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Panic Room (#110 of 2)

New York Film Festival 2010: The Social Network

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>

David Fincher’s films coil around an invisible center. His protagonists chase after something that they don’t know and can’t see, sometimes spending years in the hunt. In his first several features (following a successful career as a music video director), the center held, and the characters uncovered the thing that they were looking for. Ridley zaps the alien; Pitt and Freeman catch the killer; Michael Douglas solves the game; Norton sniffs the masculine high of his inner Tyler Durden; Jodie Foster and daughter finally break out of the room.

But then something happened inside Fincher’s movies, something roving and difficult to place. Five years passed after 2002’s Panic Room, and when Fincher’s next film, Zodiac, came out in March 2007, many audiences didn’t know what to do with it. Like Se7en, it was a serial-killer movie, and Fincher used many of his standard techniques, which Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas discuss in a fine video essay: wide lenses, deep focus, swooping crane shots, low-angle tracking shots, crosscutting between events in different locations, shock cuts that punch us toward unexpected spots. A visual whirlwind took us on a search for the killer, but unlike in Se7en, where he’s uncovered, Zodiac spends nearly 25 years without finding him. In Se7en, the murderer walks into the police station and cries, “Detectives! I think you’re looking for me”; in Zodiac, the chief suspect looks directly into the camera and says, “I’m not the Zodiac. And even if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”

The Conversations: David Fincher

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The Conversations: David Fincher
The Conversations: David Fincher

Jason Bellamy: Ed, earlier this year we had a lengthy and spirited debate about Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Encapsulating that exchange is difficult, but to nutshell it as best I can: I argued that Kaufman’s film is “complex for complexity’s sake” and that Synecdoche, New York’s inner themes aren’t worth the effort of their labyrinthine design; you disagreed and argued that the structure was “encoded with elegant metaphors.” Throughout our exchange, at my blog and yours, I’m not sure that the word “gimmick” was ever used, but thematically that was the bonfire we danced around.

I bring all this up because David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a 166-minute exercise about a man (Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button) who ages backward. He’s born, on the night after the end of World War I, the size of an infant with the physical maladies of an old man, and from there his body grows younger while his spirit and soul grow older and more experienced. Within the margins of this story are ankle-deep philosophical waxings about the aging process (body vs. mind), a fairly straightforward love story and a Forrest Gump-esque trip through American history. But I wonder: Is Benjamin Button anything more than a gimmick?