Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Schiller

Mailer in Hollywood

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“I would love to get out to Hollywood for several months,” Norman Mailer wrote in a letter to an agent on May 10, 1948. “I have several ideas for novels now, but all of them are a little too small. The trouble with writing something like The Naked and the Dead is that you get frightened if your next can is smaller. And Hollywood, I think, would fit the bill.” When Mailer wrote these words, he was just twenty-five years old, and his first novel had made him famous overnight, complete with offers for the movie rights, which he was eager to explore. In secret, he was planning to use the experience in other ways, as he later confessed: “I went to Hollywood four years ago because in the back of my mind was the idea that I would write a nice big fat collective novel about the whole works—the idea I suppose with which every young writer goes out.” But he also had hopes of more tangible forms of success. He negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to work on scripts with his good friend Jean Malaquais, to whom he optimistically wrote a few months after his arrival:

Hollywood-wise our position is not bad. I am not at all without hope, for in the last week a few small things have happened which lead me to believe that we shall reap the wind yet—the golden wind. Also I have a wonderful idea for a movie—just right for you and us. There is a young actor here who is in fabulous demand—Montgomery Clift, and he likes me, respects me, et al [sic]. My idea is that when he comes back to town in a couple of weeks, I will see him, and suggest the movie—The Red and the Black. It will be of necessity an extravaganza which means our pay would be higher.

The “extravaganza” never went anywhere, although Mailer and Malaquais worked on a script for Clift loosely based on Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, and they seem to have considered a project inspired by the organized crime group Murder, Inc. (Most of this information, as well as all quotes from letters, comes from the recent book Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, an astonishingly rich volume that offers countless possible avenues for exploration. I’ve chosen the Hollywood thread at random, but I hope to dig into it in other ways soon.) By 1950, Mailer had grown disillusioned, writing to his sister Barbara: “We got out of Hollywood by brute force, i.e., we made a decision to leave and by gosh and by God we did. I still can’t believe it. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life trying to produce that damn movie. Except I’m probably the only writer who actually lost money by going to Hollywood.” His last remaining point of interest—apart from working on the novel that eventually became The Deer Park—was to sell the rights to his most famous book. A few years later, he wrote to his lawyer Charles Rembar that he hoped to get at least $100,000 for The Naked and the Dead, explaining:

If Naked is going to be bought and crapped up it makes sense only if I’ll get real financial independence from it. Otherwise, I’d just as soon spare myself the heartache…The key to what I feel with all of the above is that the old saw about Hollywood psychology—if you don’t want them, they want you—is very true, at least from my experience. And my other feeling is that if I have to hump for a living in a couple of years, it may not be the worst thing in the world for me. So I’d rather be big or little but not in between.

The Naked in the Dead was ultimately filmed by Raoul Walsh, and Mailer called the result, which I haven’t seen, “one of the worst movies ever made.” (It was evidently in development at one point for Charles Laughton to direct with Robert Mitchum in the lead, only to be scrapped by the failure of The Night of the Hunter—which has to count as one of the most intriguing unmade movies in an industry with no shortage of broken dreams.) But the experience left Mailer with some valuable insights. In 1966, he wrote to Tony Macklin, the editor of the magazine Film Heritage:

I think as a working rule of thumb, a novelist or playwright cannot hope for their work to survive in Hollywood. It can only be adulterated or improved, and since filming a good novel makes everyone concerned quite tense, and justifiably so, since no one wishes particularly to adulterate good art—there are a few rewards in heaven for that—I think if I were a director I would look for the kind of modest novel which can make a fine movie. I think the best example is The Asphalt Jungle.

Mailer never forgot this, and he wrote years later to his frequent business partner Lawrence Schiller, with whom he had collaborated on The Executioner’s Song, to propose a few potential projects: “I think it can be said that any of Raymond Chandler’s novels that are available would be splendid for movies, and I think I could do a lot with them in adaptation, since Chandler has marvelous plots and terrific settings, but is occasionally a little thing in characterization…While we’re at it, it might be worth checking into Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.” None of these adaptations ever came to pass, and Mailer couldn’t resist one more hopeful query: “What’s the story on A Farewell to Arms? I can’t remember when the last remake was done, but if that’s around, it’s a $30 million movie and the event of the year.”

When you read through Mailer’s letters on Hollywood, you’re left with a depressing sense of one of the most important writers of his generation repeatedly failing to gain traction in an industry that stubbornly resisted all his talent, ambition, and charisma. His correspondence is filled with fascinating hints of what might have been, some of which might have better been left unrealized, as when he wrote to the producer Mickey Knox to propose a version of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King starring Orson Welles and Sonny Liston. (A decade later, he wrote to Peter Bogdanovich, who was interested in adapting his novel An American Dream, to ask if Welles would be interested in reading an unproduced screenplay by Mailer titled The Trial of the Warlock: “I agree it’s hardly the sort of thing he’d want to do—why ever get into something like that at this point in his career?—but he might have quick insight into how to make it better, or approach the problem of the horror. I could use that. Truth, I’d be delighted to have him read it in any case just for fun.” Nothing ever came of it, and to the best of my knowledge, the two great wunderkinds of the forties never even crossed paths.) Mailer worked with varying degrees of seriousness on scripts for Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion and the story that became Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and he eventually did write a couple of teleplays for Schiller, including the O.J. Simpson movie American Tragedy. For the most part, however, he concluded that he was better off making movies on his own, leading to such directorial oddities as Beyond the Law, Maidstone, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the last of which is one of those films that has intrigued me for years without ever prompting me to actually watch it—and I have the feeling that it could hardly be other than a huge disappointment. And perhaps the final lesson is simply that writers, even the greatest ones, should adjust their expectations accordingly. As Mailer wrote to Tony Macklin: “A novelist or playwright sells his work to Hollywood not in order that the work shall survive in translation, but to purchase time for himself.” And Mailer, like all writers, needed all the time that he could get.

A comedian reads the newspaper

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A few days ago, I was leafing through Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce, the monumental biography of the legendary standup comic by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller. My eye was caught by a description of a typical performance by Bruce, who died in 1966:

When Lenny starts to spritz, interspersed with the hip jargon, riding along the bops and beats of his Broadway-Brooklyn tachycardic speech pattern, are allusions to big sounds like Stravinsky, Picasso, Charlie Parker, José Limon and James Joyce. Jazz, existentialism, analysis, peyote cults, and California. He’s concerned about the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing. Speaks from experience, done an awful lot of reading.

These days, we may not expect our comedians to drop allusions to Stravinsky or José Limon, but we’re still interested in what they have say about “the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing.” It’s part of a tradition of turning to standup comics for wisdom—or truth—that can largely be traced back to Bruce himself. And here’s the punchline, as Goldman delivers it: “The image is a bitch to sustain. Lenny isn’t that knowledgable about jazz. He’s never been to Europe since the Navy. Most everything he knows, he picks up from the movies.”

This pressure to seem informed about current events is one to which most of us can relate, and it must be particularly challenging to those figures who find themselves at the forefront of the culture, where we expect them to be inhumanly knowledgeable about everything while making the result seem effortless. As Goldman points out, though, there are ways of getting around it: “Mort Sahl found the solution before Lenny. It’s called osmosis.” He continues:

The way Sahl worked? Wherever he was, at home or on the road, he would have his room lined with magazines and books. He never read anything. A voracious skimmer. By flipping through this and staring at that, reading a sentence here and picking up a word there, he got a very good idea of where everything was. When he went into his monologue, you would swear that he had digested the whole world for that week. Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower, segregation, Shelley Berman, trade unions, Marty, Dave Brubeck, New York, Berkeley, Beckett, newspapers, coffeehouses, sandals, J.D. Salinger, filter-tip cigarettes, the State Department, Dick Clark, German radios, birth control, Charles Van Doren, Adlai Stevenson, natural-shoulder suits, Cuba, Israel, Dave Garroway, the Diners’ Club, Billy Graham, sports cars, the Strategic Air Command—wow! A barrage!

And if you replace that catalog of topics with one that seems more current—Red Hen, zero tolerance, “This is America,” Harley Davidson, and that’s just this week—it still captures something of what we expect from our late night hosts and talking heads on a daily basis.

The ability to skim a newspaper and turn it into a monologue for an audience every night is a valuable skill, and it can earn millions for those who possess it. But there’s no particular reason that comedians or pundits need to do the skimming themselves. In the period about which Goldman is writing, Bruce’s solution centered on the unlikely figure of Terry Lane, his assistant and a former burlesque drummer:

Lenny doesn’t need all this crap. He has an imagination and he’s really funny, not just nervous, like Sahl. But the trick is the same. Neither a reader nor a skimmer, what’s he supposed to do? Just accept it? Be a schmuck? Oh, no! There are always people who can help you. You don’t have to take a lot of shit from them either. Just sit a guy like Terry down and say: “Now look man, here’s the gig. I need an intellectual seeing-eye dog. Somebody who can check out the papers every day, read Time and Newsweek, do a little research for me, and just set me up nice so when I go out on the floor tonight, I’m the best-informed person in the city. Dig?”

What Goldman is describing here is basically the relationship between a star comic and his head writer, as enacted in a seedy hotel room in Times Square instead of backstage at The Tonight Show. And while Terry Lane’s résumé may no longer be typical—his equivalent today would be more likely to have gone to Harvard—his personal qualifications are much the same: “What grabbed Lenny was the fact that Terry was a reader…Lenny hadn’t got the patience, the concentration, the sitzfleisch. When pushed too hard he got terrible headaches. But Terry there, at the table between shows, would sit, riddling off titles like a college English professor…Lenny was impressed.”

But the real takeaway here is how this approach to current events has expanded outward from the nightclubs to radio and cable news, which is where Bruce’s true successors can be found. Goldman nicely describes the skill in question:

And the system works fine. Terry or Richey or Benny or whoever is traveling with Lenny is always a smart, studious sort of cat, who can feed him facts and help him learn big new words out of the dictionary. After all, what is literacy? Words. How do you learn words? Hear them. If you have a good ear and a tongue that can mimic anything you hear, you can learn whole languages by rote. Lenny is a mind-mouth man. His brain is located somewhere between his ears and his tongue. All he has to do is get the hang of a word, and he finds a place to slip it into his act.

These days, many of us get our news exactly from such “mind-mouth” men or women, whose gift consists of taking a few headlines and spinning them into thirty minutes of daily content. On the left, they’ve traditionally come from the ranks of improv, standup, and sketch comedy; on the right, which has trouble coming up with funny people, from talk radio. (Rush Limbaugh got his start as a disc jockey, which points to the fact that his true power is the ability to talk into a microphone for hours.) I’m not denigrating this talent, which is so rare that only a handful of people seem capable of doing it for large audiences at any one time. And we could do worse than to take our political cues from the writers at The Daily Show. But it’s still a simulacrum of insight, rather than the real thing. And we need to think hard about what happens when so many people turn to it for their information—including the man in the White House.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2018 at 8:20 am

The strange land

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On January 7, 1970, Robert A. Heinlein’s wife, Virginia, wrote to their agent Lurton Blassingame to share an alarming story:

Some weeks ago, a fan letter came in from the jail in Independence, California. In a burst of generosity, Robert tried to do something about this girl who’d written him. It turned out that she was one of the Manson family. So if we’re knifed in our beds like Sharon Tate, it’s because of three letters from members of the family. Just tell the police. I’m leaving these notices everywhere I can, in hopes of preventing anything from happening.

Virginia didn’t volunteer the sender’s name, but the Heinlein scholar James Gifford has speculated that it was Sandra Good, who was known within the Manson Family as “Blue.” I’ve written elsewhere about the influence of Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard on the late Charles Manson, which was meaningful to about the same extent that you could say that he was “influenced” by the Beatles, but it’s still worth exploring. Heinlein, in particular, clearly meant a lot to some of Manson’s followers. In addition to the letters that Virginia mentions, which also seems to have included one from Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land was found at Barker Ranch in Death Valley, where Manson was arrested, and his son was named Valentine Michael by his mother. (Whether or not Manson himself ever read the novel remains a matter of dispute, but I’m inclined these days to believe that he didn’t.) The more I reflect on it, though, the more I suspect that the members of Manson’s circle weren’t interested in Heinlein because of his books, ideas, or position in the counterculture. I think they were drawn to him because he was that rarest of creatures—a science fiction writer who was also a celebrity. And that, in turn, made him a target.

Earlier this year, I read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry for the first time, in order to fill in some of the background for my discussion of the case in Astounding. I came away impressed by two other takeaways. One was the intensity of the coverage in the press, even as the killings were unfolding—if they happened again today, in the age of social media, they would still feel like the story of the year. Another was the extent to which celebrity was inextricably tied up in it at every stage. Along with Sharon Tate, the victims included the stylist Jay Sebring, who had cut the hair of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and half of the Rat Pack, and Abigail Folger, the heir to the eponymous coffee fortune, while the house in which the murders occurred had previously been rented by Candice Bergen and her boyfriend Mark Lindsay, the lead singer of Paul Revere and the Raiders. In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi and Gentry write of the aftermath:

It was reported that Frank Sinatra was in hiding; that Mia Farrow wouldn’t attend her friend Sharon’s funeral because, a relative explained, “Mia is afraid she will be next”; that Tony Bennett had moved from his bungalow on the grounds of the Beverly Hills Hotel to an inside suite “for greater security”; that Steve McQueen now kept a weapon under the front seat of his sports car; that Jerry Lewis had installed an alarm system in his home complete with closed circuit TV. Connie Stevens later admitted she had turned her Beverly Hills home into a fortress. “Mainly because of the Sharon Tate murders. That scared the daylights out of everyone.”

And they had reason to be scared. As a cellmate later recounted, Manson follower Susan Atkins openly mused while “leafing through a movie magazine” of other potential victims, including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Tom Jones.

The movie magazine in Atkins’s hands speaks to how the killings came out of an odd, momentary intersection between celebrity culture and the counterculture, as catalyzed and animated by Charles Manson’s brand of psychopathy. And it’s a combination that is hard to imagine emerging anywhere but in Southern California. (As Quentin Tarantino has said of his next movie: “It’s not Charles Manson, it’s 1969.”) It was a world in which Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys could pick up two teenage girls hitchhiking in Malibu, take them home, and find Manson and a dozen others crashing there when he returned at three in the morning. And it isn’t merely the time and place, but the liminal personalities involved, who move like shades between the lands of the unknown, the marginal, and the famous. Manson himself was just one of many, but I’ll content myself with two more examples. One of his followers, Bobby Beausoleil, had worked with the underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, scoring and appearing as himself in the short film Lucifer Rising. Anger, whose fascination with these twilight realms would be most famously expressed in his book Hollywood Babylon, had been mentored by Marjorie Cameron, the widow of L. Ron Hubbard’s friend Jack Parsons. On a slightly less occult level, we find the photographer and legendary hustler Lawrence Schiller, who bought the life rights of Susan Atkins and cranked out a quickie book on the murders. He later came to feel that he had thrown away his access to an important subject, and he rebounded with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which he researched, packaged and sold, and, much later, with a series of projects about the O.J. Simpson trial. Schiller put together the latter with the help of his friend Robert Kardashian, for whose wife, Kris, he had directed a birthday video in which she drove around the streets of Los Angeles.

In the movie From Hell, Jack the Ripper says: “One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century.” I don’t want to credit Manson and his followers with any more importance than they deserve, but their story undeniably anticipated much of what we’ve come to take for granted about the world in which we now live. There’s the way in which the news can suddenly insert itself, all too horrifyingly, into our own lives, as in the tragic case of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, who spoke with a local news vendor “about Tate, the event of the day,” hours before becoming the next victims. And they were ahead of their time in their reminder of how the famous and the ordinary can be leveled in an instant, not by social media, but by death. The fact that Manson was eighty-two when he died underlines how long ago all of this was, but his obituaries also feel like a sign of things to come. He and his disciples drew omnivorously from popular culture, as Leslie van Houten’s attorney said of his own client: “That girl is insane in a way that is almost science fiction.” But if the one constant throughout it all was race—in particular, the specter of a coming war between blacks and whites—it’s also true that Manson, in his megalomania, seized on it primarily to control his followers. He believed that he would emerge to assume power after the conflict was over, and his disciples often resembled modern preppers in the preparations that they took to survive it. But there were also moments when more practical considerations took precedence. As Jeff Guinn writes in the recent book Manson: His Life and Times:

In mid-March [of 1969], Charlie received word that [producer] Terry Melcher would finally come to hear him perform some of his songs. Charlie had been keeping everyone busy preparing for Helter Skelter, but a cataclysmic race war paled compared to Charlie finally getting a record deal.

The blood on the table

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Rob Morrow on American Crime Story

In American Tragedy, his exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—account of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Lawrence Schiller relates a story that would seem unbelievable even on a network crime procedural. Barry Scheck, the defense lawyer in charge of examining the DNA evidence, is trying to establish the possibility of contamination at the lab that tested the blood from the Bundy and Rockingham scenes. He ends up focusing on lab technician Collin Yamauchi, who handled many of the samples, and after painstakingly reconstructing the criminalist’s notes, he uncovers a bombshell:

Yamauchi had worked with O.J.’s reference sample [of blood] immediately before he handled the Rockingham glove. If Yamauchi got blood on himself, or if he got some on the table when he opened O.J.’s vial—a real possibility, considering the bloodstains on the vial—he could have transferred O.J.’s blood to the glove.

Then Scheck worked out from the lab notes the order in which Yamauchi handled the Bundy blood swatches. Scheck compared that order to the amount of Simpson’s DNA found on each sample.

Paydirt. For the first time Scheck and his team could see that the Bundy swatch with the largest quantity of O.J.’s DNA, swatch number 51, was the first one that Yamauchi touched after he handled the Rockingham glove. The swatch containing the second-highest quantity was the second one he touched. And so forth.

Scheck instantly recognizes the importance of this discovery. If the handling of the samples at the lab itself can be brought into question, the fact that DNA testing put Simpson’s blood at the scene can be thrown out the window: any test, no matter how accurate, is only as good as the evidence it analyzes. As Schiller puts it:

Common sense indicated that Yamauchi had to have gotten some of Simpson’s blood on his own glove, or on the table, or both. It was like stepping into a mud puddle, then continuing onto dry ground. Your first footprint leaves a lot of mud; the next one leaves a bit less; the third leaves still less. Scheck could see Yamauchi’s “footprint” on the glove and Bundy blood swatches.

The sequence was clear: Yamauchi gets O.J.’s reference blood on his gloved hands. Maybe on his worktable. Then he transfers O.J.’s blood to the Rockingham glove. Next he handles the Bundy swatches and contaminates them with O.J.’s blood.

And under questioning in court by Scheck, Yamauchi confirms that he got blood on his gloves while handling the tube with the reference sample, immediately before moving on to the Rockingham glove and the Bundy swatches. Yamauchi claims that he threw the contaminated gloves away, but it’s more than enough to raise legitimate concerns about the accuracy of the results that were obtained.

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown on American Crime Story

I’m telling this story in detail for several reasons. First, because I hadn’t heard it before reading Schiller’s book earlier this year, and I think it’s fascinating. Second, because it serves as a reminder that the Simpson defense raised damaging questions about the prosecution’s case that had nothing to do with race or the accuracy of DNA testing itself. Third, because we didn’t hear a word about it in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I should say right now that I loved the miniseries, which covers an enormous amount of ground in ten hours—but it can’t include everything. And the fact that Scheck’s breakthrough doesn’t even merit a mention, when it might have served as the centerpiece of another story, reminds us of how challenging this narrative really is. Despite the show’s texture and surprising subtlety, I have a feeling that most viewers will still come away with a sense that the defense’s case was based solely on allegations of police conspiracy and a pair of ill-fitting gloves, when in fact Scheck’s systematic dismantling of much of the physical evidence was so persuasive that I’m not entirely sure how I would have voted. (That said, I don’t think there’s any real doubt about Simpson’s guilt. Everyone will have a different opinion about which details can or can’t be explained away, but for me, it’s those Bruno Magli shoes, which we know the killer wore—it would have been all but impossible to fake—and which Simpson denied having owned, only to have dozens of photographs surface after the trial showing him wearing those very shoes, fewer than three hundred pairs of which were ever sold.)

Still, the miniseries represents a real achievement. It’s almost tempting to underestimate how good a job it really does, given what the writers had to work with: it offers roles of a lifetime to Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, to Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and especially to Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, and its climactic scene is the best proof imaginable of the writing rule, which I’ve discussed here before, that a jury delivering its verdict is always suspenseful, even if we know exactly what the outcome will be. And the result is so satisfying that it’s probably a trifle unfair to point out that the series doesn’t give the scientific side of the defense’s case the attention it deserves. (Doing it justice would have required a different approach altogether, closer to the obsessive procedurals that David Fincher does so well in films like Zodiac or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and while I’d love to see that version of this story, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get it.) Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have done a spectacular job of clarifying and organizing a vast amount of information, much as they did with Ed Wood and Man on the Moon, which are still two of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. And they’re ruthless about cutting back repeatedly to the social and emotional core of the story, even if it means leaving a lot of great material on the table. It doesn’t provide a lot of room for Rob Morrow as Barry Scheck, who gets about a dozen lines of dialogue altogether, along with a tantalizing final caption that reminds us that he went on to found the Innocence Project. That’s a miniseries in itself. But it’s one we’ll just have to imagine.

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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