Tuesday, February 19, 2008

This Is the Zodiac Speaking, Again

January marked the release of a special DVD package of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), a film about the 1960s hunt for the never-caught Zodiac Killer, who took victims from San Francisco and elsewhere in Northern California. For my money, Zodiac was last year’s best movie--and it was a pretty great year for movies. This new two-disc set includes a director’s cut of the picture itself, which features only about five minutes of extra footage. There’s been some griping about how those extra minutes are barely noticeable, the complainers apparently expecting something revelatory in them. But this is not a movie about revelation; it’s about reversals and persistence and accumulation and compulsion and about the thing that always seems to lie just beyond one’s fingertips.

Among the extra footage is a terrific throwaway moment: actor Brian Cox’s sly portrayal of local attorney-to-the-stars Melvin Belli. (He recounts for detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong, played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, his recent trip to Africa--“You must go there. Cradle of civilization. Fascinating people. Beautiful. Savage.”). But two added scenes really count. First, an interlude shows four years elapsing, using merely a black screen and a sonic montage of music and news clips. Second, there’s a gangbusters scene with detectives Toschi and Armstrong in the office of their captain (played by Dermot Mulroney) as they try to get a search warrant from a district attorney who’s present only by way of a Charlie’s Angels-style speaker box. You could dismiss this scene as unnecessary, redundant. It mostly sums up things we know already. But it’s actually so much more. It shows the eagerness of the detectives, the precision in the way they lay out their evidence, their strain to sound logical and objective as they make their case, and the anxious looks between them--they want it so bad. And the case they’ve built is so convincing (their beautifully crafted outlining of their case--a wonderful bit of writing by scripter James Vanderbilt--is catnip for police procedural fans). They are so sure this is their guy. They are so sure it’s all going to finally be over.

In addition to making-of features and two exhaustive documentaries about the killings, this set features a first-rate commentary from director Fincher himself. It’s filled with fascinating technical details, but what is so compelling about those details is the way they demonstrate the extent to which (and this is born out in his commentary, in general) Fincher was trying to re-create the Bay Area of his youth and the city’s lost newspaper world. (Fincher’s father was a journalist and bureau chief for Life magazine). You can feel the yearning desire to bring that world alive again. Scenes both ripe with menace and horror and grim with police procedure acquire added bittersweetness. And you realize why so many of the scenes haunt so deeply, most especially the opening sequence--which, in addition to being one of the most terrifying in recent memory, is imbued with this golden-hued innocence, an American childhood taking its dying breath.

The other audio-commentary mixes the results of two recording sessions: one with stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who stars as Robert Graysmith, and Robert Downey Jr., who plays San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery; and the other with Edgar-nominated screenwriter James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer and, intriguingly, novelist James Ellroy, who considers this film a masterpiece. It’s great fun to hear about Gyllenhaal’s highly publicized problems with Fincher (he told The New York Times, “[Fincher] paints with people. It’s tough to be a color.”) and some of Downey’s amused prodding (along the lines of, “Remember how many times we shot this scene, Jake?”), along with their thoughts on the film’s theme (though someone should tell Gyllenhaal that he means Raymond Chandler, not Raymond Carver, when he talks about the famed author’s theories on the detective novel).

Even more entertaining are Vanderbilt, Fischer, and Ellroy, providing a rich mix of Zodiac lore, production challenges, private-eye work conducted in preparation for the film (including hiring a detective to trawl Vegas flophouses, trying to locate surviving Zodiac victim Mike Mageau), and cop-groupie banter. And who better than Ellroy to parse the nuances of cold-case obsessions and the cops who bear the burden? It’s a commentary filled with humor, too. During one scene with Gyllenhaal and cold-weather-garbed actress Chloë Sevigny, Ellroy notes, in a whisper, “She gives good parka.”

However, the true dazzler is, as always, the film itself. Because, of course, it’s not about a killer. It’s about obsession. And not romantic obsession or generic cop-can’t-let-go-of-the-case obsession. It’s about something both larger (dare we say “existential”?) and smaller. After all, obsession is so deeply fueled by minutiae, by the accretion of tiny details, as Ellroy notes several times in his commentary. It’s about sitting in dark rooms with piles of paper and trying to build something, over and over and over again. The fact that three such different men--a cartoonist who likes puzzles (Graysmith), a dissolute reporter (Avery), and a high-profile police detective (Toschi), all with truly distinct personality types, home situations, and lifestyle choices, become so haunted by the same case forces you to reckon that the case itself is only the device that triggers the consuming obsession. It was in them, waiting, and the case and its circumstances threw what was latent into eternal, fatiguing motion. “I need to know,” Graysmith says at one point, exhausted and puzzled by the depth of his own compulsion.

With all great crime puzzles--the John F. Kennedy assassination, Jack the Ripper, the Black Dahlia, and so on--the desire to make order, to make randomness cohere, overwhelms. Despite all evidence to the contrary (most of us watching it know the Zodiac Killer was never caught), Zodiac is structured to make us feel as if we are approaching something. We feel the adrenaline that comes each time Robert Graysmith or the detectives think they have found their guy--and thus we feel the appalling letdown when facts intervene (handwriting samples, DNA). We are in it with them.

Many viewers found Zodiac’s ending--those final scenes and the damning postscripts that follow--frustrating, bemoaning the late red herrings, the lack of closure. But that is precisely the film’s brilliance. We are forced to endure the same reversals, the taunts of near-truth and near misses, that inform, sustain, and eternalize obsession. And, at the same time, in its final wrenching moments, this film shows us the even darker face behind the desire to make meaning, to reach a solution, to break the code: that, in our hearts, we don’t want to solve it. Not definitively. Because that would mean we’d have to stop. And we don’t want to stop. That’s what makes it obsession. It’s a truly bold move on the filmmakers’ part to carry us through that. To flaunt frustration and make a fetish out of it.

Oh, and one of the best parts of this DVD: the packaging, which re-creates one of Zodiac’s letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. When I came home and saw it, out of the corner of my eye, on my mail pile, my heart skipped a beat.


Roger Morris said...

Having just, belatedly, caught up with this film at the weekend, it's great to read your very perceptive essay. The film is utterly brilliant and your excellent appreciation of it has helped me understand why it affected me so deeply.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful essay, Megan. What an insightful and passionate analysis of the film.

Watching ZODIAC, I kept finding myself hoping that the film would provide an answer -- but, of course, that is impossible, as there is no definitive answer to be had. But for a while, I thought perhaps there would be.

It's a wonderful film, but it's easy to see why it wasn't as popular as its quality might have otherwise justified. Audiences come to police procedurals expecting there to be answers, expecting the bad guys to get caught and published. But there's none of that here. That's part of what makes the film so moving, but also so frustrating.

Megan Abbott said...

Thanks so much! That yearning we have watching it to reach an answer even as we know there is none is so complicated. I guess it speaks to our expectation of genre, of storytelling but there's something else in there, too ... I'm still wrapping my mind around it. I can absolutely see why it doesn't work for everybody. But for those it does, I think the movie's power is in part its capacity to provoke something we can't quite name, something elusive that goes back to childhood, the belief you have that questions always have answers, one answer. Fincher's personal nostalgia floods through it and that sense of childhood lost gives it this double poignancy.

Ali Karim said...

Megan / Jeff -

I tried to post last night but blogger ate my response - Your peice is a great companion to a wonderful film. You are right last year was wonderful for crime movies - Fincher's ZODIAC and Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES were my two favourite films - for different reasons.

Though Zodiac has now made Donovan's HURDY GURDY MAN take on a much more sinister significance. I just used to love this track, being a huge Donovan fan, but Fincher's use of it in the context of Zodiac and the opening scenes now gives me chills when I hear it play.

I was dissapointed that Zodiac didn't dent the box office as much as I thought it should have. The problem is that many casual moviegoers want their stories packaged with a rounded ending, but life often is much more opaque. I admire Fincher and Graysmith for the way they stood their ground not pandering for the middle ground.

Your peice made me whack Zodiac back into the DVD and watch it all over again - and it improves on additional viewing[s] - a masterclass.



Declan Burke said...

Megan - Absolutely, it's the downbeat, non-conclusive ending that makes Zodiac a great movie, and also - perversely - a wonderful story, in retrospect throwing the emphasis back onto the characters rather than the narrative and a conventional resolution. An unusually mature and honest crime flick (or any kind of movie) in that respect ... Cheers, Dec