David Fincher and John Carpenter are two directors that tend to jump to mind when people discuss the concept of vision. ‘Vision’ is intangible and difficult to define; the best I can think of for the purpose of this article is Martin Scorsese’s definition of cinema: what’s in the frame, and what’s not in the frame. A visionary director knows exactly what should and should not be in the frame; Fincher and Carpenter were lucky to have neither the need nor the inclination to compromise their visions over their careers, and these two films are perfect case studies of what happens when a director’s particular, peculiar vision harmonises with the story into something sublime, or to put it another way each film is each director’s most pure film.
David Fincher‘s style may best be described as pedantic. He’s most infamous for his dozens upon dozens of takes for single scenes (on the commentary for Zodiac, he sheepishly admits one shot took fifty-six takes), and this is just one specific articulation of his view on directing: that there a million wrong ways to do something and only one right one, and if you aren’t gonna do it the right way, there’s no point doing it at all. Zodiac is about the investigation into the murders attributed to the Zodiac killer, beginning in 1968 and following it all the way to 1991, and on a purely superficial level you can see what a pedant like Fincher brings to the proceedings. With a period piece, there’s an inclination to simplify or pastiche; as Fincher put it in an article for Total Film, he didn’t want to make the movie “about sideburns”.
What makes Zodiac special is that it is almost exclusively about the Zodiac investigation. Every single scene has some part of the process of the investigation; some are barely a minute long, conveying the necessary part of the story and nothing more – this is especially true in the first half of the movie, before investigators start dropping off until only Robert Graysmith is pursing the investigation with any enthusiasm. A different director would work to humanise the people involved with, say, scenes of them at home; neither Fincher’s talent nor his interest lie there. Instead, he humanises his characters by those incredibly accurate clothes and incredibly accurate sets and incredibly familiar performances – he knows that having Mrs Toschi complain that Graysmith is outside in the precise way she does will convey to the audience that he does this all the time, and he can move on to what he cares about.
Fincher is often criticised as a nihilist whose films lack an overall tonal coherency, and in this film at least, that’s totally correct and contributes to the profound effect of the whole. Fincher has said “films aren’t finished, they’re abandoned,” and that describes the process of the investigation; each individual piece of the puzzle must be explored to its fullest extent, and if there is a thematic question driving the overall movie, it’s “At what point can the Zodiac investigation be considered finished?”. The only distinction in the morality of the players is their answer to that question, and Fincher’s vision simply goes one step further than any of them.*
On the other hand, you have John Carpenter. If there’s a unifying element to Carpenter’s vision, it’s that he expends no time, money, or energy on anything he doesn’t have to; one could not imagine him being bothered to film fifty-six takes, or committing to the research required to make Zodiac accurate. This is as much personal inclination is it is experience making low-budget genre films; he had to learn how to convey maximum story with as few elements as possible. His eighth film, The Thing, had two unique properties for him at this stage: the highest budget he’d ever had, and a surprisingly long production time, with over a year to fine-tune the film.
Carpenter is one of the finest genre directors in the dramatic tradition, with films like Escape From New York stripping the elements down to their simplest. The Thing not only continues that tradition, it elevates it – not only do we only see necessary action, we actually have some seemingly necessary action stripped out, from MacReady’s visit to his shack, to several character deaths, to everything Childs does in the third act, with only a few seemingly innocuous shots acting as hints for the actions we missed. Carpenter’s vision has elevated to the ruthlessness of a cartoon supervillain.
And what are sometimes flaws in Carpenter’s other films become assets. He never really had the sense of taste for stylised dialogue, and in The Thing, the dialogue is so stripped down that the men become normal, everyday people; the only piece of dialogue that draws attention to itself in the whole film is “You gotta be fucking kidding,” which isn’t exactly out of the common man’s purview. Carpenter’s worldview, so cheerfully immoral in Escape From New York and so incoherently conveyed in Prince Of Darkness, sees its best expression in this film, as MacReady acts out his “I-just-wanna-do-my-own-thing-but-I’ll-step-up-if-I-have-to” philosophy for maximum heroism.
Interestingly, both have similar camerawork; locked down cameras that passively observe the action, creating an underlying sense of inevitability. With both stories, there’s a sense of an ordered universe that is slowly and logically going completely out of anybody’s control, and the difference between them is the difference between the literary and dramatic traditions of writing.
To conclude this, I want to turn this into a triple feature with a quick look at a director’s least pure film. Quentin Tarantino is known for his taste for the spectacular. I think his infamous love of both a certain racial slur and for physical violence come from the same place: he is a craftsman with a near-infinite number of tools at his disposal, and the idea of not using them is totally absurd to him; if a big title card will solve a story problem, he’s going to use it, if physical violence will solve a story problem, he’s going to use it and if that racial slur will solve a story problem, etc. Jackie Brown is him exercising a hell of a lot of restraint – he wanted to convey exactly how Elmore Leonard’s story feels on paper, and with rare exceptions that means simply showing the action and nothing more.
*Compare with Fincher’s other masterpiece, The Social Network, where the morality is both more complex, and very unFincherian. You could say that we’re looking at Aaron Sorkin’s morality through the lens of Fincher’s morality.