Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clash of the Cults - Nolan and Fincher

At any given point on the internet, chances are pretty good that someone will be deconstructing a director or film while others support or detract, usually in large and vitriolic numbers. When this happens I find myself generally disengaged from the discussions, debates and diatribes taking place, usually because I'm a little late to see the movie. Other times I simply lack the energy to get in the middle of another 1,000 comment forum fight. However, just because I don't get obsessed about debating the merits of one director or film over another doesn't mean I don't appreciate the folks who do.

And when it comes to obsessively arguing the merits of one director over another one can hardly do better, or worse, than the cults of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. It's not enough that they make good movies or excellent ones and sometimes mediocre or bad ones, no, that won't do. It must be proven that one is a cinematic genius (Fincher) while the other is an incompetent fraud (Nolan). Fortunately, this is one of the few debates or discussion or whatever the hell you want to call it on which I can authoritatively opinionate as I have seen every movie, save Following, that both directors have ever done. So far, just that one eludes me and maybe I'll watch it this week just to get it out of the way.

I will admit, here and now, that if I was forced to choose one over the other I would, without hesitation, choose Fincher. He seems to me the better director. I will further admit that I agree with many of the criticisms of Nolan, the principal being that he is visually clunky, or to put it another way, I find his films utterly lacking in visual grace. Action sequences can often feel visually awkward to say the least, what with all the going back and forth and coming in from the wrong angle after position has already been established. This means, in the movies, that when you establish a plane is flying from the right side of the screen to the left because it is going to California, you then show it from left to right when it is returning, only Nolan would show it going the same way both times and claim he was filming the plane from the other side on the way back so it was still correct, but visually clunky, awkward and confusing. That's pretty much Nolan visually. Sometimes, it really does feel like he's a blind man behind the lens.


I would not go so far as to say Nolan's films are, on the whole, much better or worse than Fincher's. In fact, my main beef with Nolan is his visual clunkiness but I'd say he gets good performances out of his actors and paces his films well. Now, I know, having a strike against your visual ability as a director in cinema is a bit like having a strike against your throwing ability as a quarterback in football. It's kind of the main thing you're expected to do, and do well. However, Nolan can throw well, just not consistently.

His sense of visual consistency seems fine in movies like Memento and Insomnia and The Prestige so I'd have to restrict my criticism to say his main visual clunkiness seems relegated to action sequences, and, as a director, that's an acceptable level of incompetence, especially if you're not in the habit of making action movies. Of course, Nolan is in the habit of making action movies and that's the problem. He keeps making movies that exploit his primary weakness as a director. It seems a very odd thing to do, consistently return to your weakness, but in all fairness, plenty of modern filmmakers don't shoot action very well so Nolan's not even that unique on this front. And so, even though I think action's a problem for him, I find "takedowns" of his work to be generally unconvincing, hence the scare-quotes.

This "takedown" of Inception by A.D. Jameson, a movie I didn't like, works a lot better if you haven't seen the movie. Once you've seen it, many of the 17 points don't seem to work. Now, don't misread me here: I don't think Jameson is being dishonest at all in his piece, nor do I disagree with it on the whole (I'm about half and half in agreement/disagreement with the piece). I think Jameson honestly sees all of these things but I question how much of it could also apply to a director Jameson liked. Rather than go through the entire piece (please go to the link and read the whole thing for yourself) I will discuss the first six points and then jump to some points with which I agree rather than continuing to deconstruct all the points with which I disagree (five of the first six).

The first point is how much dialogue there is which leads into the second point about how "relentless" Nolan is with expository dialogue. He criticizes Nolan for using too much dialogue, in which the characters explain everything, and writes, "His primary—indeed, practically his only—tool for delivering information to the audience is character dialogue. Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception."

I didn't get that watching the movie. I watched it and found it had as much, or as little, dialogue as any other movie, including long sequences with no dialogue. He then provides this fairly weak example of how characters explain everything for the audience:

the line where Cobb points out to Michael Caine’s character—a university professor teaching in Paris—”You know extradition between France and the US is a legal nightmare.” Yes, Mssr. Professor Caine probably does, in fact, know that! But I’m sure that somebody way in the back row was happy to hear.

First of all, the way Cobb phrases it is obviously meant to signal that he knows Caine is full of shit when he tries to say Cobb could be extradited. Like if someone said to me, "Greg, I just caught the latest Pixar movie. Can't wait to see the review on Cinema Styles," and then I responded, "Now, you know I don't review Pixar movies on Cinema Styles." Of course they know, that's why I said, "Now, you know..." It's a common colloquialism. If that's the best example Jameson can come up with, and he alludes to the fact that it is, then you have to put a hash mark in the Nolan column on that one.

Then he complains that Nolan's characters repeat everything three times for the audience, you know, like in The Godfather, where Sonny and Tom are talking about how Sollozo must be dealt with and then Michael repeats this and explains how he will deal with it and then when they've decided on it, at a later time, Sonny goes over it with Sal and then Sal with Michael until the audience has been notified four times that Sollozo will be killed. You know, like that. Or how the director/reporter in the screening room in Citizen Kane says not once, not twice but three times that they need to find out what "Rosebud" means. Oh, but wait, those are two universally acknowledged great films, I probably shouldn't have used those examples. Or maybe those example are fine because it's only bad when Nolan does it. Again, I didn't notice this "flaw," a historically common enough device in cinema, any more here than with any other movie.

His third point chides Nolan for using too many insert shots, i.e., when Cobbs wife is mentioned we see a shot of her or when he's talking to his kids on the phone and when they speak we see images of them. Well, sorry, but insert shots are as common in cinema as the closeup. I can see to a small degree Jameson's point, which is that Nolan uses too many, but frankly, complaining about insert shots in cinema feels a lot like splitting hairs.

His fourth point is about the quality of Nolan's dialogue and here we fully agree. I was never engaged by the characters and much of this was due to all of them speaking like characters in an action movie rather than like people in the real world.

Point five is the weakest, I think, of all seventeen. He starts by saying, "Herr Wunderkind Nolan can accomplish in thirteen shots what it takes most directors six to do!" and then outlines the fourteen shots used in the opening scene ("1.slow motion pan of waves crashing against a rock 2.slow motion shot of waves 3.close-up of Cobb’s face as he lies on the shore 4.point-of-view shot of a boy on the beach making a sandcastle 5.reverse shot of Cobb’s face..." etc).

Again, I read this and immediately thought, "Fourteen shots doesn't seem like a lot for establishing an opening scene." Not every movie can start with a clean unbroken crane shot, ala Touch of Evil. In most cinema, cuts are pretty common. I went to Netflix Instant and started going through classic movies from the fifties and before, a period known for slower pacing and longer shots and I'll be damned if everybody still didn't use multiple shots to set up an opening sequence.

As an example, I picked one I felt would be unassailable, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. It sails so far past fourteen it's not even worth counting. Let's see, first Dean Martin opens the door and looks in. Then, we see what he's looking at (the bar). Then we see him walk along the back of the saloon. Then he looks at the bar again. We see what he's looking at (Claude Akens, taunting him by pouring whiskey he knows Martin wants). Then we see Martin again. Then Akens again. Then Martin, again! Then Akens, AGAIN! Then. Martin. A-G-A-I-N! Then Akens... AGGGGAIN!!! Now, from this point until Akens shoots and leaves, we have fifteen more shots to come. That's a total of twenty-six shots, way past fourteen. So does that mean Howard Hawks was incompetent or this kind of thing is beyond common in establishing story and character? That's a rhetorical question by the way.

At point six ("Much of what is mechanically and prosaically explained to the audience throughout the film’s first hour—the set-up—turns out not to matter.") he quotes Jim Emerson asking why Nolan puts all the amazing visuals up front and then go prosaic during the climax of the actual dream sequence? Emerson asks, "Why would Nolan intentionally stick the movie’s most tantalizing images up front, instead of saving them for when the real action gets underway?" This isn't a bad question but, for me, I'd say it's because it would confuse the action too much (I know, I know, Nolan does that anyway) and as explained very clearly in the film (remember, apparently one of Nolan's faults is that he over-explains things) Cobb wants his dream architect, Ariadne, to create a realistic environment, not a dream environment. They make that pretty clear and the early phases of walking her around the surreal environments is a way of getting it out of her system in one regard and using the valid teaching method of pointing out what you shouldn't do, in the other.

In other words, what was "mechanically and prosaically explained" in the first hour does matter. The second half looks as it does because it HAS been explained in the first half. That was the point of the exposition and if one followed the exposition, one wouldn't ask the question that Emerson asked, which is a puzzler because Emerson described it in enough detail to prove he did pay attention. So, yeah, you got me on that one.

Now, this could go on but I should get to some more of Jameson's points that I agree with as well. Number four was one, number twelve is another, in fact, the biggest one for me, which is Nolan's too literal-minded storytelling. Jameson writes, "as is always the case with his movies, disappointingly, one can bank on things moving toward the simplest solution." Again, read the whole piece to get a better idea of that but, basically, Nolan doesn't go in any unexpected directions. For those who haven't seen the movie, here's a general example. Let's say you're watching a mystery. At the start, a body is found and the butler is seen standing over it with a bloody knife. Now, the story could provide all kinds of twists and turns and multiple characters with motive, were it in the hands of someone like Agatha Christie. However, in a Nolan movie, a detective shows up, asks a bunch of questions and then arrests the butler who, in fact, was guilty just as the opening sequence showed him to be.

Like in The Prestige (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT), another of Nolan's films. Our lead character (Hugh Jackman) goes off to find Nicola Tesla (David Bowie) to discover the mysteries of teleportation. Tesla seems a bit flaky, runs some tests that don't work then, suddenly, is shown to have inadvertently created cloning. Our lead buys the technology and goes back to his show. Now, the audience wonders, has he been conned by Tesla? Did he kill that drunken double he used in previous shows to frame Christian Bale? If he did, how did he manage to get Bale to go backstage the night he killed him? Maybe the double killed the magician. Wow, that would be a turn of events! Oh my, so many questions, there's no way we can possibly figure this out. And then... it turns out he really was cloning, just like we were told. No surprises, no twists. In other words, everything - EVERYTHING - in a Nolan movie can be taken at face value. He is, to a fault, a literal writer. If a character says what his motives are, that's what his motives are. There is never misdirection. Never. So if you see The Prestige after knowing this about Nolan, the second you see Bowie produce all the hats and explain they were cloned, you know that cloning is real and that the solution to the murder frame-up is that Jackman is killing his clones each night. At the moment you see the hats, you can stop watching because you know that Nolan never misdirects. End of movie solved. Nolan just told you.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing but it is a dull thing. It means once you've seen a couple of Nolan's movies, you stop expecting to be surprised. When the characters say, "We want to get this guy to break up his father's company," that's what they want. They're not conning Cobb, there is no setup, there are no red herrings. There is no twist in which Cobb is actually the one having info extracted from by the bad guys but being made to think he's the one in charge. Nope, they are doing exactly what they say they're doing and when they're done, the movie will end, and does.

So, I agree that Nolan has his faults but none so overbearing as to warrant him being called out as vehemently and as persistently as is the case.

On the tail end of this coin is David Fincher. He has the opposite problem of Nolan in that I read all too many writers who see a lot of magical qualities in him as a director that I don't. As I said above, I'd pick him over Nolan anytime because I think Fincher is an excellent director but not a particularly ingenious one. I find that Fincher's fortunes rise and fall with the quality of his scripts more often than not. If the script is, say, Zodiac, everyone agrees, Fincher is a genius. If the script is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, not so much.

When I look at Fincher's credits (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, Alien³), I don't see the resume of an all-time great but a skillful director with a lot of potential. And in The Game, he even uses the same literal, face-value storytelling that Nolan does (in other words, yes, it is, in fact, a game). With Fight Club I see immaturity (philosophy for people who never quite grew up or took on adult responsibilities), Panic Room a ho-hum thriller, Se7en, the same and so on. What happens with Fincher is exactly what happens with Nolan: the movies that don't fit the bias get forgotten. With Fincher, all those other movies are ignored in the face of, say, Zodiac and The Social Network, and with Nolan, any movie that doesn't quite fit his takedowns, like Insomnia, gets ignored too.

And, hell, I'm fine with all of that. But when Fincher gets a good script, suddenly he's a genius again. This piece by David Bordwell gives so much credit to David Fincher, based primarily on the making-of documentary on the DVD, I can't really take it seriously (although Bordwell does make excellent points about actors' faces and how they're used throughout the piece and I highly recommend reading it). Bordwell focuses on the eyes and eyelids and eyebrows of the actors in The Social Network and says Fincher guided how they used them. I did theater in Washington, D.C. that was performed for several different school groups who would get to ask questions of the actors after the production in an onstage forum. Let me tell you, in all shamelessness, actors and directors promote themselves and what they do to ridiculous heights and we all play along with it. I can just see Fincher and lead actor Jesse Eisenberg going on about how David said to use the eyebrows in this way and tone them down in that way and... har, har, come on! Bordwell sees actors doing things that, in reality, would ruin a good performance. If an actor really did decide to pay attention to every tiny, minute detail of their face while trying to give a performance they'd be as wooden as Sherwood Forest during the dry season.

Those eyelid expressions and eye dartings and everything else come from an actor who knows how to instinctively put a performance together and a director who knows how to let them do it. Once an actor starts thinking, "Okay, now, when I say this line I'll curl the left side of my lip and lower my right eyebrow. When I react to the response, I'll narrow my eyes..." he's sunk. Now, he may still do those things and in that exact order but not because he focused on them but rather because he is acting as he believes his character would and those things naturally come out of that performance.

So what am I left with, after all this back and forth over Christopher Nolan and David Fincher? Pretty much nothing except my opinion, which is this: I found Inception to be fairly boring and I didn't like it. But guess what? I didn't dislike it because I thought Nolan was incompetent as a filmmaker, I disliked it because it was an action movie with a lot of explosions (another thing Jameson and I agree on) and that will usually bore me every time.

Also, I liked The Social Network and Fincher's amazing eyebrow magic aside, found little in it that I would call startlingly innovative and, believe me, I expected to because its most ardent supporters treated this goddamn thing like the Holy Grail of Cinema. It's a very well-crafted film, much better than Inception but if next year, Nolan had a movie that was much better than a Fincher movie I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, nor dismayed. And yet I know, if that happens, the Nolan haters will ignore it completely or attempt to explain to those of us too blind to see why it really isn't very good at all, using arguments that could apply to everything from Casablanca to No Country for Old Men. And I'll show up, late to the party and with no horse in the race, still wondering why I care at all.


I recommend, again, reading both pieces referenced here in their entirety, Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception and The Social Network: Faces Behind Facebook.

I also recommend this review of Inception by Ed Howard and this review of The Social Network by Bill Ryan. In both cases, they pretty much sum up my feelings on both films.


bill r. said...

Well. You realize what you've done here, right? You've invited the Nolan haters to swarm in and stab everyone with pitchforks.

But this is a great piece, one which, despite certain differences of opinion I have, I'm grateful to you for writing. The thing is, people who don't like Nolan's films can't seem to bring themselves to any level below hatred, something which often extends to his fans (among whom I count myself, as I'm sure you know). And it's aggrevating, and it's part of the reason I never bothered writing up INCEPTION, which I did like (but not as much as almost any of his other films, barring FOLLOWING, which I don't care for, but which, curiously, the Nolan detractors do tend to give him some credit for) -- I just didn't want to deal with the "conversation" I knew would follow.

I am tempted to defend THE PRESTIGE sooner rather than later, though.

As for Fincher, I'm in almost complete agreement there. I think ZODIAC is a no-fooling masterpiece, but I also think it's the only truly great film he's made (SOCIAL NETWORK would rank second on my list of his films, and I do like it a lot). SEVEN is a fun thriller, as is PANIC ROOM, but nothing more, really, FIGHT CLUB is close to useless (or so I thought the one and only time I saw it, in the theater), THE GAME squanders a lot of potential, I couldn't get 15 minutes into BENJAMIN BUTTON, etc. I will say, though, that while I haven't read Bordwell's piece, and I don't doubt your points about that eyebrow nonsense, but I did watch some of the making of documentary, and I have to give credit to Fincher for hacking out a number of unbearable Sorkinisms from the script, which you see him doing, with Sorkin sitting right there at the same table. He still let a number through, but Fincher did have script input, and from what I can tell it was beneficial to the film.

But anyway. Great job. And thanks for the link.

Greg said...

Bill, I'm probably too hard on THE PRESTIGE. What I'm trying to say there, that you probably got, but just to make sure, wasn't that the ending made it bad, just that it didn't go anywhere other than exactly where Nolan telegraphed it would go. That, and the visuals in action scenes, are my two main gripes with Nolan. The third lesser gripe is his dialogue.

But here's the thing: I don't see that being too much different than a lot of directors.

Also, I can understand liking INCEPTION and would have liked it had it not given over it's second half to endless gun fights, fist fights and explosions. I don't mind that kind of thing in an action movie but with all the dream potential stuff going on, I felt it dragged the movie down and made it quite boring for me.

Also, Bordwell makes a lot of good points too (and I should amend the post to reflect that) but he seems to me (at least this is my reading) to be attempting to stack the deck for Fincher. Kind of like he realizes it's not as much Fincher's movie as some may say so he's going in the other direction and giving him credit for all of it.

Anyway, I'm glad you liked the piece and I'm glad you and Ed wrote my reviews for me.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I know most people will find this utterly crazy but I liked the PRESTIGE a hell of a lot more than I liked THE SOCIAL NETWORK. In fact I was totally disappointed with THE SOCIAL NETWORK but I'll save all that for my upcoming Oscar post. A post I'm dreading because my response to all the Oscar nominated films I've had a chance to see (which isn't many) has been - BLAH!

Greg said...

Kimberly, I liked THE SOCIAL NETWORK while at the same time being disappointed. Like I said in the post, I was expecting the Holy Grail of Cinema. Also, and I went into a little of this in my comment with Bill, I actually did like THE PRESTIGE, I was just using it as an example of Nolan's "never misdirect" brand of storytelling. But I still liked it.

I have now seen more than half of the Best Picture nominees and like some, dislike others but, on the whole, none too impressed. Which of course means I'm very much looking forward to your post!

Greg said...

By the way, I should also mention that, like many movies, I came around to THE PRESTIGE after the initial viewing brought me down. The cloning ending initially bugged me because I didn't understand why he had gone exactly where he led the audience but then, once I accepted that whatever I may want, that was the ending, it grew on me considerably.

Also, Christian Bale is slowly becoming the actor I have the most respect for in cinema.

bill r. said...

I like THE PRESTIGE more than THE SOCIAL NETWORK, too. A lot more. But then, I have no problem admitting that THE PRESTIGE is one of my very favorite films, period.

I think it's more complex than you give it credit for, too, Greg, but I'll reserve all that -- assuming I still feel that way after watching it again -- for a future post.

And the thing about THE SOCIAL NETWORK and Fincher's role in it all, is that I think Fincher himself would not entirely disagree with you, Greg. He seems interestingly removed from all the praise it's been getting, and has actually downplayed the film.

You and I agree on acting more often than not, and I'm pleased, and a little surprised, to hear you say that about Bale. I think he's a huge talent.

Finally, did you see TRUE GRIT yet? And if so...not crazy about it, were you?

Ryan Kelly said...

I can't help but intensely dislike Nolan of late, and I think I may be one of those dreaded detractors Bill refers to in his comment... but where I draw the line is criticizing a director's fans. I have no problem criticizing the work, and I'll occasionally make fun at them as people, but saying that fans of Nolan's films are cinematic idiots or something to that effect is not cool. Still, when a classmate of mine or whathaveyou cites Inception as their favorite movie, part of me dies inside, and if that's wrong I can live with that. I mean, I didn't much care for The Dark Knight, but it was a much better crafted, more entertaining movie that I can partly understand the love for even though I don't share it at all.

I think you put it perfectly in your post: Nolan just isn't very good at action sequences. I've found his action films overlong and tedious(including Batman Begins which I liked mostly for its treatment of the character, but that wore out its welcome for me by the time of The Dark Knight), and that's largely because the action sequences themselves are disorienting and clumsy. I also think he's very weak as a screenwriter.

Which is a shame because Following and Memento are similarly edited at breakneck pace, but there is a lyrical quality in both movies that I think really sends home the human drama underneath what are relatively traditional crime stories.

Fincher I have problems with, and he's one of the major American film makers who I think are incredibly over-valued. But Fincher is a competent director, at least, though Se7en does nothing for me and Fight Club does even less. Though it's not my favorite movie - of his or otherwise - I really liked seeing Fincher try to be like an old studio director with The Social Network, though I'd like to see him working with a better script next time out.

Greg said...

Bill, I look forward to a post on THE PRESTIGE from you. I'd like to see your take on it. I initially resisted it, strongly, because of the ending but now I've lightened up on it a lot.

And with Bale, I've liked him since EMPIRE OF THE SUN but lately, he just seems better and better each time I see him which is one of the reasons I wrote that post on he and De Niro losing and gaining weight because I shared Bale's outrage over it being labeled a gimmick, given his talent.

As for TRUE GRIT, yes I have seen it and, boy, you couldn't be further off - I loved it! Adored it! By far and away my favorite film of the year and my personal selection as the best of the year. I was bowled over.

When I say "none too impressed" I'm referring to everything else. You know, BLACK SWAN didn't do much for me, THE SOCIAL NETWORK I liked (as I said here) but wasn't wowed by it, THE KING'S SPEECH I thought was very well done but, you know, just... very well done. I didn't get much else out of it outside of craftsmanship, which is fine. It's a good film. But TRUE GRIT, that's the one I loved. Really, I can hardly wait until it comes out on DVD.

Greg said...

Ryan, I liked Batman Begins a lot and the only thing that detracts from it for me is the climax with the gas in the city and the train hurtling towards disaster. Again, he's just very bad at action and I don't know why but I do know it's not something a Nolan hater invented.

True story (and I realize this is simply me giving an example that in no way proves anything): I was watching Batman Begins on cable about two years ago (it was the climax) when Laura walked in (that's my wife for my non-Facebook friends). Now, she was 100% out of the loop on who Chris Nolan was and she walked in, watched a couple of minutes and said, "My god this scene is a mess! The camera cuts back and forth too much, there's no sense of direction, he keeps going against the natural direction the brain tells you the train is moving in..." and so on. Anyway, I just laughed and said it was a good movie but Nolan was just clueless on filming action.

So, anyway, there you go for what it's worth. She was completely unbiased in her opinion and as a film fanatic for cinema from the seventies on back she knows the language of film better than I do, I think. The point being, it immediately struck her how off it was.

I can watch a movie I don't care for, like Avatar, and think, "Cameron's doing a great job with these action scenes." But with Batman Begins, it's the opposite. So, I don't know what it is that goes wrong. I assume a first unit director actually films a lot of the action from a storyboard, that's often how it works. So I'm guessing, right there, that Nolan is kind of screwing it up from the storyboard stage for starters. Then, he must work with the editor (some directors do, some don't) and insist on shots that the editor keeps hinting would be better worked in another way and he overrides and says, "No, I want it edited in like this."

Now, all of that is assumption but it's honest assumption. I'm not trying to run him down because there's nothing wrong with having a weak spot as a director. I'm just trying to work out how it goes so wrong for him most every time.

Fincher I think we all agree on, so far at least. He's a good director but, lately, he's been getting his balls scrubbed pretty well by some folks on the nets.

As for Fight Club, I've seen it three times and each viewing made it less, much less, of a movie. It feels a lot like so much posturing, kind of like the attitude you get from an arrogant teenager. That's how the movie's script plays to me and I think that's intentional so I guess you could say it succeeds but still has little to say.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I love to bump into people who dig THE PRESTIGE so cheers to you, Bill! I think it's an undervalued flick and I kind of regret leaving it off of my "50 Favorite Films of the Decade" list. Maybe I should make it "51 Favorite Films" instead? And David Bowie as Tesla? That's some brilliant casting!

And just for the record, I have not seen TRUE GRIT yet. Wasn't sure who Bill was asking.

Greg said...

Bowie as Tesla was brilliant casting! And Bowie was kind of weird and unnerving in the role.

I wasn't that crazy for Jackman though. He doesn't do a lot for me as an actor, although I think he's good, just not very charismatic. Bale I thought did a great job, really filling the character with a kind of loathing and menace that fit the part just right.

Anonymous said...

Nolan sucks. Fincher sucks less.

Greg said...

I'm going to make a bumper sticker of that where you get to insert two names of your choice.

Ed Howard said...

I don't think there's any comparison between Nolan and Fincher, really. I'm not a Nolan detractor — Memento is quite good and his Batman movies are a lot of fun — but I think he's increasingly shown that he's a pretty limited director, and both of the supposedly "personal" projects he's done in between Batman movies have been disappointments. The Prestige is a whole bunch of gimmicks and sleights of hand intended to distract from an utterly silly premise, while Inception actually has a great premise that Nolan's script and direction sabotage.

I see Fincher very differently. He's made some less than satisfying films (Panic Room and Benjamin Button) but that doesn't take away from the accomplishments of Zodiac, The Social Network, Fight Club, and Se7en (the latter of which is so much more than just a typical thriller). More than that, I think there's a coherent thematic throughline running through most of his work — an interest in class and in process — that belies the idea that he's so heavily dependent on his scripts. As Ryan says, I think Fincher is more like an old Hollywood studio director than most other directors we have today, which to me is very interesting. He does these work-for-hire projects and infuses them with his own interests, his own aesthetics, and often makes them into something really special.

Greg said...

More than that, I think there's a coherent thematic throughline running through most of his work — an interest in class and in process — that belies the idea that he's so heavily dependent on his scripts.

I assume he picks his projects which could account for going with a thematic similarity but I'd still like to see someone point out (and you, Ed, would be a great choice to do this) where Fincher is doing this outside of the script.

He certainly has a better visual sense than Nolan but I personally don't see Fight Club or Se7en as much in the way of accomplishments. I mean, what you said about The Prestige could be applied to Fight Club - [Fight Club] is a whole bunch of gimmicks and sleights of hand intended to distract from an utterly silly premise. That works pretty well for me with FC, unless the idea of driving a car from the passenger seat, shooting yourself through cheek and watching buildings collapse as you come to grips with your imaginary alter ego is somehow not silly.

Isn't The Prestige dealing with the same thing as Fight Club, splitting one's personality in two, but in a deeper sense of employing real sacrifice as necessary to rectify the whole? Doesn't The Prestige do that better?

Ed Howard said...

I've written a lot about Fincher and his themes way back in this piece, but basically when you look at The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room, all three are about creating class tension, about a protagonist being violently awakened to the trappings of class. And Fincher realizes those themes in his direction - particularly in the increasing griminess of his aesthetic as the veneer of civilization is worn away - not just by choosing scripts that realize those themes. The Social Network is about class in wholly different ways, and I'd argue that in that film, Fincher's very precise visual evocation of different social milieus — exclusive Harvard frats, Silicon Valley startups, scholarship kids vs. Ivy League legacy brats — is every bit as important to making that theme felt in the film as anything in the script.

I also see Fight Club fairly differently from you, in that its second act feels, to me at least, like the refutation of the macho posturing of the first half, so the operatic silliness of it all is very much the point.

Neil Sarver said...

This is an excellent post and touches on a lot of things I think about, such as the kind of things I keep meaning to touch on, such as the kinds of knee-jerk love/hate relationships so many people create surrounding moviemakers these days.

I'd join the fun more fully, but I've not been able to bring myself to get interested enough to bother with either of their most recent couple of movies.

But I did like The Prestige and would join in defending it, but it's been too long since I've seen it. I'm intrigued by the comparison to Fight Club, though. It almost makes me want to put them on as a double-feature.

And I'm always glad to see True Grit get more love.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Following is still available at Netflix, both as a DVD rental or Instant Viewing. Only 70 minutes long. I saw it almost nine years ago. My favorite Nolan.

Steven Santos said...

The often aggressively childish battle over these directors, as well as some others, seems like the culmination of critics and bloggers misapplying the concept of auteurism. Instead of seeing auteurism as a way to look at the themes or motifs in a filmmaker's body of work, it has been reduced to the level of cheerleading squad or a street gang beatdown. Either a director can do no wrong or they are the antichrist when, in reality, all directors have their strengths and flaws, which often are brought out by the stories they choose to tell.

It seems most people's opinions are formed once they know who the director is, as opposed to approaching each new movie by a filmmaker as something new. In 2010, in my opinion, Fincher made a far better film than Nolan. In 2008, I thought the exact opposite.

Despite not liking "Inception" and having some issues with Nolan's filmmaking, I read that A.D. Jameson "takedown" of the movie when Jim Emerson posted it. And, as an editor myself, I found his point 5 to be shockingly simplistic and it comes across as someone who doesn't understand editing. I'm surprised anyone took it seriously. Any editor will tell you that serving the emotion of the scene is far more important than counting to see if they used too many cuts.

One of the most bothersome aspects of the anti-Nolan contingent to me has been this idea that there is one right way to make a film and that their own favorite auteurs never would fumble a sequence.

As you pointed out, you can see these issues in any film if you're paying attention. Even my favorite films have at least a few shots or cuts that are iffy. But I guess in the new application of auteurism, favored filmmakers nail every shot on set and then cut everything together seamlessly in the editing room.

Greg said...

Ed, I didn't know (but should've assumed) that you and Jason did a conversation on David Fincher. I'll have to read that soon. On something like this though:

Fincher's very precise visual evocation of different social milieus — exclusive Harvard frats, Silicon Valley startups, scholarship kids vs. Ivy League legacy brats — is every bit as important to making that theme felt in the film as anything in the script.

The settings are still written in the script. It's still the script deciding where the action will take place and by describing the action (girls getting drunk at frat party, Zuckerberg in room coming up with angry blog response, MZ meeting with twins in bicycle room) the dp and director have a pretty good idea how to present them.

The best example for me of what you're talking about would be the crew race in England, shot using tilt-shift and highly stylized with lighting, giving the effect of all of it taking place in miniature. But I thought since that scene was so stylized compared to the rest of the film that it stood out more for being different than for making any coherent point (they're small people? I guess.) As a result, it detracted from the film more than anything else.

As for Fight Club, I agree, the second half is a definite refutation of the macho posturing of the first half but I don't see how that makes the operatic silliness of the climax the point. Maybe I'm misreading something.

Greg said...

But I did like The Prestige and would join in defending it, but it's been too long since I've seen it. I'm intrigued by the comparison to Fight Club, though. It almost makes me want to put them on as a double-feature.

I think it would make an interesting double-feature in many ways. Both employ the use of doubles, whether real or imagined, in a way that splits the personality (or in the case of The Prestige, literally, the person) into two separate entities by way of intentional deceit or self-deceit.

And I loved True Grit. I don't often immediately check when a movie's coming out on DVD after I see it but in this case it's the first thing I did.

Greg said...

Peter, I know it's been available on Instant, for over a year now I think, but I just can't get around to watching it. Soon, I hope, but no guarantees.

Greg said...

It seems most people's opinions are formed once they know who the director is, as opposed to approaching each new movie by a filmmaker as something new.

Steven, unfortunately, that is the case sometimes. I don't know how much that's the case with a critic or average movie viewer but with a rabid fan or rabid hater of a given filmmaker, definitely. Which is why I avoid many of the lengthy forum fights where everyone's yelling at each other about how great/rotten Director A is.

And I'm glad to have an editor agree with me on point 5, which we both felt was the weakest of the 17 points. In Rio Bravo, cutting back and forth and back and forth between Martin and Akens functions to create a cinematic equivalent of the taunting going on by Akens. If edited poorly, five cuts can be too many and if edited well, forty cuts might be perfect for a scene.

Also, since we're on the subject of editing, I should say again that not only do I find Nolan's main limitation to be in action scenes but that he isn't even unique here among modern directors. Many new directors don't understand directing action from a first principles viewpoint in which you start with the silents (say, Keaton or Griffith, both excellent at filming action) and work forward. When I watch Cameron or Spielberg handle action, I sense that they get that but with a lot of modern directors, I don't.

So Nolan's main weakness, directing action, isn't even that much different than a lot of modern directors. Hell, I should probably edit that into the post but I'll let it stand here in the comments for now.

Greg said...

I did go ahead and make a minor edit in the fifth paragraph to that effect. It now reads:

It seems a very odd thing to do, consistently return to your weakness, but in all fairness, plenty of modern filmmakers don't shoot action very well so Nolan's not even that unique on this front.

Ed Howard said...

Greg, I think part of the reason the boat race scene in The Social Network stands out stylistically is that it's meant to represent a whole other world, far removed from Zuckerberg's comparatively middle class milieu. Fincher achieves something similar by making Sean Parker patter like a reject from an old screwball comedy, so that he too seems to come from a very different place from Zuckerberg: he fits perfectly within the new media/new business/fanatical self-promotion environment that Zuckerberg is clumsily crashing into.

As for Fight Club, I agree, the second half is a definite refutation of the macho posturing of the first half but I don't see how that makes the operatic silliness of the climax the point.

By the end, the main character's dissatisfaction with his life has pushed him to enact the violent fantasies of his subconscious, but he increasingly comes to realize how absurd all of this is, so the ending plays out as an over-the-top fantastical spectacle that the protagonist views with bemused detachment. That note of irony and critical distance is what makes Fight Club so interesting to me: it's simultaneously presenting an over-the-top male fantasy of self-fulfillment and critiquing it.

Greg said...

Ed, I can see Fincher making it different to project a whole different world but, like I said, it detracted more than anything else because I got that it was a whole different world from them telling me it was England, not from the stylized filming. Before England was mentioned I assumed it was a local Harvard race.

I see what you're saying about Fight Club and that definitely makes sense and works. But plenty of things work in movies I don't like (the premise of The Breakfast Club works just fine, still pretty much hate it). I'm still not a fan of Fight Club but I do see your point.

Arbogast said...

Why don't I care about either Nolan or Fincher? I've liked movies they've done, disliked others, but I just don't feel compelled to talk about - or, for the most part, review - them. Why? Is it just me? It may well be. I just don't feel, in both cases, it's that great a use of my time. Maybe because so many other writers are doing exactly what you say. But, at any rate, an engaging and thought-provoking post with some brave confrontation to fault-finding bastards such as myself. This needs to be done more often.

Greg said...

Thanks, you fault-finding bastard. Of course, there are always better uses of one's time than reviewing any movies but I'd love to hear your take on some of their movies. I bet you'd make Bill look like a fool.

Roderick Heath said...

I feel marvellously comfortable in reiterating my borderline contempt for both of these directors. But nice writing, Greg. Consider me in your cult.

Christopher said...

True Grit is what going to the movies is all about for me..Can't remember the last time I heard an audience continually chuckle with delight over a good script..

Neil Sarver said...

True Grit is what going to the movies is all about for me..Can't remember the last time I heard an audience continually chuckle with delight over a good script..

Indeed. Well said.

Arbogast said...

I'd love to hear your take on some of their movies.


Memento, clever and fun.
Insomnia, never saw it.
Batman Begins, bored.
The Prestige, okay, thought cloning twist was dumb.
The Dark Knight, never saw it
Inception, mope-fi, borderline bored.

Alien 3, enjoyed it, with reservations
Seven, borderline bored
The Game, waste of Linda Manz
Fight Club, never saw it
Zodiac, enjoyable
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, never saw it

So... don't hate either guy, don't love either guy and feel very unmotivated to really discuss either of their respective canons. I'd rather talk about Nick Grinde.

Jason Bellamy said...

Greg, I printed this out and read it on the metro ride home a few days ago so I'm slow to comment. And now most everyone has chimed in with many of the points I was going to make. But, a few anyway ...

* Very much with you and Santos on point 5. When I read it at the time, via Emerson, I wanted to write a response to that one point, but it was a busy time. But, again, you and Steven nail it ... Not just because other films do it, or because it might have been the right amount of cuts, but also because the original piece never makes a compelling argument that the film suffers in that scene from all the cuts. Did the scene make sense? Yes. Did it accomplish what it wanted to accomplish? Yes. Did it have a negative effect on the rest of the film? No. Is it a good example of Nolan's actual weakness, shooting action? No. So, um, what's the problem, other than that someone else could name that tune in few notes? An annoying argument, for sure.

* Also, I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that The Prestige leads to an obvious conclusion, although I know what you mean, but this year I watched it for the second time and, like you, I found it much more enjoyable when I already knew exactly where it was going, which I think proves your larger point about why the ending is a letdown the first time around. Also agreed on Bowie's casting, which tickles me.

* And for what it's worth, we agree on Fight Club.

Nicely done piece.

Greg said...

Rod, I'm glad to have you in my cult. You will be useful when I round up the others for slaughter.

Greg said...

Christopher, like Neil, I agree. Well said.

Greg said...

Arbo, I want a detailed review for each one of those statements. And I insist you see Benjamin Button. If I had to suffer the torture of sitting through it, goddamit, you should too! Solidarity, man, solidarity!

Greg said...

Jason, my point about The Prestige is a little confusing even to me. I think basically what I'm trying to say is that everything from the multiple hats scene on leads you to believe that cloning is taking place (the multiple water tanks, the blind stage hands - so they can't see the dead bodies, etc) but you think, "No that couldn't be it because that's stupid to introduce such an odd sci-fi element into this tale of magician's rivalry," and then, by God, it is cloning and you think, "Oh, so it was cloning after all. I guess I shouldn't have expected misdirection."

In that respect, Nolan is kind of unique and, oddly enough, surprising in that he doesn't throw twists at you but since you're expecting a twist the ending kind of does take you by surprise in that it isn't a twist. If that makes any sense.

Christopher said...

I'd like to discuss Nick Grinde ;o)

winston said...

As much as David Bordwell salivates over Fincher and the inner-workings of "The Social Network", he wrote a similarly-styled piece about "The Prestige", viewable at the link below:

Greg said...

Thanks for the link, Winston, that was a great read.