destination in the middle of nowhere—symbolizes 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.
Following Seven, Fincher was selected to direct The Game (1997). In this clever thriller, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas van Orton, a man of inherited wealth and privilege, who is haunted by his father’s suicide and is in the midst of more than a simple mid-life crisis as his 40th birthday approaches—the day when, in his own life, his father chose to jump to his death. So, when his brother (Sean Penn), the ne’er do well son, offers him the chance to sign up for a game that will change his life—to make it ‘fun’—he is curious enough to accept. After visiting the offices of CRS, the administrators of the game, a conspiracy unfolds that threatens his status and his life. His home is vandalized, he discovers his briefcase in a hotel room filled with alarming Polaroids and cocaine, he is driven into the river by a taxi driver who is in on the action and, after being told that his most valuable bank accounts have been emptied, he is drugged and left for dead in Mexico. The rules of the game were never laid out, so we are in the same boat as Nicholas, wondering if this is real or just an elaborate hoax.
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:
It is, however, a perilous model that if pursued could lead only to the death of noir. Treating the form as only a game, as carnivalesque theatre of the absurd, a sequence of what in retrospect are vaudevillian turns, the film contains the seeds of the genre’s destruction. (12)
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.
Because of the narrator’s fascination with Tyler (and because our narrator knows what Tyler knows), Marla’s role in the film is almost incidental. Tyler is very much the homme fatale whose charismatic demeanor manipulates the actions of the narrator. Male sexuality is now as dangerous as female sexuality and “attractive men are set up to inspire and to receive the gaze of the camera and of other characters—that sexually appraising gaze formerly reserved for the sexual woman only.” (13) After all, it is Brad Pitt’s half-naked body that dominates the film. While Tyler and the narrator sit in the bathroom—Tyler in the bathtub and the narrator nursing his wounds—they discuss their failed relationships with their fathers and seriously question the need for a heterosexual relationship. Tyler says, “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really what we need.”
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:
Voice-over creates this fragmenting effect by establishing within the film a fight for narrative power as the narrator struggles to gain control of the narrative events recounted. This battle between the narrator and the film’s flashback visuals leads to an extreme tension between word and image. (14)
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 Dogtown—a film about skateboarders in Venice, California, in the 1970s—is slated to be Fincher’s next project. But I shouldn’t speak too soon. Fincher is full of surprises.
The Beat of the Live Drum (1985)
Alien 3 (1992)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
Raymond 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, pp. 17–26
Foster Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, New York, Limelight Editions, 1999
Karen Hollinger, “Film Noir, Voice-over, and the Femme Fatale” in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 1996, Fifth ed., 1999, pp. 243–260
Barbara Klinger, “’Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive Genre” in Barry Keith Grant (ed), Film Genre Reader, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1986, pp. 74–90
Ron Magid, “Alien 3: In Space They’re Still Screaming” American Cinematographer, 73, July 1992, pp. 52–58
Christopher Probst, “Playing for Keeps on The Game”, American Cinematographer, 78, September 1997, pp. 39–52
Jonathan Romney, “The New Paranoia: Games Pixels Play”, Film Comment, November 1998, pp. 39–43
Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir” in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 1996, Fifth ed., 1999, pp. 53–64
Gavin Smith, “Inside Out: Gavin Smith Goes One-on-One with David Fincher”, Film Comment, 35 (5), September–October 1999, pp. 58–68.
Amy Taubin, “Invading Bodies: Aliens 3 and the Trilogy”, Sight and Sound, 2 (3), March 1992, pp. 9–10
David E. Williams, “The Sins of a Serial Killer”, American Cinematographer, October 1995, pp. 34–42
Robin Wood, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur” in Barry Keith Grant (ed), Film Genre Reader, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1986, pp. 59–73
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- Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir” in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 1996, Fifth ed., 1999, p. 58
- Xan Brooks, “Directing is Masochism”, The Guardian, April 24, 2002, http://film.guardian.co.uk/interview/interviewpages/0,6737,689769,00.html
- “Ask David Fincher,” BBCi, http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/panicroom/ask_fincher.shtml
- Dan Epstein, “David Fincher—The Roundtable Interview”, davidfincher.net, http://www.davidfincher.net/feature0002.html.
- Ron Magid, “Alien 3: In Space They’re Still Screaming”, American Cinematographer, July 1992, p. 53
- Robin Wood, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur” in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Film Genre Reader, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1986, p. 68
- Foster Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, New York, Limelight Editions, 1999, p. 281
- Ibid., p. 282
- Barbara Klinger, “’Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive Genre” in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Film Genre Reader, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1986, p. 78
- David Williams, “The Sins of a Serial Killer”, American Cinematographer, October 1995, p. 39
- Hirsch, p. 229
- Ibid., p. 201
- Karen Hollinger, “Film Noir, Voice-over, and the Femme Fatale” in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 1996, Fifth ed., 1999, p. 245
- Gavin Smith, “Inside Out: Gavin Smith Goes One-on-One with David Fincher,” Film Comment, September–October, 1999, p. 60
- “Ask David Fincher”