It feels like every action movie and most drama of the past decade and a half looks and feels identical. I realise this is a complaint that has floated around all genre works since genre was made a thing and that every decade has its trends; Gillianren has her article on Seventies Grime. You’re also going to have to deal with the fact that even when the artists are competent, they’re probably not and don’t want to be imaginative – they want to do what you’re supposed to do and make a movie look how it’s supposed to look. But this particular combination of artistic choices has been slowly driving me up the wall, not because it’s ugly – quite the opposite, in fact – but because it’s so fucking boring, especially when it feels like the only game in town. I’ve been calling it various things – usually drone-like when I’m trying to present it as an neutral deliberate creative choice – but I’m settling on calling it drone-like sub-Fincherian bullshit because I am so fucking sick of it.
It’s incredibly easy to describe because it literally is the same few choices over and over. The digital cameras are sometimes unfortunate but an economic necessity (at least it doesn’t look like video tape); I’m practically repulsed whenever it’s used for period pieces but I recognise people have to work with what they have. Less forgivable are the muted colours; I remember the 00’s was a time when everyone was complaining about most films and video games feeling like they were in greyscale, and while it’s never really gotten that bad again, this aesthetic is generally defined by everything being grey, a cool blue, or sometimes deep red. The camera is kept locked down aside from a few drone shot as well as tracking shots, often as people speak; framing and editing are often based around establishing the space and the way the characters interact with it as clearly as possible – few subjective cuts and fewer ellipses within scenes (though often many connecting them). The music underlying this is often heavily electronic and drone-like when it’s not a simple piano.
I have my suspicions as to where this style came from, none of which can really be confirmed. I strongly suspect it’s a backlash to much of the overenthusiastic filmmaking of the 00’s – in particular, the intentional gritty ugliness often coupled with shaky handheld, so beautifully pushed to its extreme by that cop show I never shut the fuck up about. Everyone agreed this was fuck-ugly, so I can see how people in the years since would internalise doing the opposite. I also sense the influence of David Fincher, particularly Zodiac of all things. Most of what I’ve described about the style is articulated in this famous episode of Every Frame A Painting about him – I very much doubt Tony Zhou is personally responsible for the Fincherisation of movies, but rather is articulating something people have consciously and unconsciously tapped in to in order to emulate him. The style is very much one of stripping out unnecessary elements of style and emphasising disciplined, controlled filmmaking.
The thing about this, though, is that Fincher isn’t just doing all of this just on basic principle. One thing that separates Fincher from his apparent descendants is that he doesn’t cut slowly; indeed, Mank cuts at a speed and intensity that would be incoherent if everything weren’t so carefully controlled. If you ever listen to Fincher on his filmmaking philosophy, you’ll notice it’s disjointed and often contradictory, which comes down to the fact that he’s doing whatever’s necessary for the scene in that particular moment. There’s no broad set of rules or principles – no grand unified theory – just the right tool for the job in the current moment. I’ll note the same man made Fight Club, a film absolutely dripping with techniques like overcranking, undercranking, narration, CG, flashbacks, flashforwards; his style may have become more precise but it never became stolid.
Which is my main problem with these movies of today. I think in fetishising discipline and hard work, they’ve managed to stifle the life out of themselves. It’s like someone who chooses not to swear because they think it makes them more intelligent and adult than other people – it’s limiting your avenues of communication to no real benefit outside the symbolic and to the massive downside of being unable to express certain ideas and emotions. Fundamentally, I don’t understand why people want their cheesy action thriller to feel like homework in the first place; the drone-like Fincherian bullshit approach is actively, maliciously destructive to the very idea of tension, reducing the whole thing to some morbid mood piece, which is hard enough to sit through for two hours let alone dozens, if not hundreds of movies and TV shows.