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Thread: David Fincher: ZODIAC

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    David Fincher: ZODIAC

    ZODIAC
    Written by James Vanderbilt
    Directed by David Fincher


    Who doesn’t like to play games? You face the other players dead on and you struggle to retain control over the board, keeping everyone else guessing as to what your next move will be. In the 1960’s and 70’s, one such game player, who called himself the Zodiac, decided all by himself that he would start his own game. He would decide who the players would be and he would make up all the rules. The stakes in his game though were a slight bit higher than your average game of Risk. Drawing his inspiration from a 1932 film entitled “The Most Dangerous Game”, where a man hunts other humans because he feels them to be the most dangerous animal of all, the Zodiac began a series of senseless killings that terrorized the people of San Francisco. And this was just the start for this game. The Zodiac sent letters to several prominent San Francisco media outlets, demanding that they print his confessions and their accompanying ciphers on their front page. Fearing that the Zodiac would make good on the threats his letters contained if they didn’t, the messages ran and the public went into a state of mass paranoia and fear. As the killings and messages went on for years, the Zodiac baffled the police and the public with a mystery that remains inconclusively unsolved.

    Another man who clearly enjoys his game play is director David Fincher. In SE7EN, he toyed with our morals; in FIGHT CLUB, he split personalities and teased our collective subconscious; and in PANIC ROOM, he locked us in a tiny space and made us feel like we couldn’t breathe. He even made a movie entitled THE GAME at one point. For his first film in five years, Fincher plays with our basic need to understand and to make sense of something. ZODIAC bounces back and forth between an exhausting police investigation that spreads across numerous jurisdictions, the frightening killings themselves and the life of a cartoonist who develops a fascination with the Zodiac that eventually becomes a crippling obsession. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, the real life man who went from drawing satirical cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle to writing the definitive book on the Zodiac killings. Graysmith is a natural when it comes to solving puzzles so when he is exposed through his position at the SF Chronicle to private information regarding the killings, he needs to piece this one together too. It is the mother of all puzzles and there is no way he can let it go unsolved.

    Subsequently, we too need to figure this whole mess out. Fincher makes it so Graysmith’s obsession becomes ours as well by allowing us to have only certain pieces of the puzzle at certain times. The sheer vastness of how far the Zodiac’s murders were spread out meant that many clues went undeveloped because they needed others to be brought to light. Fittingly, ZODIAC is one of the darkest films I’ve seen. Yes, I meant that to suggest that it is twisted and sick like any serial killer film should be but I was referring more to Harris Savides’s stark use of lighting throughout. Light tends more to showcase than fill which keeps the viewer just as in the dark as the police and the San Francisco public. Even the humour is dark. James Vanderbilt’s script is dizzying as it travels back and forth between the vast number of lives affected by the Zodiac but he still manages to find laughs amidst a mass murder investigation. The laughs may feel awkward but ZODIAC is meant to be uncomfortable and, like any harrowing and consuming experience, it would be impossible to make it through it if we didn’t laugh every once in a while.

    Captions constantly remind the viewer that time is passing by at a rapid rate yet at no point does the film feel long. While the passage of time reflects the reality of the events that took place, it also ensures the viewer knows how frustrating the entire investigation was. All involved went years without coming to any substantiated conclusions. With the central focus of their lives not making any sense, it became impossible to connect with the rest of their surroundings. ZODIAC is an intensely involving mystery that is both chilling and infuriating in all the right ways. It is itself its own puzzle remaining to be solved. Without understanding, there is no security or certainty. Just like a game of checkers or going out on a first date, success depends on figuring out the other player as much as it involves understanding yourself. The same applies to the investigation of the Zodiac killings. You will need to know how and why it happened but you will not really want to, considering to fully understand this mystery means staring into the eyes of a murderer who kills for sport. Good game, Mr. Fincher.
    I have no idea what I'm doing but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.
    - Woody Allen

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    David Fincher: Zodiac (2007)

    Fincher goes vérité and plodding

    Review by Chris Knipp

    David Fincher's Zodiac, like Billy Ray's Breach, approaches what's normally a sensational theme (finding a murderer, catching a spy) in a flat and realistic way. The critics prefer Zodiac; the public prefers Breach. Breach has a payoff. The spy gets caught, even if the process of getting him is more sweaty than flashy. Zodiac exhaustively explores a serial killer case that was never solved. Zodiac lacks any of the fulfillment of traditional drama and storytelling. Zodiac gives us police procedure, rather than a "police procedural." The case is exciting, lurid, but without a payoff. Therein lies Zodiac's originality. The pleasure of chasing clues for their own sake has never been shown in a movie. The excitement of such a story usually derives from a progression that here never happens.

    As Walter Chaw puts it, "Zodiac deals in millennial anxieties: the un-'catchable' foe; the unknowable cipher; the futility of the best efforts of good and smart men." In his admiring Village Voice review, Nathan Lee says, "The result is an orgy of empiricism, a monumental geek fest of fact-checking, speculation, deduction, code breaking, note taking, forensics, graphology, fingerprint analysis, warrant wrangling, witness testimony, phone calls, news reports. 'I felt like I was stuck in a filing cabinet for three hours,' complained one viewer. Exactly!" For Lee, that was intriguing and radical. For me it was simply demoralizing. Zodiac is, after all, a movie. And with its able cinematographer Harris Savides and its cast of well known actors, it declares itself to be a movie at every turn, despite its scrupulous adherence to the known.

    As Zodiac makes its way through its excruciating two and a half hours, the attention gradually, and necessarily, shifts from the elusive killer to a straight arrow named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a newspaper cartoonist and former Eagle Scout whose obsession with the case is marginally intense enough to keep us going. At least it keeps him going. While traditional crime movies focus on cases that get solved, the payoff this time is that Graysmith writes a book. And his book is the main source of this film, whose screenplay he coauthored. What's Graysmith doing now? Nathan Lee tells us: he's writing a book called Shooting Zodiac, about the production of this film.

    This is a change for Fincher. His career highpoints are the flashy, cultish Se7en and Fight Club, with the less stellar The Game and Panic Room in between. Se7en, like Zodiac, concerns a serial killer, but the earlier film is shocking, thrilling, horrifying. Even though Zodiac shows gruesome killings and attempted killings, they feel ugly rather than exciting. They're necessary to understand what the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle (where Graysmith worked as a cartoonist at the time) and various law enforcement agencies are worked up about.

    The self-identified Zodiac killer kept Californians terrorized for ten months of 1968 and 1969. There were seven verified victims, of whom two survived. The Zodiac stayed in the news by writing taunting letters and cryptograms to the newspapers up until 1974. He spoke of man as the most dangerous prey of all and killing people as fun. He made many threats -- including a promise to kill all the kids on a school bus. He claimed many other victims, but none was verified. There were many suspects, only one seriously investigated, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), who's repeatedly questioned and searched. There was much circumstantial evidence against him but no physical evidence, and the police decided not to press charges. The file was closed, then reopened in 2004. No one was ever caught. The FBI, local and state police, and various press people and experts were drawn into the tangled case.

    Fincher draws on top people to tell this story, which is based largely on screenplay coauthor Graysmith's original book. When eccentric celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli gets drawn into the case, he has Brian Cox to play Belli (Cox is always good, but he's not as fussy or elegant as the real Belli was). When the director needs someone to play a substance-abusing San Francisco Chronicle writer who became identified with the case, he uses Robert Downey Jr, who surely knows this territory. For the straight-arrow Chronicle cartoonist Graysmith it's Jake Gyllenhaal. Because Gyllenhaal is appealing and righteous with a slight edge of excessive intensity, he's well cast. For the thankless role of Graysmith's date, then his wife, whose main importance is that she has to take a secondary role to Zodiac, the sympathetic Chloë Sevigny was called in. For David Toschi, a chief police inspector on the case -- like Avery, Graysmith, and his wife, one of its casualties -- we get Mark Ruffalo (using a light voice that's a little too artificial and attention-catching). For the handwriting expert who retires and turns to drink, Sherwood Morill (another casualty?) Fincher gives us Philip Baker Hall. There are also familiar incidental faces like those of Dermot Mulroney, James Le Gros, Anthony Edwards (as Toschi's partner William Armstrong, and another casualty), Elias Koteas, Clea DuVall, and many others. It's a good cast but maybe a too recognizable one for what purports to be something like vérité. This is without mentioning the darker shadow world of incidental informers and suspects, who while (perhaps fortunately) are less recognizable, seem equally well chosen. There's craftsmanship and teamwork here. It just seems wasted sometimes.

    Probably because of the Zodiac's taunting letters and the way the case was publicized, he's been a great influence on popular fiction and film and the public mind. Eight movies relate to him, including Dirty Harry, and at least five novels and several graphic novels as well as numerous pop songs. But does this make a great movie? Fincher's epic, in some ways impressive, version is engrossing but ultimately disappointing.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-08-2014 at 12:48 AM.

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    To mouton:

    To me, ZODIAC the Fincher movie is more to be admired that to be enjoyed. Your "game" metaphor is clever, but I don't feel it's super-relevant. This was a media circus. It was also a hunt, one that failed to catch any game, though it closed in on too much game. But it was not a game. I was there, in San Francisco and Berkeley at the time all this happened. When I comment on Cox's version of Belli it's because I observed the real Belli in action. Despite the media circus I didn't feel scared for a minute. You are right that the film has its dark aspects. I ought to have said more about them, but I limit my reviews to under 1,000 words and there is a lot of information to cover (Nathan Lee's Voice review is close to twice that length).

    Dark moments: The time when Graysmith goes to visit the silent film theater guy and gets terrified and runs out. The young couple in the car who get shot. The destructiveness of the case on the various lives. The darkest thing of all perhaps is Graysmith's obsession, his state when his wife revisits him and he says he doesn't want the kids to see him like this. But as a mood piece this still isn't successful (I don't think it's meant to be--I think it's meant to be geeky as Nathan Lee says), because the story is too sprawling, involves too many leads as you say and too long a time.

    "Fincher plays with our basic need to understand and to make sense of something." Yeah, but he doesn't satisfy that need, so in what sense is he playing?

    I don't think Panic Room or The Game are very good movies. They're potboilers at best and not very original. On the other hand Fight Club is brilliant, and Se7en is repulsive and nightmarish and skillful. But they're not at all realistic, and that's why this is a whole new direction for Fincher.

    I think you should have mentioned Graysmith's collaboration on the screenplay. He's important not only as a character in the movie but as the source of the movie. He's central to the movie in just about every way. It's about him, but he's about the Zodiac killer, so it's pretty circular. Fincher has said:
    "I don't know if the Zodiac was made for Robert or Robert was made for the Zodiac."
    I don't see how the audience gets invited into any "game" here. We're at best only compulsive but passive observers. Interestingly Graysmith published another book made into a movie before his (1986) Zodiac book, about Bob Crane the Hogan's Heroes guy who was turned into a sex addict by a guy named John Carpenter, another dark, lurid, sick unsolved mystery that was made into a movie directed by Paul Schrader (Auto Focus, 2002), the screenplay also coauthored by Graysmith. He's written seven books.

    Zodiac the film by Fincher is, I am beginning to believe -- and the structure of the film itself shows it -- absolutely dominated by the obsessive mind and sensibility of Robert Graysmith. Take a look at this recent interview story from the Washington Post about him. It's a bit creepy.

    This article has some interesting other stuff in it, for instance:
    The San Francisco investigator assigned to the case was already famous: Dave Toschi (Ruffalo), with his .38 Cobra in its quick-release shoulder holster and his black turtlenecks, was the model for Steve McQueen in "Bullitt."
    Looking at some of the discussion of Zodiac online, and the disagreements with Graysmith by other amateur sleuths, I'd say, stay away from it. You don't want to get, as the author of the Washington Post article puts it, "sucked down the rabbit hole" of the Zodiac mystery.

    It's not a game, it's an obsession.

    I still don't think it's entirely successful as a movie. It's overwhelmed by that obsession.

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    Hey Chris.

    This is the first unfavorable review I've read of ZODIAC. I'm surprised but see where you're coming from. After ZODIAC, I realized that one of my favorite genres is police investigation, if that is even a genre. It stems from years of Law & Order watching. One might even call that an obsession. There is another similarity between this television show and ZODIAC, the element of "verite". Most critics hail ZODIAC because of its realism. They applaud Fincher's more impressive previous work as sensational but are then lauding ZODIAC as his most accomplished work. Your opening comment about the film being one that should be more admired than enjoyed is very accurate aside from being very crafty. The cinematography, the screenplay, the score ... these are all elements that shine in ZODIAC and are also all elements that are scrutinized like evidence by reviewers ... not necessarily just enjoyed by audiences. When I saw the film, I didn't notice it was nearly three hours. It wasn't until I read it later that I knew it was. I didn't discuss Graysmith's involvement in the screenplay process because he is not credited as a writer, only as the author of the source material.

    Having not lived through the actual Zodiac killing spree, I could only watch this as film. What I meant by Fincher being playful was in reference to exposing the extremes of obsessions. After watching it a second time, I can see how that game does not involve the viewer. I don't think he could have as that would have been insensitive to the reality of the story and it also allows the viewer enough detachment to not get too involved in the actual horror of the Zodiac's mind. It ain't pretty in there.

    Despite this, I still feel that Fincher involves his audience in the obsessive need to solve this case. I knew going in that the case was unsolved so I was not shocked or dismayed by the result but if I'm to get anything from the Graysmith character, his satisfation looking into Lee's eyes was enough for me.
    I have no idea what I'm doing but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.
    - Woody Allen

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    This is what IMDb has at the top of their Zodiac page:
    Writing credits (WGA)
    James Vanderbilt (screenplay)
    Robert Graysmith (book)
    In this case, a living author whose story this largely is, that would suggest a collaboration between or among director, screenwriter, and author. And collaboration is strongly suggested by two sources I cited -- the Washington Post article and Nathan Lee's Village Voice review, which imply Graysmith worked on the film, was present when it was being made and was probably an influence at every stage. I think you ought to have recognized that and sensed his close involvement as well as overriding influence and noted those in your review.

    That aside, we aren't in much disagreement except that you enjoyed the film more than I did. I just said on your Golden Moutons thread that I am more into spy stories than the police ones, though that's not to say cop stories can't be good and engrossing. You're revealing that you have a real thing for police investigations stuff. But I grant that Zodiac is interesting, as I said, more to be admired than, at least in my case and in some others', to be enjoyed. That goes for a lot of good films. They don't have to be fun. Being compulsive may be enough, for those who enjoy having that side of themselves awakened. I got really bogged down in the constantly multiplying real and false leads and suspects and lost track of the names and lost interest in the details. It just went on too long. I was sorely tempted to run out to the lobby and ask the friendly Landmark staff, When is this going to end?!?

    That Zodiac is a critical success but Breach more popular is a guess. Zodiac has done better critically according to Metacritic, 77 vs. Breach's 74. Here I think Zodiac is possibly not going to do well, despite the local interest, due to a major bad local newspaper review by Mick LaSalle in the Chronicle (Graysmith's old paper!), which is at the bottom of the Metacritic reviews and rated 50. Yes, there are unfavorable reveiws. But there are cop tale fans like you, and Zodiac freaks, so I don't know. I'm not saying Breach is a big popular fave either, but it's done okay, about $29 million in a month. I know Fincher's rep has been pretty high in some circles. He has talent clearly, and this seems like something in some sense more adult. I welcome any film that's complex and different and inspires debate.

    I think it's true as you acknowledge this time that you read some of the darkness into the film. It's there but it's not central. It doesn't seek to draw us into the sick world of the serial killer as for instance Silence of the Lambs so clearly does. It's an element of the story, but the greatest darkness is how the murder mystery takes over and partially wrecks the lives of a half dozen people. Indeed I completely agree that "Fincher involves his audience in the obsessive need to solve this case." That is the subject of the film. The shooting of the young couple in the car in Vallejo is the essential setup but the real beginning is the rush of letters to the editor and the editorial conference at the San Francisco Chronicle, the way it's sucking all those men in to what the Post writer called the rabbit hole.

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    Good discussion. But actually what interests me most about this director is the purely technical aspect of his films. Anyone care to comment about this excerpt of Pat Graham's Chicago Reader article:

    Night-crawler fixation aside, what's most interesting to me about Fincher's serial-killer thriller (since there's really not a lot else: all anodyne and pointless, like a TV cop procedural) is its having been shot with the same kind of digital equipment Mann used in Vice (as well as his earlier Collateral)—an HD camera called the Viper. Not that you'd ever guess it—or at least I didn't: the idea never dawned that Zodiac was digital at all till I read about it afterward (specifically a full tech report on Fincher's "100 percent raw data" solution in the winter issue of Filmmaker)—since the results are so disparate: what's runny and grainy in Mann (except I like it! I like it!) is almost a layer of veneer in Fincher, polished to a near perfect "celluloid" sheen. So much for the purported "quality deficits" of commercial HD filming—in terms of image definition, color fidelity, fugitive and/or random highlights (from whatever light source), plus all the distracting bits of subliminal business that the standard 24 frames/second doesn't capture. I never thought I'd see the day when I couldn't tell conventional 35-millimeter product from the HD digital option: guess that's another pet illusion shot to hell!

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    I'm sure Mann wanted the dark, "grainy" look of Miami Vice; Collateral is indeed also digital, as Graham notes, and very beautiful. With post-production possibilities and high quality cameras, clearly there's no longer any one "digital look." The most characteristic difference in the filmmaking process with digital is that actors get to play through in very long takes, and David Lynch has noted that as the great advantage and an influence on the content of his new Inland Empire.

    It's not worthwhile to subscribe to this writer's remark that Zodiac is "all anodyne and pointless, like a TV cop procedural," however, and to assume that Fincher's only interest is technical. As I noted in my review (see above), it's "procedural" with a difference, and there's more to the "technique" than just the look. Some observers have been known to notice that there are actors in the film and that they are good. I'd say Nathan Lee's review of Zodiac is probably the best, and Denby's New Yorker one is also good at describing what's unusual and different about the film. Don't fall for the "it's just technique" and "it's just a tv cop procedural" generalizations. It's fine not to like the film, but the reasons need to be a bit more complex and perceptive than that. There are many criticisms one might level at the popular and influential Fight Club, but they do not have to do with it's being "purely technique."
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-23-2007 at 10:05 PM.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    I'm sure Mann wanted the dark, "grainy" look of Miami Vice; Collateral is indeed also digital, as Graham notes, and very beautiful. With post-production possibilities and high quality cameras, clearly there's no longer any one "digital look." The most characteristic difference in the filmmaking process with digital is that actors get to play through in very long takes, and David Lynch has noted that as the great advantage and an influence on the content of his new Inland Empire.
    I agree. A critic or two bemoaned Lynch's switch to DV. I still haven't seen the film.


    It's not worthwhile to subscribe to this writer's remark that Zodiac is "all anodyne and pointless, like a TV cop procedural," however, and to assume that Fincher's only interest is technical.
    I said that what interest me most about Fincher were the technical aspects of his films.

    Don't fall for the "it's just technique" and "it's just a tv cop procedural" generalizations. It's fine not to like the film, but the reasons need to be a bit more complex and perceptive than that.
    I have absolutely no opinion of Zodiac. Tonight I opted for a one-time screening of two 1930s documentaries by the great Joris Ivens. Tomorrow I'm watching a screening of a new print of Malle's Elevator to the Gallows. After that I'll probably watch Breach. A few days ago I watched Michael Apted's Amazing Grace. Did anyone here watch it?

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    I said that what interest me most about Fincher were the technical aspects of his films.
    Yes, I know you did, and this surely may be taken to imply that he is therefore mostly a technician, and consequently that the content of his films has not been of a great deal of significance. This I find strange for a mainstream filmmaker like Fincher whose work is of necessity content-driven. (Unless you think the mainstream audience goes to the movies in search of style. But I forgot--you said "technique." Is that why they go to see "300"--technique?)
    I have absolutely no opinion of Zodiac.
    But you've already implied by logical extension that what's going to interest you "most" is Zodiac's"technique." That is certainly an opinion about it, even if it's expressed in advance of actually seeing it. But maybe it would be a good idea to stop talking about it, till you've seen it.
    A few days ago I watched Michael Apted's Amazing Grace. Did anyone here watch it?
    Yes, I did. A "Flawed but worthy treatment of a still sadly relevant cause" is the ever-so-catchy heading of my review, which I seem to have been too involved in reading your Miami Festival reviews to remember to post. It's posted now. I have also seen and reviewed (some weeks ago) Breach ("Satan wears gray," which actually I thought was kind of catchy)as well as the relalted The Lives of Others.

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    Zodiac is an engrossing film with excellent production values. The unwavering emphasis on procedure harks back to mid 20th century movies like He Walked by Night. The achieved realism reminded me of last year's Le Petit Lieutenant, which I enjoyed a bit more because it's more interested in human beings. My favorite "policiers" of the past few years are from South Korea: Tell Me Something and Memories of Murder. These have a more expansive focus and varied tone than the other films mentioned while matching Zodiac on technical and formal aspects.

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    I think it clearly still stands as one of the year's best US films, in a small group. It is different in a sense from Le Petit Lieutenant and Memories of Murder because Zodiac c carries the obsession with detail to a new extreme; it shows how the lives of several people are actually and truly wrecked by their endless investigation of the titular serial killer and the film itself is rife with obsessive detail, is dominated by that obsession in its own construction. I love Le Petit Lieutenant. I enjoyed it more too. But I'm inclined to think Zodiac a more considerable film, and the US critical responses to the two bears this out. Maybe Memories of Murder is better than either and the US critics may think so, but I'm not so sure, because I don't know the language at all and it's harder to judge the tone.

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