Perhaps because the industry is in such a profound slump, I find myself a sucker for newspaper nostalgia — not the “Deadline USA” artifacts of glue pots and fedoras, but the era I was only able to glimpse the tail end of in my earliest days in the biz, that is, the one portrayed in “Zodiac,” a murder mystery in which the San Francisco Chronicle plays a major role.
I’m not a fan of David Fincher — hated “Fight Club,” sorry kids, and thought “Seven” was just tiresome — but with “Zodiac,” I’m softening. It presented a picture of crime I recognize from my newspaper days, and one that stands in opposition to “Seven.” Serial killers tend not to be mad geniuses recreating crime scenes based on Renaissance paintings of the sacrifice of Isaac, say, but just nasty assholes with guns. Crimes are solved, when they are, based on either dumb mistakes made by killers (who tend to be pretty dumb themselves) or lots of not-particularly-cinematic legwork by police. Frequently they’re not solved at all, technically; cases remain open even though cops tell you confidentially that they know who did it, they just don’t have enough evidence to convict. That’s the case of the Zodiac killer, where the circumstantial evidence pointed overwhelmingly to one man, although (we learn in an ending-title sequence) later DNA evidence was inconclusive. That’s how much real crime is — inconclusive, but not.
Like “Mad Men,” “Zodiac” is a painstaking period piece, and it’s possible to get lost in the scrupulousness of its detail — hey, I remember those two-tone mailboxes! Blue IBM selectrics! Corvairs! — and forget what’s going on. But that’s just as well, because what’s going on is a more true-to-life police procedural than most, in the sense that we see not cutting-edge forensics or amazing-coincidence investigations, but turf battles, bureaucratic meddling, reportorial screwups, tough breaks — the usual. A review I read at the time said it “feels long and is meant to feel long.” Titles flash by every couple of minutes: “Two and a half weeks later,” “Four months later,” “Four years later.” The case, like the movie, drags on. Sixties set design gives way to seventies, and then to ’80s. (The main character, as if to underline his obsession-to-the-point-of-lunacy, continues to drive an orange Rabbit through most of these years.)
As this is a true story, I’m not spoiling it to say the conclusion is ambiguous. The star reporter gives in to egomania, then dies of emphysema. (Yes, the smoke-filled newsroom is like a character in and of itself.) The cartoonist loses his job, apparently because of his obsession with the Zodiac case, but we know he would have been dead meat long before this — cartoonists? Like the budget has money for that. But the scene that really got me was one where Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the straight-arrow cartoonist, passes by the bar where Robert Downey, the wastrel reporter, is washing off the day with 80 proof whiskey, along with what looks like half the staff, and they are having a high old time. That’s what I want to remember about newspapers. Not the booze, which took down its share of good people and bad, but the fun. The table in the nearby bar, with the stories you couldn’t get in the paper.
And the movie version of the Chronicle city room was nowhere near as grungy and disorderly as the actual city room. There must have been photographs of the 1969 version around; maybe the moviemakers thought the real thing would be too distracting. (“The truth? You can’t handle the truth.”) The place was awash in paper. The desks were stained and dented. The pillars, shown in the movie as pristine, were covered with old front pages, amusing memos, girlie pictures — was it a hostile environment for women? You bet, but then, so was everywhere else.
The movie shows a little drug use on the premises, which is accurate, more than accurate. There was one reporter who made more or less a full-time living dealing dope. And there was a lot of on-the-job drinking, some of it, like wine-soaked birthday celebrations, entirely sanctioned. And a bar called Hanno’s was virtually an extension of The Chronicle — its telephone number was even printed in the interoffice directory.
The 1969 Chronicle was closer, in both time and ambience, to the Ben Hecht-“His Girl Friday” city rooms of the late ’30s than to the heavily cubicled, almost-tidy room of today.
Dogfighting in Detroit. Everything you probably didn’t want to know. The accompanying video is excellent, more proof that sometimes print people do TV better than TV people. Usage note: The story at that link contains the phrase “gnashes its teeth” in the lead. May I see the hands of those who know precisely what teeth-gnashing is, and think that is, indeed, what the dog was doing? Thought so. My dictionary says, “to grind one’s teeth together, typically in a sign of anger.” Just a nitpick. What-evuh.
Another usage note: Who can tell me what “angst” means? It’s a German word for…? Anyone? Yes, anxiety. That is, fear. Nowadays it’s a catch-all term for anything that means “not happy.” I’ve given up on this one.
Back later. Have at it.