Monday, October 3, 2016

"The Art of Manipulation" by Ben Russell (ENG 102: Fall 2016)

Films are often perceived as a simple means of entertainment, and they usually succeed in doing this. However, it’s easy to literally look over these small details that can tell us more about what is being shown on screen, and potentially what’s hiding behind it. Hollywood has a large pool of talented directors who pride themselves on such subtly. One of these directors is David Fincher, known for his precision in filmmaking. His most recent film, Gone Girl stands out based on his philosophy of film making. To briefly summarize the plot of Gone Girl, this is a film that explores the events surrounding a man named Nick Dunne and the disappearance of his wife, Amy. As the film progresses, the media’s perception of Nick changes based upon several plot developments in the film. This causes the media frenzy to increase surrounding their relationship, and ultimately Nick’s public persona. It is therefore clear that David Fincher’s Gone Girl is an exploration of how the media is able to manipulate what is true, and its abilities of persuasion towards the public.
            In the first twenty-five minutes of the film when Nick along with his mother and father in law make their first public appearance before the media, it’s important to focus on the tone of Nick’s voice when he speaks. His tone is lethargic, and almost sounds like he is uncaring about the current disappearance of his wife. After Nick makes his speech, we get a shot of detective Jim Gilpin’s face, which appears to be a foreshadowing of his attitude and opinion of Nick. Compare this to how Amy’s parents sound. Her father actually sounds somewhat similar to Nick, but his dialogue describing her as “she really is Amazing Amy” (which refers to her children’s book series) is a clear indication of how concerned he is, and is perhaps tired rather than uncaring. His short speech also implies that Amy is well known, when he says that “millions” of readers grew up with her books. The mother’s speech is perhaps the most professional, where she gives the location of the volunteer headquarters. It’s also interesting to note that while Amy parents are speaking, Nick looks tired, and uninterested, and often glances over towards his sister. Nick is also considerably far away from Amy’s parents, a clear visual indication that Nick is not personally close to Amy’s parents. After Amy’s mother has concluded her speech, Nick makes a fatal mistake, but it isn’t directly his fault upon further analysis. Nick poses with one of the two large missing posters with Amy’s smiling face while reporters take pictures, and his current expression doesn’t necessarily imply any sort of smirk or smug attitude. If you listen closely you can hear someone say “smile”, Nick does smile, and the cameras keep rolling. This scene, while short is very important because it’s the first time the media gets a good look at Nick Dunne, and his impressions on them are not going to be in his favor. This is where we need to look at some basic psychology. Vanessa Van Petten’s article titled “5 Ways To Make a Killer First Impression” starts off with the following:

            Most people will judge you within the first second of meeting you and their opinion will most likely never change. Making a good first impression is incredibly important,  because you only get one shot at it (Petten, 2011).

Scanning along the article, you’ll find that the third tip is to be mindful of your body language. She explains that posture and the angle of your body can go a long way to make a better impression. When Nick smiled, he only did this because someone from the crowd told him to. After he finishes posing with the photo, Amy’s parents are not smiling in any capacity, and their facial expressions show concern. Throughout the film Nick’s picture with the poster will be used to damage his public persona. A popular saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” absolutely applies to this photo of Nick’s seemingly smug smile. On a final note about this scene, there is an interesting reason why Ben Affleck was cast to play the lead. Fincher picked him because Affleck is someone in the media who is constantly being covered, as well as a certain annoyance with it. Fincher also picked Affleck for his smile, which proves to be effective throughout the film, especially in this scene (Kashdan, 2015).
            Nick’s actions continue to build suspicion with the police. He drives over to his dad’s house (although he is currently in assisted living, therefore he is not there to visit his dad) and triggers an alarm when entering the home. While trying to disarm the alarm, he finds the third envelope of clues in his dad’s house, but doesn’t present this evidence to the police when they meet him. When he is confronted by detective Rhnoda and her partner, Jim. Nick then asks if they’re following him, since they were so quick to respond to the house intruder alarm. At this point both the media and police are not necessarily in a good relationship with Nick. Two days into Amy’s disappearance, the film takes viewers to the volunteer headquarters. Again, focusing on body language, Nick walks around greeting volunteers, and makes yet again another fatal mistake, and this time it’s is all on him. While Nick is walking around, Amy’s parents are keeping an eye on him. He walks past a group of women, where one in particular looks at him, and he gives a small smile. After she looks away, Nick looks to the right, and we see Amy’s parents, who witnessed the whole exchange. Que Nick’s sister, who says “you look like hammered shit”. Notice also how when Nick walks around, it appears almost as if everyone is circling around him, much like an arena. While talking to detective Rhonda, he excuses himself to help someone who appears to be homeless, by giving him a bag full of food. Her partner, Jim doesn’t buy his act of kindness, saying “Oh, look. He’s being a good guy, so everybody can see him being a good guy”. After Rhonda replies, he then says “What’s to like?”. After Nick helps the homeless man, he sees Amy’s stalker, and tries to talk to him. Instead, Nick yet again has a fatal encounter that will, again, go against his public persona. The woman Nick was looking at earlier greets herself as Shona Kelly, and wants to cook for Nick. Shona then rubs his left arm, and takes a picture, or “selfie” with him. When Nick sees the picture, he asks Shona to delete the photo. She dismisses the request at first, but again Nick asks twice and tries to reach for her phone. Shona gets annoyed and walks away, saying she will “share it with whoever I please”. Nick clearly knows that if this photo gets around, he will seem dishonest.
            Finally, the viewer gets their first news segment with Ellen Abbott’s news show, where we hear her say “…pie eating grin, from a guy whose wife is missing”. This scene takes place at Margo’s home (Nick’s sister). He sees the news segments but ignores it. This is the audience’s first true glimpse of how the media is projecting Nick’s persona, and thus the start of the media frenzy. Skipping ahead we see Nick is having an affair with a college student, and when his sister finds out, she forces Nick to watch the news, saying “they’re all over your shit”. We then see that “selfie” picture from the volunteer center that Nick did indeed try to get deleted, knowing it could potentially come back on him, which it did. Later, we see detective Jim Gilpin is watching Ellen’s news segment, and says “I can’t believe we haven’t arrested this guy”. At this point in the film, news stories have been running and the public is judging Nick based on his first impressions. Ellen Abbott’s news segment carries with it her own personal bias against Nick which is well known towards the viewers. There is absolutely nothing wrong about having a news segment whose anchor (often the primary appeal towards the show) gives their opinion. However, their audience will then take that information and potentially form their own opinions, which typically aligns with the anchor’s because it is what’s been presented towards them. This is obvious with Amy’s self-titled best friend, Noelle Hawthorne who is the target audience of Ellen’s show (who also makes a guest appearance on the show later on in the film), and is convinced that Nick is responsible for the disappearance of Amy. The character Ellen Abbott is also a parody of Nancy Grace both physically and mentally.
            To briefly summarize Nancy Grace, her website describes her as “An outspoken, tireless advocate for victims' rights and one of television's most respected legal analysts” (Grace, 2012). However, Nancy also has a reputation for her aggressive interviewing that some would call a live interrogation. David Carr describes Nancy Grace’s show as “presumption of innocence has found a willful enemy in the former prosecutor turned broadcast judge-and-jury”.  Carr goes on to list her series of misfires on the show, including an incident where she interviewed Melinda Duckett about her missing 2-year-old (Carr, 2011). During the interview, Nancy forcefully pressed her questions towards Ms. Duckett, implying that due to the mother’s lack of information she seemed suspicious. The next day after the interview was taped, Ms. Duckett committed suicide, and Nancy’s producers still ran the interview. Nancy ended up settling with Duckett’s family and paid $200,000 (Lohr, 2012). It would therefore seem that Nancy’s habits as a reporter seem to include looking at facts and bending them to fit her conclusions, much like Ellen Abbott in Gone Girl. This can therefore be considerably manipulative, rather than someone simply projecting her opinions and can thus lead to rash consequences. In the case of Nick Dunne, not only has he made a poor first impression, but his persona on national television has also been heavily damaged due to characters in the media, such as Ellen Abbott, resulting in the manipulation of what is true, and what is stretched.
            Even the film’s own marketing is manipulative in relation towards its plot. Gone Girl’s marketing was very secretive in respect towards the plot, which many film critics actually appreciate. Its trailers show scenes from the film that imply that Nick himself is guilty, which is a clever tactic to hook audiences that the film is simply a story of what exactly Amy’s husband did, when in fact it’s the polar opposite. How humorous is it then that a film about a variety of subjects, be it relationships, or in this case, media bias, uses that bias to sell itself towards potential film goers. Clearly the results were successful, as the film has a box office of $369.3 million, being Fincher’s most successful film (McClintock). The lesson from this is that if you present something a certain way that peeks the public’s interest, people will follow. The film’s trailers almost act as clues rather than a run-down of the film. Even if you were to re-watch the trailer for Gone Girl, it still hides a major turning point of the film.
            Towards the one-hour mark of the film, a big plot twist in Gone Girl is delivered, which is that Amy is not only alive and well, but she herself laid the foundation to destroy Nick’s life. This is given to us in a scene many called the “Cool Girl Monologue”. This scene shows us how Amy did it, from faking her pregnancy by befriending a “local idiot” to eventually fake her own pregnancy on her medical record, and even going as far as bleeding herself to leave blood residue on the kitchen floor for the cops to find. Essentially, Amy has laid out several booby traps for Nick, the police, and ultimately the media to follow. Nick eventually realizes this, turning to his sister and the lawyer featured on Ellen Abbott’s news show, Tanner Bolt to combat Amy’s plan and ultimately prove his innocence. The vessel that is carrying Amy’s manipulative narrative is the media, which will therefore ultimately build the basis of bias against Nick. Looking into Amy as a person, clearly there is some sort of personality disorder based on her actions.

            “However, it is a common view among therapists that patients with BPD often use             manipulation in order to achieve their own goals. This is confirmed by the study of  Gallop & Lancee, which demonstrated that as many as 90% of nurses stated that they associated BPD patients with manipulation. Other research has also confirmed the conviction of specialists that there is a strong link between the BPD personality and  manipulation” (Mandal, Kocur).

They further continue that people who suffer from BPD disorders also have an unclear image of who they are. Revisiting the “Cool Girl Monologue”, Amy says that when she first met Nick, she knew he wanted the “cool girl” who she basically describes a person she has no desire to be, but becomes that person to please others, in this case Nick. In a scene where Nick visits one of Amy’s former partners, Tommy O’Hara was a victim of Amy’s persona. Tommy had a relationship with Amy which ended with her accusing Tommy of first degree felony rape. The movie’s stance on Tommy’s innocence is made when Nick asks “Did you do it?” followed by Tommy’s instant response “Did you?”. When Nick asks for Tommy’s story, he says they met at a party and “instantly click”, describing her as a perfect match. Amy eventually attempts to mold Tommy to be her ideal partner. Tommy realized this, saying it was “too much”. Amy bought him ties frequently, and says they had arguments over the subject. Tommy then attempts to leave this relationship, distancing himself from Amy. Then one night, Tommy says she came over with liquor and a record from one of his favorite bands, where Amy soon initiated sexual activity. To be precise, Amy wanted rough intercourse. The next day Tommy sees that there’s two officers in his home, and Amy has “wounds that are consistent with rape”, where it appeared that Tommy tied Amy up the bed. Amy’s message to Tommy becomes clear when the police discover that the ropes used to tie Amy up were the ties Amy bought for him, which he wouldn’t wear. In these three examples, the situation comes out to be either Amy is attempting to mold herself to fit someone’s expectations or the opposite. When you combine this trait with Amy’s intelligence you have a dangerous person. Lauren Duca had a sit down with psychiatrist Dr. Paul Puri who also agrees that Amy has some sort of personality disorder, saying “It seems like Amy has definite aspects of that in terms of her conscience” (Duca, 2014). Dr. Paul Puri also looks at how Amy throughout the movie is willing to harm herself to build a false narrative. Another example proving Amy’s extreme methods exists in the film. Desi Collins is another former romantic partner of Amy. She accidently meets Desi while on the run. Seeing this as an opportunity, she accepts him literally with open arms, and Desi keeps her as a guest in his getaway lodge. One night, Amy sees Nick’s interview at Desi’s lodge and is won over by him. To get herself back home, she subdues Desi into sex. She then slices his throat, which yet again lays down the foundation that would place herself as a victim in the eyes of the media. This also solves the problem of Amy where she technically wasn’t pregnant until now. She returns home covered in Desi’s blood, fainting as Nick holds her.
            Now that the public knows Amy is alive, and that Nick is not responsible in any way for her disappearance, the media again follows what Amy wants them to see: a happy reunion. While the media eventually stops harassing Nick, this was only because Amy allowed Nick to be free of the media frenzy. This ultimately shows how easy it is to use the media as a tool to destroy someone’s life. Amy clearly had a well thought out plan to have Nick put in for what would have been her faked murder. Even when Amy’s plans backfire, she manages to adapt and continue to manipulate the media. While it is true that Amy purposefully laid out this false narrative for the media to follow, Gone Girl is nevertheless an example of what can happen when the media conveys misinformation.

Works Cited
"About - Nancy." Nancy Grace. (2012)

Carr, David. "TV Justice Thrives on Fear." The New York Times (May 22, 2011):   

Duca, Lauren. "A Psychiatrist Weighs In On Amy & Nick In 'Gone Girl'" The Huffington Post     (Oct. 3 2014)

Kashdan, Jason. "Ben Affleck on "Gone Girl" Wife Jennifer Garner and Career." CBS      Interactive (Jan. 01 2015)

Lohr, David. "Toni Medrano, Dubbed 'Vodka Mom' By Nancy Grace, Committed Suicide,           Police Say." The Huffington Post (July 11 2012)

Mandal, Eugenia, and Dagna Kocur. "Psychological Masculinity, Femininity and Tactics of             Manipulation in Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder." Archives of Psychiatry     & Psychotherapy 15.1 (2013): 45-53

McClintock, Pamela. "Box Office Milestone: 'Gone Girl' Sets U.S. Record for David Fincher."    The Hollywood Reporter, 1 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

Petten, Vanessa Van. "5 Ways To Make a Killer First Impression." Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web.   20 Sept. 2016.

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