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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Director Retrospectives- David Fincher Part 3

This is part three of a now four part retrospective of David Fincher's work. Next installment with include Fight Club, Alien 3, and the first two episodes of House of Cards.

Part Three- Working in different genres- The Game & The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The Game (1997)- In a dark, dangerous San Francisco lives Nicholas Van Orten (Michael Douglas), a very rich businessman and a total loner. He doesn’t come across as pathetic, but as rather as stern and cold, and blatantly unhappy despite the lap of luxury in which he lives. Sensing Nicholas’ unhappiness, Nicholas’ wild and über ostentatious brother Conrad (Sean Penn) appears and presents Nicholas a birthday gift, a gift that is sure to add some excitement to Nicholas life, and lift him out of the depressive fog that he carries around everywhere.

Along the way we learn some little bits of information about Nicholas’ life, but not much, which is nice because his past doesn’t really seem to matter anyway. Fincher takes the character and forces him to deal strictly with the present time. All past regrets, misdeeds, and sins fall away when you are literally fighting for your life.  

Conrad’s gift is a game. A set of real life, role-playing scenarios designed and executed by a company alleged called CRS. We don’t know what CRS is, and neither does Nicholas, so when bizarre happenings start to occur, such as the nightly news anchor breaking character and speaking directly to Nicholas in his living room, Nicholas cannot tell what is really happening. Is this part of the game? Or am I hallucinating?

Soon the puppet masters at CRS crank up the intensity of the events. There are numerous attempts on Nicholas’ life. At one point he wakes up in Mexico after having been buried alive in an underground tomb. The occurrences are so extreme, that as an audience, we are just as confused as Nicholas. It is real? Or is it a game? It is impossible to tell, and this is what makes this film so much fun to watch.
The world that CRS tailors to its clients is very cool and well put together. Even though Nicholas is told distinctly that the CRS game will begin, and it is not until after he is told this that strange and dangerous things start to happen, we are still unsure if it’s game or reality. Fincher is essentially blurring our understanding of the common philosophical conventions of cause and effect.

The Game is a good thriller, and an entertaining watch. The production value of the film is excellent. It projects on screen in dark, shadowy tones, mixed with diverse textures setting one scene to next to a another composed completely different. The film is full of interesting settings from Nicholas’ mansion, to a Mexican border town, to meetings in coffee shops, to cabins in the woods, but despite the actual events taking place being very entertaining to watch, the film never really establishes what truth it is trying to convey. The ending is disappointing. We are not left with any kind of substantial meaning. 

The CRS experience is meant to be a massive, over-the-top shock to the nervous system. This shock forces one, Nicholas in this case, to decide whether he wants to fight to stay alive, or let go and die. Maybe we are supposed to take the hint and choose to live now, even though we don’t have CRS to break us out of our depression and lethargy, as individuals, or as a whole society. But this might be pushing the limits of interpretation. Despite the absence of the deeper themes, such as investigating the pointlessness of existence as in Fight Club, or the proving the worthlessness of humanity as in Seven, The Game is still great watch. Once the film ends, it doesn’t linger for days in the front of your mind like the best thrillers, but while your watching it you’ll be on the edge of your seat, never knowing what it going to happen next.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)- As an elderly woman lies on her deathbed she recounts the peculiar story of Benjamin Button, a man whose life is inexplicably tied to a mysterious backwards-running clock. After Benjamin’s mother dies in childbirth, the father abandons baby Benjamin because of his stark physical defects. Luckily Queenie, a black woman who manages a senior’s care home, finds newborn Benjamin and raises him herself. For the rest of his life Benjamin calls Queenie mother.

When Benjamin is born, he emerges prematurely aged. Medical tests show that he has the physical characteristics of a person in his eighties. Originally penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, makes Benjamin Button tells a peculiar life story that forays in the world of the fantastic: the crux of the story is that, just as the clock ticks backwards, Benjamin too ages in reverse. He gets younger and younger over time.

The task of dealing with this massive disconnect between his physically aged exterior, and his inner infantile self, forces Benjamin to attempt to act like an adult (to match his aged exterior), but no matter how hard he tries his true inner child shines through, especially whenever it comes to booze and women, areas where he has zero experience. Benjamin wins the adoration of most every character he meets, and along the way he breaks through the prejudicial barriers that age and race typically erect.

This film is a diversion for Fincher. Many of the defining qualities of David Fincher’s films are not so very present in Benjamin Button. This charmed, almost magical tale shares none of the characteristic of other Fincher scripts. It is not filtered through the darkened lens of hyper awareness; there is none of the desolation and bleak deconstruction of modern culture that fills Zodiac, the most recently released Fincher film before this one. 

Benjamin Button seems to be the only film in Fincher's body of work that is not a dark, psychological thriller. Here, Fincher proves that he can work in drama just as well as he can work in action and suspense, however he does have expert help.
The director of photography Claudio Miranda, who had worked on a number of Fincher’s earlier pictures, sets the tones and temperature of the images so they project like a thriller, dark with shadows, slight, almost sepia toned. A highly refined picture quality.

Once again, this film features Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, the brilliant editing team that would go on to win multiple Oscars for best editing in The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They brilliantly let visuals alone tell as much of the story as possible. As with Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Benjamin Button has tons of shots and locations. The exact opposite of Panic Room.
Eric Roth & David Fincher
The technique of recounting the story through recollection as a series of flashbacks, as well as Benjamin’s unexpected success despite his handicap, make Benjamin Button bear an off-putting resemblance to the structure of Forest Gump (1994). This is no coincidence. 

The same writer who won an Oscar for his Forest Gump screenplay, Eric Roth, is also the writer of Benjamin Button.
As characters both Forest and Benjamin worked on boats, both took part in World Wars, and both perpetually pursue women from their childhood. What is great thought is that Fincher is able to divert this potential redundancy. While Forest bumbles along, simply falling into phenomenal situations, Benjamin paves his own way. It’s existential drive versus dumb luck.