ICA Harris Savides Tribute – The Game (1997)
“Movies usually make a pact with the audience that says: we’re going to play it straight. What we show you is going to add up. But we don’t do that. In that respect, it’s about movies and how movies dole out information” said David Fincher about his crucial follow-up to the necromantic nihilism of Se7en, the puzzling profundity of 1997’s The Game. It is certainly a film which toys with the audience as much as its central figure Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) as he is drawn into the conspiratorial playground of Consumer Recreation Services, a mysterious birthday gift from his former substance abusing brother Conrad (Sean Penn) who promises that the titular experience will be like nothing else he has ever experienced, a bespoke baptism for the idle wealthy whom have seen and brought everything yet remain aloof and isolated by their lofty trappings of power. Van Orton is particularly haunted by his fathers illogical suicide at the age of 48 – a benchmark which he also alights upon as the film opens – charismatic yet cold he has an ex-wife whom evidently still cares about him but whose affection is faintly tolerated, with no other family or friends he haunts the families San Francisco ornate mansion like a sartorially enhanced spectre. After being rejected for the scheme after a curious combination of psychological profiles and medical audits Van Orton is plunged into a conspiracy that could be an elaborate hoax to wrest corporate power from his perfectly manicured nails, or maybe a simple grift is afoot to loot his bloated swiss bank accounts, or perhaps something more epiphytal is on the incorporated agenda…..
Broadly speaking I guess film can be considered as a specific form of an alternate reality game, a shared consensual illusion where audience members delve into an artificially constructed illusion which has cost millions of dollars to reproduce, a mirror of our submerged psyches and dreams writ large over culture and occasionally touching an electrically charged divining rod to our specific histories and experiences – why else would we have our favourite stars and genres, why do certain movies become more important to us than others? In The Game a man whom has everything we are told to desire is cattle-prodded through a purification which transforms his psyche, a benediction that teaches him the importance of the human interactions within his life, falling into relief and release during the final revelation rather than rising which to me reads like a trademark Fincheresque inversion of a deeply ingrained semiotic allegory. In Panic Room, another film culled from the elite’s fears of the underclass and the underbelly of society puncturing their gilded bubbles a gruelling experience transforms the heroines relations, as the game progresses Van Orton finds himself associating with the working class of San Francisco in confused disarray among their modest and carefully manufactured interiors, his very mortality threatened by an intransigent taxi driver who ignores his instructions and plunges him into the enveloping waters of the bayside docks.
Fincher clearly has a fascination with the gilded sects of society beyond these movies, in The Social Network he turned to the next generation of the so crowned ‘Masters of the Universe’ in utero, in embryonic phases of gestation before returning again to its chilly misogynist embedding in European society still nurturing a fascist fulcrum in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or more recently the political puppeteers in his Machiavellian translation of House Of Cards. You must wonder exactly how much those bruising encounters with the Hollywood purse holders which litter his career affected his world-view and the constant struggle between art and commerce which all genuine talents must balance. Clearly something is drawing him to return to the same character types and themes, not to mention of course his attraction to aspiring consumerist Gehenna of Fight Club where perhaps those perplexing questions of the current contradictions of self within society are given their most explosive vent, in another psychological release with a rare humorous bend – well, if you find a dude sticking a round in his cranium as the only acceptable resolution to his problems as funny that is…..
I’ve always been fascinated with this second generation of directors who rose through the ranks of music video production to narrative pieces, this must have been where he crossed paths with Savides whom is also responsible for some stunning work in the field, inheriting the mantle from an earlier UK contingent whom similarly arose to prominence through advertising commissions such as the Scott brothers, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson. These were practitioners of the so-called ‘nouveau look’ movement crafted some deliriously supplicant visual texts but only a few were wise and intellectual enough to factor in sub themes and designs into their work, partially neglecting performance for style, their scripts and structure sacrificed on the altar of optical panache and serrating sound. The interesting filmmakers from this paddock embrace CGI at the point of story, not to embellish and amaze but to deepen and delineate the way they formulate the communication of the story in their head, and understand the corporate dimensions of the business and the peculiarities of the star system where a simple miscasting error can destabilise an entire project. In The Game for example Fincher rejected approaches from actresses such as Jodie Foster for the Deborah Karen Unger role as occupying that supporting role would seem odd for an actress of her calibre, and could deviate attention from the constant uncertainty of her piece of jigsaw – we instinctively know that she is involved in the plot somehow and the presence of a star persona would cement those suspicions. They also understand the importance of music as they have been bloodied in repeatedly cutting five & six-minute stories to soundtrack alone, appreciating and digesting the prevalent MTV designs of the era but not necessarily cutting to those rhythms and writhing in the mere surface experiences of visuals and images colliding across the screen.
This brings me back organically to the cinematographer of The Game whom was the subject of this tribute, the great Harris Savides whose work is considering among the best of the form of the past twenty years. This was his first big studio film (he did light the opening ofSe7en though which might be one of the most influential showreels ever) and as some of the speakers at the event pointed out his style shifted from a rather obtuse signaling of imagery to a more subtle pandorum of communication, the mark of genuine artist developing and exploring his craft from project to project. The film clearly shifts from onyx and sheer fluid blacks to autumnal browns as it oscillates through psychological seasons, as Van Horton moves from chilly remoteness to the perils of emotional engagement, all framed within shadow stretched faces and overexposed rear planes, an iconography of renewal and growth which alights on a brighter, cleansing more promising (SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING) palette.
Now as usual lets movie from the archly pretentious cinephile stuff to the fanboy observations, I’ve said it before but the sight of Days Of Heaven narrator Linda Manz is a trainspotting (the activity, not the film) style coup in cameo appearance, and was that Spike Jonze as a paramedic in the final scene? I just love this movie and have regarded it as perpetually sadly neglected among Finchers dark nebula of human interactions, the logical Parallax View homages also refract back to the pulsing paranoia trilogy of Pakula, and like those 1970’s pieces the characters complexion and journey is of ultimate importance, it’s everything, it’s why every scene is propelled from Van Horton’s perspective thus making us unwitting confidants for his journey, wrestling with the same suspicions and paranoid inflections as we also never get a peek behind the curtain to see who is puppetering the patient. Douglas isn’t usually noted for his performances but he is a great actor when the occasion demands, it’s no mistake that this was ten years after the ‘Greed Is Good’ catchphrase of 1987’sWall Street and Fincher must have had these factors in mind, so perhaps the film is a recalibration of the Clinton era Democrat display of fiscal affection for Wall Street embodied in the repelling of the Glass Steagall Act, a prescient foreshadowing of the financial collapse to come. Crucially Van Horton’s opponents are faceless cyphers, unmet and unseen, there is no antagonist to fear and we all know that Deborah Karen Unger’s character is involved in the plot somehow, but these suspicions are twisted and refracted as the structures and buttresses of his life are dissembled with the cold calculation of a takeover assault – his eerie mansion home, the five-star hotel suites, the teak moulded smoking rooms, his corporate HQ.
I have been musing over the best approach to the frequently criticised finale but I think I’ll keep this spoiler free but you can peruse that link provided above, other than to say this is a movie that in some senses is about movies so that potentially implausible decision needs to be digested within a certain pre-erected framework, when you’re telling stories through moving images a physical action can be everything in terms of communicating an idea, a shift, a breakthrough to an audience, and in terms of Nicholas’s final arc it is a perfectly logical resolution which of course is informed by his hereditary So now I can rest on my laurels for 24 hours as that’s another goal reached – every Fincher movie now seen at the flicks, of course these days I will see a new film of his during the weekend of release just like the other main behemoths in the Menagerie paddock – Nolan, Scorsese (well apart from the documentaries), Mann, Lynch, Spielberg, Anderson, Malick, just to name but a few. Alas there isn’t a great deal of material out there in terms of background material which may give this rubik’s cube film a puzzle solving context, so instead here is a fine little montage of his work and some thoughts on cinematography which of course is unusually apt for this post. Until I return with the second film of the event this looks (heh) pretty great as primer on the art of film light and shadow, but let’s close with a final peek down that rabbit hole;