Sunday, July 22, 2018

Zodiac (1986)

My interest flared up again in the Zodiac killings when David Fincher's movie came out about 10 years ago, but soon enough went on the wane again. The iconic serial killer represents a tantalizing dark mystery but everything still leads to dead ends. The most persistent questions—who was he, what was his motive, and how did he evade capture?—will likely never be answered definitively, or worse, may be disappointing when they are. Compare the BTK case (talk about the banality of evil). I realize I'm judging sensational crime in terms of entertainment, when these are overwhelming tragedies at the core, but it's all in a day's work for true-crime literature, often a kind of voyeurism. I'm not even sure Robert Graysmith's book is the place to go on Zodiac. As the editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who famously became obsessed with the case—Jake Gyllenhaal plays him in the movie—he's not exactly objective or even in the best position to tell the story. It's as if he knew the material too well when he finally sat down to write his books (there's a sequel to this I doubt I will get to). He alternates between rote mood-setting and rushing to get us up to speed on the details. Then, when he feels we're sufficiently briefed, he can sail off into virtual fugues about what it means and how it almost adds up. He calls attention to details that don't seem that significant, such as astrology, or harks to the weird coincidences like he is telling a campfire story. I feel for him, in a way. I think he just wants to know what happened. He's made it his life's work, and it may not get anywhere. Published originally in 1986, extensively revised in the '90s, my urgent red, black, and yellow mass market paperback version includes a late section about the movie, with notes from the set. He sounds a little dazzled by Hollywood, writing, "It's an odd feeling to have the finest actor of his generation play yourself in a major motion picture." Since Gyllenhaal is not even the finest actor of his generation in that movie it made me trust Graysmith's judgment a little less. Still, he has assembled all the Zodiac facts here along with doing a fair amount of original research, and he's often lucid when discussing the many strange twists in the case. The Zodiac killer has his antecedents, of course—Jack the Ripper is the original model, including taunting notes to police and newspapers. Later, Son of Sam, BTK, and others took whirls. The Zodiac murders are chilling and horrific but there are times I wonder if Zodiac committed any of them and instead only took credit. But a handful anyway seem certain. It's an odd chapter in history, no doubt, crime or otherwise.

In case it's not at the library.

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