Unlike the much-celebrated early work of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze, whose music videos are considered on par with their eventual feature films, David Fincher’s pop videos are generally thought of as merely an interesting addendum to his later work. We do not place Madonna’s videos for “Express Yourself” and “Vogue” alongside, say, Zodiac or The Social Network, and video essayist Patrick H. Willems thinks this is because they’re unabashedly pop, not just because of the artists involved but in their very aim. Unlike artier video directors, who may’ve strived to create short films that functioned on their own alongside the music, Fincher’s goal is clearly to accompany and accentuate the virtues of the artist performing. But looking back at how he did that also shows all of his skills as a later filmmaker—namely, the thoughtful editing, masterful framing, and compositional precision—in full bloom.

Willems takes a close look at some of Fincher’s masterpieces for Madonna as well as George Michael’s “Freedom,” noting how the director had the rare skill of placing his edits around the music and choreography rather than hyperactively on top of them, as is the case in so many other music videos. (An example from Ariana Grande gets briefly excoriated here.) Everything works around the music: a cat scampering in syncopation, a feather duster whiffed as the beat kicks in, a musical glissando set to one of Fincher’s signature whip-pans. He even manages to have a camera zoom impossibly through a chair.

Alien 3 has its flaws, but it was also a debut by a director with a clear set of stylistic priorities and tastes. We can thank pop music for that. Not sure who we thank for the dog alien, though.

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