David Fincher's Fascination with Legacy
A legacy is a complicated thing.
It’s about what we do, sure. And, yes, it certainly matters how we do it. But a legacy also concerns itself with how others see what we do and how we do it. A legacy does not exist without witnesses, just as a piece of art is most often defined as its viewers perceive it, not solely as its artist intended it. A legacy erases the particulars. It replaces contradictory details and pedestrian occurrences with a Grand Narrative that expands to fit a lifetime.
But none of that answers that fundamental question of how a legacy is made and fortified. If history books are written by the victors, then who writes a legacy? And can it be rewritten?
In the most minuscule details and the loftiest themes, David Fincher’s films have been suffused with a yearning to understand legacy. His upcoming Mank is the most obvious example: the tale of a larger-than-life storyteller lost to history and a classic film retroactively transformed into the brilliant vision of another man.
But Fincher’s fascination is rooted even deeper, layers below the surface, down in the sub-basement of how. How is a legacy crafted? How does a man become the person he is, or, more importantly, the person we believe he is? It’s a study that lies at the core of the director’s filmmaking origin story. When discussing the transformative effect on his future that watching a documentary on the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance had, Fincher explains that “ The actual circus of it was invisible, as it should be, but in seeing that I became obsessed with the idea of "How?" It was the ultimate magic trick.”
Speaking of magic tricks: the same year that Kevin Spacey inhabited the first of many famous Fincher villains in Se7en, the actor also played Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” intones Kint, describing the mythical Keyser Soze just minutes before a famous last-minute twist reveals that the two are one and the same. In that movie, Kint’s patience, faux-humility, and willingness to disclaim all credit are responsible for decades of evading capture. Keyser Soze has a legacy; Verbal Kint has no reputation.
But in Se7en, Spacey’s John Doe cannot resist the allure of credit. His criminal brilliance demands recognition, leading to a blood-spattered confession in the middle of the police department. And this need for appreciation pushes Doe further toward self-destructive legacy-seeking - on the ride to uncover more bodies, his efforts to taunt Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) only undermine that which he hopes to leave behind. Legacies are fickle friends; the further we reach for them, the more they pull back.
Fast-forward 11 years to Zodiac, the most famously nameless, notoriously faceless killer. Driven by the exigencies of the real-life story, Fincher elevates uncertainty until it’s nearly its own character. We know who we think the killer is, but it’s his anonymity that earns him the title of the movie, where his counterpart in Se7en was relegated to a memorable supporting turn. Like Keyser Soze, the Zodiac’s legacy was built through mystery, shrouded in the allure of the unknown. That which we can identify is human, and therefore fallible. That which we cannot see, on the other hand, is terrifying and invulnerable. In so many cases, our very human need to define our legacy is the very thing that erases it.
Yes, I’m talking to you Mark Zuckerberg. It’s one thing to undermine the creation of your legacy by simply putting your name on it; it’s a whole other to tarnish that legacy by trying to remove everyone else’s. There are many stories to tell about arguably the most powerful and toxic company of the last two decades, but in The Social Network, Fincher (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) opts to dramatize Zuckerberg’s sharp-elbowed battle not just for control, but for credit. Fincher isn’t interested in the obvious motivations (money and power) so much as he’s fascinated by the deep-seated insecurities that drive an overgrown boy toward the business equivalent of “no, I had it first!!”
As depicted in The Social Network, Zuck considered sharing credit to be anathema to his legacy. Just admitting a single ounce of inspiration from the Winklevoss twins, or the slightest contribution by Eduardo Saverin, would have taken away from his genius, his creation, his status. Remember: legacy isn’t only about what you do. It’s about how people see what you do. But just as the hand of perception giveth, it can also taketh away. Zuckerberg’s cut-throat tactics inevitably tarnished his reputation, which in the modern world of globalized information (which the Facebook founder helped create), can make or break a XXXX. Once again: the more aggressive the pursuit, the slippier a legacy becomes. This is the dramatic irony that Fincher so aptly recognizes.
And so we return to next month’s Mank. On its surface, Fincher’s seventh feature film continues the director’s preoccupation with acclaim by dramatizing the battle for artistic credit in 1941’s Citizen Kane. Adapted from a decades-old script by Fincher’s father, Jack, Mank is a punctilious recreation of Old Hollywood and a tumult of fractured, warring egos.
But at its core, like so many of Fincher’s films, Mank is a portrait of a fucked up man. As a matured filmmaker, Fincher treats the weighty issue of legacies with nuance: he’d rather focus on the man behind the battle for credit than the battle itself. But as a budding young star in Hollywood, Fincher was that man. After facing studio interference with his directorial debut, ALIEN3, Fincher eventually disclaimed association with the project and its spate of negative reviews and fan dissatisfaction. But in approaching his father’s original script, the son learned from that experience:
“Once I had gone to Pinewood [Studios] for two years and had been through a situation where I was a hired gun to make a library title for a multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerate, I had a different view of how writers and directors needed to work...I kind of resented [Jack’s] anti-auteurist take…”
And later, he added: “I told [Jack] that it seemed like a lot of sour grapes and that I didn’t think people really cared about who got credit for what.”
It’s perhaps the inevitable growth of a filmmaker who has gained an increasing amount of autonomy over the course of a successful career. But Fincher’s filmography certainly indicates that he cares about who gets credit for what, that he cares about who writes a legacy and how it gets written. And if his popularity is any indication, the rest of us care too.