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Why Andrew Jarecki’s ‘The Jinx’ Could Be Very, Very Bad for Documentaries

Why Andrew Jarecki's 'The Jinx' Could Be Very, Very Bad for Documentaries

Spoiler Alert: This article about “The Jinx” discusses “The Jinx.”

It’s only been 10 days since the finale episode of Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx,” the six-part HBO series that ended with accused murderer Robert Durst apparently confessing into a hot mic. But according to Variety’s Cynthia Littleton and Brent Lang, it’s already ushering in a “golden age of documentaries,” adding fuel to “a white-hot market for deep-dive investigative documentary fare.”

The Variety article, which mainly focuses on pre-existing trends like the shift away from theatrical exhibition for documentaries and towards content providers old (HBO, CNN) and relatively new (Netflix), doesn’t really make the case for “The Jinx” as a transformational work, nor does it provide a single source for the opening assertion that Durst’s arrest on murder charges, a story that broke the day of the final episode’s premiere and instantly turned the show from a cult to a mass phenomenon, “was cause for celebration in documentary filmmaking circles.” In fact, if “The Jinx” is being held out as the paradigm of a successful documentary, that’s cause for great concern, no matter how many cold cases get solved.

In “The Jinx: Not My Documentary Renaissance,” “Actress” director Robert Greene — a card-carrying member of the “documentary community” — angrily rebuffed the idea that “The Jinx” should be a template for documentarians to follow. As a work of nonfiction filmmaking, he argued, it does far more harm than good:

Something is going on in nonfiction and it has lead to some very interesting films being made. My fear is that, because “The Jinx” has become such a controversial phenomenon, and because it’s such a sloppy, potentially unethical and self-serving piece of work, it threatens to cast a shadow on this era….

The bottom line to me is that “The Jinx” is bad cinema and bad journalism and, because it delivered an absolutely jaw-dropping conclusion that has understandably turned it into a culture phenomenon, that’s bad for what I care about. The series is arguably most effective as a kind of rumination on the deleterious effects of capitalism on storytelling, both because Durst has likely gotten away with murder due to his immense wealth and because the decision-making behind this TV show seems to have been guided by the worst market-driven urges.

READ MORE: ‘There It Is. You’re Caught’: Robert Durst and ‘The Jinx’s Hot Mic Moments

 As Kate Aurthur’s extensive reporting indicates, that “jaw-dropping conclusion” was the  result of no small amount of directorial trickery. As I’ve written before, that might not be such a big deal were Jarecki operating primarily as a documentary storyteller, but once he claims the title of investigative journalist — to say nothing of the angel of justice as which he eventually presents himself — playing fast and loose with the truth is no longer a minor offense. Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci throws up his hands at such piddling details, citing Werner Herzog’s oft-cited (and nearly as oft misapplied) distinction between “ecstatic truth” and “the truth of accountants,” but the question of Durst’s guilt or innocence is not a “larger truth.” It is a matter of specifics, the classic trinity of motive, means and opportunity. The broader issues of who Durst is — how witnessing his mother’s possible suicide at a young age might have affected him (or if indeed he witnessed it at all); what drove him to kill, and then to constantly flirt with capture — are swept aside in favor of two simple questions: Did he do it, and can Andrew Jarecki catch him out?

Jarecki’s drive towards certainty informs “The Jinx’s” frequent use of reenactments, which transform the subjective recollections of the movie’s subjects into objective truths. As Richard Brody writes in the New Yorker, they “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.”

For the most part, “The Jinx’s” reenactments are merely banal, serving as visual aids for the easily distracted. A subject tells us something happened —Kathie Durst went to a party at a friend’s, or Robert Durst chucked garbage bags containing the pieces of Morris Black’s body into Galveston Bay — and the reenactments show us that thing happening. But when Jarecki slows down the footage to let us gawk at Susan Berman’s corpse slumping to the floor, or the body of Durst’s mother plummeting through space, her nighty fluttering suggestively around her waist, they become obscene, as if the mere fact of a person’s death weren’t noteworthy without lurid visuals to underline it. There’s no moral sense to Jarecki’s filmmaking decisions, only the desire to squeeze every last drop of conventional drama out of his material. 

Brody may lump Jarecki’s reenactments in with the ones in Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” but they’re very nearly opposites — even though Jarecki never misses an opportunity to rip off Morris’ style. Morris’ reenactments — which are really, to use the distinction drawn by “The Act of Killing’s” Joshua Oppenheimer, more like dramatizations — are designed to make us question what we know, rather than reinforce it. Morris deliberately shows us things he knows to be wrong, sometimes overlaying images with a contradictory voiceover. Brody says he “stage[d] the events as they seemed to him,” but in fact the one thing Morris never shows us is what he understands to be the ultimate truth: that David Harris, and not the convicted Randall Dale Adams, is the one who murdered a police officer on a dark Dallas street. Morris came to believe Adams was innocent, and structured his film to reflect that fact, but “The Thin Blue Line” never took Adams’ release from jail as its sole or even primary objective.

“The Jinx,”on the other hand, transforms over its length from a character-driven exploration into a single-minded manhunt. Texas detective Cody Cazalas says, with tears in his eyes, that “as a homicide investigator, you work for God,” and Jarecki signs himself up for the holy crusade. The question that animates “The Jinx” isn’t what happened to Kathie Durst or who killed Susan Berman — unlike a journalist, let alone a detective, Jarecki never appears to consider other suspects, nor does he give Durst a chance to respond to that final bombshell. It’s Did Robert Durst do it? And, more to the point, can Andrew Jarecki get him to admit it?

The focus on Jarecki, even at Durst’s expense, is key to the formal shift in “The Jinx’s” final episodes, which largely discards the measured pace of earlier installments, and does away with reenactments altogether, in favor of (simulated) vérité urgency. (See this exhaustive analysis by Anne Helen Petersen for more.) Where Jarecki has to that point been a stoic onscreen surrogate, nodding patiently as Durst blinks his way through another cagey response, he now becomes “The Jinx’s” protagonist, with the audience as his eager sidekicks. For the first time, we see how Jarecki and his team prep for interviews, fine-tuning the wording of questions to forestall potential evasions as they build up to confronting Durst with the telltale piece of evidence. “The Jinx” is no longer a story about Robert Durst. It’s a story about Andrew Jarecki.

In a sense, it’s a subtle shift — and, after all, isn’t all art fundamentally about its maker? But it’s key to providing a sense of closure, a concept Jarecki explicitly evokes onscreen in “The Jinx’s” final minutes. Durst’s final “confession,” a fractured soliloquy which climaxes with the tonally ambiguous admission that he “killed them all, of course,” is hardly enough to convict him in court. Indeed, one of the prime frustrations of “The Jinx” is walking through his 2003 trial for the murder of Morris Black, feeling almost certain he is guilty, and yet knowing that that the jury had little choice but to vote him not guilty. (The same lawyer who got Durst off then is already hard at work casting doubt on that apparently damning audio.) The handwriting analysis comparing Durst’s letter to Susan Berman with the anonymous note telling police where to find her corpse provides a compelling visual, but it’s nowhere near meeting the legal burden of proof. We still know nothing about what happened to Kathie Durst, and as far as Berman’s murder is concerned, Jarecki does no better than carving out a four-day period in which Durst could conceivably have driven to Los Angeles. Durst may have mumbled, “You’re caught,” but he isn’t.

The end of “The Jinx” isn’t the end of Robert Durst’s story. But it is, or is presented as, the end of Andrew Jarecki’s. In confronting Durst with the damning evidence of his guilt, by backing him into a corner from which even a man we now believe to be a cold-blooded, calculating multiple murder cannot escape unharmed, Jarecki has done everything he as a filmmaker can do. On its own terms, the measure of “The Jinx” is not as a work of art but as a tool of justice, a true-crime analogue to social-issue documentarians’ focus on real-world impact. As a work of amateur sleuthing, it’s impressive. But as a documentary — and especially as a potential model for documentaries to come — it’s catastrophic.

There have been great documentary masterpieces organized around the idea of bringing the guilty to justice, but there’s a categorical difference between Claude Lanzmann using hidden cameras to tape Nazi war criminals in “Shoah” and Jarecki grabbing a snippet of bathroom audio. Lanzmann’s focus, like Oppenheimer’s, is often on what can’t be seen, leaving open precisely those holes that Jarecki plugs with his slickly grotesque images. Lanzmann and Oppenheimer and Morris ask questions; Jarecki gives us answers. He’s appropriating their tools, but none of their sense of responsibility.

Over and above its slapdash application of documentary craft, what’s worrying about “The Jinx” is its underlying assumption that purportedly noble ends justify any means: Jarecki and his co-conspirators ask each other whether anything they do might impede further police investigation; they never once ask if what they’re doing is right. They’re clearly acting on the principle that if Durst is guilty, nothing they do can be unethical, and, by the end, counting on their audience to share that assumption.

A world in which documentaries are urged to follow “The Jinx’s” lead, one in which the primary measure of success is whether or not they get their man, is one where the medium, far from enjoying a “golden age,” is profoundly constrained. It may, in fact, be something close to monstrous.

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