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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007


It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work. Lots of late nights. Way too many cups of coffee. Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged.


Beginning in December of 1968 and ending in October of 1969, an unknown perpetrator terrorized the Northern region of the state of California, centering most of his activity in and around the San Francisco area. His were motiveless, random crimes – one couple would be shot while they parked, another would be stabbed as they picnicked near Lake Berryessa. As the investigations began, police and the newspapers started receiving letters from the fiend, along with elaborate ciphers that supposedly explained his rationales. It’s these heinous crimes that make up the basis for this film’s storyline, which also follows the involvement of reporter Paul Avery, cartoonist David Graysmith and police Inspectors William Armstrong and David Toschi.


In the hands of any other filmmaker, someone incapable of placing the darkness of the subject matter directly into every scene he or she puts on celluloid, this would be a magnified TV mini-series. We’d get the snippets of nastiness at the start, the fading film star taking on the daring lead role, and anticipate those little forced fade-outs announcing the next commercial break. But in the skilled cinematic grasp of the amazing David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a case that pales in comparison to California’s other notorious Peace decade murder maelstrom - Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter spree – turns into a concrete reflection of its tenuous times. It uncovers the flaws in pre-technology crime solving while celebrating those willing to sacrifice their mental lives to overcome these investigative chasms.


The first thing Fincher does right is purely aesthetic. He so perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1960s/‘70s setting that you feel completely immersed in the time period’s patina and gloom. And it’s not just the details – the TNT 8 Track player, the viewmaster sitting on an old fashioned counsel television. No, what Fincher finds in the era between analog and digital, footwork and laptops, is the last legitimate signs of a post-War America. Sure, San Francisco is an amazing city, the backdrop for a hundred well-remembered movies. But here, the city’s not so much a character but a stand-in, a metropolitan mock-up waiting for the inevitable evil to start seeping in. From the first senseless killing (the aforementioned couple parked near an overpass) to the last crime we actually see (a cabbie being shot at point blank rage) death is the disease that begins the process of unraveling our slipshod social fabric.


Similarly, Fincher casts the film flawlessly. Looking – and indeed acting – like a young Chris Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo leaves behind an inconsequential career canon to deliver a true star making turn as Inspector David Toschi. With his hair piled into two shoddily parted slabs and a wardrobe that feels slept and perspired in, he’s the symbolic face of the law. He’s concerned. He’s confident. He’s sure that regular old police work will lead to a suspect – and the lack of one is eating him up inside. Every time Ruffalo delivers a line, it’s a lesson in multi-layered performance. No sentence is simple, each statement covered in concerns, fears and undeniable guilt. Also amazing is Robert Downey, Jr., playing the kind of cavalier jock journalist that would come to personify the decade’s Fourth Estate eminence. He’s the sort of reporter who does as much drinking and disagreeing as he does writing. He’s the first indirect victim of the story, a man made and unmade by what he knows – and by the pieces of evidence he doesn’t have.


Then there are the ancillary turns – takes on famous faces (Brian Cox’s brilliant Melvin Belli, a more or less forgotten name in the world of limelight legal personalities) and hardworking underdogs. All throughout Zodiac, Fincher features performers who meld seamlessly, never once coming across as too contemporaneous or outside the era. He’s working off iconography – providing as many human as thematic symbols to illustrate his ideas. Toward the end, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Charles Fleischer shows up as a potential suspect, his one time comedic craziness makes a perfect starting point for what ends up being one of the more sinister performances in the entire film. Fincher gets a lot of legitimizing specificity out of these smallish, insignificant roles. They keep Zodiac from slipping into standard, by the book docudrama.


But the real work is put in by Jake Gyllenhaal. His is indeed the hardest part to play. At first, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith is nothing more than a fly on an already filthy wall. He wants desperately to be part of the editorial process, to add what little knowledge he has to the overall reportage of the case. But as an outsider looking in, he is kept at a distance, and this is a risky move for both actor and auteur. For Gyllenhaal, it makes his third act transformation into a sort of ersatz private eye (Graysmith actually existed, and wrote two books upon which the movie is based) a tricky twist to sell. As for Fincher, it needs to feel liquid and inevitable. Such a shift in personal point of view is always difficult for a director, but in the case of Zodiac, we are dealing with a cold case, no real substantive suspects, and a previous path strewn with equally concerned casualties. Turning a hanger-on into a hero is a tough task to accomplish, but Fincher finds a way to make it work. As a matter of fact, the last half of the film is far creepier than the blood and body scattered opening.


This is indeed a directorial tour de force for the moviemaking maverick, a perfect combination of engaging storyline and intriguing style. Fincher loves to look at life through a distorted, twisted lens, and he employs his signature visual variety here. There are certain shots that just bowl you over with their beauty (a tracking shot which follows a cab on its fateful fare, a look at Gyllenhaal’s car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge) while others announce their intention with obvious conceptualization (the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid to mark the passage of time). Still, it’s the way he handles specific scenes that are the most impressive. When the police finally narrow their focus to a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, his interrogation in a factory’s employee break room absolutely sizzles with squalid suspense. Indeed, much of Zodiac crackles with a kind of corrupt electricity, an overriding feeling of discomfort that makes even the conversations between couples ache with an aura of unease. Even at more than 158 minutes, the movie still feels rushed and ready, always on the brink of breaking under its own sustained stress.


There will be those who bemoan said run time, who recognize the non-ending ending the movie manufactures (we wind up with a theory, but no real closure) and simply shout “sell out!”, but that would really be missing the point. Zodiac was never designed as a whodunit. The clues are not clear enough, and the facts more faded than the memories of the people who survived the killer’s slapdash attacks. Fincher never intends a conclusion. Instead, Zodiac is a clever commentary, a look back at how careless and confounding the criminal justice system could be. A modern audience may scoff at how Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (an extremely solid Anthony Edwards) must maneuver through four different jurisdictions and his own internal red tape just to coordinate the evidence, but that’s the way it was back then. Crime was considered local, and even the most celebrated cases played more importantly to the surrounding constituency. It’s also the reason why they call serial killers the first post-modern murderers. It requires contemporary thinking – and techniques – to stop their reign of terror.


But as Fincher so masterfully reminds us, there was no snarky CSI to save us back then. Convictions were built from the circumstantial inward. Even before the closing credits, the film lets us know that certain facts that we feel are incontrovertible have been placed in substantial doubt by computer matching and DNA testing. But since Fincher’s not trying to find the killer, we really don’t care. Instead, we are mesmerized by a movie that takes its time explaining the impact that fear and frustration have on those assigned to bringing the bad guys to justice. When Ruffalo walks away after his final meeting with Gyllenhaal, the look of peace on his face is genuine. Similarly, when Graysmith finds Allen, all he wants is to keep a promise he made to himself and his wife. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, that hoped to unravel the contradictory conclusion of the Warren Commission to suggest another theory on the assassination of the President, Fincher is fine with Zodiac remaining an enigma. Besides WHAT he was had more of an impact on everyone involved than who he was.


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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007

More on youth and privacy (and lack thereof, as well as indifference and alleged superiority to). In the NYT magazine Alexandra Jacobs took a look at college smut publications—oh, excuse me, I mean provocative sex magazines with “playful nudity” as opposed to “pornography”. These are semi-amateur magazines drawing from the talent pool at the entitlement schools—Yale, Harvard, BU, University of Chicago, etc. It seems the smack of elitism is critical to this entire enterprise; it is what distinguishes the spirit of these magazines from that of Girls Gone Wild or Hooters—these people can afford not to be afraid of the consequences, a reassuring message to the other students for whom the zines are made. Also, they promote the quasi-bohemian idea that sophistication about sex means pretending to shrug it off while exploiting its market value. Jacobs offers this cryptic and highly speculative explanation of the phenomenon:


It’s as if, though curious to explore the possibly frightening boundlessness of adult eroticism, they also wish to keep it at arm’s length, contained within the safety of the campus. The students involved display a host of contradictory qualities: cheekiness and earnestness, progressive politics and retro sensibilities, salacity and sensitivity. They aren’t so much answering the question of what is and what isn’t porn — or what those categories might even mean today — as artfully, disarmingly and sometimes deliberately skirting it.


So the students are going to all the trouble of making these magazines so that they can create a space in which they can remain ambivalent about sexuality if not altogether confused by its economic and social instrumentality?


This explanation, from one of the models, seems more apt:


Oleyourryk said that for her and her peers, the question is not why pose nude, but why not? After all, they grew up watching Madonna (“All she was was naked all the time”), parsing the finer points of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and flipping through Calvin Klein ads: sexual imagery was the very wallpaper of their lives, undergirded by a new frankness about how to protect oneself from pregnancy and disease. “Condoms. They’ve been rammed down our throats ... since we were old enough to start contemplating training bras,” wrote a Boink contributor in an essay called “Fall Fornication Must-Haves,” which apparently included crotchless bikinis and a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted dildo called the Minx.
Sex is “everywhere, and it’s always been everywhere for this generation,” Oleyourryk said. “A body is a body is a body, and I’m proud of my body, and why not show my body? It’s not going to keep me from having a job. Maybe it sticks to people, but it doesn’t have that negative connotation like, I’m going to have to carry around this baggage. Maybe it’s like, I’m going to carry this around and be proud of it and say: Look how I looked then! My boobs weren’t on the ground. I wasn’t 45 pounds overweight. How hot was I? It’s not, like, ‘The Scarlet Letter’ anymore. It’s a little badge of honor.”


The logic here is interesting: the ubiquity of sexualized marketing and entertainment is seized upon as license and provides the curious ethical postulate that you need to “show” whatever you are “proud” of. Self-esteem, here, is meaningless without an audience, and the link to commodified sexuality (a given, we’re expected to believe, for all youth—sex is commodified by definition) implies that sexuality is nothing more than a medium for self-marketing, and attention is the currency in which one is paid and the ultimate measure of that self-esteem: “How hot was I?” In the context of elite universities, this seems like an extension of privilege, of demonstrating how far from necessity one is by squandering a long-conserved resource, one’s private sexuality. (This seemed the principle behind Paris Hilton’s behavior initially, but now her image is big business in itself). The message sent seems to be this: I don’t need to prostitute myself for money, I prostitute myself for the hell of it. This is nothing new—unfettered morals have been an aristocratic signifier ever since the bourgeoisie began; it’s a compact way of demonstrating how indifferent you are to the need for a good reputation (the core of commercial life). Now this may be playing out in terms of privacy concerns, the lack of which signifies less a generation gap, as Nussbaum argued in New York magazine, than a class hierarchy. Some people’s reputation will remain untarnished no matter what they do; other people will not be forgiven the slightest slip. And it’s worth remembering that it requires a good deal of cultural capital to maintain a meaningful online presence; if sexuality is no big deal anymore, it’s because it has ceased to be an end and has become a means to establishing that presence. It is losing its relationship to intimacy, which is probably not a terrible thing unless you happen to think that some evolutionary imperative linked them in the first place, and the decoupling is bound to be untenable. But kids, recognizing sexuality is already lost to commercialization are secretly devising new ways to be intimate, so secret that they haven’t even been reported in New York magazine yet.


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007


It’s legitimate release limbo out there right now, with most of the big name studio titles taking only tentative steps toward becoming honest to goodness retail fodder. It seems that most major DVD distributors are holding off on delivering the “A” picture goods, waiting for summer to hurry up and re-ignite the interest in motion picture mediocrity. So while we wait for the rest of the Oscar nominated efforts to find their place upon the B&M shelves (only The Queen and Letters to Iwo Jima are left) and wonder what special features will be added to films like The Fountain and Pan’s Labyrinth, here’s an overview of the available entertainment options for 6 March, all just a debit card decision away:


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan


We here at SE&L wish we’d have come up with the comparison, but we’ll give columnist Joe Queenan his due. Make no doubt about it – Sacha Baron Cohen is the new Roberto Benigni, and this so-called ground breaking comedy is the Life is Beautiful of 2006. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this almost instantaneous backlash – it didn’t require a remake of a children’s fairytale to instigate it. No, people who were bowled over by this manipulative mock doc have started crying foul, and once this emperor dropped trou, nothing seemed so satiric anymore. True, there are elements here that remain clever – the Kazakhstan backdrop with its hyper-horrible social stigmas, the world’s first glimpse of man to man ass wrestling – but the ambush aspect of the jokes has definitely turned tepid. This is still a very funny film – thankfully, the ship has sunk on its status as a classic.

Other Titles of Interest


Cinderella Liberty


Made in an era when character alone could drive a narrative, this insightful effort, following a hooker and the sailor who falls for her wounded charms, are high water marks in the careers of James Caan and Marsha Mason. If you can overcome the bleakness of its mid-‘70s vision, you will be rewarded with amazing performances and lots of emotional truth.

Fast Food Nation


You really don’t want to know what goes on behind the counter at your favorite nationally recognized hamburger chain – at least, that’s what author Eric Schlosser and director Richard Linklater are counting on. Using the scribe’s scandalous factual exposé about the industry as the basis for their fictional story, the duo drive a stake directly into the heart of America’s obsession with convenience cuisine.

Let’s Go to Prison


Want to fully understand the state of big screen comedy? Take a gander at this amazingly unappealing so-called send-up. Granted, jail is a regular jokefest, especially when you consider the multiple variations on “don’t drop the soap” that are available. Taking individualistic idiotic irony to its most painful extremes, there is not a single significant snicker to be found in this magnificently mediocre movie.

The Manitou


When Jaws mania turned William Girdler’s wildlife rip-off Grizzly into boffo box office, the exploitationeer parlayed that popularity into this attempted mainstream macabre. Starring Tony Curtis and Stella Stevens, Mr. Day of the Animals devised a surreal storyline involving a psychic, his glam gal pal, and a growth on her back that just might be the reincarnation of a demonic Native American spirit. As weird as it sounds.

Peter Pan: Platinum Edition


Though they haven’t done a lot right recently, there was a time when Disney drilled animated takes on classic kid fare like this right out of the cinematic stadium. Watching this movie a half-century later, it’s easy to see why. Instead of concentrating all its efforts on micromanaging a movie to fit every demographic, the original House of Mouse just wanted to entertain. They do so magnificently here.


And Now for Something Completely Different
King Kong Fu


Okay, here’s another clear case of a title telling the entire story – or at least, indicating SE&L‘s interest in this relatively unknown release. To read the write-up for this 1976 stinker, a Chinese gorilla skilled in the marital arts (aren’t all apes so gifted???) runs ramshackle over an overwhelmed Wichita, Kansas community. He eventually kidnaps Rae Fay and climbs the highest building in the city – a Holiday Inn. Are you laughing yet? If it sounds like one of those classic So-BIG efforts (a movie “so bad, it’s good”), a few unlucky critics have some sobering news for you. One considers it so awful, it requires immediate cinematic vivisection. Others lament the lack of any discernible talent among cast or crew. Whatever the case may be, there is still something absolutely adorable about that name. And the cover art kicks butt, too.

 


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

LIVING LEGENDS (click on screen)


You can see the rest of the set here


THE WRENS (click on screen)


You can see the rest of the set here


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007

In a recent New York magazine story, Emily Nussbaum argued that a generation gap now exists between an older cohort, sensitive to privacy concerns, and a younger group who are comfortable with surveillance and perhaps transliterate this in their minds into “attention.” The gist of her case is that the new generation grew up with the internet and reality TV as a given, so they are comfortable with the potential for an audience for everything we do and the pressure to achieve such an audience. Nussbaum doesn’t think their indifference to privacy is a matter of ignorance (the usual take on the question, with which I happen to agree) but rather, it may be a matter of the older cohort’s jealousy and fear of the opportunities for self-publicity and exhibitionism they never had in their own youth.


More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would—and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.”


I suppose it could be seen as narcissistic to imagine anyone cares enough about your specific personal information that you need to make it private—this is my attitude, actually, when I don’t shred my mail or take care to send email over secure WiFi networks, and that sort of thing. I have this naive blind faith in my own irrelevance. It would be great if I could bring myself to believe that the nitwits on The Real World were on the show because they didn’t take themselves too seriously, but I can’t make that leap of faith (or logic). The sheer performativity of living your life as if it were stocking a public archive seems to me of a different order of self-obsession than being punctilious about what one reveals to people who really don’t care. When you watch a show like The Real World, you have the palpable sense that surveillance is the breath of life to them—they seem afraid that they’ll cease to exist the minute people stop watching them.


I’ve generally argued that compulsive self-revelation is search for recognition in a society that trains us to pay attention to products and brands—using the technological tools available, we commodify ourselves and allow others to notice us by, in essence, shopping for us—programming our number into their phone, adding us as a friend on whatever social networking site is considered important at the time to your chosen demographic, hooking up an RSS feed for our blog or Flickr stream, evaluating one of our personal profiles on which we’ve calculated our most flattering preferences and interests, and so on. Nussbaum spins this kind of recognition as “community” and perhaps it’s all that is left of the vaunted Habermasian public sphere—actually it’s probably an improvement over what was left of it before the internet took off. One can promulgate various identities and investigate all sorts of subcultures and so on but at the expense of objectifying something of one’s spirit to make it susceptible to digital dissemination. Is this true of social interaction generally, that it objectifies us as its price? Then the difference is the material record technology generates of this process, confronting us with our compiling multiplicity. I shudder to consider the many poor identity-related choices I’ve made in the past (e.g., 1980s haircuts); presumably the new generation is not concerned with this, or any accusations of hypocrisy that might ensue. This I cannot understand, and I’m not convinced that youth are simply more “thick-skinned” than the rest of us. They just have not yet realized all the ways in which this technology can weaponized.


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