Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"To Find that I Was By The Sea, Gazing With Tranquillity"

In what was touted as a “rare public appearance” David Fincher brought his preferred cut of Zodiac to a sell-out crowd at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater last night, November 19th. Confessions of a Blogger – I really dig Fincher. Even in the gorgeous quicksand that was Alien 3 you could see a very specific vision at work. Aside from Michael Mann and maybe a handful of others, Fincher has the cleanest visual aesthetic of any working filmmaker, and with Zodiac, he finally has the confidence to tame the effects trickery and film the story in a totally unobtrusive style. His rep as a rough-riding auteur who works actors like a chip-shouldered Kubrick preceded him, so imagine our surprise to be greeted by someone so humble and soft spoken that he didn’t want to introduce the film himself, as he felt it would be too obsequious.

And as for the screening itself? The Scribe is on record for Zodiac being the very best film of 2007 so far. Zodiac heralded the return of the much missed ‘police procedural’ genre - in stark contrast to the forensics procedurals that we’ve been flush with since the 90s. Refreshingly free of CSI double speak about bullet trajectories, body gasses, and splatter patterns, Zodiac instead concentrates on the nuts and bolts of investigative work; immersing the viewer in decades worth of interviews and testimony of witnesses, victims, and even suspects. The ‘Zodiac’ terrified the Bay Area of Northern California with a series of shootings in the late 60s and early 70s, but like Jack the Ripper, only found true infamy after sending a series of letters and coded ciphers to major San Francisco newspapers, creating a climate of fear and paranoia similar to NYC’s own Son of Sam case. The letters always promised more victims (including school buses), taunted the police for not finding him, and even claimed credit for random crimes in the area that he had nothing to do with. Nobody was ever officially charged with the murders, and with the exception of the police assigned to the case and the journalists who wrote about it, the Zodiac nearly faded from public memory by the end of the 1970s. It was the publication of Robert Graysmith’s book “Zodiac” in 1986 that helped to re-ignite interest in the case; in the book, Graysmith accuses Arthur Leigh Allen on the basis of an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence gathered by the former cartoonist during his years at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Fincher’s film concentrates on the toll that years of chasing down dead end leads took on the men closest to the case – SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr), and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and deftly juggles each character in what must have been a logistical nightmare to structure at the screenplay level. The film covers more than a decade and throws enough names, dates, and alibis to make even the most attentive audience feel woozy, yet any patience exhibited is rewarded. Visually, the film has an amazingly exhilarating style yet never drifts too far from the docudrama approach that grounds the film in reality. When Fincher does dip into his bag of digital trickery to lock onto a yellow cab from above and follow it through the streets of downtown San Francisco, or show the passage of a year with a time-lapse recreation of the construction of the landmark Transamerica building set to Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues, it always flows naturally from the narrative and never feels like the “showing off because we could” camera shots in Fincher’s previous Panic Room.

The 7 minutes that had been added to the film bring it back to the length it was prior to a New Orleans preview screening where the majority of moviegoers apparently felt the film ran too long. Had they asked me, I would have been happy to tell them that removing and/or chopping up existing scenes in order to speed up a film usually has the opposite effect. I noticed three completely new scenes and two extensions:

1. The scene with Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) on the AM chat show now features a new exchange between Belli and the show’s host.

2. When the detectives interview Belli during his Christmas party, there is now an additional exchange regarding the African safari he had just been on (“You must go there, gentleman…such a beautiful, savage place”)

3. A new scene outside Morti’s has Graysmith waking Avery out of a stupor in the backseat of a car (“Paul, you missed editorial, it’s 11:30!”)

4. To bridge a 4 year transition, we now have just under a minute of black screen featuring music and news clips pertaining to the years going by, sort of like the opening of Contact, only going forward.

5. Probably the longest single restoration, Toschi and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) sit in Capt. Lee’s (Dermot Mulroney) office and pitch their case for a search warrant to the District Attorney over one of those tiny speaker boxes. A very funny, if somewhat redundant scene.

Any new material is a treat, but I’d say that the only substantial change is the 4-year transition; after the breathtaking Transamerica Pyramid scene, having only tiny text on the screen to indicate a 4 year jump is a bit anticlimactic. It’s funny to imagine a the look of satisfaction on the face of the studio executive, sure that taking 7 minutes out of a 165min film would turn it into a top grosser.

During the Q&A that followed, the painfully shy Fincher (who seemed to be attempting to hide behind a hand held microphone) fielded question regarding shooting features digitally (the Viper camera was used on Zodiac, but each digital camera has quirks that have to be dealt with), working with actors (If they’re not cooperating, make them to a bunch of takes without any direction and have them come crawling back), Mission Impossible III (besides not wanting to do another sequel with a “3” in the title all that much, the studio wanted to start production with only 40 pages of script and Fincher balked), and the surprising difficulty in getting permission to use vintage studio logos.

All in all, it was an amazing four hours. The digital projection at the Walter Reade was flawless, and rivals the recent digital Blade Runner showing at the Ziegfeld for pure clarity of image. It was also projected right off Fincher’s own digital copy; I’ve been slow to warm to shooting films digitally, even Michael Mann – who has achieved amazing night visuals with Collateral and Miami Vice - can’t quite get a handle on the excessive grain and the plastic sheen it can give to human skin. Zodiac is the first film that supports the argument that digital is the future of filmmaking. The slightly washed-out look is how most of us regard the period, and the clarity it gives to night shots (just look at the films opening shot, featuring fireworks over Vallejo) is stunning.

This cut of Zodiac will appear on DVD and HD-DVD on January 8th, featuring some of the best packaging we've ever seen.