The Jinx as Vigilante Documentary

April 16, 2015
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The-JinxHBO’s crime docu-drama, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, made headlines when the miniseries’ subject, Robert Durst, was arrested the day before the condemning finale aired. For many people, myself included, this was the first they had heard of the show, which had begun airing on February 8th. The series is absorbing, in classic train-wreck fashion; as parts of the story unfold it becomes more and more clear that Durst is a troubled man, regardless of whether or not he killed his wife Kathleen McCormack Durst and best friend Susan Berman, in addition to the shooting and dismembering Morris Black.

Besides the morbid subject matter, I found two developments in this show particularly disturbing. The first is the way in which cinematic stylings are used to bring this documentary in line with HBO’s aesthetic. The second is the rhetorical position Jarecki places himself in, in regards to his role as a documentarian. Although these two developments seem unrelated, they interact to create a dangerous documentary television standard.

I wasn’t overly concerned with Durst’s story, especially in regards to his guilt or innocence. As the series progressed, it became more clear that little trust could be placed in the highly stylized version of events depicted in the show. The cinematic aesthetic, standard in HBO shows, were especially macabre and out-of-place when applied to a true-crime story. The title sequence, for instance, is indistinguishable that of a fictional crime story that might air on any prestige television channel. The show makes frequent use of crime reenactments, like one might see on a 60-Minutes special, but the high production value of an HBO show make these sequences uncomfortable; the fact that Susan Berman really was shot in the head and died on the floor of her bedroom makes the frequent cuts to the reenactment footage downright grisly, as the editing lingers over shots of spreading pools of blood. Assumably the aesthetic is meant to act as a cross-legitimation: to make the show seem up to HBO’s high standards, and to make the high standards of HBO shows live up to real life. Yet instead it ends up fictionalizing real life to make it more theatrical, adding slow motion and color filters to the cold murder of a real woman.

The plot’s timeline obscures when interviews and other filming took place in relation to each other. The issues with the timeline, as seen in the show compared to what director Andrew Jarecki says, has been much discussed online. The dangerous part of the questionable timeline of police involvement is the suggestions that Jarecki specifically withheld evidence in order to maximize publicity. The audience is allowed increasingly long sections of behind-the-scenes footage of Jarecki and the rest of the crew. The more background information we got, the more concerned I was about the rhetorical position in which Jarecki places himself.

It’s not particularly unusual for a documentarian to be included in the story that they’re filming. One might argue it’s inevitable that the presence of a film crew will have an effect on the events they’re filming. Yet Jarecki includes a lot of footage of himself struggling to come to terms with the potential guilt of the subject at hand, arguing aloud that he liked Durst personally, which made it hard to believe he might be guilty of two murders (in addition to the shooting and dismemberment of Black, events with Durst does not deny happened). At some point in the timeline, the crew uncovers new, potentially damning evidence in the form of a sample of Durst’s handwriting that seems to match that of a letter sent to the police in regards to Berman’s body. Although Jarecki claims to have been working with the police and with legal advice throughout the process, it becomes clear from the behind-the-scenes footage that there was no official supervision guiding them when they found the handwriting sample. Rather than informing the police or an attorney of their find—a find which could potentially reopen the case against Durst—Jarecki removes it from the premises and conducts an extensive investigation, calling on the expertise of a handwriting analyst to compare samples. Although this makes for absorbing television, it also completely destroys the chain of custody on this evidence, putting its potential use in a legal context up for question.

The disregard for legal procedure becomes especially underlined when Jarecki states that he’s out to get “justice.” Rather than attempting to record the truth of a situation—ostensibly the purpose of a documentarian—Jarecki explicitly sets himself up as a vigilante, using film-making to correct injustices in the world. It’s not that documentaries can’t be used to change the world or to correct injustices, in general. However, they do so by using small, specific examples to expose larger, systemic problems. The large systematic problems in the legal system are there, starting with the fact that there was evidence like this handwriting sample waiting to be found. The Jinx doesn’t offer any particular critique of the law, though. Rather, it sets Jarecki and his crew up as vigilante investigators, coming to the truth of the situation where the law couldn’t (and all while the cameras happen to be rolling).

Because of HBO’s prestige branding. The Jinx‘s presence on the network legitimizes the show as an acceptable approach to documentary making. Supporting vigilante documentary as an acceptable approach to seeking “justice” is a potentially dangerous trend.  That Jarecki’s publicity grab worked so effectively to draw eyes (including, I’m sad to say in retrospect, my own) spells out a troubling direction for television to move towards.


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