In the David Fincher film Zodiac, cartoonist Robert Graysmith obsessively pores over legal documents, testimonies, and geographic patterns.
He connects the dots that won’t necessarily give him conclusive answers regarding the titular San Francisco serial killer but will nevertheless make for a pretty good book that paved the way for a masterpiece film.
I like to picture Toronto film critic and author Adam Nayman doing the same for his book David Fincher: Mind Games. Nayman scans Fincher’s work, from the music video for Madonna’s "Express Yourself" to last year’s endearing look back at authorship in Mank, writing chapters on each movie with forensic detail and riveting insight.
Mind Games, which comes with a lovely foreword from Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, is the latest in Nayman’s series of comprehensive books on the greatest white male directors of our generation, sitting nicely alongside The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together and Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks.
And there’s an argument to be made that this book is the most fascinating of the three.
More so than the others, Fincher’s movies inspire divisive reactions. Movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Mank rack up the most Oscar nominations while being pilloried by many critics. Se7en and Fight Club earn dorm-room notoriety that, in turn, is weaponized against the films themselves.
Some of his greatest work, in Zodiac and Gone Girl, doesn’t quite get the love it deserves. But Fincher is the kind of filmmaker whose misses are infinitely more fascinating to me than the best that a Christopher Nolan puts up.
Nayman discussed Fincher’s canon with NOW in a conversation about the imprint he leaves on his films and how he compares to Paul Thomas Anderson. The Licorice Pizza filmmaker has a very different kind of career but feels oddly linked to Fincher.
If I talk about two movies that, for me, are the peak of 21st-century cinema, it’s The Master and Zodiac. You’ve now written books on [the filmmakers behind both those films], Paul Thomas Anderson [PTA] and David Fincher. Do you have anything you want to say about your choice of white male auteurs and profiling them?
The short answer is these filmmakers, to an extent, are salable and—in the cases of both Anderson and Fincher—oddly underdiscoursed, at least at book length. They’re not underdiscussed in terms of reviews or online. But in terms of print career surveys or critical studies, my timing was good. They’re filmmakers that have this fanbase. They’re filmmakers that have the kinds of movies that are seen internationally so that you can sell the book internationally. I just found out the Fincher book sold translation rights in Russia, China, and Korea.
But I think the interesting answer is that the books, hopefully, have tension between this kind of fetishistic packaging and heroic vibe—these big studies of these big-dick auteurs—and then criticism and analysis of the work, which is ambivalent and which is mixed. In the case of the PTA book, I tried to base around questioning why a certain generation of cinephiles needs to have an auteur like this and build them up. You’re even seeing this now with Licorice Pizza, where people just do not want to hear that there’s anything wrong with it or people don’t want you to hear that there’s aspects of it that are dicey.
[With] Fincher, I think there’s maybe less warmth, but there’s even more kind of finicky fanboyish appreciation for him because he’s made a couple of those movies that have a kind of obsessive-compulsive grandeur to them. Fight Club is the kind of movie people never tire of deconstructing. Se7en is the kind of movie that people never tire of screen-grabbing. Zodiac is an endlessly replenishable text. I don’t think people have the warm feelings for Fincher that they have for Anderson, but they’re fascinated by him.
A lot of people want to read about these filmmakers—a lot of people want to put these filmmakers on their shelves as a kind of voting with their book-buying dollars: “These are directors who I like.” I’m trying to leverage that against working through the movies honestly.
What I find interesting about the Fincher and Anderson pairing is that for some reason they were always kind of paired to me, even though their styles are so different. When your Anderson book dropped, we were talking about Magnolia but we kept bringing up Fight Club. Because you had, in 1999, the “big-dick auteurs” showing off, really kind of going for it but not really having the same control that they have later on. In 2007, you get Zodiac and There Will Be Blood, a new direction for both of them.
They are linked. They’re even linked by their own back and forth. There’s that story...
Yeah. That “David Fincher should get testicular cancer.” Anderson said that because of his very raw feelings about his father’s death in the wake of Magnolia. But, you know, I thought it was funny, because he’s calling Fincher out for a kind of cruelty [in Fight Club’s depiction of a testicular-cancer self-help group] and then it’s such a nasty comment. It’s sort of like saying, “How dare you trivialize cancer, but also I hope you get it.”
I think maybe one reason that they’ve always felt paired as well, they’re both kind of narratives of young, brash, presumptuously controlling directors who at a certain point grew up. I think in Fincher’s case, growing up has had a maybe less salutary effect because people see that twinned with this need for prestige. He’s kind of gone from l’enfant terrible almost to a kind of Oscar-season filmmaker with exceptions. Whereas with Anderson, maturing meant becoming simultaneously less overbearing but also very weird, odd, esoteric, and eccentric. You get to The Master and he’s made a movie entirely out of connective tissue. People are like, “Where’s the movie?” And the movie is the connective tissue, or the movie is the lack of connective tissue. The movie is the ellipses. There’s such confidence in that.
They’re both kind of compelling narratives. In the mid-'90s, you could have maybe said these guys aren’t going to have a long shelf life or they’re going to burn out on their own supply early. And yet the back half of each career has been fascinating and contained, I think, their best work.
I think we agree Zodiac is Fincher’s masterpiece.
It’s an inexhaustible movie to me. I can go back to it, read about it, think about it, hear about it, put two minutes of it on YouTube, and I’m very rarely, if ever, tired of it.
We’ve talked about Zodiac; you’ve written on it on end. And I think a lot of people recognize that Zodiac is the work of brilliance. But let’s talk about Gone Girl. We both love Gone Girl. It’s a very fascinating, interesting, entertaining, and just a fucking hilarious movie. And again when we talk about the pairings of Anderson and Fincher, if I’m going to pair their movies, I’m going to pair Gone Girl with Phantom Thread as these two toxic comic romances.
And both represent efforts by filmmakers who had been, to put it mildly, middling gender politicians to penetrate and inhabit a female subjectivity and a kind of feminist metaphysics of existence. In Phantom Thread, you have a character who the society she’s in and the world she’s in tells her, "You need to be a subservient muse and mother figure," and so she is like, “Well, I’ll do that by force, then.” In a way, it’s being incredibly controlling and manipulative just in order to maintain what is a pretty traditional values household.
Gone Girl does that in a modern iteration where everything that’s exceptional about Amy bristles against these old-fashioned rules and yet what breaks her heart and turns her to kind of violence is that she’s not just a trophy wife. She doesn’t want to be a trophy wife, but then the second she sees that her husband’s cheating on her, she’s like, “What about me? I was his trophy wife.” She’s ultimately got these deeply conventional desires about monogamy, domesticity, and motherhood that I think in a worse movie, even those would be mocked or made fun of, but I think that the movie and Rosamund Pike’s performance take those things deadly seriously as something that she is kind of willing to kill for. And it’s why she doesn’t fit into any number of boxes that would make it a more easily digested movie. It’s a movie that is kind of arguably subversively feminist but also like deeply, deeply misogynistic and had the misogyny discourse around it as a book.
This isn’t a criticism of the novel or a defence of the novel; it’s just a fact: that novel comes out now, that movie comes out now, it’s going to be the opening of the seventh seal of the Book of Revelations. It was already such a discourse monster and such a lightning rod, but, you know, that’s still in the early beta stages of what Twitter has become.
I don’t see it in the discourse right now. But if we’re bringing it back, the way we discussed it in 2014 is going to be different from the way we discuss it today.
I would argue Gone Girl hasn’t disappeared. It has a real, incredibly memorable set piece. It’s a literary set piece that [Fincher] then turns into a tour de force bit of editing. The “cool girl” monologue is probably on any millennial syllabus, [taking an idea] that’s present in the culture and at the edges of all kinds of writing: fiction writing, nonfiction writing, diaristic writing. Are you performing a self for your partner’s benefit? For your own benefit? Can you tell the difference between those things? And there’s a particular self: that idea of “here for a good time, relaxed, uninhibited cool girl” and the contempt that that brings up, even though on some level people try and be it or wish that they could be it or hate it because they can’t fill in that very narrow little mold. I think that has a lot of staying power. I think it had staying power in the book. I think it has staying power in the movie.
This isn’t the way you would maybe summarize the plot, but if you were to ask, “What is Gone Girl about?”, it’s about suddenly two things happen. The entire world is paying attention to you. You are the main character of the world, which is a very Twitter phenomenon. And you have been stage-managed into being your worst possible self. And the “you” in this case is the male main character, because the movie does have to make a decision, which is that it is going to make the Affleck character oblivious and sympathetic in a way the book does not. You retain her inner monologue from the book until you share in the pleasure of her manipulation and also her own back-to-the-wall kind of Hitchcockian wrong-man story where she’s in a different identity and can’t really help herself because she’s trapped and outfoxed. Fundamentally, the “you” in Gone Girl is [Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne]. It’s a choose your own adventure where your flaws are put out on Main for everyone to see and you hate the fact that a lot of it’s quite accurate. But then the nightmarish feeling that it’s not like a mob that’s going to subside or it’s not like people are going to lose interest because the person who is stage-managing you really, truly has it out for you. You cannot compete in this arena. She has disappeared. It’s that idea of her as a kind of invisible hand.
And that’s the stuff that Fincher is peerless at, because that’s the connective tissue between Se7en, Zodiac, and Gone Girl, which is the artist, the stage manager, the micromanager, the communications specialist who is unseen but who uses media to basically say whatever they want.
The interesting thing about Zodiac, the stage-managing, is there’s a narcissism to it. It’s about how the Zodiac is curating his own personality in the public eye.
Where Zodiac really clicks for me... I mean, the whole movie is great, but it’s amazing what a pop-cultural quilt it is. And that’s not because Fincher wants it to be. The fact that the attorney who went on TV to talk to him live, Melvin Belli, was a Star Trek bit actor, and the cop investigating the case had been rehearsing scenes with Steve McQueen for Bullitt. If Fincher were a more obvious nail-on-the-head director, Zodiac would wear that stuff very heavily. But it wears it very subtly and brilliantly throughout. You’re kind of getting the primal scene of a few things here, not just the fascination with serial murder as a society but the way that the kind of aesthetics, optics, and language of serial murder are going to start inflecting the culture, just becoming one more thing, one more avenue, or one more alley of entertainment. It all becomes content. That’s really partially what’s so flooring about Zodiac.
It’s in Gone Girl, too. The way everyone else wants to put their performance out there. Amy’s parents, [the secret girlfriend] that dresses up as a nun, they’re all stage-managing where they fit into this [pop-culture narrative]. The idea of stage-managing how you look in public, it’s absolutely there in Gone Girl, Zodiac, and also in Fight Club. It’s kind of key to The Social Network. How does Mark Zuckerberg stage-manage? He creates an entire platform for people to kind of re-envision themselves.
Sure. Or Dragon Tattoo is about how people look when their emails get hacked. How you can make someone look bad with that knowledge or how you can keep it to yourself and preserve someone’s decency or someone’s dignity. There’s something very sentimental in Fincher’s [The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake]: this idea that the young hacker and the old journalist have [similar ethics.] They’re muckrakers and they’re willing to go really far and put themselves in danger to take out evildoers and wrongdoers. But they have the same sense of when you fuck with the line and when you don’t cross. There’s something very optimistic in Dragon Tattoo about old media and the digital generation literally falling in love, having a kind of love affair.
Talking about, again, the whole idea of Fincher exerting all this control and his movies being airtight. These are not movies he’s written. These are movies he’s drawn to. He takes on other people’s scripts. He approaches projects like a hired hand but then he takes control. And they fit into his canon. What’s interesting is how you could also see Fincher in some of these characters. The person exerting absolute control over everything is Fincher himself. It’s fascinating where he situates himself in a movie like Gone Girl, where you have games like Mastermind floating around. He’s like, "Look at me."
Yeah. And he’s a bit of a tough witness to call because he’ll deny stuff like that. But then when you know how he shoots and how he edits and how movies are put together; you know every shot counts. Every insert shot has a purpose. So denying things like the embedded joke of the Mastermind board game, it makes him a better artist to say that he doesn’t mean anything by that. The minute he says it, you kind of go, “Oh, great.” It kind of spoils it. But for a guy who’s so determined with intention, when he sometimes claims to have none, it’s hard to trust him.
My ambivalence about him has always been...the outer shape is perfect and the craftsmanship is precise. It always has been. It’s just, what’s rattling around in there? I kind of like when you can find the authorship sewn in the lining of the movie. That’s why I like Phantom Thread, which literalizes that. I make a joke or observation in the book that with Fincher, you wouldn’t find stitching. It’s sort of like: is there a pattern in the barcode? Maybe if I’d written the book a year later, I’d be saying that he makes the cinematic equivalent of nonfungible tokens. Tactile, solid, kind of cryptic, and I’m not sure if they’re actually worth anything. What are they worth? That’ll be for a future edition.
It is a pretty thin line between inspiration and commodification. We’ve kind of moved into a world where commercials and music videos and that kind of shorthand really have rewired attention spans and how we watch things. I think Fincher’s very complicit in that. I think he’s interested in that complicity. In a movie like Fight Club, when you narrow it down and get rid of all the grand statements about it or against it, or try and read it in strictly political terms, it’s kind of a movie about how do you convince a potential constituency to do what you want? It’s the language of advertising; it’s the psychology of advertising. And in this case, the way to convince people to do what you want is to criticize advertising. It’s the mentality of Adbusters [and] Vice. It’s very millennial. It’s contradictory to the point of cancelling itself out.
With Fight Club, it depends on the order you say it and the tone of voice. You go, “Wow, my God, that’s a $60-million studio movie. That’s really subversive!” Or, “It’s a $60-million studio movie. How subversive is it?” Because there’s a difference between being perverse and actually kind of subverting anything. And there is a part of me that watches Fight Club and feels like the whole movie is two hours and 40 minutes of justification to sneak a dick into the last shot, at which point you sort of go, that’s a pretty piddling meaning. And it really doesn’t help the argument that this guy is anything but a literally dick-swinging showoff. I’m not sure that that’s how I feel about Fight Club. But it’s there.
But to talk about certainty, and the gap between certainty and knowledge, then I think of the end of Zodiac. It takes place 30 years after the first scene. It has the same guy come back, played by a different actor, which is so diabolical—Michael Mageau being played by an older actor because of time, in a movie where everyone always plays the same person. To have him say, “Oh, that’s definitely the guy that shot me. Eight out of 10.” That’s art. That’s a piece of art. That’s about something. That’s not cornering your own argument and cancelling your argument out. That’s a movie that acknowledges that there’s fissures and slivers and fractures and cracks in the nature of the world, and things slip through those cracks. And no matter how much you try and control them and research them and know them, they’re fucking gone. You’re the mark, the head case, or the mess if you try and deny that. The attempt to master that is deeply delusional. That’s existential. And that’s art. And that’s him actually being kind of subversive.
The guy who made Se7en, which is two hours with a monster at the end, made Zodiac, where there’s no monster at the end. The monster is a guy in a hardware store looking back at you and you’re going, “Well, what’s worse? Is it worse if this is the guy, or is it worse if it’s not?” What does [Jake Gyllenhaal’s character] want in that scene? What do we want in that scene? Those are questions that other genre filmmakers, they’re not even able to ask them. They’re not trying, much less are they achieving the asking of those questions in the way that he does when he’s good.
David Fincher’s made a lot of good movies. And he’s made some very good movies. And he’s made some, as you were saying with The Social Network, arguably in a topical way, definitive movies. And I think you can say that about a lot of the other stuff he’s made.
When you make Zodiac, the unevenness of the body of work is irrelevant. You’re worth a book. The book is about the filmmaker who makes that movie and then everything else is just slotted in on a continuum.