https://vault.fbi.gov/The%20Zodiac%20Killer

Since we watched “Zodiac”, I wanted to look into the actual police archives for the Zodiac Killer. This led me to find the FBI’s vault of documents of almost every major crime investigation in the U.S. I was mostly surprised that the archive was available for the public to view. So if you want to view these documents, they’re all avaliable at that link above.

While viewing the files, I realized that there is still a disparity between the technology of then and now. This disparity ultimately causes a degredation of information in the files. With today’s searching and text transcribing software, we are able to parse through text easily. These technologies were not available in the late 60’s/early 70’s, so they are not able to be parsed by the text transcribers. Even today, all of the pages must be read through just like before these technologies existed.

Secondly, many of the pages experienced complications while scanning, leading to completely unreadable portions. These are simply problems with moving the past archive into more modern times. These complications probably cannot be fixed easily without transcribing the pages and creating textual versions of each page.

I just thought it was interesting that despite having new technologies for organizing archives, the old ways seem to prevail due to the drawbacks of our technology.

What makes “Zodiac” authentic is the way it avoids chases, shootouts, grandstanding and false climaxes, and just follows the methodical progress of police work. Just as Woodward and Bernstein knocked on many doors and made many phone calls and met many very odd people, so do the cops and Graysmith walk down strange pathways in their investigation. Because Graysmith is unarmed and civilian, we become genuinely worried about his naivete and risk-taking, especially during a trip to a basement. Zodiac feels long not because the pacing lags but because by the time we creep to the two-hour mark, we’re as exhausted as the characters. The procedural stops being a genre and takes hold as a psychological state, and, by the film’s final act, our heads our spinning. But we, like the cartoonist Graysmith, trod forward not because we’re reinvigorated by new clues, but because we must. Zodiac is a seething metaphor for life in the information age, where how one should allocate their priorities is an ever-increasing uncertainty. Graysmith is a grandfather to Aaron Sorkin’s version of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, disconnected from people, himself, and society by drowning in data and the compulsion to master it. Information gathering isn’t a hobby. It’s an addiction. We’re left in a flurry of voices all claiming relevancy and truth, but there’s no light to shine through them. Zodiac is Fincher’s Rashomon, and all that’s left is the deceitful visage of truth; we’re back to Plato’s Cave and all we have are shadows of reality.

Fincher’s film Zodiac raises interesting questions surrounding archives and how they are framed. The Zodiac killer’s motivations and identity are constantly studied throughout the story, with the police primarily having pieces of evidence from the murders and as pointers to who he might be. As usual, as many physical items from the crime scenes as possible were collected and stored for analysis. Because of their storage and the meaning(s) ascribed to them, this database of items can certainly be seen as an archive.

The Zodiac killer himself is of interest in the context of archiving because of his insistence on his actions being documented/archived. Making contributions to the archive being constructed around his murders are one way he asserts control over his own narrative. Control is an apparent need for the Zodiac killer, and his playful relationship with the police paired with his elusiveness reinforces his confidence. He frequently makes provocative gestures throughout the film to ensure that there will be press coverage, cementing his legacy. It was also hinted at in the film that at times he would feed into the press’s coverage of general murders only to double back afterwards and take credit to previously less publicized killings. This type of understanding of the impact of mass media and records gives a sense that the Zodiac’s killings are not just about deaths, but something more that he is also interested in. He toys with what constitutes evidence and if evidence ultimately points to truth.

Knowing the gravity of committing killings, he thoughtfully creates additional items for archiving beyond just the evidence collected by police from crime scenes. His main mode of expression comes in the form of coded letters, adding to his mystique and serving as his signature. As someone who values control of his own archive, there are a few times where he collects materials from the crime scene where he committed his murders, only to later send them in to authorities as a means of verifying the authenticity of what he is saying or submitting. By doing this, he differentiates his voice from all the other people calling in with tips or trying to claim the distinction of being “The Zodiac Killer”. Artists typically have elements of their creations that can be threaded through their work, and it seems as though the Zodiac gleefully buys into this notion as well.

Robert Graysmith’s (cartoonist turned author) interest in the Zodiac case ultimately provides a remediation of the evidence collected by the police. Because of his intimate knowledge and somewhat obsession with the Zodiac killer he decided to write a book on the case. His subjective interpretations, facts collected as evidence, and previously unreleased (to the public) facts create yet another alternative lens through which to understand the initial archived materials from the case. Graysmith’s remediation ultimately led to this film that we’ve analyzed.

How can a movie about the Zodiac Killer, one of the most infamous mass murderers of our time, relate to a class about archives? A large reason for the intrigue in the Zodiac Killer goes beyond the ciphers and  creepy phone calls – the case remains a mystery because the man’s identity was never confirmed. It has been said that if he lived in today’s world, the Zodiac Killer would have been unmasked very early in his murderous career, but due to lack of technology and organization in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the mystery and speculation about his identity endures today.

One could say that the mismanagement of the archive of evidence is the reason the Zodiac Killer was never brought to justice. During the movie, it was clear that the communication between police districts was minimal. Certain districts had specific intelligence and information that was not shared, and thus, pieces of the puzzle were never brought together. In one scene, an officer is acting as a middleman between two other police districts that seemed somewhat indifferent about sharing their evidence, partially because they didn’t all have fax machines to send the information with. In this situation, a communal pool of evidence and information would have been the best way to store and track the data.

Another aspect that struck me was the ease with which a common civilian was able to access confidential police records. Of course, it’s unclear whether this happened in real life or whether it was added flair for the movie. Were they that ambivalent about the case at that point that they would risk compromising the case just to appease an obsessed cartoonist? It certainly harkens back to the debate about security vs. accessibility of archives. I suppose at that point, the detectives were all pretty resigned after years of dead ends, and as such, made a security exception for the cartoonist.