Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On 'Zodiac' and the Deeper Meanings of Digital

Screenwriter Larry Gross loses me at the very beginning of his Movie City News essay of a few week's ago, hailing the genius of David Fincher's mesmerizing study of fear, "Zodiac."

"Zodiac is an important postmodern work. It's an authentically “new” and even experimental thing attempting, to quote from Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation, to put content in its place. It's very very much a film constructed on a 21st century conception of information as a non-substantive, purely relational digital phenomenon, and the fact that it was shot on video and exists immaterially as digital information is thus not a merely decorative issue but crucial to its meaning.

While Fincher's intense character study of the effects of fear is easily one of the best releases so far this year, there's nothing digital about the story or the setting other than a subpar image. (The argument that the film isn't about its period, but about all periods, can be made about a great number of period pieces.) Fincher seems to have chosen digital as his medium of choice because he likes the working process, and is shooting his next effort on the same format. Is it also crucial to that film's meaning? Other than his working method (which I discuss in my upcoming column), I don't see much of a difference in how Fincher would visually approach a 35-mm film.

I also disagree that the film exists "immaterially." Whether a movie exists on a hard drive or on film-stock, it's still stored on a physical device. It comes to life when put through a projector. And 35-mm prints were struck of "Zodiac." Most people who see it in the theater will see it on a material print. If the digital is so crucial to the meaning, Fincher wouldn't allow it to be shown on film.

Like a virtuoso violinist with a child's training instrument, director of photography Harris Savides tries his best to make it look nice, and does a reasonably good job, but the limitations of the medium are still apparent.

Jim Emmerson had a better grasp on the film in his commentary on Gross's piece, comparing the digital impact on "Zodiac" compared to the aesthetic in "Inland Empire":

'Zodiac,' on the other hand, impressed me as very much an analog film. Yes, it was shot on HD video (though with few of the showy CGI tricks Fincher played with in 'Fight Club' and 'Panic Room'), but the narrative, technique and structure of the film are inexorably linear and chronological."

While I consider "Zodiac's" deconstruction of the psychological effect a killer has on a city to be far better than the self-parody that is "Inland Empire," the latter clearly does more interesting things with its visual medium. The digital revolution might be in better shape if more filmmakers could better mesh their style, medium and message.

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