Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Fountain & Zodiac

Dir. Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher

Viewed: From the Couch

Similarities between Fincher and Aronofsky might not be apparent upon watching say The Fountain and Zodiac back to back, but there are more than a few lurking when taking a look at their bodies of work. While Aronofsky didn’t cut his chops making big budget music videos for rock bands in the music video golden age of the early 90s, you could put Pi into an Avid, synch it up to say, Downward Spiral, and you’d have something that would not look out of place next to Fincher's MTV work.

Now while Fincher has battled in the trenches of Hollywood, earning a reputation as a meticulous perfectionist that can be at times hard for actors and crew alike to work for, these obsessive qualities have made all his movies worth watching for even those one or two glorious cinematic moments. Those moments came together brilliantly to make Fight Club his first undeniably good movie and made Panic Room enjoyable enough to watch all the way through. But with Zodiac you have Fincher getting personal for the first time and I have to say it feels good.

Aronofsky has been personal from the get go. But just like Fincher he can put stylization in the way of his story. While Pi buzzed, flickered and burrowed into the receptive viewer’s brain with its grainy over-processed black and white photography to tell a paranoiac’s fever dream; Requiem For a Dream kept the viewer at a comfortable distance while telling the year’s number one bummer tale of addiction with zim-zam, split-screen, every-Avid-fart*-trick-in-the-book being used. Both movies were served well by these tools – if Requiem were presented as a fly-on-the-wall, Larry Clark type of picture, it would’ve been an exercise in endurance to try and make it through the end of its onslaught of bleakness. So it comes as a surprise that with a somewhat sci-fi picture, he would, like Fincher, hold off on a lot of the tricks of his trade and present us with his best and most personal work to date.

The Fountain had a long, troubled production history preceding its release. I only mention it because I think it speaks to the quality of the end result. The story breaks down as such: A man, a scientist, is coming to grips with losing his wife to a disease that he feels he should be able to cure. We see this story represented through him and his wife in the “now” time, through his wife’s story about him as a conquistador and her as his queen, and through a “what-if”-type scenario as him having found the eternal life cure he was after and the repercussions it brings. What once was a big budget epic production with Brad Pitt and (if I remember correctly) Gwenyth Paltrow as leads turns into a small budgeted modest picture with Hugh Jackman and the director’s wife, Rachel Weisz. And while I’m of course interested in what that epic would have been like, I’m in no doubt that these budget restraints and truncating what was projected to be a 2 hour plus story into a nice hour and a half, made the movie a better, more intimate experience.

The handmade special effects work perfectly. I will always believe that if you’re given X millions of dollars for special effects, find as many practical, physical ways to achieve what your after before resorting to the CGI. I don’t care how many leaps and bounds CGI makes over the years, it’s never going to look as good as something that’s actually occupying space along side the human beings in your movie. I don’t care if it is a muppet, Yoda had more of a soul when he was being floated around on wires. The scenes with Hugh floating around with his tree were created with the help of a guy who was found mixing different liquids and whatnot together on his table-top projector or some such thing and are completely unique and cool looking even on an average size tv.

That’s my biggest love for The Fountain; it’s an honestly unique and original movie. It’s not inspired by anything but Aronofsky’s own story about a guy coping with the loss of his wife. It transcends genres and is able to be intimately personal while being completely existential. The fact that this movie works at all is a testament to the strength of Aronofsky’s vision. I also love the happy sadness of it. I think I’m a pretty tough nut to crack in terms of crying over a movie. There’s only a handful out there that have gotten these peepers flowing (Terms of Endearment and Planes, Train and Automobiles are the two biggest offenders) so kudos to this one for getting me all choked up. Unrelenting sadness (see Lars von Trier) is never going to make me cry – it’s the happy sadness that comes out of bittersweet scenes that are earned through good storytelling that get me, and The Fountain has some good ones.

Zodiac is a far different beast. Adapted from the book written by Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film, it sprawls its story out over two decades or so in the bay area as the Zodiac killer brings down a couple employees of the San Francisco Chronicle and one other from the SFPD into a spiraling obsession over the killers identity. As I’ve mentioned before, obsession is a tough sell in movies. It takes more than shots of chain smoking, drunken anger, and late night fidgeting to make it work. Basically, it takes a good actor who can internalize like crazy. Look at Hackman in The Conversation as one of the more modern templates for The Obsessive Character.

And while Gyllenhaal, Downey and Ruffalo all put in solid work, this is really Fincher’s and the writer’s movie. While obsessiveness is front and center the theme of identity is where the interesting part of the movie lies – the obsession is about identity – and this is all in the writing. The movie has a great creepy, suspenseful tone throughout, which culminates in a near perfect scene involving Mr. Roger Rabbit himself – Charles Fleischer, as well as an innate ability through good pacing and editing to keep the viewer propelling forward with only dialog and case work to latch onto.

The obvious comparison for this movie is All the President’s Men. I remember being a teenager and stumbling upon that movie and being entranced. If you’d told me what the movie was about beforehand I’d probably pass – nothing about it sounds at all suspenseful (in both of these movies more people than not know how the movie’s main story turns out) or even enjoyable to watch, especially to someone who’d be more interested in playing Sonic the Hedgehog. But All the President’s Men works. And so does Zodiac (albeit not quite on the same level as that film – I mean, few films are). It makes digging through boxes of case files seem heroic, the ring of a rotary telephone the source of epiphany and redemption, the clatter of a typewriter the sound of truthiness. I suppose this all is a benefit of the late 60s early 70s setting. A man hunched over, typing away at a Remington, smacking the carriage return, is the stuff of real drama – a man hunched over an ergonomic keyboard typing away on his desktop Compaq, waving his mouse around, is the stuff of absolute tedium.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. The Fountain and Zodiac are definitely two of the better movies that I’ve seen over the past year. I’m jazzed to see Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a cool Salinger short story I often return to when work slows down. And hopefully it won’t be another six or seven years before Aronofsky resurfaces with something to show us.

What say you, Paddy?

(* the term "Avid Fart" is the sole intellectual property of Vern. bless you, dear man.)



So, again, why did you pair these two movies? Because Aronofsky could have made music videos? Ah…whatever man.

To start, my review of The Fountain is going to be a little iffy because I saw it at least one month (and three states) ago on my small and inadequate dorm-room TV/VCR combo unit while baking in 100 degree heat. And I don’t have my notes from the movie. And I may have been hungover.

At any rate, I certainly have more appreciation for Aronofsky after reading your review Sean than I did immediately after seeing it. I completely agree about the originality of the script (which, for those who care, involves three overlapping stories about a scientist (Jackman) trying to stave off his wife’s cancer, a story written by said wife about a Conquistador (Jackman) searching for the Tree of Life, and a floating, ethereal guru (Jackman) meditating in space and sucking sap from (the same?) tree). I didn’t care about the latter two stories, but you are right that the story of Jackman and Weisz is touching, and helped by the fact that both actors are superb in creating a real chemistry; Aronofsky must be a confident dude to put his naked wife into a bubble bath with Jackman, because the intensity between the two was powerful.

Unfortunately, this story has a lot more going on than just a tearjerker about a dying wife. And for all of the epic showdowns in the jungle, the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo and the movie-within-a-book-within-a-movie, The Fountain is still extremely slow and boring (and not in a good way) a large part of the time (I had to recheck that it was only 90 minutes, shocking!). The slow burn at the beginning was laborious, as were the constant replays of the same scene of Weisz bounding playfully off into the snow. And for all of that, what was the moral of the story? Spend more time with your family and less on work! Sorry, but did we need to give Jackman 18 different haircuts to get to that?

Ah, but there was Jackman, and I don’t think it is an overstatement to call this a breakthrough role. The guy who formerly had been one of my least favorite actors, and gets completely shown up by Bale in The Prestige is, I hate to say it, a revelation, bringing levels of intensity to his performance I had never thought possible. He and Weisz are not enough to make up for Aronofsky needlessly complicated and ponderous script, but it is rewarding to watch them try.

So the reason I bitched above about pairing these two movies is that I wanted to say a lot about Zodiac and was worried about seriously testing the (again, hypothetical) reader’s patience. I still want to say a lot, but I’ll begin here by just listing a few observations sans clever segues or context:

Mark Ruffolo does his best to channel Peter Falk, but still comes up short

Anthony Edwards looks like Costner in JFK

I’m even more terrified of Donovan now

Brian Cox’s character was well acted, but superfluous

Chloe Sevigny was wasted

Fincher does a great job allowing his actors the freedom to explore their roles

The reason the above list is centered on actors is because I think they are the strength of the movie, and make what could be a tedious crime investigation into a remarkable series of character portrayals. In Zodiac, Fincher actually inverts the successful formula of his first serial killer flick, Se7en, by starting with the criminal himself but gradually shifting the attention to his pursuers. In Se7en, we learn more about the murderer as the movie goes along until by the end, Kevin Spacy completely take over the picture, leaving Freeman and Pitt behind. Zodiac, however, begins with the killer but by the end of the movie, Zodiac himself is almost lost as the stories of Graysmith, Avery, and the SFPD take on more importance. Part of this is due, or course, to the very real nature of the events, but I think it is also a welcome recognition that the motives or psychology of serial killers isn’t nearly as interesting as those of the people that pursue them.

The Conversation is a classic example of the investigator trumping the investigated; I hardly remember the actual case Harry Caul was pursuing. Zodiac tries it’s best to impart Graysmith with the obsessiveness of Caul, but in this respect, fails. We do see lots of stacked boxes and a marriage that falls apart, but let’s not forget, Graysmith did recover enough to eventually write the book on which the movie was based, and there is no hint of a complete mental breakdown. Paranoia, sure. Effort, sure. But by the end of the film, I got the sense that Graysmith could go on with life and that while he will always remember Zodiac, he isn’t exactly playing saxophone solos in a room stripped to the bone.

In fact, it is the peripheral characters like Avery, Toschi, and Armstrong who really suffer, possibly because they are also the first to give up. While the problems of obsession is a fairly obvious theme (after all, the tagline is ‘There is more than one way to lose your life to a killer’) the actors (aside from Gyllenhall) are so immersed in their characters that you can overlook the sometimes heavy handedness of shots of lone men boozing and smoking in the wee hours of the night.

For all of the thematic ambition of the film, many of its strengths lie in Fincher’s ability to depict tension in small scenes. One scene in particular that grabbed me was the television call-in show when everyone waits for Zodiac to call. While we get shots of nervous producers and police officers, Fincher’s best work involves setting up a camera behind the cameras, so that we can see the red lights which indicate which camera’s feed is actually making it to the TV. Instead of just cutting back and forth between the two people on screen, we can anticipate who will appear by the red light, feeling, in a sense, that we are ahead of the characters themselves. This immersion in the action permeates the film to the point that you almost always feel like you are ahead of the story, and that you will solve the case. You are always wrong, of course, but these small moments of anticipation are absolutely gripping.

While the whodunit factor is exceptional (at one point, I thought I was the Zodiac Killer), Fincher is smart enough not to entirely let his thriller rest on the killer’s eventual capture. Like the other movie Sean mentioned, All the President’s Men, the real drama lies not in the prosecution, but in the pursuit. In that movie, the action ends just as people are starting to wake up to Nixon’s crimes, but once something has been ensconced in public opinion, it loses much of its appeal. For example, Nixon’s cronies come off as far more frightening (scarier, even, then the Zodiac killer) during the investigation then they do now, and the eventual revelation of the real Deep Throat was one of the all-time disappointments. If there is one slip-up in Zodiac, it is in the film’s last few minutes, where Fincher tries to play one last time with the killer’s identity, in a few scenes that take place decades after the first killing. By this point, all the original players have either retired, died, or lost interest, and the film’s insistence on hopelessness, resignation, and the dangers of obsession are at their zenith. Fincher should have given up too.



First of all, I wasn't going out to try and force a comparison of the two movies, even though they are both about the tragic results of obsession. While I think I stated my observations fairly clearly in the first three paragraphs of how these two filmmakers careers can be seen as having similarities, I don't think there's anything wrong in writing a entry on more than one movie. Hell, the New Yorker does it every month and the movies they write about have less in common than these two.

Second, I hope you weren't talking about the hardware store scene in reference to the ending (I don't think you were) -- that scene was killer and I do consider it the real ending of the movie and love how it was telegraphed early on when Graysmith's wife asks him when his hunt is going end. I did find the coda interesting though because we get to see how the Zodiac effected (affected? -- where's my editor) the one that got away. He was really the only person we didn't get to see during the investigation, and I thought it was a good bookend in way as well as being another perfect bit of acting, writing and direction in that we don't even have to have this guy tell us what happened to him since his run in with the Zodiac, it's right there on his face.

Lastly, I can't see The Fountain being as great as it is without the conquistador bit. That angle on the story is really what ties the movie together -- taking any one of the three stories away would cause severe damage to the quality of the overall story; I mean, the conquistador's search for the fountain of youth/tree of life on behalf of his dying queen is ostensibly what the entire movie ends up being about (and how tragic the success in that search can be) and the fact that his wife is writing this story is a primary motivator for our good doctor. To a larger extent the movie is about yin and yang. A woman who is coming to terms with death and a man who will do no such thing. But also yin and yang in the sense of what life has always been about going back to the beginnings of civilization. I'd said earlier that one of the reasons I liked this movie is that it's stripped down to it's bones. There's nothing superfluous in this movie. That you thought it dragged and thought Jackman has 18 different haircuts rather than 3, maybe 4 -- I might be inclined to chalk that up to hungover and stewing in 100 degree heat.

Ok, one other thing: I found a lot to like in the spirituality of the movie. You know me, I'm the last guy to find enlightenment in religion. I mean, I was raised Catholic for Christ's sake. So, at the end of the movie we have this 2001 type "crossing-over" scenario that at first glance might come across as a lazy, let's throw in everything but the kitchen sink type stab at the spiritual aspect of this idea. But I don't think there's a lazy bone in Aronofsky's body and to me, a little bit of everything is a beautiful and interesting way to look at it. There's no one answer to life and death -- take something from over here and something from over there, mix them together and maybe we can get to something interesting. Few movies, never mind mainstream movies, would even hint at saying there's no one answer, religion, etc. (especially one that starts off with a quote from the bible) and few movies setting their sights on even trying to form a theory, so in the context of this movie and what it's trying to get at, it's perfect, and with the tone that this movie beautifully sets it doesn't come off as pretentious at all, and instead is simply a thoughtful statement.

Zodiac Opening Scene:

The Fountain 10 minutes from close to the ending: [obviously, it's not the best idea to watch this if you haven't seen the movie, but even if you haven't I don't think it ruins the movie -- it makes me want to see it again, and I figure it would make someone interested want to see the whole thing. Also, it reminds me of how awesome the music is and how perfectly it is used.]

No comments: