Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Making a Murderer

Like seemingly everybody else I know, I recently worked my way through all ten hours of Making a Murderer on Netflix. It’s a compelling series, but as I neared the end, I had the sinking feeling that it wasn’t going to persuade me that Steven Avery, its primary subject, had been framed by the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department for the murder of Teresa Halbach. This wasn’t because the documentary itself didn’t mount a reasonably convincing case: if you’re just watching the show in isolation, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. Once you start poking around online, however, you quickly learn that the filmmakers failed to include evidence that was unfavorable to their thesis, which subtly undermines their whole argument. And the curious thing is that this might not have been true if they had presented it in two hours, instead of ten. It’s easier to forgive the omission of important information if you feel that the work in question is operating under real time constraints: it isn’t always possible to cover every last detail. But this is a show that finds time for plenty of other byways, some of them of questionable taste or relevance—as in its endless scenes of the murder victim’s outraged brother talking to the press, which have the effect of making a totally blameless man seem like a villain. As a result, its lack of full disclosure feels less like a consequence of tough calls in the editing room than a deliberate attempt to slant the issue.

I’m not taking a stand here on Avery’s actual guilt or innocence, since attempting to unpack the details and contradictions of this case amounts to an endless rabbit hole of its own. And I’m not opposed to the show’s argument; I’m just unpersuaded by it. Ultimately, though, I’m more interested in how the show undermines itself, not through what it says, but through two related structural problems: its inordinate length and the easy access that viewers have to information from other sources. The filmmakers must have known that much of the show’s audience would quickly turn to Wikipedia to fill in the blanks, and they probably also suspected that think pieces, hot takes, and rebuttals would sprout up around the series like mushrooms. In that light, the combination of the show’s runtime and its omission of potentially damning evidence—like the fact that genetic material from Avery’s perspiration was found on the hood latch of the victim’s car—isn’t just a tactical mistake, but an aesthetic one. If the show had noted these details, even if it didn’t try to refute them, it would have exposed a weakness in its argument, but at least it would have been localized. Failing to mention them at all has the effect of clouding every other point the series tries to make: we can’t help but wonder what else has been left out, assuming that we’ve spent more than ten minutes looking into the case online. And a lot of viewers have.

Serial

Which raises a larger point about a media environment in which such topics can be treated at a greater length than ever before. As soon as a work passes a certain runtime, it begins to implicitly make a case for its own comprehensiveness, and it becomes harder to defend it from charges that any gaps are either serious artistic mistakes or deliberate omissions. (This applies to more than just matters of fact. Both Making a Murderer and Serial, which draws out its story in a similar fashion, suffer from a lack of attention to the victims of their crimes, who are the most unambiguously tragic figures in both stories. It certainly wasn’t for lack of time, and probably not lack of material, either, given the willingness of both works to spin endless minutes of content from the most gossamer of threads. And it’s a flaw that becomes more glaring the longer the narrative lasts.) It might even be possible to pinpoint when, exactly, a story’s length starts to become a liability. The Jinx lasts for six hours, but it’s admirably free of filler, which makes it easier to argue that certain aspects were left undeveloped because there wasn’t any room—which wouldn’t be the case if it ran for a few hours more. Much the same applies to longform journalism: I don’t doubt that the reaction against “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” would have been just as negative if it had been eight hundred words long, rather than twelve thousand, but its length makes its distortions and blind spots even harder to forgive.

And this means that writers and filmmakers need to be very careful with the gift they’ve been given of their audience’s extended attention span. Viewers who might never even consider sitting through the nine hours of Shoah in theaters—as I did in Chicago a few years ago—are willing to devote twice that to a podcast, but that investment of time demands a correspondingly rigorous level of credibility. (As it happens, Shoah itself is one of the few documentaries of that length that makes no claim to completeness: its long stretches of silence, its pauses, and its attention to the process of testimony and translation remind us of how its subject is too big for any one work to adequately explore.) This standard may seem unrealistically high, but journalists and documentarians need to take it into account, especially when it’s combined with the access their viewers have to other sources. Nothing stands on its own any more, which means, paradoxically, that works of nonfiction above a certain length have to strive to be even more comprehensive if we’re going to take them seriously. The converse also holds true: if you need to omit certain inconvenient details to make your case, you’re better off framing it in as brief a space as possible. Making a Murderer evidently has its heart in the right place, and it managed to persuade a lot of people. In fundamental ways, much of it may turn out to be correct. But it would have done better by Steven Avery, and Teresa Haibach, if it had devoted a fraction of those ten hours to raising the questions that would have come up anyway.

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2016 at 9:51 am

Posted in Television

Tagged with , , ,

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