David Fincher’s Joker and Orson Welles Criticisms Shouldn’t Matter

Some are wondering if David Fincher’s criticisms of Joker, Orson Welles, and modern Hollywood will affect how the industry receives Mank. It shouldn’t.

David Fincher and Joker Controversy
Photo: Steve Rogers/ Getty Images / Warner Bros.

David Fincher, the beloved and mercurial filmmaker behind Fight Club and Zodiac, released a seeming torrent of criticism over multiple interviews for everything from fanboy darlings like last year’s Joker to the long worshipped ghost of Orson Welles.

In the case of the former, Fincher was speaking with The Daily Telegraph (via Deadline) when he said, “Nobody would have thought they had a shot at a giant hit with Joker had The Dark Knight not been as massive as it was. I don’t think anyone would have looked at that material and thought, ‘Yeah, let’s take [Taxi Driver’s] Travis Bickle and [The King of Comedy’s] Rupert Pupkin and conflate them, then trap him in a betrayal of the mentally ill, and trot it out for a billion dollars.”

The swipe about Joker being a betrayal of the “mentally ill” is certain to stir the pot with comic book fans, but also the industry which awarded star Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar for playing the disturbed  Clown Prince. But that is just one of many blasts of shade Fincher released out into the ether.

Elsewhere the director spoke with Premiere (via The Playlist). In that interview, Fincher seemed to want to cut down one of Golden Age Hollywood’s sacred cows when he said of Orson Welles, the alleged boy genius who wore many hats on Citizen Kane, “I think Orson Welles’ tragedy lies in the mix between monumental talent and filthy immaturity. Sure, there is genius in Citizen Kane, who could argue? But when Welles says, ‘It only takes an afternoon to learn everything there is to know about cinematography,’ pfff… Let’s say that this is the remark of someone who has been lucky to have Gregg Toland around him to prepare the next shot… Gregg Toland, damn it, an insane genius!”

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He went on to say the disappointment in much of Welles’ later career came down to his “own delusional hubris.”

In the same Premiere interview, Fincher also compared Hollywood studios to “the five families” from The Godfather, with none being interested in anything except what Fincher calls “happy meal” movies that can gross $1 billion.

“None of them want to be in the medium-priced challenging content business. And that cleaves off exactly the kind of movies I make.”

These aren’t the words of a filmmaker not looking to make nice, even with his new film Mank beginning its limited theatrical rollout this month ahead of its Netflix debut in December. And with Hollywood of course being an industry of intense navel-gazing, Fincher’s words have already caused some early introspection… although not about the state of the industry. Rather much of the internal chatter I’ve heard is whether Fincher just handicapped himself ahead of what will be a protracted Oscar season in 2021.

What’s interesting about this reaction is that much of it is not that different from comic book fans being upset that he dared dismiss one of the superhero movie genre’s most legitimized productions. Yet these negative “hot takes” about Joker are nothing new. Most critics last year, including ours, expanded at length on how Joker seemed to remake entire sequences from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Personally though, the bigger problem tended to be Joker had nothing to add on top of those early Scorsese ruminations other than embracing the surface level nihilism of Travis Bickle.

So a critique of Phillips’ Joker, then and now, is obviously valid. As are Fincher’s insights into Welles, a filmmaker who notoriously tried to keep Herman J. Mankiewicz’s name off the Citizen Kane closing titles.

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But of course there is the counterpoint. For example, Welles did write significant and ultimately iconic sequences into Citizen Kane, which is not alluded to in Fincher’s Mank. Similarly, Welles also is one of the few directors in Hollywood history to share his title screen with his cinematographer, which visually seemed to be Welles giving Tolland equal credit for Citizen Kane’s groundbreaking aesthetics.

But the truth is that everyone, whether comic book fans on the internet or Academy voters staring at their ballots, should not take this stuff so personal or seriously. It’s been more than 50 years since Roland Barthes coined the term “Death of the Author,” which argued in essence that a work of art (or “text”) should be evaluated solely on its own merit and in a vacuum, with the insights, aspirations, and personal history of the “author” being meaningless.

This is a narrow way of evaluating art, and as a critic myself, I find what Barthes referred to as the “paratexts”—the historical background of the work or author—to be sometimes the most interesting. It’s certainly almost impossible to divorce Fincher’s opinions on Welles from Mank when the film acts as a direct challenge to the idea that Welles deserves any credit for Citizen Kane’s screenplay.

However, if you enjoy David Fincher films, from Seven and Fight Club to Zodiac and The Social Network, why should him disliking Joker or Welles’ ego affect your opinion on his new film, even if it is a two-hour criticism of Welles? And if you were anticipating viewing Mank, hearing him refer to superhero movies in the main as “happy meals” really should have no influence on you hitting “Play” come Dec. 4.

That’s true of fanboys, and it’s true of Oscar voters and prognosticators, who both have a knack for following media narratives. Undoubtedly, rival studios are already packaging Fincher quotes to trot back out in February and March of next year. It’s the nature of the modern Oscar campaign beast. But playing politics and consensus building in the industry is how we get things like Fincher losing Best Director for The Social Network to Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech. Hooper ran a very Oscar voter-friendly campaign that ruffled no feathers and brought a lot of good cheer to his World War II/British Royal Family melodrama. And by all accounts, he is a kind and friendly man.

But in the years since then, Fincher made Gone Girl and Mank, and Hooper made Cats.

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Like the debate over who deserves the credit for Citizen Kane’s script, at the end of the day, it’s the film that you remember—not what Welles snidely said about Mankiewicz, or what Fincher thought about the R-rated killer clown flick.