Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Making a Murderer

The whole truth

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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.


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 , , ,

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.

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