[I’m going to categorize most of my future posts on film as: “Analysis of Movies My Cinephile Girlfriend Recommends” (AMMCGR), mainly because I can never say exactly what I think about them until way after. I’m not used to analyzing film. I’m used to reading at my own glacial pace (sometimes I think I read at a fifth grade level). In general, I’m not a very quick writer either, and need to take my time and let thoughts congeal, and then get them down. As you might imagine, this makes me a really awful conversationalist, especially when it comes to film. But since we’re all expected to be critics of movies, I’ll make some efforts].
[Oh, also, I spoil everything]
This week it was Zodiac and Targets, two films that are roughly 40 years apart and extremely different–but that both try to get at the heart of what might be an obsession-in-transition in the American psyche: the Serial Killer. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets, starring Boris Karloff, draws (in many places quite overtly) from the infamous University of Texas bell-tower shootings of 1966. David Fincher’s 2007 Zodiac examines the exploits of the Zodiac Killer, who murdered seven people (though he claimed responsibility for almost 40 murders) in the Bay Area during the late Sixties and early Seventies. Unlike Targets, Fincher’s film takes up the perspective of the investigators assigned to the case, though it also reconstructs scenes from the perspective of Zodiac’s victims.
The movies explore different-seeming phenomena–the single-day rampage vs. the methodical insanity of a killer who reigned for more than a decade–but when put next to one another they provide an opportunity to question how the fears that plagued 1960’s and 70’s America have morphed and been translated over time. I’m interested in two main questions:
How does “place” or “placelessness” affect one’s conception of the possibility of violence?
Targets is a movie that happens in and around some of Los Angeles’s “non-places.” The murderer takes out drivers on the freeway from atop a refinery tank, and in the anonymous sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. It seems to be about nowhere and anywhere in America. In Zodiac, by contrast, the killer first strikes in Vallejo and Napa, and his entrance into San Francisco comes to mark an ominous shift in his behavior. “The Zodiac comes to San Francisco” says a menacing radio voice-over. His undetected arrival in the urban setting–where systems of surveillance and law enforcement would seem to afford the greatest security against a serial-killer–is alarming in its shattering of the assumption that the city provides a safe space.
Bogdanovich’s movie, which was made in the very moment when random violence in unexpected places was on the public’s mind, tries to determine how it might be possible for ordinary suburban life to come apart at the seams. Joe lives with his wife in his parents’ home. As the original trailer points out, this is a “typical” American family. The fear that Targets taps into is that the promise of a peaceful life in the exurbs can be interrupted at any time by a killer from within. An unnoticed or even unnoticeable psychological break results in the rampage. That is, a gun nut can come unhinged and, from within the apparent safety of a suburban community, go on to shatter the fabric of everyday life for an entire community.
In Zodiac, Fincher’s views of San Francisco are often too high definition to be believed. Indeed, many of the shots of SF, including the above vista of the Golden Gate Bridge, are digitally created. Car scenes thus often look like video games. Instead of the graininess of Targets’ insistent realism, we get a hyper-fantasized world of a San Francisco that no longer exists, but whose existence needs to be recreated.
That is, the precise terror that the Zodiac killer harnessed was the idea of a threat coming from without. But at the same time, he was also a kind of virtual menace, forcing his threats into the public sphere by virtue of his letters to San Francisco papers. He invaded the city, not only by committing crimes there, but also by becoming a media (and mediated figure). Fincher’s use of digital technology to render the scenes strikes me as appropriate precisely because it plays with the notion that the Zodiac killer was not just invading the physical city, but the way that the city imagined itself. He was less a real-life ordinary threat than a virtual threat.
And with forty years of distance, this has become even more the case. The crime was never solved; all suspects have died; and the Zodiac killer will forever be able to ultimately hold onto his anonymity.
What does any of this mean for serial killer movies being made today? How might they relate to a different kind of fear of violence?
It seems to me (and this might be totally off given how few movies I see), but aside from No Country for Old Men (and Zodiac itself along with 7even, also directed by Fincher ), there haven’t been many successful serial killer films made in the last decade. I think this might have something to do with a transition away from a fear or fascination or obsession with serial killers–and toward an obsession with the potential for terrorist violence.
This seems to relate to a shift, not only in how the public perceives serial violence of the type characterized in both of these films, but also of how the legal system has been adapted to accommodate new forms of violence. The story behind terrorism is always the same: radicalization by some ideological influence, most often the fear is radical Islam. Consider the “DC Sniper,” who killed and injured dozens in the immediate aftermath of September 11. He was tried and convicted, not just of murder, but of terrorism (this was how the Virginia prosecutor was able to secure the death penalty). Unlike serial killer narratives, which compel us in part because of the individual pathologies, methods, and backgrounds of killers and cops, terrorist narrative always comes down to the same point. There is no reason to ask the question how is this possible? when one talks about terrorism…because we have been conditioned to believe it can only be radicalization.