Monday, March 16, 2015

"The Jinx" still seems to me to have been a rotten idea for a TV series. Was I wrong?


This is just a screen grab. If you want links
you should be able to find 'em yourself.

by Ken

"Gut-wrenching, remarkable television," eh?

Further, from the blurb for the respective entry on today's NYT "Today's Headlines" e-newsletter, I learn further: "HBO pioneered a new kind of appointment television on Sunday night." Okay then, please cancel my appointment.

I really can't say anything about The Jinx itself. I didn't have any interest in watching it, and I still don't. And The life and times of Bobby Durst still seems to me a wretched idea for a TV miniseries. And yet . . . and yet . . . .

This bit from the New York Times's Charles V. Bagli and Vivian Yee's "Robert Durst of HBO's 'The Jinx" Says He 'Killed Them All"" may provide some sense of how I looked at the project before it aired:
The amount of press coverage Mr. Durst has generated is topped only by the volume of work he has made for his lawyers and police investigators in Westchester, Los Angeles, Galveston and beyond. Yet he had rebuffed overtures from journalists until he saw “All Good Things,” a lightly fictionalized film the producers had previously made of his life in 2010, and approached them to tell his story.

“I will be able to tell it my way,” he said in the second episode of “The Jinx.”
Well, Bobby, it didn't quite work out that way, did it? As by now everyone knows, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst was about as far from a whitewash as it could be.

I should explain that the last time Howie wrote about the 2000 murder of his close friend Susan Berman, in a December 5 post called "Odd The Way The 1% Get Away With Their Crimes -- Even Murder Sprees. Are We In Russia?," he explained that he always knew the man who's assumed to have murdered Susan by everyone who knew her, and also by a lot of other people who've looked into the case, as "Bobby," one of Susan's "rich friends."
I always knew him as "Bobby," another of Susan Berman's rich friends. Now he's Robert Durst. I didn't know any rich people-- only poor people like myself-- when I was hanging out with Susan, except for her and the rich friends she introduced me to.
So "Bobby" it'll be. However, since the case spans an enormous amount of time, and a weird assortment of detail, it might be well to go over some basics. Here's the start of the above-referenced NYT report by Charles V. Bagli and Vivian Yee:
Since his first wife vanished more than three decades ago, Robert A. Durst, the eccentric and estranged son of one of New York’s most prominent real estate dynasties, has lived under the suspicious gaze of law enforcement officials in three states.

They have followed his path from New York City to Los Angeles, where one of his closest friends was found dead in her home in 2000. They have tracked him to Galveston, Tex., where he fled after investigators reopened the case of his wife’s disappearance, and where he posed as a mute woman and shot and dismembered a neighbor in 2001.

Mr. Durst was acquitted in the Texas killing, and was never arrested in the disappearance of his wife or the death of his friend. But on Saturday, he found himself in custody once again, arrested on a charge of murder as he walked into a New Orleans hotel he had checked into under a false name.

On Sunday night, in the final moments of the final episode of a six-part HBO documentary about him, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” Mr. Durst seemed to veer toward a confession that could lift the shroud of mystery that surrounds the deaths of three people over the course of three decades.

“What the hell did I do?” Mr. Durst whispers to himself in an unguarded moment caught on a microphone he wore during filming. “Killed them all, of course.”

In the years since his wife, Kathleen Durst, disappeared in 1982 after spending the weekend at the couple’s country home in Westchester County, Mr. Durst has bounced in and out of jail for other crimes, cut ties with his family, remarried, and sued his brother for a $65 million share of the family fortune. Through it all, he has maintained his innocence in the disappearance of his wife, while also denying any role in the 2000 death of the Los Angeles friend, Susan Berman.

His arrest on Saturday in a Marriott on Canal Street in New Orleans was in connection with Ms. Berman’s death, though the Westchester authorities said they were still investigating him in his wife’s case. Mr. Durst was walking toward an elevator and mumbling to himself when F.B.I. agents intercepted him at the hotel, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said. He had checked in under the name Everett Ward, not the first time he had used an alias.

Mr. Durst is believed to have left Houston in a Toyota Camry on March 10, headed for New Orleans. Investigators involved in the case said they feared that the renewed attention brought by “The Jinx” would lead him to try to flee the country. . . .


I realize I'm poaching on Howie's turf here, and perhaps he may yet have more to say about it. He's just begun a really grueling week of treatments, though, and I can claim a sort of semi-personal semi-interest in the subject, having heard Howie talk about Susan for a lot of decades (he's figured I must have met her, just as over time I met so many of his friends), and since her murder I've heard him talk a lot about Bobby.

Already, you'll note, that title he put on his December post, "Odd The Way The 1% Get Away With Their Crimes -- Even Murder Sprees. Are We In Russia?," is looking less certain as it applies to Bobby, and this is at least in part thanks to both the attention focused on the case by The Jinx and more specifically to what may be fairly important evidence turned up by the filmmakers in the course of their years of digging into the case.

One fan of the show is former Westchester County D.A. Jeanine Pirro, whose office spent six years investigating the disappearance of Kathleen Durst, the first of Bobby's suspected victims, in 1982. She told the Times team:
These two producers did what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years. Kudos to them. They were meticulous. They were focused. They were clear.
It might be more interesting to hear Ms. Pirro talk about why the Jinx-makers were able to do what she and the authorities in California and Texas were unable to do: pin the crimes on Bobby. But I guess that's unfair. The filmmakers spent ten years on the case, and it was their only case.

It still troubles me, to put it mildly, to think that this is the shape of things to come in the world of crime-solvingnow the only way we can get crimes investigated -- if they have the stuff of "gut-wrenching, remarkable television" (or radio, for that matter, in the case of NPR's Serial)

That said, I've discovered in the Times piece and in a NYT joint phone interview with Jinx co-writers Andrew Jarecki (who also directed) and Marc Smerling (who was the cinematographer and editor) that there are in fact pretty good answers to questions about the project that I once thought smugly were patently unanswerable.

Like, what made Jarecki and Smerling think this should be a project to begin with? Well, it turns out that they didn't. What happened is that Bobby was impressed enough with their fictionalized film account of his story that he came to them. After all the time they'd invested, they found themselves in a position where the subject himself was apparently prepared to talk to them about it. What were they supposed to do? Tell him to take a hike?

And when they went into the "project," it really wasn't a project. They had no idea where it would go -- just, I imagine, that after all they'd invested in the subject, they couldln't afford not to find out. Marc Smerling says:
We didn’t know that was going to happen in the beginning. In reality, we were making a documentary about Bob Durst, and then the relationship between Andrew and Bob became closer as the film went on. Then we found new pieces of evidence, and everything changed. It became an investigation, and all of a sudden, we were in the film. That was not planned.
Another obvious question concerns what they knew and when, and how they could have kept such explosive matters as the letter and the "confession" to themselves. After all, these were crimes they were dealing with. And the answers are that they thought long and hard about what they could reveal to the authorities and when, because of all sorts of legal ramifications and complications, but in fact they eventually did begin sharing what they knew, and what they shared clearly had a major impact on the investigation of Susan Berman's murder and Bobby's eventual arrest.

The NYT interview (by Bruce Fretts) goes into considerable detail about the life and complications of the project, including the obviously crucial matter of their relationships with their subject, and the filmmakers shed all sorts of light on how and why they did what they did over the course of it. As for nondisclosure of what they were sitting on for the last two episodes of The Jinx, well, I give them credit for keeping their own counsel and not trying to stage a publicity coup with it. They seem to have been confident enough in the integrity of their work that they didn't need to do their own PR offensive to counter, for example, the misimpression that the series was going to whitewash Bobby.

All in all, it still seems to me to have been a lousy idea for a TV series. And yet it seems to have been done in a remarkably responsible way, and to have achieved some impressive results. Don't ask me what the moral is.


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