Movies watched, February 9-22, 2008
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996
This haunting documentary chronicles the trial of the West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelly, three teenagers who were convicted of brutally murdering three 8 year old boys, despite a lack of physical proof. The film suggests that the police hastily pointed the finger at the Three because they were under intense pressure to find the killer(s) and needed suspects. These outcast teenagers listened to Metallica, dressed in black, and one of them expressed interests in Wicca; sensationalized accounts of satanic rituals quickly spread, painting them as depraved devil-worshipping degenerates.
No actual concrete or DNA evidence implicating the Three is ever presented, with the only incriminating information being hearsay from various teenage girls, and a confession from Jessie that Damien and Jason had murdered the boys, while he had merely observed, providing occasional assistance—except that this confession is riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Jessie changes the time of the murders on multiple occasions, gradually shifting towards the time that the police suggest is correct. He says he saw Damien and Jason rape the boys, but medical examinations of their bodies suggest otherwise. And he says they were tied with brown rope, when in fact they were tied up with their own shoelaces. It’s hard to believe that someone would confess to a horrific crime that he didn’t commit—which in the end is the nail in his coffin that he just can’t pull out—but considering his low IQ (which is hearkened back to rather excessively) and high level of susceptibility, his lawyers argued that he may have been coerced into giving a false confession just to get the police off his back, assuming everything could be straightened out later.
As for the hearsay, several teenage girls claimed that they’d overheard Damien say he had killed the children and that he would kill two more whom he’d already picked out. But none could recall the circumstances, or who they were with, or how close within earshot they were standing to Damien, which all sounds a bit fishy to me. Moreover, Damien strikes me as fairly smart, so I find it highly unlikely that he would admit this in public, so loudly that others around him could hear him.
Troublingly, the Three don’t do a very adept job of conveying their innocence in the courtroom, in their fairly cold, detached mannerisms, the way they carry themselves so nonchalantly. Jason seems pretty timid and quiet; he is the one we hear from least in the film. Damien, on the other hand, comes across as intelligent but rather immature and naive (but then, he was still a teenager at the time), and makes various ill-advised comments—such as how he’s to become a kind of West Memphis bogeyman, the stuff of ghost stories and urban legend for years to come—of which most people don’t really grasp the humor. I can understand the inclination towards making these smartass remarks—he feels contempt for these people who blindly typecast him, so he in turn feeds their fears, messing with their heads. But unfortunately this stuff gets taken pretty seriously; his notebooks scribbled with pentagrams and Metallica lyrics, as well as quotes from Shakespeare, are simply the product of an angsty teen, standard fare for any high school outcast—and yet said notebook is produced in court as evidence of his guilt.
As with any documentary, it’s possible that the film is biased, although there is a lot of interview footage of the victims’ families, as well as with the law enforcement officials involved (but one can always conjecture that the filmmakers left things out, or that it was edited a certain way). And yet, I just can’t see any evidence that the West Memphis Three are guilty. The only strike against them is Jessie’s confession, which is full of holes and contradictions. After that, all the plaintiffs have are their prejudices, their hatred, their extreme desire to capture someone, to finally have a person to direct this anger toward. Early on in the film, one of the victim’s mothers is asked if she thinks they’re guilty, to which she replies something along the lines of, “Of course they did it—just look at them!” With remarks such as these, it seems like they never even had a chance.
Paradise Lost II: Revelations, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2000
While I found the original Paradise Lost documentary to be chilling and thought-provoking, I’m not really sure why this sequel exists. Most of the content is fairly pointless, focusing on John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims, as he plays up for the camera (as Jason says, “play acting”), ranting and raving about how the West Memphis Three are going to hell, even burning makeshift effigies in the ravine where the children’s bodies were found. Byers is actually implicated in the crime at one point but fiercely denies it, almost to the point of suspicion, so passionate are his proclamations of innocence. He’s undoubtedly a strange character, but I’m not sure I needed to see him raging incoherently for several hours.
What I did find interesting were the examinations of the crime scene photos by a forensic expert contacted by members of Free the WM3, and wish the film’s focus would have fallen more along these lines. It does have its harrowing moments, mainly in interviews with Damien, who’s still on Death Row to this day. Every time I remember this fact, my stomach turns—he’s running out of time, which is pretty depressing.
Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston, 1990
In late 80s and early 90s New York City, there existed (hell, maybe it still exists, I don’t know) a subculture of poor, gay, black people who organized fashion shows (or “balls,” as they like to call them), wherein they could become whoever they wanted, masquerading in relation to themes running the gamut from military to high fashion to business executive to Dynasty. The appeal is simple: in real life you’re nobody, but for one night you can be a star. The styles and music depicted onscreen are fairly dated, but it’s still a fascinating portrait of a bygone time and place, both joyful and sad. The sadness stems from many of the participants’ actual fates: poverty, drugs, prostitution, and in one cited case, murder. And yet, the joy overpowers the melancholy, exuding an ecstatic and vibrant energy.
Bright Leaves, Ross McElwee, 2003
Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee discovers that there’s a 1950 Hollywood movie, Bright Leaf, that may be based on his great-grandfather, once a leading figure in the tobacco industry who lost the family fortune to the Dukes. Thereon McElwee explores the implications of this discovery, that his family may be responsible for years of suffering and addiction at the hands of tobacco—and they aren’t even enjoying any of the benefits (a strange preoccupation, admittedly). The Dukes, for instance, have a huge estate and a university named after them, while his family lives in a modest home in the shadow of the Duke mansion—there is the small, almost nonexistent McElwee Park, which “even has a few benches!”, yet otherwise the McElwees’ legacy goes largely unnoticed in this city.
McElwee becomes obsessed with Bright Leaf’s being about his great-grandfather, and contacts film critic Vlada Petric in hopes of discussing it with him. This results in one of the film’s most memorable scenes—Petric turns out to be quite the eccentric (to say the least), and insists on conducting the interview while wheeling McElwee around in a wheelchair, to create the effect of movement. But Petric proves himself a wise sage when, after McElwee explains the reason for his curiosity about Bright Leaf, he replies, “Who cares?” Seriously—who cares? Even if it truly were based on the story of his great-grandfather, this hokey Hollywood film would not play the role of a surreal home movie, or artifact of his family story, as McElwee asserts. Regardless, Bright Leaves is a humorous exploration of family legacy, the tobacco industry, and what it is to be Southern, not to mention a few other things thrown into the mix. It defies neat categorization—a kind of meandering diary, whose entries circle around a particular preoccupation.
The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, 1988
Here’s another film that illustrates the faults of our legal system, in which we can convict a man of a crime even though all the facts point toward someone else. Unlike Paradise Lost, however, this film resulted in the innocent party’s exoneration, an amazing achievement that transcends its role of a mere film. Morris is a tireless seeker of truth, and will go to the ends of the earth (most recently, Croatia) to find it. He managed to secure a tape of what is, ostensibly, the real killer’s roundabout confession: “[The police] didn’t blame him. I did. A scared sixteen year old kid who would sure like to get out of it if he can...they didn’t have nothing else until I gave them something, so I guess they get something, they run with it.” Maybe it’s unfair to insinuate that if Morris had directed Paradise Lost, the West Memphis Three would have been acquitted—but who else could have accomplished such a feat by making a film?
Vernon Florida, Errol Morris, 1982
I wrote about Vernon, Florida (aka Nub City) last year. While perhaps not my favorite of Morris' films, it's still a great one.