Jinx, Serial, and the Truer Than True Crime Drama

Mild spoilers for both Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and the Serial podcast.

Earlier this week I sat down to watch the first episode of HBO’s Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Instead, I ended up binging through all six episodes. It was riveting television. As a Facebook friend described it, “Jinx is Serial with results.”

Serial, the This American Life-produced “true crime” series that investigated the case of Adnan Syed, jailed since 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Serial was immediately embraced by pop culture, spawning columns and subreddits that traded theories and anticipated each new installment like it was a new episode of True Detective. I enjoyed it but it fell far short of revelatory. I found it a bit difficult to keep all the threads straight despite producer/host Sarah Koenig’s best efforts to contextualize each new bit of information.

And there was, of course, the resolution. Which was really anything but. There was no big revelation that cracked the cold case wide open, and by episode ten, the climax we got was Koenig revealing her own personal conclusions regarding Syed’s guilt. While interesting to be sure, it was an ending I was just as happy to read about in Salon’s episode recap than sit through myself.

Whereas Serial’s ending was ambiguous, Jinx’s showed us the discovery of a new piece of startling evidence and a damn-near confession from the subject himself. It had all the parts of a satisfying fiction narrative, including a grand finale that made Serial’s look like a damp squib in comparison. (Granted, this is due in no small part to incredible luck, and both productions did result in the re-opening of their respective cases.)

Where things get dicey, I think, is when the film and the filmmakers become a part of the story. By episode five of Jinx, the director, editor, and producer take an active role in the narrative. Episode six is almost entirely built upon the tense lead-up to their final interview with Durst. Though the filmmakers are careful to walk us through their thought processes and maintain their impartiality as much as humanly possible, it becomes their story as much as the subject’s.

And man, the ending is so perfect, the revelations so seismic, it’s amazing that it wasn’t staged.

What we end up with is a series that entertains just as well as any Sunday night drama and inspires the same passion and devotion as its fictional counterparts. The opening credit sequence for Jinx is as oddly hypnotic and as beautifully realized as that of HBO’s megahit True Detective, making it difficult not to draw some comparisons. Except in Jinx’s case, the tales of murder are actually true.

I imagine a lot of true crime projects are going to be fast tracked after the phenomenal success of Jinx and Serial. But not all of them are going to be as perfect as Jinx. Kudos to the filmmakers for drawing out new evidence. But the new evidence existed to be found in the first place.

At the end of the day, I guess I’m wondering whether this is entertainment or journalism or some weird hybrid of both, and what that means. Are these real life events elevated or trivialized when packaged as Sunday night drama? Or does it matter at all?

I could be overthinking it. All I know is there are two things from last weekend’s television offerings that have stuck with me a week later: “motherdick” as an amazing example of network censor contortionism, and anyone who spells Beverley with an extra ‘E’ is probably a murderer.

FacebookTwitterRedditGoogle+TumblrEmailShare

It’s Okay to Not Like Things

Recently I wrote that I confuse my tendency to focus on positive aspects of a piece rather than the negative for a difficulty forming strong opinions. Because critics tend to be the loudest and most certain, they must be smarter than me to be have such certainty.

But obviously that’s bullshit. I have very strong opinions about many things. I just usually concentrate on what works rather than what doesn’t because I want to like things and I want them to work. It’s a mistake to confuse that with not having a critical eye.

Now that I’ve given myself permission to like things that other people don’t without feeling like I’m not as smart as they are, I’ve realized that the flipside is also true. It’s okay to not like things that other people like. This too can be a difficult proposition: when popular consensus swings one way, it’s natural to wonder how you can miss something that everyone else seems to get.

I’m not a fan of the Lord of the Rings. I’ve read the books, seen the movies, and it just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve horrified people with that opinion. I’ve sat patiently while they explain to me all the reasons why it’s so good, and I understand. I’d feel obligated to articulate why I didn’t like it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter one iota. I just don’t like it. Enough said.

There’s a tendency to confuse having a contrarian opinion with having extra-super discerning taste (especially on the part of the contrarian). That is, of course, absurd. People who like Lord of the Rings are not stupid.

It’s possible to acknowledge a valid point while still maintaining your overall opinion. And it’s important that you allow yourself to be swayed by what others say, or else we’re just talking to hear ourselves talk and missing out on having a meaningful conversation.

So now you’ve considered and deliberated and have solidified your opinion. Great. The only other thing you need to know? Don’t be a dick about it.

 

FacebookTwitterRedditGoogle+TumblrEmailShare

The “Real” Ghostbusters

I grew up with the Ghostbusters films. I love them to pieces. (Yes, even the second one.) I had a proton pack. “Egon Spengler” entertained at my fifth birthday party in lieu of a clown. When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became all the rage I clung to my Ghostbusters action figures in an early example of fan loyalty.

Basically, my Ghostbusters bonafides are pretty spectacular for someone who wasn’t of theater-going age when the original movie came out.

That said, I’ve never liked the idea of a Ghostbusters 3. Coming so long after the 80s films, it just seemed too likely to veer into nuke-the-fridge territory. Doubly so after the death of Harold Ramis. When most of the appeal of the movie is already predicated upon seeing the original cast together again, continuing without a major member of that cast would only make the loss more acute.

Nor did I like the idea of a reboot film. That is, I didn’t until the announcement of a reboot with an all-female cast. That, at least on the surface, seemed like a different enough take on the material that it might be something unique and special in its own right. And the notion of gender-bending a “boy’s movie” has the added bonus of being a somewhat progressive, even subversive proposition, which is always a good thing in my book. I’d even go as far to say that it’s worth doing on that basis alone.

…but now there’s come the news that there is another Ghostbusters film in the works, this one with a male cast. Coming so close on the heels of the announcement of the all-female reboot, and immediately staking out its territory as a “guy-centric” Ghostbusters film, it’s hard not to see this as anything other than a lack of confidence in the “girl movie.” And there’s an uncomfortable implication that the female-led film is somehow not worthy of carrying the Ghostbusters mantle on its own. That it’s not a “real” Ghostbusters movie.

Suffice to say, this is problematic at best. I know that Akroyd and director Ivan Reitman are protective of their franchise, and it seems to me that they either weren’t included or weren’t interested in the direction the studio wanted to go with it. I wasn’t in the room and I have no idea who objected to what and why. I just know that the end result is a situation that, well, looks pretty damn sexist. I’m not saying there was any conscious sexism on the part of anyone involved, but that’s the thing about sexism. It’s sneaky. And it doesn’t have to be conscious to exist.

I’m also sick of hearing people arguing against the movie on the basis that it’s “ruining their childhood.” Grow up. We’re living in a post-Star Wars prequels age. We know how to get over disappointment. Reboots and sequels get made and they don’t always live up to our expectations, but our childhoods are still there as we left them. (Assuming you have left, that is.)

This particular remake actually has something going for it, because there should be an all-female Ghostbusters in 2015. It’s sad that women have to fight to prove that they’re just as funny or capable as men, and this reboot is a statement that unfortunately still needs to be made as loudly and as clearly as possible.

But the best reason to make this reboot is that it’s going to be fucking funny. The boys are going to have their work cut out for them. I just wish we didn’t have to highlight and strengthen divisions between the sexes by feeling the need to make a “guy’s movie” in response.

FacebookTwitterRedditGoogle+TumblrEmailShare

I Want to Like Things

comic-book-guy-5

RIP Sam Simon.

I’m impressed by critics. After watching something for the first (or maybe second) time, they have to form a strong and distinct position that they have to be able to stand behind. Every so often I’ll come away from a movie or a TV show with such a fully-formed, opinion, but just as often I find I need time to articulate exactly what I think.

Take the most recent season of House of Cards. I had the luxury of being able to hole up one weekend and excitedly watch all 13-episodes in two days. I came away with generally positive feelings, and as is my routine after watching something new, I quickly went online to read what other people had to say about it.

I was very surprised by what I found.

There are a couple of message boards that I read regularly, and the House of Cards thread was, well, pretty damn negative. There’s always some hyperbole on internet forums, and some people just get their kicks in by sniping from the sidelines, but the general consensus was that this season was not of the same quality as the first two. There were some very articulate arguments to back up these judgments, and I read them with an open mind. There were valid points, even some that had already crossed my mind. But it was the certainty that struck me the most. How right they were and how wrong the show was.

There they were, laid out point-by-point, all the reasons why the show was objectively bad and why I, therefore, was stupid for not realizing it. Maybe these people were smarter than me. Or maybe I just don’t have strong opinions about things.

After a bit more thought I shrugged away both of those thoughts. No, I’m not stupid, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I have very strong opinions about very many things. So why, then, such a disparity between my opinion and theirs?

That’s a big question, but here’s my first grasp at an answer: I want to like things. Did I like everything about House of Cards season three? No, but nothing so glaring that it hampered my enjoyment of the piece. I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt, especially knowing that they have a guaranteed fourth season coming down the pike. Maybe some of the things that made my antennae stand up will make more sense after seeing how they play out next year. I don’t know. But I do know that this latest season was far, far better than many of these armchair critics were making it out to be.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion when it comes to something as subjective as a piece of creative work. I grant that. But I’d wager that not one of these hyperbolic internet posters has ever written a novel, or directed a film, or produced a television series. Or maybe they just like feeling smart, and pointing out flaws in a work demonstrates their superiority more than showering praise. Part and parcel of any creative pursuit is acknowledging the risk that your ideas might not work the way you hope. Many writers and directors admit they fear being “found out” as a fraud, that everything good they’ve done until that point was a fluke.

It takes courage to do that. Certainly more courage than sniping from the sidelines.

 

FacebookTwitterRedditGoogle+TumblrEmailShare
The Wrath of The Wrath of Khan

The Wrath of The Wrath of Khan

I didn’t intend to write two Star Trek-themed pieces in a row, but it seems appropriate: Not only did we lose Leonard Nimoy last week, but also Maurice Hurley (writer/producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation and creator of the Borg), and Harve Bennett just a few days ago. Bennett helped resurrect the Trek film franchise after the “disappointment” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as producer of the follow-up feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And Star Trek hasn’t been the same since.

The Wrath of Khan has been the template that so many Star Trek films have tried to emulate, usually with middling results. Every new film is the “best since Wrath of Khan,” every new villain is measured by how Khan-like they are. But the lessons learned from Star Trek II have been all the wrong ones.

Because Wrath of Khan was so successful and the titular villain so effective, writers and producers feel every Trek film needs a bigger and badder villain than Khan. This has had the effect of reducing many a Trek film to a hero versus super-villain formula, which is a format not generally suited to Star Trek. Many of these villains are fueled by revenge, but their motives don’t bear much scrutiny. Think Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, Nero in Star Trek (2009), and, well, Khan again in Star Trek Into Darkness. The most successful Star Trek film until Trek ’09 was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which had no villain at all.

First Contact, the most successful of The Next Generation films, also owes a debt to The Wrath of Khan, in the sense that it acts as a sequel to an episode of the TV series. The Borg in First Contact has weight as an enemy because it was a rematch with a foe previously encountered on the show. We don’t give a shit about Shinzon in Nemesis because we’ve never met him before. We don’t know who Nero is in Trek ’09, but he gets extra badass points for killing Kirk’s dad and destroying Vulcan in that movie. (First Contact, like Wrath of Khan, also lays the Moby Dick allusions on pretty thick but that’s neither here nor there.)

Star Trek Into Darkness goes so far as to re-introduce Khan as the villain in the rebooted universe. But it’s the pop culture version of Khan that Into Darkness trades on rather than the actual character. They wanted Khan to be to Kirk what The Joker was to Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But Khan was never the Enterprise’s worst enemy. He only has such notoriety among Trek fans because he’s indirectly responsible for Spock’s death and because the movie he was in was really good. Into Darkness even knows Khan isn’t that fearsome; they have to rely on a cameo from Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in a superfluous scene to tell the audience that “Khan was the most fearsome enemy the crew of the Enterprise ever encountered.” Which, for anyone who has seen any Star Trek, is patently untrue. Khan was formidable enemy but he’s hardly a super-villain. He got lucky because Kirk made a mistake, both by letting him off the hook in “Space Seed” and by letting himself be too complacent in Star Trek II. Khan forces our characters to reevaluate themselves, and Star Trek II is a movie about the past returning to haunt the present.

The Wrath of Khan is a great movie because it’s about more than space battles and fisticuffs. The stakes are personal, and the movie is willing to upset the status quo of Star Trek to explore new territory. As is often pointed out, Khan and Kirk don’t even meet face-to-face in the whole movie. I’d like to see a Star Trek movie that could pull that off again.

2016 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, and as of this writing it seems like the only commemoration we’re going to get is the third entry into the JJ Abrams film franchise. I’d like to hope that we’ll get a story that’s more than just another super-villain threatening the galaxy. Star Trek is capable of so much more than that.

FacebookTwitterRedditGoogle+TumblrEmailShare
In Search of…Spock

In Search of…Spock

Many people have highlighted Spock-centric scenes or quotations on social media following Leonard Nimoy’s death this past Friday. I’d like to recognize a particular Spock performance that I think has been overlooked throughout the years. It’s from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Yes, that Motion Picture. Conventional Trekkie wisdom says TMP is, well, bad. That it’s sterile and ponderous. That the uniforms are ugly. (Which they are.) But they’re neglecting the emotional journey that Spock takes in that movie. It’s not without its flaws, sure, but it’s one of the most important and misunderstood entries in the Star Trek franchise. Spock’s story in the film is central to its message and to Star Trek as whole.

By 1979 Star Trek had been off the air for over ten years but had been kept alive through a hugely successful run in syndication and a passionate fan base. In the wake of Star Wars, Trekkies were finally going to get their due when Paramount green-lit The Motion Picture after several false-starts throughout the decade. And the film we ended up with does something rather bold. Rather than picking up the status quo of the TV series, it starts out with the crew of the Enterprise split up. Even Captain Kirk isn’t Captain Kirk any more—he’s an admiral now—and the newly-redesigned Enterprise is no longer in his charge.

But more surprising than that is where we find Spock at the start of the film. Long-haired and on his home planet of Vulcan, Spock has been studying the discipline of Kolinahr, a Vulcan ritual that purges all emotion in favor of pure logic. As he is about to undergo his final rites, a consciousness from space calls out to his mind and reveals his emotional side to the elders. They tell Spock that he will not attain Kolinahr and must find what he seeks elsewhere.

The consciousness from space is V’Ger, a massive spaceborne entity that’s been destroying everything in its path and is on a direct course for Earth. Admiral Kirk uses the emergency to get the Enterprise back along with his old crew, even drafting the now-retired (and bearded) Dr. McCoy. On their way to intercept V’Ger, Spock manages to catch up with the Enterprise and asks to join the mission. The crew is overjoyed to have Spock back, but this is not the Spock they (or the audience) knew from the TV series. This Spock is colder, more aloof, barely acknowledging his former comrades and the friendship they once shared. McCoy wonders aloud if Spock could be using the Enterprise to reach V’Ger for his own means; a notion Kirk rejects outright. “I could never believe that,” he tells Bones of his old friend.

But when the Enterprise encounters V’Ger, Spock steals a spacesuit (neck-pinching a guy with an awesome 70s ‘stache in the process) and makes direct contact with the entity by himself. Kirk goes after him and finds an unconscious Spock floating in space; the result of an overpowering mind meld he attempted with V’Ger.

When Spock awakes in sickbay, he laughs. “I should have known,” he tells Kirk. V’Ger, having amassed all knowledge in the known galaxy, is now questioning its place and purpose in the universe. All the knowledge in the universe isn’t enough. It’s asking questions that it can’t answer on its own. Spock grabs the hand of his best friend, telling Kirk that V’Ger is unable to grasp “this simple feeling” of friendship. Through V’Ger, Spock discovers that in order to achieve true wisdom, he must embrace the emotional part of himself which he had previously tried to bury. It is through his understanding of V’Ger that the Enterprise is able to save the day. With Spock whole again, so too is Star Trek.

Spock embodies the values at the core of the Star Trek franchise; the merging of the rational and logical with the passionate and emotional. The pursuit of truth and enlightenment can be neither a purely rational nor purely spiritual one. The struggle between logic and emotion is personified in Spock. His struggle was central to Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek. Indeed, besides the Enterprise herself, the Spock character is the only carryover from Trek’s first pilot (“The Cage”) and the TV series. Beginning the first movie with Spock in crisis, and making it about the journey he takes to reconcile his dual nature, is nothing short of a bold reaffirmation of Star Trek’s mission statement.

There’s not another entry in the Trek franchise that so totally encapsulates Spock’s journey as The Motion Picture. Not “Amok Time,” not The Wrath of Khan, not “Unification.” We get glimpses in those, but nothing shouts as loudly or as clearly as TMP. We need both parts of ourselves, the rational and the spiritual, the logical and the emotional, in the pursuit of discovery.

Spock is as much a creation of Leonard Nimoy as Gene Roddenberry. Nimoy’s death is a great loss to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or that they didn’t belong. Because through Spock’s example, we learned that we must look inward and accept who we are before we can truly understand the world in which we live. And that is a legacy that will outlive all of us.

FacebookTwitterRedditGoogle+TumblrEmailShare