Thursday, October 9, 2014

David Fincher’s Gone Girl and the Yuppies in Peril Sub-Genre.


If you grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, then you were doubtless exposed to a very specific type of glossy domestic thriller in which well-heeled, upwardly mobile couples with fantastic kitchens find their ideal existences thrown into turmoil by some malignant, disruptive force – normally a psychopath whose façade of mental normalcy crumbles like an industrial demolition job once the couple have let them into their lives.  New Zealand film critic and blogger Dominic Corry has aptly christened this sub-genre the Yuppies in Peril cycle.   The template was set in stone by Adrian Lyne’s 1987 smash Fatal Attraction: a domestic setting which is glamorous enough to be escapist, but familiar enough to allow queasy audience identification; an association of erotic gratification with unforeseen consequences and peril; a manipulative plotline that taps into themes of infidelity and gender relations.  The crucial element, of course, was Glenn Close’s obsessive, psychopathic clinger Alexandra Forest.   Not all the crazies in the cycle of films that followed were female, but the female psychopath remains the presiding motif in the genre, and as such the figure can be traced back to Jessica Walter’s proto-bunny burner in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971).  (Elements of the Yuppie in Peril and erotic thriller were also prefigured in Brian de Palma’s brilliant Dressed to Kill (1980), in which Angie Dickenson’s bored housewife pays a disproportionately horrendous price for indulging in casual infidelity with a stranger she meets at a gallery.)  Why did these films emerge precisely when they did?  In some respects, they reflected a turning away from the hedonistic and experimental sexual ethos of the 70s – a societal change reflected politically in the Reaganite conservative counter-revolution, and driven viscerally home by the emergence of the AIDS virus.  While the slasher movie reflected anxieties about sexuality which are perhaps universal to adolescents, the Yuppie in Peril and related erotic thrillers reflected a new cultural mood of anxiety relating to sexual promiscuity among adults.  In this light, a film like Fatal Attraction can be seen as reflecting an affirmation of conventional monogamous marital values, showing the necessity to purge them of the disruptive threat represented by Close’s unmarried psychopath.  Nevertheless, there is always a slight, perhaps unintentional, undertow of ambiguity regarding these monstrous female avengers – we feel that by the end Douglas has had his cake and eaten it, and perhaps a degree of sympathy for the bunny-burner.  These are the contentious issues that these movies skirt over; in her Slate article The Psycho Bitch, from Fatal Attraction’sSingle Woman to Gone Girl’s Perfect Wife, Amanda Hess points out that the original short film on which Attraction was based, Diversion, was far more a critique of the cheating husband than a demonization of the Other Woman.

                In his self-conscious horror pastiche/homage Cabin in the Wood, Joss Whedon lampooned the slasher movie audience’s sadistic appetite for watching pretty, vacant young things terrorized and hacked up.  The movie presents this generic convention as a seasonal sacrificial ritual, designed to pacify Lovecraftian elder-gods.  After Fatal Attraction, Hollywood’s eldritch gods – or any rate, its ticket-buying public – wanted to see picture perfect yuppies put through the ringer.  As Dominic Curry points out, the cycle largely bifurcated into erotic thrillers and _____ from Hell movies.  In the latter category, there was a Nanny from Hell (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), a Flatmate/Tenant from Hell (Single White Female, Pacific Heights), a Secretary from Hell (The Temp), various Lolita temptresses from Hell (The Crush/Poison Ivy), and on, and on.  I guess that in between the Cold War and War on Terror, we needed something to be frightened of; in the absence of clearly defined ideological threats, people from ordinary walks of life Who Happen to Be Psychopaths from Hell! had to fill the gap.  Don’t let them into your home!  The appetite for yuppie suffering had its watershed in 1992, the year that saw the release of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, and Unlawful Entry.  I maintain a certain nostalgic fondness for these torrid, schlocky entertainments.  They were so pervasive when I was growing up that some aspect of my view of the adult world almost felt like it was filtered through their cinematic world of exquisite kitchens and open plan apartments - this gleaming, aspirational world which was always threatened by the incursion of sexual temptation and psychopathic peril.

                It was clear from its trailers that David Fincher’s latest movie Gone Girl was going to be some kind of descendent of the Yuppie in Peril cycle.  Based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 New York Times Best Seller (which I haven’t read), the film is a domestic thriller/mystery whose primary narrative arc hinges on the question of whether or not Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) has murdered his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike).  Unlike most of the Yuppie in Peril movies, the psychopathology is not an outside incursion, but resides within the marriage itself.  We discover that Amy has ingeniously staged her own disappearance and putative murder, in order to punish Nick for his affair with a younger woman, as well as a general sense of disappointment with his character and their marriage.  Nevertheless, the general arc of the story harkens back very distinctly to the glossy thrillers of the 80s and 90s.  1985’s Jagged Edge builds its suspense on the ambiguity of whether or not Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges) has murdered his wealthy socialite wife.  Written by creature of the Hollywood night Joe Eszterhas, and starring the original psycho bitch from Hell Glenn Close (this time on the side of the angels), Jagged Edge has a firm pedigree in the Yuppie/erotic sub-genres.  Nobody would accuse it of being high cinematic art, but its page-turning narrative is very effectively executed.   Much of this comes down to the lived-in authenticity of the performances.  Jeff Bridges, of course, is a singularly charming, likable presence; we want him to be innocent.   Close and the always brilliant Robert Loggia also do much to bring the pulp to life.   Another movie which effectively kept its audience guessing about the innocence of its protagonist was Alan J. Pakula’s 1990 adaption of Scott Turrow’s legal thriller Presumed Innocent.  This time around, prosecutor “Rusty” Sabich (Harrison Ford) has an affair with colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), who, while not a psycho bitch from Hell, turns out to be something of a careerist bitch from Hell.  After she’s found raped and murdered, Rusty finds himself first chief investigator, then prime suspect, in the case.  A late entry from Alan J. Pakula, whose magisterial 70s work is a major touchstone for David Fincher, Presumed Innocent is another taut, able piece of pulp that derives much tension from an exceptionally coiled and tense, possibly career best, performance from Ford.   The twist/conclusion of this movie is worth noting in relation to Gone Girl.  Rusty is exonerated after various legal shenanigans, and the Carolyn Polhemus murder remains unsolved.  Later, Rusty finds a bloody hatchet in his home, and we discover that it was his wife Barbara – hitherto a supportive, self-sacrificing figure in the background – who murdered Carolyn and fabricated the evidence of the rape.  Once again, we have a female avenger – the wife this time, rather than the mistress.   In Gone Girl, Pike’s Amy takes Barbara Sabich’s calculating rage to a spectrum of high operatic camp, and her faculty for stage managing crime scenes to the evil genius level of a Hannibal Lecker.   She is, in some respects, a Frankenstein’s monster quilted from all the female avengers, psycho bitches from Hell, and dangerous temptresses that dominated in the 80s/90s vogue for domestic and erotic thrillers.

                Though widely praised, Gone Girl is proving to be an extremely divisive film, and part of that divisiveness derives from its rootedness in this tradition of schlocky cinematic pulp.  Fincher is the premier Hollywood formalist of his generation – since 2007’s procedural masterpiece Zodiac, he has developed a signature filmmaking style which combines a unique affinity for using the very latest cinematic technologies, with an approach to staging and storytelling which is classical through and through.  Frequently working with dp Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher has taken advantage of the digital camera’s capacity to work in low light conditions (and utilize natural light sources) to create an inky, velveteen world of astonishing detail and subtle, twilight textures.  In his last three pictures, he has employed ambient electronic scores by Tent Reznor and Atticus Ross which fit his imagery like a glove, adding another layer of oil slick fluidity to his work.  But Gone Girl follows directly from another bestseller adaptation (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) from Fincher, and some critics have questioned whether the director's daunting technical prowess is wasted on these popular novels.  Indiewire critic Michael Nordine found it hard to “shake the notion that he could be doing something more rewarding than becoming the preeminent director of airport novel adaptations”, humorously opining that the director had gone “further down the Barnes & Noble rabbit hole” than the Tattoo adaptation had taken him.  Certainly, everybody seems to agree that Gone Girl is some kind of trash, but that's about as far as the consensus goes.  For some, it’s trash with a biting satirical edge; for others, its ruminations on 21st century relationships and jabs at modern news media are old hat and obvious.  Certainly, the notion that bestsellers are beneath Fincher’s talents is a questionable one, since airport paperbacks have served Hitchcock’s and Coppola’s just fine in the past.  Nevertheless, the question of whether Fincher is a good fit for the material is crucial to the success of the film – that is, either the juxtaposition of Fincher’s coolly precise and naturalistic style with the operatic high camp of the plot is a counter-intuitive masterstroke, or a disastrous miss-mash of form and content which results in an unsatisfying, tonally confused experience.   Having seen the film just once, I find it difficult to decide between the two.

                Throughout the first 40-50 minutes of the film, I kept thinking that although Gone Girl was infinitely better-made than its Yuppie in Peril predecessors, it didn’t seem to fulfil its generic obligations as effectively, in the sense that the film built up little or no suspense (for me) in relation to the question of whether or not Nick Dunne had murdered his wife.  This, I think, was for two reasons.  Ben Affleck is clearly a smart and highly engaged individual, and has won major plaudits for his directing in recent years.  I’m not sure, however, that he has ever had an especially strong dramatic presence on screen.  There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with his performance in this role, but if you think about his Nick Dunne in comparison with the type of actors who played the morally compromised Everyman role back in the 80s/90s – Michael Douglas’ nervy intensity, for example, his endless ability to make an utter shit somehow likable -  Affleck just doesn’t draw you into the character’s predicament, and the movie’s story, in quite the same way.  (Maybe it’s intentional – Affleck seems to float through his situation for much of the movie with all the nervous tension of somebody trying to rearrange a work engagement so they can go to a football match.)  Nobody can accuse Rosamund Pike of lacking dramatic fire in this picture, but perhaps if Affleck is presented to us at too low a key to draw us fully in, then Pike is introduced at too high a pitch.  We are introduced to her character, and shown a version of her meeting, courtship, and marriage to Nick, in series of subjective and unreliable scenes which feature breathless narration from her diary.  These cloying, overwritten sequences are in a sense a pastiche of the classic set-up of the Yuppie in Peril narrative: here is the couple who have everything, here is the couple who are perfectly happy; it would stretch ordinary credibility, surely, that anything could go wrong?  There a kind of generic self-consciousness in the set-up which is not especially conducive to traditional suspense, and something of the film’s hand has been shown: we know Amy is a psychopath, surely, because people who behave like this in movies are invariably psychopaths.  In an interesting dialogue about the movie at the Notebook, Doug Dibbern captures the non-naturalistic oddity of Amy’s characterisation in the first half of the film:  “But Flynn and Fincher make his wife, on the other hand, one of the most outlandish caricatures I’ve seen in years. Rosamund Pike plays her from the opening scenes with a vacant, ice-princess stare as if she’s always posing for a George Hurrell glamour shot. Her voice-overs have a disembodied ethereality to them, made all the more strange by the accompaniment of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s aqueous synthesizer bleeps.”  

                So between Affleck’s lack of character, and Pike’s heavily caricatured departure from anything resembling naturalistic character, we find it difficult to find anything resembling a traditional dramatic impetuous in the first section of the movie, despite the elegance of Fincher’s filmmaking and night-time cinematography.  Nevertheless, the film really does come to life at times.  The Amy reveal/twist may not be especially surprizing, but it unspools in a montage that is sheer, classic Fincher; it’s so good it makes you wish that you’d been enjoying the movie more up to that point.  Gone Girl begins to become a little more enjoyable in the second half, oddly enough the more it increasingly departs from any semblance of credibility.  Tyler Perry shows up as the beautifully named celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt  (say it again, TANNER BOLT!), and finally a character in the movie articulates in his whole demeanour what we have been feeling throughout: “Man, who the fuck are these people?  What planet are they from?”  It’s a peculiar universe in which we finally feel grounded in the presence of a celebrity defence attorney.  Another stand-out moment is Amy’s mid-coital box cutter murder, in which Fincher again displays his ability to turn sexualized violence into a disturbingly fascinating type of installation art.   This scene is executed with such Grand Guignal intensity that you can only imagine old school masters of bloody mayhem like Argento and DePalma tipping their hats in admiration.

                By the time Dunne is finally reunited with his bloody bride, you start to realize that this movie is actually operating in the realm of psychosexual high camp normally occupied by directors like Brian DePalm or Paul Verhoeven.  This again raises the question of the fit between Fincher and the material – on the face of it, it’s a peculiar juxtaposition with the cool, methodical, and naturalistic style which he brings to bear on the movie.   I didn’t enjoy Gone Girl much when I was watching it, but ever since I’ve had the lingering suspicion that maybe I was bringing the wrong expectations to bear – maybe Gone Girl is a bone dry postmodern farce that was never really interested in the suspense mechanics or surface social commentary of its source in the first place.  Critic Luke Goodsell took this view of the film, calling it a “pitch black satire of procedural pulp” that “uses the material’s contrived plot and stabs at relationship commentary as a launching pad for a jet-black comedy that at its best approaches the japery of a Grand Guignol.”  (This sounds like a very plausible read of the film, but comes pretty close to suggesting that Fincher is burlesquing his screenwriter Flynn under her nose.)  One of my main beefs with the film when I was watching it for the first time was the sense that the older, less prestigious, less self-conscious incarnations of this type of movie derived more plausibility from a more authentic sense of character - they seemed to contain more lived-in, realer people.  This is actually a common enough complaint with modern popular cinema.  Compare, for example, the characterization in Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien with that in the same director's 2012 prequel-of-sorts Prometheus.  The first creates its blue-collar characters with ease and authority - in the second we see only the confused machinations of the screenwriters trying to justify themselves through characters whose only consistency lies in their lack of verisimilitude.  The characters in Tim Burton's 1989 fantasia of Batman feel in an off-hand way more real and authentic than the stern mouthpieces of plot mechanics and thematic heft in Christopher Nolan's putatively hyperreal take on the same character.  For whatever confluence of reasons - and I suspect a more self-conscious, schematic approach to screenwriting is part of the problem - creating real-feeling characters no longer comes as naturally to our popular entertainments.  In the same way that the 21st century remakes of 70s horror films replaced the physically realer looking originals with gym-honed, air-brushed looking models, some kind of invasion of pseudo-people seems to be afoot in the entertainment world.  Maybe, if Gone Girl has something to say, intentional or otherwise, about the modern condition, it lies in this invasion of the pseudo-people.  Rather than representing some kind of feminist re-tooling of the psycho-bitch from Hell archetype, Pike's Amy seems to be primarily a creature who is fatally and obsessively devoted to the surface rather than the reality.  She returns to Dunne on the basis of a patently phony talk-show performance, but this doesn't bother her because this was all she was ever looking in the first place.  In the end of the movie, Nick and Amy's marriage has become a media creation, maintained through both writing books; they are more successful as simulacrum than they ever were as real people.  Ultimately, though, their marriage and characters never had a tangible sense of reality in the first place.  Friendless, seemingly floating in a vacuum, they were pseudo-people from the get-go.  Maybe every generation gets the Yuppies in Peril it deserves. 

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