“He does a lot of takes,” Tyler Perry explained at that New York Film Festival presser, “But what I realized very early on is that he is seeing everything at once. I don’t think he sees like regular humans. I think he sees everything at once and he’s trying to paint this perfect tableau, and if one thing is out of place, it’s gotta be redone.” Perry should know — he makes films himself (as does co-star Ben Affleck, who joked of working with Fincher, “I wanna be a director, one day”). And oddly, Perry’s not labeled a control freak, even though he literally puts his name in the titles of his films. Neither is Fincher’s pal Steven Soderbergh, who not only directs, but runs his camera and edits as well. That sounds pretty “controlling” to me.
So why does the label stick? Because it’s easy. It’s not hard to guess where it came from; Gadfly’s Justin Geldzahler calls Fincher’s attention to detail a “career-long response to Alien 3,” the debut feature where he had no control whatsoever, and suffered for it. But the stamp of “control freak” is easiest to apply because, unlike many elements of film production, it is visible to the naked eye, in the stories he tells. Fincher pictures from The Game to Zodiac to The Social Network (and, to a lesser extent, Se7en, Dragon Tattoo, and Fight Club) concern antisocial protagonists whose personalities are defined by the ways in which they organize their lives and attempt to control their surroundings. There certainly is a pattern to the work, and there may well be reasons why Fincher is continuously drawn to these characters. That’s an idea worth engaging with — rather than merely dismissing him as a “control freak,” which is lazy, reductive, and intellectually dishonest.
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