Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kris Jenner

The lure of true crime

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American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller

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.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

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.

The Ex-Kardashian’s Song

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Kris Jenner

A couple of weeks ago, the Kardashian family released a new video. (If you’re already tuning out, please stick around—it’s going to be worth it, I promise.) It was a birthday tribute to matriarch Kris Jenner, in the form of a remake of a short vanity film that Jenner herself had made decades earlier. And while the media lavished most of its attention on the new version, written and recorded by the Kardashian sisters and featuring cameos from the likes of Justin Bieber, I found myself much more intrigued by the older clip, which has been kicking around online for a few years. It’s a remarkably guileless celebration of its subject’s looks, wealth, and connections, disguised as a love letter to her friends, as sung to the tune of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” Watching it now, it’s hard not to think about the strange places that life would take her, or to wonder at the change in her routine implied by the original lyrics, which mention the Cheesecake Factory, Bible study, and church on Sundays. The images of her “friends,” which include brief glimpses of Michael Jackson and O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson, carry an unavoidable charge of their own. But the moment that made me really sit up and take notice came at the very end, as the credits began to roll: Directed by Lawrence Schiller. And in all the cheeky coverage that the video and its remake have inspired, nobody seems to have mentioned the Schiller connection, which in many ways is the most surprising detail of all.

Who is Lawrence Schiller? He’s one of the great hustlers and characters of the twentieth century, a man often compared to a mercenary version of Forrest Gump, and for good reason. Schiller began his career as an enterprising photographer and ambulance chaser who first gained fame with his shots of Marilyn Monroe’s nude swim on the set of Something’s Got to Give. Later, he used his natural shrewdness to get everything from Jack Ruby’s last interview—which he snuck into Ruby’s hospital room to obtain—to an exclusive with Sharon Atkins of the Manson family. To most readers, he’s best remembered for his collaborations with Norman Mailer on no fewer than seven projects, most notably The Executioner’s Song. (Schiller got the life rights to Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole, brought in Mailer as a writer for hire, and conducted most of the interviews and background research. He appears as a major character in the second half of the novel itself, and later directed the miniseries of the same name, which provided a breakthrough role for Tommy Lee Jones.) His relationship to Mailer, whose estate he currently oversees, is neatly described by Peter Manso in the exquisitely bitchy afterword to Mailer: His Life and Times:

Like most hustlers [Schiller] was smart, full of nerve and combativeness, and what was most obvious was that he enjoyed his reputation as an independent who refused to play by other people’s rules…“Norman, I’ve just signed up so-and-so. You interested?” Schiller might offer, operating as a one-man production office, talent agency, and cash register, and if it was a Yeah, the high-energy dealmaker would scurry off to take care of all the details. Then boom, there it was, a new project on the table. How could Norman resist?

Lawrence Schiller

And his connection to the Kardashians is even more implausible. Schiller was friends with Robert Kardashian, an entertainment businessman and lawyer in Los Angeles who moved in similar circles. He had also been neighbors in Bel Air with O.J. Simpson. (An old profile from the Los Angeles Times notes: “Schiller had also once directed O.J. in a music video”—apparently a reference to the Jenner birthday film—”as a favor to their mutual friend Robert Kardashian.”) When the Simpson trial began, Schiller was more than ready to pounce: with the blessing of Kardashian, by then a member of the defense team, he spent thirty hours interviewing O.J. in jail, and he ghostwrote the resulting book I Want to Tell You. After the verdict, Schiller performed one of the great about-faces in the history of journalism, spinning his access to the Simpson defense into the book American Tragedy, which is best known for its account of a lie detector test that Simpson failed two days after the murders. The book and its subsequent adaptation as a miniseries, which Norman Mailer wrote, led to Simpson filing a lawsuit against Schiller and Kardashian, claiming that Schiller had obtained the interviews under false pretenses. Kardashian was also disciplined by the California State Bar for his involvement with the project, and he ultimately agreed not to practice law for two years. He died soon thereafter.

Schiller is in his late seventies now, but he hasn’t slowed down: he released a new pair of documentaries on the Simpson trial just last month. (In a weird reversal, for a later generation, the O.J. story retains its interest primarily because of the Kardashian connection: the new tidbit that got the most play involved a suicide threat that Simpson allegedly made in the teenage Kim Kardashian’s bedroom.) It’s unclear what his relationship is with the family now, although I’d guess that it probably isn’t great. But it also feels like his last big scoop. I’ve believed for a long time that there’s a fantastic book lurking at the heart of the Kardashian saga—not the cheap cash-grabs that currently populate Amazon, but a huge, Robert Caro-level treatment that would give the rise of this family the consideration it deserves. As sick as some of us may be of the Kardashians by now, there’s no denying that if we were encountering their story for the first time, it would strike us as indecently fascinating, with a cast of characters ranging from O.J. to Caitlyn Jenner to Lamar Odom to Kanye West. And Lawrence Schiller is obviously the man to write it. It’s impossible to imagine that the thought hasn’t crossed his mind: Schiller has put himself at the center of such circuses for half a century now, and even if he weren’t so close to the story already, he’d be a great choice. His books tend to be enormous, meticulously researched, and saturated with gossip, and few figures of any era would have more to say about the role that the media plays in the creation and destruction of human stories. Consider this post an open letter to Schiller. This book needs to exist; I know I’d buy it. And Schiller ought to get on it now.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2015 at 11:01 am

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