Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Terry Zwigoff

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.)


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 primordial monkeys

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Robert, Charles, and Maxon Crumb

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 question: “What pop culture did your cooler siblings introduce you to?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings recently. My wife and I have just the one daughter, but when I watch her interacting with other children at the library, at the store, or at the pediatrician’s office, I can’t help but get a glimpse of what it would be like for her to be someone’s sister. Our niece has a little sister of her own coming soon, and we’re reaching the age when the initial surge of babies among our friends is reaching its second cycle. In short, there are a lot of little kids in our lives now, and it’s fascinating to watch them interact. For the first twelve months or so, babies don’t seem all that interested in one another: they’re still preoccupied with their own little worlds, and if you set two babies side by side, they’re just as likely to look past each other on their way to the next chewable object. Somewhere around the first year, though, they latch on intensely to other kids, whether real or representative—my daughter is obsessed with the baby on the Gerber jar—and rudimentary social interactions start to take place. They’ll hold hands, trade toys, assert or yield their personal space. And as soon as they’re able to find words to express themselves, that interaction, especially between older and younger siblings, takes the form of telling stories.

I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I suspect that many writers were the oldest siblings in a house with one or more children. A younger brother or sister is a ready audience for whatever the older sibling wants to say—especially if adults seem frustratingly uninterested—and in the years when playtime shades naturally into narrative and the stories we find in books, kids have a lot to tell anyone who seems willing to listen. When I think back to my own childhood, one of the first things I recall are the stories I told my brother, who is four years younger than I am. As far as I can remember, these stories started out as detailed retellings of whatever Roald Dahl book I was reading at the time, and these blow-by-blow narratives could take weeks on end to finish, often in the bathtub. (The life of a kid who can absorb and regurgitate huge amounts of story without even being conscious of it gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in an oral culture.) These later expanded into lengthy serial adventures starring my brother as himself, with me playing most of the other parts using whatever stuffed toys were lying around the house. I can’t speak for him, but I’ve never forgotten any of it, and I’ve recently started to revisit some of those stories with my daughter and her Ernie doll.

Ernie on Green Day's Dookie

When I think of the works of art that manage to capture the intimate huddle that exists between siblings, the first that comes to mind, weirdly enough, is Crumb. Robert Crumb’s family, at least as depicted in Terry Zwigoff’s astonishing documentary, isn’t one that most of us would have wanted to be a part of, and two out of the three brothers emerged from that experience with irreparable damage. Yet when Max Crumb refers to Charles, Robert, and himself as “three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees,” I know exactly what he means. The fantasy life created by Charles Crumb—which centered on a game of Treasure Island that evidently played out over many years—is only an extreme version of the intricate, intense stories that come into existence between any siblings around the same age. Robert, for one, never seems to have entirely emerged from that shadow, which consumed his brothers to an even greater extent, and much of his work feels like an attempt to come to terms with those twisted early adventures. (That said, there’s obviously a lot more going on in Robert’s inner life, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Zwigoff deliberately emphasized this particular thread in his interpretation of the material, if only because Charles Crumb himself is such an unforgettable figure.)

Ultimately, of course, my brother and I grew up, and in many ways, he’s a cooler and more interesting person than I am, at least in his ability to shape his life according to his own values. And although he’s exposed me to a lot of culture in his own right, particularly music, if I’ve been shaped by him in any fundamental way, it was in the years when we were active collaborators, conspirators, and dreamers. If I’ve said before that my ideal reader is myself at age twelve, my ideal self as a writer comes from those early stories in the bathtub. There was no distinction between the telling and the listening; we did it because we couldn’t imagine any other way of living, with one foot in reality and the other in an equally vivid imaginary world. Maintaining that connection into adulthood lies at the heart of what writers do, and achieving the proper balance isn’t easy. But I don’t think it’s an accident that so many writers, from Lev Grossman to Stephen King, trace their full understanding of themselves and their craft from their engagement with their children. When I look at my daughter, there are times when she seems eerily like my brother, and when we’re playing together, I often feel that I’ve managed to recreate those moments. And I’m grateful for it. Because it was only when my brother and I began to share in those stories that I discovered who I really was.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

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