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Friday, Mar 9, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: the kiddie matinee turns moneymaker for the grindhouse gang.

The Wonderful Land of Oz/ Jack and the Beanstalk


You have to remember – exploitation was all about money. Any notions of art or appeal were a slim, shady second. If you could film it, and find an audience willing to watch it – or be tastefully tricked into doing same – your coffers could be clinking with curiosity-inspired coinage. Short of sneaking over into hardcore pornography (still a major Constitutional no-no at the time) or delving into areas even more disturbing (snuff, anyone?), producers had to plunder the depths of all potential profit zones, going from fright to foreign to get the greenback dollar done. And then once they struck grindhouse gold, they would tap and re-tap said monetary mine until it was almost ready to implode.


Perhaps the oddest revenue stream came from the pre-teen crowd. Too young to pet up the passion pit, but still cognizant of film as a form of entertainment, they were a fledgling fanbase that the major studios failed to sufficiently market to (wow – how times have changed). While it may seem strange for a business that based most of its earnings on eros, nudity and scandal to venture into kid-friendly fare, anyone who knew the genre’s cinematic con game realized such a strategy was a long standing element of exploitation. When the roadshow proved successful – selling sex education epics loaded with “live birth footage” along with an in-person hygiene lecture – other combinations of cinema and theatrics were conceived. Magicians, capable of creating magic without the need of celluloid, were quickly reconfigured into horror hosts. The next thing you know, the spook show was born.


It was a killer combination. A cornball carnival act was out-fitted with Grand Guignol blood and gore effects, a rotten old scary movie was picked out of the public domain pile, and almost instantaneously, ads announcing the upcoming fright fest were filling papers all around the standard exploitation circuit. Summer-weary youngsters, looking for something to stifle the sweltering heat (or in Fall, to prepare them for All Hallow’s Eve) would line up outside the local Bijou, ready for a mind-boggling multimedia event. Traveling from city to city, these potent profit generators became an annual rite of passage for many of the nation’s most easily impressionable. But just as the spook show was burning up the beltway, Congress began its unprecedented hearings into comic books and juvenile delinquency. In one fell swoop, the selling of violence to children was tantamount to a crime.


Quickly needing to regroup, the exploitationers hit upon a radical idea – pander to the parents. Instead of shocking their offspring, perhaps they should provide a sort of cinematic panacea (and indirectly, a few hours out of Mon and Dad’s harried household). The answer was obvious – link into the large library of fairytales, apply the same lo-fi no budget approach to their production as they do in the skin and sin department, and railroad them through as many small market screens as possible. Thus the kiddie matinee was born, an afternoon long celebration of good clean fun merged with buck-based babysitting. A perfect example of this approach are the efforts of Barry Mahon. A director who dabbled in almost every genre of sleazoid cinema, his late ‘60s/early ‘70s adolescent epics defy easy description. These amazingly misguided movies prove that, when it comes to famous fables from the past, familiarity breeds a kind of commercial contempt.

When it comes to wonderful wizards, it figures that as soon as Dorothy and Toto travel somewhere back over the rainbow to Kansas, Oz instantly becomes a backlot at some failed Florida funpark. It is here where we meet Tiperarious, an off-key cretin, who is ready to help bastardize L. Frank Baum’s beatitudes. Apparently, “Tip” is a metaphysical princess trapped in a talentless male child star’s body, enslaved to a wax-chinned witch. Typical of your enchanted land manservant, little Lord Boredleroy carves a pumpkinhead and calls him Jack (somewhere in the great beyond, the future imagination of Timothy Burton smiles). Mombi, his magical “massa,” sprinkles her broth of vigor all over the squash and he turns into a walking, talking gourd with no ass and Jackie Vernon’s voice.


Overhearing that his hag housemother plans on turning him into a marble garden gnome, Tip takes Jack to the Emerald City to visit the Scarecrow. Along the way, the dumb duo runs into General Ginjur and her all-female marching band. They are set to overthrow the forward-thinking Oz government for granting them suffrage. Seems our young ladies would rather sleep late and money grub after all (screw the ERA!). In a desperate attempt to breathe life into this tired child’s chestnut, they introduce the timeless, treasured literary characters of the flying sofa Gump and the walleyed Cuddlebug/Pollywog/Wiggleworm/Wogglebug/Whatever. It doesn’t work. So then everyone sings!


Meanwhile, in another far more single warehouse set fantasy world, Jack and his fiduciarily strapped family lament their late father. Or a better explanation would be that they sing pathetic show tunes about how stupid he was at not being able to recreate his famed, money making inventions, or how many of their now malnourished ribs they can count. Mom decides that instead of slaughtering the cow and serving flank steak for a month, she’d rather turn over the wise financial decisions to her wispy loafered son Jack. He immediately trades the potential ground round for a handful of lentils, then tosses them into the backyard, thereby avoiding the alimentary middleman.


A huge beanstalk grows, Jack traverses it, and runs into the sloppiest giant (with the loveliest castrati voice) in all of Cloud City. Our light fingered fig climber commits acts of larceny while the crumb laden colossus eats his weight in skunk soup and then falls into incredibly well timed cases of narcolepsy. Eventually, Jack discovers he is stealing to supply his sister with a dowry. Seems a hard-up mutt ugly 16-year old miss has a difficult time getting hitched to swarthy suitors without cash on the salt pork barrel head, or at least a harp that plays by itself. Eventually there is some manner of “happily ever after” since the movie ends.


For those who find the Rankin-Bass school of brat bewilderment jerky and unnerving, or Sid and Marty Krofft’s sebaceous cartoons on crack like kissing Billy Hayes, just wait until you get a load of what nudie entrepreneur Barry Mahon thought wee ones would be willing to sit through on a hot Saturday afternoon. Unless your name was K. Gordon Murray and you set about importing all manner of Mexican merriment to fuel your moneymaking matinees, you had to grow some junk of your own. And films like The Wonderful Land of Oz and Jack and the Beanstalk were the homemade horse hockey result. These movies share a great deal with the entire R-B/ S&MK school of juvenilia with their Puffnstuff/Bugaloos/Lidsville weirdness; awkward, in puberty flux teen boys with bad Beatle hair and even worse singing voices cooing about magic wands and enchanted pixies; overly bright and oddly angled sets attempting to pass for far-out imaginary locations, and charmless adults in ill-fitting costumes and pounds of pancake makeup prancing and posing, passing time until happy hour.


Oddly enough, Oz is rather faithful to the original book upon which it is based (The Magical Land of Oz), even using some of the same dialogue and scenes. And that’s good, because when left to his own devices, Mahon gives us action, actors, and musical numbers that take the whole notion of nonchalance to a new, near comatose level. Even when they’re singing the saccharine, silly songs inserted into the show, everyone in the cast seems barely awake. You start to wonder how something this outrageously awful could be made. And fret it could get worse.


And then it does. Jack and the Beanstalk starts to play. So stagy and talky that David Mamet watches it annually just to remember how best to cram the maximum amount of dialogue within the minimal amount of scene changes, this vexingly verbal version of the classic Fe-Fi-Fo-Fooey should be called Jack Beany / Jackstalk. You half expect Kevin Spacey to show up three-quarters of the way through (in a wizard’s hat of course) and yell at the cast to “go to lunch.” Anything to enliven this by the fast food franchise coloring book rendition of the bedtime standby. Every time the hairy, seemingly hung-over giant goes into his high pitched “Fe-Fi” aria, you actually feel your individual skin cells quivering in nucleic failure. Jack’s mother sounds like she just came over on the boat (from where? Perhaps…Lithuania?) and his sister is so obsessed with that damn dowry that you’d swear she was Indira Gandhi in another life.


The direction subdivides the film into three separate, bowel challenging movements, each one starting and ending with Jack climbing his green leafed rope ladder and shuffling along the dry ice stage setting like he’s tripping the cumulus fantastic. Then, via the magic of atrocious rear projection, he steals cardboard items while we witness the gross gob of our elephantine enemy in all his mouth corner salt sickness. It’s just too bad that even with his lack of musculature, Jack never once stumbles and tumbles to his upper atmospheric death. Nothing or no one so deserves to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere more than this grimy Grimm’s flimsy tale.


Oddly enough, both movies were very successful. They lead Mahon to make a version of Thumbelina (1970) and a pair of corrupt classics with Christmas as a backdrop (Santa and the Three Bears, 1970 and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, 1972). And it wasn’t even off-title exploitation auteurs that were betting on brats to rake in the dough. Even Herschell Gordon Lewis, the originator of the gore film, tried his hand at it, making the insane fantasy flop Jimmy the Boy Wonder. He would even go so far as to film a local amusement park’s stage show and release it under the title The Magical Land of Mother Goose. In both cases, the movies were good for a couple week run before fading into the entertainment ether. It all ended when TV realized the desperate demographic available, and began purposefully programming cartoons and other kid fare during the afternoon hours. In an instant, the kiddie matinee died. The films were relegated to rerun status on local UHF channels, and the producers went back to pushing softcore smut as their ballyhoo bread and butter. After all, exploitation was all about money. Still, it’s interesting to remember a brief period when the piggy bank drove as many movies as the private parts.


 


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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007


Spring has sprung – so get out and live your life. Take some time. Stop and smell the flowers. Do anything and everything you can, but whatever you do, DON’T WATCH THE PREMIUM CABLE MOVIE CHANNELS THIS WEEKEND. All four films being offered, including one made exclusively for the coaxial market, are absolutely lame. They lack sufficient cinematic and artistic cred, and consistently undermine the individuals responsible for their creation. Where once the arrival of winter’s thaw marked the dog days at the local Multiplex, it appears pay TV is the new landfill for lost motion picture prattle. If you insist upon cranking up the cable box and bothering with any of these offerings, SE&L can only sell you on one – and the pitch is pretty weak. In fact, this may be a good time to explore other options in Saturday evening adventure. Here’s what’s waiting on 10 March:


Premiere Pick
Stay Alive


You know the pickings are exceptionally slim when SE&L goes about recommending a rather under-baked video game styled horror film as its premium channel pick – especially one as slipshod as this one. Tripping lightly into Silent Hill territory, with just a smidgen of Final Destination to add to the illogic, what starts off interesting (including a nice bit of immersive 3D animation) ends up inert as old legends come back to life for absolutely no good reason. The cast is comprised of unimpressive actors, each one looking lost in what is essentially a slasher film with microchips instead of machetes. With an overblown ending and more than its fair share of plotholes, the only entertainment you’ll get from this failed horror hackwork will come from second guessing the characters. Sadly, you will probably overestimate their intelligence every single time. (3 March, Starz, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Life Support


It’s more issue-oriented fare for the Emmy winning network as Queen Latifah stars in this based on a true story drama. Her character is an urban activist, a former junkie now infected with AIDS who wants to help others avoid her physical fate. In addition, there’s an older daughter whose overflowing with bitterness regarding her upbringing, and various stoic subplots that take attention away from the main narrative. For all its noble intentions, this is nothing more than a mediocre made for TV weeper. (10 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (10 March, Cinemax, 9PM EST)


The Pink Panther


Steve Martin should be ashamed. Shawn Levy should also hang his head in collaborative guilt. Together, these two supposedly talented men shit all over the legacy of Peter Sellers and his slapstick collaborations with the brilliant Blake Edwards. And rumor has it that a sequel may be in the works. Apparently, audiences enjoyed this update on the modern Inspector Clouseau character enough to warrant a return to the well. Here’s hoping all involved drown. (10 March, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
O’ Brother Where Art Thou?


After The Big Lebowski failed to make them mainstream heroes, the Coen Brothers decided to step back and regroup. Fargo Oscars in hand, the boys called on some odd source material (Homer’s The Odyssey) to forge their next effort, a rustic riot that stands as one of their best films ever. George Clooney, in the Clark Gable part, leads thick-witted associates Delmar and Pete through a sticky Alabama backwater, all in an attempt to locate a tantalizing treasure that may or may not exist. Aside from the amazing performances and pitch perfect casting (including Brother favorites John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and John Turturro), the movie featured a Grammy winning soundtrack of classic country and bluegrass songs. Indeed, thanks to that T-Bone Burnett produced collection, more people were exposed to the Coen’s creative conceits than ever before. (11 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Human Nature


Back before they were both big names, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry delivered this quirky romantic comedy. Or is it really a science fiction fantasy. The premise has scientist Tim Robbins and his hirsute girlfriend Patricia Arquette (she has a biological condition that produces excess body hair) discovering a real ape man – that is, a feral human raised in the wild. The result is some surreal interpersonal problems and a lot of strophic sexuality. (10 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Jesus Christ, Superstar


While not quite as controversial as Martin Scorsese’s take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Norman Jewison still fielded a lot of public grief from bringing this blasphemous rock opera to the big screen. Even worse, he filled his cast with clear counterculture types, turning the hit musical into a statement about the National disconnect over the Vietnam War. It remains a wonderful version, with some stellar turns both vocally and acting-wise. (15 March, Sundance, 7PM EST)

Fahrenheit 451


It remains a minor glitch in a true cinematic giant’s substantive resume. By the end of filming, both actor and director couldn’t stand each other. And as book to film adaptations go, it stands as a solid, if slight, effort. For François Truffaut, there would be other triumphs. But fans of author Ray Bradbury still wonder why no one has picked up the remake mantle on this classic tale of totalitarianism run amuck. (12 March, Sundance, 6AM EST)

Outsider Option
Dawn of the Dead (2004)


It shouldn’t have worked. When zombie king George Romero delivered his sequel to the stellar Night of the Living Dead in 1978, he had to do so without a rating. The material was so horrifying, and the amount of gore so generous, that the MPAA would never approve the picture. Fast forward 26 years, and first time filmmaker Zack Snyder decided to helm this remake, complete with as much arterial spray as possible. Thanks to a clever update from genre genius James Gunn (the first ten minutes alone are refreshingly frightening) and a decision to turn the living dead into fast moving monsters, what could have been a disaster ended up one of 2004’s certified smashes. Now, as Synder’s sword and sandal epic 300 prepares to hit theaters, revisit this filmmaker’s fascinating vision with this unholy look at a world gone horrific – and hungry. (10 March, Starz, 11:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
I Bury the Living


After more than a month off, TCM brings back its Underground series, and horror host Rob Zombie. This time out, we get an Albert Band classic, a grisly little tale of a cemetery worker whose casual placement of pins on a graveyard map causes the death of said plot owner. With a terrific performance by Richard Boone, and a last act twist that helps up the ick factor, this is old fashioned fright filmmaking at its finest. (9 March, Tuner Classic Movies, 7:30PM EST)

Blue Sky


While it may seem like she fell off the face of the Earth since this, her last major Oscar nominated performance (which she won for, by the way), Jessica Lange has actual been featured in nearly 20 projects over the last 13 years. Still, how she moved from the A-list to an afterthought remains a motion picture mystery, especially considering her remarkable work in this period drama. Sadly, this was also the last film for the award winning Tony Richardson.(12 March, Movieplex, 9PM EST)

Blue Thunder


A perfect example of ‘80s high concept action and adventure, this clever retrofitting of the chase/conspiracy picture found Roy Scheider behind the controls of an experimental helicopter. Thanks to a sly little script by Dan “Alien” O’Bannon and definitive direction from genre master John Badham, this technological take on the standard morality tale was a surprise hit that still manages to hold up, even under today’s F/X fancying demands. (13 March, Flix, 10PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Mar 7, 2007


It’s time to take a step back, to get our motion picture priorities in order. We need to move away from extremes, accept certain elements and ideas as a given, and return to the basics of standard cinematic criticism. In the case of a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this may seem like an analytic impossibility. After all, this was the movie that many considered to be one of the funniest of all time. It was an example of those rare lightning in a bottle entertainment explosions that had individuals on both sides of the phenomenon shoring up their positions and pissing off the opposition. You still have those who recklessly defend the meandering mock documentary as the greatest satire in the last 20 years, while others find nothing remotely funny about a man making jokes at the expense of innocent people’s privacy and personal points of view.


Still, Sacha Baron Cohen touched a nerve, tapping into a zealous zeitgeist that obviously couldn’t wait to see the self-righteous and the self-absorbed reduced to stuttering piles of inarticulate smugness. This undeterred demographic, anxious for the smallest amount of scandal, and hungry for proud non-PC pronouncements absorbed everything this British comic was dishing out, and like a motherly mocking bird, regurgitated it to those they felt would react the same way. The result was the best kind of product publicity, a literal word of mouth that propelled the finished product into the ticket sales stratosphere. While some could argue that Cohen’s appearance in Talladega Nights, or his cult comedy series on HBO Da Ali G Show, were natural stepping stones toward Borat‘s success, it was the ambush antics of the title character that resonated further than any of the comedian’s previous foundational facets.


Similarly, those against the movie and its made-up mannerisms tried to refocused the frequently blurred line between ruse and reality. They leapt on the news of angry lawsuits, and supported anyone who felt used by Cohen and his con artist cinema verite approach. For them, Borat is a miserable excuse for entertainment, a slapdash production that can’t even get its attitude adjusted properly. Instead of making everyone the butt of his jokes, critics point out Cohen’s proclivity for picking on the obvious (white people) and the odious (…umm, white people?). Minorities are made out to be tolerant (the group of African American men shooting crap in Atlanta) or somehow saintly (the actress turned pretend prostitute Luenell). Even its own self-imposed intolerance is pitched so perfectly over the top that the slanderous stereotyping doesn’t really hurt.


So, some six months later, after all the praise and the panic, the backlash and the false Academy bravado, what have we got?  What is Borat, in the end? In truth, what one winds up with is a really well done fish out of water comedy that goes wildly off course after about 45 minutes and never regains its footing. Right around the time of the infamous naked brawl, shortly after the title character has pissed off a posh dinner party by insulting the guests and inviting a prostitute to be his escort, Borat goes bad. Why? Well, it’s hard to say, really. Nothing much changes. We do lose the amazing Ken Davitian as our lead’s producer and sidekick Azamat Bagatov, and the nonsensical narrative involving Pamela Anderson starts to dominate the direction of the film. Then there is that horrendous sequence where Borat coerces a bunch of drunken fratboys into doing what they do best – sticking their inebriated asses directly into each other’s mouths. Maybe it’s the incredibly false moment where our hero is “healed” during a “been there, seen that” revival meeting filled with crazed Christians.


Whatever the case, the chief reason why most viewers are probably experiencing motion picture morning after regret is that, in general, Borat isn’t the second coming of comedy. It barely breaches the tenets of tenacity needed to make such a statement stand up. Over the last two decades, TV shows like South Park and The Simpsons have managed just as much mean-spirited social commentary without having to resort to Howard Stern/Stuttering John or Jackass like antics.  Indeed, it can be said that a well written and performed observation is always better than one captured, piecemeal, out amongst the amiable if awkward public. Any documentary filmmaker will tell you – stick a camera in someone’s face and watch them make a fool of themselves. But in Borat‘s case, the joke is jaundiced by an underhanded conceit that forces foolishness where such stupidity may not exist. Baiting someone into bigotry is one thing. Trying to turn it into an innocent discovery of a deep seeded hatred is another.


Oh, make no doubt about it – America is a racist hole. We live in a vacuum of self-subjective import where “love it or leave it” is supposed to sound friendly, not fascist. We smile politely and wear our shallow sensitivity happily along our heart heavy and diverse shirtsleeves. So when Cohen gets a Texas good old boy to lambaste the Middle East, or finds the desire for a return to slavery in the mind of a misguided South Carolina college student, he’s not really telling us anything we don’t already know. In many ways, Borat is aimed at the viewer more or less blind to the realities of the US of Asses. For said generation, feminism is funny on face value, since dames ain’t supposed to be sniveling over their rights. Anything revolving around sex is equally hilarious, since the ongoing battle between morality and reality has resulted in a definite demonization of said basic biological function. On the one hand, this is a movie that plays perfectly to those without a smidgen of big picture perspective. It’s satire – if there is any – exists only in the small, not the substantive. Besides, Cohen is not that coarse. You can see him striving for more than that throughout Borat‘s beginning arc.


Indeed, had he simply stayed with a SCRIPTED look at his Kazakhstani homeland, expanding the characters, his job as a reporter, and the obvious hatred for gypsies and the surrounding former Soviet territories, we’d have an amazing motion picture. Indeed, even if the decision was made to move the lampoon over to our shores, a carefully crafted script which allows for both the shock AND the solution would have served this material much better. There could have also been room for some improvised bits. An excellent example is the bed and breakfast segment. Even with all its anti-Jewish jibes, the joke ends up being on Cohen and Davitian, not the kindly couple. It’s their reactions, not the horribly derogatory things they are saying, that drives the humor. As it stands, Borat is sporadic and sly, cutting when it wants to be, and lazy when the situation requires. You can see it during the opening ride in the subway. The minute Cohen is confronted by a couple “takin’ no shit” city folk, he cowers like a little school girl and shuts up. On the other hand, when the target is in on the ruse – namely Pam Anderson and her peeps – we get the takedown, the tackle and the use of excessive force.


To make matters worst, the recent DVD release offers up several deleted scenes which prove that, when it comes to pushing buttons, even the filmmakers recognize the need for a reality check. A sequence where Borat proposes to adopt a puppy (which he then proclaims he will have sex with and then eat) is so incredibly crass that it’s not funny or informative. Similarly, a moment where a naked Cohen continually mounts a hotel masseuse loses its entire lunatic luster when, for once, the targeted party merely goes along with the goof. From the many missing scenes provided, it is clear that the final version of Borat is a carefully cut together post-production invention. Indeed, one could argue that Cohen and collaborator Larry Charles (director of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) began this project with a collection of stolen moment skits (the interview material) and then mapped a movie around it.


But all of this still doesn’t answer the basic question – is Borat a good or bad movie? In the final analysis, “neither” seems to be the best response. To call it good, or even great, is to find material inside this movie that just doesn’t exist. To dismiss it outright is to underestimate the power in many of the sequences (like Woody Allen before, Cohen is the new king of hilarious self-mocking Anti-Semitism). And no matter how many times it’s mentioned, the notion of collecting gypsy tears to prevent AIDS just SOUNDS funny. No, in the end, Borat is two thirds of a terrific motion picture. Unfortunately, it’s that last fraction that forces it out of any conversation about its long-term legacy. At least one thing is clear. Cohen better enjoy this time as a cultural talking point. His ship has set sail, and a Roberto Benigni style barrier reef is looming, dead ahead. 


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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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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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