Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Helter Skelter

The following column is reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

What exactly is behind the not-so-quaint American obsession with serial killers, repellant figures who lurk outside of society’s mores, aberrant and psychologically damaged citizens who leave a trail of death, sexual perversion, and unsettled souls in their wake, psycho killers bent on carving out their own kinda infamy with an entry into the bogeyman hall of fame? The eternal and ironic question remains—is the public (and the media’s) all-consuming interest into both the exploits and gory details of these killer-by-numbers one of the propulsive levers that actually set of the machinations of a public killing spree? During the last few decades we’ve elevated a whole batch of these predators and killer-misfits into the soul brothers of Jack the Ripper—They’ve become poets of torture, misunderstood dark geniuses, the boy-next-door who doesn’t grow up wanting to be President, complete with a full back story, Freudian analysis, while all the while being churned by the tides of the then politico and socio climates.
The so-called “Zodiac” serial killer roamed the back alleys and mean streets of the San Francisco Bay area from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, playing cat and mouse games with both the police and the newspapers with phone calls, coded messages, death claims that were not always verified as his, even, at one point, actually wondering aloud in one note who might play him in any forthcoming movie. As time has passed the grisly story of the Zodiac has acquired more resonance since the case remains unsolved to today, and the killer has never been identified.
Director David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt seem to have taken all of the above into consideration (obsession and compulsion, mass hysteria, media eye-balling, the villain as headliner, mysteries and clues), crafting a haunting, cerebral, stately (almost 3 hours) film entitled Zodiac that neatly combines elements of the police procedural, the suspense thriller, and the psychological docu-drama. Fincher has heretofore made his mark with a series of profitable and much talked about movies (se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) that were equally gritty, lurid, and meticulously constructed. That same directorial meticulousness is evident throughout Zodiac, a movie that (for once) mounts its suspense
Organically, eschewing the bumps and grinds of contempo suspense flics, for an all- pervasive mood of silent dread and stopped-up emotions, all of it unfolding in a chilling series of frames just this side of Edward Hopper, all of it devoid of Fincher’s previous penchant for heightened hysteria and grand guignol effects.
Zodiac centers around a few disparate men similarly obsessed with the Zodiac killings, all based on real life guys, including tough guy detective David Toschi
(Mark Ruffalo) and his low-key partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), flamboyant journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), and political cartoonist and amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose subsequent books the movie is actually based on. The movie splits its time among these men, the killings, and the ongoing manhunt and the setting ranges from Vietnam to disco, from Watergate through the ’89 earthquake, the focus remains on the still fuzzy and unfocused mystery of the Zodiac—his where, what and why for. As specific (and self-promoting) as the bad guy is, the who and why remain illusionary, and the movie hints this is an accurate reflection of the terrors we face in today’s everyday world—the evil may be well documented, and even explained, but it’s inhabited by a faceless and omnipresent entity.
While it’s quite easy to cite Fincher and his first resounding effort, se7en, as the inspiration/launching pad for dozens of artless (and heartless) horror, suspense, and snuff films since, his readily acknowledged visual acumen and hardscrabble thematic vision seems to flourish in the larger scope of this particular cinematic tale. Finally, a film where the exploitative violence of a series of killings isn’t the payoff—Instead, Zodiac ‘s pleasures are derived from the intercrossing of textures (time and setting shifts, investigative inertia, characters incessantly yapping and smoking, yet another bloodied body), textures which are both the nuts and bolts and the very backbone of the story’s curdled arc. When all is said and done Zodiac was and remains another serial terrorist, part PR man, part midnight-rambler, the biggest element in a scrupulously told but essentially amorphous ghost story, just another shapeless particle of modern day horror, let loose in our dreams, both real and cinematic.


Charlie Drago said...

Much to ponder in Scottso's post. I'll be uncharacteristically brief and most highly recommend (along with Robert Graysmith's "Zodiac" and "Zodiac Unmasked") Maury Terry's "The Ultimate Evil: The Truth about the Cult Murders: Son of Sam and Beyond," and the true first edition of Sander's "The Family" for deeper, even more disturbing (trust me) analyses of Son of Sam and Manson respectively.

But for the fullest perspective on the phenomenon about which our host opines, you must digest in its entirety Peter Levenda's monumental "Sinister Forces" trilogy.

Subtitled "A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft," this stunning piece of scholarship descends deeper into the hell of where we are than any like effort I've encountered over a few decades of serious research.

Book Three, by the by, is also subtitled, "The Manson Secret."

Levenda demands commitments of time and intellectual rigor from his readers.

He's worth the effort.

In closing: Who remembers the great 60s, post Manson Esquire cover (when they were still the best the medium ever produced) featuring a full, scowling, menacing portrait of the legendary star of "Point Blank" and the caption, "Evil lurks in California. Lee Marvin is afraid."?

john k said...

Whereas I'm sure that Scott has seen it, I'll suggest watching Citizen X. Based on Russian serial killer Chikalito, it is a very disturbing movie.

Scotty D said...

Ah Charlie, you know just how to push my pleasure buttons. First of all, you were uncharacteristically short and sweet, and second, you invoked the one and only Point Blank, one of my all time fave raves. The 1967 neo-noir, crafted by the occasionally spotty John Boorman (Yea Side--Hell in the Pacific ’68, Deliverance ’74, The Emerald Forest (’85), Hope and Glory ’87, and The General ’98/ Nay Side—Zardoz ’74, Exorcist II: The Heretic ’77, Excalibur ’81, Where the Heart Is ’90), still resounds as one the era’s most thought provoking and hardest hitting efforts, a brutal, propulsive tale that can be seen as the dying anti-hero’s fantasy or as a single-minded revenge yarn, all of it coasting along behind Lee Marvin’s oversized neck and head, his piercing dead eyes, and his double-barreled whiskey voice. It’s yet another one of those “they-don’t-make-em-like-they-useta” movies, fueled by the pervasive paranoia of the Vietnam era, and underscored with the dread of suit-and-tie conspiracy theories harking back to JFK’s deadbang departure. Marvin’s protagonist is lean, mean, and a cold-blooded machine, yet he’s propelled by a sense of warped righteousness, a darker, dirtier version of the typical private dick character at the center of many noir films. He’s a thug in wing tips, with a black heart and an injured soul trying to play the game by the rules no one else is bothering to follow. Mel Gibson remade Point Blank as Payback, a remake as god awful as they come proving (once again) that Melle Mel couldn’t shine the pointy boots of Marvin, McQueen, Mitchum and their ilk.

Charlie Drago said...

At the risk of turning this into a remake of "Point/Same Point" (more on this in just a moment), you're quite right, Scottso.

Today it's all about being a bad boy -- as opposed to a badman.

And to be a bad boy, all one need do is run with scissors.

The aforementioned "P/SP", circa 1987, was a short-lived feature segment on the long-vanished Channel 6 early morning news. Steve Kotler and I taped three segments in which we'd sit adjacent to each other and agree on everything in sight.

The producer greenlighted it during an extended vacation by the news director, Dave "Enough About Me, What Do You Think of My Hair" Layman, who killed the spots (didn't dig the premise; not sufficiently respectful to the medium, or some such bullshit) immediately upon his return.

I'll never forget his typically brilliant and insightful briefing for the newly recruited video bloggers before our respective debuts.

"No we must be careful, we can't, say, call a man a philanderer."

"I know," I responded. "Once I called a man a philanderer in print and got sued by his mistress."

"Oh no, did it cost you much?" Dave wondered in true Emmy-winning style.