Needless to say, you do not want to read this unless you have already watched “The Jinx,” or had it thoroughly pre-spoiled.
When HBO aired the final part of Andrew Jarecki‘s 6-part documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” over its two screenings, more than a million viewers tuned in. 35,000 “OMG! Cray!” and “Mind. Blown.”-style tweets were sent (I should know, most of them seemed to end up in my timeline) reaching 2.8 million people. To say it was surprising is an understatement: “The Jinx” finale quickly became a phenomenon — a major 2015 pop cultural moment, with those of us out of the loop scrambling to catch up. It was almost impossible to do so without some measure of spoilage, but while I knew that the finale contained a bombshell, and that the show’s subject, Robert Durst, had been arrested (which happened the day before the finale aired), I avoided particulars. And so that ending, that chilling washroom audio monologue, those unheimlich, already fetishized 55 words, had almost the maximum possible level of intended effect: they creeped the ever-living fuck out of me.
There it is.
You’re right, of course.
But, you can’t imagine…
I don’t know what’s in the house.
Oh, I want this.
What a disaster.
He was right;
I was wrong.
And the burping…
I’m having difficulty with the question.
What the hell did I do?
Killed them all, of course.
Laid out like that, the 55 words look like poetry. Now, to give them the status of an art form through a trick of presentation is of course a cheat. But the tension between content, context, and presentation speaks directly to the paradoxical reactions that have emerged over the last week or so, during which the value of “The Jinx,” even its categorization, as documentary, as investigative journalism, as the potentially prejudicial presentation of vital new evidence in a criminal investigation, have all come in for a (often justified) trashing.
First came Kate Aurthur of Buzzfeed pointing out that the infamous second interview took place a lot earlier than the show implies, before Durst’s arrest for violating his brother’s restraining order (she recently expanded on that comprehensively). Gawker blog The Morning After picked up on the timeline discrepancies, as did many other outlets and Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed went long, ultimately suggesting that besides the odd (and for the moment unaccountable) transposing of events, Jarecki may have engaged in narrative manipulation elsewhere that’s tantamount to fraud on any viewer consuming “The Jinx” as a documentary in the most traditional sense. These and other explorations have yielded un-ignorable questions that need to be addressed by the filmmaker, who for now reportedly has to remain mum, so as not to influence an ongoing prosecution.
But there has been a whole other category of response too, in which commentators have overlooked or deemed insignificant all the things that make “The Jinx” different from the majority of non-fiction programming, and tried to shift emphasis onto all the ways it is the same. It’s an odd impulse, one that in some cases I ungenerously ascribe to fellow after-the fact scrabblers hoping to mitigate their missing the boat on the show as a first-run, “live,” unfolding event (the “Meh, that party I didn’t go to wasn’t all that great anyway” effect).
But of course there are more ingenuous responses that end up at more or less the same conclusion: isn’t “The Jinx” just another entry into the well-populated canon of investigative documentaries, marked out, if at all, by being one of a smaller number that have had a direct effect (whatever the LAPD says) on the dispensation of real-life justice? Other major examples include Joe Berlinger and the late Bruce Sinofsky‘s “Paradise Lost” trilogy about the West Memphis Three and Errol Morris‘ landmark 1988 doc “The Thin Blue Line,” but can arguably extend to cover any episode of NBC‘s “Dateline” and other shows of that ilk, that have uncovered new evidence.
But perhaps the doubts thrown on whether “The Jinx” holds ethical water under journalistic best practice interfere with that interpretation. Well then, isn’t the show simply a peer-approved version of the lowly and often castigated True Crime genre, in which a degree of license and editorialization is taken for granted as a means to burnish dull old real life to a flashy, sensationalist shine, which is then dispensed in structured gobbits designed for maximum salacious moreishness? The apotheosis of this point of view is a remarkably supercilious reverse-snobbery piece from Erin McCann in the Guardian, which accuses ‘Jinx’ fans who are not traditional True Crime enthusiasts, of being a bunch of “hipster” sheep bleating our approval of exactly the kind of show that we’d ordinarily scoff at, just because other “hipsters” have told us it’s ok to like it. She, like other commentators, relates “The Jinx” to Sarah Koenig‘s similarly addictive and similarly popular podcast “Serial” in this regard.
Leaving aside the frankly objectionable tone of voice, and the utter disparagement of the reader in that article (and seriously, you’re on shaky ground when, writing a pop-culture-related column for the Guardian, you repeatedly reach for the maddeningly played-out, catch-all hate term “hipster”), what’s interesting is that whatever similarities “The Jinx” bears to True Crime, or to televised investigative journalism, its immense success as a watercooler topic is surely a sign that it caught an updraft of the zeitgeist in a way that most other films and shows in those categories have not managed. And surely that means that there’s something else going on with it. McCann’s assertion that middlebrow, middle-class pseuds like myself only watched “The Jinx” because we were told to by an army of our peers may be absolutely true, but rather than seeing that as a moment to indict hordes of viewers on their perceived hypocrisy as regards True Crime (for the writer herself has long ploughed a lonely, derided furrow as a True Crime fan, apparently), surely it’s a moment to examine what “The Jinx” does that other True Crime does not.
I don’t have any beef with anyone who derives entertainment or edification from classic True Crime narratives, but until now, I personally have not been able to engage with them much. I started but couldn’t finish the Ted Bundy book “The Stranger Beside Me,” and tried to get through “Helter Skelter,” supposedly the genre’s grimy apotheosis (and “grimy” is by no means a barrier to me liking something), a grand total of four times — as a book, as an audiobook, and in its two TV miniseries versions. I have failed every time, for reasons that I think are about my own tastes but that may, through the eyes of an aficionado, simply be because I’m a chickenshit. “In Cold Blood” I do like, but then that’s generally accepted as literature, and so I’m not endangering my small store of cred by saying that. And in McCann’s wackily acid scenario, I probably only like it because Truman Capote, like Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig after him, wore glasses and therefore his “hipster” credentials are intact. So, if it’s not the True Crime-iness of “The Jinx” that got me hooked, nor really the investigative journalism angle per se, what was it?
Well, let’s see. In addition to the many articles designed to convince me that my reasons for liking “The Jinx” are problematic, there are others that suggest that I’m just plain wrong to like it at all. Robert Greene writing angrily in Sight and Sound sees the show as a nexus of “bad art and bad journalism,” one so pernicious as to threaten to “cast a shadow” over the current so-called Golden Age of Documentary. As a documentarian himself, he also goes on to cast despairing aspersions (“Don’t get me started…”) on viewers and critics, like Forrest Wickman for Slate and Matt Zoller Seitz for Vulture, who found parallels between Joshua Oppenheimer‘s “The Act of Killing” and “The Jinx,” likening it to comparing “Tchaikovsky to a downloadable ring tone.” But what if you recognize said ring tone as a midi version of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”? Is it not possible to make a connection, to see echoes of one thing in another without suggesting an equivalence to their cultural value?
There is no bigger admirer of “The Act of Killing,” than I am, and no more evangelistic proponent of the idea that Oppenheimer’s film is near-unprecedented in how it has challenged and expanded the very idea of documentary. But I don’t think it’s suggesting that “The Jinx” is as good as “The Act of Killing” — it’s a million times not — to admit that I too was forcibly reminded of Anwar Congo retching on the roof where he’d had killed people, where previously he had cha-cha-cha-ed, when Robert Durst burped and gurgled his way through those last answers. In fact I think it’s a testament to the power of Oppenheimer’s shattering film, that it has profoundly affected how I’ve engaged with many films since (both narrative and documentary), “The Jinx” merely being the latest.
Furthermore, it was not just the happenstance of those similar physiological reactions that struck me, it was that “The Act of Killing” is explicitly about exposing and confronting unpalatable truths through the “lie” of performance. This chimes with my experience of watching “The Jinx,” because for all those final minutes effectively iced my spine, I was gripped for pretty much all of its running time prior to that. Not without qualms; I was already dubious as to the ethics of that first hot-mic incident, and the gothily aestheticized, slo-mo reconstructions of Durst’s mother’s death, and of Susan Berman’s murder, were certainly in very questionable taste.
But “The Jinx” is also, implicitly but unmistakably, about performance. What really kept me glued was the footage of Durst himself, and not simply because, with his shark’s eyes, and uncannily untrustworthy manner (the blinking, the evasions, the repetitions), he is a fascinating interviewee. It was because all those words, those oddly phrased answers, the weird switching between tenses, between first and third person — all of that was part of a performance in which Durst himself, having initiated the whole show, was complicit. Durst may occasionally seem like an alien, but he lives in this world and is not a stupid man, so we simply cannot chalk his participation in this ultimately damning show down to naivete, even if the strong whiff of hubris and egocentrism allowed us to. This is not Jarecki’s gotcha so much as it is a self-initiated, cloudily motivated performance piece of Durst’s, that got way out of hand.
That said, it’s not just his performance that powers “The Jinx.” It becomes increasingly clear as the episodes roll by that the show is also about the roles Jarecki constructs for himself and plays, in relation to Durst and to the viewer. He progresses from sympathetic, oddly-goatee’d interlocutor, to occasional, frazzled presence trailing Durst down New York streets, to all-out center-stage bloodhound in the final episode, drawing up a plan of attack prior to that second interview like a general in a war room.
This performative aspect also explains my compulsive consumption of “Serial.” There too, I became an addict and it was at least partly because I had become involved with not just Koenig’s disarmingly self-aware, step-by-step narration style, but also with segments dealing with the subject, Adnan Syed. Their conversations often touch on image and reality. Syed queries how certain statements of his will be perceived, and constantly second-guesses how listeners are going to react to certain things he says (this is his “performance”). Koenig frets (ultimately with foundation) that the story she is scrabbling away at may have no satisfying end, and wonders how much she is altering the landscape of that case simply by digging around in it again after all these years.
This is an aspect of modern documentary born of, speaking to, and thriving in, the hall-of-mirrors media world in which we now exist. Everyone here, subjects and interviewees alike, are not only performing — they are aware of that fact and constantly self-assessing their performances. They are stepping outside and looking in at themselves, as much as they are engaging in anything as unreflexive as a conversation (like on a Skype call where you’re more transfixed by the little image of yourself than by your caller).
The most comprehensive examples may be recent, but this is not a new thing. You can interpret many documentarians’ differing approaches in terms of how they try to use the performative aspect of interviews (for both themselves and their subjects) as a means to root out buried insight. Nick Broomfield‘s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” which will air on HBO in April, in my estimation goes rather too far in foregrounding Broomfield’s own role and, via the Observer Effect becomes less about the case and more about what happens when a white British man takes a greater interest in the story of a serial killer in a poor black neighborhood in America than the local police ever did.
Spooling back in time, documentary Godhead Errol Morris’ ingenious “Interrotron” a contraption by which his subjects may look directly into the camera lens but still make eye contact with an image of Morris himself, can be seen through this prism too —the effect may be of maximum directness and the appearance of honesty, but the very artificiality of the set up means that those often extremely illuminating interviews themselves become theatrical. This is never clearer than with ‘The Unknown Known” in which Donald Rumsfeld’s native ability to dodge, obfuscate and sidestep questions becomes a frustrating but impressive example of a man never straying “off-script.” It may not be in the True Crime genre (though obviously that depends on your definition of the term) but Rumsfeld here is engaging in performance just as Durst is in “The Jinx” — he’s just a lot better at it.
No, indeed, it’s not a new impulse — in fact the idea of catching someone in a lie through performance goes way back, most famously to the most famous play from the original bearded English hipster William Shakespeare.
“I’ll have grounds more relative than this—the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
— Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605
“The Jinx” felt very Shakespearean at times (which is, to be clear, not to suggest an equivalence between Andrew Jarecki and The Bard), and not just in how Durst’s seemingly self-incriminatory soliloquy comes while addressing an imaginary audience with rhetorical questions like the last guy on stage in front of a pile of bodies. It’s in the odd feel of narrative contrivance to many of its circumstances too — the freakishly uncanny lookalike niece of Durst’s first wife seems like a Shakespearean “device”; indeed, the whole hot mic concept is the 21st century equivalent of overhearing a villainous plot by standing behind a handy pillar in a garden at dusk. Theatricality is inherent in the very premise of the show and was the second Durst picked up the phone to call the filmmaker to suggest their meeting.
“The Jinx” is leaky. It is ethically, aesthetically, factually, artistically leaky — it has little formal rigor and changes radically in approach between the first five and the final episode. But in one way it is watertight, insightful and spectacular: simply put, sometimes we reveal more about our real selves when we play a part. “The Jinx,” in which this son of wealth, this resentful brother, this shapeshifter, this liar, this killer enacts some self-created idea of “Robert Durst” (even constantly slipping into the third person to describe “him”), may haemorrhage credibility in many other ways, but for those of us consuming it on this level, it remains a fascinating example of the power of performance to unlock entire psychologies and unleash explosive truths.