From Madonna to Mank: Why David Fincher’s greatest film is an erotic pop music video
Friday, 06 November 2020
Back in the Nineties, Fincher was coming to the end of a luminous eight years as a music video visionary. The likes of Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and George Michael’s supermodel-filled “Freedom ‘90” were gorgeous exercises in style and short-form storytelling. Little was more thrilling, though, than his work with Madonna - from the grandiose myth-making of “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” to the richly personal “Oh Father”. They both recognised the cinematic potential of the form, even if it came at a cost - all of their collaborations rank among the most expensive videos ever made.
That trilogy of music videos – which came before “Bad Girl” and were shot over the course of 10 months between 1989 and 1990 – would reflect a fruitful creative tussle between the pair. Despite Fincher’s relative lack of clout in the industry at the time, and especially compared to Madonna’s cultural ubiquity, they would approach their work as somewhat begrudging - and almost flirtatious - equals.
In interviews, Fincher recalled expressing mock outrage when Madonna asked him if he had heard of Metropolis, the landmark sci-fi film she wanted to replicate for “Express Yourself”. Madonna sneered at his idea to have her crawl across the floor, lick milk from a bowl, and then pour it over herself in the same video, assuming it might look like a student film. It turned out to be one of the video’s most memorable set pieces. The visual for “Oh Father”, meanwhile, a psychological wormhole into Madonna’s childhood and the emotional toll of her mother’s death, only came about at Fincher’s insistence. Madonna had been unsure it would even work as a single. Fincher, though, saw it as ripe for visual accompaniment, and captured her vulnerability like no other.
Since then, Fincher’s work with Madonna has been all over his filmmaking, their music video collaborations regularly gesturing towards the movies that would make him internationally famous. The gorgeously monochrome “Oh Father” lifts a number of visual cues from Citizen Kane, which serves as the backdrop for Mank, starring Gary Oldman as its screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. Mank also plunges into the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age, much like the video for “Vogue”, while the industrial, dystopian cityscape of “Express Yourself” was recreated in Fincher’s feature debut Alien 3 (1992). But it is “Bad Girl”, full of the psychological depth, visual symbolism and pulpy thrills that would dominate much of Fincher’s filmography, that is his unheralded masterpiece.
“Bad Girl” was an unexpected final chapter in the Madonna/Fincher saga, occurring two years after they had apparently drifted apart. His hiring seemed to come about as a last resort, Madonna having already approached Tim Burton, Mark Romanek and photographer Ellen von Unwerth to direct. She envisioned something that teased the links betwen sex and death, inspired by Judith Rossner’s novel Looking for Mr Goodbar. Published in 1975, it is a provocative thriller about a schoolteacher drifting through New York bars sleeping with strange men and winding up murdered. While neither Madonna nor Fincher have ever spoken about the circumstances behind their final collaboration, or what had changed in their personal dynamic since 1991, it is presumed Fincher ran with the idea.
Like “Oh Father”, “Bad Girl” feels like a personal exorcism for Madonna, of a kind only Fincher seemed to be able to coax out of her. Speaking to the BBC in 1992, Madonna dismissed speculation that “Bad Girl” was about sex work, and instead about a woman embroiled in a toxic relationship. “She really cares for this person and she’s having a hard time saying goodbye,” she explained. “She’s unhappy with her situation and getting drunk, smoking too many cigarettes ... because she’s trying to distract herself from reality.”
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