Friday, 20 January 2012

David Fincher Pantheon: Splendor Cinema Podcast #85

Tomorrow Jon and I are recording our 85th Splendor Cinema Podcast, adding another director to our rapidly expanding "Pantheon" (previous entrants include Kubrick, Kurosawa and Capra). This time it's David Fincher's turn - so we'll be going through his (relatively small) filmography, rating our favourites. Jon wrote a short summary of Fincher's career and style on his blog and I promised to do the same. So here we are.

With the exception of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (which I saw in 2008 and am in no hurry to see again), I've seen all of Fincher's movies, from 'Alien 3' to 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', quite recently - many of them for the first time. The first thing I would say about him is that he's not what you might classically call an auteur (if such a thing even exists). He seems to me like a hired gun with a highly developed sense of style - a point seemingly reinforced by the nature of his next project: a big Jules Verne adaptation for Disney.

At one point in his career you might have been able to pinpoint a particular genre that he specialised in (the thriller), but some of his best films don't fit that mould comfortably even if they generate the same tense atmosphere - as is the case with 'The Social Network' and 'Fight Club'. In fact most of his recent choices - excluding the down and dirty 'Dragon Tattoo' - have tended more towards dramatic Oscar-candy, albeit with moodier-than-usual lighting.

Not that I'm complaining about his newer stuff. Personally, I like a degree of light and shade in my movies, so I find some of Fincher's most acclaimed early work near unwatchable (or at least unenjoyable): unremittingly grim, hyper-cynical and mean-spirited. In particular I'm referring to 'Seven', which is at times not even two steps removed from torture porn. The twist is predictable, the characters are no more than recognisable archetypes and the views they express (which are ultimately vindicated by the ending) range from nihilistic to downright anti-social.

Its champions will say it's "dark" - an overused catch-all term that usually assumes instant cachet to anything heartless (or anti-sentimental). But when everything and everybody in a movie is horrible, forgive me for not wanting to spend any time there. Even his take on the determinedly nasty 'Dragon Tattoo' has more heart than 'Seven'. I much prefer his two subsequent thrillers: 'The Game' (great, if implausible, premise and a sense of humour) and 'Panic Room' (great and slightly more plausible premise which uses limited space ingeniously).

But for me his greatest film to date is 'The Social Network': because it sees him marry his grungy vision of the universe and undoubted technical brilliance to what might otherwise have been a filmed stageplay. He elevates already great material, with Aaron Sorkin's Facebook entrepreneur story not naturally cinematic - clever as it is. By combining Sorkin's talky, smartest-guy-in-the-room internet nerds with the atmosphere and look of 'Zodiac', you get a really brilliant, intelligent, gripping movie. A fact not lost on the makers of 'Moneyball', who repeated the same trick last year.

Though even 'The Social Network' is not without Fincher's worst excesses. The slow-motion boat race in the middle may be an example of bravura technique, but it feels out of place and showy in the middle of that movie. This same over the top streak can be glimpsed in all of Fincher's films (perhaps with the exception of the unfairly maligned 'Alien 3'). For instance that pointless zoom inside the keyhole during the break-in sequence of 'Panic Room'. There are a million and one similar moments in 'Fight Club'.

Perhaps the one film where all these visual ticks and grand camera movements work completely is 'Zodiac', which uses lots of CGI (like pretty much all his movies) to allow for extremely elegant, long, otherwise impossible (or at least impractical) tracking shots. The best example of this dramatically tracks a single taxi cab across San Francisco zooming closer gradually from an aerial view until we're inside the car.

To hear Jon violently disagreeing with me about 'Seven' and for a little more depth on some of the films I've skimmed over here (like 'Fight Club'), download episode 85 of the podcast when it becomes available early next week.

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