Pressure and Obsession in the Films of David Fincher

Jake Gyllenhaal and director David Fincher on the set of Zodiac (Merrick Morton)

Piers McCarthy
February 2012 / November 15, 2018

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Conclusion

The term “auteur” can often be seen as a term of endearment – a way to profess certain admiration for a filmmaker. As much as Fincher is a creative, stylish and intelligent director, his more commercial work prohibits us from thinking of him in auteurist terms. Even as the journalist Nev Pierce asserts, ‘[h]e chooses his pictures carefully and you can be in no doubt, watching them, of his personality’, over the years Fincher has arguably been drawn away from more niche productions and more personal projects.1 Looking at Seven, Zodiac, Fight Club and The Game, Fincher took great risks in making films that either had an ambiguous audience demographic or were not certifiably marketable. Compared to Panic Room, The Social Network, Benjamin Button and Dragon Tattoo, Fincher is working with a commercially viable set of productions, promotional effort and an educated audience (those interested in Facebook or the trials concerning it and Stieg Larsson fans, for example). To date, his fluctuating pattern of project choices disrupts any clear understanding of Fincher in auteurist means. As Geoff King notes in his New Hollywood Cinema book, for a director to be recognised as an auteur, ‘[t]he recurrence of similar themes is the first requirement if a director is to be considered more than just a hired hand working on material that has its essence elsewhere’.2 As the analysis has shown, in three films specifically, this is true of Fincher. However, in the broader spectrum of his filmography, the varying qualities of each film hinder us from labelling the director as being in some way akin to the likes of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.

Fincher’s style often allows for the topic of auteur theory to be brought into evaluation. His keen eye for the two themes is regularly reflected in his films. As Lennard J. Davis writes, ‘obsession has a kind of poetic darkness written into its phonemes’ and this is heavily supported by Fincher’s study of misanthropes, gloom and the maintenance of a status quo and/or power.3 In the three films analysed, there is a clear ‘sense that the protagonists of these films are not totally in control of their actions but are subject to darker, inner impulses’.4 Control bridges the subject of obsession with pressure and much like the investigation into darker recesses of human psyche, pressure is often represented by ‘imposed work demands’ (in reference to Klein) and an atmosphere of darkness.5 In technical terms, Fincher’s films are ‘darkly oligochromatic’ and simulate a very disconcerting reflection of the world.6 Pierce argues that in terms of visual and stylistic virtue, Fincher is a perfectionist: ‘The other word I would use in relation to Fincher’s films is control. This isn’t just an offshoot of having seen the way he works on set, but really about how precise and seamlessly structured, visually, his films are’.7 What Pierce draws on here is the combination of content and context such that Fincher’s films do, at times, reflect his own working method. It allows for further discussion of auteur theory yet Fincher is not always so definite about the arc of his filmography. I have identified the presence of the themes of pressure and obsession within three of his films (with occasional reference to others) yet it may not be as determinate as that. As Fincher ponders, ‘I find myself more interested in the world and where the characters came from, than I am interested in getting to the end in the most compelling way’ – in this respect, the themes are bringing characters to an inconclusive end.8 Fincher’s open-ended strand of narratives is not an auteurist quality; he is leaving the audience to judge for themselves and not emphatically delivering any kind of maxim.

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Notes:

1. Pierce, email correspondence with the author, 8 February, 2010, 17:50
2. King, New Hollywood Cinema, p.87
3. Davis, Obsession: A History, p.3
4. Krutnik, In A Lonely Street: Film noir, genre and masculinity, p.47
5. Klein, Workers Under Stress, p.7
6. Dyer, Seven, p.70
7. Pierce, email correspondence with the author, 8 February, 2010, 17:50
8. Fincher interviewed by Stephan Littger, The Director’s Cut p.176

Filmography
  • 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, Orion-Nova Productions, 1957)
  • Alien3 (David Fincher, 20th Century Fox, 1992)
  • American Graffiti (George Lucas, Universal Pictures, 1973)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, RKO Radio Pictures, 1941)
  • Fight Club (David Fincher, 20th Century Fox, 1999)
  • Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, Daiei Motion Picture Company, 1950)
  • Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, Live Entertainment, 1992)
  • Seven (David Fincher, New Line Cinema, 1995)
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, Outlaw Productions, 1989)
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, MGM, 2011)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, Orion Pictures, 1991)
  • The Social Network (David Fincher, Columbia Pictures, 2010)
  • The Usual Suspects (Byran Singer, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, 1995)
  • Zodiac (David Fincher, Paramount Pictures, 2007)
Bibliography
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  • Cox, David, “And Zuckerberg Created Man…and The Social Network”, The Guardian, 18 October, 2010
  • Dalton, Michael, “Cinema: The Social Network” review on Media Culture, 1:11, 2010
  • Dyer, Richard, Seven (Norfolk: British Film Institute, 1999)
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  • Fincher, David interviewed in The Guardian, 18 January, 2009
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  • Pierce, Nev, email correspondence with the author, 8 February, 2010, 17:50 [Nev Pierce is Editor-At-Large of Empire magazine, previous Editor of Total Film magazine and regular contributor to Sunday Times Culture]
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Copyright ©

Piers McCarthy, assigned by and researched through the University of Warwick, 2011 – 2012

 

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