Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Unenlightened Shadows Cast

If you know me, and maybe you should be glad if you don’t, you know that I get obsessed over things that don’t warrant such intense focus. Things I’ve done or haven’t done, films I’ve seen way too many times, people I know, people I know only slightly, women I’ve known for years, girls I intensely ponder when suddenly I’m passing them on the street. These obsessions, whatever they are, continue as time spirals forward. After my first viewing of David Fincher’s ZODIAC when it was released back in March 2007 I went on the internet to learn more about the case since I had never read up on it before. After a few lines I remembered the rabbit hole that I had fallen into on a few subjects—the Kennedy assassination, the death of Marilyn Monroe, Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, things like that. I flashed on the ZODIAC poster’s tagline—“THERE’S MORE THAN ONE WAY TO LOSE YOUR LIFE TO A KILLER”—and then clicked away to other things so I don’t know much more about the actual case than what’s in the movie.
Even now just a very brief glance at the Wikipedia page on the subject of Zodiac makes it clear that all the pieces of the puzzle add up to far more than what can be contained in a single film, even one that’s over two-and-a-half hours and features a narrative that spans over twenty years. I’m still not going to start reading up on all that because that’s not what I want my life to be. After all, there are still Sam Fuller movies to get around to. And there’s a pretty good chance that I’m going to see the film ZODIAC many more times in the years to come, something I’ve kind of done already, something I keep on doing and for me it’s easily one of the most addictive films of the past decade, one where I just need to dip into it every now and then if only to absorb a small piece of the tapestry. ZODIAC is about many things. It’s about the real-life case it documents, obviously—“based on actual case files” as the opening card tells us—it’s an illustration of how investigative work has changed, how the world has changed in how information is put out through the media and eventually discarded, whether the narrative being sold was ever completed or not. And it’s also about how merciless the world can be as time marches forward. How life changes, how the parts of your life all around simply move on past you sometimes, how you’re still drawn to a certain place that once meant everything but everyone around you just keeps walking by. How can people be so heartless goes the cover version of “Easy to Be Hard” by Three Dog Night heard in the opening frames. Of course, in some ways people can’t help it. So we need to take what that feeling does to us and make the world into what we need it to be. Sometimes it convinces us to turn away from our obsessions. Sometimes it forces us to dig into them even deeper. Easy to be hard. But harder to look elsewhere from where we already are.
Simply put, ZODIAC focuses on the case as the Bay Area transforms around it from 1969 through the 70s and beyond as experienced by San Francisco police detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey,Jr.) and Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose own obsession through the years only grows as the world around him shrinks away or off into other things. With a screenplay by James Vanderbilt from Graysmith’s book documenting the case, ZODIAC is about the hunt for this killer and the conclusions that come from that investigation. It’s about how the search affects the lives of these three men and the people around them in different ways but it’s also about the details that you can tell Fincher is focusing on even if it’s for only a second because those touches matter, whether they directly involve the Zodiac case or not—the multiple layers of clothing worn by Mike Mageau in the opening, the way Candy Clark’s Carol Fisher flips around that letter to see "Please Rush To Editor" staring right at her, that ‘do not touch volume’ button on the TV in the Chronicle press room, the mention of Melvin Belli’s STAR TREK guest shot, the way Anthony Edwards as Bill Armstrong slowly turns his eyelids up at something John Carroll Lynch’s Arthur Leigh Allen has just said during that lengthy interrogation, even the correct vintage Paramount logo the begins the film (the lack of a Warner-Seven Arts recreation is lamentable, howver). Those details are important, they’re what make up the movie to give it its power, its portrayal of obsession. It feeds into me as I watch it over and over, getting obsessed myself as I get involved in not so much the literal facts of the case but the desperation, the need to keep digging, even into the blind alleys of how the Rick Marshalls of the world simply wind up sucking you dry, as Dave Toschi says. “Learn a lot,” Robert Graysmith tells his son going to school as the title of the movie flashes onscreen, but he’s the one who winds up learning a lot, more than he ever intended. It’s not about the need to find a serial killer, but to find something, to find a piece of meaning, to feel like you’re doing something even if it’s just to get Avery to try one of those Aqua Velvas. You wouldn’t make fun of it if you tried it, after all. And yet Robert Graysmith lists off a number of such things to Toschi in order to implicate someone near the end to which the response is, “All circumstantial.” So then what matters? What can ZODIAC really be about?
More than any other character, ZODIAC is about Robert Graysmith, or about anyone who spends time among co-workers who ignore him, feeling like he doesn’t matter in a place where he wants to matter and imagines what it would be like to go with everyone to the bar on the corner for a drink. What’s in this for you, asks Avery. He can’t answer. He’s not even sure how to answer that. In some ways, he’s already gotten it by just being asked out for a drink but he has to keep looking to go further, to find more. This is good business for everyone but you, Avery says but Graysmith isn’t thinking about it as business. For Dave Toschi, it’s about what he’s already doing and getting stuck into some kind of cycle able to dig his way out of it because he has to but that quicksand pulls him back on occasion because he stands nearby. We never know what Paul Avery wants, aside from the thrill of the story, a thrill that completely leaves him eventually. Graysmith has to keep digging because he doesn’t know what else to do, because he doesn’t know what else he could do.
Maybe most surprising about his approach considering the swoop through the coffee pot handle in PANIC ROOM Fincher dials back on the visual flourishes, time lapse of the Transamerica Tower being built aside, as if he’s taking inspiration not just from how Alan J. Pakula directed ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (a pretty addictive film itself for many of the same reasons) but in how that film’s most audacious shot, the famous eight-minute take of Bob Woodward getting Kenneth Dahlberg on the phone, never even announced itself as such—as a crucial component in this approach mention should also be made of the great cinematographer Harris Savides who died last year at the age of 55. Even the David Shire score works as both homage and totally serving the film, the haunting nature heard in that far-off trumpet sound of what is almost impossible to ever fully resolve in those dark streets at night. The film is paced like a metronome, impeccable down to how it keeps going only sometimes stopping cold for a scene like the Arthur Leigh Allen interrogation, laying out every piece of information that we can barely keep up with beat by beat. The cold facts we need to know are laid in alongside the distractions as if a reminder that we need to keep focused on what really should be paid attention to--for all we know the Kathleen Johns section is a distraction itself, which is kind of the point.
Fincher resists ever making it a serial killer film along the usual lines—of course, SEVEN wasn’t that either, it just inspired plenty of them and interestingly this is the second David Fincher serial killer movie where library books turn out to be a plot point. ZODIAC does have its murder scenes and they’re absolutely terrifying, never playing as cinematically cool at all just unrelentingly brutal and nasty, as if it’s saying that every other moment of violence you’ve ever witnessed in a movie before is total bullshit. To be perfectly honest, as many times as I’ve seen this film by now I sometimes find myself skipping past these scenes when I see the film again but if I do watch them I’m riveted by every moment—the awkward humor that comes from the reactions of the two victims in the Lake Berryessa sequence is disarming and unexpected but it also makes what occurs just moments later all the more horrifying. Fincher’s playful side is evident in many of his films, even ALIEN 3, even SEVEN as if this humor makes these people all the more human. And that works here too, humanity being important in this context, something that needs to be remembered.
But these scenes aren’t what the film is about anyway—it’s about what they lead to, the details, the minutiae, the dead ends and ultimately the depths of that neverending fixation on getting answers to what can never entirely be solved. It goes on. People fall away and out of life. Fuck-ups happen. Pieces are forgotten. The cycle of life goes from someone who stands over you remembering the person that used to have your desk to you one day doing the same with a new employee. You put things off, like the Japanese food Bill Armstrong hasn’t gotten around to trying or those animal crackers in the car that Toschi is saving for later. What’s added to the director’s cut doesn’t substantially change things but I have no problem with the film being a few minutes longer—hell, I’d be happy with even more asides like Melvin Belli’s comments on his safari to Africa (the sort of thing one puts off in life—Melvin Belli is able to float outside of these concerns in his world). As for his famed sound montage traveling through the seventies even if it is the way Fincher wanted it I still like the extra-long hold on black before we fade up on ‘Four Years Later’ in the theatrical cut.
And much as I may love DIRTY HARRY, in this context the Scorpio letter read by John Vernon as viewed at the SFPD special screening comes off as pretty crass and exploitative after all we’ve seen—interesting to note that Clint Eastwood’s likeness is never glimpsed, even in the posters out in the lobby. The thread from real to fiction is Fincher delving into his own past and memories of growing up in the Bay Area, of which he has much to say about on the commentary and it makes his own obsession of exploring his past what the film is about as much as anything (I suspect there are some issues with the chronology of actual events and other factual elements—I may not know much about the Zodiac case but I know when DIRTY HARRY was released). Understandably, the film makes use of some L.A. architecture as well since some of it is period appropriate like the Wilshire Colonnade that might be recognizable to some from EARTHQUAKE. Even the DIRTY HARRY screening sequence makes use of the National Theater in Westwood to represent the Bay Area location—ZODIAC actually played at the National, making me now wish that I’d seen it there especially since not long after the beautiful theater with its distinctive mid-century architecture was closed and ultimately razed. The site is still a hole in the ground. So I guess, for me, ZODIAC is about that as well.
Ultimately ZODIAC is about the unknowability of the past, how you can never fully grasp what’s already occurred, to get answers to questions that you’ve long wondered about and will never receive. It’s about waking up one day and realizing years have gone by while you’ve been distracted by all the shiny pieces of distracting nonsense in front of you which was something I took from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, another film from 2007, as well. We never really find out about Paul Avery’s implosion into drinking and drugs either. We never find out about a lot of things. Until everything ends. And you’re not even sure what the end really was.
One thing I may admit to if pressed is that ZODIAC is a great film that has an impeccable ensemble as opposed to a great lead performance—I wonder if there was a more novelistic concept in the script of the two ‘movie star’ roles being superseded by the lesser player in the final third but things didn’t necessarily play out that way. Robert Downey Jr. is totally dynamic as Avery, making me wonder if it’s a side of the real Downey and his own demons than we’ve seen before otherwise. Ruffalo, who maybe gives the best performance in the film, gets me to imagine a BULLITT remake that he stars in and it’s great to watch him thinking even if he doesn’t quite have the charisma. His "Thank You. Thank you for breakfast" at the end just drives the moment home. Gyllenhaal does solid work but is still lacking something, maybe the true feel of a misfit, to get his unrelenting determination to fully connect (“The heart of the movie unfortunately turned out not to be Jake but it’s Ruffalo…” Fincher can be heard saying to David Shire in a hidden track on the score CD). Some of the best work in the supporting cast is a reminder of how few directors out there today enjoy making use of That Guys as Fincher does—separate essays could be written on how each of these actors add to the film in their own ways with particularly good work from Anthony Edwards, John Getz, John Terry (recognizable now from LOST but having been in FULL METAL JACKET makes him an automatic Kubrick reference), Chloe Sevigny (doing something with very little), Elias Koteas, Brian Cox (immensely charismatic as Melvin Belli, the most movie-star like performance here), John Carroll Lynch, Charles Fleischer, Dermot Mulroney (for the look on his face as DIRTY HARRY plays alone) Jimmi Simpson as the older Mike Mageau for the film’s final image and Ione Skye, unbilled as Kathleen Johns.
ZODIAC didn’t do well at the box office. It received zero Oscar nominations. A shame. I don’t care. It remains stunning, absorbing, impossible to shake. ZODIAC is a serial killer movie where the final confrontation is not a dramatic showdown on a rooftop or even out in the desert with Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. It’s just two men staring at each other in a hardware store. It’s not a true catharsis. It’s just one simple moment of understanding in the labyrinth of trying to make it through the years when you don’t know what you’re supposed to do anymore. What are Graysmith, Toschi and Avery really looking for? What am I looking for? Is this sort of search even something that a person wants to ever be over? And if you do find an answer does it really mean anything when you come right down to it? At the end, the full-on close up of the individual brought back to the moment that forever altered his existence gives ‘at least an eight’ as to how sure he is about what he says. He’s very certain. Not completely certain. Maybe in life that’s as close as we’ll ever get.


Coyote said...

This whole movie really does leave me thinking, "Forget it, Jake- it's Chinatown." Not a perfect film- that scene with harles Fleischer tries waaaay too hard- not definitely Fincher's deepest expression of vision, at least for me.

Joe Martino said...


Good to have you back and another excellent piece.

I love this movie. I think it's the best film Billy Freidkin never directed....

Adam Ross said...

Wonderful read, makes me want to watch it tonight. I also appreciated the theme of sharing information, and how that information can degrade or disappear.