Our Eyes On You: Voyeurism in ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Maps to the Stars’

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At least outwardly, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a film defined by its knife-edge turnabouts, orchestrated with an elaborate tangle of dread brought upon by a thrilling script, masterful direction, as well as an equally noteworthy score. If not for David Fincher’s sway, however, Gillian Flynn’s tale of passionate, domestic misanthropy could have easily atrophied to pulp. Is a film so gravely reliant on its many twists and turns worthy of ubiquity in praise, or is there simply more to Fincher’s Gone Girl, perchance subtler but more sizable than gender roles and suspense?

At this point in his career, Fincher is only outmatched by Alfred Hitchcock in his ardent championing of pulp. The two directors are particularly matchless in their ability to rework sensationalism and masterfully emphasize its underlying pathos instead. In the wake of Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher no longer needs to attest to his competency in exploring terrains more complicated than pitch-black melodrama, but in truth, of his creations, those most akin to Gone Girl manage to demonstrate his mastery best. A film like Gone Girl could only be executed so faultlessly by David Fincher, who furnishes the unsophisticated with nuance, and the simplistic with a wealth of style and intelligence.

All through his canon of films, Fincher has habitually exhibited his artistic investment in more than just suspense, wayfaring through the most intricate of paperback stories in search of greater dimensionality and plaintiveness. Be that as it may, Gone Girl provides an instance where Fincher seems no longer interested in the interior, turning his gaze instead to the external madness bred by the swell of spectacle, and particularly, the irrepressible voyeurs it begets.

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Analogous to how the drama-frenzied spectators of the film taunt Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) for the disappearance of his wife only to bleed for him following a reality-television confession of wrongdoing, Fincher masterfully harnesses the audience’s emotions in the same manner, prompting inside of them a revolution of uncertain emotions. A shadow momentarily sullying half of Affleck’s face as he drives away leads us to intuitively suspect Dunne of murder, as does the emergence of a buxom mistress; but it does not take long for our emotions to swivel around once more and back again as the film progresses. The very joy of the film is not in its cinematic twists, but in the visceral sea change of emotions it prompts in its audience.

As a result of this, Dunne is kept under surveillance not only by the onlookers within the film, but by those outside it as well. Although he is unaware of that fourth wall, his director isn’t, and Fincher commandingly guides the audience around the suspense to keep them heaving, revealing each twist only when he sees fit, his method being precisely similar to how the media handles Dunne’s case, allowing his every misstep to lead to his villanization and his every tear to occasion a sympathetic homecoming.

Guided by the film’s many unreliable narrators, the audience is left unaware of the outright manipulation of their senses. Why these spectators, both inside and outside the film, choose to be put in this position of deception seems to be the underlying question of the film. What leads audiences to make idols of the everyman and everyman, and even more, what is this basis of this voyeuristic hankering?

Film, which was perhaps the most voyeuristic medium until the twenty-first century, is at least blanketed by its claim to fiction, but Gone Girl demonstrates a more violent form of this phenomenon – the contemporaneous opportunity to directly seek protagonists, antagonists, and spectacle within the bounds of reality, irrespective of its gray areas. This long-suppressed need that detonated at the dawning of reality television not only metamorphosed the very notion of celebrity, but engendered the oxymoron of private performance, where the private realm becomes a stage on which to watch and be watched, loathed and be adored, and most of all, remembered, not for one’s gifts but for one’s theatrics – which to be fair, requires a characteristic genius of its own.

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If only the actual celebrities in David Cronenberg’s flawed but splendid Maps to the Stars could procure this kind of scrutiny as well. Living in glass houses, dropping as many names as they can, and literally howling for attention, Cronenberg’s characters have no shame in admitting their ravenous pining for attention. They receive none of it, not because they are necessarily bad at their craft, but because the type of celebrity they represent has obsolesced. The middle-aged actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown is a matter of no consequence when compared to the small-town husband and would-be-murderer.

The cleverness of Bruce Wagner’s script lies precisely in its utter vacuum of paparazzi and admirers. The Los Angeles portrayed in the film is more akin to a ghost town than a metropolis, brimming with those ruined or about to be ruined. Even the one celebrity-enthusiast present in the film, a little girl visited by child-star Benjie Weiss (portrayed exceptionally by Evan Bird), is on her deathbed at a hospital, perishing moments after the film begins and leaving her hero so forlorn that he must dreams her up in nightmares. His father Dr. Stafford (John Cusack) is a masseur to the stars as well as their New Age therapist, pinching their thighs and persuading them to channel their pasts and spurn their woes away. Among his patients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an actress on the verge of obscurity and full with angst over her deceased but still-ubiquitous mother.

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Like Stafford, who has equipped his home with windows instead of walls, Havana also quails at the prospect of privacy, but like her therapist’s always visible but never noticed home, she too passes her days in anonymity. Her only goal is to find her way back into the limelight, even if it means taking over the role made famous by her mother, a lurid but nevertheless sharp metaphor for her willingness to become the exact likeness of what she loathes.

Though Havana is the beating heart of the film, its understated corruption is buried in Stafford’s cold poise. He has bred a family that he’s cast out to the public sphere, one to a penitentiary and the other to Hollywood. Humorously enough, the wicked but brilliant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), entombed in prison for most of her adolescence owing to her past attempt to slay her brother, is the film’s most judicious character. Fresh out of prison, Agatha is recruited by Havana as a personal assistant, and gradually becomes her only friend and devotee. Accordingly, the actress becomes so reliant on Agatha’s veneration that even while she defecates, she feels the need to summon her, decisively transmuting her assistant into her sole audience in every facet of her life. This perhaps is Havana’s last, paltry gasp in replicating the form of celebrity that has outdone her.

But though Agatha has been born into Hollywood, she is the noiseless antithesis of all it stands for. Capable of hiding her past, feelings, and misdeeds, she is wholly unlike the unsung celebrities in the film. Rather than seek the notice of an attentive public, she hungers only for the care and forgiveness of her parents, and thus hunts for meaning in a more private sphere of life. As a result, she almost comes across as the hazy hero of Cronenberg and Wagner’s hero-less film. Though her creators don’t dare to celebrate her as openly as heroes often are, their high regard for her is manifest in the permission they give her to make her way through the world of celebrity, razing its superficial tenets, and in turn, heralding the reign of the everyman and everywoman in celebrity culture. When that sphere has already been so deprived, the film suggests that it is perhaps best for it to perish. That being so, the infusion of the Nick Dunnes, Amazing Amys as well the quiet Agathas into modern culture might then not signify the death of celebrity, but its democratization. With fame no longer restricted to the elite, our eyes are finally set free to wander, in search of not just a good story, but also a better life.

Morad Moazami