Viewer: Common Elements in Mysteries and Thrillers

As a computer science major, I’m a huge fan of The Social Network. It’s a fascinating film that captures the dramatic reality of power and money through elements like friendship, betrayal, and deception. But when I recommended the movie to my girlfriend, I was slightly bothered by her choice to avoid the film solely because it’s “too dimly lit”. However, after watching another one of David Fincher’s films, Zodiac, I’ve come to notice that a lot of his films are in fact ‘dimly lit’ – and that too, for a good reason. The genre of thrillers and film noir rely heavily on a sharp contrast between high-key and low-key lighting in order to convey an intense or dramatic feeling. Mysteries keep a lot of its subject matter in the dark, and therefore use things like shadows to depict secrecy or the unknown. These shadows are created with small, intense lighting at different angles to either lengthen or shorten the area taken up by the shadows. Although I don’t agree with her decision to not watch a movie for its lighting, I do think this sort of dimmer lighting is a tool used by directors in mystery and thriller films to create an artificial feeling of intensity and to keep the audience in a constant state of suspense/fear. This correlation definitely explains her distaste for other mystery/thriller movies that I love, like The Silence of the Lambs and Shutter Island.

A prominent theme in this film (and in the crime/mystery genre) is obsession – specifically obsession to the extent of self-defeat. Common examples of this sort of obsession is apparent in some of the other popular David Fincher films like Seven, Gone Girl, and Fight Club. Seven involves a psychopath who is obsessed with the seven deadly sins (sloth, pride, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath, and jealousy). Gone Girl is one of my favorite movies and it delves into obsession as well. In that film, Amy Dunne is obsessed with the concept of true love and being romantic, and that eventually leads to her own and her relationship’s demise. In Fight Club, the characters are constantly obsessed with the idea of confronting mortality and testing their limits. Similarly, in Zodiac, Graysmith obsesses over the case of the Zodiac killer and spends over twenty-two years trying to find their true identity. His submersion in the case eventually lost him his job, his wife, and many of his friends, which is a common result of obsession in a lot of the mystery and thriller films.

Viewer: Zodiac, inspirations from film noir and the dangers of information saturation.

I really enjoyed Zodiac, I was drawn in by rich character development, the thrill of the chase for the serial killer and even their weariness after several years of being on the case without any significant results. David Fincher was able to dictate the feel of the movie across the timeline of the zodiac case. Elevating the sense of tension and danger in times of increased activity of the killer and slowing down the pace to a slow and weary crawl during the most passive periods of the case. During the Zodiac’s most active years the film has a film noir quality to it. The gritty detective (Dave Toschi) with odd idiosyncrasies coupled with a more subdued and passive partner. The relentless journalist who is often at odds with law enforcement, Paul Avery and the cartoonist Robert Graysmith who actually doesn’t mesh fit very well with the other characters during the first half of the movie. I felt enthralled by the struggle of these characters as they slowly came to understand what kind of threat the Zodiac posed for the city of San Francisco.  A typical film noir trope has a mystery/crime that generally is solved at movie run-time. David Fincher offers no such gratification and actually subverts the genre by extending the run-time and introducing an element of manic obsession. What happens when the script is suddenly changed and the usual crime case becomes and un-solvable quagmire where information is no longer reliable and often fails to make any sense? The movie becomes a psychological thriller with Robert Graysmith the upstanding cartoonist taking the spotlight as the movie’s main protagonist. We shift tone and focus from the Zodiac killings and the Zodiac himself to the people who struggle to understand and catch him.

An unknown entity, with competing and contradictory information regarding his identity and motivations. This movie strikes me as meditation on the nature and power of information. We are presented with information in different forms, from the mysterious ciphers, to the written letters, vocal accounts from victims, suspects and expert consultants.  Yet with such a staggering amount of information present none of it could definitely lead to the arrest the true perpetrator of the killings. A very interesting thing I noted in the movie was how David Fincher utilized digital effects to show the passage of time through the accumulation and change of information. The Detectives surrounded by the ciphers and letters as the Zodiac killer increased his activity and correspondence with the police and media. The construction time-lapse and the news audio montage show how the city still continues to change even though the nature of the zodiac case remains constant. With our rapidly growing world and how information becomes easily accessible it becomes very easy to overlook important details or  simply choose to ignore information that is seemingly useless and move on to the next. If we obsess on old information the world will eventually leave us behind even though our intentions might be just. Robert Graysmith has to struggle with this fact as he tries to solve the Zodiac murders years after they had been perpetrated and what was now considered “old news”. He had to struggle a system content with moving on and information corrupted through age and time.

In our world today where digital media is ubiquitous and information is easily accessible is it possible that we may have become less receptive to it? Are we taking learning for granted? The news cycle is rapid and there is very little time taken for contemplation or understanding. In the world of Zodiac information is a cherished and valuable commodity. All parties involved struggle on a daily basis to acquire as much as they can regarding the Zodiac killer but when information loses it’s potency or there becomes too much of it people lose interest and move on except for Graysmith who fights against this mechanism. His resolution although seemingly satisfying to him doesn’t strike a very strong accord with me because it wasn’t grounded in concrete and definitive information. This is odd for me to admit because I too tend to be more intuitive rather than focus on hard facts. This leads me to ask, in our data driven world is it still acceptable to make decisions based on our intuitive knowledge or “gut feeling?

The Effect of a Prolonged Timeline on Viewers

After hearing about Zodiac in class, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Granted, I can see why people can dislike this film because it feels like it drags at times, and the film is honestly exhausting at times. However, I feel that Fincher tried to bring out these emotions from the audience purposefully through the movie’s endless transitions in time without any resolve in the stories main conflict. Throughout the film, we see several people take on the case of the zodiac such as the cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and the journalist, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.).  As time passes, shown through an endless number of time skips, we see the case take a physical toll on everyone who was involved. First, it was the handwriting expert, who retired and became an alcoholic. Then, the case began to affect Paul Avery, the journalist. He started to become an alcoholic, and eventually, he quit The Chronicle to live on the sea, drinking his days away. When we see him for the last time in a bar, he looks 10 years older than his age and he’s breathing from an oxygen tank.

After Avery gave out, the case began to take a toll on Inspector David Toschi. One of the most tenacious people (unofficially) gives in after he lost his best lead. His emotions towards the case can be seen in his conversation’s with Robert Graysmith. In his conversations, he expresses that there are more relevant cases to investigate, and the Zodiac case will never be solved after all the years and struggles of investigating. Lastly, after seemingly endless failures to progress the case, we have Robert Graysmith take on the case by himself. As a viewer after an hour and 45 minutes into the film, we think that “Oh, this character is going to miraculously solve the case now. All this build up has to be resolved,” but we have to endure Graysmith’s painful efforts to solve this practically dead case for another 50 minutes. Similarly, viewers are able to see the physical and mental toll the case takes on Graysmith, and as a viewer, the endless amount of dead ends over time starts to really take a toll on us too. For a brief moment towards the end of the film, I thought that we would never have a resolution. Fincher prolongs the film this way to make the viewer truly experience what Graysmith goes through. By the end, we are desperate to have the mystery be solved just like Graysmith.  Finally, after a twenty-two year timeline and after Graysmith releases his book, we have the first victim of the Zodiac killer confirm the identity of his attacker through photos of different suspects. After a grueling 2 hours and 30 minutes, we only get a resolution that spans for about a minute of viewing time. By the end of the film, Fincher makes us truly understand how long and exhausting this case was.

Viewer – Zodiac

Honestly, I was not expecting to like this movie. However, I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the movie (even though there was no finality to the case, which can be irritating), and also the length of the movie which I initially dreaded, seemed to go by fairly quickly. The nostalgia of the movie crafted by the mise-en-scène of the film was enticing and it was heightened by the computer effects that were used to create a realism. The film felt authentic in some aspects but then intertwined with a thriller aspect that kept me on the edge of my seat. The movie, in my opinion moved beyond just a commentary on a long ongoing murder investigation, which is what it might have been, to something more interesting because of many varying cinematic techniques. There were shifts in the mood of the film by at the beginning being an almost horror thriller sequence and then changing to an investigation  following the various characters and their relations/connections and infatuations with solving the case. I liked how there were many serious parts where the investigation was in full swing along with the immersive feel of danger as the Zodiac killer was shown and these were paired with quippy remarks made by many of the characters (especially about Robert and his sometimes strange mannerisms). These brief moments of humor allowed a breather from what would’ve been a long cumbersome and intense movie. Some of my favorite parts was when Robert was investigating for his book and he kept sidestepping

and finding loopholes by saying he wasn’t a writer but a cartoonist, and how these were always followed by things like “I wouldn’t tell you to talk to” or “If you wanted to be creative”. (Or even the time when Paul makes fun of Robert’s drink! Things like this were not needed for the movie to move forward, however, the movie was more intriguing and relatable  because there were  included). These created a more human experience because it showed that the officers wanted to bring the killer to justice and they believed it could be done, even with Robert’s roundabout way of writing a book.

At many points all I could think of was this is was a strange vintage Avengers mystery with Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, which for me made the movie more appealing because of the familiarity of the actors. These two men were able to move beyond the characters’ personas they have built for the superhero movies. On that note, I was amazed by how they aged the actors just slightly. There was a strange evolution of the characters (especially  Robert and Paul) as they delved deeper into the case and drifted to the verge (if not going over the edge) of being obsessed. As the movie continues and the years passed by hair became grayer, the bags under many their eyes became more pronounced, and their clothes evolved. I loved how the costuming was slightly and yet visibility changing as the years passed. These subtle hints to the passage of time helped to keep the order of events and also create a realistic world. Also, even the insert texts (the screen shot above left shows the type writer font that was present throughout out the movie) that tell the audience the date/time have a font that is filled to the style of the movie and couple well with the 60s/70s vibe that is thoroughly highlighted throughout the movie. Overall I LOVED how there seemed to be meticulous attention to  detail with all the costumes, all the sets and probs, and especially the paper props from the killer himself (example below of one of the notes from the movie). When there is as much focus on objects like these I personally appreciate the movie more and become more involved in the world that they have carefully taken the time to build.

In the film we saw how the personal  lives of like Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery deteriorated  as they became obsessed with solving the mystery of who the Zodiac killer was. What effect do you think the Zodiac killer had on the families of the investigators? Do you think it was worth it for them to spend that much time investigating? (Especially since they even commented on how there were countless other murders  and investigations happening at the time, which was more impactful than the Zodiac). What is your response to who was the killer, who should we believe? How would this movie have been without the small bits of humor? Would it have been as good and would you have enjoyed it still? There were many times were, because of the lack in technology and ability to connect between stations, information went missing/was not relayed – how do you think this case would have been handled in present day? Would it have been solved? Or would there still be issues of an overload of facts and information?

Information and Technology in Zodiac

While watching David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) there were a few main points that stuck with me. The first was how information is represented in the film. As Robert, Avery, and David all work to uncover the mystery of the Zodiac killer there are varying levels of information available to them. Once the killer starts receiving more intention from the news, hundreds of calls come in to try to give tips to the police. As time goes on they have to work to sift through the countless amounts of unreliable sources in order to find a lead worth chasing. During this time there is a lot going on, making the action harder to follow. The idea of information is brought to the forefront again when the detectives run out of leads. Once the information slows down the excitement of the film slows down as well. To me it seems that this is done on purpose. Fincher subtly uses digital techniques to heighten the realism of the film. However, he doesn’t go overboard with trying to fill the screen with distracting effects. Could Fincher be highlighting these events to make a comment on the use of digital editing in films? How does the amount of visual effects enhance or detract from the quality of a film?

Another idea that Zodiac illustrated was the way the detectives were limited by technology. In one of my favorite scenes of the film the various police departments are trying to work together and share the information they have. Due to their differences in technology, however, they are unable to do so effectively and have to rely on the old technology of mail. Once again it seems as if Fincher is using the plot of the film to send a message about making movies. Are the detectives, and thus filmmakers, too reliant on technology? Or does technology offer the solution to the problems faced by film?

Escalation (and De-Escalation) in Do the Right Thing

The idea of escalating conflicts is explored throughout Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee) as the day escalates in temperature. Buggin’ Out’s initial dispute with Sal (at least literally) starts with a half-dollar argument over how much cheese he gets on his slice of pizza. It then grows into an argument over Black representation in Sal’s Wall of Fame, and further into an argument over Sal’s treatment of the neighborhood and the ownership of his space. Both Sal and Buggin’ believe at each step to be simply responding in kind to the other’s actions, but are in fact taking steps to worsen their conflict. Buggin’s criticism of Sal’s wall in a different context (e.g. after ordering a slice and not arguing over price and value of that slice) would be taken in a completely different manner. Sal seemingly can’t help but take his criticism as a continuation of their argument over pizza and aggressively tells him to leave instead of staying and causing trouble. This escalation continues until Mookie takes Buggin’ out of the store. Neither aggrieved party is willing to de-escalate the situation, and an outside actor in Mookie has to step in to calm things down.

We see similar situations of escalation throughout the film (Radio and the store owners, Mayor and the store owners, Sal’s sons, Mookie and his sister, and of course in Radio and Sal’s confrontation at the end). In all of these cases (maybe not the brothers’). For these situations, neither person/group is necessarily, completely in the wrong (even the police were shown earlier in the film not to “have it out” for the people in Bedsty, though their treatment of Radio Raheem shows racist tendencies). These morally grey situations seem to leave little hope – if neither party is wrong, how can we prevent situations from arising? However, Lee does depict some scenes of de-escalation.

When Buggin’s shoes get scuffed by the biker, the outside parties actually step in and deliberately raise the tension. The biker escalates the situation by being rude to Buggin’s instead of apologizing. Buggin’ has to choose to calm himself down and take no action, rather than escalating the situation further.
We  see Mother Sister and Da Mayor reconcile after years of hostility through Mayor’s gift of flowers, and Mother Sister’s recognition of Da Mayor’s positive qualities.Other resolutions: Mookie and Tina make up, the Korean store owners avoid damage at the hand of the neighborhood, even Sal and Mookie have some kind of resolution at the end in front of a mural showing The American, Jamaican, and Puerto-Rican flags all sandwiched together. In a sense, even the neighborhood’s burning of Sal’s pizza is a de-escalation relative to the loss of a human life.

This write-up was very muddy, but it is a complex topic and my own thoughts and feelings on it aren’t completely settled. I think the most important take way from Lee is that viewing conflicts like these (especially in the context of racially based conflicts) as tit-for-tat is not productive and is missing the heart of the issue. This is especially relevant today, as conversations about violence against Black people get locked into looking at the specific circumstances of these events and not on the larger issues that enable this brand of violence to occur.

Tension and Realism in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing places special emphasis on the nuanced complexities of the interactions that occur across cultural boundaries on a daily basis.  His film shows the beauty and intricacy of life on a block in Bed-Stuy, almost effortlessly developing its characters with depth and complexity.  The argument of the film is centered around the largely conflicting activist arguments of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Lee works to show that violence begets violence, while also asking his audience how else one is to respond to senseless death and institutionalized victimization.  He uses realistic characters with opinions and actions that prevent them from being completely pinned into a single box (good or bad).  In doing so, Lee points to the unavoidable complexity that comes with looking at the humanity in the emotions individuals develop.  Sal frequently shows compassion and camaraderie towards his black neighbors, but when angered he quickly slips into racial slurs that show quite the opposite.

The scene that stands apart from the linear storytelling of the rest of the film, wherein characters yell racial stereotypes towards the camera, is a direct commentary on the narrow line that seems to separate racial and cultural divides.  This scene draws attention to the thinly veiled tension that runs between the individuals cohabitating this neighborhood, a parallel to America at large.  Interestingly, the cool and collected DJ that offers the neighborhood its soundtrack is the only member featured in this scene who comes to the camera, urging everyone to cool down.  However, even this voice of reason cannot fully restrain himself in the aftermath of Radio Raheem’s death, the senseless murder an unavoidable catalyst.  The only remaining voice of reason, Da Mayor, tries to calm the crowd and preserve King’s seemingly herculean love in the face of hatred. This film gives its audience a glimpse into the constant struggle of working to make progress in the face of infuriating circumstances.

What did you think of Spike Lee’s characters?  Did they feel real?  Were their motivations and beliefs well-developed?

Do you think Spike Lee successfully communicated his argument with this film?

The consistent yelling in Do The Right Thing

The characters do a lot to anger each other throughout the film, but the way it is filmed makes the viewer more involved. The most obvious of the techniques used are the shots when people are yelling directly into the camera and at the viewer. Most of the time this happens, the person yelling doesn’t have a point to get across, they are just angry and shouting. To a viewer, getting yelled at for no reason about nothing made me uncomfortable, but we are forced to take it like the characters in the story.

In the picture, these happened back to back and are obviously talking about a person/group but the audience feels attacked in a way because it feels it is still directed at us or we feel involved someway. The first person view also gives us more emotion during the “20 ‘D’ batteries” scene when Radio Raheem is yelling at the camera at a dramatic angle to make us feel small.

On the flip side of being yelled at, there is an element of humor that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Once the viewer gets past the fact they are being yelled at about nothing, they start listening to what the person is saying and it is so ridiculous that it becomes humorous.  Obviously this humor is not for everyone. It took me a while to get past the phase of “stop yelling at me!” and get to just laughing at what they were yelling about. It really was not until the afterwards when watching the “20’D’ batteries” scene again that is struck me how hilarious the whole exchange was.

To me, it felt odd to have a film go from making me uncomfortable and angry to making me laugh after re-watching some scenes. For others, I would like to hear your initial reactions to all the shouting and yelling, and if those reactions changed throughout the film or afterwards. Do you think it changes the way you might feel as a viewer after watching the movie multiple times? Does the viewer getting yelled at build more sympathy for the characters in the story when they get yelled at, or does it desensitize us to it more to whats going on?

“Do the right thing” – But what is right?

While walking out the room after seeing this movie, all I could think was that how similar the film mimicked our current news. How is it after almost 30 years the story is still the same? Society seems to pride itself in so many ways that we have grown and evolved from times like these, where there was such a divide,  but have we? We still live in a world were racial issues are prevalent and we even have our own modern slogan to show for it, “Black Lives Matter”.

Why is are there those who are  still are unable to see that people are just people? No matter their race, religion, ethnicity or gender, we are all the same. I forget sometimes how much inequity there that exists in the world outside the bubble that I live in, because I am surrounded by progressive minds that look beyond the color of someone’s skin. At Georgia Tech we have such a wide range of people and so that bigotry shown in “Do The Right Thing” seems to be non-existent. However, even in 2018 we have police brutality and inequality between race and gender in all sectors of our society. We are still at the point where in the United States we were amazed that we finally had an African American president! This shocks me because why should it matter what  someone’s race is as long as they are qualified to do their job?

I may have a varying view from many others  because I am more or less a pacifist. To me violence and intolerance of others seems like something that would be left in the Middle Ages, because  how can there be an overarching idea in society that one group of people is better than another? How is judgement due on a person because of something (like skin color) that they can’t change? To me, it seems like pure happenstance that we are placed where we are in the world. Say I was in another person’s position, I wouldn’t want to be treated so unjustly? The concept of empathizing  with others might not come naturally to everyone, but violence, in my mind is never the answer. All extreme force does is teach that the powerful deserve the authority and thus have the ability to oppress the weak, when instead we should help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Now, getting down from my soap box and back from that tangent, how does someone even know what the right thing to do is? The title of the movie seems to say it as a statement, that one must do the right thing, but that can be construed in numerous ways depending on a person’s place in the world. In the film, many of the characters seemed to believe they were doing the right thing even thought they all had different opinions on what was correct. Which makes the situation even more complicated when you bring violent acts into the matter. Once violence, such a permanent  response, is enacted there is not an easy way to turn back. Which is why, the movie  ending perturbed me so, because neither side seemed to have a completely  clear vision of the situation but it got even more muddled once the first punch was thrown. Violence escalated the situation to a detrimental point, creating a line that could not be returned form once crossed.

My opinion on the final two credit quotes is probably clear. I believe in the efforts of peaceful protest. I know that not all can be achieved through simple negotiations, but it is certainly  a starting point so that some understand of both sides can be reached. I hope that because as a society, since we thus far have been nescient or maybe just neglect to the facts, we might be to finally learn from the past and stop making these same mistakes. To understand that race should not be a factor to divide, because those superficial characteristics are not what make a person who they are.

(*Extra viewer response)

The Ending of Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing was very inconclusive, which I believe is very reminiscent of solving the racial crisis of today. Many would like to believe that racism no longer exists or is a problem, yet there are scenes from Do the Right Thing  that unfortunately do not look that different from today’s reality. Police brutality against African Americans is active and many people have turned to violence to fight back.

The two quotes at the end of the film suggested two very different approaches to violence and reflected the ideas of some of the characters in the film. Martin Luther King is quoted in support of peace and Malcom X is quoted suggesting that violence can be self-defense and an intelligent answer at times. After the quotes are presented, there is an image of Martin Luther King and Malcom X together, the same one Smiley was trying to sell on the streets.

The contradictory quotes with the visual of the two men pictured together is confusing for a reason. Lee does this to reflect the reality of racial tensions. There is no clear solution. One can not stand by and do nothing but fighting back with violence is also not the answer. These are the two major ideologies presented in the film and ones that it appears the characters try to follow to some degree. The mayor advocates peace and tries to break up violence when it occurs, however it doesn’t change anything. When characters use violence, Radio Raheem ends up dead. The mayor tells Mookie to “do the right thing”, but it seems that no one really knows what the right thing is. Different people have different ideas of what is “right”, therefore no extreme end of the spectrum will ever be the right thing. Each ideology has its own faults. Violence, chaos, and racism seem to prevail regardless of which one is practiced.

This movie really delivered for me on a moral and emotional level, perhaps more so than any film we have watched so far in this class. Throughout the film, I found myself disgusted with racist remarks and slights made by certain characters, but also incredibly disappointed by the turn to violence that many other characters took. Honestly, I never saw a clear solution and that’s such a huge problem that we face today. What can we do? When people are scared of the people that are supposed to protect us and are turning against each other, there is no easy answer. However, we must think about this issue thoughtfully, and this is one of the many important things that Do the Right Thing challenges us to do.