Nostalgia Goes Digital

Turning Back Time in the Films of David Fincher

by Todd Kushigemachi

10 October 2011

Digital cinema and nostalgia go hand in hand in David Fincher films. The director has used these powerful tools to recreate the past, but nostalgia has historically refused to surrender in his work.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 

The music for the trailer of the upcoming The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is highly symbolic of director David Fincher’s recent output. Karen O. howls over the mechanical, industrial groove of Trent Reznor. The computerized static is the rallying cry for a digital revolution, but ironically it is a cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1970 “Immigrant Song”, a classic rock staple. Even with the contemporary sounds of the 21st century, there is an impulse to return to the past. This tension between the promise of the digital age and nostalgia for the past is indicative of Fincher’s most recent movies.

Fincher’s upcoming release will be an industrial cover of sorts, the second adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel. Although its trailer gives but a slight taste with its jarringly rapid cuts, many of the images are strikingly familiar: the wide shots of wintry landscapes, the wall of framed flowers and a tight shot of Lisbeth Salander vengefully holding a tattoo needle. But there are also distinct differences. There are recreations of the Children’s Day Parade events, the darker hues of the images and Fincher’s stylized cinematography, including a god’s eye shot of the parade-day car accident. Having previously directed features about serial killers and hackers, it makes perfect sense that Fincher choose to tackle the haunted history of the Vanger estate. With his High Definition Red camera, Fincher seems to be applying his artistic signature to a story twice told, returning to a story about returning to the past.

In a special feature for The Social Network Blu-ray, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth calls the director “progressive” in his use of the cinema’s latest technology. Starting with the obsession drama Zodiac, Fincher has shot all of his feature films using digital cameras. And although he is forward-looking with his use of digital cinematography and visual effects, his movies are obsessed with returning to the past. As seen with his exploration of the digital world’s recent past in The Social Network, the 1970s streets of San Francisco in Zodiac and the protagonist’s reverse aging in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher uses digital cinema to recreate the past and comment on both the passage of time and inevitably of death.

A number of scholars have studied the manner in which digital cinema and nostalgia go hand in hand. According to Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, Jurassic Park, Titanic, and Gladiator suggest how “progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it.” Instead of moving forward with technology, these three films used visual effects to reanimate dead creatures and reconstruct ruined cities. In “Mass Memories of Movies: Cinephilia as Norm and Narrative in Blockbuster Culture,” Drehli Robnik looks at the nostalgic effects of Titanic and points to “the invisible special effect of sweeping ‘camera travelings’ above and around the ship.” Because such digital effects are not meant to be noticed, the effect is the illusion of capturing or returning to the past. Digital cinema has similarly given Fincher the power to recreate the past. Nostalgia refuses to “surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition,” as Boym suggests, and Fincher uses digital technology to wrestle with this truth.

Screens and Technology

Although the events of The Social Network only go as far back as 2003, seven years before the movie’s release, the movie’s narrative structure demonstrates its fascination with the past, the beginning of a digital revolution. The flashbacks of deposition testimony tell the story of Facebook’s genesis. Because of this structure, Ben Popper of The New York Observer refers to Fincher’s movie as “Rashomon for the internet age.” In the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film, four characters testify about an alleged murder and rape, and all versions of the story are completely incompatible. Kurosawa and Fincher share a fascination with the past, but the desire to reverse time is more ironic in a digital age focused on progress. Boym identifies nostalgia as a “defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals,” and with its flashback structure, The Social Network narrativizes the instant sense of nostalgia that the digital age breeds.

With this structure as its foundation, The Social Network features digital composites that recreate computer software of the recent past, illustrating the tension between technological progress and a desire to go back. Throughout the movie, computer screens change as characters type away or scroll down a page: Mark Zuckerberg entering code for his site, Sean Parker discovering Facebook and various college students using their computers. During production, the actors only pantomimed with blue screens, particularly important when characters were typing advanced computer code. By digitally adding the screen images in post-production, the filmmakers created the realistic illusion of characters working on their computers. In his audio commentary for the Blu-ray, Fincher notes how web technology consultant Paul McReynolds ensured the program versions were true to the time depicted in the movie. With images such as a Network Solutions page registering the domain “,” The Social Network uses computer screen replacement not to look forward but instead to look back at the origins of technological change.

A technique Fincher also uses in Zodiac, the blue screens exemplify the tension between the artificial means and the realistic results of digital cinema. In Zodiac, Fincher shot the actors looking at blue TV screens as they react to the killer’s voice on-air, and the footage featuring actor Brian Cox as lawyer Melvin Belli was added afterwards. In his audio commentary for the movie, Fincher refers to the illusion of actors responding when nothing is actually there as “total cinema.” The use of the term differs from Andre Bazin’s “myth of total cinema,” the idea that film sought to create “an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.” While Bazin speaks about a realism founded in an indexical nature of film, Fincher suggests that the realism of digital cinema comes with the magic of visual effects and post-production. But Bazin and Fincher share an interest in preserving moments of the past. As seen with The Social Network’s computer screens, Fincher uses effects in an attempt to accurately recreate a past reality in spite of digital cinema’s artifice.

The Social Network

The Social Network

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