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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Girls on Liberty Street (Rangel)
2. Whiplash (Chazelle)
3. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
4. Shoals (Bass)
5. Husk (Simmons)
6. Empire Builder (Swanberg)
7. Fort Tilden (Bliss/Rogers)
8. It Follows (Mitchell)
9. Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson)
10. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)

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Odds and Ends: Creative Writing and Land Ho!

Creative Writing (Seth McClellan, USA, 2013) – Gene Siskel Film Center / Rating: 7.2

creative

Now here’s something novel: Chicago-area mass-communications professor Seth McClellan directed this loosely fictionalized drama, his impressive feature debut, based on a racially charged confrontation that happened in one of his creative writing classes. In a fascinating experiment that must have been cathartic for all involved, McClellan had the real-life principals (including himself) both contribute to the screenplay and play versions of themselves. Through a series of jazzy and dynamically intercut scenes, Creative Writing follows the individual lives of a small group of students: Tracey (Tracey Ewert) dreams of being a famous writer, Arlene (Arlene Torres) kills time by playing video games, Stephen (Stephen Styles) works for a realty company while also working towards his degree, and Mike (Michael Davis) has to contend with an Alzheimer’s-addled father (Dennis McNamara). The various stories converge when Mike, who is white, is mugged by an African American, an event that prompts the misguided young man to write and read aloud in class a racist short story in which he imagines exacting revenge. The cast of mostly non-professional actors do a uniformly fine job of giving naturalistic performances but McLellan, a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild who resembles a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, also wisely reserves the heavyweight dramatic moments for himself. Made on a shoestring budget but nicely shot in black-and-white digital, this is tough, provocative, honest and intelligent stuff.

Creative Writing screens three times at the Siskel Center between October 24 and October 30. Members of the cast and crew will be present for all screenings. Exact showtimes and ticket info can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.

Land Ho! (Aaron Katz/Martha Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – Music Box / Rating: 8.1

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I don’t want to oversell it — because the virtues of this low-key comedy are modest by design — but I enjoyed the hell out of every one of Land Ho!‘s breezy 94 minutes and left the theater wondering why I can’t see a new indie movie like this every week. This is the first film I’ve encountered from either of its two chief architects, Aaron Katz and Martha Stevens (a pair of American independents who have previously only worked separately), but it certainly won’t be the last. What’s perhaps most surprising here, in a movie full of pleasant surprises, is just how well these young writer/directors nail the poignant plight of senior citizens: the premise is that two elderly, recently retired former brothers-in-law, Kentuckian Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Australian Colin (Paul Eenhorn), take a spontaneous vacation to Iceland in order to “get their groove back.” The film pleasantly coasts by on the effortless charm of the two leads, whose personalities appropriately contrast with one another: Mitch is a gregarious old perv who smokes weed and regales anyone who will listen with dirty jokes and useless banter about Hollywood starlets; Colin is moodier and more introspective, still licking his wounds from a recent divorce. While descriptions of their interactions might sound like the worst kind formulaic Hollywood claptrap (e.g., Last Vegas), Katz and Stephens ingeniously refuse, at every turn, to bow to cliche. Neither of these dudes “learn anything” or “change” during their week-long sojourn, which makes the whole thing feel amusingly and gratifyingly life-like. Another plus: the ethereally beautiful landscapes of Iceland.

Following its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run,
Land Ho! will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 4th.


Facets Kids App

I directed the official Kickstarter video for the new Facets Kids app, an invaluable new tool that will allow children to download quality indie and foreign films. I had a lot of fun working with child actors for the first time and trying to create something whimsical in the style of Wes Anderson.

Facets is currently trying to raise $50,000 by November 22 for this very worthy cause and is offering a host of exciting perks for every donation level (including mentorships with filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, Steve James and Jill Godmilow). Please watch the video, check out the Kickstarter page and consider becoming a backer today:

Credits

Directed by Michael Glover Smith
Written by Josh Lebowitz
Cinematography and editing by Alex Halstead
Original score by Tony Green
Production design by Emily Railsback
Sound engineered by Grant Winship


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Creep (Brice)
2. The Fly (Cronenberg)
3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
4. St. Vincent (Melfi)
5. Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich)
6. The Midnight After (Chan)
7. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)
8. The Word (Kazejak)
9. The Babadook (Kent)
10. Miss Julie (Ullmann)


The Catastrophe at Terroir Film Night

terroir

My short film The Catastrophe, winner of the Best Dramatic Short at the Illinois International Film Festival in 2011, will be screening this Sunday night at the Red & White Wine Shop’s “Terroir Film Night.” Advertised as a “night of natural wines and local films,” this adventurous program curated by Emily Railsback will feature short “dark-themed” works by local filmmakers including Al Benoit, Larissa Berringer, Chris Hefner, Mark Winters, Railsback and yours truly.

According to Railsback, “Terroir can be very loosely translated as ‘a sense of place,’ which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. Both wine and film are better when you understand their connection to the place they came from, thus: Terroir Film Night: A night of natural wines and local films at Red & White Wine Shop.”

Admission is $10. Or buy a bottle of wine / beer ($10 or more) to waive the entry fee. This includes a free Free Wine Tasting from 7 – 8pm and film screenings at 8pm.

For more info, check out the official facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1489707141278481/

Hope to see you there!


50th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 2

Below is part two of my 50th Chicago International Film Festival preview. The full schedule, with ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the CIFF website here.

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
Rating: 9.5

timbuktu

Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball.

Timbuktu screens on Wednesday, October 15 and Thursday, October 16.

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia)
Rating: 9.2

babadook

Amelia (Essie Davis), a young nursing-home employee, is tragically widowed in a car accident when her husband drives her to the hospital so she can give birth to their first child. Six years later, she can’t help but associate her troubled son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) with her beloved husband’s death. Amelia is frustrated by Samuel’s seemingly delusional belief that their household is being menaced by a shadowy monster named “Mr. Babadook,” a belief that is given credence by the mysterious arrival in their home of a children’s book of the same title (one of the most terrifying props in film history). This debut feature by Jennifer Kent is the best horror film I’ve seen in ages, not only because it manages to be scary without resorting to cliche — in itself a hugely impressive feat for this genre — but also because its story and characters are so believably rooted in primal, real-world psychological fears. Exceedingly well acted and art-directed (the disturbing intrusion of a red book into a home that is otherwise color-coded blue-gray is but one of the nice touches), The Babadook is already well on its way to achieving cult-classic status.

The Babadook screens on Tuesday, October 21.

Baby Mary (Kris Swanberg, USA)
Rating: 9.0

BabyMary

If you are considering attending one of CIFF’s various shorts programs, you might want to check out “Shorts 1: City and State — Locally Sourced,” which features the work of local Chicago filmmakers. Among the nine mini-movies being offered is Baby Mary, writer/director Kris Swanberg’s follow-up to her criminally underrated feature Empire Builder. In an African-American neighborhood on the city’s west side, an 8-year-old girl attempts to rescue a neighbor’s baby from neglect — taking her home, renaming her “Baby Mary,” and feeding her applesauce. It is lightly hinted that the protagonist’s maternal altruism is a byproduct of neglect at the hands of her own mother but Swanberg’s approach is thankfully more observational than editorial. Like Empire Builder, an otherwise very different film, this poignant but unsentimental short is more interested in raising questions than providing answers. What’s not in doubt is the wealth of feeling packed into its compact nine minutes, making it a far more rewarding experience than most contemporary American features.

Baby Mary screens on Tuesday, October 14, Friday, October 17 and Sunday, October 19. Swanberg will be in attendance for the first and last of these shows.

Ne Me Quitte Pas (Sabine Lubbe Bakker/Niels van Koevorden, Holland/Belgium)
Rating: 7.4

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With each passing year, I become more and more interested in non-traditional documentaries. This Belgian/Dutch co-production, accurately described in the CIFF program as a “breakout dark comedy alcoholic bromance,” fits the bill nicely. Eschewing direct-to-camera interviews, co-directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden follow the curious and intimate friendship between two rural middle-age men over a span of several months, resulting in an impressive verite doc that unfolds like art-house fiction. The men in question are Bob, a self-styled cowboy with occasional suicidal thoughts, and Marcel, a newly divorced alcoholic father of two, who are depicted as constantly commiserating with one other before, during and after the latter’s stint in rehab. I’m not sure how much the unusually unguarded behavior of the protagonists has to do with their copious alcohol consumption but most of this sad, funny and strange little movie rings true.

Ne Me Quitte Pas screens on Friday, Ocotber 17 and Tuesday, October 21.


Oakton Community College’s 1st Annual Pop-Up Film Festival

I am super-excited to announce that I have achieved my life-long dream of programming a film festival: Oakton Community College’s First Annual Pop-Up Film Festival (P.U.F.F.) will feature vital recent work by four exciting contemporary independent American filmmakers, spanning various genres and styles. The screenings will all take place at Oakton’s Footlik Theater (room 1344) in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, October 21st through Friday, October 24th. Three of the screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, moderated by various Oakton Film Studies professors, including yours truly. The screenings are all FREE and open to the public. Any of my students who attend a screening will receive extra credit points towards his or her final grade (see the extra credit page of your course website for more information). Don’t you dare miss it!

Empire Builder (Directed by Kris Swanberg, 70 minutes, 2012)
Tuesday, October 21st at 2:00 pm

empire

New mother Jenny (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her baby leave their comfortable Chicago high rise and travel to the remote Montana cabin she has inherited. But as she waits for her husband to arrive, Jenny’s life takes an unsettling turn when she begins a dangerous relationship with the property handyman. Followed by a Q&A with Kris Swanberg conducted by Michael Smith.

Shoals (Directed by Melika Bass, 52 minutes, 2012)
Wednesday, October 22nd at 12:30 pm

Shoals

On the grounds of a rural sanitarium, three young women search for wellness, as a cult leader (Chris Sullivan) seeks to control their bodies through labor and daily rituals. A slow-burning prairie grotesque, Shoals won the 2012 Experimental Film Prize at the Athens International Film Festival. Followed by a Q&A with Melika Bass conducted by Therese Grisham.

The Girls on Liberty Street (Directed by John Rangel, 62 minutes, 2013)
Thursday, October 23rd at 6:00 pm

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With one week left until she leaves for the army, teenager Brianna (Brianna Zepeda) spends her time packing and saying goodbye to friends in her suburban Chicago home. But during those seven days, she will confront her fears, hopes and dreams as she prepares to move on to a new chapter of her life. Followed by a Q&A with John Rangel conducted by Laurence Knapp.

The Unspeakable Act (Directed by Dan Sallitt, 91 minutes, 2012)
Friday, October 24th at 12:30 pm

unspeakable

Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel) is a normal 17-year-old-girl except that she’s in love with her older brother Matthew. Set on a quiet tree-lined street in Brooklyn, this darkly funny film follows Jackie’s coming-of-age as Matthew leaves for college and she sets out to meet other boys — contending with life on her own for the first time.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. Ravenous (Bird)
3. Timbuktu (Sissako)
4. Gone Girl (Fincher)
5. Ne Me Quitte Pas (Van Koevorden/Bakker)
6. The Big Lebowski (Coen/Coen)
7. Miss Julie (Ullmann)
9. A New Leaf (May)
10. Force Majeure (Ostlund)


50th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 1

Here are capsule reviews for four of my “best bets” for the opening week of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival, which kicks off this Thursday night with a screening of Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie. The full schedule, with ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the CIFF website here.

Force Majeure (Ruben Ostland, Sweden)
Rating: 8.7

forcemajeure

While holidaying in the French Alps and facing an impending natural disaster, Tobias (Johannes Kuhnke), a yuppie family-man from Sweden, behaves in a cowardly fashion in front of his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young children. The marital discord that results spreads like a virus to another vacationing couple, Tobias’ friend Kristofer (Kristofer Hivju) and his much younger girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius). This masterful drama piles complex emotions — shame, fear, embarrassment, anguish — on top of one another and then, amazingly, finds a way to somehow mine its most emotionally excruciating moments for a vein of rich, black comedy. Writer/director Ruben Ostlund’s meticulous attention to sound and image, and his love of formal symmetry, make this a better point of comparison with the films of Stanley Kubrick than anything Jonathan Glazer has ever done. The only thing preventing me from calling it a full-fledged masterwork is the inclusion of a couple of unnecessary scenes at the very end: the notion that the two male protagonists are desperate to redeem themselves in the eyes of the women who love them has already been conveyed with more power and subtlety in the preceding hour and 45 minutes.

Force Majeure screens on Friday, October 10, and Sunday, October 12, with Johannes Kuhnke in attendance.

The Iron Ministry (J.P. Sniadecki, USA/China)
Rating: 8.5

iron

Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki spent three years filming passengers on commuter trains in China before whittling his nonfiction footage down to this extremely impressive 82-minute feature. Although Sniadecki never takes his camera or microphone outside the train — and serves up sights and sounds that impart a remarkable “you are there effect” (particularly during a stunning sequence of trash being swept up in close-up) — this is hardly a minimalist exercise like the SEL’s riveting Manakamana. Instead, Sniadecki focuses on passengers who represent a diverse cross-section of Chinese society, letting his subjects talk, and occasionally even interacting with them himself. What emerges, among the many departures, arrivals and copious cigarette breaks, is a fascinating street-level portrait of pertinent social issues — especially those pertaining to religious, class and gender equality. My favorite bits involve a group of young men lamenting the influence of mothers-in-law and the crucial importance of home ownership in contemporary Chinese marriage, and a smart-ass kid who mocks the spiel of a train conductor talking over the loud speaker by substituting hilariously profane and politically subversive phrases. You will learn more about contemporary China by watching this than you will by watching 1,000 hours of CNN.

The Iron Ministry screens on Friday, October 10 and Saturday, October 11.

Miss Julie (Liv Ullmann, Norway/UK)
Rating: 8.0

MissJulie

Writer/director Liv Ullmann, also arguably the greatest Scandinavian actress of all time, is well suited to bringing August Strindberg’s famous play about the combustible mixture of class differences and sexual desire to full cinematic life. She transposes the narrative to late-19th century Ireland, presumably to justify the all-star cast of Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton (all terrific), but this move is also likely to lull unsuspecting viewers into thinking they are watching something akin to the innocuous “good taste” of an episode of Masterpiece Theater. After the central upstairs/downstairs romance is inevitably consummated, however, the central conflict very quickly devolves into the terrain of intense psychodrama that was the stock-in-trade of Ullmann’s mentor Ingmar Bergman; there is nothing about the social niceties and repressed sexual longing of the first 30 minutes that will prepare you for the site of the title character (an incendiary Chastain) smearing her face with canary blood and screaming her head off while wielding a butcher knife at the end. Miss Julie is probably not the accessible “crowd pleaser” many were hoping for in a CIFF opening night film but I greatly admired it for Ullmann’s uncompromising vision, its formal elegance and, especially, the career-best performances: the painful heart of this movie, an extended argument between Chastain and Farrell in a kitchen, burns up the screen like nothing else you’ll see this year.

Miss Julie screens on Thursday, October 9, with Liv Ullmann in attendance.

The Way He Looks (Daniel Ribeiro, Brazil)
Rating: 7.5

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This winning debut feature from writer/director Daniel Ribeiro puts an original spin on the tried-and-true coming-of-age genre: in the opening scene, the 15-year-old protagonist, Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), and his best friend, Giovana (Tess Amorim), commiserate poolside over the fact that they’ve never been kissed. Think you know where this is going? Think again. Leonardo is a blind and closeted gay kid, who is only gradually brought out of his shell after the arrival at his school of another gay kid, the confident Gabriel (Fabio Audi). The filmmakers wisely refuse to portray either Leonardo’s disability or his insecurity over his sexual preference as heavy drama. Instead, they adopt an assured tone that is at once low-key, whimsical and realistic. Fans of gay-themed cinema or naturalistic acting by adolescents who are looking for something different will want to check this out.

The Way He looks screens on Saturday, October 11 and Monday, October 13.


Author Interview: Laurence Knapp

In the past six years that I’ve taught film studies at the college level, I’ve been lucky to count some renowned scholars and authors among my colleagues. One of my fellow professors at Oakton Community College, Laurence Knapp, is the author of, among other books, the groundbreaking study Directed by Clint Eastwood (McFarland & Company), and the editor of the brand new David Fincher: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi), an essential read for Fincher fans. I recently sat down with Larry for a wide-ranging talk about his new book, particularly as it relates to Fincher’s evolution as a filmmaker, the “auteur theory,” and his expectations for the much hyped Gone Girl, which opens in wide release today.

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MGS: How does one go about editing a book of interviews?

LK: My approach to a book of interviews is much like a documentary film. The essence of documentary is to find the right archival material that fits and that forms a narrative. So when I’m looking for interviews, I’m looking for interviews that dovetail together and form a narrative line that allows you to observe the filmmaker in his or her various stages of development. But, at the same time, you become conscious of certain themes or details that either the reporter brings up or that the director keeps mentioning. Most of the time it’s reporters. I read an interview for Gone Girl that was published in Playboy. And, most of the interview, the questions involved his upbringing, California . . .

MGS: George Lucas living down the street . . .

LK: George Lucas, starting out with Korty Films, and doing all these other things, and then Propaganda Films. So a good portion of the interview repeated all that same material that is in the book. But what’s interesting, when you read the earlier interviews, Fincher, the person — and just the sort of idiosyncratic childhood he had — that’s not the focus. It’s more like this idea of Fincher as the Phantom of the Opera or something. (Chuckles) Like this weird, dark figure who somehow or another made Alien 3 and Se7en and The Game. And it’s not until Fight Club that I feel like Fincher is starting to express himself more and share some of his ideas and views of the world and how he approaches filmmaking . . .

MGS: With Fight Club, you think?

LK: With Fight Club, yeah, I feel like he’s more willing to own it and to promote it because he’s very skittish being interviewed. Again I was reading these Gone Girl interviews and he seems so much more comfortable joking, and also he shares even more personal details that even I was unaware of in some of these recent interviews. It’s peculiar how this works with a filmmaker and his or her interaction with the media. It’s actually much more dynamic than you think. And you can actually create a documentary-like chronology that tells a story that merits the form of a book.

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MGS: I was impressed by how diverse the interviews were. I felt like each interview brought out another side of him in a way. Was that something you were trying to do? For instance, there was one interview around the time of Panic Room where the guy who’s interviewing him is very laudatory of the film and then Fincher seems to turn around and really criticize it. He’s very self-deprecating and I feel like he’s almost doing that because the guy is praising him.

LK: The one from the Independent. You know, that’s the other thing that’s interesting about the book: I noticed that a lot of the British press understands and appreciates Fincher long before the American press. Lately, I’ve noticed journals like Empire and some other British periodicals to be a better source of material than the American publications. You still have Film Comment but . . .

MGS: Which he’s on the cover of right now.

LK: And I read the latest Film Comment interview with Amy Taubin, who’s in the book . . .

MGS: With the Fight Club interview from the Village Voice . . .

LK: And she’s a wonderful writer, and a critic as well. But I mean, is there really a go-to, somewhat-sophisticated film magazine that enables a journalist to conduct a lengthy and informative interview?

MGS: No, I think Film Comment is it for the United States. Sight & Sound I think is still good and he’s actually on the cover of that right now too.

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LK: Yeah, I mean, I did intentionally pick things that work together and that I think emphasize different parts of Fincher. And again, people think, “Oh, all you did was collect a bunch of interviews.” But it actually is sometimes harder to try and figure out how to arrange that in a way that makes sense as a book than to just write my own critical piece about something.

MGS: I think he comes across in the book as a complex and fully rounded person. The interview for the Guardian was the one that I think the British Film Institute hosted where he’s in front of an audience and he’s cracking jokes throughout the whole thing. And I thought, “This is so different from every other interview,” because he’s got an audience and he’s trying to entertain them. As a teacher, I recognized that right away. That’s what you do when you have a crowd: you try and charm them.

LK: Absolutely.

MGS: You make them laugh so you know that they’re paying attention, which you don’t have to do in a one-on-one interview. That one interview kind of stuck out for me from all the others because he seemed so much more charming.

LK: Let me privilege your view of Fincher: I think that Zodiac allowed him to get out of his shell somehow. That was a pivotal film for him.

MGS: Zodiac was for me what Fight Club was for you. I saw Se7en when it first came out and I really liked it. Then I saw Fight Club and I liked it but I thought there was something a little dubious about it as a social critique. I liked it cinematically but I thought, you know, making fun of people for shopping at IKEA . . . I thought it worked cinematically and thought it worked as a homoerotic dark comedy about guys beating each other up. I liked it but I didn’t think it was a serious film. And then I missed Panic Room but when I saw Zodiac, I said, “Oh my God, this guy’s a genius.” So I thought he made a quantum leap with that film. And then I liked Benjamin Button a lot. I thought it was almost underrated. And then The Social Network is my second favorite. I think that’s a masterpiece as well.

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LK: That’s my second favorite as well. But with Zodiac, I feel it’s his art film without him fully recognizing that, you know? ‘Cause I swear the film is really about just . . . time.

MGS: Time is the subject. Time and obsession.

LK: Time is what defines the obsession.

MGS: Exactly. It’s about the impact of time on obsession.

LK: And I love the ending. I love (Robert Graysmith) walking in there and he’s expecting this epiphany with — who’s the guy working in the hardware store?

MGS: Arthur Leigh Allen.

LK: Arhtur Leigh Allen. And there’s nothing. There’s no shared eyeline that causes him shivers. It’s just this empty experience that doesn’t give him any sense of . . .

MGS: Any closure.

LK: Anything.

MGS: The first time I saw Zodiac, I didn’t recognize its greatness. My wife showed it to me. I thought, “It’s pretty good,” but the ending of it bothered me. I mistakenly thought Fincher’s point-of-view was Graysmith’s point-of-view. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it and about six months later I watched it again and I took away the opposite message. I thought, “Oh my God, there’s so much critical distance between Fincher and the lead character.” At the end, that scene in the hardware store hit me like a ton of bricks. Arthur Leigh Allen asks Graysmith, “Can I help you with anything?,” and Graysmith says, “No.” And it’s such a profound moment because Allen is speaking as a hardware-store clerk but when Graysmith replies, “No,” it’s as if he’s saying, “There’s nothing you can say or do that’s gonna help me in any way, that’s gonna bring me any peace.” So I think the film is really critical of its protagonist in a way that is fascinating. ‘Cause it’s really about the three guys who are obsessed with the case. And, of the three, I think Mark Ruffalo’s character has the healthiest attitude: he’s able to separate his work life and his personal life. And, of course, Robert Downey, Jr.’s character goes off the deep end. (Chuckles) It destroys him.

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LK: Yeah, I think the film is being critical and somewhat dispassionate towards the three protagonists. And I think it’s very clever to have the bookend with the victim at the end, and the idea that the only thing that persists is the trauma. It’s never resolved.

MGS: Which is kind of a recurring theme in Fincher’s work.

LK: Always.

MGS: “Films that scar.”

LK: Films that scar! And bleed.

MGS: Which, by the way, it was nice to finally read that interview from 1996, Mark Salisbury’s “Seventh Hell.”

LK: You know, that piece is so important in Fincher scholarship. It really is the first major profile of Fincher that gives us insight into that stereotype of him as the “dark” film director. And “films that scar” gets quoted all the time. It’s like that has to be there. And Mark is a very nice fellow, very easy to work with. But, yeah, I think that film is also critical of narrative in general, how genre is expected to function (what is Zodiac — serial killer film? biopic? newspaper film? cop film?), and also American history. And, as I mention in the introduction in that book, I feel that it is one of the most Gen X of films. How we all feel about what’s happened to this country since we came of age in the late 70s. We’ve always had this weird feeling that there’s no ending and there’s no real coherent chain of events or point to anything. And, by the way, that theme is repeated in Benjamin Button.

MGS: Exactly. And that’s his other film where time is really the subject.

LK: A little bit more explicitly with the prologue. But it works, it’s fine. But if you think about Zodiac, I think I mention in the introduction that it’s L’avventura meets Silence of the Lambs. That it just feels like a meditation. And I feel like he’s recreating the feeling that some of us had who were born in the 60s of how things once existed. And I don’t think he’s really done that with any other film.

MGS: No, he hasn’t. And I think that’s because it’s his own childhood — not only the time but the place. Ultimately, Zodiac is about identity because the act of trying to solve these unsolved murders is how Graysmith has chosen to try and make sense of the past and his own life and to try and give them meaning. The more time goes by, the more obsessed he becomes.

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LK: It is a generational statement about the late 60s. But I love the fact that you adore the film even though you were born in the mid 70s. When I watch Zodiac, it has that feeling I had when I was 10 or 11. The (Baby) Boomers always sort of present the 60s as the golden age when everything made sense but what Fincher’s saying is the opposite. It’s like with the Manson killings and Zodiac — that’s when things started to get weird.

MGS: The dark side of the counterculture, the randomness and the meaninglessness of it.

LK: And the serial killer does not become a cultural icon until that period. Suddenly the serial killer is not some nameless, faceless thing but part of our world, a pop figure of horror and dread that cannot be easily identified or apprehended. Zodiac ushers in such figures as the Son of Sam.

MGS: That’s what’s so unsettling about the film. All of the murders occur in the first 26 minutes and yet the film goes on for another two hours and 20 minutes!

LK: And it’s also authentic because they never figured out who did it.

MGS: Exactly. So, on the other hand, it has to end that way.

LK: He’s offering us a different view of how American civilization has functioned. That maybe we are — these last 30 or 40 years — in the beginning of the Great Decline, and this is what signaled it. And that’s why (Fincher) can’t let it go. He always goes on about his dad being oblivious of Zodiac’s threats — “You mean, you want me to ride the bus while there’s some crazed killer threatening to kidnap a school bus and kill all the kids?” But think about that, what kind of effect that has on somebody. It’s like, “Well, then there’s no one who can protect me or restore order.” I’m always glad when a film like that doesn’t find its audience. It really signifies how daring and creative it is, that he really is not concerned that he is leading the audience down a blind alley.

MGS: It didn’t find its audience right away.

LK: It never really did.

MGS: It seems like there’s a cult developing around it.

LK: Very few of my students mention it. If I bring it up, they don’t know it that well. But when you compare it to a film like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I just feel like, with that film, Fincher is playing it safe with a franchise. He’s just protecting his interests. And you can tell the difference.

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MGS: I agree wholeheartedly. I had the opposite reaction to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I had to Zodiac. The first time I saw it, I really enjoyed it. I watched it a second time and I thought it was kind of tedious. It was like I got nothing out of watching it again.

LK: What else ya got, man?

MGS: So, what exactly do you think makes a David Fincher film a “David Fincher film?” I think he’s an unlikely candidate for a book in this Conversations with Filmmakers series in a lot of ways. He doesn’t fit the popular notion of an auteur. Unlike the other American directors who came up in the early-to-mid-90s, he doesn’t write his own scripts or put himself in his films, and he even says he hates giving interviews. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith use their personas to market their films in a way that is more like what Hitchcock did.

LK: Well, they are celebrity auteurs and enjoy the attention. In fact, I think Kevin Smith enjoys speaking to film nerds or comic-book freaks at Comic-Con more than he does making films — although I just watched Cop Out and kind of liked it. The difference? Why Fincher stands out for me? Very simple: form equals content. Of all of them, no one understands film like David Fincher. David Fincher is your old-line, camera-as-pen auteur. He speaks through the plastic medium. Fincher uses mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound better than any of them. He is concerned with that more than he is with building a cult of celebrity or a cool profile with fans or the press. You get the sense that that’s what he is wholly concerned with: film as an aesthetic object. And also as a social one. He has a knack for picking material that resonates with his generation or with the audience at any given time.

MGS: Which is probably most true of Fight Club and The Social Network. Those were zeitgeist films.

LK: Although Gone Girl looks like it might be a shrewd . . . we’re both kind of careful with this because we’re not sure what it is yet — but, judging from the book, as soon as I started reading it, I’m like, “Oh, I know why he picked this.” And I like the fact that everyone’s really bugged out because it’s written by a woman who has the nerve to say that women can be frightening and dangerous. I’m like, “Here we go. This might be the female Fight Club.”

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MGS: Some people have said the book is misogynist, which is ironic because I don’t think anyone would say that if it had been written by a man.

LK: Well, we are now — and Fincher is hip to this, this is the Gen-X thing — we are the first generation in which men and women are fairly equal. So there’s a lot more anxiety about what the roles are and how you’re supposed to conduct yourself. And I felt that really is what made that book compelling and that’s what attracted him to the book — the whole guise of the “cool girl” as a way of merely satisfying what she presumes the man wants her to be. And, for Gen X, I think we’ve navigated these very rapid changes in how couples function and how they communicate. And so it’s almost like this is more of a Gen Y thing than Gen X, because they have so much trouble with dating and having meaningful relationships. And knowing exactly who they are because they’re so broadcast, through social media, this whole idea of who they are, constant representation and re-representation on their terms. And it’s kind of an extension of that in the book with the whole Amazing Amy series and how she’s presented and how she has this sort of mediated view of herself. It’s part of her pathology. So even there I’m thinking, this is pretty timely and, again, this is Gen X. Boomers would not come up with this. They’re all about female liberation and equality — Women’s Lib and the feminists. But this is what happens when you pretty much have parity. All of a sudden, you look at each other and go, “What the hell? What’s next?” I think this could be extremely timely. Or it could piss the shit out of some people too. Because this is a dirty secret, this is the sacred cow, that women are just as despicable as men.

MGS: Of course.

LK: And one of the most sexist things is to assume that women are innately more refined or more settled or just more functional than men. That’s not true. They’re just as bad in a different way. And that’s what I feel like (Gillian Flynn) is bringing out. She has the guts to do it. Let’s face it: that main character, I mean, she makes the Kevin Spacey character in Se7en look like a pre-schooler. This is Fight Club for women. Because in Fight Club, the male psyche is all about frustrated desire and blunt-force trauma and self-destruction. A woman relies more on psychology and manipulation — not punches to the face and exploding office buildings. So I feel like this is very organic, it fits in with everything else Fincher has done and I’m actually looking forward to it regardless of how it turns out. This is a very savvy moment for Fincher. But again this, to me, as opposed to the Kevin Smiths and the Quentin Tarantinos, who spend more time trying to generate an adolescent fanbase, I feel like with Fincher, he is that old-school artist who’s like, “Here’s what I made. Here’s what I painted. Here’s what I staged and shot. Now you do the rest and interpret it.”

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David Fincher: Interviews can be ordered from amazon.com here.

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