Friday, August 3, 2007

Visualizing Murder: Zodiac and Perfume

Last weekend, I caught up on some movies I missed in the theater earlier this year. Although I didn't intentionally plan it this way, both movies are intense accounts of notorious murderers: Tom Twyker's Perfume: Story of a Murderer and David Fincher's Zodiac. Despite that these films are so different and I that wouldn't ordinarily contrast them if I hadn't seen them on the same weekend, I couldn't help but think of them in relation to each other, especially along the lines of how they each depicted murder, particularly of women. Both films involved male serial killers at different times and places. The narrative focuses are very different, but both films are fascinating in their visualizations of death. How the spectator identifies with the on-screen action is handled uniquely in the case of each film, but both films undoubtedly feature grisly murder scenes that are after much more than sensationalizing violence. These films aren't merely symptomatic of spectatorial obsession with murder but are instead deep inquiries into that fascination. Therefore, each movie is fetishistic of violence in equally disturbing and alluring ways.

In Zodiac, there are three notable murder scenes, all in the first third of the movie, two of which are so suspenseful in their quietness and ambiance. Fincher stages these scenes by primarily focusing on the victims, in both cases a young couple, who are not movie stereotypes. They don't say or do dumb things, but instead feel like they are real, living people, and we are seeing them just before their lives end. Fincher knows the audience is aware of the couples' fate in both scenes, but he takes his time and builds a generally quiet, uneventful atmosphere built on typical conversation. This ordinariness makes the impending murders all the more cold. In the case of the opening scene, we have a more typical serial killer setup, with a young couple in a car overlooking town with the woods behind them. Fincher handles this scene by building quiet suspense, the images are subdued, and yet the spectator is cued to a deeper suspense, like that of watching "mother" walking ever closer to the shower in Psycho, but less visible. When the death occurs, it somehow captures a dramatic beat (as if everything is in slow-motion) and quick shock as if what you cannot believe how everything changes so fast that you cannot process it.

In the next scene, which is arguably more disturbing, a young couple enjoys the calmness of a daylight on the lake. The woman sees someone approaching, shows concerns while her male counterpart pays not attentions. She continually makes reference to this approaching figure, and then instead of a massive shock like before, Fincher draws out an encounter between the killer and the couple, in which points a gun at them. We are inclined to think that it will be a quick murder, like before, especially when he has the woman tie up the man. The killer has a calmness, even a humanity about him, but this changes in shocking fashion when seemingly our of the ordinary, he pulls out a knife and quietly stabs them as they lay, tied up, face down to the ground. They scream in pain, but there is a dreadful realism to it in how the sound of agony and dramatic images are deliberately avoided.

The traditional movie conventions are to play up the screaming when a victim is dying or dramatize the images or sounds. Fincher takes a different approach here, instead maintaining the same visual style previously established. In depicting the violence so plainly, when we're expecting something very different from a conventional standpoint, Fincher captures a voyeuristic crisis of identification and the images are more shocking than they would be if they were more dramatic. This approach would seem appropriate given that the movie examines the rhetorical effects of murder; how it's interpreted, covered, and delivered to people who make sense of it by calling it senseless. Zodiac therefore employs a disjointed style of juxtaposing familiar cinematic conventions of murder, which we all know so well, with deliberately uneventful images of brutal murder.

The effect is chilling. It creates a strange feeling within the spectator, one that both identifies with the killer as well as the victim. Although the movie focuses on the mystery of the killer and the murders are incidental to the rest of the violence-free plot, the incorporation of the murder scenes into the the narrative is both intrusive to its flow and necessary to enable its being. Through these jarring and disturbing scenes, we are provoked to implicitly reflect (knowingly or not) on why we so crave murder mysteries and closure. Some will inevitably claim that the movie "goes too far", but it only offers a dose of realism to typically watered-down violence to which we become desensitized to yet desire all the more as procedural investigations reveal the mysteries of the killer in the end. The movie is an active rumination on our the spectator's insatiable appetite for violence, which just about every spectator would assert is untrue. But Zodiac locates that hypocrisy in its structural and visual style and exploits it.

Perfume, on the other hand, overtly invites you into the pleasures of sensuous desire. It lures you in with sexual overtones before quietly shifting to violence. Despite that the killer is incapable of understanding sexuality, the film links sex and violence together, creating a strange interpretation of each and therefore justifying the taking of life with the innocent but overwhelming sensation of sensual satisfaction. The story centers on a young man, John Baptist-Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), who is gifted with an extraordinary ability of smell. Scents of all kinds are intoxicating to him. He can feel the very essence of pleasure through smelling the variety of aromas -- good and bad -- in 18th century Paris. The film tells the story of how he becomes incapable of understanding anything outside his own pursuit of unending sensual pleasure, which ultimately leads him to murder.

This is best captured early in the movie when Grenouille first walks the streets of Paris, taking in the variety of smells. As others have observed, it's amazing how the film understand the deep connection of sound and image to conjure anything within perceived sensory experience. Through its sounds, images, and music, Perfume is the epitome of sensuous; as Grenouille walks down a street in Paris, the quickly cut close-ups of various objects giving off odors (in which we see every detail) intercut with Grenouille taking it all in is a profound experience of discovery and sensuality.

Shortly thereafter, Grenouille senses a scent that allures him even more: a woman. He captures it from a distance, tracking her down through alleys at night, before he finally sees her. Although he still remains at a distance, the film cuts to incredible close-ups of the woman. In doing so, the images capture and evoke every moving detail of her beauty, from the way her hair touches her skin or the way she holds her basket of fruit. Grenouille is enamored and begins to follow her. At this point the film entirely immerses the spectator into Grenouille's perspective. We become his seemingly innocent stalking presence. As he approaches her -- quietly smelling her from behind -- his nose comes so close to making contact with her skin and the composition pulsates with sensation and pleasure. There is not a bit of dialogue; just pure cinema. It wraps us up in obsession and pure desire.

After she is startled by his presence, she runs away. But he continues to stalk her and he locates her once more. Although he likely has no intention of killing her (since he does not understand feeling or life), he does precisely that in covering her mouth so that she does not alert anyone else to his presence. She struggles within his clutches and he has not the faintest idea that he is draining the life out of her. After she is motionless, he removes her clothing and presses his skin up against hers, taking in her escaping scents. It's a profoundly disturbing scene in its gentleness. The images draws you into its state of innocent lust; you may consciously condemn his actions, but you identify with him and are still inquisitively seeking the pleasure of nostalgia that scent can so easily summon, even for memories and places we may not be able to visualize.

The whole movie is in that four or five scenes. They meld together images and sounds of violence, sensuality, death, and lust in ways that provoke a strange, but compulsive attraction to the images. They would be disturbing if it wasn't so inviting; but then again perhaps that's why it's so disturbing. Therein lies the complexity of the movie. While it doesn't quite sustain itself over its entire running time (that's at least my reaction on one viewing), Perfume is a strange, dark, and fascinating movie.

Both Perfume and Zodiac focus on the famous serial killers, of different times, places, and motivations. The fascination of their stories is how distinctly they explore taking life, life taken, and spectatorial obsessions with watching.

No comments: