Such an anniversary imbues Adam Nayman’s recent retrospective David Fincher: Mind Games (Abrams, 2021) with a sense of history. This is the third of a set in which CinemaScope and The Ringer critic Nayman focuses on contemporary auteur filmmakers (his previous volumes were on the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson). Here, Nayman coordinates his systematic review of Fincher’s filmography by pointing to a curious paradox: “Over the past thirty years, Fincher has cultivated and maintained a reputation that precedes him of formal rigor and technocratic exactitude, of moviemaking as a game of inches.” He then adds, “[T]he most succinct way of defining the cinema of David Fincher might be to say that, on his watch, the trains run on time.”
Taken together, Fincher’s oeuvre criticizes the contemporary American streak of authoritarianism, one that uses surveillance, mass media, and violence to crush dissent. Ironically, Fincher’s own attention to detail has given him a reputation in Hollywood as a demanding and exacting auteur. In that way, might his pet themes — and his precise process — resemble the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail? Must an anti-authoritarian storyteller become a dictator in the attempt to stick the landing?
Two recent books, in addition to Nayman’s, lay out the path that genre narratives have taken in response to the ever-encroaching surveillance state, the dwindling right to privacy, and the ways in which literary creators have narrativized these issues. Brian Hochman’s The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States (Harvard University Press, 2022) and Palmer Rampell’s Genres of Privacy in Postwar America (Stanford University Press, 2022) consider the long battle between the would-be protectors of American privacy and the authorities that often seek to cast it aside, as well as the stories — literary, pulp, and cinematic — that have dramatized these concerns. As these three texts indicate, as long as authorities have interfered with the perceived sanctity of American privacy, there have been stories contemplating the consequences of those transgressions. The battle over privacy and surveillance has been going on longer than any of us might have imagined.
Hochman’s The Listeners contextualizes the history of electronic surveillance by tracing its roots to the origins of electronic communications in general. Hochman, an associate professor at Georgetown University, opens his history with a vertigo-inducing episode — the story of a stockbroker named D. C. Williams. A Californian who defrauded financial markets by exploiting intercepted communications between mining and manufacturing companies, Williams made a fortune through what amounted to insider trading. However, Williams was caught and later convicted under “an obscure California statute prohibiting the interception of electronic messages.” Though the story might read to us as a contemporary tale of financial crime, Hochman saves the year of the conviction for his parable’s conclusion. Hochman writes: “The year — and here’s the twist to the story — was 1864.”
As long as there have been electronic communications (i.e., telegraph wires), there have been operators who have sought to tap those wires for financial gain or under the oversight of law enforcement. During the American Civil War, wiretappers were employed by both Union and Confederate armies to spy on enemy movements, and at the conclusion of that conflict, wiretappers started becoming principal players in financial scams (typified by the D. C. Williams scandal).
Along with the adoption of the telephone, government authorities seeking to thwart Prohibition-era bootlegging rings started tapping phone lines for a perceived edge in law enforcement — an advantage that Hochman indicates was always ambiguous and problematic. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called wiretapping a “dirty business” in a blistering dissent to the majority opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928), a decision which ruled that evidence found through wiretapping was not protected under Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. Thus, the stage was set for a century of legal battles over the extent of electronic surveillance necessary for law enforcement at the expense of personal privacy.
For decades, the status of wiretapping remained a legal seesaw. While the Supreme Court ruled in Nardone v. United States (1939) that warrantless wiretapping was inadmissible in court, a year later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt secretly ordered that federal law enforcement could pursue surveillance tactics in the name of national security. In Hochman’s telling, the tension between restrictions on wiretapping and governmental abuse of these restrictions played out for the next few decades, until 1968, after which wiretapping, with a court-ordered warrant, “evolved into a routine police practice.”
The Listeners mostly concerns itself with the evolution of electronic communications and bugging technology in tandem, as well as the legal battle over the government’s use of these systems, but Hochman also engages with the genre narratives that arose to discuss these issues. From Arthur Stringer’s pulp best seller The Wire Tappers (1906), to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic neo-noir about a bugger, The Conversation (1974), to HBO’s acclaimed drama series The Wire (2002–2008), the right to privacy pitted against the surveillance state has been a battle reenacted repeatedly in novels, films, and on television.
Notably, The Wire Tappers, about a couple of telegraph clerks who team up as wiretappers for a crime boss before falling in love and betraying said crime boss, started a trend in the wiretapping genre. Hochman argues that “[t]apping a line, in wire thrillers like The Wire Tappers, is all it seems to have taken to make an upstanding citizen break bad.” Hochman follows that thread all the way to The Wire. Connecting the series to showrunner David Simon’s 1990 Baltimore Sun reporting that inspired the arc of the show, Hochman foregrounds the story of the legal operation of a wiretap by the Baltimore Police Department and its mixed results in combating the city’s organized crime and drug epidemic.
One of the most interesting episodes recounted in The Listeners is the tale of William J. Burns. A Secret Service agent turned private detective turned first director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI, later renamed the FBI), Burns played himself in films such as The Exposure of the Land Swindlers (1913) and was later ousted from the BOI for his role in the Teapot Dome Scandal. If there ever was a real-life character who was tarnished by his own ends, it was Burns. Or, take the wild example of J. Arthur Vaus, a notorious wiretapper who worked for L.A. mob boss Mickey Cohen before meeting preacher Billy Graham and repenting his immoral ways. Vaus’s story gets even more surreal. After he found God, he wrote a best-selling memoir with an introduction by Mickey Cohen, and that book was adapted as the film Wiretapper (1955), featuring Graham playing himself.
Hochman is careful to emphasize that government surveillance historically came at the expense of women — in the 1950s, many women were often bugged by private investigators, hired by husbands concerned about potential infidelity. These practices also predominantly targeted people of color, who bore the brunt of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in numerous such ways. Hochman’s conclusion, on the battle over releasing the transcripts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s tapped phone lines, heightens the racial dimension to the surveillance state’s pattern of behavior.
The Listeners stops short of analyzing the latest form of electronic surveillance, namely how governments and private companies monitor social media and internet activity to support targeted ads and content. In fairness, this aspect is a story for another book (or series of books). Taken all together, The Listeners is a fascinating look at the battle between surveillance and privacy in the United States over the past 150 years and the paranoia regarding electronic surveillance that provided the ballast for the genre narratives that dramatized this conflict.
Surveillance isn’t the only form of privacy violation that has been tapped for the literary and media industries. Palmer Rampell’s Genres of Privacy in Postwar America considers how a multiplicity of privacy questions have been debated and interrogated through 20th-century literary genres. Seemingly an adaptation of Rampell’s dissertation at Yale University, Genres of Privacy is a brainy and painstaking literature review of a variety of postwar genre works and their relationship to contemporary, privacy-related issues.
“The constitutional right to privacy was legally enshrined in relationship to questions of sexual reproduction, as a right for a married couple to use contraception, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965),” Rampell writes.
But before and after its official legal establishment, legal scholars, judges, and everyday people thought about the right to privacy as the right to define oneself as a person, thereby encompassing other issues of personal autonomy and bodily freedom — like queer sexuality, police surveillance, abortion, child abuse, and euthanasia.
Tracing the origin of the phrase “right to privacy” back to Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’s eponymous 1890 Harvard Law Review article, Rampell’s expansive definition of the right to privacy gives his book a wide sweep and provides a view into several different issues and genres, lending it an immediate relevance. The right to privacy’s most famous invocation was of course in Roe v. Wade (1973), recently overturned by the majority opinion of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and with it, the right to pursue an abortion nationwide, allowing individual states to restrict or ban abortion.
In five chapters, Rampell outlines five issues and their relationships to five genres: queer thrillers, Black police procedurals, abortion-minded science fiction, child abuse–themed horror, and the euthanasia-centered Western. Intriguingly, Rampell contrasts more famous literary figures such as Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, Stephen King, and Cormac McCarthy with nearly forgotten literary stylists including Dorothy Hughes (In a Lonely Place ), Margaret Millar (Beast in View ), and Jess Kimbrough (Defender of the Angels ). Notably, Rampell incorporates details from the authors’ lives to try and assign authorial intent, a tendentious move for some, but an instructive move, as the examples he selects are well chosen.
For example, we learn that Highsmith became “entranced” with a woman she met at Bloomingdale’s, forming the basis for the scenario dramatized in The Price of Salt (1952), later adapted as the 2015 film Carol. Highsmith was also known to identify with her famous creation Tom Ripley, the sociopathic con man. Paraphrasing the late Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar, Rampell notes that “Highsmith identified with Ripley, saying, for instance, ‘I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing.’” The author continues that tactic by outlining Philip K. Dick’s anti-abortion stance, paired with Dick’s disagreement over his wife’s decision to have an abortion in 1960. Such an anecdote provides a revealing context to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the inspiration for Blade Runner (1982). This combination of the author’s life story and literary criticism transforms what was commonly thought of as a Frankenstein story — a parable of creation and destruction — into an anti-abortion polemic that invites readers to rethink their understanding of Dick’s literary politics.
One of the most interesting ideas of Rampell’s book is his essay on the Western as a genre that complemented Oregon and Washington State’s pro-euthanasia politics. Citing Edith Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree (1907), Rampell argues that the Western often recasts euthanasia as an act of dignity amid a wilderness where the cruelty of nature can end life at any moment.
The book concludes that the current privacy predicament presented by the conservative-majority Supreme Court will sow the ground for further explorations of privacy issues in genre fiction. “While science fiction authors are better at imagining the future than literary critics,” Rampell writes, “it seems reasonable to expect that writers experimenting with genre, continually revising their anti-realist forms, will remain at the vanguard of imagining the limitations, the boundaries, the possibilities of what privacy could mean.”
Which brings us back to Adam Nayman’s David Fincher: Mind Games, whose subject forms a sort of 21st-century successor to the genre writers who preceded him.
Some of the guiding principles of Nayman’s analysis of Fincher are the auteur’s similarities to Orson Welles, another whiz kid who early on attracted the ire of his contemporaries. It is a comparison perhaps made explicit by Fincher himself in his most recent film, Mank. But Nayman cautions that Fincher’s signature on his films is more subtle than that of Welles.
“Where Welles was apt to stand at the center of his movies as an ever-mutable emblem of his own authorship,” Nayman writes, “Fincher imposes his presence through the actions and psychologies of thinly veiled proxies: Clockmakers and safecrackers; hackers and terrorists; detectives and serial killers.”
Nayman’s book tackles Fincher thematically rather than in sequence. Of substantial interest is his appraisal of Fincher’s early career making commercials and music videos for Propaganda Films, which launched with a PSA for the American Cancer Society depicting a fetus smoking a cigarette. Thereafter, the “Crime Scenes” section documents the three main-line serial killer stories (Se7en, Zodiac, Mindhunter), “Maximum Security” follows the claustrophobic, panopticon narratives of Alien 3 and Panic Room, “Reality Bites” the mind-bending thrillers of The Game and Fight Club, and so on. By the time we get to Fincher’s latter-day genre pieces — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl — we can see how the themes in his films start repeating themselves, thereby taking on new resonances.
That being said, auteurism can be its own kind of conspiracy theory. The 2012 documentary Room 237, which chronicled wild conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — from the assertion that the film was an allegory regarding the genocide of Native Americans, to the theory that it was Kubrick’s way of “admitting” that he had “staged” the moon landing — reveals some of the pitfalls of this sort of critical logic. As viewers of the 2018 neo-noir Under the Silver Lake might understand, following supposed hidden messages across films (or from cereal boxes) can be a dangerous and ill-fated enterprise — unless, of course, it isn’t.
Nayman takes pains to emphasize where Fincher’s work has blind spots — in its typical lack of sympathetic, non-sociopathic female characters, as well as the frequency in which his Black characters are shoehorned into more stereotypical roles (Forest Whitaker in Panic Room, the Black supporting cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
It goes without saying that the book is beautiful, with abundant color stills and richly textured illustrations from each Fincher project under examination. Every chapter wraps with a graphic that showcases each project’s apparent film forebears and influences, presenting a nifty genealogy and situation of Fincher’s work within film canon. At the book’s conclusion are a series of interviews with frequent Fincher collaborators such as Mindhunter star (and Alien 3 and Fight Club alum) Holt McCallany and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, which provide counterpoints and complements to Nayman’s series of critical appraisals.
The question remains: is Fincher too authoritarian? Not for his crew, according to the collaborators interviewed in the book. Responding to the frequently told story that Fincher does an excessive number of takes, casting director Laray Mayfield said, “It couldn’t be that bad, or none of us would do it.”
But, then again, Fincher’s collaborators know who might be watching — and reading.
Harrison Blackman is a Fulbright fellow, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a TV and film project consultant.