Thursday, January 10, 2008

David Fincher: Zodiac

I had a somewhat ambivalent reaction to David Fincher's Zodiac when I first saw it early last year. I admired its style, attention to detail and most of all its restrain but so densely packed its (160 minutes long) narrative was that it left me completely exhausted much before it actually ended. Reading the reviews did help me realize what Fincher was trying to achieve. Since then I had been waiting for it to come on DVD. I just saw the new director's cut (nine extra minutes! yay!!) and I now feel that this certainly is the best and the most important American film of last year, much more satisfying than either No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood.

Zodiac was a box office disappointment, which is not surprising at all given how it consciously rejects (or "unexpectedly repudiates", to use a phrase from Manohla Dargis's review) the standard Hollywood aesthetic, as seen in the serial killer and police procedural genres. Fincher himself directed Se7en, though not entirely conventional but still a standard Hollywood product. By contrast, in this film there are no heroic characters, or for that matter no villain, though we do feel his presence even though he is absent from the surface. We never see the killer, though Fincher does show the murders, some in his typical grisly style. The killer is of course never revealed or caught, though we do feel we are tantalizingly close to him at a few occasions. There are no shootouts, no macho cops, no funny, smartass dialogues which is the staple of cop movies. And most important of all it rejects psychological realism, thus denying any easy opportunity for identifying with any particular character, in order to concentrate more on the investigative and legal process - in all its mundane, undramatic, even tedious detail. Having said that, last section does become a story about the Graysmith character which I thought didn't fit well with the rest of the film. A more radical approach would have opted for a style used by films like The Battle of Algiers or Salvatore Giuliano. Even the New Hollywood movies of 70s, which are obvious touchstones for Fincher, do this very successfully - they show more interest in institutions and processes than human beings which are anyway shown to be too weak to have any character or any authentic motivations of their own. It is also important to keep in mind films of Alan Pakula's (All the President's Men, The Parallax View), Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation) or Sidney Lumet (Network) to really appreciate what Fincher is doing in this film.

At the heart of the film (and the thing that interested me the most) is the idea of epistemological despair - the profound desire for knowledge yet understanding that it might be impossible even if you bury yourself under an avalanche of facts and information (which this film does). It shows the limits of rationality and taking from there the limits of our liberal justice system which takes rationality and the possibility of knowledge as an implicit assumption. We may never be completely sure about what we really know or can know. But it is to film's credit and its political integrity (and it shows how far Fincher has come from Se7en, Fight Club or Panic Room) that it never wavers from its faith in the rule of law and liberalism. We know that bringing the guilty to justice is important but it is equally important to make sure that no injustice is done to any innocent. The film makes repeated references to Dirty Harry, thus clarifying its own position relative to that. It makes Fincher's past films, and indeed any standard hollywood thriller, which all essentially work on the principle of wish-fulfillment fantasies of meting out violent justice look illiberal, if not downright fascist. It is specially important in these times when so-called "preemptive" ways of handling crime are becoming more and more acceptable. An excellent essay in Slate goes in more detail about it. There is a scope for a much more involved and detailed discussion on this topic. Somewhat reminds me of essays collected in Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. You can allow truth and reality to be contingent and yet build liberal institutions on that foundation and indeed there is no other way to be liberal in this postmodern age.

I have been thinking about these philosophical questions about assumptions of rationality in the context of detective stories even since I saw Twin Peaks. In fact watching it second time the Zodiac killer reminded me quite a bit of Windom Earle from the second season. One uses code cyphers and other uses chess positions to communicate - both consciously making a point about limits of rational, logical deduction when it comes to identifying and weeding out evil. I am sure Agent Cooper would have cracked the Zodiac case with his unique mind-body technique and the Tibetan method! But its really hard work for ordinary detectives.

I know most people missed it when it came but the two disc special edition more than makes up for the lost chance. I haven't been able to explore extras or been able to listen to the two commentary tracks but will try to find time for them soon. Anyway, Zodiac definitely deserves a place high on your to-watch queue.

Trailer to whet the appetite:


puccinio said...

''Zodiac'' I think is really the best film made about the world today. Again it's indirect about it, but it's explicit about how being obsessed over searching or bringing to justice an unknown or hidden killer ultimately makes you pathological and empty.

But then it also says that the only alternative to that is to live in fear, in paranoia and just hope for the best. Which is why I think it's sad that the film didn't too well. It really hits the nail about America's tortured foreign policy. ''The Departed'' was also about that but that was more apocalyptic and more cynical in it's treatment...which makes it's success even more odd.

By the way, to that fine list of police procedurals don't forget to add two American classics, both directed by Richard Fleischer - ''Compulsion''(starring Orson Welles) and ''The Boston Strangler''(with Henry Fonda). The latter film might have been a big influence on ''Zodiac''. That's also a film about an unsolved serial killer that's about the investigators more than the killers.

Madhuri said...

"...they show more interest in institutions and processes than human beings which are anyway shown to be too weak to have any character or any authentic motivations of their own."
That was amusing. Even I thought that Zodiac moved a bit off track when it started focusing on Graysmith - probably it happened because the writer of a book will hardly dissociate himself from the plot when he has played the slightest part. If anything he will probably glorify that part.
Even then, the movie was quite good and a realistic depiction of police procedures.

Alok said...

puccinio: I haven't even heard of Fleischer. Will try to find out more and locate his films too. Thanks as always. I love the 70s hollywood films very much though I think Zodiac is much more positive in its evaluations of the institutions of press, police and justice unlike those early hollywood movies which were openly anti-establishment and suspicious of any official line. In Zodiac everybody does their job to their best - the policemen, the attorney, the amateur detective, the journalist but even their best efforts is not enough in the end. the problem of catching the killer takes a larger significance, it becomes impossible in a deeper, more philosophical way.

madhuri: I agree. i think the last section was there to show how individual paranoia and obsession work. in the scene where he goes into the basement of that guy and just because basements are rare in california starts to suspect that he is the killer! even though he is a specific character, he is still a representative type of people living in that area at that time...

the saint said...

I found this Zodiac much better.

Alok said...

i haven't seen it or even heard of it. it sounds dubious though, after reading the comments on imdb

the saint said...


This is what my friend wrote at the site- "Although David Finchers look at the infamous Zodiac Killer is due in a few months, Alexander Buckleys version need not be ashamed of comparison. That's what can be predicted in advance, since Buckleys film looks at the Zodiac killings from the perspective of one involved policeman's family; Fincher is hardly to repeat that. Buckleys approach, at first, is very realistic - not surprising, since the incidents he portrays are historic facts. Later on, he fuses facts and fictions, which weakens the picture a bit. But in general, he sticks to the facts and manages to fit them into interesting 92 minutes. No gore here, only a few harsh visuals, but still disturbing. In total, it succeeds in creating a sense for the madness and absurdness behind the killings. Recommended for those looking for a thrill of quality."

Alok said...

I will see if I can find it somewhere. Fincher's film made me interested in the subject quite a bit. thanks for the heads-up anyway.

Squeekbat said...

It just struck me today while watching a biography of the Zodiac killer that maybe Windom Earle was somewhat inspired by him. It's nice to see someone else noticed this.