29 November 2008

David Fincher's 'ZODIAC' (2008, US)

The term ‘Tarantinoesque’ is a euphemism that has firmly become part of film culture today, and though Tarantino seems to have lost the postmodern edge that had made him so popular with critics in the 90s, the term continues to point to any film with a certain level of irony, playfulness and ‘Godardian’ cool; Godard being an inspiration for both Scorsese and Tarantino in their philosophising of world cinema authorial creativity. Unlike Tarantino who certainly seems to be an exception to the rule when in comes to breaking in to the Hollywood film industry, the vast majority of directors busy at work today in the mainstream have taken the formal route of film school education, and David Fincher, started out working in the special effects department on Lucas films like ‘Return of the Jedi’; the Star Wars saga epitomising the epoch of commercialism.

It is of little surprise why Fincher seems to have such an impressive, if not slightly nerdy, control of the technical aspects of his films, especially since his formal film training was largely expressed in the most brutalised and derided of media forms, the MTV music video. However, such an experience in a stylised and simplified medium would provoke criticisms to do with an unhealthy obsession with visual aesthetics, but unlike his MTV counterparts like Michael Bay and Antoine Fuqua who shifted into big budget filmmaking without feeling compelled to tone down their brash, overly stylised approach, Fincher’s reluctance to become just another director for hire on the production of Fox studio’s Alien franchise ended in commercial disappointment.

‘Alien 3’ was certainly a studio film but his public distancing from the final shape of the film underlined the problematic nature of the authorial presence of Fincher. Debuting with ‘Alien 3’, Fincher’s conflict with the commercial pressures that came with a notably successful franchise succeeded in determining the anxious trajectory he would take as a film maker, strengthening his resolve to never dilute his vision for a film or be forced to unnecessarily compromise his directorial preoccupations. The choice between commercial and personal auteur cinema in the constraints of a Hollywood industry that feels it needs to pitch most of the types of films it makes today to a juvenile teen audience means that a director like David Fincher performs the difficult balancing act of maintaining some kind of commercial and critical consistency by alternating between studio and auteur films.

Such a creative tension that exists between the two types of cinema is applicable to numerous film makers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg who seem to endorse the idea of a split career. Not only does this make commercial sense for many studios, it also means that film makers like Fincher who challenge the status quo by choosing to experiment with new digital technology and explore contemporary cultural anxieties, can do so with a certain degree of impunity. Though it could be argued that Fincher has very little choice when it comes to casting decisions, his on-going collaboration with the Hollywood mainstream actor Brad Pitt has been a fruitful one for both of them, and the addition of a bankable name like Brad Pitt has helped to minimise studio interference whilst assure investors that Fincher also has one eye on the international film markets.

After the 'Alien 3' debacle, Fincher paused and buried his head in the sand, choosing Kevin Andrew Walker’s neo noir serial killer screenplay ‘Seven’ as his next project. Starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, ‘Seven’ exceeded industry expectations by becoming one of the biggest commercial success stories of the 90s. Featuring Kevin Spacey in an un-credited role as John Doe, a genuinely frightening twist ending and revealing a more serious side to the acting chops of Brad Pitt, ‘Seven’ was the most unlikely of hits especially considering how dark the film was in its de-saturated, morbid visual style. However, the impressive visual aesthetics and control over what was quite a conventional narrative finally seemed to confirm Fincher’s previously over stated potential as an emerging new talent. The commercial and critical success of ‘Seven’ led many to believe that Fincher had secretly had his revenge, making a film outside the traditional studio system, by opting to endorse New Line Cinema as an independent production organisation that was not afraid of financing edgier, more risky films like ‘American History X’ and ‘Boogie Nights’ aimed at an unashamedly specialised adult audience who were desperate to embrace up and coming contemporary indie auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson.

Released in 1997 and starring Michael Douglas as Nicholas Van Orton; a self obsessed, apathetic corporate suit, ‘The Game’ was Fincher’s follow up to ‘Seven’. Perfectly cast in the role of a middle aged man who is manipulated by forces unknown to him, Michael Douglas, was superbly effective as the snobbish Van Orton, delivering one of his stronger performances in a career that seems to have nose dived into self indulgent films like ‘The In Laws’ and ‘King of California’. Beautifully realised and shot, Fincher collaborated for the first time with Gus Van Sant cinematographer, Harris Savides, capturing the architecture of the night scenes in San Francisco with a striking degree of clarity.

If ‘Seven’ signalled a real turning point in Fincher’s career then his next film, ‘Fight Club’, based on the cult novel by Chuck Palahniuk, earned him the status of a fully fledged film auteur and with ‘Fight Club’, Fincher produced his most mature film to date. 1999 is looked back by many critics as a key year in a decade that offered very little in terms of quality Hollywood output, yet this was a year that broke new ground, producing exceptional films like ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Three Kings’, ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘The Insider’, ‘Rushmore’ and ‘Magnolia’, with many of them having attained a certain cult following especially Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Referred to as a zeitgeist film for a generation of disillusioned young men, ‘Fight Club’ aimed its collective anger squarely at the raging apathy of a decade in which male identity had been at the forefront of a gender crisis. Financed by Murdoch’s Fox studio who thought they were getting a hip new Brad Pitt film, ‘Fight club’ was smuggled in under the radar and into cinemas. Fincher’s subversive satire defied conventional mainstream narrative cinema by advocating a Marxist critique of consumer culture.

Presenting a deeply politicised and bleak vision of a bankrupt American society, ‘Fight Club’ prefigured the terrorist attacks of 9-11 in the final images of a tumbling corporate skyscrapers devised by the insanity of Project Mayhem, a scheme designed to ferment revolutionary ideals and attack the corrupt, superficial ideologies of today’s media obsessed capitalist system. ‘Fight club’ seemed to sum up a decade of social frustrations in an entirely convoluted and schizophrenic narrative, proving that at heart Fincher was really a rebel and a maverick who had no options but to make the films he wanted to in a system which worships commercial ideas.

The terrorist attacks on 9-11 seemed to affect all facets of American life and Hollywood was no different when it came to trying to respond to the events through cinema. David Fincher had originally planned to collaborate with Jodie Foster on ‘The Game’ but scheduling problems meant that Sean Penn stepped in at short notice. Released in 2002, ‘Panic Room’, starred Jodie Foster as a wealthy, New York urbanite who rents a brownstone apartment with her daughter and who is trying to come to terms with a recent Hollywood style separation. Shot entirely within one space, ‘Panic Room’, seemed to be perfect in its timing especially in how the story revolved around a mother and daughter battling against a group of determined burglars who break into the apartment.

‘Panic Room’ is considered to be one of the most pre visualised films ever shot, with Fincher utilising state of the art computer technology to achieve complex and endless tracking shots so that he could move around the different levels of the apartment with great fluidity, achieving a relentless claustrophobic intensity that permeates what is in essence a straightforward, conventional thriller. Though ‘Panic Room’ panders to the woman in peril star image of Jodie Foster, it was nevertheless a commercial success and one of the first films to cash in on the post anxieties and fears of September 11.

After a five year hiatus, Fincher returned with what many consider to be his defining film to date; Zodiac. A real labour of love, Fincher’s ambitious and multi layered study of the zodiac killer who stalked the benign streets of a 1970s San Francisco, was met with widespread critical acclaim. Perhaps this was the only time that critics voiced a consensus about Fincher’s maturity as a film maker, but just like ‘Fight Club’ had been too subversive for audiences, Fincher’s obsessive study of police procedure alienated viewers as the film underperformed commercially. Costing a hefty $65 million, Fincher recreated the 1970s era with a precision for detail that is beautifully captured in a film entirely shot on digital. Fincher like Michael Mann have been real exponents of new technology especially shooting digitally, and it is of little surprise, that they have achieved staggering and at times groundbreaking results which certainly suggests that digital film making offers new and exciting aesthetic possibilities.

‘Zodiac’ is hugely ambitious in its scope and the narrative breadth is supported by a series of deeply affecting performances from Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo. Though the narrative is about determining the true identity of the zodiac killer, Fincher seems more concerned and fascinated by the complexity of the crimes, spending most of the time representing the struggles faced by the investigating detectives in a case that consumes and haunts them. The only compromise Fincher makes is in the casting of Jake Gyllenhall as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist, whose obsession with the case leads to some kind of ambiguous closure.

Though Jake Gyllenhall may be a competent actor, he simply does not convince as Graysmith, purely because he is not mature enough to be able to take on a role of such complexity. His performance maybe subordinate to the demands of the peripheral characters and visual style, but his casting feels like Fincher had to try and please the studio so that he could secure the kind of financing he was seeking to complete a project of such depth. In this case, his commercial sensibilities seem to have got the better of him, but Gyllenhall’s dopey and emotionless performance as Graysmith does little to take away the emotional power of Fincher’s finest film to date.

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