“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen.
Check out the first entry here, the second here and last week’s here.
If there’s anything to learn about the cinemas of David Fincher and Nicolas Winding Refn, it’s that Fincher loves cheekbones and Refn loves arm muscles. Though the two auteurs lean into opposite ends of the monetary and distribution spectrum, with Fincher’s work often getting wide releases and Refn left shouting, “Violence, motherfuckers!” in art houses, they’ve more in common than most audiences would initially think, besides an obsession with definition. Not only are the two fascinated by masculine identity, it practically defines their filmmaking: It’s infused into their every image, even going so far as to eroticize every frame. Fincher and Refn have honed in on the bisexual male gaze.
That Fincher’s work has a bit of a queer male gaze in it should not come entirely as a surprise, as he’s told quasi-male love stories before. In Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network, there’s a curious complexity that transcends his characters’ seemingly fraternal bonds, in that they become more and more connected with the idea of either aspiring to or falling in love with a certain kind of masculine identity.
Regardless of whether or not Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is “real,” Fight Club’s physical expression of Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator’s Id manages to hyper-sexualize the form of masculinity that Durden embodies. The sexualization and the weaponizing of the male form become inextricable, with Fincher’s camera always paying close attention to Pitt’s body: His carved-in-marble cheekbones, his statuesque figure, his aggression and his masculinized violence all manifest as turn-ons. While Fight Club is obviously intended, to some degree, to be a critique of this brand of masculinity, Fincher can’t help but be a little astonished by it—and a little aroused. That spliced-in frame of an erect dick isn’t there for nothing.
While Fight Club has a very physical idea of masculinity and sexuality, Fincher is as interested in an intellectual version of maleness. The mind game of Zodiac between Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the Zodiac Killer is a courtship of sorts, its trajectory rising and falling like messages from a secret admirer, clues offered in order to open some hidden desire, some ultimate prize. As Graysmith says, sweat dripping from his brow, desperation in his eyes, “I need to know who he is. I need to stand there, I need to look at him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.” It’s a line straight out of a Nicholas Sparks movie.
The line between love and obsession is something on which Fincher has fixated before, particularly in Se7en, but within the framework of Zodiac the cerebral nature of how Graysmith compartmentalizes this obsession as work gives insight to a kind of queerness that’s rooted in masochism and self-loathing. The Zodiac Killer’s taunts are self-assured, reeking of the very mindful confidence Graysmith, who is bookish and introverted, doesn’t have. Fincher shoots Gyllenhaal’s face closely and tightly, often in profile. The sloping bone structure, the cavernous shadows—all while Graysmith holds a pen and tries to crack the code. It’s as if Fincher is building his perfect man.
The Social Network, like an internal argument about the various cerebral facets and performative values of masculinity, is not dissimilar in this vein. The opposition of these values takes the form of court cases: In the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, sort of) vs Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), you have Zuckerberg’s intellectual prowess against the Winklevoss’s physical perfection; in Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) vs Zuckerberg, it’s Saverin’s hipster/dandy/suave presentation/construction poised against the latter’s comfort-first anti-materialism. Put the two battles together, and The Social Network becomes Fincher’s Rocky, sans gold underwear.
Zuckerberg’s disdain towards the Winklevii makes sense: They represent a kind of maleness that Zuckerberg could never dream of owning. His response to that is contempt—few can put on a scowl like Eisenberg—but with contempt, there’s always a little bit of desire in the fold. But Zuckerberg’s erotic ambivalence about the Winklevii is a front to some degree as The Social Network transitions into a lover’s quarrel between he and Saverin. It’s too easy to read the lawsuit against Zuckerberg as little more than jealousy, because there is something human in Fincher’s work that appears intermittently amidst the perceived cynicism: heartbreak. The lawsuit is as heart-wrenching for the two friends, especially for Saverin, as a custody battle. It is, in essence, a divorce. Fincher’s examination of failed relationships and the broken hearts of broken people continues with Gone Girl, but it’s in The Social Network where the director hones in on the notion of constructed identity, not only for the users of the revolutionary social media platform being created, but for the lovers involved in its creation as well.
While Fincher’s oeuvre approaches male identity from a monster-mash of perspectives, Nicolas Winding Refn is interested in machismo as a singularly sexual thing. His critique of masculinity is an inverse of the sexualization of femininity: While online “broteur” worshippers may see his protagonists as the epitome of (masculine) power, it’s that exact form that his films turn into an object, fetishizing to the point of absurdity.
Refn’s 2008 film Bronson literally turns masculine aggression, violence and power into a vaudevillian performance, with the eponymous hooligan (Tom Hardy) breaking the fourth wall to tell his story, frequently donning harlequin makeup and costume. In one scene in a mental institution, the Pet Shop Boys hit “It’s a Sin” blares as Bronson lurches towards the screen, away from his “crowd,” dancing. At any moment, the hulking anti-hero can be seen bashing-in heads and reveling in the infamy his antics garner him, but before that crowd he is helpless. The oscillation from power to submission and back again, Refn’s camera forever fixed on Hardy’s hard body, has a queer sensibility about it. Plus, you can’t get much gayer than the Pet Shop Boys.
While Refn unleashes ridiculous amounts of machismo in Valhalla Rising and Drive, he keys deeply into camp for the much-maligned Only God Forgives. Ryan Gosling looking sad, lots of close-up shots of fists and the people who look at them, Kristen Scott Thomas playing the lovechild of Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace—Only God Forgives is screeching theatricality mixed seamlessly with totally inane presentations of masculinity, both Southeast Asian and American. More in this film than in any of his others, Refn reveals himself as some strange cross between Xavier Dolan’s unrelenting melodramatist and Lars von Trier’s enfant terrible provocateur. Gosling’s sad manboy look is used here to comic effect, and his filled-out shirt make him look not so much menacing as strangely sensitive when he provokes, “Wanna fight?” Meanwhile, Kristen Scott Thomas leers at the camera, chewing every scene she can, reminiscent of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. But crucial to this bizarre performance is that she makes a mockery of traditional machismo, turns it not into a thing of strength but of jest. It’s a construct that becomes ultimately useless in the film, beyond the sensual, though somewhat ironic, pleasures it gives to the camera and, in turn, to the audience.
While many (male) directors are inclined to distance themselves from any hard critiques or even examinations of masculinity that breach the realm of “queer,” Fincher and Refn up the ante, offering perspectives that challenge traditional depictions of masculinity in film. They’re curious as to why it’s something western culture loves in the particular context that it does, and in doing so, objectify it. Bodies are on screen, on the inside, making gestures erotic, romantic, all the while trying to maintain a modicum of what they think traditional masculinity is. But rarely does that tradition survive. As Bronson sneers into the camera: “You don’t want to be trapped inside with me, sunshine.”
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer, editor and transcriber. He has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, the Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.