Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Jinx

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.

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 tabloid touch

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In Touch Weekly

“Oh, I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
“I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
“It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids!”

The Thin Man

A couple of weeks ago, Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen published a long article on In Touch Weekly and the evolution of the modern tabloid. It’s a fun piece, full of juicy insights, and it’s worth reading in its entirety. Yet what caught my eye the most were details like these:

In Touch piqued that fascination by manufacturing elaborate, multipart, melodramatic narratives—the stuff of soap operas…Several former employees remember [editor Richard] Spencer laying out a four-act cover drama for what would happen between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the beginning of each month—a pregnancy, for example, followed by a breakup scare, a reconciliation, and then marriage rumors.

The beats of the drama may have been fictionalized, but it was easy to find sources—including rival publicists, other celebrities, former friends, estranged family—to support the claims…It’s not that In Touch made things up, it’s that the publicist and family members and celebrities themselves did…

“For [editor David] Perel, each story is a chapter in a novel,” one recent staffer reported. “He decides on the narrative, then has his reporters work sources to match the narrative.”

And this is just a more blatant version of what every writer, nonfiction and otherwise, does on a regular basis, although not always so brazenly. When you’re writing a story, even if you’re a reputable journalist, you often find yourself selecting facts to bolster the thesis implied in the headline or first paragraph. In some cases, you go looking for a quote from an outside source to support a conclusion you’ve already reached, and fortunately for reporters, the world is full of people willing to supply quotable material on demand—which is why the same expert sources repeatedly crop up in business or pop culture reportage. It isn’t a question of bias, but of structuring a decent news story: even the most apparently objective articles provide a narrative that helps us fit facts into a pattern that we can use or enjoy. Not every story we tell about the world is equally accurate, of course, and thoughtful readers and viewers have long since learned to recognize false balance. What puts a tabloid like In Touch into a different category is how cheerfully it severs the link, already tenuous, between reality and the “sourced” stories it produces. And the punchline is that this approach can shade imperceptibly into real reporting, as we’ve seen recently with the magazine’s coverage of the Duggars.

In Touch Weekly

What makes tabloids so fascinating is that they display a funhouse version of a process that we’ve learned to accept unthinkingly from more legitimate forms of nonfiction. An article in yesterday’s New York Times interviewed a range of documentary filmmakers about the ways they shape their material, from turning on a television set to provide a source of lighting in a scene to gently coaching interview subjects to arrive at a deeper emotional truth. And choices about selection of footage, arrangement, juxtaposition, and chronology are central to the documentary form. Occasionally, as with The Jinx, these liberties are obvious enough to raise questions about accuracy. But in every case, filmmakers walk a fine line between fidelity to the facts and the structural judgment calls that every story requires. In theory, the only kind of documentary evidence that resists that kind of manipulation is a raw, unedited chunk of footage, but in practice—as we see, for instance, in the varying responses to the Eric Garner video—even an apparently unambiguous record can be colored by context, where the excerpt starts and ends, and the viewer’s own preconceptions. We’re all constantly editing reality to conform with the mental pictures we form of it; what sets apart a documentary, or journalism, is that this editing has been outsourced to someone else.

And we’ve implicitly agreed to a measure of editorial intervention as the price for having information delivered to use in a form we can absorb. I’ve spoken at length elsewhere about how relentlessly podcasts and radio journalism are shaped to retain the listener’s attention: “Anecdote then reflection, over and over,” as Ira Glass says, which means that we’re not just being given a story, but constantly being told what to think about it. Otherwise, the result would be boring or unintelligible, as we often see in podcasts that don’t consider their structure so insistently. Asking journalists and other writers to refrain from sculpting the material betrays a misunderstanding of how we all think and learn. Everything is subject to a point of view, even the unmediated experience of our own lives: the best we can do is be aware of it, skeptical when necessary, and selective about whom we trust. In Touch makes for a great case study because the bones are exposed for all to see, but even a tabloid headline can influence us in subtle ways, as Petersen notes:

A typical…cover promised to answer a question the reader didn’t even know he or she had: “What Went Wrong,” “Why It’s Over,” or “Why They Split.”

All storytelling poses and resolves such unconscious questions, which only makes it harder to distinguish from what we might be thinking on the inside. And when a story moves us, intrigues us, or makes us feel, we can truly say that it got us right in the tabloids.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2015 at 9:42 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

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