Nostalgia Goes Digital: Turning Back Time in the Films of David Fincher

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

A Changed City

The extent of Fincher’s attention to historical recreation goes beyond computer and television screens, and perhaps his most subtle use of digital effects to rebuild the past is with the streets of San Francisco in Zodiac. The movie’s first shot of the cityscape in daylight is a completely computer-generated image designed to look like a helicopter plate of the city in the late 1960s. In a Blu-ray special feature, Craig Barron, visual effects supervisor from Matte World Digital, said his team paid attention to the smallest details including a ferry in the bay, traffic moving through the city and seagulls in the air. In addition to recreating the buildings as they were in the 1960s, the team used such details to increase the credibility of the illusion and weave the images seamlessly into the live-action cinematography. The effects in this shot do not call attention to themselves but instead reverse the changes of the city over the years and set the tone of a specific time and place. Digital cinema gives Fincher the power to capture parts of San Francisco he cannot shoot otherwise because they no longer exist.

With this scene, director Fincher specifically points to two details which are indicative of his nostalgic impulses. In his audio commentary for Zodiac’s Blu-ray, Fincher says that two details of personal importance were the Embarcadero Freeway and the Hyatt Regency. He suggests that the first was important because it was demolished in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As James Cameron did with the passenger liner in Titanic, Fincher used digital technology to reconstruct something that had been destroyed. Both Cameron and Fincher used effects to reverse disasters of the past to accurately depict a moment in time. While this detail relates to a public nostalgia for a vision of the city, the second important detail for Fincher was the Hyatt Regency, founded in his own personal memories. According to his commentary, the construction of this building was important to include because it was part of how he saw the city when he was a child. The digital effects not only allow for an accurate visual representation but also allow Fincher to indulge in his own personal nostalgia.

While the establishing “helicopter shot” illustrates Fincher’s obsession with accurately recreating a general impression San Francisco’s past, the combination of live-action and a digital environment to create the Washington and Cherry intersection, the site of a Zodiac killing, reveals the importance of location to a specific event. In a Cinefex article by Judy Duncan, Eric Barba, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain, explains that the houses in the neighborhood have changed from modest residences at the time of the Paul Stine murder to $10 million homes. Consequently, Fincher shot on a studio back lot with constructed set elements and large blue screens for digital imaging. Inspector David Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo, revisits the Washington and Cherry intersection several times in the movie, haunted by his inability to find the Zodiac killer. Because the introduction of this location is crucial in establishing the elusive nature of the killings, Barba and his team based the CG neighborhood on blueprints and drawings of houses from the time period and even included cars and telephone poles. Without the digital images, the setting could not have been both true to the time period and realistic enough to be juxtaposed with live-action performances. Fincher uses the possibilities of digital cinema to painstakingly recreate the scene of the crime similar to the manner in which Toschi returns to the scene to find something he missed.

Consistent with Fincher’s attention to setting, the idea of place is equally important as time in Boym’s conception of nostalgia. But in spite of digital cinema’s advancements in recreating cities in the past, the ultimate reality is the irreversibility of time. In “Through the Looking Glass: Philosophical Toys and Digital Visual Effects,” Stephen Prince argues that the digital design of Zodiac has a “realist aesthetic, measured from and authenticated by the photographic record of place in the period.” Obsessed with historical detail, Fincher has used digital technology to suggest an indexical relationship between image and subject. But commenting on the Washington and Cherry digital set, Fincher says in his commentary that the team achieved this sense of realism by “faking it.” This notion of fakery points to the disconnect between the desire for realism and the artifice of the means to recreate time and place. Boym defines nostalgia as a “longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” As much as the movie seeks to recreate San Francisco of the 1960s and 1970s with digital effects, the city has irreversibly changed.


Defying Age

Although Fincher’s recreation of San Francisco embodies digital cinema’s complex relationship with time, the ultimate anxiety of the digital age is human mortality, a reality Fincher works through in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If nostalgia comes from the “irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition,” the idea of passing time confronts humanity with the inevitability of death. In her essay “Passing Time,” Laura Mulvey addresses obsession with mortality in the digital age. Mulvey suggests our fascination with using home video technology to pause the moving image is caused by “the unconscious difficulty that the human mind has in grasping death.” In essence, digital technology has allowed spectators to stop the moving image from continuing to its natural end. Similarly, the digital effects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button work through the mystery of mortality. They nostalgically recreate historical events of the twentieth century and, most importantly, allow the protagonist to age in reverse. Again Fincher employs digital technology to look back rather than move forward.

Digital effects are used for many aspects of The Curious Case, but the process of making actor Brad Pitt look 20 years younger best illustrates technology’s effort to halt the approach of death. Towards the end of the movie, the character Benjamin Button appears to be in his 20s, making him significantly younger than Pitt at the time. According to supervisor Edson Williams, the visual effects studio Lola used a “2 ½D process” combining 3D tracking and 2D patches, which removed facial fat and the shadows of harsher features. The digital effects allow for a reversal of the aging process, a phenomenon fundamentally linked to the inevitably of death. Here, Fincher seeks to do more than return to the past with digital cinema: he uses the power of technology to seemingly challenge humanity’s mortality.

But as a different visual effect throughout The Curious Case suggests, this attempt to turn back time is limited. Although the artists at Lola were responsible for the effects that reverse the aging process, they also tracked a scar onto the right cheeks of the different actors who play Benjamin, including the baby who represents the character in his last stage of life, as noted in a Cinefex article by Jody Duncan. This wound is an imprint left on Benjamin’s face during a sea battle during World War II. Despite the character’s fantastical condition, he is still subject to an indexical mark of time. This effect subtly comments on the complex nature of the digital effects in The Curious Case. Although digital technology creates the illusion of a character aging in reverse, the character’s condition does not ultimately does not keep him from exhaling a finale breath as an infant. The movie reminds viewers that, in spite of digital technology’s attempts to return us to the time of our youth, passing time and death are inevitable.

Although a trend of nostalgia is evident in the work of David Fincher, it is difficult to discern whether the filmmaker is commenting on the tension between time and technology or surrendering to a common impulse in the digital age. While The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network work through the complexities of mortality and technology, Zodiac acknowledges the uncertainty of truth as the years go by. And indeed, the digital effects in Fincher’s movies often capture the past to a degree unattainable with traditional, unaltered film. But ultimately, the cinema can only do so much to return to a certain time or place.

The march of time continues on as the movie plays. In his commentary for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher expresses his pity for “people who go through movies and look for inconsistencies and continuity errors.” Discussing a bridge that is untrue to the period depicted, he condescendingly explains, “It’s a movie.” Although improvements in technology will only make future digital sets and facial touchups even more realistic, they will still be mere illusions.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button