Friday, May 15, 2009

God and the Cinema Part VIII: David Fincher

David Fincher is one of my favorite directors working today. His first seven films have all been visually stunning, and with the exception of his first film, Alien 3 (which I will pretty much ignore for the rest of the post), they have all been dramatically interesting as well. I think that Fincher’s career has, to this point, had two distinct sections that are connected by certain overreaching themes. Seven (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999) and Panic Room (2002) represent the first segment, and are essentially about the hollowness of modern life. While these films differ wildly in terms of story, when you boil it down to their essentials, that is really what Fincher is getting at. His two most recent films – Zodiac (2007) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), are more about the passage of time, and the cold inevitability of death. Zodiac acts as Seven’s mirror image – one is a typical, albeit brilliant and hugely entertaining, movie about a crazed serial killer and the cops chasing him, and the other is a movie that drains the thrills out of the same story. I think Fincher had to make Zodiac in order to be able to move onto to the next phase in his career.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back and look at Seven before we deconstruct the rest of his filmography. Seven is a film about two cops – one old (Morgan Freeman) and one young (Brad Pitt), dealing with a psychopath who is killing people by using their sins against them. The killer views this as his masterwork. He uses the sins of the victims against them, and kills them in unorthodox ways. For gluttony, he makes an obese man literally eat himself to death. He makes a greedy lawyer take off a pound of flesh – no more, no less. He makes a slothful drug addict lie in bed for a year slowly starving him to death. He kills a lustful prostitute by making a client wear a brutal strap on. He cuts the nose off of a prideful woman, and tells her glues a phone to one hand, and a bottle of pills in the other – she can either be alive, but deformed, or dead – she chooses death.

Yet the movie is only partly about the murderer and his crimes. What it really is about are the two detectives, at opposite ends of their careers, with differing outlooks on life. Freeman plays a man who has been beaten down by life. His wife has left him. He is sick and tired of seeing all the brutal ugliness that he comes across in his day to day life. He simply wants out. Pitt has just recently become a big city detective, and has moved with his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) to New York, so he can pursue his dream job. He loves his job, but she is miserable. When she gets pregnant, she turns to Freeman for advice, who tells her a story about the time when his wife got pregnant, and because of all the ugliness in the world, he convinced her to have an abortion. He remains convinced that he made the right decision “but not a day goes by when I wish I had made the other one”. He concludes by telling her “If you decide to get rid of the baby, don’t ever tell him. If you have the baby, spoil that kid whenever you can”. She breaks down in tears.

Seven is, in many ways, about the breakdown of the family and traditional “values”. John Doe’s mission to punish the people who have committed the seven deadly sins is interesting, because while at some point in time, they were looked upon as deadly, over time they became par for the course. People today are lazy and gluttoness, sex permeates society, vapid celebrities as famous because of their looks, yet feel they have actually accomplished something, and people sitting at home envy their empty lifestyles. As we seen in the past little while, greed is par for the course in the business world. The only thing left that we still really look down upon is the wrath. In his way, John Doe is bringing back “traditional values”, even if he’s looking back further than most would for those values.

The comforts of marriage and children don’t seem very comforting in this film. Freeman abandoned his wife long ago, and aborted his child, and now Paltrow is going the same thing. Marriage isn’t about a partnership between two people taking on the world – it’s about grasping to your only lifeline in a world full of shit. In short, the world has gone to hell, and you can either strike out against it (as Pitt does in the finale), or passively accept it, like Freeman does. True, he does decide not to retire, and staying on “fighting the good fight”, but he knows he is fighting a losing battle.

Fincher followed up Seven with The Game, his most underrated film. In the film Michael Douglas plays what on the surface seems to be the typical Michael Douglas role – high powered executive, dressed in pricey suits, who exudes charm and sophistication. He has it all. Or does he? For a birthday present, his brother (Sean Penn) gives him a membership in something we only know as The Game. Throughout the movie, Douglas, and the audience right along with him, is tossed back and forth, never knowing if what is going on is a game, or just a group of people deadest on destroying Douglas’s life. What are we to make of Penn, who shows up periodically, but who we can never get a read on? When his brother’s life is falling apart, is he trying to stifle a laugh, or is he crying? Throughout the course of the movie, Douglas’ life completely and totally falls apart, until he is on the brink of suicide. He still doesn’t know if it’s all real of not.

The Game makes an interesting lead in to Fincher’s next film, Fight Club, as both films deal with a character who seemingly has everything, but is really hollow, empty shells of men. Douglas isn’t truly happy in The Game, he just thinks he is. The Game, whether real or not, wakes up him to makes him see the world around him for what it is. When he jumps off the building at the end, he is willing to accept any consequences that come with it.

Fight Club represents the apex of Fincher’s films on the hollowness of modern life. In the film, Edward Norton stars as an insurance adjuster whose job it is to figure out if it will cost more money to do recalls on dangerous products, or settle the inevitable lawsuits. He is paid well for his work, and he lives in an expensive high rise, and has all the latest in technological gadgetry. But he is empty and miserable. He doesn’t enjoy his life, he doesn’t enjoy his possessions, he doesn’t enjoy much of anything. He needs to break out of his rut – and that’s precisely what Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) allows him to do. Durden lives in a world that is foreign to Norton’s narrator – one where chaos is more important than anything else. When the two get into a fistfight, they discover who liberating it is not only to hit someone else as hard as you can, but also to be hit. They represent a generation of men raised by women (because of skyrocketing divorce rates), who have never had to go to war, and never dealt with any real hardships. Everything they have ever wanted has been handed to them – and they are miserable.

At this point, everyone knows that Tyler Durden is really Edward – that Brad Pitt was simply a figment of his imagination – his subconscious coming to the surface telling him that he was miserable he needed to break out of his routine. What he finds is a generation of young men willing to follow him into depraved violence – first by beating the crap out of each other, then gradually upping the ante more and more until things get way out of control. These young men were mindless zombies following what they were supposed – getting the right job, the right apartment, the right things, the right wife – and when they come over and follow Durden, it doesn’t have the same impact it did on Norton. Instead of being freed from their zombie-like existence, they simply trade one for the other. The reject the “institutions” of modernity, but instead simple follow Durden like mindless drones. This generation of men have lost the ability to think critically, and will follow anyone who claims they have an answer.

The final film is this cycle for Fincher is the least interesting – the thriller Panic Room with Jodie Foster. Panic Room is an extremely well made thriller, and contains some great performances – not just by Foster but also Forest Whitaker, Kristen Stewart, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakum. Essentially, Panic Room is a well made thriller, but it does have of the same undertones of the previous films. Leto’s robber thinks that by getting the bonds locked in the panic room, he will have money, and therefore be able to buy happiness. Whitaker, a generation older, doesn’t see it that way, and by the end – when the bonds are lost – he seems resigned to his life of terminal unhappiness.

After Panic Room, it took Fincher five years before he would return with his – and in my mind best – film Zodiac. Zodiac marks a departure for Fincher in that it is set in the past, and doesn’t really look at the hollowness of modern life, but rather at the passage of time, the inevitability of death and how obsession destroys you. The film does for Seven what The Godfather Part II did for The Godfather – it flips it on its ear. The original Godfather was entertaining, and dare I say it – fun. You may want to be a gangster like that. In The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone had gone from an ambitious kid, to just another gangster, who had lost everything – including his soul.

Zodiac does something similar to Seven and all the other serial killer dramas we have seen in the years since silence of the lambs. Most of those films start slow, and build to a shattering, violent, cathartic climax, where at the end, everything is okay again (which, because it didn’t end quite like that, already marked Seven as different). But Zodiac frontloads all the violence in the movie. We don’t know the people getting killed in the film’s first half hour – instead we are struck by the thunderous gunshots, the screams of the victims and all that blood. This isn’t cathartic – it’s painful.

The four men, who take it upon themselves to discover who the Zodiac killer is, pay for it in different ways. Robert Downey Jr.’s reporter sinks deeper and deeper into depression, paranoia and alcoholism, eventually losing everything. Anthony Edwards’ cop has to drop the case before it destroys him. The healthiest is Mark Ruffalo who maintains at least a semblance of a hold on reality and his life, but it still costs him. Saddest of all perhaps is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who before the movie even opens has already had one marriage fall apart. He meets a woman (Chloe Sevigny) and falls in love, and the two seem happy together sitting around the table eating dinner. But as his obsession with the Zodiac killer grows, and his wife and kids leave, they are replaced around that dinner table with boxes of files that he pours through every night. He has essentially traded his family for his obsession with death.

One critic described Zodiac as like “being trapped in a filing cabinet for nearly three hours”. They didn’t mean it as a criticism, and neither do I. The film pays painstaking attention to detail, just like its hero, and watches as time passes slowly by. Obsession takes its toll on everyone, and time brings them no comfort.

Which brings us to Fincher’s latest film, last year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Is it possible for a film that was nominated for 13 Oscars, and won 3 to be underrated? If so, than I submit that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is such a film. The reviews were largely respectful, but once the film landed all those Oscar nominations, a vitriol of hate seemed to pour out towards the film. Why? I think it has to do with the fact that Benjamin Button is seemingly unlike all of Fincher’s other films. There is no violence in the film, and to the internet fan boys, for whom Fincher is a God, violence equals seriousness. But just because The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a violent film, and at is seemingly an old fashioned love story, that doesn’t mean it really is all that different from Fincher’s other films. The film ultimately, is about death. It is a three hour movie in which death hangs over every scene – from the beginning when Benjamin is seemingly close to death at his birth, and ends up in an old folks home, where death happens on a daily basis, to the films’ end, when Pitt as a senile old man trapped in a child’s body, death is the only constant in the film. Yes, it is a love story, but it certainly is not an upbeat one. It’s one where the happiness of the couple – Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchatt – is fleeting, because biology has made it impossible for them to be together. At first it’s because he’s a child in an old man’s body, and as they grow closer in age, they also grow farther apart, until they finally meet in the middle for a few brief years of happiness. But it is a happiness that is not sustainable.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a technological marvel. Every scene is a masterwork of film construction, blending pitch perfect art direction, costume design, cinematography, music and special effects. Yet oddly, all these elements are used to support the story, not in place of it. Like Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really about the passage of time, and how at the end of everything there is the inevitable death. You cannot fight it, you just have to let go.
So, bringing it all back to what this series is supposed to be about – God and the Cinema, does God exist is Fincher’s cinematic world. I’m not sure. What is undeniable is that God offers no solace to the characters in the movies. If there is a God in Seven, he has long since abandoned humanity and the world they created. In The Game, Douglas has replaced God with money and success, and is empty as a result. But when he learns to be alive at the end, does he accept God, or is he just exhilarated? Fight Club also seems to be a movie where the absence of God has made it necessary for Norton to create his own God. Tyler Durden may be a “false God”, but he provides the Norton with something more tangible then the real one. Panic Room doesn’t really address the issue at all. In Zodiac, again, it seems like perhaps God has abandoned us to our own devices. We created the world full of evil, now we’re stuck to rot in it. But perhaps there is a God in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Yes, there is a false healer in the movie, who “cures” Benjamin and lets him walk for the first time in his life, but this has nothing to do with God, and more to do with biology. When the characters find happiness, it is all too fleeting for them. I’m not sure what the ultimate answer is, but I sure enjoying pondering the questions put forth in the films of David Fincher.

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