A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #25: Psychopaths (2)

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Sometimes they come back: since our last episode, where we discussed black and white movie psychopaths, couldn’t contain all the cinematic psychoses, we’re dedicating a second episode to our favourite psycho killers. Starting from the question what we consider the archetypical pop culture psychopaths, our three intrepid pop culture baristas embark on a journey, beginning with the capo of New Jersey from HBO’s The Sopranos. Is Tony Soprano a narcissistic psychopath or does he really care about those ducks? We then move on to ’60s and ’70s San Francisco and gaze into the absence at the centre of David Fincher’s Zodiac, before the episode finally ends on American Psycho and the dark, cold, empty heart of Wall Street psychopathy.

If you haven’t already done so, make sure to check out episode 24, where we talked about movie psychopaths and psychopath movies, from Night of the Hunter via Fritz Lang’s M to the psycho granddaddy of them all: Norman Bates and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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You can’t handle the truth!

Remember what I wrote yesterday? Well, watching some of the making-of features on the Zodiac 2-disk edition, I started to wonder whether I shouldn’t reconsider. On the one hand, my disdain for all of those inspirational “Based on a true story” flicks that especially Disney seems to love so much is still very much there… but then you get a film such as David Fincher’s Zodiac, one of my favourite movies of 2007, and you wonder.

Of course there is the obvious difference: Zodiac is helmed by an immensely talented (and apparently quite obsessive) director. It’s  amazingly well crafted. But the fact that it is based on facts does have an impact. When you watch a young couple get stabbed brutally by the hooded Zodiac killer, knowing that this happened changes what you’re watching. The scene would be effective but probably sadistic if this was simply made up. The mere fact that what we’re watching did take place, that the guy survived and is still alive to talk about it, while the woman succumbed to her horrific injuries – it does change the tone, the dynamic of what happens as you watch the scene.

Perhaps the difference lies in this: the vast majority of “Based on…”movies seems to believe that this, its often tenuous link to something that actually happened, is enough to justify making the film. It’s this laziness coupled with an attitude towards truth/fiction that is naive at best, cynical at worst. A good film based on real events will not pretend that it tells the complete story; it will stress its own gaps (for instance the unclear identity of the Zodiac killer), it will emphasise that it only gives one aspect or perspective of the story. It will be an interpretation, but it won’t assign some clear-cut meaning to events.

Bad, hokey and especially inspirational “Based on…” films will try to provide a complete and exhaustive version of events, and it will often provide some simplistic meaning that can be summarised in a simple phrase: One man loses his family and finds himself. The true story of the brave scientists who found a cure for halitosis. Eight dogs fighting the elements, as the man who loves them mounts a daring rescue. They’re facile celebrations of the heroic individual or tear-jerking explorations of the individual fighting against his or her fate. In the end, they’re facile and fake and cynically engineered to appeal to people who would ask: “What’s the point of a story that isn’t even true?”

Anyway, that’s the end to my rant about truth, fictionality and halitosis. Hope I haven’t just made you reach for the “Unsubscribe” button. More fun tomorrow… and pictures!

It happened at the movies… (1)

In the past year I haven’t really been to the cinema nearly as often as I would have liked to, for several reasons. All in all, this year somehow seems to have happened without me. I did catch a handful of movies that stayed with me, though, and they were all by directors whose work I’ve liked a lot in the past: David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Michael Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. Here’s the first of them:

Zodiac

Let’s get this out of the way: I like Alien 3. In many ways I like it better than Aliens; the latter is a great ride, but beneath its well-oiled craft it isn’t that different from many other ‘80s action movies, leaving gender politics aside for the moment. Most of the characters are broadly drawn cartoons. That’s okay, they don’t need to be anything else for the purpose of the film, but while it’s a fun film, it’s not an interesting film. It’s not an uncomfortable film. Alien, by comparison, has left its mark on many an impressionable filmgoer. Like its titular creature, it’s highly efficient, it’s vicious, and it gets inside you in unpleasant ways. At its best, Alien 3 also has that effect. It may be the most unsettling of the Alien movies. I’m certain that if it had followed directly from Ridley Scott’s nightmare rather than James Cameron’s rollercoaster, it would have been better received.

David Fincher is a highly talented formalist. His films are meticulously crafted and tightly controlled. Most of them are also rather show-offy. Especially Fight Club has a somewhat adolescent quality, wanting to impress you in spite of its fashionable nihilism: “Look at me! Not that I care, though.” It’s just a tad too infatuated with itself.

Zodiac is just as intricately crafted, but it doesn’t need to show off. In spite of its impressive running time, it’s a lean film that is immensely well made, and it impressed me all the more for not having to remind me again and again how well it is made. It is also an eminently frustrating film – it is about frustration, and it’s frustrating for the audience. The serial killer genre thrives on some sort of closure: at its most generic, it provides you with a neat ending, where the killer is caught (and, ideally, killed by the film’s hero). If it’s minimally clever, it’ll give you some sort of twist: it wasn’t actually John Smith after all who skinned all those women – it was Frank Jones, in the pantry, with the serrated knife! Zodiac instead doesn’t satisfy its protagonists’ obsession, nor ours: we don’t learn who the killer is. We only get a maybe. And since the suspect is dead, chances are we’ll never know for certain. Fincher’s film denies us a neat, comforting conclusion, so Robert Graysmith’s obsession isn’t validated in the end. All we’re left with is loose ends. Fincher’s Seven was already loathe to serve up a neat ending, but by comparison, it’s practically “… and they lived happily ever after.” The bad guy may win after a fashion, but he dies. We know he was the killer. In Zodiac, what we’re left with is an irresolvable question mark.

By the way, if you liked the film, you may want to check out Alan Moore’s comic From Hell. Do not confuse it with its film version, since the movie does something very different. Once you’ve read From Hell (it’ll take you a while, since it’s one big book), read the second appendix, also presented as a comic. It makes for an ideal companion piece to Zodiac.

From Hell

Also, look out for the continuation of this series in two or three days. In the meantime, we return you to our regular programme. Read you tomorrow.