Dark Matter
James Crawford on David Fincher’s Zodiac

In ten years time, we may well look back at Zodiac as a landmark evolution in shooting (in) the dark—a problem that cinematographers have never adequately solved. Silent cinema’s blue-tinted frames and the sound era’s day-for-night photography were workaround solutions to compensate for the fact that film has never performed well in low light. Noir cinematographers proved aesthetic reactionaries to this problem, sidestepping it by turning the dark into absolute black: binary, avant la lettre, impenetrable, and with an absence of information. Perhaps the next great landmark in expressive cinematography came in the mid-Seventies with Gordon Willis and The Godfather, Part II. Willis stopped the camera way down to capture the Corleones’ Long Island compound in its perpetual dusk, a pathetic cinematographic fallacy denoting the family in the twilight of its influence. (The effect, though well intentioned, is distancing, because this gloom frequently comes off not as metaphor literalized, but as Willis misreading his light meter and accidentally underexposing the film.) Since then, plenty of features with high production value, i.e. films where the camera is disavowed and constructed as a transparent and unmediated window, have favored night-time shooting, as in David Fincher’s The Game. Thousands of watts in key lights were mustered to bounce off Michael Douglas’s brilliantine hair while the background recedes and the gloom takes on a burnished too-bright quality—which, as fraught as the term might be, is equally unnatural. As the aesthetic-material history of cinematography goes, Fincher’s 2007 feature, Zodiac, shot by Harris Savides, just might prove to be the turning point for rethinking the way the night is photographed, a revolution that comes about because of Savides’s beautifully, ineluctably alien experiment with digital video.

The beginning, as ever, is a very good place to start: evening, July 4, 1969, in the Bay Area town of Vallejo. A car glides ominously down a suburban street, a silky sidelong tracking shot looking impassively out the window as cookie-cutter houses roll by. There is something portentous and disquieting about this opening—a seething, nameless dread that anticipates some great violence, because this suburban idyll is to perfect and fragile to let stand unblemished. Children twirl sparklers and scenes of domestic conviviality take place beneath a canopy of pyrotechnic flowers blooming against inky infinity. On an evening thick with distant fireworks and the languid strains of Three Dog Night covering “Easy to Be Hard,” there is a dreamlike quality, one standing at odds with the overwhelming amount of detail on offer. It’s gloomy, yet characters can be picked out in the receding background. The sky is blue-black, yet it bristles in a spectrum of hues darkening upward from the horizon. Street- and porch-lights are on, yet not blown out, glowing softly and casting subtle, textured shadows. The image looks ineffably foreign, but the strangeness seems more tactile than visual. Lacking grain, imperfections, or flicker, this Tupperware microcosm feels like molten plastic, simultaneously hyper- and sub-real. This is night, according to Harris Savides. Yet viewed in a way that I’ve never before seen.

One of the photographer’s great obstacles for taking still or moving pictures is in latitude, or the lighting extremes that film can handle—the reason why there are different film stocks for different lighting conditions. Expose for the dark, and bright lights will be excessively harsh. Expose for the bright lights, and the dark will emerge as a soupy mess. Those key lights in The Game are a way to balance the equation, so to speak, with bright lights spilling into the screen’s surrounding areas so that the eye doesn’t notice how poorly film performs in the dark. Digital video has been heralded as the great leveller, because, despite its slightly compressed latitude (and from Zodiac’s opening sequence, its faintly waxy quality) it is a tremendous amplifier of ambient light. But studio filmmaking is a traction industry, favoring continuum over radical invention. Most digital features to date have therefore turned DV into a celluloid proxy, attempting to make the camera look and behave as a 35mm camera would, which obviates DV-cam’s obvious low-light chops. Savides by contrast uses that detail to his advantage and plumbs the murk, extracting a level of detail and dim nuance that I can only recall seeing in another digital video-pioneering feature, David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Lynch seized upon DV like it was a desperate lifeline, using Empire as liberator economic (Justin Theroux has been frequently quoted as saying it was shot for “a nickel and a cup of coffee”) and therefore spiritual; the film is a radical return to Eraserhead-era abstractions, because Lynch could finally afford, in every sense, to do so.


David Fincher’s imagination tends, almost addictively, towards flamboyant gestures, and if Fight Club—“I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school”—is a measure of restraint, woe betide the apparatus that frees Fincher to do what he really wants. But as befits a director predisposed to working harmoniously within the commercial system, rather than discordantly around it, Fincher adopted DV for Zodiac with all due diligence. Fincher tested his all-digital workflow (camera and postproduction) in several short commercials before committing to using it for Zodiac. To assuage the fears of Paramount and Warner Bros., he was methodical, exacting, and attempted to approximate film as closely as possible in the lead-up to production. Fincher “wanted the camera to be more film-production friendly,” says Savides in the April 2007 issue of American Cinematographer, “so the studio would be more comfortable about using the system on a project with this kind of [$65M] budget."

The drama, more an accretion of details on the unsolved serial killings than a re-telling of it, is equally restrained. According to police case files and a true crime account by sometime San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the self-labelled Zodiac claimed to have killed 30 people between the late Sixties and early Seventies in northern and southern California, but has been only conclusively linked to twelve.) Graysmith and Chronicle crime beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) took up the investigation after a series of ciphers—the first of many—arrived at the newspaper, abetting and sometimes hindering the work of detectives William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) and Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). Armstrong and Toschi pick up the case long after its incipient action, and their involvement dissolves well before the film’s conclusion-without-resolution. Toschi was the model for Clint Eastwood’s character in Dirty Harry and Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, and so Zodiac operates as a tonic to proto-fascist politics and tidy jigsaw conspiracies, but it works best when considered in relation to Fincher’s past work.

By rejecting sociopath psychology questions in favour of excruciating forensic detail, Zodiac is a corrective to Fincher’s own Seven, a film that indulged the aftermath of Francis Bacon mutilations and suppurating gore to almost pornographic degrees. As shot by Savides, the Zodiac’s murders are given feral alacrity similar to A History of Violence—short, overwhelming bursts where the point of impact is just as likely to be obscured as revealed, and the camera does not linger voyeuristically on the aftermath. Stories circulate on the internet that high-definition digital video’s extraordinary resolution is bringing about the downfall of the adult movie business, because viewing every crevice of a stripper’s stretch marks in one thousand lines of progressive resolution is too revolting to contemplate. And so it is with violence: DV’s clinically revealing gaze in Zodiac breaks down the disavowal process and forces more complete contemplation of the queasy physicality at hand.

It’s the apparatus more than anything that has wrought this change in Fincher. Gone are the decadent ostentations that bloated Fight Club: CGI-hybrid tracking shots that swoop through impossible miniature galaxies of consumer detritus; unmotivated cutaways to the natural world pregnant with apparent meaning; split-second subliminal frame inserts of well-endowed porn stars. These are extraneous digressions, postfilm detritus if you will, that serve little purpose other than as reminders of Fincher’s ill-conceived overtures at deep thought. Fight Club’s pseudointellectual nihilism is born of a swaggering certainty that societal problems can be diagnosed and quickly solved through tidy declarative statements and broad generalities. Zodiac mistrusts that certainty, placing faith in empirical dissection and due process—but suggesting that, like No Country for Old Men, what really stalks the middle class is a motiveless malignity, unexplainable (or unknowable). Rather than bend the cinema’s plasticity to his will, Fincher subordinates himself to the apparatus, letting the medium dictate the parameters of his storytelling to an almost documentary degree. As per the AC article above, one can sense the director, leery of the potential financial overruns of formal intricacy with an unproven technology, bringing himself to bridle and restraining his proclivity for visual excess. In concert, Savides, compensated for DV’s built-in penchant for un-filmlike deep focal length in low light, focused his camera to leave the background blurry and make the image more resemble traditional film stock. Even so, there is so much detail in the gloom that it’s difficult to assimilate it in a single viewing, but appropriate for a film where blind alleys are given as much credence and weight as the narrative through line. As storytelling slows, the level of ambient detail increases such that the drama becomes less about easy release and more about the crushing, immobilizing weight of evidence, and a truth that lies just outside the field of vision. Whereas in Seven Fincher art-directs atmospheric darkness into tautological oblivion, or in Panic Room and The Game, where the nighttime impossibly glows, in Zodiac shadows are textured, expressive, subtle, and—here comes that word again—natural, promising a wealth of detail, but yielding no information.


The subject of naturalism begs exploration because, as this symposium suggests, cinema is at another one of those watershed moments where filmmakers are on the cusp of widely adopting new technology. The evolution isn’t as radical as the Twenties where sound’s marriage to image changed the nature of stories being told, and put, as per Singin’ in the Rain, a legion of reedy-voiced actors out of business. Rather, it’s on the level of Technicolor’s ascendance in the late Thirties: similar camera angles and narrative structures rendered with a different visual matrix, leaving cinematographers experimenting to find their way in a new environment. Heretofore, DV has been a niche technology, used as financial expedience (Once); poverty-aesthetics poetry (Full Frontal); an approximation of “truth” (Cloverfield); horror texture (28 Days Later); or techno-geek wank (I’m looking at you, George Lucas). Michael Mann has adopted it as a visual signature in Collateral and Miami Vice, but more to the matter, there’s something in DV’s pulsing patina that seems in perfect concord with Mann’s bristling machismo. Digital video has imaged the present, the future, and far-off fantasy, but in my recollection, rarely the past. And herein, I’ve come to realize, lays the crux of my unsettled response to Fincher’s film. Zodiac is immediately recognizable as “the Seventies” because of its forms, shapes, and colors—period cars, dress, and other atmospheric details—yet consciously an unfamiliar simulacrum because, as a child of the Eighties, my experience of that decade is mediated through (and therefore inseparable from) its visual representation. The Warner Bros. and Paramount logos in the film are outdated, lifted straight out of the Seventies, in blurred opposition to what follows. In a highly mediated apparatus like the cinema, ideas of “naturalism” do not arise because of some ontological, causal reality. Rather, what we perceive as “natural” in film is an accepted construction wrought from years of the cinema’s material history. Thus the sheen and crispness of Zodiac’s narrative proper feels alien, but only because my exposure to the Seventies is in grainy films with an imperfect color system or through pink, faded prints. Like any other, “the Seventies” is era with political, ethical, musical, and sartorial codes; on a filmic level, it has visual ones too, and so it’s impossible to extricate the last from the rest.

By that account, Zodiac’s ur-text, Seventies cop-pulp Dirty Harry, which hovers around its periphery and threatens similar ethical decay, serves as both a moral and visual counterpoint. If Dirty Harry is memorable for one image, it isn’t the ending (which Graysmith helpfully provides for Toschi after a gala screening), where Clint Eastwood guns down the defenseless “Scorpio” killer and discards his badge, a synecdoche for the entire justice system. It’s the opening: an incremental slow forward zoom from a high rooftop that culminates with a young woman killed by Scorpio’s sniper bullet—the camera becomes the gun sight. As something of a rebuttal, Zodiac’s two most potent sequences are also tied to point of view. It’s written into the process of discovery as Toschi, Edwards, and their colleague interview Arthur Leigh Allen, a likely suspect; secreted beneath the surface dialogue, the detectives’ eye lines flick downwards towards damning articles of clothing—and their burning stares can barely conceal incredulity as their suspect unspools one self-implicating sentence after another. For this sequence Fincher deployed some subtle post-processing enhancement, sharpening the image in a way that’s only possible with a digital negative and reducing noise levels, so that Allen’s shoes, clothing, wrist, and watch quiver with heightened incriminating detail. Standing as a high water mark of discovery in a sea of false clues, the Allen interview is accorded privileged status and surplus visual information. The second bravura sequence is the film’s climax, a devastating, potent whimper. Graysmith tracks down Allen working at a hardware store years after the case is long cold, to get a look at this most likely suspect. Each is locked in the other’s gaze, and a dreadful electricity passes between them. Graysmith knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt who the Zodiac killer is, and Allen, for his part, understands that the game is up. In Dirty Harry, looking doesn’t witness or approximate violence; it is violence. And in Zodiac, looking or searching isn’t a quest for knowledge; it is knowledge itself. But coursing through Fincher’s film is a frustration born of the chasm empirical and legal truth, and a rejection of Don Siegel’s work, which derives satisfaction from their conflation. Who knew the old man had so much subtlety in him?

In light of Seven’s Grand Guignol grotesquery and Fight Club’s dead-end philosophies, David Fincher has been frequently, and rightly lambasted as an intellectually impoverished filmmaker. But after wrestling with Zodiac, the odd man out in an otherwise bombastic career, it seems as though he has turned a corner. Perhaps Fincher is best considered as a clever director, with a canny command of craft rather than as a truly intelligent one with surfeit of ideas. (The only exception I can think of is The Game, with its Metz/Lacan-lite assessment of spectator disavowal/engagement and pull-back-the-curtain finale.) His films don’t lend themselves to Gesamtkunstwerk hypotheses but they do evidence a firm grasp of film mechanics: theme, repetition, and variation; a deft hand on the throttle; clever (but not too clever) choreographies of effects and atmosphere. Except that in Zodiac Fincher turns his back on his prior extravagances, piecing together a considered, meditative police procedural minus the momentum. The genre, best exemplified in Kurosawa’s High and Low, is predicated on a presumption of inevitability where minutiae—late night gloom, manila folders piled high, cups of coffee, listless cigarette plumes making fractal curls in pools of limpid light—is merely an egg-timer counted against inevitable catharsis: arrest, prosecution, and conviction. Which in Zodiac goes wanting.

The film isn’t merely hamstrung by the facts of the case (it remains an open, unsolved file in several counties), it presents an intentional study in thwarted expectations. Its most pleasurably kinetic moments are almost always stopped dead by one of half a dozen false leads, and a void begins to develop in the place of narrative. Harris Savides’s atmosphere seems to step up and bridge that gulf, because at a certain point, impetus evaporates, at the very moment that Graysmith takes up the abandoned case. Gyllenhaal starts to look a second time, retracing the very same steps taken during the first investigation and seeking neglected evidence, that extra measure of detail and information. The camera obliges with its superbly discriminating eye, allowing heightened observation in a darkness that is both literal and metaphor. Sundry objects (the minutiae just mentioned), given an otherworldly presence and texture by digital video, become more fraught and portentous than the story itself. Just as unmasking the Zodiac, given up as fruitless, becomes secondary to watching lives in his wake disintegrate: Graysmith’s piles of research documents foreshadow his marriage doomed by obsession; Avery’s legions of cocktail glasses, his disintegrating health. Pensive, sombre, and meandering, Zodiac is an existential crime drama, caught up with the unbearable weight of the world.