David Fincher and Trent Reznor first came together on the big screen in 1995, when the former used a remix of the Nine Inch Nails’ (NIN) track “Closer” (which, in its original form, appeared on 1994’s The Downward Spiral) over the opening credits of Se7en, the brilliant horror and neo-noir film that captivated audiences with its graphic images of fatal bloodletting, an emaciated corpse, and a severed head in a box.
Similar imagery, of course, characterized the 1994 video for “Closer,” which director Mark Romanek created to illustrate Reznor’s simultaneously disconcerting and addictive music – music that grabs the body with a disco beat but discomfits the mind with a chorus that runs, “I wanna fuck you like an animal / I wanna feel you from the inside / I wanna fuck you like an animal / My whole existence is flawed / You bring me closer to God.” As Romanek’s video plays out, the viewer watches a series of shots of nude bald women, crucified monkeys, a diagram of a vagina, and Reznor himself donning an S&M mask and ball gag while he floats in space, suspended by invisible wires, before he tongues a microphone-shaped object that could be a penis, a nipple, or both.
I compare Se7en and the “Closer” video not only to demonstrate the rather obvious point that Fincher and Reznor share a common aesthetic sensibility but to suggest that since the mid-1990s, they have been challenging and inspiring each other to grow as artists. And, with Reznor and his partner Atticus Ross contributing scores for Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), their mutual influence has led to the formation of a perhaps inevitable creative partnership.
Like Reznor, Fincher began his career in the music industry in the 1980s and early 1990s. He directed big-budget videos for mainstream artists, including Madonna, Billy Idol, Paula Abdul, Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, Rick Springfield, Jody Watley, and Steve Winwood – superstars who definitely didn’t share his dark vision. Having so much mainstream baggage, Fincher must have been chomping at the bit when, in 1992, the producers of Alien 3 called on him to direct (read: organize and complete) the mess of a film that had already exhausted its two previous directors, Renny Harlin and Vincent Ward. Even though Alien 3 was a critical disaster and box office flop, and Fincher himself eventually disowned it from his filmography, its dark atmospheres, psychologically compromised characters, and gruesome images for the first time demonstrated the aesthetic that would characterize some of his best films: Se7en, Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2007), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Just as Fincher in the 1990s was gaining the freedom to tackle subject matter that reflected his artistic vision, Reznor’s already gloomy, introspective, and angry work was taking a more cinematic turn. While NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine (1989) and Broken (1992) were collections of songs that explored topics ranging from self-hatred to suicide to the existence of God, they didn’t coalesce into a coherent, narrative arc. NIN’s The Downward Spiral and The Fragile (1999), on the other hand, provided series of interconnected songs that traced the destructive ramifications of low self-esteem in music that at one moment could attain the loud intensity and sheer anger of the most naked punk rock and in the next reach the contemplative softness of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. What makes these albums so cinematic is not only their emphasis on story but their reliance on leitmotifs – that is, the repetitive use of short melodies, chord progressions, and/or rhythm patterns with which the Romanic opera composer Richard Wagner experimented in the nineteenth century. An example of the use of leitmotifs in Reznor’s work from this time period is the simple piano figure with which “Closer” closes and reappears in later songs on The Downward Spiral.
It’s no wonder, then, that during the same time period in which Reznor was creating The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, he was also becoming involved in soundtrack music. He produced the soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers, advising the director to make it into a collage of previously recorded and new songs and dialogue from the film; he also contributed two NIN songs: a new song, “Burn,” and “A Warm Place,” which had originally appeared on The Downward Spiral. In addition, Reznor created the soundtrack for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), collaborating most prominently with Angelo Badalamenti, who had previously composed music for Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks (1990-1992), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Reznor gave cohesion to the Lost Highway soundtrack by bookending it with David Bowie’s song, “I’m Deranged.” He also structured the track listing by including previously recorded songs, Badalamenti’s atmospheric classical pieces, and three new compositions of his own: “Videodrones; Questions,” “The Perfect Drug,” and “Driver Down.”
When Reznor and Fincher finally came together for their first official collaboration – the video for NIN’s song, “Only” (from 2005’s With Teeth) – they not only shared a common sensibility but also a heightened awareness of the relationship between music and visual imagery. With Reznor’s sing-speak vocals, nihilistic theme of the loss of self, and dance beats, “Only” perhaps too closely resembles “Down in It” from Pretty Hate Machine and is therefore a rather unremarkable speck in NIN’s usually high quality and innovative catalogue. But Fincher’s video gives it a new dimension. Created almost entirely using CGI effects, the video features Reznor’s face rendered as Pin Art in a box that’s positioned next to a Mac PowerBook from which the song plays. It’s Fincher’s vision as a visual artist that allows the video to illuminate the dehumanization and mechanization of self at which Reznor’s lyrics only hint.
In The Social Network, Reznor, along with and his musical collaborator Atticus Ross, provides a similar amplification of meaning to the one that Fincher gives “Only.” Ever the scholar of classical music, Reznor relies on a leitmotif to carry out this amplification. In an early scene from the film, when the socially disaffected and angry Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) first experiences the inspiration to create Facebook, Reznor’s score consists of a slow, minimalistic, tender, repetitive, and rather triumphant piano figure, which is heard loudly in the mix, above a grumbling, machine-like synth drone. On the soundtrack, Reznor titles this part of the score “Hand Covers Bruise.” Later in the film, Reznor reprises “Hand Covers Bruise” as a leitmotif during the deposition scene in which Zuckerberg faces lawsuits from a former partner whom he cut out of the company and two other former associates who accuse him of intellectual property theft. The reprise of “Hand Covers Bruise,” however, puts the machine-like drone at the top of the mix and the tender piano figure at the bottom, suggesting that Zuckerberg has gone through a moral decline and become somewhat of a machine in his inability to have compassion for the very people who once helped him create Facebook.
Reznor’s relationship with Fincher, of course, has continued into 2011, with the recent release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’ll take multiple viewings of the film to comment accurately on the relationship between the Reznor-Ross score and Fincher’s film, and I’ve only seen the film once. But I can say now that the use of humor in both the soundtrack for and the film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo strikes me as the most obvious distinction between Fincher’s latest film and The Social Network. Just as Steven Zaillian’s screenplay adds a degree of humor that doesn’t feature as much in Stieg Larsson’s novel, especially in the scenes in which Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) uses her soaring intelligence and photographic memory to put Mikael (Daniel Craig) in his place, the Reznor-Ross-Karen O cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” serves to lighten the mood. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant’s over-the-top lyrics border on the ridiculous (“We come from the land of the ice and snow, / From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. / The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands, / To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!”), but when Karen O sings them in her powerful wail, they become a commentary on the fascist tendencies of the Swedish Vanger family, an announcement of Lisbeth’s power as a force against men who hate women, and a humorously ironic and feminist re-rendering of a song that’s traditionally been interpreted as a vindication of masculine power. Lisbeth similarly undercuts masculine power in the film.
With Reznor’s newfound sense of musical humor in “Immigrant Song,” he’s light years beyond the all-encompassing gravity of the music he made in 1989 on Pretty Hate Machine. His soundtrack work for Fincher has proven that he can stretch beyond NIN’s traditional, angst-ridden subject matter. Fincher has also expanded his horizons, especially in The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to comment on social issues, such as the ubiquity of social media sites, corporate greed, and misogyny, which affect us all. The Reznor-Fincher nexus has allowed for artistic growth, the creation of new art, and new ways for imagining the world in which we live.