Monday, April 27, 2015

5 Fave Documentaries: Art Form Come of Age

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

The documentary made from his own book is outstanding. Whatever your stance on Scientology, author Lawrence Wright's's research commitment to this work is astounding. I knew Hubbard had written sci-fi novels, a favorite genre of mine, but I had no idea how extensively he'd written or how his concepts from one field crossed over to the establishment of his religion. From a legal standpoint, the continuing battles with the IRS over tax exempt status were and are compelling as well.The IRS at one point presented Scientology with a billion dollar tax bill!

Individual members such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise are explored as well. They are juxtaposed with the auditing practice of Scientology and it is posited by the author that those auditing tapes could be used to blackmail such members to stay inside the church. Nicole Kidman's being made a "suppressive person" by the Church and on camera statements by other former members at being given that designation are also examined. This designation means that other Scientology members are to avoid seeing you. In other religions this practice is known as "shunning" and it has always been an effective tool for keeping members inside a religion.

There is a great deal of on camera appearances by the founder L. Ron Hubbard himself at various stages in his life. I had never seen any of these either. I agree with the author that Hubbard himself seems to have been a true believer in Scientology. This includes his cross over science fiction concepts where alien beings called Thetans are also a central principle of the religion. The former members who left the church found that aspect of it the most troubling and hard to believe.


Alec Baldwin does a marvelous interview of author Lawrence Wright on his podcast Here's the Thing, available free on iTunes.



The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst  
I saw the movie that this director first made about Durst that dealt with the disappearance of his wife Kathleen, "All Good Things." After the movie was released, Durst called the director and agreed to do an interview with him on camera. That interview is intercut throughout this fascinating documentary about the allegations that Dust has murdered three people: a neighbor in Galveston, Texas, a man; his first wife; and his best friend, a woman. The first victim was found all cut up in the water. His first wife has never been found. The best friend was shot in the head. The theories go like this. With his marriage in trouble, he killed his wife so as to avoid having to pay her a big divorce settlement. His best friend helped him cover up that murder. When the best friend had money problems, she started blackmailing him that he had murdered his wife and she'd tell the police he killed her. The guy in Galveston also blackmailed him by threatening to tell New York tabloid reporters where he was hiding out, in Galveston. These are theories only and evidence is needed to win court cases, not just theories.

Robert Durst looks like a very good candidate for being a murderer. He has loads of personal tics which are off putting. He no longer makes an attractive personal appearance (at the time of his first marriage he apparently did). He is frankly unlikable as one listens to him talk in the interview. However, he is very trainable by his lawyers as he did a brilliant job on the witness stand during one trial already. Very few defendants can be trained to take the witness stand in a criminal trial and do exceedingly well. He managed to do so.


There is a big problem with a lack of admissible evidence to use against him on the missing wife case. There is more evidence on the best friend but it doesn't seem very strong. The prosecution can tell its stories but when it comes to presenting witnesses and exhibits it is still somewhat iffy on what is usable. Additionally, Durst is very wealthy so has always been able to hire top defense lawyers.

I read up on the state of his health and it is terrible. He has hydrocephalus with a stent installed into his skull plus spinal surgery. This is a serious brain condition which has obviously affected his vision (his eyes look strange and he blinks constantly). Plus this condition causes mental disability. He's had it for a few years so anything he's said while having this condition was being said by a physiologically mentally disabled person. I would hate trying to get those statements admitted! He's also had a cancerous mass removed from his esophagus. That type of cancer has a very poor survival rate. Usually 6-18 months is about it for survival. Humphrey Bogart and Christopher Hitchens both died of it within that time frame.


The Bridge (Golden Gate)


There is a piece of urban folklore that California has a high suicide rate because it is the last place people might try to live before they give up. If they can't make their lives work there, they figure they can't make them work anywhere so might as well end their lives. So they jump off the bridge and this usually this kills them. I don't know whether there is any truth to this story but this documentary certainly makes a good case for it. It is about the many people who kill themselves by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. So many visitors go to the Golden Gate bridge and let their video cameras just run and run that a fair amount of raw footage over the years has caught people taking the jump. You will see this footage so some of you may lose interest right at this point. This documentary doesn't just cover the actual suicide though but goes further by delving into the people the jumpers left behind and the stories they have to tell in the aftermath. This documentary isn't for everyone as it is a pretty grim topic and there is no upside to the story. All these people do indeed kill themselves and all we do in the documentary is explore the details of each suicide.

For those who know people who have killed themselves, and I am one such person, this documentary gives further dimension and nuance to an act which most of us struggle to comprehend.

Aileen-Life & Death of a Serial Killer


This is the documentary made by Nick Broomfield. The woman shown is the real Aileen Wournos. Charlize Theron made a movie where she played this woman and it is eerie how accurate her portrayal is. Both are well worth seeing but this has the advantage of showing the real person. Aileen Wournos is no Ted Bundy, another serial killer executed in Florida. She is a lot more complicated an individual with an equally complex story. There is a lot more to her life story than killing seven men. The motivation for the murders was what I found most interesting about her story. Aileen Wournos had finally found another person to love, Tyria. Tyria was a lesbian. Aileen was not. But Aileen was starved for love and affection and that was what she found with Tyria. Tyria needed things to stay with Aileen so Aileen had to provide the money for these things. She murdered these seven men in a row so she could provide these things for Tyria and get her to stay with her. Tyria simply told her that she didn't want to know what Aileen did to get the things. So, of course, Tyria becomes the main witness against Aileen at her trial and gains immunity for herself. I doubt if Tyria will kill anyone on her own but I do find her a thoroughly detestable person.

Aileen's background is a dismal one in both nature and nurture. Her father killed himself while he was in prison for child molestation so she never knew him. Her mother ran away and left her with her abusive grandmother. Both her brother and grandmother sexually abused her until she ran away from home at the beginning of her teenage years. She had a baby but gave it up for adoption before she ran away. She worked as a prostitute most of the time thereafter. She eventually drifted into Florida. She had not killed anyone prior to coming to Florida but she was involved in some criminal enterprise almost all of the time but smaller time.

Then she met Tyria which led to her demise. Florida was able to execute her quickly because she consented to her execution and stopped all of her appeals. It is quite a story and she is quite a wreck of a human being. There is not another serial killer who has a story like hers. She was unique.

The Staircase (Michael Peterson)

This was made years before "Jinx: Robert Durst." They are very similar documentaries and if you are a fan of Jinx, you will be a fan of "The Staircase." This is also a murder case seen from an inside view. The defendant is Michael Peterson, a South Carolina writer, who is married to a woman who carries more of the financial weight of the marriage. One day she ends up dead at their home, having supposedly taken a fall from a staircase in their home. Their entire extended family supported him as being innocent of having anything to do with her death. Investigators were suspicious. The more they dug, the more suspicious they got because there was a lot in this guy's past. We are taken through the entire trial, including all of the insider planning. We see the defense forensics expert examine the staircase itself. 

Some of these things in his past are that there was another woman he was suspected of killing in Germany who also fell down the stairs! The prosecution goes so far as to exhume her body and autopsy the remains again. Then there is the fact that Peterson is bisexual. It is arguable that he is really gay he is so active as a bisexual but he does not consider himself gay. I think the South Carolina jury had more difficulty with his sexual practices than any other aspect of his case.


He also had a huge life insurance on his wife at the time she took her fall from the staircase in South Carolina. This is an absolutely riveting documentary that is done with an discerning eye for detail. 

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