Bright Lights Film Journal

Deciphering the Indecipherable: Procedure as Art in Fincher’s Zodiac

“With Zodiac, obsession becomes the point of origin, the catalyst for artistic creation.”

While nominally a police procedural film, David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) is at its heart a film about filmmaking; it is less about the obsessive process of tracking a serial killer than about the obsessive process of creating meaningful work. Most critics have been quick to acknowledge Zodiac as a “meditation on obsession”; however, treating such an observation as the final line of inquiry into the film sells it horribly short, for obsession in Zodiac is not an end in itself; rather, it becomes the point of origin, the catalyst for artistic creation.

Some of the most obsessive characters in cinema are artists, cops, and serial killers. Zodiac features all three: cartoonist Robert Graysmith, detective David Toschi, and the Zodiac killer. These characters engage in repetitive toil in the hopes of reaching a point of completion. None achieves satisfaction. This makes the conflict of the film informational: there is a truth the characters and the audience want to know but cannot discover. What drives this conflict is the modernist belief that the truth exists; we just have to look harder in order to find it. This need to impose or discover meaning in the world can lead to obsession, with the obsessed believing that fixating on the subject will reveal meaning. To abandon the obsession is to accept the presence of meaninglessness in the world.

This conflict fits the police procedural perfectly because the entire allure of the genre can be tied to this belief that the world is decipherable. Procedurals implicitly assert that any case can be solved provided that the heroic investigator/truth-seeker sorts through all the seemingly confusing and unrelated details with cool-headed detachment. In a procedural, things seem chaotic and incoherent, but that is only how they appear to the lay audience; the hero investigator proves that reality is not incoherent but rather is governed by a hidden logic which it is the investigator’s job to reveal. The question of a procedural film is never whether or not an answer exists, only whether or not the hero has the stuff it will take to find it. Zodiac adopts this genre model only to dismantle it, relocating an inherently modernist genre to the decentered, uncertain realm of the postmodern.

However, this conflict stretches beyond the world of the police procedural. Like detectives, artists attempt to represent reality in an understandable form, to impose meaning through the organization of details. Zodiac dramatizes this artistic process, dragging Fincher into territory historically fraught with directorial self-indulgence. Unlike most films about the artistic process, however, Zodiac is not overtly about art; Fincher transfers these themes onto a genre audiences actually find entertaining, even crave. The film chronicles an artist’s obsessive attempt to render reality intelligible in the hopes of discovering a unified meaning to existence. Modern artists invite the audience to participate in their obsession while leaving intact the audience’s belief that the world is knowable. Fincher plays — or perhaps preys — on the audience’s basic assumptions about reality and creates a work that deliberately fails to reach that point of completion. In doing so, Fincher denies that the world has any inherent or verifiable objective meaning. Instead of Truth, he offers obsession as the only defense against a world that is beyond our full understanding, declaring that knowledge lies in the process, not in completion. For artists, according to Fincher, it is not the end result or final meaning that concerns them; their investigation is an investigation of the medium itself. And so Zodiac is perhaps the best — perhaps the only — truly procedural film: a film with procedure itself as its content and its form.

Zodiac is absorbed in procedure from the start. As one would expect, the film opens with a Zodiac murder, but as soon as Fincher meets audience expectations, he parts company with convention, following Darlene Ferrin’s murder with a lengthy credits sequence that appears dangerously pedestrian, extraneous, and indulgent. The Zodiac letter’s dizzying odyssey from the mail truck to the editor’s desk, however, represents a vital part of the film, for it introduces the audience to both the daunting and reliable nature of procedure: daunting in that it makes the audience wonder, if it takes all this effort and machinery to get one letter to a newspaper, how much will it take to apprehend the Zodiac, let alone find any sort of meaning in his actions? This sequence also represents the reliable nature of procedure in that it assures us that process is trustworthy: even though the Chronicle’s mail system seems like an impenetrable labyrinth, the letter gets delivered. This is one of the few procedures in the film covered in its entirety. By placing a comprehensive depiction of procedure at the beginning, Fincher discreetly tells us how to read Zodiac: like a detective (or a director), we must connect the dots; if we skip steps, we will get lost in the maze.

The most important part of this sequence, as with most opening titles sequences, comes at the moment where the title of the film appears. ZODIAC appears over a shot where Graysmith (the artist) drops his son off at school (a process-based institution if there ever was one) and tells him “Learn a lot,” thus underscoring that all procedures are about gaining knowledge and seldom have tangible results. Their effect, rather, is transformative, advancing someone to an enriched state of being.

Zodiac focuses on artists grappling with their craft, each meeting with a different fate: Toschi is removed from the investigation; his partner Bill Armstrong and reporter Paul Avery burn out; the Zodiac goes underground; and cartoonist Graysmith develops his art until he becomes an accomplished craftsman; making Graysmith’s story — the main story of Zodiac — a Kunstlerroman disguised as a cop saga. Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Graysmith aligns perfectly with the classic cinematic renditions of the artist because his pursuit of the Zodiac killer mirrors an artist’s quest to find meaning in his work and compulsion to create his masterwork regardless of any real-world obstacles or standards of decency or reason. The film also features (almost to the point of cliché) the artist’s requisite familial stress and dissolution; the refusal to call it quits despite the urgings of everyone around him; the increased alienation that occurs while wasting years on a “project” until there is only the work; and other qualities that place Zodiac as much in the genre of artist biopic as police procedural or thriller. Like all artists, Graysmith simply wants someone to take his work as seriously as he does. The fact that he does not receive this affirmation until the final minutes of the film further proves that this and not the search for the Zodiac killer is the central conflict of the film.

Graysmith’s status as the hero of Zodiac is deceptive, though, for he only serves as a stand-in for the real hero, the real artist of the film: David Fincher. Graysmith, Toschi, and the Zodiac symbolize Fincher’s obsessions and frustrations with filmmaking.

In making Zodiac, Fincher proves how the police procedural paradoxically serves as the perfect genre to investigate the nature of filmmaking by calling to our attention that cinema is the most procedural of art forms. The medium demands that the director be simultaneously objective and obsessive, one who must scrutinize every detail — including those that do not wind up on screen — while also keeping a commanding and collected view of the film as a whole. The director must not only obsess over the film’s narrative, but also must master the technical components of filmmaking. The endless array of cinematic tools and processes are necessary in order to realize a director’s vision, but these techniques also represent a potential abyss that can consume the director who does not remain objective; however, the director must be as obsessed with these tools as with the narrative structure because cinema is an industrial art form. This is where the madness comes in: cinema imprisons the director in a double-bind of total objectivity and total obsession, and then demands the presentation of an intelligible vision of reality to the audience while keeping the industrial aspects of the film relatively concealed.

As a director well known for uncompromising perfectionism, Fincher dominates both of these aspects of filmmaking: his films are exquisitely composed, feature densely layered narratives, and — with his exploration of the possibilities of HD video and computer effects — stand among the most technically accomplished and forward-looking films of our day. Compared to his previous work, however, Fincher’s visual style for Zodiac is remarkably restrained and exhibits few of the traits audiences have come to associate with him. The cinematography is stately and lacking in self-conscious compositions. Fincher fills the film with modest two-shots; long, steady takes; and unobtrusive camera movement to signify the methodical thinking required of the film director. In fact, the only holdover from Fincher’s previous films found in Zodiac is the menacing sense that the film has been made by an artist in total control of the craft. His previous films possess this quality to a fault: their technical virtuosity and narrative gamesmanship aim to keep the viewer perpetually aware of watching a work made by the virtuoso David Fincher. For example, like Zodiac, Fight Club (1999) eschews objective reality not only for the main character but also for the audience, who — in the final frames of the film — discover that the “objective” events they have just seen have in fact been manipulated by Tyler Durden or one of his followers. Such a “mindfuck” reveals Fincher’s contempt for the audience and his delight in dominating them with his skill. The majority of the film leads the audience to believe that they are on the side of Tyler Durden and above/apart from the materialistic consumer class the film derides, but the ending shows they are in fact exactly the mouth-breathing class of people the film despises. In Fight Club, the world is not knowable, or, if it is, it is knowable only to Fincher, its sardonic puppet master.

This approach to narrative indeterminacy filigrees Zodiac, giving the audience the sense that the film is being assembled scene by scene, built like a case file, rather than arriving onscreen preconceived; however, whereas Fincher’s style in Fight Club antagonizes and excludes viewers, Zodiac‘s style invites them to participate in the director’s process, embracing them as fellow obsessives and truth-seekers. If the words “embrace” and “David Fincher” seem incompatible, look no further than the climax of the film, which sits as far from the typical procedural climax as a scene can get. Rather than taking place in a courtroom or on a rain-slicked street illuminated by police lights and gun metal, Zodiac‘s climax takes place in a diner, and the scene ventures into territory Fincher usually avoids: touching sincerity. The scene, in which Graysmith presents his case against Arthur Leigh Allen to Toschi, turns on Toschi’s validation of Graysmith’s work. Epics, particularly crime epics, seldom have moments of such subtlety. Contrary to all cinematic expectations, Zodiac culminates in a moment of genuine human connection, as two obsessive artists discover a kindred spirit who understands them and their work, thus making the uncertainty of reality less discouraging and demonstrating the redemptive power of artistic creation. In this regard, Zodiac can be seen as an autobiographical film, a look into Fincher’s creative soul in which he confesses to the audience “this is what drives me, this is how I think,” and asks them to share his vision. Such an invitation makes indeterminacy seem more manageable to viewers, more like a part of our collective existence and not the cruel joke that it is at the end of Fight Club. We still live in a world that we cannot grasp, but Fincher offers something in its place that we can grasp: process. That is what we can trust, that is the constant, the thing to bring people together and to help sort the chaos into an apparent order that allows us to do meaningful work in both the scientific and the spiritual sense.

This desire so permeates the film that even the visual effects are infused with it. The effects in Zodiac — and there are many more than the viewer would notice — attempt to reclaim reality from itself. Even though many scenes are shot in the locations where the events of the film took place, Fincher modifies the locations drastically in order for them to appear historically accurate. For instance, while the Lake Berryessa murder scene is shot exactly where it took place in 1969, a tree found in the crime scene photos was no longer there, so Fincher had the same kind of tree removed from another area of the park, brought to the site by helicopter, and planted there. Also, he intended to shoot the murder of cab driver Paul Stein at the corner of Washington and Cherry in San Francisco, but the location had changed so much over the years that the scene was almost entirely shot on a soundstage parking lot in Downey, California, with the historically accurate houses and landscape being created in postproduction. These two examples show how, unlike his other work in which he rejects reality in favor of a world of his own design, here Fincher uses cinema to rescue reality from Time. This is no small feat nor of little concern to Fincher because his next film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will take this notion as its subject both in form and content, not only reclaiming physical spaces from the ravages of Time, but also major movie stars (thus opening the door for the next generation of special effects: postproduction age-reversal procedures).

Thus, while Zodiac nominally depicts an investigation, it also dramatizes the director’s need to represent a historical reality correctly. The audience feels the connection between Fincher’s quest for historical authenticity and Graysmith’s quest to unmask the Zodiac. Both engage in the obsessive accumulation of detail to create a coherent picture of an incoherent reality. If the clarity and accuracy of Fincher’s case file depends upon the extent to which he can master reality through cinema, then Zodiac is an interrogation of filmmaking as a representational art form.

There is an irony to Fincher’s quest: even with Time itself under his control, ultimately he cannot summon a definitive answer to the story and thus render the world intelligible. Zodiac fails to find definitive answers, only more questions and broadening speculation. The coveted point of completion is never reached, and those few moments that do feature completion feel remarkably empty. The best example is the film’s depiction of the construction of the Transamerica building. We stand in awe of both the feat of architecture and visual effects; we see the process at work, but when the process ends and the building lights up in stelliferous completion, we derive little satisfaction from it because nothing is more certain at the end of the sequence than at the beginning. There is no work left to do — the building is finished, it is perfect, it stands static and lifeless. Its triumphant moment of completion is also an unsettling moment of death. Therefore, all the time spent building the Transamerica tower signifies — both narratively and thematically speaking — just that: the cruel passage of Time.

The dissatisfaction of the Transamerica sequence applies to Zodiac‘s genre: for all the traditional elements of the police procedural present in Zodiac, the traditional resolution of the genre, in which the hero outsmarts the villain and brings him to justice, does not take place. In fact, the closest the film comes to this scene — Graysmith’s visit with the creepy-as-hell Bob Vaughn — gets dismissed as a wild goose chase almost immediately. It is ironic that the scene in Vaughn’s basement is also the most conventionally entertaining moment in the film; it delivers on all the familiar genre tropes to the point that it teeters on the edge of parody and ultimately frustrates the audience because the scene appears to foreground closure when it actually intensifies uncertainty; for even though Arthur Leigh Allen quickly returns as suspect number one, his return is accompanied by increased doubt as to his guilt. The basement scene shatters the conventions of the procedural thriller to demonstrate to the audience that reality does not play out as neatly as it does in the movies. If the scene stands as a failure of tone or genre, it only serves to articulate Fincher’s motives behind making Zodiac: to tell a story without resolution, a story of an ongoing failure of representation, a story about process.

Zodiac‘s world, like our own, is one in which absolute values — the kind that prevail at the movies — fail. Things are only more certain at the end of Zodiac than at the beginning if the audience interprets Mike Mageau’s identification of Arthur Leigh Allen as his attacker as closure. Applying closure to the film requires a leap of faith, a desire for some kind of completion, and Fincher’s denial of traditional narrative closure disappoints the audience upon initial viewing, for the ending is not definitive. But this disappointment stands in for our dissatisfaction with our inability to understand the world. There is no victory, for each achievement only raises more complex questions. Just imagine the degree to which other directors would make a much bigger to-do of laypeople Donald and Bettye Harden cracking the first Zodiac cipher. Fincher goes so far as it leave it offscreen in order to show that although cracking the code is a triumph, it only serves to make the case more complicated and terrifying. Notice how even though the bulk of the cipher is solved, the series of characters at the end of the letter remain unknown.

It is in this way that Zodiac presents the most authentic account of trying to articulate a truth about the world while also acknowledging that such efforts are doomed from the start. Therein lies the film’s capital-T truth: we will not know everything, but we must go on, we must never terminate the process. Not everyone can continue to create; some, like Robert Downey Jr.’s character Paul Avery, abandon their faith in the quest and succumb to the entropy of the world. This irony is the same for the director: although he must treat each film as a definitive statement, no single film can be the total, self-contained artistic statement that renders future statements unnecessary. The compulsion to continue despite persistent, certain failure does not represent a disorder but rather a hope that one will be rejuvenated by the process. This constitutes one of the central concerns of European modernism, best articulated in Beckett’s The Unnamable as “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Zodiac adopts this concept in the postmodern world of uncertainty to show how it still applies, to reveal that instead of leading to death, the process leads to life. With each failure, more connections arise, methods improve, knowledge expands rather than contracts. Of course, the concept of ever-expanding knowledge can appear terrifying to one who is trying to distill reality into digestible, verifiable facts, yet the only real escape from such informational entropy is to sort the chaotic array of material into subjective order, even though doing so only increases the entropy. In this regard, Zodiac resembles that other 1960s San Francisco detective story, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and a sentiment expressed in the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman confection Adaptation (2002): “There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.” The word for such a delusional but necessary endeavor is obsession, and Zodiac gives the audience a profound glimpse into the particular obsessions of David Fincher, which are found not only in the film’s making but in its very subject. To devote oneself in this way to work, no matter the medium, elevates one’s chosen craft to the level of art. This is what Fincher defines in Zodiac as the true work of the filmmaker, the artist, the cop, even the serial killer.