Essay: David Fincher’s work

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  • David Fincher’s work
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“There seems much not to like about modern America – at least in Fincher’s view.” (Namschaud).

As an auteur, David Fincher’s work is instantly recognisable. Fincher’s films are distinctly dark, claustrophobic, innovative, and thought-provoking – with an aftertaste that lingers, or even scars – like a chemical burn. By creating films that are distinctly unsettling Fincher is able to criticise an aspect of society he finds particularly troublesome – usually centred around modern occidental culture’s capitalist and consumerist traits. Moreover, since Fincher films are so memorable and powerful, ideas in films – such as Fight Club (1999) and Gone Girl (2014) resonate with viewers for some time.

Fincher’s distaste with not only the ideals of the ‘American Dream’ but also modern, capitalist societies’ consumerist mindset is evident in the ‘IKEA Nesting Instinct’ scene, during the exposition of Fight Club (1999). The lighting of [Edward Norton]’s apartment exposes its nature. Fincher – by combining a pale green filter with stark, fluorescent lighting – creates a unsettling and sickly atmosphere in the scene. The use of a green filter would create a sickly tinge unaccompanied, but when used in unison with the stark, halogen-bulb lighting, the scene evokes a more powerful reaction from the audience – feelings of sickness and distaste are amplified.  “Fincher’s interior spaces often convey a strong sense of a claustrophobic starkness – lit by fluorescent lights and manipulated through filters to create a bleak or sickly feel; as in the hospital room in Benjamin Button, or the Newspaper Office in Zodiac.” (Namschaud) – a statement, which, in the case of the ‘IKEA Nesting Instinct’ scene certainly rings true. The sickly atmosphere Fincher creates displays his clear distaste not only with [Edward Norton]’s cramped inner-city apartment lifestyle (and how it betrays ideals of the ‘American Dream’), but moreover, with its inhabitants – trendy furniture, a purchased identity, being used to fill a void in [Edward Norton]’s – the ‘everyman’s’ – empty life.

Fincher’s apparent distaste with the ideals of the ‘American Dream’ once again rears its head in Gone Girl (2014). Early in the film, when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), comes home to find Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) – his wife – is missing. Once again, Fincher uses lighting, filters, and cinematography to create an intensely unsettling atmosphere. Nick Dunne’s home is dimly lit, which, immediately unsettles an audience – combining the dim lighting with a green filter emphasises insidious connotations within the home. As stated previously, use of a green filter is typical of Fincher – often used to show his distaste with a setting. In this instance, Fincher’s displeasure lies within Nick’s home – it “can be perceived as a symbol of The American Dream – the grand stately home” (Namschaud). Through the scene Fincher builds a powerful sense of claustrophobia and anxiety through concealing, or darkening, exits to rooms. This begins to convey to the audience Nick Dunne’s inability to escape his wife’s ensuing plot, “the grand house is a seething bed of claustrophobic dissatisfaction and loathing, and one in which the protagonist is ultimately condemned to stay” (Namschaud). Furthermore, by showing the grand house through such a critical light, Fincher is able to criticise an aspect of society; commenting on how modern day, occidental culture glorifies owning a grand home – claiming that wealth will bring happiness and purpose to one’s life, evidently not in Nick Dunne’s case.

[Edward Norton] is representative, in Fight Club, of the everyman. In the ‘IKEA Nesting Instinct’ scene of Fight Club Fincher, working as the social critic, manipulates cinematography and mise en scène to expose the nature of [Edward Norton]’s life and how the setting – the apartment – is reflective of this. Fincher composes [Edward Norton] carefully throughout the scene, constantly boxing him into seemingly cramped spaces, creating feelings of claustrophobia amongst other anxieties. “Fincher’s interior spaces often convey a strong sense of a claustrophobic starkness” (Namschaud) For example; when [Edward Norton] is seated on the toilet, reading an ‘IKEA’ brochure, he is shown boxed in tightly by walls, door frames, and furniture. As the scene progresses, Fincher further amplifies feelings of claustrophobia and entrapment through the mise en scène of [Edwards Norton]’s apartment. As the camera slowly sweeps across the apartment we see a range of furniture – almost all of which resemble bars in some form; large amounts of long straight blinds covering every window and hanging picture cables over a wall. We see [Edward Norton] (the everyman) trapped in his self-made cage and filling it with new, trendy furniture with no real substance, in an effort to give his life meaning. Fincher’s social criticism here is evident, using [Edward Norton] as a model for many modern day men, he shows us how empty and without meaning modern consumer’s lives can be. More specifically, Fincher is criticising an aspect of society – how people look to material possessions for affirmation.

Early in the film Gone Girl (2014) we see Nick Dunne, victim to forces beyond his own control as he arrives home to find his wife has disappeared. In this scene, Fincher seeks to further unsettle the audience and show our protagonist, Nick Dunne, beginning to become isolated due to outside forces and his lack of knowledge. Fincher displays this through cinematography, mise en scène, and lighting techniques. The mise en scène of hatched windows, dark corners, and strong use of straight dark lines – resembling prison bars – create a powerful sense of entrapment – a similar effect as mentioned previously but executed in a more sinister tone. Fincher’s protagonists are often subject to forces beyond their control, trapped in a series of events and isolated. A byproduct of isolation – fear – “populates all of Fincher’s films to some degree though – the trapped mother and daughter in Panic Room, … Nick Dunne’s fear grows and grows, as well it should – he comes perilously close to a conviction for murder. (Namschaud) add to this Nicholas Van Orton trapped in ‘the game’ (in The Game) as well as [Edward Norton]’s insomnia, causing his isolation, in Fight Club. Furthermore, Fincher’s use of side lighting on Nick’s face throughout the scene, obscuring one side of his face regularly, conveys that not only do we – as an audience – know little about Nick at this stage but also that he is unaware himself of the reason for his wife’s disappearance. Fincher’s use of side lighting, tactfully and simultaneously paints Nick as powerless to the events that follow – provoking a claustrophobic anxiety – while also unsettling the audience as Nick is difficult to read as a character early on in the film. Moreover, Fincher’s typically scarce use of close-up shots emphasises their importance – the fact that some rare Fincher close-ups are used to show Nick’s face predominantly in shadow accentuates their importance. Side lighting is ‘claustrophobic because of what it conceals rather than reveals’ (Namschaud) and typical of Fincher, as he seeks to create films that are dark and scarring.

David Fincher, through creating unsettling, even disturbing films, is able to powerfully voice his criticism of occidental society. Fincher shows a clear distaste with the ideal of the ‘American Dream’ and consumerism within modern society – his protagonists often represent this, their at first normal or dull appearing lives later being revealed to simply a façade. In reality, many of Fincher’s protagonists have dark, dreadful aspects to their lives; Nick Dunne, is married to a psychopath, who he has been cheating on and [Edward Norton] is an insomniac and suffers from having multiple personalities. Fight Club and Gone Girl, despite having different tones as films, share many qualities surrounding cinematography, lighting, mise en scène, and key ideas, which, make them distinctively Fincher. Fincher’s raw, cynical themes have earned him not only a passionate cult following, but also wider recognition as a great auteur.

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