Posts Tagged ‘Errol Morris’
A few months ago, I wrote a short blog post about Lawrence Schiller, the photographer, packager, and all-around hustler who famously collaborated with Norman Mailer on such books as The Executioner’s Song. I’d started thinking about Schiller again thanks to the birthday video he directed decades ago for Kris Jenner as a favor to her husband Robert Kardashian, which resurfaced recently online. And I was intrigued enough by the connection to dig a little further into Schiller and his work, which includes a massive tome called American Tragedy, billed as “the uncensored story of the O.J. Simpson defense.” I had a plane trip and a few quiet weeks coming up, so I snared a copy. And I devoured it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I moved on to Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, another “uncensored story,” this one about the JonBenét Ramsey case, which I never thought I’d want to read about again. After just a couple of days, I’ve already burned halfway through it. (American Tragedy sheds additional light, incidentally, on Schiller’s relationship with Kardashian, which I mischaracterized slightly in my initial post. I’d thought that Schiller and Kardashian simply moved in the same circles, but it turns out that they met each other through their ex-wives. And Stephanie Schiller even ended up working with Kris Jenner on the “little team of elves” that revived her husband Bruce’s career in the early nineties—which is just another example of the tangled connections that you find everywhere in Schiller’s life.)
It isn’t hard to figure out what makes Schiller’s books so compelling. Both American Tragedy and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town exist almost entirely in the present tense, with any backstory minimized in favor of a methodical, understated accumulation of detail and incident that Schiller seems to have learned from Mailer: they read like The Executioner’s Song with all the poetry removed. They aren’t great works of art, but there’s something undeniably seductive about the smooth way in which they feed information to the reader about such insanely complicated stories. Schiller also has genuine talents as a reporter, even if his methods and his relationships with his subjects raise questions of their own. (He got to know the O.J. Simpson team, for instance, while ghostwriting Simpson’s book I Want to Tell You, and he even helped to clean up, edit, and assemble the audio recordings of Mark Furhman’s racist statements that were played in court—a degree of involvement that would be unthinkable for most conventional journalists.) American Tragedy is loaded with stories and insights that I’d either forgotten or never known, particularly about the crucial role played by Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, in raising reasonable doubt about the blood evidence. And it leaves me in a peculiar position as Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres tomorrow: I’ve relived every aspect of this case so recently that I don’t think I have the capacity to take any more. Except, of course, that I probably do.
As a culture, we’ve developed a newfound fixation on a certain kind of true crime story, embodied first of all by Serial, then by The Jinx, and these days by Making a Murderer, of which I’ve watched five out of ten episodes so far. (The fact that the second season of Serial, which abandons the crime angle, has received a fraction of the attention of the first indicates that listeners were drawn more to the story of Adnan and Hae than to anything about Sarah Koenig’s methods.) Like Schiller’s books, which run to close to a thousand pages in paperback, the podcast and miniseries formats allow cases to be examined at extravagant length, until we feel as if we’re being injected with a slow drip of names, dates, and circumstantial evidence. I’ve noted before that a filmmaker like Errol Morris could have covered the same ground as Serial—and Making a Murderer—in less than two hours, but I’ve since come to realize that the expansive runtime is part of the point. Such stories, like the conspiracy theories into which they often imperceptibly shade, satisfy a fundamental craving we have for information, at a time when processing and making sense of the facts at our disposal has begun to feel like a central challenge of modern life. We’re drawn to detective stories for much the same reason, but a true crime provides us with more details than a fictional one would ever dare, along with the tantalizing prospect of a hidden order visible if we just look at the clues from the right angle. And it’s only when the case is developed on an epic scale that it offers us the illusion that we can make sense of it ourselves.
Because it is an illusion, and it’s one to which a murder mystery lends itself particularly well. We can absorb thousands of details about an unsolved homicide to an extent that we generally can’t about, say, foreign policy or climate change, because the vivid nature of the crime generates a kind of electrical field in which all the pieces can align. (It’s why David Fincher, whose films, as I noted last week, are often about their own complexity, has been drawn to no fewer than three different stories about serial killers, to the point where, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he insisted on using the term “serial murderer” instead, as if no one would notice that he was revisiting the same territory.) And it’s the futility of the search itself that we find so compelling. My return last year to the true crime genre came courtesy of Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a book so compulsively disturbing and fascinating that I almost wish I hadn’t read it. Those familiar with the Jeffrey MacDonald case know that it’s a bottomless pit that has swallowed up investigators like McGinniss, Janet Malcolm, and even Errol Morris himself. But it’s the messy, exasperating, unsolvable cases that obsess us the most. It’s only when the evidence refuses to come together into a coherent picture, extending the search indefinitely, that we can turn it into an obsession—a fact I find more intriguing than any of the mediations on the nature of truth that Koening provided at the end of Serial. Facts multiply, interpretations collide, patterns emerge and disappear, but only after a critical mass of information has been achieved. And the rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What non-comic creative type do you want to see make a comic?”
Earlier this year, I discovered Radio: An Illustrated Guide, the nifty little manual written by cartoonist Jessica Abel and Ira Glass of This American Life. At the time, the book’s premise struck me as a subtle joke in its own right, and I wrote:
The idea of a visual guide to radio is faintly amusing in itself, particularly when you consider the differences between the two art forms: comics are about as nonlinear a medium as you can get between two covers, with the reader’s eye prone to skip freely across the page.
The more I think about it, though, the more it seems to me that these two art forms share surprising affinities. They’re both venerable mediums with histories that stretch back for close to a century, and they’ve both positioned themselves in relation to a third, invisible other, namely film and television. On a practical level, whether its proponents like it or not, both radio and comics have come to be defined by the ways in which they depart from what a movie or television show can do. In the absence of any visual cues, radio has to relentlessly manage the listener’s attention—”Anecdote then reflection, over and over,” as Glass puts it—and much of the grammar of the comic book emerged from attempts to replicate, transcend, and improve upon the way images are juxtaposed in the editing room.
And smart practitioners in both fields have always found ways of learning from their imposing big brothers, while remaining true to the possibilities that their chosen formats offer in themselves. As Daniel Clowes once said:
To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence.
Meanwhile, the success of a podcast like Serial represents both an attempt to draw upon the lessons of modern prestige television and a return to the roots of this kind of storytelling. Radio has done serialized narratives better than any other art form, and Serial, for all its flaws, was an ambitious attempt to reframe those traditions in a shape that spoke to contemporary listeners.
What’s a little surprising is that we haven’t witnessed a similar mainstream renaissance in nonfiction comics, particularly from writers and directors who have made their mark in traditional documentaries. Nonfiction has always long been central to the comic format, of course, ranging from memoirs like Maus or Persepolis to more didactic works like Logicomix or The Cartoon History of the Universe. More recently, webcomics like The Oatmeal or Randall Munroe’s What If? have explained complicated issues in remarkable ways. What I’d really love to see, though, are original works of documentary storytelling in comic book form, the graphic novel equivalent of This American Life. You could say that the reenactments we see in works like Man on Wire or The Jinx, and even the animated segments in the films of Brett Morgen, are attempts to push against the resources to which documentaries have traditionally been restricted, particularly when it comes to stories set in the past—talking heads, archive footage, and the obligatory Ken Burns effect. At times, such reconstructions can feel like cheating, as if the director were bristling at having to work with the available material. Telling such stories in the form of comics instead would be an elegant way of circumventing those limitations while remaining true to the medium’s logic.
And certain documentaries would work even better as comics, particularly if they require the audience to process large amounts of complicated detail. Serial, with its endless, somewhat confusing discussions of timelines and cell phone towers, might have worked better as a comic book, which would have allowed readers to review the chain of events more easily. And a director like Errol Morris, who has made brilliant use of diagrams and illustrations in his published work, would be a natural fit. There’s no denying that some documentaries would lose something in the translation: the haunted face of Robert Durst in The Jinx has a power that can’t be replicated in a comic panel. But comics, at their best, are an astonishing way of conveying and managing information, and for certain stories, I can’t imagine anything more effective. We’re living in a time in which we seem to be confronting complex systems every day, and as a result, artists of all kinds have begun to address what Zadie Smith has called the problem of “how the world works,” with stories that are as much about data, interpretation, and information overload as about individual human beings. For the latter, narrative formats that can offer us a real face or voice may still hold an edge. But for many of the subjects that documentarians in film, television, or radio will continue to tackle, the comics may be the best solution they’ll ever have.
In the weeks since the devastating finale of The Jinx, the conversation around Andrew Jarecki’s brilliant HBO documentary—which played a crucial role in the arrest for murder of millionaire Robert Durst—has revolved around one of two themes. The first uses The Jinx as a club to beat what remains of the legacy of Serial: we’re told that this is how you tell an extended nonfiction crime story, with a series of tense, surprising revelations building to a conclusion more definitive than any viewer could have imagined. The second, more problematic discussion centers on the inconsistencies in the show’s timeline. It’s a tangled issue, outlined most capably by Kate Aurthur at Buzzfeed, but it seems clear that the filmmakers deliberately misrepresented the timing of their own interactions with Durst, playing with the chronology to create a sense of cause and effect that didn’t exist. This would be troubling enough in itself, but it also raises questions about when and how the producers decided to bring crucial evidence to the police. And while it isn’t enough to diminish Jarecki’s achievement—this is still by far the best television of any kind I’ve watched all year—it can’t help but complicate my feelings about it.
Yet the more you look at those two streams of opinion, the more they feel like variations on the same fact. What separates The Jinx from Serial isn’t artistry, intelligence, or even luck, but the fact that the former show was painstakingly edited together over a long period of postproduction, while the latter was thrown together on the fly. The Jinx goes out of its way to disguise how long its filming lasted, but it appears, at minimum, to have covered four years, two of which came after its final interview with Durst. It results in one of the most beautifully assembled works of nonfiction narrative I’ve ever seen: there’s never any sense, as we often see in other documentaries, that the filmmakers are scrambling to fill gaps in the footage. Each interview subject is presented as articulate and intelligent, without a trace of condescension, and each is allowed to say his or her piece. It’s all here, and it fits together like a fine watch. (There’s a fascinating, unspoken subtext involving the role of wealth on both sides of the camera. Durst’s alleged crimes may have been enabled by his fortune, but so was the investigation: Jarecki, who comes from a wealthy family and became a millionaire himself thanks to his involvement in the founding of Moviefone, has long used his own resources to fund explorations into the darkest sides of human nature, and it’s doubtful if another director would have had the time or ability to dwell as long on a single subject.)
And it’s hard to understate the importance of time in this kind of storytelling. The two great variables in any documentary are chance and organization: either the director stumbles across a fantastic piece of material, as Jarecki did with Capturing the Friedmans, or he fits something more recalcitrant into a beautiful shape, as Errol Morris has done consistently for decades. In both cases, time is the critical factor. Obviously, the longer you spend—or the more footage you shoot—on any subject, the greater the odds of collecting a few precious fragments of serendipity: a twist in a human life, a big revelation, an indelible moment caught on camera. It can take the same amount of time, or more, to figure out how to structure the story. Jarecki had the financial means to stick with Durst for as long as necessary, but documentarians with far fewer resources have pulled it off out of sheer will: Crumb, perhaps the best documentary ever made, was shot over a period of nine years, much of which director Terry Zwigoff spent in crippling poverty and physical pain. Shoah took eleven years: six for production, five for editing. I’ve noted before that there seems to be a fixed amount of time in which a work of art has to percolate in the creator’s brain, and for documentaries, that rendering period needs to be multiplied by a factor of five.
The real question, then, is whether Serial might have left us with an impression like that of The Jinx, if it had been edited and refined for years before being released in its entirety. I think the answer is yes. Take the exact same material, boil it down to four hours, construct it so that instead of coming in and out of focus it saved its most devastating questions and answers for the end, and the result would have felt like a definitive case for Adnan Syed’s innocence, whether or not it was right. This is more or less exactly what The Jinx does. (I don’t know why the filmmakers fudged the timeline so blatantly—you could lift out the offending sequence entirely without making the finale any less compelling—but I suspect it had something to do with hanging on to some juicy footage while still ending on Durst’s accidental confession. Once you make the smart decision to conclude the series there, it’s easy for chronological juggling to shade into outright trickery.) Which only reminds us that what Serial tried to accomplish, doing in real time what other forms of storytelling spend years perfecting in private, was close to inherently impossible. I don’t know what form Serial will take next season, and there’s no question that its structure, with the story evolving in public from week to week, was a huge selling point in its favor. But when it comes to telling a satisfying story, it may have already jinxed itself.
On January 13, 1999, a teenage girl named Hae Min Lee disappeared in Baltimore. The following month, shortly after her body was discovered, her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged with her murder. Listeners of Serial, the extraordinary radio series currently unfolding on NPR, know exactly how much this bare description leaves unsaid. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the case itself, and in any event, there are plenty of resources available for those who want to dive into the intricacies of cell phone towers and whether or not there was a pay phone at that particular Best Buy. As a writer, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of Serial itself. As far as I know, it’s an unprecedented experiment in any medium, an ongoing nonfiction narrative unspooling before an audience of millions. Producer Sarah Koenig has said that she doesn’t know how the series will end, or even what will happen from one week to the next, but this doesn’t mean she lacks information available to others: it’s the shape it will take and her ultimate conclusions that remain unclear. As such, it’s not so different from any kind of serial narrative, whether it’s Tom Wolfe writing The Bonfire of the Vanities week by week, Stephen King publishing installments of The Green Mile without knowing the ending, or even my own experience of writing a trilogy with only the vaguest idea of its final form.
The difference is that Serial is centered on factual events, and the obsessiveness, verging on paranoia, that it encourages in its audience can’t be separated from Koenig’s own efforts to resolve the tangle of problems she has imposed on herself. And its fascination lies less in any particular detail or narrative element than in the overall mindset it encourages. It implicates the listener in Koenig’s own uncertainty, in which every fact, no matter how unambiguous, can be read in at least two ways. To take one minor example: Koenig notes that after Hae’s disappearance, Adnan never tried to page her, despite the fact that he’d called her at home three times the night before she disappeared. On its face, this seems suspicious, as if Adnan knew that Hae could no longer be reached. Think about it a little longer, though, and the detail inverts itself: if Adnan were really the “charming sociopath” that prosecutors implied he was, paging Hae after her murder would have provided a convenient indication of his innocence. The fact that it never occurred to him becomes, paradoxically, a point in his favor. Or maybe not. Everything in Serial starts to take on this double significance: Koenig refers to the case as a Rubik’s Cube she’s trying to solve, but an even better analogy might be that of a Necker cube, which oscillates constantly between one of two readings. We even sense this in the way Koenig talks about her own objectives. In the beginning, it feels like a quest for Adnan’s exoneration, but as her doubts continue to multiply, it becomes less a crusade than a search for clarity of any kind.
Perhaps inevitably, then, Serial occasionally suffers from the same qualities that make it so addictive, and it often undermines the very clarity it claims to be seeking. Listening to it, I’m frequently reminded of the work of Errol Morris, who exonerated a man wrongfully convicted of murder in The Thin Blue Line and has gone on to explore countless aspects of information, memory, and the interpretation of evidence. But Morris would have covered the relevant points in two densely packed hours, while Koenig is closing in on fifteen hours or more. Sometimes the length of time granted by the serial format allows her to explore interesting byways, like the odd backstory of “Mr. S,” who discovered Hae’s body; elsewhere, it feels a little like padding. Koenig devotes most of an episode, for instance, to Deirdre Enright, who runs the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law School, but they spend the better part of ten minutes simply commiserating over material we’ve seen before. Morris would have introduced Enright with a brief explanatory caption, given her two vivid minutes on screen, and moved on. Serial is never anything less than absorbing, but there’s often a sense that its expansive runtime has allowed it to avoid the hard choices that other nonfiction narratives demand. As a result, we’re sometimes left with the suspicion that our own confusions have less to do with the ambiguity of the case than with the sheer amount of information—not all of it relevant—we’re being asked to process.
But that’s part of the point. Koenig herself becomes one of her most provocative characters: she has a nice, dry, ingratiating manner that encourages an unusual degree of intimacy with her interview subjects, but her sheer fluency as a radio personality sometimes leaves us questioning how much of that closeness is an illusion. Which is exactly how we’re meant to feel about everyone involved. For me, the most memorable moment in the entire series comes courtesy of Adnan himself, speaking by phone from Maryland Correctional Facility:
I feel like I want to shoot myself if I hear someone else say, I don’t think he did it cause you’re a nice guy, Adnan…I would love someone to say, I don’t think that you did it because I looked at the case and it looks kind of flimsy. I would rather someone say, Adnan, I think you’re a jerk, you’re selfish, you know, you’re a crazy SOB, you should just stay in there for the rest of your life except that I looked at your case and it looks, you know, like a little off. You know, like something’s not right.
If Serial has a message, it’s that it’s necessary to look past our instinctively good or bad impressions of a person to focus on the evidence itself, even if this defies what we’ve been programmed to do as human beings. At its best, it’s a show about how inadequate our intuitions can be when faced with reality in all its complexity, which turns the search for clarity itself into a losing game. It’s a game we’ve all been playing long before the show began, and regardless of how it ends, we’ll be playing it long after it’s over.
Somewhere in his useful and opinionated book Trial and Error, the legendary pulp writer Jack Woodford says that if you feel that your work isn’t as good as the fiction you see in stores, there’s a simple test to see if this is actually true. Take a page from a recent novel you admire—or one that has seen big sales or critical praise—and type the whole thing out unchanged. When you see the words in your own typewriter or computer screen, stripped of their superficial prettiness, they suddenly seem a lot less impressive. There’s something about professional typesetting that elevates even the sloppiest prose: it attains a kind of dignity and solidity that can be hard to see in its unpublished form. It isn’t just a story now; it’s an art object. And restoring it to the malleable, unpolished medium of a manuscript page often reveals how arbitrary the author’s choices really were, just as we tend to be hard on our own work because our rough drafts don’t look as nice as the stories we see in print.
There’s something undeniably mysterious about how visual cues affect the way we think about the words we’re reading, whether they’re our own or others. Daniel Kahneman has written about how we tend to read texts more critically when they’re printed in unattractive fonts, and Errol Morris recently ran an online experiment to test this by asking readers for their opinions about a short written statement, without revealing that some saw it in Baskerville and others in Comic Sans. (Significantly more of those who read it in Baskerville thought the argument was persuasive, while those who saw it in Comic Sans were less impressed, presumably because they were too busy clawing out their eyes.) Kindle, as in so many other respects, is the great leveler: it strips books of their protective sheen and forces us to evaluate them on their own merits. And I’d be curious to see a study on how the average review varies between those who read a novel in print and those who saw it in electronic form.
This is is also why I can’t bear to read my own manuscripts in anything other than Times New Roman, which is the font in which they were originally composed. When I’m writing a story, I’m primarily thinking about the content, yes, but I’m also consciously shaping how the text appears on the screen. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve acquired a lot of odd tics and aversions from years spent staring at my own words on a computer monitor, and I’ve evolved just as many strategies for coping. I don’t like the look of a ragged right margin, for instance, so all my manuscripts are justified and hyphenated, at least until they go out to readers. I generally prefer it when the concluding line of a paragraph ends somewhere on the left half of the page, and I’ll often rewrite the text accordingly. And I like my short lines of dialogue to be exactly one page width long. All this disappears, of course, the second the manuscript is typeset, but as a way of maintaining my sanity throughout the writing process, these rituals play an important role.
And I don’t seem to mind their absence when I finally see my work in print, which introduces another level of detachment: these words don’t look like mine anymore, but someone else’s. (There are occasional happy exceptions: by sheer accident, the line widths in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 29 happen to exactly match the ones I use at home, so “The Boneless One” looks pretty much like it did on my computer, down to the shape of the paragraphs.) Last week, I finally received an advance copy of my novel Eternal Empire, hot off the presses, and I was struck by how little it felt like a book I’d written. Part of this is because it’s been almost a year since I finished the first draft, I’ve been working on unrelated projects since then, and a lot has happened in the meantime. But there’s also something about the cold permanence of the printed page that keeps me at arm’s length from my work. Once a story can no longer be changed, it ceases to be quite as alive as it once was. It’s still special. But it’s no longer a part of you.
As I see it, two lessons can be drawn from the Mike Daisey fiasco: 1. If a story seems too good to be true, it probably is. 2. A “journalist” who makes himself the star of his own story is automatically suspect. This last point is especially worth considering. I’ve spoken before about the importance of detachment toward one’s own work, primarily as a practical matter: the more objective you are, the more likely you are to produce something that will be of interest to others. But there’s an ethical component here as well. Every writer, by definition, has a tendency toward self-centeredness: if we didn’t believe that our own thoughts and feelings, or at least our modes of expression, were exceptionally meaningful, we wouldn’t feel compelled to share them. When properly managed, this need to impose our personalities on the world is what results in most works of art. Left unchecked, it can lead to arrogance, solipsism, and a troubling tendency to insert ourselves into the spotlight. This isn’t just an artistic shortcoming, but a moral one. John Gardner called it frigidity: an inability to see what really counts. And frigidity paired with egotism is a dangerous combination.
Simply put, whenever an author, especially of a supposed work of nonfiction, makes himself the star of a story where he obviously doesn’t belong, it’s a warning sign. This isn’t just because it reveals a lack of perspective—a refusal to subordinate oneself to the real source of interest, which is almost never the author himself—but because it implies that other compromises have been made. Mike Daisey is far from the worst such offender. Consider the case of Greg Mortenson, who put himself at the center of Three Cups of Tea in the most self-flattering way imaginable, and was later revealed not only to have fabricated elements of his story, but to have misused the funds his charity raised as a result. At first glance, the two transgressions might not seem to have much in common, but the root cause is the same: a tendency to place the author’s self and personality above all other considerations. On one level, it led to self-aggrandizing falsehood in a supposed memoir; on another, to a charity that spent much of its money, instead of building schools, on Mortenson’s speaking tours and advertisements for his books.
It’s true that some works of nonfiction benefit from the artist’s presence: I wouldn’t want to take Werner Herzog out of Grizzly Man or Claude Lanzmann out of Shoah. But for the most part, documentaries that place the filmmaker at the center of the action should raise our doubts as viewers. Sometimes it leads to a blurring of the message, as when Michael Moore’s ego overwhelms the valid points he makes. Occasionally, it results in a film like Catfish, in which the blatant self-interest of the filmmakers taints the entire movie. And it’s especially problematic in films that try to tackle complex social issues. (It took me a long time to see past the director’s presence in The Cove, for instance, to accept it as the very good movie it really is. But it would have been even better without the director’s face onscreen.)
One could argue, of course, that all forms of journalism, no matter how objective, are implicitly written in the first person, and that every documentary is shaped by an invisible process of selection and arrangement. Which is true enough. But a real artist expresses himself in his choice of details in the editing room, not by inserting himself distractingly into the frame. We rarely, if ever, see Errol Morris in his own movies, while David Simon—who manifestly does not suffer from a lack of ego—appears in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets only in the last couple of pages. These are men with real personalities and sensibilities who express themselves unforgettably in the depiction of other strong personalities in their movies and books. In the end, we care about Morris and Simon because they’ve made us care about other people. They’ve earned the right to interest us in their opinions through the painstaking application of craft, not, like Mortenson or Daisey, with self-promoting fabrication. There will always be exceptions, but in most cases, an artist’s best approach lies in invisibility and detachment. Because in the end, you’re only as interesting as the facts you present.