David Fincher, the Unhappiest Auteur

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David Fincher, the Unhappiest Auteur

For nearly three decades, David Fincher has been making gorgeous bummer movies that — in defiance of Hollywood’s first principle — insist that happy endings are a lie. Filled with virtuosic images of terrible deeds and violence, his movies entertain almost begrudgingly. Even when good somewhat triumphs, the victories come at a brutal cost. No one, Fincher warns, is going to save us. You will hurt and you will die, and sometimes your pretty wife’s severed head will end up in a box.

Long a specialized taste, Fincher in recent years started to feel like an endangered species: a commercial director who makes studio movies for adult audiences, in an industry in thrall to cartoons and comic books. His latest, “Mank,” a drama about the film industry, was made for Netflix, though. It’s an outlier in his filmography. Its violence is emotional and psychological, and there’s only one corpse, even if its self-destructive protagonist, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), can look alarmingly cadaverous. Set in Hollywood’s golden age, it revisits his tenure in one of the most reliably bitter and underappreciated Hollywood tribes, a.k.a. screenwriters.

Part of the movie takes place in the early 1930s, when Herman was at Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the other section focuses on when he was holed up in 1940 writing “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles, its star, producer, director and joint writer. Like that film, “Mank”— written by Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher — kinks time, using the past to reflect on the present. Its flashbacks largely involve Herman’s boozy, yakky days and nights at Hearst Castle in the company of its crypt keeper, the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and his lover, the actress Marion Davies. There amid the waxworks, Herman plays the court jester, as a few intimates unkindly note.

Hollywood loves gently self-flagellating stories about its horrible, wonderful doings; there’s a reason it keeps remaking “A Star Is Born.” The lash stings harder and more unforgivingly in “Mank” than it does in most of these reflexive entertainments, though Fincher’s movie also sentimentalizes the industry, most obviously in its soft-focus view of both Herman and Marion (Amanda Seyfried), a poor little rich dame. In narrative terms, Marion is Herman’s doppelgänger: a self-immolating avatar of decency that’s otherwise missing in their crowd. Their real tragedy, at least here, is that they’re in the movie business, and, as punishment, each must endure the unhappy patronage of a great man: Marion under Hearst and Herman with Orson.

The two narrative lines in “Mank” never make coherent, interesting sense, no matter how Fincher jams them together. The big news during Herman’s MGM years is the industry’s (and Hearst’s) propagandistic drive to torpedo the writer Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for governor of California. The real Herman Mankiewicz doesn’t seem to have had much of anything to do with this chapter in American cinema, but Hollywood has rarely let fact get in the way of a juicy story and “Mank” fully commits to its chronicle of events. But it doesn’t just stop there: It tethers Mankiewicz’s nonexistent role in this disinformation campaign to his role in “Citizen Kane,” a fascinatingly self-serving flex.

FINCHER WAS 27 when he was hired for “Alien 3,” his first feature. Welles was 25 when he began filming “Citizen Kane,” the most famous directorial debut in cinema history. There’s little to connect the men other than cinema. Welles had a background in radio and theater; Fincher had worked in postproduction before he started directing commercials and music videos. The Hollywood each man worked in was also different, though by the time Fincher made his first film for 20th Century Fox, the industry had weathered multiple existential threats beyond the coming of sound, including the end of the old studio system and the introduction of television and, later, home video.

By the time that Fincher was working on “Alien 3” (1992), the Hollywood that had warily welcomed and then turned on Welles was gone and the studios were part of multinational conglomerates. If only they could get rid of these actors and directors, then maybe they’ve got something, dreams a film executive in Robert Altman’s satire “The Player” (1992), an acid summation of the industry’s corporate mind-set. Fincher had a tough time with Fox during “Alien 3,” and with many others involved in its creation, partly because it wasn’t his to control. But the film established his directorial persona as prodigiously talented and uncompromisingly meticulous. “David wants it to be perfect every second,” Michael Landon, a Fox executive, told Premiere.

The entertainment industry loves the word “genius” as much as it hates its actual geniuses, as Welles’s history illustrates. Fincher had already been anointed a wunderkind when he was directing videos, back when his production-company colleague, Michael Bay, was known as “the little Fincher.” Sigourney Weaver, the star of the “Alien” series, called Fincher a genius, and so did Charles Dance, who played a doctor in “Alien 3” and Hearst in “Mank.” Whether Fincher thought he was or not, he did repeat some wisdom that his father had once dropped on him: “Learn your craft — it will never stop you from being a genius.”

It was already clear from Fincher’s music videos that he knew where to put the camera, when to move it and, crucially, how to make all the many different moving parts in his work flow together into a harmonious whole. There’s a reason that Martin Scorsese met him early on and that when Steven Soderbergh was preparing to make his caper film “Ocean’s Eleven,” he studied Fincher’s work. “I realized that it’s all instinct for him,” Soderbergh said of his friend in a 2000 L.A. Weekly interview. “I was breaking it down, but he’s going on gut.” Fincher had also been developing his skill set since he was young: when he was a teenager, he worked at Industrial Light & Magic.

“Alien 3” bombed and, for Fincher, remains a wound that has never healed. His resurrection came a few years later with “Seven” (1995), a brutal thriller that turned him into Hollywood’s Mr. Buzzkill, and put him on the path toward fan devotion bordering on the cultlike. Its Grand Guignol flourishes were attention-grabbing, yes, but what knocked some of us out was Fincher’s visual style, with its crepuscular lighting, immaculate staging and tableaus. Striking too was the visceral, claustrophobic feeling of inescapable doom. It was as if Fincher were trying to seal his audience up in a very lovely, very cold tomb. It was an easier movie to admire than love, but I was hooked.

It can be foolish to try to read directors through their movies, though Fincher invites such speculation, partly because he isn’t particularly expansive on what drives him. While promoting “Seven,” Fincher told the journalist Mark Salisbury that he was “interested in movies that scar.” And when Salisbury noted that the end of “Seven” was unusually depressing for Hollywood, Fincher laughed. “Excellent,” he said, “most movies these days don’t make you feel anything so if you can make people feel something …” He didn’t finish that sentence; he didn’t need to. He finished it with his movies, with their bruises, despair and, unusual for today, insistently feel-bad endings.

Most of Fincher’s protagonists are nice-looking, somewhat boyish, WASP-y white male professionals, kind of like him. Even when they don’t die, they suffer. Notably, whatever their differences, they engage in an epistemological search that grows progressively obsessive and at times violent. These are characters who want to know, who need to know even when the answers remain elusive: Where is my wife? Who is the murderer? Who am I? Their search for answers is difficult and creates or exacerbates a crisis in their sense of self. In “Alien 3,” the heroine, Ripley, realizes that she will give birth to a monster. In “Fight Club” (1999), the hero’s split personalities beat each other up. Always there is a struggle for control, over oneself and over others.

“Fight Club” centers on an Everyman, Jack (Edward Norton), who unwittingly develops a split personality he calls Tyler (Brad Pitt). Together, they create a men’s movement that swells from bare-knuckle fights to acts of terroristic violence (they enjoy better production values). The movie flopped and several executives at Fox, which had backed it, lost their jobs. The Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch apparently hated the film, which helped solidify Fincher’s reputation as a kind of outsider, if one whom other studios continued to give millions. It’s the paradigmatic Fincher movie, a gut punch delivered by a dude in a baseball cap. “I am Jack’s smirking revenge.”

IN 1995, A FEW WEEKS after “Seven” opened, I interviewed Fincher at Propaganda Films, the production company he’d helped found. He was funny, chatty and spoke fluidly about movie history and the technological shifts affecting the art and industry. “If you can dream it,” he said of digital, “you can see it.” He talked about the silent era, John Huston and Billy Wilder. “And then you have Welles walking into the thing going, OK let’s turn the whole [expletive] thing on its ear,” Fincher said. “We know it can talk, can it move, can it be opera?” Welles was already a touchstone for Fincher, whose 1989 music video for Madonna, “Oh Father,” alludes to “Citizen Kane” with snowy flashbacks. Fincher also mentioned Mankiewicz in passing.

He talked about “being crucified” for “Alien 3,” and how he’d known that his next movie would need to use genre to get people in their seats and deal with some of what interested him, namely “a certain fascination with violence.” He was, he said, someone who slowed down on the freeway to look at accidents. “When I was a kid, literally from the time I was about 5 years old until I was about 10 years old,” Fincher said, “I could not go to sleep, I would have nightmares.” Years later, when he made “Zodiac” (2007), he told interviewers about growing up in Marin County, where the killer had threatened to shoot schoolkids. It was easy to wonder if this was why the young Fincher couldn’t sleep.

Two years after “Seven” blew up the box office, the trades started running items about “Mank,” which Fincher was interested in directing with Kevin Spacey in the title role. Fincher said “Mank” would be “a black-and-white period piece about the creation of one of the greatest screenplays ever written” and “the man who did it in almost total anonymity.” Instead, he triumphed with “The Social Network” (2010) and baffled with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011). By the time he managed to direct “Mank,” it was for Netflix and Murdoch had sold the Fox studio to Disney, which killed it. He hadn’t made a movie since “Gone Girl,” a pulpy hit, six years earlier.

Fincher has directed only 11 feature movies; since “Gone Girl,” he has been busy making television. These include the Netflix shows “House of Cards,” about D.C. power players, and “Mindhunter,” about criminal profilers. Each is of a thematic and visual piece with Fincher’s work, but neither feels worthy of his talent. Maybe he doesn’t care. He made what he wanted and, perhaps more important, the way that he wanted. He might care more if he wrote his movies, but like most old-studio directors, he doesn’t. Mostly, I think, he just wants to work. “Netflix has been incredibly respectful,” he told the DGA Quarterly in 2013. I wonder if he feels that respect when you hit pause, as I did during “Mank,” and a Netflix pop-up asks if you’re enjoying the program.

There are all sorts of ways to look at “Mank” — as a vindication of Mankiewicz, as an assault on Welles. It’s both, it’s neither. In truth, the two characters are fundamentally in service to a movie that, in its broadest strokes, enshrines its own loathing of the industry, partly through its strained relationship to the truth. It was Herman Mankiewicz’s filmmaker brother, Joe (“All About Eve”), who did his bit to help sink Upton Sinclair’s campaign. By bending the facts, though, “Mank” does give Herman Mankiewicz an ostensibly righteous excuse for putting what he’d picked up at Hearst Castle into “Citizen Kane.” In “Mank,” he sells out a friend to stick it to the industry.

There’s nothing new about movies taking liberties with the truth, and the canard that Herman Mankiewicz was the main architect of “Citizen Kane” has been rebutted by prodigious scholarship. The movie’s insistence on heroizing him, though, is a puzzle, particularly because Welles was the more persuasive outsider. “Hollywood is a gold-plated suburb suitable for golfers, gardeners, assorted middlemen and contented movie stars,” Welles said in 1947. “I am none of these things.” It’s no wonder that Hollywood and its birds in their gilded cages hated him. They kept flapping while Welles made his movies, becoming an independent filmmaker before Sundance existed.

I can’t shake how eulogistic “Mank” feels. Maybe it would have felt different on the big screen, but because of the pandemic I watched it on my television. As I did, I kept flashing on “Sunset Boulevard,” Billy Wilder’s grim 1950 satire about another studio writer adrift in the waxworks. During that film, a forgotten silent-screen star famously says that the pictures have gotten small, a nod both to TV’s threat and Hollywood itself. I wondered if “Mank” was Fincher’s own elegy for an industry that increasingly has no interest in making movies like his and is, perhaps relatedly, facing another existential threat in streaming. Not long after, I read that he’d signed an exclusive deal with Netflix. The pictures would remain small, but at least he would remain in control.