April 25, 2015 § 1 Comment
Andrew Jarecki’s six-part series on the real estate heir and possible serial killer Robert Durst was a huge hit on HBO last month, and with good reason. It’s a meticulously researched, gripping, stranger-than-fiction story that builds suspense as it progresses. Structured like a thriller, “The Jinx” manages to be both long and exciting–no small feat for a documentary. Informationally dense documentaries usually seem longer than feature films of the same length, making audiences lose interest over time. But not “The Jinx,” whose best ratings were for its final episode.
Despite its success, however, “The Jinx” has certain problems in its style and structure. The latter will be discussed at length later. As for the former, the many re-enactments, though artfully filmed, borrow heavily from “CSI,” blurring the line between feature and documentary filmmaking. Take the opening credit sequence: a noir-ish montage of water, women, cars, falling bodies, palm trees and skylines, it evokes the Bond films visually and, like them, boasts a theme song. Because Jarecki and his producer/DP Marc Smerling previously made a feature about Durst and the unsolved disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, viewers can be forgiven for wondering whether “The Jinx” is a documentary at all.
It is, but one with unusual beginnings. It was initiated not the filmmakers but by its subject Robert Durst, who sought them out in response to their feature about him, “All Good Things.” Durst’s aim was to tell his side of the story, which he thought the feature film did not. Through interviews, “Jinx” painstakingly recounts Durst’s life story, which includes at least two murders and two disappearances in which he was the prime suspect. But it also properly presents other points of view, not only through interviews, archival footage and stills but the aforementioned re-enactments.
The documentary’s structure is complicated, jumping back and forth over the decades. Episode 1 describes the October, 2001 murder of Morris Black, Durst’s neighbor when he was hiding out in Galveston, Texas. It also introduces Durst and Jarecki and the launch of the documentary project. Episode 2 involves Durst’s initial interview, his early life–including the suicide of his mother when he was seven–his marriage to Kathie, and her disappearance in 1982. Episode 3 tells the story of Susan Berman, a Los Angeles-based writer and close friend of Robert Durst’s who was his spokeswoman after Kathie’s disappearance. The daughter of a Las Vegas gangster, Berman had fallen on hard times when she was murdered in her Benedict Canyon home on Christmas Eve, 2000. Though Durst was seen in Northern California that week, he denied being in LA and was not charged. Episode 4 recounts Morris Black’s murder, for which Durst was tried and acquitted (by reason of self-defense), despite the fact that he admitted to cutting up Black’s body and dumping it in Galveston Bay. Episode 5, “Family Values,” contains Robert Durst’s fateful walk by the Durst offices in Times Square and a revealing interview with his nephew, Evan Kreeger, who deplores his family’s dissembling and expresses sympathy for the McCormack family. It culminates with Jarecki’s encounter with Douglas Durst, Robert’s younger brother and scion of the family, who stonewalled not only the filmmakers but prosecutors and police who investigated Kathie Durst’s disappearance. Episode 6 shows the long-delayed second interview with Robert Durst and the series’ stunning coda: his muttered apparent confession, “I killed them all, of course,” in the bathroom after the end of the interview. In a further truth-is-stranger-than-fiction event, Durst was arrested for the murder of Susan Berman on March 14th, the day before the episode aired, having fled to New Orleans with cash, guns and disguises.
Episode 6 is both great television and a documentary rule-breaker. The hot mike that produced Durst’s mutterings, which Jarecki said was left on accidentally when he went to the bathroom, is contentious; having conducted many interviews, I recall exactly none where a mike was inadvertently left on after the subject was finished. It’s clear that Jarecki was well aware of his subject’s tendency to think aloud: in Episode 4, during a break from the first interview, Durst repeats, “I did not knowingly, purposely lie.” That time, Durst’s lawyer cautioned him that the mike was on, but no one from Durst’s camp was present during the second interview.
Beyond Jarecki’s defense that the mike was left on accidentally, he claimed in the New York Times after the series aired that the confession wasn’t even discovered for a couple of years after the interview:
I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014 [more than two years later].
As a documentary filmmaker who has edited (with my editor, Kate Johnson) many things, let me say that there has never been an instance where something didn’t get logged within a few days. The idea that the sequence was somehow overlooked for two years is simply incredible, particularly in light of the fact that there were only two interviews with Robert Durst, and that they formed the linchpin of the project.
During Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling dispense with their observational role, becoming full-fledged actors in the Durst drama. The process actually begins in the previous chapter, when Jarecki buys a ticket to a charity dinner expressly to confront the evasive Douglas Durst, but the final episode finds him in full detective mode. He conceals in a safe deposit box the most damning piece of evidence against Durst to date–a letter addressed to Susan Berman in Durst’s hand that exactly matches the so-called cadaver note, which was sent anonymously to the Beverly Hills police by Berman’s murderer. At that point, Jarecki and Smerling decide not to inform the police about Durst’s note and apparently do not, according to a NYT interview, until “early 2013.”
Throughout Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling manipulate the timeline, showing events out of sequence. Although no dates are given, Durst’s second interview appears to happen soon after, and in direct response to, his August 2013 arrest for violating a restraining order filed by Douglas Durst. In fact, the second interview took place in April, 2012, sixteen months earlier. Why does this matter? Because it’s much more dramatic for Jarecki to say that Durst is finally coming in for interview #2 because of the arrest rather than simply because he agreed to sit for two interviews. No dates are given for any of the times when Robert Durst appears on Jarecki’s camera, but the sequence of events appears to be:
1. First interview
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (much later)
3. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order
4. Second interview (soon after)
In fact, the true sequence of events is:
1. First interview 12/2010
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (soon afterward)
3. Second interview 4/2012
4. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order 8/2013
Durst’s arrest in New Orleans on March 14 for Susan Berman’s murder came only a day before the airing of Episode 6, at which point the line between filmmaking and real-time news events disappeared completely. “The Jinx” became a rare instance of must-see TV in a highly fragmented market, yet questions about the timeline surfaced immediately. The fact the change of sequence troubled viewers and critics alike proves that many people still expect documentaries to reflect reality, even if reality comes at the expense of drama.
Next time: The Death of Cinema Verite.
April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
In the late 90s, I took a UCLA Extension course in directing whose instructor declared, “There is no more objective truth in documentaries than [in] feature films.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Documentary films–as opposed to the opinion piece or docu-drama–are the converse of feature films, with a distinct set of rules:
1. Don’t make things happen. Rather than forming an opinion and then trying to prove it, documentary filmmakers shoot first and organize later.
2. The script comes last. Any narration is based on the footage, as is the structure of the film. Documentaries are made in the editing room.
3. Don’t mess with the timeline. With the exception of interviews, events are shown in the order of occurrence.
4. No pictures, no story. All narration must be illustrated by images, preferably moving images, followed by still photos and illustrations. Re-enactments, if any, are a last resort.
Because I’ve followed these rules in all my documentaries, I’ve had to make hard choices, particularly where images are concerned. When Jim Thompson’s heir failed to follow through on his promise to let me use family photographs, I had to cut short the section on Jim’s youth. Later, a total lack of photographs of Peter the Hermit, the original Hollywood costumed character, led me to drop his story from “Under the Hollywood Sign.” In the same film, I reluctantly made a re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s final hour because I lacked photos and artifacts. In both Peter and Peg’s cases, I later received a flood of photographs and information, some of which can be found on this blog, but in Peter’s case it came too late to be included in the film.
While I don’t regret my strict approach, it doesn’t jibe with recent trends. The preferred model for new documentaries is the three-act screenplay, which requires a dramatic arc. Stories unfold like police procedurals, with satisfactory conclusions, while unrecorded events are generously re-enacted, often in lurid slow-motion. All of this makes for compelling entertainment, but is it real?
Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is a good example of the new approach. Essentially a filmed version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film employs traditional elements–interviews, archival footage, B-roll of Scientology landmarks. But it is also loaded with re-enactments that tell L. Ron Hubbard’s story and those of his disaffected followers. So we see recreated auditing sessions using the E-Meter, typewriters, explanatory charts and lots and lots of stars (the planetary kind, though there are archivals of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as well).
Absolutely nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. To illustrate his subjects’ retelling of Scientology’s creation myth, Gibney creates a colorful montage of 1950s Americana, spaceships, volcanoes and planets. And in case the term “Operating Thetan” proves too difficult to comprehend, he inserts a shot the words, neatly typed, on a piece of paper. The paper is still in the typewriter, one of many such shots, lest we forget that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer.
Gibney’s treatment of the interviews is curious. Though his interviewees–who include not only Wright but former Scientologists Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and Spanky Taylor–are without exception eloquent, compelling and worthy of screen time, Gibney does everything possible not to show them talking. When not cutting to re-enactments, he cuts to graphics–anything to avoid screen time for a talking head. The result is an undermining of the interviewees, whose stories, after all, are the crux of “Going Clear.”
Next time: “The Jinx.”
April 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
During the 1990’s, I was a board member of the Junior Arts Center (now Barnsdall Arts), an organization formed to provide art education to Los Angeles children after art classes were all but dropped from the LAUSD curriculum in the 70’s. At the JAC, all classes were taught by working artists and, because we raised money to pay them, fees were kept low. The children produced very good work that we tried to reward, holding an annual exhibition in Barnsdall Park and giving prizes. To raise awareness of children’s art, we partnered with one of the billboard companies on a project called “Imagine a Great City.” Children entered drawings on the theme of Los Angeles, and the winners were displayed on billboards during February, a slow month in the industry. The program ran for a few years in the early 90’s. Despite the ubiquity of the downtown skyline, LAPD helicopters and palm trees in many of the submissions, it was a success.
“Imagine a Great City” came back to me when I was given a copy of Gabriel Kahane’s new Los Angeles-themed album, “The Ambassador.” Kahane is a classically trained composer and virtuoso musician, but his music contains rock, soul, blues and Broadway references. His lyrics are equally beautiful and complex, as poetic as any by Joni Mitchell.
Each song on “The Ambassador” concerns a Los Angeles building, either commercial or residential or, in the case of the “Mildred Pierce”-themed “Veda,” imaginary, and through these addresses Kahane tells the story of modern Los Angeles. Kahane’s subject matter includes modernist architecture (“Villains”), “Blade Runner” (“Bradbury”), the novels of Raymond Chandler (“Musso and Frank”), and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (“Ambassador Hotel). In the album’s most ambitious composition, “Empire Liquor Mart,” Kahane tells the life story of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, whose 1991 murder at the hands of Korean store owner Soon Da Ju was a catalyst for the 1992 riots. He begins with the shooting, from Harlins’ point of view:
The lady in the fishing vest
Has dropped the gun
Who wears a fishing vest
When they’re working at a liquor store?
I float up to the corner
Just above the ice cream And the frozen food.
I perch beside the surveillance
He then traces the Harlins family’s move west from St. Louis, revealing the devastating loss of Latasha’s mother and uncle in separate shootings, before returning to Harlins’ murder.
Nobody reads from the Book of Job
At the church where me and my grandma go.
Nobody sees the trouble I know
But I know that trouble’s gonna find me.
So when I say that my un-
timely death was
What I mean is
That these tragedies
Are a kind of family tradition.
The album concludes with another masterpiece, “Union Station,” which considers manifest destiny, apocalypse and the tragedy of leaving LA:
When the pilasters slplit to admit the sea,
The hands of the clock will be covered in verdigris
I’ll swim to the train and I’ll find my seat
And hazard a smile at anyone who looks at me.
When the Alkali flats with their cracks pass by,
Think of the color wheel, think of the Western sky:
Distant city with a distant glow,
The hall of the lost has let me go.
This is songwriting of the highest order, incisive and deeply felt. The fact Kahane doesn’t even live here (although born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Northern California and lives in New York) says something too: that the tired La-la Land cliches have finally fallen away. Gabriel Kahane is appearing tonight at the Fonda, opening for the Punch Brothers, and I’m looking forward to his performance.