Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Serial

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.

Serial

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

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

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2016 at 9:51 am

Posted in Television

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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 law of similars

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Adele

Like just about everybody else in the western hemisphere, I picked up a copy of Adele’s 25 earlier this month. My favorite song on the album—which I like even more than 21—is “Remedy,” both because it’s sweeter and less bombastic than some of her other tracks, and because it reminded me naggingly of something else. It took me a few days before I realized that I was thinking of one of my secret favorite albums: Essex by Alison Moyet. There’s the same rich, bluesy, but slightly remote voice that circles around the heart of a song before attacking it directly, and when Adele sings “I will be / I will be / Your remedy,” it’s hard not to hear an echo of an artist I’ve loved since I was in high school. And I’m not the only person to draw that comparison: when I enter the relevant search into my browser bar, two of the recommended queries are “Adele Alison Moyet’s daughter” and “Adele Alison Moyet related.” She isn’t, and they aren’t, but Moyet herself has been asked about their perceived similarity. And her response to the question brought me up short: “When I saw Adele I thought: ‘I’ll give it an hour before people say I was her,’ just because I was fat. When you watch X Factor you can bet your bottom dollar, every single fat singer sounds like me as far as the judges are concerned.” And in another interview: “We were two fat girls singing torch songs. It always happens…I do get that we’re both stationary performers, but there’ll be a talented man, with an electronic background, who has much more in common with me musically…It’s lazy comparisons.”

I don’t think that’s where I was coming from—I’ve managed to get through the last two decades with only the vaguest idea of how Moyet looked, aside from on her album covers—and I’d argue that their affinity runs deeper than Moyet acknowledges. But I can understand her frustration. We all have a way of picking up on a superficial similarity between two artists, or two works of art, and using it to draw comparisons between things that are actually quite different. When one actor resembles another, or a singer reminds us in passing of one we’ve heard before, it can typecast them in our minds in a certain way, and when an entire culture sees the resemblance, it can redirect or derail entire careers. It’s the artistic equivalent of the false friend, two words in different languages that look like cognates but really have nothing in common, and it can be equally misleading for the unwary. Back when Clive Owen was being touted as the next Bond, he shrewdly put his finger on the source of the rumors: “I wear a tuxedo in Croupier and that might have had something to do with it.” In fact, Owen wouldn’t have made a great Bond: he’s an odder and more internalized actor than the role requires, and despite his looks, that tux, and the fast cars he drove for BMW, he’s far more comfortable in quirky character parts. Fortunately for us, that snap judgment didn’t have much of an impact, and both he and Daniel Craig are better off. But not every actor or artist is so lucky.

Alison Moyet

Over the weekend, I started thinking about this again while listening to the premiere episode of the second season of Serial. Back when its initial run was unfolding, I wrote: “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 [Sarah] Koenig is closing in on fifteen hours or more.” And my first thought on learning about the subject of the new season—which centers on the case of Bowe Bergdahl, who is currently facing a court-martial on charges of deserting his post in Afghanistan—is that Koenig is doing herself no favors by straying back into Morris territory. (Morris famously, if imperfectly, explored the war in Afghanistan in the book and movie Standard Operating Procedure, and the only way Koenig could have made the Morris comparison more explicit would be by structuring a podcast around a topiary gardener and a robot scientist.) Yet the more I think about it, the more I find the comparison strained. Koenig and Morris have two very distinct styles as journalists and interviewers, and they’re seeking fundamentally different effects. Serial was never going to be The Thin Blue Line, either in terms of focus or approach, and using Morris as a club to bash Koenig over the head strikes me as unfair now, even if I still have doubts about how the last season turned out.

Of course, there’s something in the human brain, with its fondness for pattern recognition, that loves to draw such comparisons. All we can do is recognize them for what they are—as judgments made in the space of a blink—and try to separate them from our more considered critical opinions. It’s easy to draw a false analogy from a few similar properties, and it can take a long time before we recognize our mistake. (This is all the more true because the first thing we latch onto from a new artist is often something that happens to ring a bell.) And it applies to more than just art. Over a century ago, the embryologist John Graham Kerr wrote:

Striking resemblance in superficial characters provides a type of pitfall which the morphologist has at an early stage in his education to school himself to avoid. He comes across cases of amazing resemblance, e.g. in pairs of “mimetic” butterflies, between a marsupial and a placental mammal, between the organ of vision in one of the higher insects and that of one of the higher Crustacea, between the skeleton of a flagellate and that of a radiolarian, and he learns to recognize that superficial resemblance may, and frequently does, provide a cloak for fundamental unlikeness. It is, in fact, one of the main parts of his business as a morphologist to find out whether in each particular case the striking resemblance so apparent to the onlooker is an expression of resemblance in fundamental points of structure or whether, on the other hand, it is merely superficial.

And that’s as true of fans and critics as it is of morphologists, and whether we’re looking at radiolarians or just listening to something on the radio.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2015 at 9:29 am

Thinking inside the panel

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"Mister Wonderful" by Daniel Clowes

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.

Sarah Koenig

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.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2015 at 9:09 am

The Serial jinx

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Robert Durst in The Jinx

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.)

Serial

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.

Written by nevalalee

April 13, 2015 at 9:05 am

The long tail of everything

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The long tail

Yesterday, I noted that we’re living in a golden age for podcasting, and it isn’t hard to see why. If there’s a sweet spot for production and distribution, we’re in it right now: with the available software and recording tools, it’s easier than ever to put together a podcast at minimal cost, and just about every potential listener owns a laptop or mobile device capable of streaming this kind of content. Many of us are more likely to spend an hour listening to a show online than reading an article that takes the same amount of time to finish, perhaps because we can do it while driving or washing the dishes, or perhaps because the ratio of effort to entertainment seems more attractive. And the podcasts themselves—at least the ones that break through to draw a large audience—are better than ever. No matter what your interests are, there’s probably a show just for you, whether it’s a retrospective commentary on every episode of The X-Files or interviews with obscure supporting actors or advice on your career in customer support. And if you can’t find the podcast of your dreams, there’s nothing stopping you from jumping in and making it yourself.

Of course, in reality, the universe of podcasting looks like most other forms of creative expression: a long tail with a few big blockbusters at one end and thousands of niche offerings at the other. Serial may rack up five million downloads on iTunes, but it’s the outlier of outliers, and efforts by media companies to create “the next Serial” have about as much a chance of succeeding as the looming attempt by movie studios to make the next American Sniper. Both are going to inspire a lot of imitators, but few, if any, are likely to recapture the intangible qualities that made either such a success. In the meantime, for most podcasters, the medium doesn’t make for a viable day job—which only means that it’s like every other medium ever. Its relative novelty and low barriers to entry make it alluring in the same way that blogging or self-publishing once were, but it doesn’t make doing it for a living any easier. It simply creates another long tail parallel to, or embedded within, the traditional one, with a handful of breakout hits holding out the promise of success for the rest. Getting in on the rightmost side of the curve has never been simpler, but making it to the left is as hard as ever.

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

This is part of the reason why I’ve never been attracted to self-publishing, which looks at first like a way of circumventing the gatekeepers who are keeping your book out of stores, but really only pushes the same set of challenges a little further down the line. And the long tail is as close to a constant as we’ll ever see in any creative field, no matter how the marketplace changes. (Or, to put it another way, distribution won’t change the distribution.) It exists for the same reason crack dealers are willing to work for less than minimum wage: lured in by the promise of outsized success or recognition, people will spend years slaving away in community theater or writing short stories for nothing, when a job that offered less enticing rewards would have lost their interest long ago. Going in, we’re all irrational optimists, and we’ll always be more likely to compare ourselves to the few famous names we recognize while ignoring the invisible tail end. On the individual level, it’s a flaw of reasoning, but it’s also essential for keeping the whole enterprise alive. Without that subterranean world of aspiring artists who are basically paying for the privilege of doing the work they love, nothing big would ever emerge.

And each part of the curve depends on every other. It’s often been said that blockbusters are what make the rest possible, whether it’s Buzzfeed financing serious journalism with listicles about cats or The Hunger Games enabling Lionsgate to release the twenty smaller movies it distributes each year. And it’s equally hard to imagine anyone trying to make art for a living without the psychological incentive that the outliers provide. Yet the long tail is also what props up the success stories, and not just for companies, like Amazon, that bake it into their business models. On a cultural level, art is a matter of statistics because its underlying factors are so unpredictable: a masterpiece or great popular entertainment is so unlikely to emerge out of pure calculation that we have no choice but to entrust it to chance and large numbers. The odds of a given work of art breaking out are so low that our best bet is to increase the pool of candidates, even if any individual player operates at a net loss. That may not be much consolation to the writer or podcaster whose sphere of concern is limited to his or her life. But that’s a long tale of its own.

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2015 at 10:32 am

The Serial box

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Sarah Koenig

Note: This post contains spoilers—if that’s the right word—for the last episode of Serial.

Deep down, I suspect that we all knew that Serial would end this way. Back in October, Mike Pesca of Slate recorded a plea to Sarah Koenig: “Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.” In the end, that’s pretty much what it was, to the point where it came dangerously close to resembling its own devastatingly accurate parody on Funny or Die. There’s a moment in the final episode when Adnan Syed, speaking from prison, might as well have been reading from a cue card to offer Koenig a way out:

I think you should just go down the middle. I think you shouldn’t really take a side. I mean, it’s obviously not my decision, it’s yours, but if I was to be you, just go down the middle…I think in a way you could even go point for point and in a sense you leave it up to the audience to decide.

Koenig doesn’t go quite that far—she says that if she were a juror at Adnan’s trial, she’d have voted for acquittal—but she does throw up her hands a bit. Ultimately, we’re left more or less back where we started, with a flawed prosecution that raised questions that were never resolved and a young man who probably shouldn’t have been convicted by the case the state presented. And we knew this, or most of it, almost from the beginning.

I don’t want to be too hard on Koenig, especially because she was always open about the fact that Serial might never achieve the kind of resolution that so many listeners desperately wanted. And its conclusion—that the truth is rarely a matter of black or white, and that facts can lend themselves to multiple interpretations—isn’t wrong. My real complaint is that it isn’t particularly interesting or original. I’ve noted before that Errol Morris can do in two hours what Koenig has done in ten, and now that the season is over, I feel more than ever that it represents a lost opportunity. The decision to center the story on the murder investigation, which contributed so much to its early popularity, seems fatally flawed when its only purpose is to bring us back around to a meditation on truth that others have expressed more concisely. Serial could have been so many things: a picture of a community, a portrait of a group of teenagers linked by a common tragedy, an examination of the social forces and turns of fate that culminated in the death of Hae Min Lee. It really ended up being none of the above, and there have been moments in the back half when I felt like shaking Koenig by the shoulders, to use her own image, and telling her that she’s ignoring the real story as she leads us down a rabbit hole with no exit.

Serial

In some ways, I’m both overqualified to discuss this issue and a bad data point, since I’ve been interested in problems of overinterpretation, ambiguity, and information overload for a long time, to the point of having written an entire novel to exorcise some of my thoughts on the subject. The Icon Thief is about a lot of things, but it’s especially interested in the multiplicity of readings that can be imposed on a single set of facts, or a human life, and how apparently compelling conclusions can evaporate when seen from a different angle. Even at the time, I knew that this theme was far from new: in film, it goes at least as far back as Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and I consciously modeled the plot of my own novel after such predecessors as The X-Files and Foucault’s Pendulum. Serial isn’t a conspiracy narrative, but it presented the same volume of enigmatic detail. Its discussions of call logs and cell phone towers tended to go in circles, always promising to converge on some pivotal discrepancy but never quite reaching it, and the thread of the argument was easy to lose. The mood—an obsessive, doomed search for clarity where none might exist—is what stuck with listeners. But we’ve all been here before, and over time, Serial seemed increasingly less interested in exploring possibilities that would take it out of that cramped, familiar box.

And there’s one particular missed opportunity that was particularly stark in the finale: its failure to come to terms with the figure of Hae herself. Koenig notes that she struggled valiantly to get in touch with Hae’s family, and I don’t doubt that she did, but the materials were there for a more nuanced picture than we ever saw. Koenig had ample access to Adnan, for instance, who certainly knew Hae well, and there are times when we feel that she should have spent less time pressing him yet again for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, as she did up to the very end, and more time remembering the girl who disappeared. She also interviewed Don, Hae’s other boyfriend, whose account of how she taught him how to believe in himself provided some of the last episode’s most moving moments. And, incredibly, she had Hae’s own diary, up to the heartbreaking entry she left the day before she died. With all this and more at Koenig’s disposal, the decision to keep Hae in the shadows feels less like a necessity than a questionable judgment call. And I can’t help but wish that we had closed, at the very end, with five minutes about Hae. It wouldn’t have given us the answers we wanted, but it might have given us what we—and she—deserved.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 9:29 am

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