Monday, March 16, 2015

Putting the "list" in "miserablist"! (or, the films of David Fincher ranked, no. 5)

For going on twenty years nowmy how time fliesDavid Fincher has been our preeminent auteur of gross, depressing tales of murder and mayhem.  Almost uniquely, Fincher has mastered a high-wire balancing act in the thriller genre, crafting films that are formally pristine, morally bracing, thematically insidious, emotionally devastating, andmost important of allhighly entertaining.  Though chiefly noted for this selfsame prediliction toward the pleasantly unpleasant, Fincher has tried his hand at other things, too—one time it was good, one time it was the worst thing ever.  On this episode: there's enough murder, but it's a little light on the mayhem.

Spoiler alert: turns out the Zodiac wasn't the surgeon general after all

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dave Toschi, Paul Avery, and Robert Graysmith continually fail to catch a murderer.

In Zodiac, Paul Avery notes that more people die in car accidents in San Francisco every three months than the Zodiac Killer claimed over several yearswhile I don't have the stats in front of me, the factual accuracy of this statement might not change even if you add in the murders the Zodiac may have committed but probably didn't, inflating his body count from 5 to 37.  Myself, I'm terribly unsympathetic to the notion that automobile wrecks undermine murder's importance; utilitarian analysis handily justifies the costs of driving cars, whereas no reason leaps to mind to justify killing for sport.

So, let's make Avery's point with more banality, but in a way that better compares like with like.  The average SS machinegunner at Babi Yar claimed ten, maybe a hundred times as many lives as the Zodiac, and he did it in just two days.  Not only would you not know his nameyou probably don't even know where Babi Yar is.  Just as the death toll from accidents, dwarfing those of minor wars, is simply a part of life, genocide can be understoodno matter how poorly it speaks of us, that we are forced to consider the Nazi Holocaust explicable as a symptom of human nature.

Serial killers evoke fear and fascination far out of proportion to the lives they touch directly: they are the closest real life gets to movie horror.  They are eruptions of chaos in a system which we believe, or which we pretend, is orderly.  They're monsters of an almost supernatural bent, confounding cognitively normal humans.  There's the whiff (or more) of deviant sexuality, stimulating our prurience.  Then there's the nature of their victims as hapless targets, implying that you could be next.  They appeal to our most severe prejudices against the atomized, anonymous societyand against our conception of liberty, embodied by a state that is insufficiently powerful to stop citizens from committing such terrible deeds.

Famous serial killers often take on aspects of pulp fiction, turning them into entertaining supervillains.  They have nommes de guerre, idiosyncratic methods, media presence.  Take Jack the Ripperhis appellation more famous than my senators, one of whom I could not name if you put a knife to my throat.  The Ripper utilized a skill tantamount to a surgeon's steady hand in order to complete ritualistic hysterectomies, amongst other mutilations, whilst posting barely-legible messages "from hell."  The Zodiac followed in those footsteps.

Of course, murder done for its own sake is inherently interesting.  It's beyond ordinary comprehension.  Uncovering the motives, means, and culprit of the ordinary murder dispells the mystery.  But serial murder can never be satisfactorily solved, even when the case is.  If the case itself remains open, the mystery becomes even more tantalizing.  It becomes possible to believe that discovering how can also answer why.

That abyss is the subject of David Fincher's Zodiac.  It is the story of a cop, Dave Toschi, a reporter, Paul Avery, and, above all, a cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, who found himself pulled wholly into the Zodiac's wake.  Based upon Graysmith's book, Zodiac both condemns and celebrates his obsession.

Zodiac is atypical.  Fincher's other innovative or unconventional serial killer stories, Seven and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, are still not such outliers within the genre.  Zodiac is not interestedat least not primarily interestedin presenting a fictionalized solution to a cold case.  Instead, it studies the character of a man who would write one, believing it ironclad fact.  The most comparable work I know of is "The Dance of the Gull Catchers," an appendix to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell.  (That's the comic book, not the Hughes Bros.' cinematic bastardization of the same.)  From Hell itself is a fictionalization of the Whitechapel murders.  It purports to identify Jack the Ripper as the royal surgeon, Sir William Gull.  It follows his journey as he butchers five women and, also, has religious visions (it is an Alan Moore comic).  "The Gull Catchers" is a companion piece that relates Moore's discomfort with his endeavor, and the fears he had for his own mental state while pursuing it.  He finds himself aghast at the Ripperologists' neurotic chase of an unknowable truthbefore joining them himself.

James Vanderbilt's script is "The Gull Catchers" expanded to feature-length, bereft of any self-reflection, and set in the Zodiac's San Francisco rather than the Ripper's London.  It is concerned with the same themes: first, the mind's tendency to impose a pattern of its own invention when no pattern can be found; and second, the terrifying single-mindedness that deludes a searcher into the magical belief that he can impose order upon the whole world by naming the perpetrator of a crime.  Almost too perfectly, the Zodiac Killer offers up his own metaphorsthose unbroken codes, encrypted in baffling runes.  Zodiac plays with how we interpret his symbols.  In the process it plays with how we interpret reality.  Consider the repeated motif of the crosshairs signature.  It could be simply what it most obviously is; it could be the brand emblem of a watch; it could be the test pattern upon a roll of unspooled film.  But, always, it is the most vital clue.

Everyone who dies in Zodiac dies in the first 40 minutes.  Two more hours of process ensue, as frustrating as it is enthralling in its realisticand realistically fruitlessdetective work.  If one were unfamiliar with the Zodiac story (and the exact length of Zodiac's runtime), one could easily foresee Toschi finding the Zodiac amidst thousands of suspectsfor perhaps he did, though nothing came of it.

Instead the case cools.  The focus shifts to Graysmith.  His zeal only increases once it costs him his job and family, leaving him with the pursuit of the Zodiac case as his life's only meaning.  When his first hunch is proven wrong, he throws a tantrum, unwilling to believe that he could be mistaken; then, he resets, substituting another name within his evidentiary framework, shedding any inconvenient facts that contradict his certainty.

In the end, Zodiac cannot find the heart to judge Graysmith, for it shares his attraction.  Zodiac's most engaging scene is not when Graysmith idiotically ventures into what may be (but probably isn't) the Zodiac's lair.  It's when Graysmith comes to Toschi years after the Zodiac case has been all but abandoned, waking him up and dragging him to a very early breakfast to explain his findings.  Graysmith goes through his circumstantial case against his favored suspect.  He concludes by saying "Just because you can't prove it, doesn't mean it's not true"baldly stating the theme of the film (albeit not a fraction so disgustingly as the unforgivably bad poster tagline).  The greatest revelation, however, is a tossed-off line of dialogue.  Graysmith mentions the distance between the suspect's old residence and the workplace of one of the Zodiac's victims.  Reacting to Toschi's surprise, Graysmith underlines his point: "I've walked it."  Of course he has.  He doesn't want knowledge, but understanding.  Toschi doesn't blink.

But Zodiac isn't the cruel anti-thriller it could be.  It's populated with characters that, despite Vanderbilt's intent to graft upon them feet of clay, remain larger than life.  Toschi trained Steve McQueen to be Bullitt.  I'm not sure the lessons tookMark Ruffalo's Toschi is a hell of a lot more interesting.  Avery, while a supporting player in what are fundamentally Toschi and Graysmith's stories, represents an early mid-comeback opportunity for Robert Downey to demonstrate that he can spin a role that is functionally comic relief into something that is also believably human, however ludicrously dysfunctional.  Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith plays to type as welladding yet another obtuse weirdo missing key parts of his personality to his resumebut Gyllenhaal is warmer here than his low-affect presence usually allows.  (Plus, Brian Cox steals the show for a solid twenty minutes, as famous Star Trek guest star and attorney, Melvin Belli.)

Most generously, Zodiac gives you permission to believe in Graysmith's quest, even while it depictswithout undue valorizationthe utter ruin it makes of his personal life.  It explicitly encourages you to join him in his conclusions.  That Graysmith's investigation also gave him a livelihood and fame doesn't hurtGraysmith's book Zodiac is highlighted, complete with a "#1 Bestseller" pitch upon its cover, in the film's final scene.  It makes you question if his ex-wife should've had slightly more faith in the American public's appetite for such things; on the other hand, the closing true story textblock also notes with irony that Graysmith now "enjoys a healthy relationship with his children."  But for all Graysmith's manifest faults, Zodiac is as interested in the killer as he is.  It's as willing to hear him out as Toschi is.

Zodiac is probably the David Fincher film with the lightest directorial touchdisregarding the actors' grousing about zillions of takes, anyway.  It remains stylish, from a long take that impresses the halcyon normality of a July 4th celebration that shall soon be shattered, to the superimposition of the Zodiac's scrawls upon a montage, to the genuine horror atmosphere of a certain basement.  But coming after Panic Room, it represents the quiet midpoint between the gnarliness of 90s-era Fincher and the sleekness of his contemporary aesthetic.  (But is there questionable CGI?  Naturallyalthough Zodiac's CGI centerpiece, a timelapse of the Transamerica going up, remains solid.)

Fincher's restraint is most appreciated in the murders themselvesleaving aside a framing that disguises the killer's face, they are presented with a frankness that is horrifying but devoid of exploitation.  Fincher wisely documents the Zodiac's waste of human life rather than attempting to entertain the audience with recreations of real murders based on details from two surviving victims; as such, they are the most nauseously unpleasant scenes in his whole filmography.  Seven is a useful contrast: Seven is actually less graphic in its depiction of death (only one homicide is shown onscreen), yet Seven's kills remain so very aware of how cool they are.  Zodiac shows murder without blinking, but also without any indication that Fincher thinks there's anything remotely cool about it.

Instead of one of Fincher's bleak cartoons, then, Zodiac is a handsome, serious, expansive period piece.  (It probably convinced Fincher that he could do Benjamin Button, though it's unfair to hold that against it.)  Donald Graham Burt is doing understated but substantial work with his production designthe newspaper room set is something elseand Casey Storm, who'd go on to define a possible future in Her, offers an impeccable costume design for the past here.  The cinematography doesn't look like the 70s, but is a controlled work of color that seeks an impression of gritty reality rather than its reproduction.  Altogether, it's an early triumph for digital photography.  The results provided good reason for Fincher to continue to pursue it.

Let's close by reflecting upon Zodiac's length.  It's Fincher's second longest, and it is no secret that most Fincher movies range from long to absurdly long.  Meanwhile, Fincher is often (and rightly) praised for his classicism.  One aspect of that classicism that usually goes unremarked is how the quantity inherent to his films can have a quality all its own, rather than the mere accumulation of incident that bloats up so much comtemporary cinema.  That quantity is often invisibleFincher is not one for sedate motion pictures.  Zodiac, however, is his stateliest filmit is no Tarkovskian exercise in damaging the viewer's brain, but it's not quick.  Getting the murders out of the way early reinforces this impression.  In pace, it has more in common with Gone With the Wind or Ben-hur than it does with Fight ClubZodiac is a contradiction: the magisterial thriller.  While not unkind, it wants you to live with these characters, to feel the years that go by.  For this reason, Zodiac is easy to undervalueit is Fincher's least commercially successful film.  I have undervalued it in the past.  But there is something of the intentionally epic to Zodiac that gives it unexpected power.  It is, by design, an exhausting film.  Exhaustion can be misinterpreted as boredom.  Zodiac's is a satisfying exercise in exhaustion.  It places you right alongside a tired and expended Robert Graysmithas he finally makes it over his personal, imaginary finish line, so do we.

Score:  10/10

David Fincher's miserable list, by year:
Alien 3 (1992)
Seven (1995)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
Zodiac (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)

David Fincher's miserable list, by rank:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
9.  Alien 3 (1992) 
8.  Panic Room (2002)                                    
7.  The Game (1997)                                         
6.  The Social Network (2010)                        
5.  Zodiac (2007)                                               
4.  Fight Club (1999)                                        
3.  Seven (1995)                                                  
2.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) 
1.  Gone Girl (2014)                                         

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