Movie Night With Urbaniak: Zodiac

In the late 1980s, I became interested in serial killers as I was working on my play One Neck. I read dozens of books on the subject, trying to tie them all together, trying to find a grand, unifying theory that would explain the actions of serial killers. Worst of all, I would need to approximate the mindset of a serial killer in order to write the antagonist of my play. This led me, as you can imagine, to some very dark places, places I found I do not like. My fascination with serial murder turned to revulsion and disgust. The more I learned about these guys (and they are almost all guys), the more I wished I could make it back to some plateau where I could un-learn all the things I had learned. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, Edmund Kemper, there was nothing “cool” or even very interesting about these individuals — they were monstrously sick, pathetically horrible men undeserving of the media space our culture, me included, have heaped upon their actions.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from writing my play, which later became a screenplay, which is now, twenty years later, becoming a graphic novel.

When the novel Silence of the Lambs came out, the reviews were so ecstatic, and I figured I’d best sit down and read it. It’s a terrific piece of genre fiction, but as a treatise on serial murder, it’s strictly fantasy. Likewise David Fincher’s magisterial Seven — cinematically brilliant, but conceptually koo-koo. Sorry folks, there’s no such thing as a serial killer with a grand scheme, a triumphal vision executed by a brilliant mind, murders loaded with puzzles and symbolism and cat-and-mouse games with the police.

Except, of course, that for a very long time, the Zodiac killer made it all seem possible. Letters filled with elaborate codes, taunting the police, taking credit for some murders but not others, creating a gigantic media frenzy that ensnared policemen, newspapermen and all manner of civilians from every walk of life.

In any case, I wrote my serial killer play, Silence of the Lambs was a huge hit and legitimized the genre, spawning a thousand serial-killer movies (Seven among them), and serial killers became ever-more brilliant, peculiar and fascinating. No serial-killer movie has ever captured the sick, sinking, thoroughly awful feeling I got reading the actual case studies of these thoroughly rotten, soulless people.

Until now.

It is altogether fitting that David Fincher, director of Seven, the slickest, most somber and and well-appointed of serial-killer movies, should return to the scene of the crime and make Zodiac, a movie completely opposite in tone and structure, that finally puts to bed the fantasy that movies like Seven help to create. Zodiac gets everything regarding serial murder completely right, and is, in every respect, a stunning, shocking, daring, visually sumptuous work of American filmmaking.

Just about anyone would have a good time watching Zodiac, but for anyone who knows something about how movies are made it is a non-stop feast of technique, prowess, and elegant sophistication. This is a 2 1/2-hour movie that could get by on production design alone, and yet that production design, far from being flashy or overwhelming, conquers expressly by not calling attention to itself.

(Strangely enough, the only piece of production design I could identify as being mis-handled was the posters for Dirty Harry shown in a theater lobby. Stranger still, Zodiac is co-produced by Warner Bros, so at least theoretically they could have located a poster for the movie. This bothered me for a long time until I decided that it must have been Clint Eastwood who didn’t, for whatever reason, want his name or likeness associated with Zodiac, in spite of Dirty Harry being directly inspired by the Zodiac killings.)

When I say the movie is “shocking” and “daring,” I mean that it shocks and dares in ways that no other Hollywood serial-killer movie would even consider trying. Fincher’s obsessive attention to detail, his compulsion to get everything exactly right, begins on the script level. Zodiac astounds by having its script flow in the opposite direction of conventional thrillers, where a collection of disparate, contridictory facts coalesces into a compelling case against the killer. Here, the case against the killer remains maddeningly elusive throughout — every time you think they’ve got the guy nailed, the evidence proves they’ve got the wrong guy. In the conventional Hollywood thriller, the “one man” prevails over a society of slackers and nincompoops — here, we have multiple protagonists who all try, and fail, in different combinations, to track down the killer, and in fact never succeed. Even All the President’s Men, which Zodiac pays conscious homage to, still had the cliche of a pair of mismatched detectives gathering the evidence that will bring down the bad guy — Zodiac goes even further, insisting that there were no mismatched detectives, no single defining moment of glory, no “follow the money” revelations. Because that’s not how these stories go. And yet Zodiac remains gripping, thrilling even, throughout its long running time (and I am told there is an even longer cut on the way).

Like Scorsese’s Casino, Zodiac shuns cliche and refuses simplification at every turn, taking a complex, multi-faceted, true story and tells it with all its weird, unique complications intact (or seemingly so — I haven’t read Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, but I did read the book Casino, and was shocked to learn that, as complex as the story in Casino is, the reality is at least three times more complex. It wouldn’t surprise me if Zodiac had been similarly, if expertly, simplified).

Anyone who’s ever been on a movie shoot cannot help but marvel at the monumental technique that Fincher wields at every turn. There are hundreds of scenes in Zodiac, some no more than a few lines of dialogue long, all requiring huge sets of exacting, lived-in detail, dozens of extras and sophisticated computer-generated imagery, all to make the movie feel like it was actually shot in the time period it is set in.  Fincher refuses to cut corners.  A car pulls up to a curb — what could be simpler? The shot lasts maybe a second. And yet the shot requires a street full of vintage automobiles, streetfronts either convincingly re-dressed to period or re-created on a soundstage, and buildings created in a computer to fill in the gaps created by the intervening 30 years of history. Repeat this process hundreds of times and you begin to see the magnitude of Fincher’s accomplishment here.

Even better is an overhead shot following a taxicab through the streets of San Francisco. The camera looks directly down upon the car, following it so closely as to appear to be bolted to it, even though it seems to be about 100 feet above. The taxi goes around corners and the camera moves precisely to follow it, showing that it’s not a helicopter shot — no helicopter could be so exact. Then one realizes that it must be all CG, a CG taxi traveling through a CG San Francisco, all rendered with an incredible attention to realism and detail. Over and over again, shots that would be routine in other movies, second-unit shots even, simple establishing shots, driving shots, night-time road scenes, on and on, Fincher gives each one an elegant, understated, technically sophisticated spin.

The imagination brought to bear on the technique of the movie extends to the casting, with a huge cast of actors giving great performances in roles that require them to talk on the phone, point to boxes, write things down and ask each other questions. There isn’t a single chase scene, gross-out or moment of fake suspense — all the scenes involving Zodiac are claustrophobic, sickening and distressingly real. Major stars are rendered impotent and irrelevant by the plot’s end, yet we believe every step of the way the characters’ drive,compulsion and obsession.

Speaking of obsession, early on in the movie

  made a joke comparing Zodiac to Close Encounters, which also used soundstage sets for convincingly real exterior locations. Later on, as the movie became about a man obsessed with a phenomenon to the exclusion of his family, the Close Encounters parallel became more startling. Especially as the character, through the writing his book, pushes through his obsession and, in his own way, gets invited up into the aliens’ spaceship at the end.

Hollywood has been very kind to audiences this year, and audiences failed to reciprocate.  Two of the year’s most brilliant, most spectacular, most sophisticated entertainments, Zodiac and Grindhouse, failed to find audiences.  When crap fills the multiplexes next year, audiences will have to accept part of the blame themselves.

A note on the transfer: Zodiac is one of the most handsomely shot movies of recent memory. It was, I am told, shot on high-definition video, which looked spectacular when projected digitally in theaters, and yet there is a peculiar digital shimmer, a moire effect, to any scene on the DVD with too many horizontal lines, at least on my high-definition projector. I am curious to know if anyone else out there has this problem. I know that Fincher is a maniac about the way his movies look, which is why it surprised me to see his most elegant, gripping movie rendered in this rather odd, substandard way.

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The Game, Panic Room

A Fincher double feature!

David Fincher brings weight, substance and excitement to outlandish concepts and genre exercises through superb photography and astonishing production values. Both of these films are so well shot and appointed they take the breath away.

I wish David Fincher would make more movies. I wish David Fincher would shoot something I wrote. Hint hint.

Fincher has done so well with his smooth, polished, glossy entertainments, I can’t wait to see what he does with a “real drama” someday.

When I was a young man, I hated Michael Douglas. I didn’t like his hair, I didn’t like his chin, I didn’t like his young, self-righteous, more-liberal-than-thou attitude. Then, in 1987, he delivered back-to-back amazing performances as conflicted, guilty, deplorable jerks in Fatal Attraction and Wall Street, and suddenly I was a huge fan. I’ve seen everything he’s done since. I enjoyed some, like A Perfect Murder, and didn’t enjoy others, like Disclosure, but he’s never been less than interesting and enjoyable ever since. Come to think of it, I can’t think of another actor that does what Michael Douglas does these days, playing multifaceted, sometimes unpleasant middle-aged men, and somehow finding decent scripts that feature lead roles for him.

The Game is so absurdly far-fetched in concept and outlandish in its execution that it’s flatly ridiculous, and yet I’ve seen the movie three times and will probably watch it again before my time here on earth is up, partly to watch the performances, partly to study Fincher’s seamless direction, partly to luxuriate in the sumptuous production design.

Panic Room is as contained as The Game is expansive, both in concept and in physicality. Almost a filmed play, it would make a kickass double feature with Woody Allen’s September, but it shares more in common with an old chestnut like Wait Until Dark. And for once, one can mention an Audrey Hepburn movie without apology, for in Panic Room we have an actress more than able to stand up in comparison.

Check out the special effects in Panic Room. It’s not just the flashy shots of the camera floating through the floorboards and zooming through the keyholes. All through the picture, in shot after shot, special effects are used to emphasize and delineate, to clarify and set in relief. A door opens, a phone slides under a bed, a flashlight turns on, the most common of shots, shots that might even be shot by a second unit on most pictures, are here given full CGI treatment, weaving the effects into so many shots that you don’t see them after a while. It’s a whole new approach to effects, using them to heighten and deepen what might otherwise be a claustrophobic chamber-piece.

Jodie Foster, I know, I’ve applauded before. But she’s completely convincing in this part and quite staggeringly well-photographed. Whoever did her hair and makeup in this picture should have been nominated for an Oscar. Seeing her with her teenage daughter, it made me wish that she had done the remake of Freaky Friday instead of Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not too late!

Most of the acting in the movie is done on a completely believable, naturalistic plane, but then there are a handful of performances that are broader and seem somehow stagebound, as if this really was a filmed play. Both Ann Magnuson and Ian Buchannan as a pair of realtors come off as arch and stylized, and Jared Leto’s performance occasionally makes it seem like he’s doing a very good impression of John C. McGinley. There are plenty of scenes where Forest Whitaker stands there with his great, sad face and stares at Leto as he shouts and waves his arms, and I found myself thinking “I know, I know, I’m with you.”

The direction is done with much grace, elegance and poise, but the script sets a very high bar for itself and occasionally misses the jump.

The bar the script sets is: let’s make a movie, a suspense thriller, a “woman in jeopardy” picture (or “womjep”) about a woman trapped in a tiny room, and see if we can pull that off.

The problem is, you get the woman and her daughter into the room on page 20, and then what happens? The woman and the daughter are in the room and the bad men want very badly to get into the room. The bad men try something and the woman foils them. Then the woman tries something and the bad men foil her. Then the woman goes out of the room to fetch her phone. Then one of the men gets killed by another one of the men. And after each of these events, the central conceit returns to the status quo; the woman is in the room and the bad men want to get in. The situation doesn’t allow for an escalation of tension.

The individual sections of the movie are well written and executed and the film had no trouble sustaining my interest on a second viewing, but the writer (David Koepp) has literally written himself into a box. He has to pull out the old “diabetic kid” routine to get the movie out of its second act and into its third, where the situation is reversed and the bad men are in the room and the woman wants very badly to get in.

Anyway, small complaint for a movie as inventive and elegant as this.

David Koepp, I should probably mention, is something of a touchstone in my household. I use his name all the time, usually in the sentence “I wonder if David Koepp has to do this?” when a studio wants me to pay my own hotel bill, or submit multiple free treatments, or perform multiple pitches over a period of months before telling me that they don’t actually own the rights to a project.
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Sorry, I just can’t call it Se7en, even though that is apparently its actual title.

I worked long and hard to put the ’90s behind me, I’m not going back there now.

First, let me say that this has one of the greatest title sequences of all time (by R/Greenberg, I believe). I think you have to go back to Return of the Pink Panther to find a better one.

The script, by Andrew Kevin Walker, could have been shot in a flashy, superficial manner to match its sensational subject matter, but David Fincher (and his great DP, Darius Khonji) shoot the hell out of this thing, giving grace, subtlety and gravitas to what might have otherwise been a standard-issue thriller.

The conceit of the plot, which imagines a killer of superhuman cruelty and deviousness, sometimes distracts one from the wonderful character work by all the cast. These stock characters (the world-weary detective on the verge of retirement, his hothead new partner, their blustering superior, the guy guy scraping the name off the office door, so forth) are re-imagined and given new life by Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, R. Lee Ermey and the rest. Their interplay is terrific, they make these guys seem real somehow.

As an added bonus, this is, to my knowledge, the only movie to feature Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box.

Another excellent transfer of a most handsomely shot movie. And a triumph of production design by Arthur Max.

And, for those playing along at the “Voucher Ankles” site, there is, of course, a “Merchant of Venice” tie-in in Seven. A lawyer is forced to cut off, yes, a pound of flesh. He (of course) dies from his self-inflicted wounds, and the killer leaves a (completely bogus) quote from “Merchant” at the crime scene. Imagine my dismay when, in 1995, having written and directed my own adaptation of Merchant, hearing Morgan Freeman (himself a great Shakespearean actor) recite this bit of invented poesy and then intone “Merchant of Venice.”

Come to think of it, I’d love to see Freeman play Antonio some time. Now there’s some subtext.
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