Friday, May 25, 2007

Zodiac, or On Speculation

If you count his music video output as a "first movie" (just pretend it makes sense), David Fincher may be the most precisely consistent director in Hollywood. Every few years he launches a stupendous, nuanced-yet-bombastic assault on mainstream film, redefining in the process just what we feel we have a right to expect from movies. (This effect is so total that Chuck Pahlaniuk, rather immodestly, declared Fight Club the movie against which he would now measure all others).

And then a year or two later, he follows it up with a lazy also-ran of a pic, a carbon copy of its predecessor's look and feel without a skerrick of the same depth or exploration. The Game as poor man's Se7en, all silver-retained grime and desperate stabs at some sort of philosophical relevance; Panic Room as Fight Club without the pesky ideology. (Alien3 as frustrating impersonation of a decent music video, bogged down by a story that nobody ever liked, with the good bits taken out).

Zodiac, the eagerly-awaited Next Project, was going to be a lot of things. For a while it was going to be a savage comedy-drama about chefs. Then it was Black Dahlia, shot in b/w and full period trappings (you know, so as to stop it being One). For a couple of glorious seconds, Zodiac was going to be Mission: Impossible 3, which would never happen unless Chuck Pahlaniuk was allowed to wreak his unique brand of Airport-Bukowski popcult schlock on the script - which meant it never happened. And so Zodiac wound up being Zodiac.

So a good way to ponder Zodiac's merit might be to speculate as to what the next film will be doing a poor imitation of.

Will it be the eerie period-pop soundtrack, dispassionately refusing to go unequivocably dark during the murder scenes? Yeah, it might be; it was always nice when The X-Files and (moreso) Millennium did this sort of thing, so it's extra nice when it's not in quite so arch a fashion. Certainly there were Nine Inch Nailses and Dust Brotherseses during the 70s; the first hint of Fincher's newfound restraint is that we're not forced to listen to any of them.

Will it, perchance, be the physical look of the picture, the lovingly beiged suburban vistas, Presidents' Men newsrooms, Bullitt cop-shops? Mmm... if it's really lazy picture, sure, we'll see some more of those. Zodiac is arguably Fincher's most film-aware pic, and that's saying something considering this is a guy who uses physical film-splicing as a plot device. The look of the film is almost entirely dictated by the look of films from the period. As he'd proposed doing with Black Dahlia, Fincher's solution to the problem of immersing savvy audiences in a period environment is simply to make everything - production design, stock, lighting - look like film of that period. However, where Martin Scorsese's use of a similar gambit for The Aviator just came off as pat gimmickry, here it's immersive from the get.

One of Fincher's most reliable trademarks, getting jazzed on typography, is another element here used with a newfound restraint and effectiveness. (Mostly: the film's least-fitting or -effective sequence recycles a few SFX gags from the director's last two pics, and it really doesn't work).

What's exciting about Zodiac, though, is that Fincher's energetic iconoclasm is here being put to use primarily in the establishment of the film's tone. Rather than a cosmetic set of natty tricks that just happens to belie a masterful narrative, here the real work is being done in pitching the film just so: dramatic, loaded with real characters and situations, yet witty and ceaselessly fun.

There's pretty pictures and neat chronological riffs, such a deft mix of broad strokes and fastidious detail employed to sell the timeframe that most of it will go unnoticed; but all of that is look and feel. The new ground being broken here is in just how daringly Zodiac allows itself to tell a fairly dark story, and do it in a way that's not just gripping, but downright enjoyable. And he can copy that as many times as he likes.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Through A Glass Underexposedly

I have a two-part guest vlog on Stray Cinema this week, where my co-founder Michelle and myself discuss... oh, all sorts of high-falutin' jiggery-pokery!

Monday, May 14, 2007

28 Weeks Later, or On (Innappropriately) Zombie Movies

Do we need to clarify about that whole "zombie" thing? I mean, being as the 28 [Time]s Later pics make explicit their lack of zombies, and Shawn Of The Dead makes explicit its disdain for the term "zombie", and the Romero pics never use the word "zombie", how important is it that the more encompassing, appropriate and fun-to-say "ghoul" be used at the expense of making the easy link to all other movies within the "Survival Horror Involving Once-Human Enemies That Eat Folk" genre? Not very, correct? Excellent. Let's roll.

Thing about Ghoul movies is, they may play fun little games involving the exact origin of their shambling antagonists, but beyond that, they're structurally ALL THE EXACT SAME MOVIE. To wax academic on y'all:

5-25min: Establishment
While this is just the same thing as any three-act work of narrative does, the Ghoul Movie distinguishes itself by establishing a particularly flawed and fragile Natural Order right off the bat. The importance of this is, or will become, obvious.

1hr: Breakdown
To borrow from Steven King's definitions here, we get a good hour of Dionysian mayhem for our buck. The Ghoul Movie's raison d'etre, made clear here, is as a visceral assault on semiotics (I'm serious): any learned significance attached to the objects that make up our existence is thrown as far as it can go and left to fend for itself.
The drama of Ghoul Movies derives from finding the degree to which we'll buy into this violent crash of meaning. In the eyes of the ghoul, all there is is finding human bodies to bite and eat; what separates us, the living or uninfected, from the ghouls is our capacity for meaning and sentiment and purpose, but in survival horror, what will determine survival is the degree to which these elements can be abandoned. Spaces are measured only in their safety; objects in their bludgeoning capacity. Common drama derives from a protagonist acting on their emotions or higher societal attachments, which invariably prove foolish under the circumstances and result in peril and/or death.
Indeed, the most shocking thing about ghouls is that they force us to think of the human body as nothing but a collection of parts, preferably to be scattered by shotgun-fire. This is both thrilling and horrifying, and in the invariable Turning scene near the climax of the pic, we'll be forced to watch a human being abandon all the things that make them human and become flesh to be scattered before it devours the living. Because this is a member of the cast who we've become attached to, the most poignant (if repetitive) moments of drama often derive from this scene, where the living survivors are forced to put aside all their attachments to the form and kill the monster now assuming it.

45min: Pontification
...When the Apollonian kicks back in, boy howdy is it pissed. The Message of any Ghoul movie, no matter how hard it tries to work around this, invariably boils down to a final act where Don't You See, Man? We're The Real Monsters! George Romero is pretty explicit about wanting to have it this way (which may be why Day Of The Dead could be described as a whole movie's worth of malevolent Apollonian horror); Zack (Watchmen, 2008) Snyder was vigorously explicit about not doing this with his remake of Romero's most Dionysian episode, Dawn, and yet, whaddaknow, that's exactly what he did.

(You can start reading again now).

...28 Days Later's advertising promised "a genre-defying" hurling-aside of these conventions[1]. That movie's opening didn't really actively not do Introduction Of A Fragile Natural Order, but famously took the fragility to the absolute limit, to wonderful effect. How disappointing, then, when the third act rolled around, and we were treated to some of the most formulaic The Real Monsters Were Us All Along malarkey yet seen in the genre, made all the more off-putting by the strident tone it took, as if what we were seeing in Christopher Eccleston's Sergeant Malevolent Apollonian Jerkoff was anything remotely new or different.

Messrs. Boyle and Garland's real genre-busting moment wouldn't happen until this year either, in the wonderfully flip-floppy Sunshine (common practice is to call it a hippy Alien, but just as appropriate would be to compare its tonal seismic-jolts to Se7en, or to laud it as delivering in all the ways The Fountain didn't). However, meanwhile, 28 Weeks Later movie was also getting made, and slipped under the radar as the expectation-confounding thrill-ride 28 Days Later wasn't.

What works so well about 28 Weeks Later? After all, it still does Human Monsters All Along; perhaps one of its best gambits is to put this right up front. Like Day Of The Dead, only done right, this is a movie about malevolent status-quo preservation. The movie's best scene comes halfway through, and pretty much does for We Were The Monsters All Along what 28 Days Later's intro did for The Fragile Order Of Things, which is to whack it so hard that you see it for the first time outside of genre-mandated box-ticking; to actually make you feel it.

Maybe it's the risky leftfield decision to make the protagonists pre- and early-teen: like (I'm told) Pan's Labyrinth engaged adult audiences by asking them to adopt a child's POV while not compromising on vaginal angst and headshots adult sophistication, here's a movie where we don't have to "pretend" we find the heroes vulnerable.

Quite likely it's the million-mile disparity between this pic and the horrible vogue in horror for disgust-driven torture-porn. 28 Weeks Later is visceral in most every sense, but when people are compiling lists of the most typical horror movies of the 00s, this is a movie that won't be on 'em. "Best" lists? Sure thing. "Scariest"? Quite likely. "Standard"? Not many if any. If Confinement and Saw 3 are carrying the torch for all the stupidest, worst-dated elements of exploitation cinema, here's a movie that distills only the best.

Sure, it misfires: Harold Perrineaus's reenactment of a scene cut from The Last King Of Scotland belongs in the bullshit action movie many apparently feared Weeks would be, rather than the clever survival-horror trip it is. Robert Carlyle gets a few really good scenes, then reprises his role as The Ghoul That Wouldn't Die, a part he did much better in Ravenous that here stretches credibility and makes for an overly cute denouement.

But these are minor moments that do little to offset the movie's impact. 28 Months Later? Tres bon!

[1] Judging from the number of folk - on the web and in the screening I attended - dismissing Weeks out-of-hand on the grounds of some of the characters were American, perhaps the resulting disappointment was for the best. These chumparoonies were neither ready nor willing to have their genres or expectations defied in 2007, so it's doubtful they would've been any more receptive to the idea of anything new back when Days was released.