Auteur Theory and David Fincher
Imported from my dearly departed Blogspot. Originally written 3/1/11, hence no Dragon Tattoo business:
In his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, critic Andrew Sarris takes a crop of filmmakers and puts them into different strata to establish a canon of, well, American Cinema. As a staunch supporter of the auteur theory, he chiefly evaluates a director’s overall filmography as well as their relevance in film history as the criteria for placement. The first level, titled “The Pantheon Directors,” lists fellows like Chaplin, Welles, Ford, Hawks, Murnau, Hitchcock, and Renoir, among others as ones who “evoke a self-contained world with its own laws and landscapes” and who were “fortunate enough to find the proper conditions and collaborators for the full expression of their talent.” A notch below the Pantheon, Sarris labels the second tier as “The Far Side of Paradise,” citing these directors “who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems.” If Sarris had written a second volume covering 1969 to now, David Fincher would surely be in this category.
To me, in evaluating whether or not someone is or isn’t an “auteur,” I consider a few things. First, how great is their body of work? Second, is there a through-line, whether it be a thematic or aesthetic one that comes to mind. Lastly, are the films an expression of this person’s worldview? The constant debate of the auteur theory will rage because of how truly collaborative film is as a medium, but I think that in any successful artistic venture, there needs to be one point-of-view. Often times, it comes from the director. This theory has changed how films are viewed, how they’re made, and even how they’re distributed.
In Fincher’s case, I feel like he’s been discounted from this conversation because he doesn’t write his own films and because of his background from directing music videos. He’s generally been considered a craftsman and his reputation of using 40-50 takes for a single shot elucidates that point. Going back to Sarris’ criteria for the second level, considering the studio friction on his debut feature Alien 3 (or is it Alien cubed? who cares?), he immediately qualifies for this range. From there, I’d go to my three points.
With a body of work that also includes Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, the argument for quality is sealed at the outset. Seven redefined the style and tone for the police procedural/crime thriller for the next 15 years. Fight Club is not only a part of the Bro College Poster Hall of Fame, but stated its claim as one of the definitive American films of the 21st century in a cultural sense (Men of Generation X) and artistic in how it pushes the bounds of visual effects as a means of storytelling. Zodiac and Benjamin Button and The Social Network represent huge leaps in terms of digital filmmaking and on top of that, represent a more streamlined and narratively efficient phase of Fincher’s career. The Game andPanic Room are both top-notch genre thrillers; the former could make the case for one of Fincher’s greater efforts if not for a frustratingly stupid final 15 minutes.
The second component, a recurring thematic trend, is very much apparent through all of his work. In each film, either a character or set of characters are unable to cope with the world in which they inhabit, then take it upon themselves to create an environment for them to thrive. The conflict comes when the true nature of these characters combats the nature that they try to create for themselves. With Alien 3, it’s the convicts reinventing themselves as a peaceful, god-fearing bunch.Seven’s John Doe fashions himself as a perverted extension of God’s will, crafting a new persona for himself. Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset can understand the moral righteousness and Doe holds himself to and in some ways agrees with it, but also comprehends the dangerous method in which he has carried out his plan. The Game follows Michael Douglas’ character as he’s forced into an artificially tampered form of his life, leading to a literal rebirth after being buried alive. Fight Club’s the centerpiece film of this argument, with the Narrator/Tyler Durden split as the most apparent example of this theory. Edward Norton’s insomnia and inability to cope with a consumerist society creates Tyler Durden in its mirror-image. This personality acts as both an escape from the normal world, bound by consumerism and personal gain, and then it constrains him within Tyler’s world, driven by anarchy and mayhem. Not only does The Narrator end up subverting normal society by operating vicariously through Tyler, but by the end he also has to destroy the environment that he himself created… which isn’t even in his control anymore, but in Tyler’s. I hope that last sentence made sense.
Panic Room’s connection is a most tenuous, though the actual panic room could be interpreted as the artificial environment in which Jodie Foster’s character goes through her own re-evaluation. Zodiac’s two-part narrative split fits right into this theory. The first half details the on-going Zodiac killer investigation with the police at the forefront. In the second half, however, Jake Gyllenhaal’s lowly cartoonist deliberately puts himself in the role of investigator, creating an environment driven by his obsession with the truth. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s eponymous protagonist barely even exists within his own world, instead wading through life as a key member of these side characters’ stories. Jared Harris’ tugboat captain, Tilda Swinton’s bored diplomat’s wife and Cate Blanchett’s ballerina, much like Norton’s Narrator, faces rejection by the outside world (Finals clubs, his girlfriend, etc…) and in this case, creates a world to inhabit: Facebook. In keeping with this trend, the theme of obsession weaves into each narrative, whether they be for singular people or entities (Ripley/The Alien, Benjamin/Daisy, Meg/Her daughter, Zuckerberg/Erica) or grander ideas (John Doe/Sin, Tyler/Anarchy, Robert/The Zodiac’s identity).
The last qualification of ones auteurism is often the most ripe for debate. While some cinetastes feel the need to pore over interviews, write-ups, biographies and the like over a director, I and many others are of the opinion that you learn all that you need to know through their art. In Fincher’s case, through his workmanlike approach to filmmaking and technical precision, one can infer that the world’s that he creates are both dense and tightly composed. His first two works, Alien 3 and Seven, are as thematically and aesthetically bleak any studio picture of the period. The Game and Fight Club, while they contain the same precise type of filmmaking, are far more humanistic, mostly due to the common messages of spiritual rebirth found in both films (Nicholas surviving being buried alive in Mexico; The Narrator “killing” Tyler while the banking system collapses). Panic Room is almost exclusively a technical exercise; one could almost see it as a primer for the next stage of his career. The post-Panic Room films: Zodiac, Benjamin Button and The Social Network are driven by a stream-lined digital aesthetic, all of which further the humanism alluded to earlier though they rely less on plot twists and narrative trickery to achieve their means (Seven, The Game and Fight Clubare all notable for their twist endings).
Given the subject matter of The Social Network, Fincher was a natural fit. While the marriage of Fincher’s visual acumen and Aaron Sorkin’s prose initially feels like an odd one, Fincher’s narrative restraint and briskness tighten Sorkin’s words, while the effervescent nature and rapid-fire pace of Sorkin’s dialogue provide enough levity for Fincher’s approach to not be too stifling. Film is inherently a director’s medium because they’re in control of the essential elements that separate this medium from the stage, literature, photography and music: the manipulation of light, sound and movement. I would even argue that these elements take precedence over a narrative, though the presence of one make these elements more palatable. Even when he was singled out for his achievement in writing at the Oscars the other night, Sorkin took time to note that he was writing to the director’s vision. Shortly after, a film that could ostensibly be considered an “actor’s” or “writer’s” film not only won Best Picture, but also Best Director. While The King’s Speech is a fine film in all of those regards, Hooper’s craft doesn’t come close to touching the elements that separate the filmmaking art form from that of a pure stage translation. That’s not to say that Fincher made this expressionistic and abstract film one would associate with Lynch or Brakhage, far from it. The Social Network is emotionally and intellectually involving, and it does so through the absolute mastery of shot composition, camera movement, lighting, cutting, sound editing… the elements that make film great. Any proficient director can deliver a similar product, but it’s Fincher’s unique sensibilities and attention to detail that separate this from a film like made-for-TV The Pirates of Silicon Valley. Auteur cred, guys. Fincher’s got it.