Thursday, December 14, 2006

ESSAY: Fincher's "Formula"

Coming To Terms With Morality: Examining the cinematic themes of auteur David Fincher

David Fincher is known for his dark, often very violent films. Although he has only directed five feature films to date, he has managed to establish himself as one of the industry’s foremost auteurs stylistically and thematically. Though his films deal with everything from a man-eating alien creature to serial killers to underground boxing clubs, they all examine similar themes. Woven throughout his films is a specific pattern of elements that he uses to present a moral statement about society. The formula consists of: two opposing moral ideals that conflict with each other, an anti-hero used to demonstrate moral ambiguity, and the sacrifice of the anti-hero meant to advocate a third moral alternative. This essay will focus on how Fincher explores these concepts in the three of his films: Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club.

Fincher’s first “blockbuster” film was Se7en in 1995. The film helped inspire a resurgence in the detective-noir genre, but was controversial due to its shocking and gory subject matter. The film follows two detectives, Somerset and Mills, as they track down a serial killer called John Doe who murders his victims in accordance with the Se7en deadly sins. This film is a prime example of how Fincher always presents two opposing moral ideals in his films.

Somerset and Mills serve as representations of two conflicting points of view. Somerset’s years of experience have made him jaded and cynical. He feels that humanity is for the most part morally corrupt, and apathetic towards each other and their own actions. As he points out, rape victims are encouraged to yell “Fire” rather than “Help” since only the former will result in people coming to their aid. As a detective, he is merely picking up the pieces and recording the evil deeds of humanity. He is also highly intelligent, and criticized as such. Whereas most policemen spend their time focusing on their work or playing poker, Somerset is “cultured” (as evidenced by the pen he brings with him to work, along with his gun) and familiar with classic works of literature.

Mills is the polar opposite of Somerset. He is young and naïve, confident that his work has a noble purpose. He views himself as a champion of the people, campaigning for them and helping to bring justice to the wrongfully harmed. Unlike Somerset, he thinks that mankind is on the whole morally good, and worth trying to help out. He knows nothing of Chaucer or Dante, going as far to refer to the latter as a “poetry-writing faggot.” He acts off his feelings rather than intellectually, feeding off his emotions and his desires.

Fincher chooses not to side with either character, but rather argues that the answer to the question of morality lies in a balance between the two. In the film, this balance comes in the form of the killer, John Doe. Doe is in many ways an anti-hero; his actions are villainous, yet the audience is encouraged to think about, and perhaps even sympathize with, his reasoning behind them. Like Somerset, he claims that mankind is morally corrupt, a fallen creation in the eyes of God: “What fun we have dancing and fucking / Not a care in the world / Not knowing that we are nothing / We are not what was intended.” It is through Doe that Fincher directly states his point of view: “…that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial.”

Thus, Se7en is not meant to merely exist as a typical noir film, but rather as Fincher’s appeal to his viewers to think about their own morality. Its graphic images are John Doe’s metaphorical “sledgehammer”, serving to “get their strict attention” so he can make his point. The “faceless and nameless” city in Se7en is a dark, dirty place in which people are desensitized to the violence around them. Even Mills acknowledges this, claiming that John Doe’s murders will only be a “movie of the week” to the inhabitants of the city. Like Somerset, Fincher implicitly agrees that mankind is generally apathetic towards the morally wrong and that we don’t treat it as important. This is evident in many cases throughout the film, such as when Mills can’t remember the name of the officer who was shot, or when the officer at the beginning of the film tells Somerset, “ ‘Did the kid see it?’ Who gives a fuck? He's dead, his wife killed him. Anything else has nothing to do with us.”

However, Fincher also seems to agree with Mills that mankind should not be killed for their mistakes, but they are worth trying to save. Although he doesn’t condone the brutal killings of John Doe, he proposes that we as a society should pay attention to Doe’s “sermon,” and stop tolerating the evil that exists around us. It is fitting that Fincher’s villain is named “John Doe” – he is the symbolic Everyman, and as he points out, he does nothing that we the audience might not also do in certain situations. His self-sacrifice at the film’s finale is Fincher’s plea that we try to sacrifice the sinful nature and apathy that exists inside us and reach towards something better. This is best summed up by Somerset’s final lines: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” Fincher promotes a third way between the moral extremes of his two detectives, arguing that although humanity is indeed morally corrupt, they can potentially be saved.

These thematic elements are also present in Fincher’s next film, The Game. The 1997 film starred Michael Douglas as Nicholas Van Orten, a wealthy businessman who, on the urgings of his brother, signs up for a service known as Consumer Recreation Services. The company is supposed to provide Nicholas with a unique life experience called a “game” that will change his life. Nicholas gets more than he bargained for in the form of shootings, being framed for murder, and being left for dead in Mexico.

Nicholas’ “game” is similar to John Doe’s murders in that it is Fincher’s plea for moral purity. Like John Doe, Nicholas is an anti-hero. Although we sympathize with his point of view (he is being assaulted in various ways) we also find his actions distasteful. He is greedy and cold, refusing to let anyone be emotionally close to him. As his brother puts it, “You know what [fun] is… you’ve seen other people have it.” In many ways, Nicholas is like wealthy lawyer Eli Gould in Se7en, who “dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath.” Like Gould, Nicholas is also forced to come to terms with his own moral depravity, this time through psychological and emotional torture rather than physical.

The opposite extreme in the case of The Game is not another character, but rather the “game” itself. It is presented as being something dangerous and daring, and by the end it is clear that The Game has allowed Nicholas to see the error of his ways and helped him find meaning. However, although Nicholas’ cold-hearted disposition is frowned upon, so is the company responsible for his “game.” Like John Doe, they achieve their point through exaggerated and harmful means. In order to help Nicholas come to terms with his moral flaws, they take extreme measures. It may all be part of a fake “game”, but it is harmful nonetheless.

So once again, Fincher argues for a third, better alternative. This comes once again in his motif of an anti-hero’s self-sacrifice, this time when Nicholas leaps off a building, after supposedly killing his brother and realizing the full extent of his emotional apathy. In doing so, he sacrifices his sinful nature, and emerges a new creation afterwards. Fincher again asks his viewers to confront their moral shortcomings and aim to be better people. He does not approve of the extreme measures that are taken to do so, but does agree that the outcome is worth striving for.

These same themes were perhaps portrayed most concretely in Fight Club. In the film, the nameless Narrator finds himself a victim of the same consumerism and emotional apathy that is present in Fincher’s other films. However, in this film, the protagonist is not forced to come to terms with his impure morality by an external force, but rather chooses to confront it with the aid of Tyler Durden, a free-spirited nihilist who organizes an underground “fight club” in which men pummel themselves with their bare fists in order to feel alive.

The two opposing forces in this film are the Narrator and Tyler. The Narrator is spiritually dead. He hates his job, lives alone, and even attends self-help groups in order to feel something other than indifference. It could be said that he is a poorer version of Nicholas Van Orton – someone who is emotionally cold and indifferent. He is, as he puts it, “single-serving” and a slave to selfishness and materialism. Tyler, on the other hand, is very much alive. He has a clear vision and ideology, and with Fight Club he helps other men find meaning and comfort through violence. As he states, he is everything the Narrator wants to be – “All the ways you wish you could be, that's me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” This opposition becomes a metaphor for morality when Fincher reveals that Tyler and the Narrator are two distinct personalities of the same individual. This represents the opposing moral natures that Fincher argues we find within ourselves, a positive and a negative.

The Fight Club that Tyler starts is presented as something positive. The acts of violence allow members to feel pain, which is better than the world around them that encourages them to feel nothing. Fighting becomes a spiritual experience, and violence is a metaphor for meaning. The narrator even goes as far as to compare it to a religious ceremony: “The hysterical shouting was in tongues, like at a Pentecostal Church.” After Fight Club, the men consider themselves “enlightened.” However, in Fight Club Fincher’s anti-hero is Tyler. Although he is portrayed as being alive and “free”, he is also presented as someone who is destructive and manipulative. Eventually, Fight Club evolves into “Project Mayhem”, in which members actively try to destroy the materialistic society around them. Although they do not resort to murder, they aren’t above cutting off the testicles of anyone who might stand in their way. After finding their masculinity in Fight Club, they take it to a new level of violence and destruction, even despite the resistance of the Narrator.

Fincher argues that although we should aim to escape from the bondage of materialism and spiritual apathy, we should not respond with violence towards the system. He also undermines Tyler by implying he is hypocritical. Although he is anti-consumerism, Tyler is often seen wearing stylish and expensive outfits. Furthermore, one symptom of Project Mayhem is that Fight Clubs become a national phenomenon – the disenfranchised becomes a franchise itself. By the end of the film, the protagonist has become disillusioned by Tyler’s actions and philosophy. He tells his alter-ego, “Tyler, I'm grateful to you; for everything that you've done for me. But this is too much. I don't want this.” In order to prevent further destruction, he shoots himself in the head, ridding himself of his second personality. In doing so, he arrives at a third, better spiritual state than his previous two extremes. He now realizes that although it is necessary to sacrifice the nature inside us that is kept prisoner by the superficiality of society, it is also necessary to sacrifice that which wants to respond with violence.

David Fincher takes on projects that all share a similar thematic formula. Se7en, The Game and Fight Club all focus on two opposing moral ideals. They also all contain an anti-hero who is sacrificed as a means of promoting a third alternative. As an auteur, Fincher uses his films to make the audience realize their own moral shortcomings and show them that in a world of moral ambiguity there are better paths to follow than the two extremes.


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