Why Do We Like Watching Terrible Movies (Even When NOT Trapped on the Satellite of Love)?

From the $3.99 bin.

by Dan Wohl

Most cinephiles I know like to watch bad movies. At least, they think they like to.

The $3.99 supermarket movie bin never fails to be oddly alluring. I speak from experience. My good friend and former roommate once acquired a VHS with a flimsy holographic cover called King Cobra at a Cub Foods in Minnesota. The cover promised “30 FEET OF PURE TERROR.” The back cover informed us that the man-eating beast of the title had a hilariously benign proper name: Seth. For months, possibly years, it laid near our TV, unwatched, but not forgotten.

We toasted King Cobra at parties. We practically sung paeans to it. We looked ever forward to finally watching it, but we put it off until about a week before we left and moved to New York. We had sold many of our possessions, said our goodbyes, and finally realized the time had come. We sat down, popped the tape in, and finally experienced King Cobra.

Guess what? It was not very good. There were definitely moments of incredible, breathtaking cheesiness. But was it really worth 90 minutes of my life? Maybe…but probably not.

The compulsion to not only accept but revel in the worst examples of a given art form is more or less specific to film people. It’s true that the Museum of Bad Art exists, but I am sure that music lovers, for instance, don’t derive the same kind of pleasure from, say, “Freaxxx” by Brokencyde as film lovers do from Plan 9 From Outer Space.

If Grindhouse, the Found Footage Festival and the fact that Armageddon is included in the Criterion Collection tell us anything, it’s that filmmakers and film scholars have a respect not just for the great films but for everything else too. Anyone can write a terrible short story, but the complexity of the filmmaking process makes every movie a small miracle.

I suspect this is why people watch bad movies. It’s astounding to witness the basic elements of film production—the use of expensive cameras, the consumption of precious film stock or digital memory, the recitation of lines from a screenplay someone wrote, special effects of any kind—in the employ of something so unworthy. I think there’s a sense that the work it takes to make a film at all is deserving of respect, and when a filmmaker squanders that work in a spectacular way, something entertaining (if not a little sad) comes about.

That’s my main problem with watching the supermarket bin film, or the Salvation Army-bought VHS, or the made-for-Syfy film of the week: At a certain point it stops being funny and starts feeling sort of depressing. That’s where Mystery Science Theater 3000, the sublime show about a man and his robot friends being forced to watch (and make fun of) terrible movies, comes in.

Got somethin’ in your eye, there, Jack?

I won’t spend time talking about how funny it is—that’s already been done by everyone from Steven Spielberg to Neil Young. What I think is really significant about the show is how it makes watching bad movies not just fun but comfortable. Once the comical novelty of watching a bad movie (alone) wears off, you’re left with…well, watching a bad movie. But watching it with the company of Joel (or Mike if you must) and his robot friends puts everything in what I find to be an unexpected and pleasant context: where the films’ badness, ironically, is not the point as much as how we’re allowed to wallow in a cinematic arena we usually can’t stand spending much time in.

The theme music that opens MST3K included a line that I always found a bit odd:

If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes

And other science facts

Then repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,

I should really just relax.”

It may have never been revealed how Joel or Mike ate or breathed, but to say the show didn’t care about its internal mythology would not be right. The living quarters of several characters are shown. Tom Servo being carried into the theater is explained by the fact that an air vent at its entrance that disrupts his hovering mechanism. Their ship travels through time and to the end of the universe on occasion.

Just like the B-movies it gleefully skewers, MST3K is a low-budget story that still cares about being a story. That kind of earnestness is at the heart of why Ed Wood is remembered, MST3K is so appealing, and the supermarket DVD bin remains so strangely tempting.


Turning Left When They Think You’ll Turn Right

Writer/Director Shane Black is one of the most outspoken proponents of writing more turns and reversals into modern screenplays.

by Michael Neelsen

“No scene that doesn’t turn.”

Such is the motto of Robert McKee’s bible for storytellers, Story. Until I read his book a couple years ago and started hearing more and more screenwriters refer to “turns” and “reversals” and “turning left when they think you’ll turn right,” I had no idea how important a concept this was for screenwriting.

If William Goldman is right and “screenplays are structure,” then scenes are turns.

The next time you watch a film, really pay close attention to the structure of the individual scenes. Nearly every movie that follows classic Hollywood storytelling conventions will construct every scene around at least one turn. The beginning of the scene will present one situation, and by the end of the scene, that situation will turn to something else. The character will start happy and turn sad. The hero will be losing the battle and suddenly summon the strength to win. The girl will be making a fool of herself in front of the boy, but the boy will actually find this cute instead of foolish.

An extreme type of turn is called a reversal. These are 180-degree turns from one extreme to its polar opposite. Alive to dead. Attraction to repulsion. Kill to rescue.

One of the best reversals I’ve seen comes in Shane Black’s noir-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In the scene, Robert Downey, Jr. is about to play Russian roulette on a prisoner in order to convince him to divulge information. We’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times, and Black knows it. Downey puts a single bullet in the chamber of a revolver and aims it at the prisoner. He cries out, “Where is the girl?” and pulls the trigger. Since we’ve seen this scenario play out before, we expect it to go the exact same way as it always has: click, click, and finally the prisoner can’t take the fear of being shot anymore and gives up everything. But in Black’s film, before the prisoner can even deny knowing anything, the first pull of the trigger sends the only bullet in the revolver into his head, killing him. This always gets a rousing response of uproarious laughter from the audience, because we weren’t expecting it to go that way.

Another great example comes in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Brendon Gleeson enters the scene wanting to kill his longtime friend played by Colin Farrell. But when he approaches Farrell with his gun drawn, he suddenly sees Farrell pull his own gun on himself in attempted suicide. Gleeson’s friend instincts kick in as his motivation goes from wanting to kill Farrell to wanting to save Farrell.

While you don’t need a reversal in every scene, it’s good to have as many as you can come up with. It keeps us on the edge of our seat. It’s the quality that makes us all say, “I had no idea what was going to happen in that movie.” It’s even better if you can play on previous cinematic convention like Black does in Bang Bang, making us expect something we’ve seen a trillion times only to deliver the exact opposite.

My acting teacher, Ben Taylor, recently wrote a hilarious scene that takes place in a gay strip club. It shows a drunk, middle-aged man stumbling around, seemingly infatuated with one of the boy dancers on stage. When another one of the employees at the bar tries to escort the man away, he cries out, “I’m his father!” Everyone freezes. Shock. A father has come in to a gay strip club and discovered his own son as a performer. This is the scene’s turn. But then the boy dancer shouts from the stage, “You’re not my father!” The drunk man replies, “Okay, I’m not his father.” This is a reversal of the initial turn, and got tons of laughs.

You can fold this on itself as much as the logic in your narrative allows. But there is a danger in placing too many turns and reversals in your scenes. It can start to come across as absurd coincidence. I just made this mistake in a scene I wrote for class. In my scene, a man returns home to his apartment, drunk, to find that all the furniture has been changed (turn #1). He also finds a woman he doesn’t know lying on his bed, beckoning him to stay with her (turn #2). When he starts to give in to her, thinking it’s just his lucky day, she mentions her husband (turn #3). Our hero asks her what apartment number this is. She says 304. Our hero freaks and proclaims, “I’m on the wrong floor! My key opened your door!” (turn #4). When he tries to leave, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the woman’s husband (turn #5). When the husband enters and sees our hero, it turns out they are old college buddies! (turn #6). Instead of kicking him out, the husband invites our hero to stay for dinner (turn #7). While I got decent notes on this scene in class, there’s no question that it is absolutely absurd, and I feel adequately displays the risk of implanting too many turns in a single narrative (for an example of a movie that does this, look no further than 2005’s inexplicable Best Picture winner, Crash, in which a select number of characters continue to conveniently bump into each other multiple times in a single day in a city of nearly ten million people).

The opposite extreme, of course, is writing a scene with no turns. If there isn’t a turn in a scene or narrative, you will quickly get bored and wonder why you’re watching it. Think of a scene where a character starts happy and ends happy. Or a narrative where a family is living a nice, quiet life in the suburbs and in the end still lives a nice, quiet life in the suburbs. Stories are change. To quote McKee’s fictional depiction in Adaptation., “Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.”




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Hyperreality, the Impossibility Gap, and the Film-Theme Park Axis

by Dan Wohl

Concept art for “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter”

One of the only dreams I still remember years and years after I had it involved me being on a theme park ride. I was in some sort of boat floating on black water in a tunnel with a forest scene painted on the side. I don’t remember if I jumped out voluntarily or if I was somehow bumped out, but I ended up with my face pressed against this fake wall…where I saw that the forest scene was actually painted with unimaginable detail and realism. I felt like I could fall right through it. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

I’ve always been fascinated by theme parks, though I hardly think I’m unique in this respect. What I think is great about that childhood dream I had is how it reminds me of the one-paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a map so giant and real that it blended into reality. On Exactitude in Science is often mentioned as part of the definition of the concept of hyperreality, and hyperrealist philosophers have always singled out theme parks as prime examples of the idea: that in a media-soaked age like our own, the fake can seem as real, or realer, than reality.

I’ve been thinking about this (and my dream) recently because of the impending opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando. There will be Ollivander’s Wand Shop. There will be Hagrid’s hut. There will be butterbeer (though despite rumors, there will apparently be no alcoholic variant). There will be plentiful and exorbitant opportunities to purchase merchandise. On the website, Daniel Radcliffe says the Wizarding World fulfills the wish that the Harry Potter universe “could be real, and [parkgoers] could be a part of it.” Emma Watson says it’s the result of kids saying “I wish Hogwarts could be real, I want to go myself.”

Well, I do want to go myself. But does going to a chunk of Universal Orlando themed like it count? I guess it’s obvious that the answer is, marketing aside, no. But then why am I still so excited to go there?

No theme park attraction can possibly live up to the standard pitch of “stepping into the world” of a movie. But theme parks keep building them, and people (myself included) keep being, depending on how you look at it, enthralled by them, suckered by them, or both.

I’d like to believe that in the Wizarding World I could do more than ride rides, buy stuff, and look at the elaborate façade they’ve constructed. I wish I could hop a fence and discover the gritty parts of Hogsmeade that aren’t meant for tourists, instead of support buildings and a visit from security. But I’ve found that being in a place that even allows me to imagine such a thing has surprising power. That’s why when theme parks add even a drop of unexpected reality, it can be startling. Did you know, for instance, that the very Seussian palm trees at Universal’s Seuss Landing are real living plants (curved by Hurricane Andrew and then uprooted and replanted)? Or that tucked into an unassuming corner of Disney World’s Main Street USA lies an operational period-appropriate barbershop?

Theme parks are hyperrealist capitals because they promise something impossible yet deliver something that seems slightly less than impossible. That impossibility gap is everything. When we walk through the eminently fake streets of Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World, we’re in Borges’ map. We let the fake become realer than the real.

What’s interesting is how theme parks seem to know that there is no stronger medium to tie this myth into than film. This is evident nowhere more than at Walt Disney World, where the powers that be have been busy converting almost every stand-alone ride they have into something related to a film, even when it’s quite awkward. The Enchanted Tiki Room is now “run” by Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from The Lion King. The uncharacteristically terrifying Alien Encounter, which simulated a ferocious extraterrestrial spitting blood at you and breathing on the back of your neck, now uses the same mechanisms for a benign show involving Stitch. The river ride in Epcot’s Mexico, which used to be comprised simply of videos of Mexican life, now involves the Three Caballeros being animated on top of the same video in a manner not unlike a rap song that samples an older track.

Even when the film in question is one that is guaranteed to have been seen by virtually no children—such as the racist Song of the South—Disney still has enough faith in the magic of film to base a ride, in this case Splash Mountain, on (the non-racist parts of) it.

It all makes me wonder whether our love of films will one day lead to a virtual reality where we truly do not need to accept the fakeness of theme parks. An artificial world so complex and interactive that I actually could jump over my semi-proverbial Hogsmeade fence. In short, a holodeck. If you ask me, it’s going to be this, and certainly not any ridiculous fad like 3D, that will be the next revolution in cinematic entertainment.

An immersive, photorealistic world, imbued with cinematic depth, that adapts automatically to how the user interacts with it: It would stretch the impossibility gap to a breaking point and make hyperreality indistinguishable from reality in every way except for its fantasticalness. We are a long, long way from that point. But if theme parks let us feel that way for even a moment, then I’m all for them.

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The Importance of Trey Parker & Matt Stone

They really are just a couple of sweet boys.

by Michael Neelsen

As filmmakers and film enthusiasts, you can assume we here at ATA have some very firmly held beliefs on the subject of censorship and the first amendment. We artists cling to our words and images like conservatives “cling to their guns and religion” (oohh, weren’t expecting a political reference, were ya?).

For the past eighteen years there has been a comedy duo on the front lines of the eternal “freedom of speech” battlefield, and their manifestations of foul-mouthed third graders, Mormon porn stars and cannibalistic cowboys have fought the good fight, tasting victories and defeats for the good of artists everywhere.

I’m talking, of course, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Continue reading “The Importance of Trey Parker & Matt Stone” »

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Tim Burton: Spuriouser and Spuriouser

Your glasses are a lil’ crooked, sir. Oh… wait… I guess that’s the point.

by Dan Wohl

(Note: contains mild spoilers of Alice in Wonderland (2010))

Back around the period in which I was Marilyn Manson for three consecutive Halloweens, I used to dream about a dark, weird film version of Alice in Wonderland. I pictured a gray-tinged poster with a vacantly-staring Alice and a real-looking flamingo riffing on this illustration in the Lewis Carroll book. I foresaw a trailer that built to a climax before the soundtrack went silent, a quick zoom went to a closeup of an evil-version-of-Cate-Blanchett-in-Elizabeth-like Queen of Hearts and she growled, “off with her head!” I imagined a film that would retain the genius of Carroll’s world while injecting the character depth and robust plot his stories lacked.

But that’s not what I got. Instead I got Tim Burton’s cinematic brain aneurysm called Alice in Wonderland.

The plot that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton came up with leads Alice to defeat the Jabberwocky, which is all well and good and reminiscent of the climax of the computer game American McGee’s Alice, one of the biggest “twisted Wonderland” influences on my adolescent mind. But things unraveled for me quickly once we learned exactly why Burton’s Alice has to slay the Jabberwock. Apparently, a scroll (don’t ask where it came from) foretells that Alice will do so on a day called… “The Frabjous Day.”

Clearly you’re meant to pat yourself on the back in you recognize the phrase from the Carroll poem:

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

The brilliance of the poem Jabberwocky is the way it proves that because of taken-for-granted linguistic norms, even nonsense words can make perfect sense. Burton and Woolverton don’t get it. The father’s happy exclamation—O frabjous day!— works only in context. If you take it out of its place to somewhere where you aren’t already expecting words like “fabulous” or “joyous,” it’s rendered meaningless, and that’s exactly the point.

It’s a minor point, but I think it’s a perfect representation of Burton’s massive failure in this film, and I’d say, most of his career. Transforming a context-reliant whimsical phrase into a solemn proper noun is exactly the sort of style-above-substance-at-all-costs move that Burton has displayed for a long time. And the worst part is, his style choices seem to be getting worse and worse.

Burton directs Mia Wasikowska on the set of “Alice.”

Take the characters in the Alice in Wonderland. Calling them one-note would, for some of them, overstate by one how many notes they’re given. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen does nothing the entire film. I might have completely forgotten Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts except for how revolting his real-head-digital-body pastiche was.  And I’m not sure if I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing a film character as lacking in humanity as Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.

Look at him. He looks like a combination of Madonna and Tim Curry in It wearing the Joker’s suit and the Cat in the Hat’s tie. And what do we know of his character? He confirms that he’s a hatter. It seems fair to say he’s mad. For some reason his accent jumps from one end of Great Britain to the other and back. And…what else? He isn’t a film character; he’s a piece of expressionist art.

Take a look, if you will, at the first minute or so of the video for Avril Lavigne’s tie-in song, “Alice,” directed by Dave Meyers. It might not be a masterpiece, but I think Meyers has exactly the right idea where Burton doesn’t: A live action remake/sequel to Disney’s original Alice in Wonderland should be more, probably much more, unsettlingly real than a cartoon from the ’50s, not less. Especially when its director accepts the mantle of Hollywood’s go-to “goth” director.

Allow me to make a bold statement: I think Tim Burton is the worst thing to happen to goth culture. Ever. No one is more responsible for its Hot Topicization. In its classic form, goth ideology was about romanticism, artistic intellectualism, and an awareness of the earthly, supernatural and existential horrors humanity finds itself facing. Burton’s work hasn’t seriously explored any of this since what I’d say are his two best films, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. Since then, he’s had one success (Sweeney Todd) and a slew of high-profile adaptations that were either disappointing (Sleepy Hollow) or catastrophic (Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland).

Depp and Burton have collaborated on seven features, including 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Burton’s rule of making only adaptations of previous work is the reason that I think he’s a corrosive cultural force rather than merely a poor director. Because of his role as THE goth director, he gobbles up most of the remake projects flagged as waiting for a dark, twisted spin, and they end up instead with Burton’s immature drivel when other directors might have done something legitimately interesting with them.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, aside from Alice, the other perfect example for me. Everyone knows the 1971 original has its tremendously disturbing moments. It’s safe to say that the horrifying boat ride scene is the only G-rated movie sequence to inspire a Marilyn Manson video. Many would argue that a remake was unnecessary, but an entire film more in the vein of the boat ride did seem appealing. But Burton’s 2005 version somehow delivered considerably less dark weirdness, or substance at all; it delivered Charlie living in a house designed by Dr. Seuss and a Willy Wonka who recoils from human contact in one scene and asks for high fives in the next.

That kind of contradiction in internal logic is one more thing endemic in Burton’s films. Look at Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow; in one scene he’s a sniveling scaredy-cat terrified of a spider and in the next he’s a suave detective who orders everyone around.

To go back to Alice for a moment: At the beginning of the film, Alice talks to a crazy old aunt of hers who talks about a prince coming to marry her. Then Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a place where flowers talk, caterpillars smoke hookah and fish breathe air and stand erect on their tails. In a big climactic moment, Alice is informed beyond any doubt that Wonderland is real, not a dream. Fair enough, I guess. But then when she returns to our Earth, she is suddenly imbued with wisdom that she imparts via one-sentence morsels of advice to each member of her family. And what does she say to her aunt? “There is no prince. You really need to talk to someone about these delusions.”

The stunning nonsensicality of this made me want to take a vorpal sword to my ears. Maybe I need to talk to someone about my delusions that the general public will one day agree with me that Burton is not a good director. If it ever happened, that would be, for me, quite the frabjous day.


Third Way: The Rise of 3-D

Cross between Marilyn Monroe and Scarlet Johannson?

Found a fantastic article at The New Yorker the other day on the history, rise, fall and new rise of stereoscopic filmmaking. Check it out!


Going “Commando”: A Thorough Analysis of a Great Guilty Pleasure

Broad action flick or subtle commentary on supressed homosexuality… or BOTH?

by Joe Pudas

One of the movies that regularly divides your trusty ATA bloggers is the 1985 Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando. Directed by Mark L. Lester, Commando is a pure, wholly unpretentious 90-minute blast of adrenaline, ultraviolence, and dumbass wisecracks. It is, in other words, one of the seminal action films of the 80s. Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix would make Rambo piss in his pants.
I wanted to do an analysis/appreciation piece on it, since it is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, but Alex Jackson of Film Freak Central already beat me to it. The following article delves deeper into Commando than any other I’ve encountered, and after reading it, you’ll immediately want to re-watch the film (if you’re like me, that is). Enjoy!
SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I first saw Mark L. Lester’s Commando as a young boy and even then I was rather surprised that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eponymous hero, John Matrix, didn’t get together with his reluctant sidekick, Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong). She’s set up to be the love interest, but the filmmakers never pull the trigger. I was similarly baffled by the saccharine relationship between Matrix and his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). In my youthful naivety, I frankly thought this was too hokey for an R-rated movie, i.e., a movie intended for grown-ups. What audience of adults would buy into this? And I couldn’t believe that the film would be about her kidnapping and Matrix tracking down and rescuing her. It’s just the hero invading the castle and saving the damsel-in-distress? Hell, Star Warswasn’t that basic. There had to be some socio-political nuance to the situation I simply wasn’t old enough to grasp.



Sometime in the late eighties to early nineties, Hollywood screenwriter/producer Christopher Vogler wrote a memo for Disney Studios entitled “A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Continue reading “A Practical Guide to THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES” »


Investigating the Curious Case of ZODIAC

by Jared Gores

Talk about tailgating.

(SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains some spoilers for the film Zodiac.)

I have a love-hate relationship with the Oscars. Or, perhaps more accurately, I have a love-to-hate relationship with the Oscars. Looking back on last year’s Best Picture nominees just makes me mad. Granted, 2008 was a weak year in cinema, but those were hardly the five best films. I could embark on a vitriolic rant about why The Reader sucks, but today I’ve honed in on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button–not so much because it’s unworthy, but because it is so less worthy of Oscar recognition than director David Fincher’s film released the year prior. Zodiac was completely ignored by the Academy when it came time to recognize the best in film for 2007. We’re talking about Fincher’s most critically-acclaimed film (and I would say that it is his best film, as well). So what happened? Well, let’s investigate.

Box Office Woes

Zodiac received strong reviews when it opened on March 2, 2007, but it came in second at the box office with $13.4 million behind the wanna-be comedy Wild Hogs. Zodiac‘s opening weekend admissions were the lowest of any Fincher film up to that point. In its second week, sales dropped nearly 50%, and the film fell to fifth place over the weekend (it didn’t help that 300 destroyed the competition). In the end, Zodiac made $33 million domestically and about $85 million worldwide. That’s not much profit when the production budget ranged anywhere from $65-$75 million. So why was Zodiac a box office disappointment? Fincher’s reasoning was that the film was mismarketed to the Saw crowd when the film was actually much more of a drama. And it’s true Paramount marketed Zodiac as a serial killer thriller/horror film in TV ads leading up to its release, but I’m not convinced this is the only answer. I doubt the Saw crowd read reviews indicating Zodiac wasn’t a serial killer film and decided to skip it.  More likely, false advertising helps explain the precipitous drop-off in its second week based on word-of-mouth. So why didn’t people care about Zodiac in the first place? Could it have been market saturation? Were moviegoers tired of dark, violent films? Saw III more than doubled Zodiac‘s business several months earlier, and its DVD was released late in January ’07. There was also the DVD release of The Black Dahlia in late December ’06 and the theatrical releases of The Number 23 and Hannibal Rising less than a month before Zodiac.

But my hunch is that the film was simply released in the wrong season. Zodiac was originally set to be released in late 2006 for Oscar consideration, but Fincher and Paramount disagreed over editing and runtime (which seemed to still be a point of contention months later when a studio lackey asked me what I didn’t like about the film after an audience test screening in February ’07), which resulted in a March release date. For me, the Oscar ceremony–held the week before Zodiac‘s release–signals the temporary halt of intellectually stimulating cinema. I find that the spring is generally dominated by more escapist entertainment. In this respect, Zodiac had three major knocks against it: (a) it’s detail-heavy (b) it’s very long and (c) it’s a period piece. You know what other film has those three elements? Benjamin Button, which had a December release date. Zodiac‘s audience wasn’t going to the movies in March. Had Zodiac been released during Oscar season (October-December), I suspect it would have garnered at least a few nominations–most likely adapted screenplay, film editing, and cinematography; with an outside chance at director and supporting actor (Mark Ruffalo or Robert Downey, Jr). Instead, Zodiac was shunned, which is truly a shame.


Reborn on DVD

Fortunately, the film has not been forgotten. Like most of Fincher’s work, appreciation for Zodiac has grown considerably over time, especially among the online film community. In fact, Zodiac has even landed on a number of Best-of-the-Decade lists. Admittedly, I didn’t love the film when I first saw it at that packed pre-release screening on the UW-Madison campus. I thought it was pretty good, but found the narrative protracted, Gyllenhaal miscast, and the tone a bit too relaxed.  Nevertheless, I constantly found myself drawn back to it. Zodiac fascinated me like few films had in recent years. When it was released on Blu-ray about a year ago, I immediately added it to my collection. In the past year, I’ve re-watched Zodiac more than any other film. While I still think Gyllenhaal was not the best choice to play Robert Graysmith, I now find few other faults with the film. It’s really a work of art.

Rich Verisimilitude

One of Fincher’s greatest accomplishments with Zodiac is his ability to immerse the viewer in its time period. The Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror spanned from 1968 to the early ’70s in Northern California–mainly the San Francisco Bay Area. A master of production design, Fincher expertly recreates this setting. He does this from the moment the film starts by tossing the old Paramount & Warner Bros. title cards on the screen. Despite his use of digital video (which I will address later), Fincher wants to evoke 1970s cinema. Within minutes of the opening murder, the viewer arrives in the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle. The rows of paper-covered desks and the luminous ceiling of fluorescent bulbs from one end of the room to the other immediately recall the newsroom of Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece, All the President’s Men. This is a fitting comparison because Pakula’s Watergate film is what Zodiac most resembles, both narratively and tonally.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr. sift through evidence.

Fincher’s film is also authentic in its mise-en-scène. The period detail is simply impeccable. Fincher has gone to great lengths to re-create the killer’s crime scenes. The location of the cab driver’s murder, for instance, was digitally animated to match that of the real thing. Fincher also uses digitally animated aerial sweeps of the bay for establishing shots because the waterfront has changed so much since the 1970s. His attention to detail is virtually unmatched. Hell, he even asked his props team to print perfect duplicates of 1970s Chronicle newspapers to have in the newsroom scenes. Of course, it’s one thing to get the details right; it’s quite another to match the atmosphere. Yet Fincher succeeds here, as well. First, with music: Fincher adorns the film with fitting tunes.  His smartest move in this respect is to avoid music that has been overused. Instead, he has selected familiar tunes that blend into the narrative. For example, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” sets an eerie, psychedelic mood for the film’s opening double murder. Another great example–and perhaps my favorite time transition in recent memory–is Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” playing over a time-lapse of the construction of the Transamerica Pyramid. What’s more, Fincher’s color palette reflects the location and the time period. Fincher and his DP, Harris Savides, harness earth tones, which appropriately match the style of the 70s; however, they also shoot a lot of scenes in bright sunshine, which at first seems to be at odds with the dark nature of the story. Yet this juxtaposition is fitting for the investigation of a serial killer who made his ugly mark in the lovely Bay Area, and it therefore establishes an odd uneasiness throughout the picture.

Defying Expectations

Like its titular character, the film itself is elusive. This is a compliment. Zodiac refuses to be easily categorized. The film qualifies as a “serial killer” film in only the most superficial sense–Fincher has no interest in examining Zodiac. In fact, the killer and the people suspected to be him appear on screen very little. Keep in mind that the Zodiac attacks end at the one-hour mark, and the film continues to unfold for another 100 minutes. Fincher even goes out of his way to inform the viewer that this isn’t a serial killer movie by playing with audience expectations. Let me explain: the film opens in a very horror-esque manner. One of the opening shots is from the point of view of the driver in a car as he/she passes a row of suburban homes. Are we looking through the killer’s eyes à la John Carpenter’s Halloween? The car stops, and a teenage boy runs out to the passenger window and begins addressing the driver. Suddenly, we cut to a shot of the driver: a teenage girl. Clearly, not the Zodiac. The next few scenes play out like a typical horror picture. The two drive past a busy fast food restaurant, and the girl suggests they go somewhere more quiet. So they stop the car in a darkened park. As the girl scoots over to the boy, firecrackers suddenly go off next to the car. This startles us. But the two laugh about it and sit in silence for a moment. Suddenly a dark-colored car pulls in behind them. Who’s that? But before they can really worry, the car drives off. They relax a moment. Just then, another car comes down the road and pulls up behind them with its headlights shining at the teenagers. Is this the same car? Is this the girl’s husband? A man gets out of the car and walks over to the passenger door with a flashlight. The boy assumes the man is a cop and tells the girl to get out her wallet. As the man approaches the car, the boy says, “Man, you really creeped us out.” The man unloads a round of bullets into the unsuspecting teens. The Zodiac strikes.


This initial murder scene is pretty much exactly what Zodiac‘s trailer and TV ads promised. But the next murder sequence, which occurs about 15 minutes later in the film, plays out very differently. Like the first, two young adults are driving to a remote location and are then seen relaxing together. But here the scene diverges from our expectations. The killer arrives (in broad daylight), gives them directions that they follow, and then he kills them. There are no moments of surprise or tension. Fincher drains the drama out of the murder. In fact, it barely registers as a murder scene at all. The third murder (10 minutes later in the film) occurs out of nowhere when a cab passenger suddenly shoots the driver, and it’s over in less than a minute. It is clear that Fincher has been toying with us. The first murder scene was a tease, a way to pull us in. And once he has captured our interest, he shifts the film’s focus. He doesn’t want us to get excited about these murders. He may even want us to be ashamed for having been entertained by the first killing. It’s a nifty little sleight of hand that encourages the viewer to look past the killer and get to the heart of the story. The killer is but an entry point into the examination of (a) the true-crime police investigation, (b) obsession, and (c) communication.

Zodiac works great as a straight narrative. It has a fascinating, bifurcated story structure–it’s a police procedural first and then becomes a journalist’s investigation for the truth. This is a daring move that runs the risk of killing the viewer’s interest when the second act opens, especially since a lot of what happens in the journalist portion involves Graysmith double-checking the work that the police detectives did earlier in the film. What makes the story work as a whole, though, is its overriding theme of obsession. Inspector Toschi (Ruffalo) and newspaper cartoonist Graysmith are both driven by a desire to solve the case. Toschi questions his obsession with Zodiac and believes it has clouded his understanding of the facts and impeded his ability to be successful. Graysmith, on the other hand, never questions his obsession with the case and believes his expansive study of the facts will yield answers.

Focus on Communication

But subtly, Fincher addresses several other themes–all of which fall under the umbrella of what I’ll call communication. The first and most obvious of these is the effect of mass media on the public. Fincher spends a significant amount of screen time with the Chronicle editors as they decide whether or not to publish the Zodiac’s letters in the newspaper. Does it set a dangerous precedent? Is it newsworthy? Does it have the potential to scare the people? These are all questions that they must address in their decision. At one point, a letter includes a threat to pick off schoolchildren with a rifle as they exit the school bus. It is decided that the Chronicle will publish the letter but take out the threat to children, as it would likely cause mass panic. On the whole, Fincher portrays the newspaper industry in a positive light. He casts a far more critical eye, perhaps obviously, on individuals who use the media for their own benefit. The main perpetrator here being celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox), who pretends to care about the killer’s mental health but is clearly more interested in getting on camera. At one point in the film, Belli receives a letter from the killer at his home, and, instead of going to the police, he contacts the Chronicle. Relatedly, Fincher addresses the copycat letters from Zodiac imitators and those who try to confess to killing. There’s a celebrity element to the Zodiac, and Fincher clearly despises this, which probably helps explain why he and screenwriter James Vanderbilt de-emphasize the killer as a character early on in the film. There’s also a scene where the Vallejo mayor calls for a televised press conference to blame the police for failing to catch the killer. Reporter Paul Avery (RDJ) mentions that she’s about to run for governor, and this move will probably help her get the public’s vote. The selfish desires of individuals undermine the legitimacy of the news media.

A second theme that Fincher examines is the contentious relationship between the police and the news media. The two are often investigating the same incidents, but their approaches to the people and facts involved and their respective methods of information dissemination are quite different. Fincher paints the interaction of these two institutions as strained. There are times where the two work together (e.g. the letters sent to the Chronicle) and times where there is a clear breakdown of communication (e.g. Avery investigates a possible lead on the case and takes his findings to television before talking with SFPD). An unlikely union is eventually struck when Toschi agrees to help Graysmith conduct his own investigation. The two will continue to be at odds, though, because their professions use different standards of proof. This impasse is displayed when Graysmith delivers a pretty convincing case to Toschi about the identity of the killer. Toschi still has reservations. Graysmith says, “I’m not asking you as a cop.” Toschi responds, “But I am a cop. I can’t prove this.” To which Graysmith replies, “Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true.” “Easy, Dirty Harry,” warns Toschi. This last line is particularly fitting because the Dirty Harry character is based on Toschi, and Harry, unlike Toschi, had no problem bending the rules to catch criminals. (Aside: this is also just awesome dialogue.)

The third, and, in my opinion, most interesting theme explored in Zodiac is how the investigative abilities of the police were limited by available technology and departmental organization. The investigation of the Zodiac Killer is severely hampered by the fact that the information obtained by the three police departments on the case is never centralized. It’s not until Graysmith examines the evidence amassed by all of the detectives that some key connections are made about the suspects. Often, case information is physically exchanged in file folders. At one point in the film, a police detective at another branch says they don’t have telefax yet, so they’ll have to send the evidence in the mail. Later, two police officers say they may have let the killer slip by because the description of the suspect sent out over dispatch was incorrect–and corrected too late. Moreover, the Lake Berryessa police department didn’t follow procedure in sealing the crime scene. Who knows what clues they missed? And let’s not forget that DNA testing was not available in the early 1970s. Therefore, the key element in the Zodiac case were the killer’s handwriting samples, which failed to match that of the main suspect. Fincher’s emphasis on these deficiencies in the investigation seem to point to the argument that, had the case been better organized, it could have been solved; additionally, the lack of a resolution in the case points to how vital technological advancements are to effective policing.

Of course, Fincher didn’t limit himself to three or four themes. Zodiac has many layers, and every new viewing offers further insight.

A Landmark in the DV Revolution

The future of motion picture photography.

Zodiac‘s importance lies not only in its artistic qualities but also in its technical achievements. Over the last decade, the film industry has begun to turn toward digital video as a viable format for recording movies. The main reason for the interest in digital video has been economics: film is very expensive, and digital video is cheap. The problem has been that digital video often lacks the quality of film. DV cameras continue to improve, though, and the technology has now reached the point where it can match that of film. Zodiac is a case in point. Except for the slow-motion murders, Zodiac was shot entirely on the Thomson Viper camera. If you didn’t know it was shot on DV, you probably couldn’t tell the difference, which, in my opinion, is a good thing. I have never been a big supporter of shooting on DV unless it can replicate the look of film. Occasionally, narratives lend themselves to a DV aesthetic (e.g. David Lynch’s Inland Empire), but I cannot say that for period pieces. The best recent example of a film that should not have been shot on DV is Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. While his grainy DV style has worked for Mann in the past (namely, Collateral and Miami Vice), it does not translate to the 1930s gangster era. The look of the film completely pulls the viewer out of the story. Public Enemies was a story that needed to be shot on film–or, if not film, then DV shot to look like film. As far as I’m concerned, Fincher is leading the pack of filmmakers who have adopted DV. Zodiac was the first digital film that truly looked like it was shot on film stock. It has a richness and clarity that hadn’t yet been achieved with any other DV film, which is one reason why it should have received an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Fortunately, the Academy corrected itself the following year when Benjamin Button, which was also shot on the Viper, landed a cinematography nom (its cinematography is really the only element worthy of Oscar recognition).

It remains, however, that Zodiac was overlooked by the Academy, and not only for its cinematography. This is a film that defies easy categorization. Fincher sets out to deliver something of meaning; something with a compelling, challenging narrative; something that will last. And he wildly succeeds. I’d even venture to say Zodiac is All the President’s Men for a new generation.

Now I can’t prove that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.