In 1985, aspiring director David Fincher was tapped by the American Cancer Society to make a PSA. Riffing off Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001,” Fincher put forth one of the most provocative and memorable commercials ever featuring an in-utero fetus smoking a cigarette to demonstrate the dangers of pregnant smoking.
This PSA was just the beginning of Fincher’s ability to utilize the shared language and visuals of film to express a point. He would move next to directing music videos where he famously invoked Fritz Lang‘s “Metropolis” while directing Madonna’s 1989 video for “Express Yourself.”
Film critic Adam Nayman told WPR‘s “BETA” that Fincher’s cinematic ambition was present in all of this early work before he became a household name directing transcendent films like “Fight Club,” “Se7en,” “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.”
“I think that he was part of a cycle of music video directors who were drawing on movies for the music videos. So, by the time they ended up making feature films, the visual language and the ambition were already there,” Nayman said.
Edited by Matthew Sorrento, teacher of film studies at Rutgers University-Camden, and David Ryan, academic director and faculty chair of the Master of Arts of Professional Communication program at the University of San Francisco.
Foreword by Christopher Sharrett
Contributions by Jeremy Carr; Daniel R. Fredrick; Deborah L. Jaramillo; Martin Kevorkian; Rod Lott; Theresa Rodewald; Jake Rutkowski; David Ryan; Christopher Sharrett; Matthew Sorrento; George Toles; Christopher Weedman and Andrew M. Winters.
David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), written by producer James Vanderbilt and adapted from the true crime works of Robert Graysmith, remains one of the most respected films of the early twenty-first century. As the second film featuring a serial killer (and the first based on fact) by Fincher, Zodiac remains a standout in a varied but stylistically unified career. While connected to this genre, the film also hybridizes the policier genre and the investigative reporter film. And yet, scholarship has largely ignored the film.
This collection is the first book-length work of criticism dedicated to the film. Section One focuses on early influences, while the second section analyzes the film’s unique treatment of narrative. The book closes with a section focusing on game theory, data and hegemony, the Zodiac’s treatment in music, and the use of sound in cinema. By offering new avenues and continuing a few established ones, this book will interest scholars of cinema and true crime along with fans and enthusiasts in these areas.
University Press Copublishing Division / Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Pages: 274 • Trim: 6 x 9 978-1-68393-326-7 • Hardback • December 15, 2021 • $105.00 • (£81.00) 978-1-68393-327-4 • eBook • December 15, 2021 • $45.00 • (£35.00) Series: The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Series in Law, Culture, and the Humanities Subjects: Performing Arts / Film / History & Criticism, Social Science / Criminology, Performing Arts / Film / Genres / Documentary
The following is an excerpt from the new book David Fincher: Mind Games, by Adam Nayman.
Fight Club was adapted by screenwriter Jim Uhls from Chuck Palahniuk’s cult 1996 novel of the same name, which traced its gestation to a Portland-based author’s workshop specializing in “dangerous writing.” The enclave’s transgressive, minimalist mandate would be allegorized in Fight Club’s eponymous bare-knuckle boxing group, whose members become the acolytes of Tyler Durden Project Mayhem, in effect going from pummeling one another to “punching up” against the forces of late capitalism.
In his foreword to a 2004 reprint of the novel, Palahniuk reflects on the book’s themes of catharsis and self pity and ties them to a literary moment “[full of] novels that presented a social model for women to be together.” He cites bestsellers like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt and notes the lack of corresponding masculinist examples; with the calculated humility of a writer who no longer worries about his advance, he proposes that his breakthrough novel’s popularity was a simple matter of supply and demand.
The question of whether Fight Club, in either literary or cinematic form, fills that void deepens it, or disappears down it—or if, like Tyler Durden, such a void ever really existed in the first place—was open at the time and remains so. Twenty-five years after its publication, Fight Club looks like a signal work anticipating, dramatizing, and perhaps exemplifying a condition recently identified as “toxic masculinity,” loosely defined by New York Times essayist Maya Salam as “a series of cultural lessons . . . linked to aggression and violence.”
This week’s conversation focuses in on David Fincher—a director whose decade-spanning body of gritty Americana—from the grim moral drama of Se7en to the revisionist Hollywood tale of the recent Mank—has inspired both obsessive fandom and derisive dismissal.
A new book by Adam Nayman, David Fincher: Mind Games (out November 23 from Abrams Books), offers a canny and timely appraisal of the director’s filmography. Adam writes that, “Over the past thirty years, Fincher has cultivated and maintained a reputation that precedes him of formal rigor and technocratic exactitude, of moviemaking as a game of inches.” Film Comment editors Devika Girish and Clinton Krute invited Adam and critic, filmmaker, and former NYFF director, Kent Jones—who’s written about Fincher many times over the years in FC—for an illuminating deep-dive into the Fincherverse.
Few film books in recent memory made waves like Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, a too-rare melange of authorial talent, topical interest, and opulent presentation. Last year Nayman and I spoke at length about the tome that no doubt you’ve seen in bookstores (big and small alike) since.
Nayman has returned with David Fincher: Mind Games, another Abrams-published doorstop on another double-capital-A American Auteur, lined again with essays that surprise in their capacity to find new perspectives and provocative readings on films for which there seemed no more room. Finally able to talk in person—thus, you’ll (please) read, at greater length—we sat down for a talk on writing thousands of words on someone for whom a consistent critical standing is tougher than meets the eye.
Adam Nyman is a fellow film critic and the author of several books about films and filmmakers, including but not limited to The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together (2018) and Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks (2020). (Though we’ve never crossed paths in person, he also teaches in the department where I did my Master’s program.) He opens Mind Games with a dedicated discussion of the decade or so before Fincher ever made his narrative feature debut with ALIEN³ (1992), but then continues to come back to his commercial and music video work for the remainder of it, wisely treating his adman past as, well, more of an adman present. A few weeks back, Adam and I chatted for an hour about Fincher’s short-form oeuvre, but also his features because—again—the two aren’t as discrete as a lot of people believe. Our conversation has been edited for clarity, but not really so much for length.
There is a fourth major screen presence in Zodiac: the title character, who is played by a number of different actors in various guises before disappearing as a physical presence around the midpoint of the movie, last seen and heard threatening a female hitchhiker who survives her encounter. This set-piece, based on the recollections of one Kathleen Johns (Ione Skye), pays off the ruthlessness of what has come before, even as it emphasizes Fincher’s restraint. Because we’ve seen in bloody detail what the Zodiac is capable of in the prologue and the borderline unwatchable lakeside filleting of a couple in Berryessa, his warning to Kathleen that “before I kill you, I’m going to throw your baby out the window” is hideously credible. But, amazingly, the historical record intervenes as a deus ex machina; Kathleen’s unlikely escape and roadside salvation constitute this pressurized movie’s only moment of true relief.
Zodiac’s multiple-casting trick is there to account for the possibility — floated in Graysmith’s book, as well as several other studies — of multiple killers, either working in tandem or in a copycat scenario. Broadly speaking, the film follows Graysmith’s hypothesis that the most plausible suspect was one Arthur Leigh Allen (referred to in Zodiac the book pseudonymously as “Bob Starr”), a disgraced elementary school teacher with a history of pedophilia who died in 1992 surrounded by a veritable mountain of persuasive circumstantial evidence, including a series of supposedly self-incriminating comments to friends and relatives. Allen was ultimately exculpated by DNA testing and inconclusive fingerprint matches, events which Zodiac presents without trying to either reinforce or rebut them. “I don’t want this [movie] to be about convicting Arthur Leigh Allen,” Fincher said in 2005. “Certainly [Graysmith] came to his conclusion and it was good enough for him . . . When [Allen] died, he felt like it was put away. That’s not what we want to represent.”
“Wanting people to listen,” says John Doe (Kevin Spacey) to Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt), “you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer. And then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”
The idea of a movie directed with a sledgehammer conjures up a bludgeoning clumsiness, or maybe accidental expressionism. Observing the Jackson Pollock–like splatter of another senseless murder at the beginning of Se7en, William Somerset sighs, “Look at all that passion all over the wall.” From there unfolds a series of precise strokes—its pace as finely calibrated as the metronome in Somserset’s study, its shocks as carefully curated as a museum retrospective. In this gallery analogy, there is a didactic aspect to an artist using excess as a tool of communication, and a real–world precedent for such pummelling innovations as the ones used by John Doe. In 1971, the American artist Chris Burden, whose oeuvre included shutting himself inside a locker for five days and crucifying himself to a Volkswagen Beetle, arranged for a friend to fire a bullet from a small-caliber rifle into his arm as part of a performance piece titled Shoot. “In this instant,” Burden reflected later, “I was a sculpture.”
Ever the vanguard artiste,John Doe adapts Burden’s gambit while interrogating its mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-endangerment—the frisson that occurs when art is remodeled into a life or death venture. Burden made his mark without resorting to full-on martyrdom; as a self-styled fin-de-siècle aesthete jointly projecting his superiority and self-loathing onto the world around him, John Doe goes further. He has to, because he’s on the margins of a marketplace oversaturated with morbid images and ideas. In order to make an impact, he must swing for the fences.
DAVID FINCHER: MIND GAMES By Adam Nayman Foreword by Bong Joon-ho Produced by Little White Lies
David Fincher: Mind Games is the definitive critical and visual survey of the Academy Award– and Golden Globe–nominated works of director David Fincher. From feature films Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and Mank through his MTV clips for Madonna and the Rolling Stones and the Netflix series House of Cards and Mindhunter, each chapter weaves production history with original critical analysis, as well as with behind the scenes photography, still-frames, and original illustrations from Little White Lies’ international team of artists and graphic designers. Mind Games also features interviews with Fincher’s frequent collaborators, including Jeff Cronenweth, Angus Wall, Laray Mayfield, Holt McCallany, Howard Shore and Erik Messerschmidt.
Grouping Fincher’s work around themes of procedure, imprisonment, paranoia, prestige and relationship dynamics, Mind Games is styled as an investigation into a filmmaker obsessed with investigation, and the design will shift to echo case files within a larger psychological profile.
About The Author
Adam Naymanis the author of Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks (Abrams, 2020) and The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together (Abrams, 2018) and is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope.
Little White Lies is one of the world’s pre-eminent film magazines, pairing a unique editorial angle with beautiful illustrations and world-class design.
Imprint: Abrams Books Publication Date: November 23, 2021 Rights: World/All
For nearly two decades, Hollywood had been trying to make a movie of Zodiac, and for nearly two decades, it had failed. In 2003, producer Brad Fischer, and screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt attempted the undoable, and set their sights on the one filmmaker they felt unequalled for the helm: director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club). Fincher’s eye for detail, probing mind, and unrelenting quest for answers made him ideal. His personal connection to the case made him perfect.
Author Robert Graysmith, director David Fincher, producer Brad Fischer, and screenwriter James Vanderbilt: “The Untouchables” (Photo: Margot Graysmith)
From Hollywood boardrooms to remote fog-shrouded crime scenes, they battle a huge script that refuses to be beaten, a case that refuses to be solved, and a running time and budget that threaten their film. Follow as they track down missing witnesses, gather the original investigators, visit the original crime scenes, discover boxes of Zodiac case files from an attic, unearth new clues, a videotape of the prime suspect’s police interrogation, and a surviving victim who doesn’t want to be found. To keep Fincher on board, and get their film greenlit, it will take cold leads, private eyes, new evidence, and most of all, perseverance.
About The Author
Robert Graysmith in 2012. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle
Robert Graysmith (Facebook) is an author and illustrator. He was the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when the letters and cryptograms from the infamous Zodiac killer began arriving to the paper. He was present when they were opened in the morning editorial meetings, and has been investigating & writing ever since. He lives in San Francisco where he continues to write and illustrate. He is best known for his books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked”.
“Zodiac in Costume at Lake Berryessa,” by former Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith. Surviving victim Bryan Hartnell personally described the costume in detail to Graysmith, after his, and Cecilia Shepherd’s, encounter with the Zodiac on Sept. 27, 1969. Photo: Robert Graysmith
Robert Graysmith, political cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle, in 1977. Photo: Gary Fong / The Chronicle
Robert Graysmith wrote the definitive Zodiac Killer book. He breaks decade-long silence to tell us about his upcoming projects
For a fairly famous guy, author Robert Graysmith doesn’t get out much. He hasn’t been heard from in public for about a decade, and he rarely leaves his San Francisco home.
The 78-year-old Graysmith has been crafting manuscripts at such an astonishing pace, printing them out as he goes along, that they now stand in a 5-foot-high stack that breaks down into what he says will be 34 books, ranging from children’s tales and historical explorations to true crime and fictional legends. Most just need a few final touches and editing, he said.
These days, Graysmith is working with a new publisher he knows well: his 50-year-old son, Aaron Smith.
The first in this voluminous new string landed on online sites like Amazon at the end of August, the 383-page “Shooting Zodiac,” which documents the planning that went into making the movie “Zodiac.”
“It’s much more fun working with Aaron on these things, because he can put them out quickly,” Graysmith said. “I figured out you’re going to wait about three years to get a book done, and then you hand them the book, and they’re going to spend a lot of time and then they won’t do anything for another year or so. With Aaron, we can get the book edited and out there in a few months.”
Graysmith’s son — who uses the last name his dad used before he merged Gray and Smith — said he wasn’t really surprised when he realized how many pages his dad had in the hopper.
“Writing is pretty much all he does,” Smith said by phone from his home in Southern California, “and the illustrations.”
Graysmith said he started working on his engagingly told “Shooting Zodiac” before the movie came out, as he was being bowled over by the dedication director David Fincher, producer Brad Fischer and screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt put into the project. They combed over the same material Graysmith had in his books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” to rebuild and advance his narrative around the only suspect ever named by police, Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo.
Watching them work was “a marvelous adventure,” Graysmith said.
The new book is as much about greenlighting the movie and hiring actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Graysmith, as it is about how the three filmmakers did their research. It’s also probably the last thing Graysmith will write about the Zodiac, he and his son said.