Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Zodiac (2007), Chinatown (1974), and the heart of the noir city

At the heart of the noir city, there's a spider's web of influences and motives that never quite resolve, never quite explain themselves, never present a clear target for the apparatus of justice. It's this lack of identity, this lack of certainty, that makes the noir city such a terrifying place for us helpless human beings, who strive for clarity, balance, and closure. Humans try to consolidate their power and their organization within the city, but this only empowers the city to tear it away from them, laughing, casting its shadow.

The fact that "justice" is itself a diffuse, teetering bureaucracy of internal contradictions doesn't help; in that sense, it's just another part of the urban structure, which envelops everything within its domain.  In trying to organize the truth within the noir city's labyrinth, the justice system simply amplifies its power, like a vaccine in reverse -- the virus is innoculated against the body. The judge who signs the warrant can be bought, the sergeant who carries it out can be undermined and turned aside by his own rules. In this hostile space, the regional departments compete, and the multitide of divisions collapse, burying the truth.

The outsider in these situations may be able to reclaim some power, but not much.  Yes, being independent of a department is an advantage.  Being free of jurisdictions and bureaucracies empowers the ambitious citizen to make his own inquiries and draw his own conclusions.  But disorganization and formality is only the city's outermost defense.  The true irresolvable force, the cancer at the center of the decay, is the rotting heart itself, the empty, uncertain soul of the metropolis.

J.J. Gittes discovers noir LA by wandering through its empty reservoirs and dry lake beds, using his "investigation" as an excuse to take a lot of curious walks. Though he is an outsider (a private dick as opposed to a beat cop), he generally falls in line with the city's cynicism, following people around town, taking photographs, and profiting off his clients' troubles.  But Gittes has a bad habit: he occasionally takes a personal interest in his clients and tries to save them from the city's tentacles. In this, he is a true outsider, an idealist... a guy who falls stupidly in love with women and trouble, who picks at scabs and turns buried secrets into open wounds.

I rewatched Chinatown (1974) because I'd just seen Zodiac (2007), and the dark tangle of intrigue and bureaucracy in the latter reminded me of the indecipherable architectures of the former. It's hard to overstate how different the Chicago of Zodiac is from the LA of Chinatown, the former being a crowded, murky, confrontational fortress of institutions, the latter being sun-drenched and empty, wealthy and lonely and in a state of gilded deprivation. Chicago is flushed and choleric; LA is dizzy and dehydrated. But both cities are big, cynical centers of misanthropy, and both of them are hard on their heroes. Robert Graysmith is to Chicago as Jake Gittes is to LA: a pesky savant, an outsider looking for the inside track, stirring the mud as he indulges his own obsession.

Of course, Robert never gets the stamp of approval that we all want: an arrest and conviction for his suspect. The city doesn't yield up closure so readily, and sometimes, a glimpse of the truth is all you're ever going to get. But Robert does achieve something heroic, even if he goes unrewarded: he confronts that sinister underside of the city, stepping up to it and staring it in the face on multiple occasions. He finds his way into the basement of a Projectionist who seems unmistakably significant in this whole Zodiac affair; he meets a woman who recalls a dark, shadowy figure at her bohemian painting parties; he looks into Leigh Allen's eyes.

In Zodiac, the city is an empty morass of connections and uncertainties.  At least in the LA of Chinatown, it comes down to a few specific people, a few brazen confessions. But what a rotten heart it is! At the heart of the city are the Crosses, one of its most powerful clans, embroiled in incestuous relationships and opportunist plots to destroy farm families and reclaim the land for the wealthy. Gittes unearths the Cross's bizarre culture of transgression, appeasement, and favoritism: Mr. Mulwray, the business partner, is sleeping with his wife's sister-daughter? The connections to Noah Cross are so dense, so intractable, that his motives seem to determine the whole structure. Did Cross and Mulwray really sever ties over the ownership of the water supply?  Or are all these wealthy, broken degenerates still in cahoots, working in uneasy but unbreakable cooperation to protect their fucked up family?

Good-looking, bad news
So Gittes discovers the truth. Kind of. He's turned up the soil wherefrom this rotten tree has sprung. But once he sees its face in Noah Cross, once he tastes its tainted fruit in Evelyn Mulwray, his power ends. He can't hold these people accountable, nor expose their poisonous influence. Their crimes converge and dissolve on a street in Chinatown, where nothing's really reconciled. And maybe this is a worse fate than blissful ignorance: knowing the darkness that lurks within the noir city, and knowing that you can't do shit about it.

Where Gittes found an impenetrable knot, Robert Graysmith finds something else: the erasure, the uncertainty, that the noir city presents as its final face, beneath the masks of violence and domesticity.  He discovers, in Chicago, a troubling fact: the fact that actual, physical events, in all their brute violence and cruelty, eventually disappear, leaving only a facile layer of information. Four years later, Graysmith is still asking, "Who committed these murders?" A better question may be, "Did these murders actually happen?" and even this is more or less irrelevant, because the murders are gone, diluted in history. All that's left of them are anecdotes, clippings in binders, casings in envelopes, handwriting samples, marks on certain detectives' records, an "open" case file.

Robert Graysmith rages against that emptiness, that void, by drawing together what information he can, but more importantly, by finding the people who were involved in the slayings: Linda del Buono, Rick Marshall's friend the movie poster artist, and finally Leigh Allen. Through them, he finds actual anecdotes, the traces of real experiences, so much of which has disappeared after four years.

Robert Graysmith never really sees as much of his picture as Jake Gittes sees of his own. But Robert wins a small battle against the vast forces of the city's unexplored labyrinth -- in the absence of any confirmation, Robert Graysmith comes to his own conclusion. He approaches his suspect in a hardware store and looks him straight in the eye, and at this moment in the film, we can see Robert Graysmith make a leap of faith -- the leap from suspicion to belief.  This is only victory a man like Graysmith can retain in the face of overpowering uncertainty.  This leap of faith may be nothing but appeasement, but at least there's that.  J. J. Gittes never has anything like that.

SIDE NOTE: I think Zodiac, the film, actually presents us with a possible resolution, though it's never quite spelled out for us. Consider: during the extended climax of the film, Robert Graysmith confronts two different men. First, the projectionist, who admits to making posters that seem to match Zodiac's handwriting. This confrontation happens in the basement of a house, the deepest cavern Graysmith reaches in this affair.  And there's someone else in the house... someone who flees before Graysmith can identify him.

The other person Graysmith confronts is the perennial suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, who seems connected to the killer in every possible way: he has the right boots, he has a watch with the symbol, he lived near the first victim.  But Leigh Allen is exonerated by... his handwriting!  And the DNA samples from the letter.

Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this, but to me, this suggests the simple conclusion: Leigh murdered the victims, and the projectionist wrote the letters on his behalf. No connection between these individuals was ever uncovered, and yet, they fit together, like perfectly-shaped puzzle pieces in a picture that's never assembled. Leigh may even have been in the house when Graysmith was there; if he had seen him, it would have brought the whole affair into focus, but he missed him, and so the truth once again eluded him.

Anyway, that's my leap of faith.  I follow Robert Graysmith in coming to my own conclusion, at least in terms of the movie's version of these events, and I'll stand by it until something upsets it.

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