Zodiac is an important postmodern work. It’s an authentically “new” and even experimental thing attempting, to quote from Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation, to put content in its place. It’s very very much a film constructed on a 21st century conception of information as a non-substantive, purely relational digital phenomenon, and the fact that it was shot on video and exists immaterially as digital information is thus not a merely decorative issue but crucial to its meaning.
In the seventies conceptual artists referred almost apocalyptically, to the dematerialization of the work of art. Zodiac is one of the first mainstream movies (The Matrix would be another, JFK from an entirely different direction, another) moving to embrace some of that aspiration.
Zodiac stands to Se7en very much the way Inland Empire stands to Mulholland Drive. It’s auto-critique. It takes an artist’s admirable if relatively conventional accomplishment and smashes it deliberately into several oddly shaped but ultimately connected pieces.
The most important disturbing, disconcerting aspect of the film is that, despite competent dialogue, and an excellent cast, it is not character centered, but structure and theme centred
…the major theme is representation itself.
How do you represent representation? Fincher does it by telling the story of someone who resists representation, someone who is unknowable, someone about whom there is only a history of not-knowing.
As the two recent major works by Van Sant also photographed by Harris Savides, (A coincidence? I think not.), Last Days and Elephant, demonstrate, when you work with the limits of representation, you seem invariably to be engaged with Death. Death is the real world or thematic term for the problem of representation.
Zodiac is more an elaborate anthology of episodes than a story. In the course of it the problematic of this strange “extraordinary” killer, turns out to be that like Death itself, the more you scrutinize him, the more he merges with the ordinary.
Death is the most extreme thing in life, yet it happens to everybody, everywhere, all the time. In a crucial line of information Downey reminds Gyllenhaal and us that more people die in random traffic accidents than at the hands of mythic devils like Zodiac. But revealing the banality of evil in the Zodiac himself, is far from the main point of the film, only one of its juicy incidental thematic by products.
The great triumphant device strategy is the ordinariness of everything about it, from editing and lighting patterns to down everyone in it, bit players to leads. Gyllenhaal, Downey, Ruffalo and Edwards are directed so that they are just above the water line as “leads”. In fact they are as close to being background characters like Elias Koteas, Philp Baker Hall, Donal Logue and Dermot Mulroney as they can be without disappearing into that background. And if you hadn’t noticed that this was the case, Fincher points patiently in the background to the conventional moveistar versions, of those characters who stand out beyond their situations in (classic) movies like Bullitt and Dirty Harry.
At the moment of every dramatic “heightened” moment Fincher subtly and expertly slides by any conclusive revelation of character or defining content. There are four fascinating examples of this; Ruffalo’s confrontation with Downey over procedure, the three police detectives interrogation of their most likely suspect, Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo piecing together a network of data old and new into a convincing narrative, and finally, Gyllenhaal facing the guy he thinks is the killer.
Depriving these ‘big” moments of their conventional dramatic explosiveness is risky but central to Fincher’s project: Partly he wants in a very clear and simple way to prepare the audience for the dissatisfaction of not literally catching the bad guy but what is also going on here is a careful mimicking of conventional thriller tropes, in a processs that patiently and exhaustively empties them of all there regular power to console or edify,
Thus if the Zodiac unknowable, that is only because he is an emblem of the entirety of the universe. What is masterful about Zodiac is that every aspect of its structure plays back upon its central disturbing theme. “Knowing” the tiniest thing in the world, precisely, is depicted over and over and in each and every fresh instance, and character perspetive until the very end, as fragmentary, incomplete, frustrated, frustrating.
What is fascinating and so perplexingly compelling about the last three or four scenes in the film is that cognitively we are given a solution, but it is now empty of affect, reversing and upending all conventional narrative results. The Graysmith character, a cartoonist, works through with the cop played by Ruffalo, a kind of schematic of all the events we have seen over and over, handled, mishandled, misinterpreted,, knowledge has become pure form, stretched out precariously as an abstract “story” across the abyss of the lives that have been swallowed up in the failure to become its content. The haunting final scene exquisitely utilizing characters we barely know and can identify, “completes” the abstract search for truth. An i.d. is judged eight on a scale of ten, ten being positive. It and the subsequent crawl gives us everything and nothing.
In any event, Zodiac is far more about our present and future than about our past.
I agree with a number of people who are already descrbing this as a film of/about the information age we’re living in now. It is in no way a meaningful “statement” about the late sixties seventies, except in so far as it reminds us that millions of people went through that period leading utterly humdrum non-revolutionary non-counter cultural lives, not particularly pschedelic lives. The Zodiac is a purely timeless monster, and hence utterly askew to, if not satiric of, the period’s self-consciousness about itself as historic. Much in the manner of Kubrick’s forays into “period,” it uses the past as a theatre on which to get out our current and future anxieties and fears, into clearer simpler more mythic focus.
Just for the record, I doubt David Fincher personally knows from or much cares about Conceptual Art or avant guard rhetoric about the Dematerialization of the artwork. He has said he was intent on telling a good story as cleanly and simply as he knew how and I see no reason not to take him at his word. There are certain ways in which the film nearly/almost works at that immediate non-reflective level, though its failures there are conspicuous too-and too obvious I would say not to be (artistically) deliberate. Just a good story told directly? And I’m sure Hitchcock was content to be labeled the ‘master of suspense.’ He WAS that, but he was the critic of all that at the same time.
Even when he’s a nice and sincere guy, never trust the teller, trust the tale.
– Larry Gross
March 3, 2007
Larry Gross is a 25 year screenwriting veteran and Winner of Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his most recent release, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.[source]