With his recent nomination from the Directors Guild of America, David Fincher confirms himself as the auteur de jour, the anointed brooding-celeb-visionary of modern times. In particular, this nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo not only signals how en vogue Fincher is at the moment, but is a re-affirmation of sorts that he is viewed as being sorely overdue for an Oscar by many in Hollywood.
No kidding. Especially after last year’s oversight by the Academy, which opted to snub the prickly director of The Social Network, favoring instead the lighter, more accessible The King’s Speech (and the bland Tom Hooper, winner of 2010’s Best Director Oscar).
Still the people like what they like, and DVD sales don’t lie. But with Fincher’s pessimism and his recurring dark meditations on evil in the world, his broad popularity is curious. Of course, it’s not that praise for Fincher isn’t warranted (his skills behind the camera are beyond reproach). But given how the man seems during interviews -- his apprehension about the sudden accolades apparent -- and just how sinister his films are, the question is: what’s the source behind the recent surge in Fincher love?
It could be that he offers the kind of commercialized, darkly stylized intellectualism that Kubrick never could. This is a man, who cut his teeth making ads for Apple and shooting music videos for Madonna (though his characters quote William Blake). If we remove his talent for a moment, a cornerstone of what makes Fincher such a notable filmmaker in today’s Hollywood is his indisputable eye for manufacturing dark stories with mass appeal. Yes, Se7en revolutionized the serial killer genre, but what registered the most was a push forward in terms of conventions, predicated on the box office success of the film ($100 million and MTV Movie Awards aren’t incidental to a film’s impact… if you’re the suit green-lighting films, they are the impact).
To be sure, no one juggles the two hats of indie provocateur and blockbuster director quite like Fincher. And, after two decades of classics, it makes sense people would finally be coming around. The ripples of his influence are finally being felt. Se7en was released in 1995. Now, in 2012, films are dominating the box office (cough, The Devil Inside) by exceeding the sadism on display in Se7en, while unfortunately lacking the larger thematic weight. I absolutely agree with Nordling’s recent piece that genre films become more elevated and feel 10 times more epic when there are Big Ideas at play, regardless of budget. Could Fincher’s final legacy be his brutal use of violence, not his steady examination of the moral forces behind that violence?
While seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last weekend, a girl broke out in tears and fled the theater during the (second) brutal rape scene. It was a graphic, and, I presume, honest scene of raw sexual violence. The audience seemed stunned. However, thinking back on it now, I remembered the satisfaction I felt later upon seeing Lisbeth torture her rapist, giving him his ultimate comeuppance. Or, when she visited him later in the elevator as he cowered like the sad, worthless being he is, as the audience laughed at the pitiful sight. Fincher was giving us a sort of relief after putting us through the very traumatic previous scenes. He had set us up with reality, and then relieved us with fantasy. We were Lisbeth, a victim of rape being granted the opportunity to enact perfect revenge.
Except what Lisbeth did was so fantastic, it almost feels like a cheat. I understand the sexual politics here, and Larsson’s intent, but from the vantage point of Fincher’s filmography there is a shift in how the audience is supposed to respond to violence. With Se7en, the most gruesome scenes were shown to us only in the presence of Detectives Mills and Somerset. There was a still past tense involved, with the after-effects shown on screen. Brad Pitt unraveled the mystery, but was always a step behind the actual act. The viewer discovered the violence with Mills, ingesting it solely within their imagination; we never cheered the Seven Deadly Sins. Our curiosity hinged on the fact that the violence was tantalizing but, still, clear acts of pure evil. And never mind that when Pitt’s Detective Mills finally gives into the violence, it is seen as a sorrowful act. The audience is not gleeful or relieved when Kevin Spacey gets a bullet in the brain. The feeling is ambiguous, acting against decades of ingrained film logic when seeing the bad guy get his.
With this in mind, I can’t truly applaud Fincher for the violence he depicts in his latest film nor can I even really recognize Lisbeth as a feminist hero or whatever she’s supposed to be. Because the choice to show her rape and subsequent revenge wasn’t done for her, it was for the audience. Moreover, differences in the adaptations between Fincher’s version and the original Swedish film include scenes like Lisbeth visiting Bjurman in the elevator was included in Fincher’s version but not the Swedish. Why? What purpose was there in indulging further in the subplot besides giving American audiences one more reassurance that Lisbeth had the upper hand and Bjurman was totally dominated?
Among many film lovers, nothing is better than Fincher and a glance at Rotten Tomatoes shows there are more who love this film than not. I agree, but I question whether his reputation is now guiding his film’s receptions. And, thinking back to this poor girl breaking into tears, and the way Fincher wants us to feel when Lisbeth whips out her curling iron, I am genuinely baffled at what exactly we are subjecting ourselves to.
I remember how loud so many voices were when Osama bin Laden was killed, and how many demanded photos of his corpse be released. Or those Duggars showing off their dead son’s fetus for the tabloids to eat up (pardon the pun). And I just wonder, where is our restraint? Believe it or not, I think Steven Tyler is on to something when he says TV is better off not being allowed to use profanity and show nudity. It’s better for us as a whole and, frankly, I think reasonable limits serve those creative types just fine.
Not that Fincher is culpable necessarily, but I respectfully extend the suggestion that American audiences have adjusted their tolerance levels in the past two decades. They’ve become more open to what they are willing to accept on their television sets and movie screens. Not morally, because that’s another thing entirely, but just visually. This idea of an entertainment culture and news cycle without limits is intriguing.
Where do we go when the sky’s the limit, but “up” means “going down to the gutter”? Ultimately, I think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be judged as a lesser work in Fincher’s oeuvre. But for now, the Academy loves their formulas, and one of their most common ones is the habit of acknowledging people after-the-fact. A twice loser (and how many times just flat out ignored?), Fincher is now Scorsese after Raging Bull. And like Scorsese with The Departed, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sees the master in form. Pure carnage and, in many ways, it’s Fincher being Fincher. Will Oscar finally decide what’s right is right, even if the product might not be right for us?