Favorite Film: ZODIAC (2007)

November 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

For one of the consummate visual storytellers working in modern mainstream cinema, the memory of David Fincher’s Zodiac which clinches, for me, its status as a great film, lies in the opening and closing scenes scored by Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”. A great rock song in its own right, it’s become inseparable from the film’s own narrative. This could easily be a visceral thrill from the editing of the soundtrack, which in the opening scene times the drum fill just so as the first rifle blast fires into the car and the digital blood spurts in slow motion. But where a scene like the mutilation accompanied by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs draws its impact from the sickening suggestion of violence and the irony contained by the bouncy, jaunty tune, Fincher matches the mood of the murder and its implications to Donovan’s lyrical and harmonic content. “Histories of ages past/Unenlightened shadows cast/Down through all eternity/The crying of humanity”.

By the time the humming starts up again in the film’s final shots, he’s appropriated a number of other great songs to illuminate periods of history otherwise accessible through boxes of evidence files and crime scene photographs. The film’s best musical moment is its first and last gasp of catharsis through the thriller mode of storytelling, before the letters begin to arrive, the case files are opened, and time rips away all illusions.

To be clear, a film adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s book was not essential to bring the facts of the case to the public. It sold millions of copies before Fincher came onboard the project decades later and ordered an extensive rewrite of James Vanderbilt’s screenplay – in fact, as Zodiac illustrates, the movie had been made before Graysmith even began to write his book with films like Dirty Harry capitalizing on the unsolved mystery for box office dollars.

Graysmith’s book inevitably became a film because the story of the hunt for Zodiac is the story of cinema, or at least a story uniquely suited to the moving image: the passage of time, the merciless erosion of history. A number of adages about film spring to mind when considering Fincher’s work. Hitchcock mused that “drama is life with the dull bits taken out.” Zodiac stretches the maxim to its breaking point: on a long enough timeline, even the most sensational happenings can become the “dull bits”.

Ontologically, Fincher’s a fraud: he doesn’t document the Zodiac’s effect on San Francisco so much as reconstruct it with the latest digital technologies available to him, placing a couple of actors in a car in front of a greenscreen and mapping the iconic skyline behind them. It’s a retelling vis-a-vis cinema history by a director decidedly for and of the 21st century. The Zodiac could have killed anywhere, but he killed in San Francisco, where there’s nary a camera angle available that doesn’t glisten with the cold sweat of obsession.

Take the Herrmann-esque strings that score Graysmith’s reprisal of the case during an overhead shot of the Golden Gate Bridge: the cartoonist suffers not from vertigo but Vertigo, the sickness that entices with a sensual, solveable mystery around every neighborhood corner. A neat bit of reflexivity sees Mark Ruffalo’s Detective Dave Toschi dressed in the iconic turtleneck and shoulder holster of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, inspired by the real-life Toschi. A late plot detour puts Graysmith in the home of a potential lunatic who works as a projectionist, and it’s there that his tireless imagination results in the film’s most trumped-up, artificially tense scene. Nothing in the mountain of available evidence other than a handwriting sample indicate that the man could be the Zodiac. For a few perilous minutes, the deluge of information dispensed by the script slows to a trickle: Graysmith’s not terrified of what he knows, just a basement door and a darkened corridor, with no one around for miles.

That the efforts of Toschi and the legion of investigators assigned to the case over the years fail to even arrest a single suspect for the killings proves to be one of the less cynical elements of the film. Fincher’s bleakness manifests itself not in dour pronouncements of despair because the law will not stop looking for the Zodiac killer, and in fact has not, as the closing titles inform viewers. The case remains open: “We’re actively pursuing all leads.”

Instead, the film’s version of a thrilling climax, in which Graysmith lays out all the circumstantial evidence for Arthur Leigh Allen’s guilt over a pre-dawn breakfast with Toschi, strings and horns surging beneath his rattled-off dates and figures, becomes crushing once the scene concludes and the final confrontation fades to black. This is all there is, the illusion of total certainty in the mind of an obsessive who discards his family for a selfish victory. Toschi’s committed lawman, who played everything by the book and gave the case his will, his mind, and finally his reputation, gets nothing. “I’m not asking you as a cop,” urges Graysmith. Toschi replies with a sad smile: “But I am a cop.”

The confrontation with the devil that occurs (or may not) in Zodiac’s penultimate scene is a moment that recurs throughout Fincher’s work, from Dwight Yoakam’s unmasking in Panic Room  to John Doe’s shrieking entrance in the finale of Seven and the last-act revelations in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. One of his particular fixations is the art of the payoff, which evolves inexorably from his neatest finale, Panic Room, to something as tangled as The Game.

His first stab at the conspiracy thriller, The Game’s conclusion continues to divide audiences discovering it on basic cable, as a thorny mess of double-crosses and shaggy-dog plot twists is cleared aside with a sweeping gesture, like vines hacked away with a machete, visualized by a tearful embrace between star Michael Douglas and his brother, played by Sean Penn. Fincher’s scripts are wholly reliant on the atmosphere he produces, in this case an intense anxiety wrapped up in its main character’s emotional development; the lingering questions of The Game’s plot go unanswered, the only response being a catharsis so powerful it obliterates all other concerns.

Zodiac’s denouement is something of the inverse, the answer to its central narrative question – the identity of the Zodiac – dramatized with a wholly interior moment of personal satisfaction for Graysmith, which by nature cannot be satisfying to anyone in the audience. It’s an aftereffect of Zodiac’s deftly constructed San Francisco and meticulous procedural development that the scene’s weariness sets in so heavily, an almost wordless declaration that after three hours, enough has to be enough.

Take the use of music – the creeping strings that follow Graysmith into the shop, and score his look into Allen’s eyes. “Can I help you?” “No,” almost immediately. A longer look. Allen’s smile fades. He doesn’t quite know what’s happening, but he doesn’t like it. The strings drop out, bringing to the forefront “Baker Street”, the instantly recognizable sax solo that ensures viewers will get the Sherlock Holmes gag. It’s kitschy, but so is the idea that anything happening in that store comprises a victory. Graysmith’s triumph fades away – he has the moment, but the audience gets no such privilege of dwelling on a liminal success. Histories of ages past, hurdy gurdy, tick tock, time marches on at twenty-four frames a second, and he’s out the door. There’s a book to write. – Brendan 


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