Retrospective: A guide to the films and DVDs of David Fincher
There are a few directors who, in a remarkably short amount of time, become synonymous with a certain type and style of filmmaking. There are obviously the unfortunate cases of the Randall Wallaces and Paul Andersons of this world, who become associated with cinematic offal from the outset of their careers; on the other hand, there are those who bring an immensely personal touch to their work, meaning that they are the true auteurs of the 21st century, just as the likes of Hitchcock and Kubrick were those of the 20th century. David Fincher is one of the new breed of directors, a man whose work is consistently interesting, original and- at its best- challenging, despite some unpleasant setbacks on the road to their completion.
After an early career that included work at ILM (on such films as Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Fincher became, like many other film directors of his generation, a music video and advert director of some renown, working with clients as varied as Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Levi's, Coca-Cola and Budweiser. It would be rather absurd to attempt to claim these as great examples of filmmaking, given the inevitable limitations imposed by working in such a narrow medium; nevertheless, such works as Madonna's Bad Girl (which features James Rebhorn, later to appear in The Game) and Sting's Englishman in New York showed an innate cinematic vision, which drew him to the attention of 20th Century Fox. For those interested in this stage of his career, Fincher's work is largely unavailable, unsurprisingly; there is a compilation of Madonna music videos on DVD, called 93:99, which is an unexceptional presentation for fans of the Material Girl, rather than Fincher.
Out of this world...
20th Century Fox, rather depressingly, did not approach Fincher in order to nurture his creative talents, but instead to act as director for hire on the third installment of the Alien series, the unimaginatively titled Alien3. Beset with production problems worthy of a disaster film, the film had passed through directors such as Renny Harlin and Vincent Ward before ending up at Fincher's none-too-grateful feet. Beset with problems from the outset- Weaver's constant demands for artistic control and the studio's incessant interference amongst them- it is little surprise that he actually left the editing to the studio, who released a film that managed to disappoint virtually everyone, from fans of the original two films to those who had heard, from the involvement of cyberpunk guru William Gibson and Kiwi visionary Ward, that the film would be decidedly more interesting than the usual Hollywood sci-fi.
In retrospect, the film is deeply flawed, but not half as bad as critics at the time claimed. There is a certain guilty pleasure in watching a cast this good (including such actors as Charles Dance, Paul McGann, Charles S Dutton and Brian Glover) slum it as bald alien fodder; although, unlike Ridley Scott's original, it's impossible to really care whether any of them live or die (the most interesting character dies far too early), there's a ghoulish glee in some of the more extravagant death scenes, with the finale having an almost poetic intensity, even if it did bear a remarkable similarity to Terminator 2. Rumours of a director's cut have long been circulating, but Fincher has consistently refused to return to the film; therefore, the bootlegged extended VHS copies in circulation are probably the best in existence at the moment. The R1 and R2 DVDs are identical, and fairly low in terms of extra material, featuring a 25-minute documentary that briefly looks at the Alien series in its entirety, as well as the latest installment. Tellingly, Fincher is not featured at any point. With his career seemingly in tatters after the film's comparative failure at the box office, Fincher returned to music videos and adverts, until a rather extraordinary script happened to catch his eye...
'Just because the fucker's got a library card doesn't make him Yoda'
Andrew Kevin Walker was a Tower Records employee in New York, living what he claimed was a fairly miserable and unrewarding life in the early 1990s. Out of this came one of the bleakest and most nihilistic mainstream scripts ever written, a fiercely intelligent look at moral degradation and the decline of society, as represented by an anonymously shadowy serial killer who calls himself 'John Doe', and is unpleasantly killing his fellow man (and woman) according to the Seven Deadly Sins. New Line purchased Walker's script, liked it, and sent it to Fincher, who was sufficiently impressed by it to decide to return to filmmaking, on the proviso that the alternate version circulating (which, unbelievably, featured a happy ending and Doe vanquished in the nick of time) was destroyed. The backing of Brad Pitt ensured that the dark, twisted vision of Walker was kept intact, and Fincher was given free reign to translate it to the screen.
When it was released, the film was met with almost unanimous praise, and it remains astonishing that it failed to even be nominated in any of the major Oscar categories, let alone win (it was nominated for Best Editing alone). One of the very few examples of where a decidedly offbeat film succeeds through word of mouth and excellent feedback (despite universally negative test screenings), the film soon became a $100 million blockbuster in the US alone. It's probably the finest serial killer film since Manhunter, eschewing the pulpy thrills of Silence of the Lambs- where, thanks to the casting of Jodie Foster, it never seemed all that likely that evil would triumph, even if Lecter was suitably disturbing, if cartoonish, a figure- in favour of something much darker and more insidious. The film also represents a triumph of direction, with some directorial innovations (think rain, think darkness, think credit sequences) being so imitated in recent years by legions of inferior films that the original impact can only be reduced slightly. All the same, it is a triumph for all concerned, and Fincher's finest film to date.
After decidedly mediocre non-anamorphic DVD releases in both R1 and R2, New Line released a magnificent 2-disc special edition at the end of 2000. Featuring a splendidly thorough array of extras, including 4 audio commentaries, deleted scenes, alternate endings and a magnificent array of technical insights into the film's production, it soon became one of the benchmark DVDs on the market, both for supplementary features and the pitch-perfect technical qualities; the film was remastered from the original negative, making the picture far clearer and more vivid than any presentation since the original 35mm cinema screenings. One of the few DVDs that anyone seriously interested in film should own. The R2 EiV release that soon followed is identical in terms of extras, but replaces the superb packaging of the R1 (which was designed to look like John Doe's notebooks) in favour of an altogether more generic black keepcase. All the same, it can often be picked up for around £9.99, and is obviously well worth buying at that price.
Fun and Games
With his critical and, more importantly, bankable reputation restored, Fincher was offered the script to The Game by Polygram shortly after Se7en opened. Although a less complex work, the script was sufficiently interesting and twisted for Fincher to accept the job, hiring Michael Douglas in the central role of the smug, self-satisfied financier Nicholas Van Orton and Jodie Foster as Van Orton's sister. However, for undisclosed reasons, Foster was fired from the film by the studio; she later sued, winning an undisclosed sum. Fincher instead hired Sean Penn (then in the middle of his 'I'll only do the script if it has complete artistic integrity' phase), changed the sex of the character, got Walker to rewrite parts of the script he felt might be improved, and set to work. The final product was greeted with mixed reviews, unremarkable box office results, but the general critical consensus was that, technically at least, Fincher had once again proved that he was a masterful director.
The film's biggest problem is that it is almost entirely geared towards its ending, which is another brilliant reversal of all that has gone before; unfortunately, the journey towards it is never as compelling or surprising as that of Se7en. This is partly due to the fact that Douglas- expertly- reprises the character that he successfully plays in many of his best films, the smart, self-assured and intelligent man who nevertheless leaves himself open to potentially disastrous situations, and also because the film feels very self-consciously a work of gameplay; thus, the film is best seen as an amusing, vaguely Hitchcockian thriller rather than a true work of genius. A decent DVD reissue of the film, possibly even in an extended version, might well go a long way towards redressing its reputation; however, although Criterion produced a superb laserdisc edition of it a while back, all the current DVD versions leave a fair bit to be desired. The R1 is non-anamorphic and entirely lacking in extras; the R2 and R4 versions are cheap and anamorphic, but ar also lacking in any kind of supplementary material. It looks likely that Fincher will revisit the film one day, whether as a Criterion edition or as a special edition for whichever company own the rights (Polygram were taken over by USA films, whose DVD production side have in turn been absorbed into Universal...) We can but hope, at least!
There were some who might have thought that The Game might have signalled a move into the mainstream for Fincher. However, Fight Club spectacularly wrong-footed them, being a superb evocation of American masculine paranoia at the end of an era, complete with devastatingly witty dialogue and superbly accomplished direction. The script, by Jim Uhls and the (again uncredited) Andrew Kevin Walker, was adapted from Chuck Palanhiuk's misanthropic and bitter novel, which was a minor cult hit without threatening to arise into the popular consciousness that, say Trainspotting did before its adaptation into the film. In some places, it's very faithful to its source material, even if the ending is far less elaborate and anti-climatic in the original. (Palanhiuk has since said that he prefers the film to his book in many respects, including the new climax.)
However, regardless of the faithfulness of the adaptation, the film was released to a hysterical storm of controversy, which started at the Venice Film Festival, where the stars, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter and Ed Norton, found themselves being forced to defend the film against allegations of, essentially, incitements to anarchy; this was later continued by such distinguished critics as Roger Ebert (who described the film as 'cheerfully fascist') and Alexander Walker, who memorably blasted it as being 'anti-society, anti-humanity and anti-God'). The film suffered a comparative box office failure, indirectly resulting in the resignation of the chairman of 20th Century Fox- post-reconciliation with Fincher- at the time, Bill Mechanic (Rupert Murdoch was said to have loathed the film; unsurprising really, given that it is a stinging indictment of capitalism in all its forms), but now enjoys a strong cult reputation, in no small part thanks to the wonders of DVD.
As if aware that he has a reputation for surprise endings to live up to, Fincher includes a twist at the end of Fight Club that has managed to perplex and confuse virtually everyone who has watched the film, like many great reversals; however, many people also claim that the climatic revelation all but destroys the film, sacrificing narrative credibility for cheap sensationalism. Such a criticism is undoubtedly subjective, but should be respected nonetheless. Essentially, the film is one of the very few works of cinema that will be, if you will, all things to all men; to Ebert and Walker, it was a fascist call to arms, just as it was seen as a call to socialist principles by others. In fact, the best way to enjoy the film is just to see it as a superbly acted and directed black comedy, with numerous quotable lines, some intensely witty pieces of visual design (including the inaugural appearance of the flashy CGI zoom), and a pleasingly nihilistic worldview; in some ways, it resembles Se7en played for absurdist laughs, a daring but successful mix.
Of the current DVD releases, easily the best is the R1 (which is, apart from anything else, notable for being one of the first times that 20th Century Fox fully embraced the DVD market), especially the four consistently excellent commentaries on the first disc; the best is probably the witty and intelligent actors' commentary, featuring Fincher, Pitt, Norton and Carter, but Fincher's solo effort is also very interesting (and he always comes across as being surprisingly affable and laid-back, belying his rather intense public image. The R2 loses 3 of the commentaries, but has an indentical second disc to the R1; many have complained that the other extras are novelty pieces of fluff rather than in-depth analysis of the film's themes, but, frankly, 9 hours of (largely non-repetitive) commentary should be more than enough discussion of the film, and there are some nice little details on the second disc, such as a text transcript of a speech given by Ed Norton to Yale University. A mainstay of many DVD collections, and it's not hard to see why.
No need to Panic...
David Fincher's latest, Panic Room, has just been released in the UK to largely positive reviews, albeit with occasional criticism that the film represents a move towards the generic that Fincher has hitherto avoided. Certainly, it's not as strong as Se7en or as fiercely original as Fight Club, but it's about as good a showcase of Fincher's style as can be imagined, albeit on a technical level, rather than anything else. His attitude to the film has been largely one of indifference; it's hard to avoid thinking that his involvement with the film might have been more personal had Nicole Kidman remained with it, rather than Jodie Foster. In interviews, he has repeatedly described the film as being nothing more than a 'popcorn movie', and has readily admitted that it has no noticeable depth at all. Then again, it's unrealistic to expect his every work to be an epoch-defining masterpiece, and it's certainly one of the strongest no-frills (but plenty of thrills) generic works of the last few years. The DVD will almost certainly be excellent; one hopes that some of the scenes shot with Kidman will be included, if only for curiosity value, but the usual suspects of a Fincher commentary, deleted scenes and making-ofs seem more or less a given.
Onwards and onwards and upwards we go?
Thanks to the massive box office success of Panic Room, Fincher is now a fully bankable A-list director, with a wide variety of projects on the go. The two that look most likely to be tackled next are Mission Impossible 3, which is self-explanatory, and The Black Dahlia, a long-gestating adaptation of the James Ellroy novel about extreme violence in the 50s LA. It'll be very interesting to see if Fincher manages to combine his instincts for making highly entertaining mainstream films with his darker, more twisted inclinations; in a quote that sounds like something out of Se7en, he reputedly said 'I have demons you can't even begin to imagine.' As long as those demons continue to translate into thought-provoking, exciting and daring cinema, then we're all in for several treats to come.
Thanks to DavidFincher.net and IMDB (for useful information) and Raphael Pour-Hashemi (for technical support!)