Visions of dystopia

By Shannon Blanks
May 27, 2004

At times they’re an affront to the senses. Brutally honest and steeped in a pitch-black vision so completely realized that it becomes difficult to distinguish night from day. In other moments they’re playfully subversive, incredibly deceitful and take a devilish delight in their endless ability to toy with everything from audience expectations, traditional structure, visual imagery and the forever-merging line between reality and fiction.

What could I be speaking of?

Am I simply spinning a nostalgic yarn about the early work of New Wave mastermind Jean Luc-Godard? No, these films have a self-awareness wrapped in a package that’s much easier to open. They exist in a world far darker than the bohemian excesses of Godard’s hapless wanderers. And the artifice of its storytelling exists to pull you into its dark vision, not keep you at arm’s length.

Perhaps I’m penning a compare-and-contrast essay on the obsessive-compulsive masterminds of Hitchcock and Kubrick? Wrong again, but you’re getting closer. He’s just as obsessed with minute details and crafting elaborate mise en scenès responsible for visual set pieces of unparalleled brilliance. And though he has yet to purport to the level of greatness reached by the aforementioned auteurs, like them his movies are a pinball machine of ideas that have bounced around the genre walls of suspense-thriller, science-fiction, horror, black comedy and drama – lighting up the minds of critics and fans alike.

So who am I speaking of?

David Fincher has gone from music video wunderkind to one of the most influential Hollywood directors working today. A visual mastermind, technological pioneer and creator of some of the most dynamic pieces of filmmaking that often provoke controversy for their grim social commentary, Fincher has risen to the top of the critically maligned class of music video directors taking root in the industry today.

So what makes the films of David Fincher so distinguishable? What makes Fincher’s stark vision of dystopia so alluring that he’s granted the latitude to work on a scale usually reserved for much safer, more user-friendly productions? How does a nonconformist working in a medium meant for mass consumption thrive within “the machine” that is the Hollywood System?

By subverting the rules.

At first glance, the films of David Fincher appear to be playing by their own set of rules, ruthlessly eschewing the standard set by other Hollywood fare. But upon closer observation, they’re always more than willing to give the audience just what they want. With a slight twist, that is.

Fincher’s films are uncommonly intelligent, relentlessly entertaining and posses an uncanny ability to turn an audience’s expectations against them. In “Alien3,” Ripley’s soul is saved through her suicide plunge; “Se7en” fulfills our desire to see the killer brought to justice, and in doing so spells out the damnation of our heroes; the aptly titled “The Game” takes advantage of a silent pact between audience and filmmaker, manipulating us with the same tools used against the protagonist within the narrative; and in what many consider Fincher’s masterpiece, “Fight Club” suggests a chance for redemption through the destruction of all that we know.

With its complex diversity and unique charm, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint one element that makes Fincher’s vision so compelling. His desire to lead us into the darkest caverns of the human psyche is matched only by our willingness to follow him there. How fitting, then, that “Fight Club” begins with a gun shoved down the throat of the narrator as he recounts a tale constantly being manipulated by his alter ego. Even the forever-roaming camera of “Panic Room” suggests a willingness to expose us to horrors that we won’t be able to turn away from. After five films, it appears safe to say that Fincher not only has the studio system figured out, but to some degree has audiences figured out.

Who else could present us with a film such as “Se7en,” which has one of the most pessimistic views to grace the silver screen in decades. In the film, Fincher boldly juxtaposes the views of the hero (Morgan Freeman’s Somerset), who believes that apathy and man’s penchant for violence are irreprehensible and yet unstoppable against the somewhat bombastic yet chillingly convincing voice of a brutal serial killer (John Doe) who at least envisions his violence as a means to an end. In between these polarizing views that bookend the film, Fincher dangles the idea of hope in front of us through the idyllic views of Brad Pitt’s David Mills and the angelic features of his dutiful wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Throughout the film’s first two acts, Mills remains untarnished by the world around him; he believes in good and bad, and the protection of the innocent. That is, until a final plot twist results in John Doe being served up as a sacrificial “innocent” and Mills winding up a killer himself. With this horrific turn of events, Fincher simultaneously manages to satisfy the audience’s desire to see the killer vanquished and our hero’s beliefs confirmed. He also manages to indirectly turn John Doe into something of a prophet, as the killer had proclaimed only moments earlier of his victims: “Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face.” But in this case, not only does the death of John Doe confirm Somerset’s pessimistic view of the world, it condemns the ideology of Mills and sentences him to a life of a despair and grief, while Somerset is left to return to the innocuous mundanities of life in the city. By subverting the genre conventions, Fincher suggests a bleak future in which the good are left to do nothing more than fight a losing battle.

It is this grim nihilistic view that sets Fincher apart from his contemporaries. While many of his detractors are quick to point to his background in slick advertisements and flashy music videos to discredit him, they seem all too willing to ignore the content of his work. His penchant for thought-provoking, visually compelling material was evident from the outset: His introduction to the world of advertising was an anti-smoking spot for the American Cancer Society that featured a fetus smoking a cigarette in utero. It wasn’t long before his videos for artists such as Madonna, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones drew the attention of Hollywood execs, which led to an almost unprecedented budget for a first-time director and the caretaking of the conclusion to one of the most revered franchises in modern cinema. But Twentieth Century Fox balked on their gamble, and Fincher’s vision for the final installment of the “Alien” franchise was muddled by studio interference and unfinished script problems that eventually led to the film being taken away from him in the editing room. It would take seven years for Fox to atone for their sins, but when they did, Fincher would produce a movie that provoked many critics to hail it as the first film of the 21st century.

“Fight Club,” based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name, presents us with a nameless narrator who has lost his humanity in pursuit of what could be loosely called the American Dream. In guiding his character to redemption, Fincher takes the road less traveled, suggesting the only path to redemption lies in self-destruction, an ideology in which Fincher is a firm believer. It can be seen in all his films; his willingness to break down film conventions to discover something new underneath is simply one of the many elements that has helped garner him one of the largest cult followings of any director working today.

On the set of “The Game,” Fincher’s penchant for taking the road less traveled provoked Michael Douglas to comment, “David can be relentless. But in the best possible way. He doesn’t stop. He’s constantly trying to do things in new ways, and he doesn’t stop until things are done right.” As an audience, we take delight in these chances and Fincher’s willingness to betray our trust, knowing he has something special in store for us. It’s as if we’re in the shoes of the narrator in “Fight Club,” given front-row seats to an exciting journey into uncharted territories, only to notice that we’re sitting atop a bomb of our own devising. But what Fincher manages to pull off is soliciting our complacency in sticking around to see where the pieces might fall once the bomb ignites.

“Fight Club” was released amid a flurry of controversy, with such labels as fascist, misogynistic, socially irresponsible and sadistically dangerous being thrown around. It failed financially upon its initial theatrical release (though it did go on to earn one of the biggest cult followings in the home-rental market). Not everyone is a willing participant in Fincher’s broken circus, but his ability to provoke such strong responses simply serves as further proof of his skillful manipulation of us, as he proves himself an artist who is impossible to ignore.

Fincher makes no quarrels about his lack of viewer-friendly fare. “I’ve been just as trashed for ‘Fight Club’ as I was for ‘The Game’; as I was for ‘Seven’; certainly as I was for ‘Alien3.’ It comes with the territory.”

Thank God there’s someone there to mine that territory, though. Taking advantage of the expectations inherent in a Hollywood film being escapist entertainment and the subversive characteristics in film noir, Fincher is building a body of work that suggests a bold new future for Hollywood.

While Hollywood may very well be brought to trial one day for its criminal excesses and staunch commercialism, David Fincher stands apart from his contemporaries as an artist who commands a budget of $50 million or more and uses every penny to enhance his vision rather than exploit it.

Think of the painstaking detail visible in every frame of John Doe’s inferno beneath the city streets, or the virtuoso tour through the catalogue layout of the narrator’s home in “Fight Club,” or the fly-on-the-wall approach his camera employs to lay out the geography of the brownstone in “Panic Room.” David Fincher uses the new tricks of Hollywood and big-budget filmmaking to create a world that is at once moody and atmospheric, and all the while palpable and pertinent to the story.

Unlike many of his peers, who use style for style’s sake, Fincher’s vision is manifest not only through the expressive painterly touch he applies to his camera, but also through the sociology of his characters and the world they inhabit. Through his dark vision, he manages to shed light on a possible future for Hollywood filmmaking – a future built on intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment, unafraid to take chances and be brutally honest. Besides, his “Fight Club” has already shown us that a little brutality can go a long way toward uncovering the truth.

Shannon Blanks is a senior majoring in film at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

Related link: A Fincher News Site
Related link: David Fincher's filmography @ IMDb

Related YouthQuake articles:
Chuck Palahniuk: Author of the book "Fight Club"
Darren Aronofsky: The struggle to secure his place in Hollywood