Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Analog Nation


Watching Zodiac, it's hard not to feel wistful about that age when information was a highly regarded commodity -- it was not at our fingertips, but usually at the library or in an encyclopedia. Much attention has been paid to David Fincher's brilliant portrayal of the limits of pre-Internet crime work (Matt Zoller Seitz and Jim Emerson have great posts about this topic) and how it may have helped one of the most notorious killers slip through the cracks, but the scenes that really fascinated me were those which portrayed the San Francisco Chronicle offices of the 1970s. Although I loved the movie, the selfish newspaper man in me wanted Fincher to show more of the wonder of following such a glamorous case in the primitive print age before computers.

Thankfully Fincher lets us spend a great deal of time in the Chronicle newsroom, which except for computers replacing typewriters is probably exactly how the Chronicle looks today (newsrooms are like grocery stores -- they're all different, but the same -- every daily newsroom has mostly wall-less workspaces with tons of flourescent lighting). One detail I loved really showed how Fincher did his homework: did you spy the pneumatic tubes in the background of the newsroom? I can't imagine how cool that would be to use those in a frantic environment like that, and I was praying that Fincher would give us a shot of Greysmith or Avery getting some urgent message through the pneumatic tube.

But back to what Fincher didn't show, and what I've been imagining ever since I saw Zodiac. The methods newspapers used to put their product together back then is as dead as the dinosaurs -- even the small weekly in Santa Claus, Indiana has upgraded to today's modern plating and printing technology. Before the digital age of newspaper production, things were harder, but also more romantic and artistic -- and if you want a good idea of how it was done, watch the opening credits sequence in the 1974 Billy Wilder classic The Front Page. That movie took place in the 1920s, but the methods and technology that the Chronicle used in the 1970s virtually the same.

(I realize I'm getting away from anything relating to film, but stay with me, I'm building to something ... I think)

My favorite newspaper line of any movie is in Superman: The Movie when Perry White says to Jimmy Olsen, 'take this to composition!' Back when Superman was made, there was actually something called the composition department, but now if you walk into a newspaper and ask for this area, you will only get blank stares. The composition department represented what today is handled with a single mouse, and in the early 20th century it utilized the linotype -- which some call one of the most complicated machines ever invented, and in the 70s had evolved to the more high-tech phototypesetting.

For a newspaper junkie like me, I immediately connected the technological brick walls the various police departments in Zodiac were smashing into, with the similar 'impairments' that Graysmith, Avery and co. had to hurdle at their day job inside the newspaper. Just as detectives today would go apeshit having to ferry from precinct to precinct in search of one file folder, today's reporters and copy editors would be lost inside the Chronicle newsroom of the 1970s. This is why I was quietly hoping for a quick scene in the primitive composition department for a shot of the next day's Zodiac headline before it went to print.

Zodiac takes us back to a time when the value of information was peaking, and it was anyone's for the taking -- be it police or journalists. It's a police movie first, but I would have loved to see more of the newspaper side -- possibly the pressure of the Chronicle wanting Avery's stories to remain exclusive, without the other Bay Area dailies being tipped off or the Associated Press jumping in.

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Something along these lines had been stuck in my head even before I saw Zodiac -- do we take for granted the pleasures that the pre-Internet age offered? What about in regards to movie watching? It's hard to imagine life without IMDB.com, endless reviews and the film blog community. I would say that the Internet has enhanced my film tastes, because I've been turned on to so many movies that I wouldn't have ordinarily discovered. Also, you can't underestimate how much the Web has enhanced the buildup for movies, since we have knowledge of productions seemingly when they're just a concept on a wall. I've debated how a blog-a-thon on this subject could work, but I'm still narrowing down just what the exact topic would be. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Ray said...

I loved that about "Zodiac" as well. Also, I got all wistful watching the opening scene, a panning shot of a street on July 4, 1969... everyone in their yards, walking the dog together, talking and laughing ... it was a very different, friendlier and more secure time in America.

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