The Jinx

This week I finally caught the finale of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. If you haven't seen it yet, then avoid the SPOILERS in this post ahead and move on.

The ending, as many have noted, was stunning, like some Michael Haneke movie come to life. Rarely has a still shot of an empty room been so fraught with horror. Just before then, when confronted with handwriting evidence that seemed to implicate him irrefutably, Durst started burping loudly, as if his subconscious was about to regurgitate the truth on camera. And then it did? Durst muttering “Killed them all, of course.” into a hot mic while he was in the bathroom alone couldn't be any more of a Shakespearean soliloquy if it came from the pen of the Bard himself.

The hot mic's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Like some, however, I take issue with some of Jarecki's choices. The first is his use of reenactments. I yearn for more just talking heads when it comes to documentary style, so I can understand the temptation of reenactments. Rather than just having someone talk about something that happened, you can hand the viewer a visual.

In doing so, though, you rob the viewer of their imagination, and you unconsciously bias them in all sorts of ways. One person might claim something happened. By actually enacting that moment on screen, that testimony gains corporeal form and feels more real. Or, if the reenactment is lousy, it seems less credible. Either way, the visuals overpower the spoken word, even as one is just one filmmaker's fancy.

Richard Brody writes:

Reënactments aren’t what-ifs, they’re as-ifs, replete with approximations and suppositions that definitively detach the image from the event, the vision from the experience. One of Jarecki’s reënactments leaves me strangely obsessed with an insignificant detail that takes on an outsized significance in revealing the inadequacy of his method for the emotional essence of the story. In the second episode, Kathie Durst’s friend Gilberte Najamy tells Jarecki that, before her disappearance, Kathie Durst went to a party at her house, where she told Najamy that she was afraid of Robert Durst, and insisted that, if anything happened to her, Najamy should “check it out.” To signify that there had indeed been a party at Najamy’s house, Jarecki offers a tracking shot of a table laden with platters of food—including a pasta salad with a single pitted black olive sticking up from it. I’m obsessed with that olive. Did Najamy describe to Jarecki the dishes that she served? Did she describe the table itself, the room? Did Jarecki film this scene where Najamy lived at the time, or where she lives now? Or did Jarecki assume that Najamy, or someone like Najamy (whatever he’d mean by that), would at the time have served that kind of pasta salad at a party that might look like that? Najamy’s account is powerful; Jarecki’s image is generic. Najamy is specific, concrete, and detailed. She delivers a crucial piece of her life, whole, to Jarecki—who treats it like a hack’s screenplay and makes a facile illustration of it.
Beyond the awe-inspiring (and sometimes awful) recollections of people involved in the past events that are at the center of the drama, Jarecki brings into play actual objects that bear a physical connection to them—which is why the objects of dubious provenance (such as a box of police records relating to Kathie Durst’s disappearance, sealed with red “evidence” tape) are such offenses to the dignity of the film’s subjects. Jarecki shows this box being taken from a shelf; he puts the camera inside the shelf and shows the box being put back there; he shows the box being unsealed and then sealed again. It’s impossible to know whether this is the actual evidence box for the case; whether the handwriting on the box is actually that of a police clerk from the time; whether the files pulled from it were handled by the actual investigators who worked on the case; whether the room where it’s stored is the actual file room or a studio mockup.

Jarecki doesn't just shoot conventional re-enactments, either. They are highly stylized. In my memory's eye, two shots from the series I can't shake (besides the last one of the series) are one of some actress playing Durst's mother committing suicide and the other of some actress playing Susan Berman toppling after being shot in the head. Both are images of female bodies falling, and both are played in slow motion, over and over, like something fetishistic shot from 300.

What's a shame is the series doesn't need them. Some of the reenactments are less stylized, but that just makes them harder to distinguish from live shots from the present. I don't mind a mixture of fiction and non-fiction in documentaries, but some spirit of fair play seems called for, especially when it's documentary as investigative journalism.

Many probably find all of this to be nitpicking and may not have had any problems with the series as filmed. It may be easier to understand if we examine the question using a series that many grouped with The Jinx, the podcast Serial. Imagine in Serial if, after Sarah heard testimony from a witness like Jay about seeing Hae's body in the trunk of the car at Best Buy, she put together an audio recreation of those events. If Sarah had hired some voice actors to play Adnan and Jay, recreating the conversation as Jay recalled it, layering in sound effects like a trunk popping open. Regardless of whether listeners felt Adnan was guilty, many would be uncomfortable with the technique.

The last episode steers clear of reenactments, but the cumulative effect of the one's from the first five episodes was such that I wasn't sure whether to buy the shots of Jarecki himself in the finale, speaking about how he feared for his life (this piece at Buzzfeed goes into a more in-depth stylistic breakdown of the narrative manipulation at work). Jarecki clearly doesn't shy from drama, but the use of all these tricks leads one to discount everything on screen, the way one applies a base level of skepticism to stories from a proven drama queen.

Another issue with the series is Jarecki's manipulation of the timeline. In the last episode, it seems as if Robert Durst agrees to sit with Jarecki for another interview (the now infamous one which concludes the series) only after police arrest Durst outside his brother's home. I thought for sure that was the sequence of events because it's shown in that order, and the series includes audio from a phone call from Durst to Jarecki asking for the director's help.

But when Jarecki was asked about whether he had manipulated this timeline in the NYTimes, he suddenly seemed as uncomfortable as Durst was in the last interview of The Jinx.

When did you discover the piece of audio from the bathroom, in which Mr. Durst seemed to confess?
Jarecki: That was at the tail end of a piece of an 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.
So it was more than two years later. From watching the episode, it seemed as if the 2013 arrest of Robert Durst for violating the order of protection by walking on his brother Douglas’s brownstone steps happened after the second interview.
Jarecki (to Smerling): I’m hearing a lot of noise. And if we’re going to talk about the timeline, we should actually sit in front of the timeline. So that’s my suggestion, if that’s the subject you want to talk about.
I’m just trying to clarify if the arrest for being on Douglas Durst’s property happened after the second interview.
Jarecki: Yeah, I think I’ve got to get back to you with a proper response on that.

Someone check the tails of that audio recording of Jarecki's interview, maybe his mic was still hot?

Maybe, as some have put it, we're a bunch of whiny brats all that matters is we caught that murderer and got six hours of lurid, compelling TV to boot. Judging by what critical reception I've seen, The Jinx was a resounding success, and so, perhaps as the underrated movie Nightcrawler depicted, we'll happily go along with a coming wave of vigilante journalism.

Perhaps the filming of The Jinx can be the subject of Serial, Season 2. Vigilante journalism recursion, the snake eating its own tail. Who am I kidding, I wouldn't be able to look away.

Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL)

The most exciting documentary films being made today come not from a brand-name auteur or even some up-and-coming, Sundance-anointed visionary. Rather, they come from a place called the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which sounds more like somewhere an ophthalmologist might send you than a source of great filmmaking.


Could the SEL be a model for a new kind of filmmaking? More and more budding filmmakers are taking affordable GoPro cameras and seeing what kind of images they can capture with them — attaching them to bikes, placing them on consumer drones, jumping out of airplanes with them, etc. “For a lot of people, these films are their first experience with experimental cinema, but they’re so impressed by it all,” says Krivoshey. “And I think that will have an enormous effect. Who knows what other films these people will see, and in some cases make, after seeing these films?”

But the unfiltered feel of SEL films is not achieved easily: It’s a product of academic rigor and a dedication to fieldwork and observation. The Lab was founded at Harvard in 2006 by Castaing-Taylor, an anthropologist by training. It’s an interdisciplinary program that admits around ten students a year, with a course called Sensory Ethnography. There are a couple of editing rooms that belong to the SEL, as well as equipment filmmakers can check out to take to distant corners of the world.  

Bilge Ebiri profiles a program that has produced some of the best, most groundbreaking documentaries ever.

I find many documentaries largely squander their medium, using a lot of footage of talking heads.  Sometimes archival footage isn't available, but relying on talking heads to provide the running narrative is not much of an improvement on reading the story, and often it's worse. While it's great to hear people's voices, see their face and body on the big screen, over reliance is a dull affair. I saw so many such formally monochromatic documentaries at Sundance before I just decided to steer clear of the category and wait to hear what was good before committing two hours of my time to one.

Leviathan, SEL's documentary about a North Atlantic fishing boat, was so far from a conventional documentary it left me in a trance. No voiceover, barely any dialogue, just long, unbroken shots from cameras tucked into a variety of nooks and crannies inside and outside one fishing trawler. Some of the images are so memorable I can still summon them from memory nearly two years after first viewing: one shot of fish from the most recent catch sliding back and forth on the deck of the boat as it sways to and fro in the ocean, many of the fish still gasping for air (or water, as it is); another shot of blood, discarded appendages and innards, and ocean water—the other accumulated detritus of the catch—spewing out of the side of the boat, as if the trawler itself were some Biblical leviathan, defecating into the ocean. If it weren't so expensive to have flat screen TVs running 24/7 all over my apartment, Leviathan is one of the things I'd have playing on them on a loop, a constant reminder of how alien life on this earth can be.

A lot of the footage wasn't high definition the way people are accustomed to these days (look at all the negative Amazon reviews complaining about picture quality), but they are gorgeous and awe-inspiring. And the prospect of long, uncut shots with no dialogue or voiceover is not for everyone. Frankly, it's not for most people. You've been forewarned.

However, if you, too, are tired of the same, overproduced documentary style, the one that prevails not just at film festivals but in movie theaters and on television, I highly recommend the work of the SEL. If you have a Netflix account, you can stream SEL's latest work Manakamana, a series of unbroken shots from a fixed camera perched in a cable car carrying pilgrims and tourists up to a Hindu temple atop a mountain. No one can accuse the SEL's documentary descriptions of selling too hard, but that is of a piece with their cinematic approach.

Unlike most conventional documentaries, in which every production choice feels like a shove towards the filmmakers' judgment, SEL's films both bring you into aching proximity with their subjects (the long, continuous shot is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for the modern short attention-span brain, but I think of it as a form of visual meditation and immersion) and yet render them mysterious and alien (the lack of any voiceover, title cards, or explanatory narrative means your'e dropped into a world and expected to figure everything out, Myst-style). In doing so, SEL transports the audience closer to the nature of truth, in all its slippery contradictions and Moebius-like contours, than any other documentaries being made today.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

The great documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself is finally coming out on DVD October 14. I had to catch this years ago on a bootleg DVD that some cinephile friend had managed to track down. While in LA I somehow always managed to miss the annual screening at the American Cinematheque.

It's rare in this age to have things that are actually hard to find. Fans had long assumed the movie wasn't available because all the movie clips would prove impossible to clear, but apparently all the clips were covered under fair use.

Fair use in movies comes down to three questions: Is the clip illustrating an idea that the filmmaker is trying to make in the new work? Is the clip being used in a reasonably appropriate manner? And is the connection clear between the clip and the point being made? If the filmmaker can answer yes to all three questions, then, Donaldson says, it's fair use and the movie can be insured against lawsuits.

I hope this frees people up to do more film analysis online using actual clips from movies. It still feels like an underserved market, perhaps because most people don't want to go to the trouble of tracking down a DVD and ripping it, or perhaps because we're all philistines.

Lance Armstrong's final lie?

He would also like people to know he really was clean when he came out of retirement for the 2009 Tour de France. He cleaned up along with everyone else once the nearly foolproof doping-detection method known as the "biological passport" came in, which was why the whole antidoping inquisition was pointless. The problem was already solved. Before his comeback, he called the infamous doctor Michele Ferrari, subject of so many doping rumors and investigations, and asked if he could still win the Tour clean. Ferrari said he had to run some numbers. Later he called back. "If you're lucky."

The antidoping agency accused him of cheating anyway, saying there was a one-in-a-million chance that Armstrong didn't have transfusions of his own blood in '09. "Bullshit," he says. "They'll find out someday, 'cause they'll perfect that transfusion test. And I'll be the first guy to say 'Use it.' "

From Lance Armstrong in Purgatory: The After-Life in Esquire.

Two years ago I saw Alex Gibney's documentary The Armstrong Lie at TIFF. Betsy Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters were at the Q&A afterwards. One of the things in the documentary that struck me was that though Armstrong confessed all of his doping to Alex Gibney in an interview that was shot immediately after the confession to Oprah, Armstrong still insisted that he did not dope in his comeback to the Tour de France in 2009. He said he made a promise to his wife Kristin that if he came back to the sport he would do it clean.

Most everything that can be written or said about Armstrong has been already. This mystery remains: why does he hold on to his insistence that he raced clean in his comeback? Is it because he didn't win those two Tours in his two comeback years and, his competitive juices still flowing, feels he was racing against cyclists who were doping? Is it just a point of pride for him, one tiny consolation for those who feel the rest of his cycling career was tainted by the doping scandal?

In The Armstrong Lie, Gibney followed Armstrong on his comeback in 2009 and 2010. The 2009 Tour was not, given Armstrong's expectations, a success. When put to the test in early mountain stages, he could not stay with overall Tour contenders like teammate Alberto Contador or Andy Schleck.

He had one late minor triumph, however. On stage 20, which ended with a climb up the legendary Mont Ventoux, Armstrong stayed with the top Tour racers all the way to the top. It was like an aging superstar summoning one final hurrah. The next morning, the headline of L'Equipe read “Chapeau Le Texan” (hats off to the Texan).

Andy Schleck, who finished second in the 2009 Tour, just ahead of Armstrong, believes Armstrong raced clean that year.

"He made his comeback and he was beaten in the first year by Alberto and me," said Schleck, who is in Australia to ride the Tour Down Under, first event of the 2013 WorldTour.

"So, in my eyes, I was clean. I know I was always a clean rider and I keen on riding clean. So why should he be behind me?

"I believe in his comeback that he was clean."

Bradley Wiggins, who finished in fourth, just behind Armstrong, thinks the idea that Armstrong was clean in 2009 is bollocks.

“When he said that about 2009-10, I thought 'you lying b------',” said Wiggins, recalling two particular mountain stages in the 2009 event. “I can still remember going toe to toe with him and watching the man I saw on the top of Verbier in 2009 to the man I saw on the top of Ventoux a week later when we were in doping control together. It wasn't the same bike rider.”

Because 2009 was raced with under the new biological passport program, we have data with which to assess Armstrong's performance that year, and several people pointed out some suspicious values in the data.

Here are Armstrong's blood and urine test results from 2009:

Look at the scores from 7/2, just before the Tour de France started, to 7/25, or stage 20 of the Tour, which ended with the climb up Mont Ventoux.

The data that some flagged as suspicious were his Hemoglobin and Hematocrit % from July 2, just before the Tour started, to stage 20 on July 25, the day Armstrong kept up with the race leaders on the climb up Mont Ventoux, looking to be in better form than he had the entire Tour.

Most cyclists see declines in hemoglobin and hematocrit levels during the three grueling weeks of a grand tour, so the fact that Armstrong's levels stayed dipped some the first week of the Tour and then bounced back to pre-Tour levels, with a spike from July 11-14, indicates to those who were suspicious of Armstrong (and these days, it's hard to find anyone that isn't) that he performed blood doping or took EPO during the race.

One's hydration level can swing those scores, so it's not a foolproof data point, but if you're inclined to doubt, the value changes from 7/20 to 7/25 support a constructed narrative that have Armstrong, suffering to hold onto his podium spot, taking a bag of blood sometime before the stage up the grueling Mont Ventoux to hang onto the final step of the podium. Indeed, Armstrong finished the Tour in third place, holding off Bradley Wiggins by 37 seconds.

I suspect it's hard to find too many people who believe that Armstrong was really clean in 2009, and yet Armstrong still clings to that claim with his well-chronicled Texan defiance.

There is one other theory about why Armstrong hangs on to this one last story of competitive integrity, and that is a legal one. I've heard from reporters who've covered the Armstrong story that there is a five year statute of limitations and that Armstrong had to claim innocence in 2009 to prevent more organizations from coming after him for various prize and sponsorship money. Given the slew of legal actions against him, it could be that his innocence in 2009 is critical to him maintaining financial solvency.

Now that we're in 2014, that statute of limitations is close to expiring. Perhaps at that point Armstrong will confess to doping even in his comeback, and the final few tumbles from grace will complete themselves.

China, movies, censorship, and The Act of Killing

From Priceonomics, Hollywood's New Chinese Censors:

Some of the changes made to placate China’s censors are the type of harmless edits only a bureaucrat could love, like tweaks to Kung Fu Panda to ensure that the image of China’s beloved panda was not slighted. Others are for graphic content. Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained had to remove some violent scenes and nudity. 

But other changes demanded or encouraged by censors are not as harmless. The pandering to China in Looper (portraying China as a strong superpower) and in Iron Man 3 (flying the protagonist to China to seek out a particularly skilled surgeon) fits nicely with China’s desire to strengthen its global image.

Chinese censors removed a line from the movie Life of Pi, “religion is darkness,” for fear of angering the devout. This suggests that former President Hu Jintao’s concept of a “harmonious society” and avoiding polemic issues motivates the censorship board. 

Censors also successfully demanded changes to the zombie flick World War Z. Originally, the movie cited China as the source of the zombie outbreak. Quartz writes that the script also called for characters to discuss how the Chinese government covered it up - a plotline that censors probably found far too reminiscent of accusations that the Chinese government covered up a SARS outbreak in 2003, as well as more recent viruses. The moviemakers changed the location of the outbreak to Russia.


Indonesia is not anywhere close to the size of China as a movie market, so the question of censorship when it comes to the recently released documentary The Act of Killing is still being answered.

Counting Errol Morris and Werner Herzog among its executive producers, The Act of Killing was the most fascinating movie I saw at TIFF last year. It's a documentary about former Indonesian death squad members who are still alive and thriving in modern Indonesia, but what sets it apart from other documentaries is its approach to driving at the truth.

Instead of simply interviewing the former death squad members about what happened, or sifting through archival footage or photos (I'm not certain if any such material exists), the director asked them to re-enact their atrocities as Hollywood-inspired movies.

Some have criticized the documentary for a dearth of hard historical facts and narrative. That's fair.

However, this documentary is less just hand-wringing over a historical atrocity than an examination of the interplay between narrative and memory. He could've asked these murderers what happened, but it's not clear that they'd be any more truthful than they were when asked to recreate those events. What's shocking is how much they actually embrace the exercise and cast their movies in the genres they love: gangster films, musicals, and westerns.

In one particularly unforgettable scene, the death squad member we spend the most time following, Anwar Congo, takes the film crew to a theater where he recalls swaggering out after an uplifting Elvis movie and then crossing the street to a building where they killed several people while still flush with the emotional high from the movie.

What Oppenheimer does with Congo and others is essentially lead them through a crude sense memory exercise. It's using method acting as a way of tunneling into the past and trying to bring about an emotional reckoning for these men. 

The most famous instance of this is a fictional one, of course. Hamlet has a theatre troupe act out what he suspects was the murder of his father in front of the suspected murderer, his uncle Claudius. In this case, Anwar Congo and others are themselves the actors, and they write their own narrative. Given those differences, does Oppenheimer "catch the conscience of the king"? It's worth seeing the documentary to judge for yourself.

Here Joshua Oppenheimer talks about how he avoided having The Act of Killing banned in Indonesia (video).  How people receive it in Indonesia is the most important response, and what little I've read so far suggests it is causing Indonesians to rethink their history.

The internet, as I've noted many times before, is greatest at increasing the accessibility and distribution of information. Given the importance of information in construction of narrative, it's not surprising that China would put up a Great Firewall, and the censorship of movies that come into its market from abroad is simply another type of information that must be filtered.

If you visit China, what's disturbing when you speak to many of the people there is that the censorship works. To the victors belong the illusion.