Image Credit: Everett Collection; Merrick MortonTen years ago, around the time that Fight Club was becoming one of those generational movie touchstones (this was not your father’s clockwork nihilism, or even your older brother’s), David Fincher’s ascent seemed more or less complete. An audacious and protean talent, with the requisite music-video background (“Express Yourself,” “Janie’s Got a Gun”) and a decade’s worth of feature film work behind him, he was steeped in the visual language of grunge — a kind of slickly orchestrated kitchen-sink MTV entropy. All of his movies, good or mediocre, were conceived as sensually overcharged experiences. From the start, I recognized his talent (I was one of the only critics to praise the generally lambasted Alien 3, his first feature, and I stand by my admiration for its creepy art-horror spell). Yet on the most fundamental level, I wasn’t truly drawn to his work.

When I was coming of age as a young movie nut, the directors I had reverence for — Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, Lumet, Kubrick, Demme, Lynch — shared some of Fincher’s qualities, but in their different ways they all possessed a bone-deep humanism. That was true of even the most special-effects-friendly virtuoso of the bunch, Steven Spielberg. The directors I loved who came to prominence later on, rising up through the independent film movement, shared that same humanistic impulse. Soderbergh, Tarantino, Linklater, the two Todds (Haynes and Solondz): In their different ways, they built upon and extended the openness of ’70s filmmaking.

David Fincher, on the other hand, was a new breed of auteur, one I admit I didn’t feel comfortable with. He seemed to have the talent, and the desire, to make great movies, yet his work was so laden with tricks and gimcracks and whooshing eye candy, so wired into a kind of digital-age technological fetishism, that I wondered, in the end, if he was too devoted to the surface of things — and frankly, I often wondered that about his fans as well. They were the children of technology and advertising, and their idols were Fincher and James Cameron and Peter Jackson, masters of phantasmagorical visual razzmatazz who, for many, had become the new gods of cinema. Fincher, like the others, had a special gift for grounding fantasy in reality. Yet what I feared, deep down, is that the underlying impulse of these filmmakers was really to turn reality into fantasy, to turn everything they touched into heightened blow-you-away spectacle. After Alien 3 (1992), Fincher made Seven (1995), a darkly stylized and entertaining thriller that got too much credit for reworking Thomas Harris into an overly patterned serial-killer game, and then he made The Game (1997), which knew that it was a brashly fun and synthetic Chinese box of a movie.

Then, of course, came Fight Club (1999), which was more than a game. It was a vision, a testament, a guy-meets-guy, guy-smashes-guy-in-the-face, guy-winks-hello-to-his-id fantasia that practically sprayed the audience with guts and disgust and glee and testosterone. I watched Fight Club again the other night, and man, does it ever hold up. It’s a real catharsis, a sick-rush parable of civilized young men doing whatever it takes to hold on to their masculinity in a world that’s bent on ripping it away from them. The movie, though, is now inescapably a period piece, a kind of Gen X primal scream. And to me, gripping as it is, it’s too full of its own trangressive bluster to fully connect emotionally. I don’t think, in the end, that it’s a great film, because, like the Chuck Palahniuk novel it’s based on, it’s concocted to be a statement. Yet that, too, is part of its mystique. If Fight Club did connect emotionally, all the young dudes who made it into a cult film couldn’t hook up to it so vicariously.

Image Credit: Merrick MortonCut to tonight — the Academy Awards, 2011. David Fincher is nominated for, and will probably win, the Best Director award for having made a subtle, wordy, non-violent, visually spare, character-driven, defiantly unstylized docudrama about a handful of dweebs from Harvard who sit around in rooms dreaming up new ways for people to network with each other over their computers. When you watch Fight Club, or even a fancy dud like Panic Room, every moment in the movie is floridly directed. (In Panic Room, even the way the opening titles hang in the air has a certain tactile meticulousness.) Whereas The Social Network, at a glance, might seem to be a far more functional and even pedestrian movie. You could argue that its real auteur is Aaron Sorkin, who, to me, wrote the most brilliant script in a decade. What did Fincher do, really, aside from picking some elegant camera angles and giving the following direction to his actors before each take: “Talk faster, please.”

I’m joking, of course. The Social Network — which, had Fincher made it earlier this decade, would probably just be called Social Network — is a brilliant and memorable film because of the elusive shape and flow, the electric currents of obsession and psychology that are planted like an invisible grid beneath every scene. And that, as much as anything, is what great movie directing is. Yet with the sole exception of the Winklevoss twins’ big crew-race scene, with its skip-stutter visuals and exciting-bordering-on-frantic “In the Hall of the Mountain King” music surge, nothing in The Social Network is ultra-visual or kinesthetic. Every bit of drama flows right from the characters’ mouths, from their anxious minds and egos. Not everything that the film shows us about Mark Zuckerberg happened exactly that way, of course, but the movie, in a larger sense, is an authentic vision. It has a realism that transcends razzmatazz. And that’s why I say it’s a movie made by an outrageously talented filmmaker who has finally grown up.

Actually, he grew up two films ago. When Fincher made his first foray into docudrama with the haunting, extraordinary, madly detailed, and historically scrupulous Zodiac (2007), it seemed a fantastic anomaly in his career. True, he had already made one movie about the hunt for a serial killer, but Seven, even if you loved it more than I did, was pure pop. Zodiac, marking an almost shocking change of pace for Fincher, reached all the way back to the heady, journalistic, nothing’s-more-thrilling-than-the-facts template of All the President’s Men. And to me, it was easily Fincher’s greatest film. It was a risky move, too, since he dumped most of his usual audience hooks over the side. There was still room for cinematic poetry, like his bravura use of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in the early stalking scenes, but the real poetry of Zodiac was its reverence for the mystery that rises out of reality. It wasn’t a game so much as a true-life killer puzzle that the audience had to assemble, piece by piece. What had changed is that Fincher now trusted us to react without being goosed.

Zodiac was amazing, and with The Social Network, Fincher topped it. To me, he is now the most exciting director working in Hollywood. The Social Network and Zodiac are vastly different films, of course, yet what unites them, intensely, is that both were made not by the David Fincher of Fight Club and Seven. They were made, I would argue, by another filmmaker: Fincher the born-again realist, the enraptured poet of verisimilitude. To me, it’s no coincidence that the Fincher film that came between them, the incredibly stylized The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), is by far his worst movie, a kind of lifeless F/X dance of the seven veils, with the pinup beauty of Brad Pitt gradually revealed by the aging effects that peel away from him. Fincher had returned, like a junkie, to the dark wonderland of his technological fetishism, only now, having already graduated from all that, he didn’t really have his heart in the movie. He’d made a Forrest Gump that was like a box of chocolates with no filling inside them.

Let’s clear one thing up: The view of Fincher I’ve just been putting forth may sound like an egghead-reactionary, anti-technology, anti-fantasy Luddite rant. But it’s not as if I’m saying that I don’t love any fantasy films, or don’t think that a filmmaker who works in a stylized way can’t be a major artist. (Hello, Tim Burton.) I expect that Fincher, over the course of his career, will keep on making many different kinds of films. Yet will his version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — which is, after all, a serial-killer mystery — be more Zodiac or Seven? I pray that it’s the former. My instinct tells me that David Fincher found himself as a mature filmmaker with The Social Network and Zodiac because there was always a reverent realist deep inside him who was struggling to get out. In fact, when you think about it, who, really, is the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network but a one-man fight club? He’s a dweeb, overly beholden to polite dreams of conformity, who gets in touch with a more daring and ruthless impulse: to bring Facebook into being, even if he has to lie, steal, wipe the floor with his best friend, and mouth off to his deposition inquisitors to do it. He’s a one-man fight club who uses words instead of fists. (The first rule of Facebook is: If you were the guys who invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.) He’s a fight club you can believe in.

So what are your thoughts about David Fincher? Does anyone agree with me that he has changed, fundamentally, as a filmmaker? Or has he just evolved the way that any artist does? What’s the greatest Fincher film? How about the worst? And is there a movie you would love to see him make?

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