Aesthetic Vs. Execution: On Andrew Jarecki and Robert Durst.

As of right now, we’re about to enter five days after the explosive finale of The Jinx, HBO’s documentary series reconstructing the life of Robert Durst, a millionaire who may […]

As of right now, we’re about to enter five days after the explosive finale of The Jinx, HBO’s documentary series reconstructing the life of Robert Durst, a millionaire who may or may not have killed at least three people in cold blood. And the ending is probably one of the most hauntingly powerful moments captured in film on the last two decades if not more so. It’s the product of careful and laborious craft, investigative work and sheer determination.

In many ways, I think that’s what’s so easily compelling about The Jinx. It’s a brilliant piece of manipulation on par with anything that Orson Welles would do by the end of his career in documentaries like F For Fake. However, the film has many problems, some of them are downright ethical while others are purely aesthetic. It is still, after all, the product of a filmmaker who gave us Capturing The Friedmans, a film that was willing to go the extra mile in order to craft a narrative (and that extra mile often involved the deliberate manipulation of information)

Ethics In Documentary Filmmaking

The big problem is the lengths Jarecki goes through in order to create a story. This is easily glimpsed on the first episode where Jarecki decides to skip one of the three murders that Durst is accused of. The reasoning might have been cleaner storytelling or to tighten up a first episode that’s playing a long game to its ending where it showcases just why The Jinx was born into existence: Robert Durst deciding to concede an interview. But the fact is that to people who aren’t True Crime aficionados, the first episode serves as a general overview of the history of Robert Durst in the public eye so that the next five episodes can examine and debunk particular aspects of the story. It’s a minor thing that could easily be omitted, were it not indicative of stronger problems showcased towards the end of it all.

By the end of the documentary, on its remarkable sixth episode, Jarecki has actually found evidence that could arguably reopen the case, if not lead to a conviction. However, instead of presenting it to law enforcement, Jarecki decides to withhold the evidence until he can get a second interview with Robert Durst where he will confront him with the material. While Jarecki claims that he will not get in the way of the police, the fact of the matter is that his actions call into question his intent as a journalist and filmmaker.

The ethical issue from a journalistic standpoint Jarecki clearly wants to tell a story that he feels is very close to him. After all, were it not for his feature film featuring a thinly veiled version of Durst, Durst would never have reached him. More than that, after sharing as much time as they have, it’s clear that Jarecki has been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But on the sixth episode, Jarecki decides to become the center of the story due to the fact that he’s going to confront a man who he’s sure to be a murderer by now. It’d be fair of him to focus on himself, were it not because the man has clearly made fundamental mistakes along the way that taint the material.

If The Jinx is supposed to be an indictment, it will very likely fail. Its two biggest pieces of evidence are incredibly problematic for a prosecuting team. For one, Durst’s smoking gun confession could easily be interpreted as ambiguous ranting. For another, the chain of custody for the envelope with Durst’s handwriting as well as the timeline on which this evidence was obtained and presented is completely mushed. The documentary constantly misleads as to when the events that form its conclusion happened. For instance, the documentary implies that the second interview happened before Durst and Jarecki photographic session where they crafted promo material for the show. We also learn that Durst’s violation of an Order of Protection issued by his brother, Douglas Durst, actually happened after the chilling confession that ends the series.

Jarecki justifies this by saying that he did not find the accidental recording of Durst for years. But at the same time,  the publication of the same is bound to prejudice jurors (something Durst’s defense will probably use during voir dire) and that his decision to release this seems to be first and foremost a matter of aesthetics rather than a concern with justice. It is clear that to Jarecki, it’s all about those few final frames where we hear those words bouncing off the walls.

“I Killed Them All”

thejinx_2_1200_article_story_large

Aesthetic Empathy, Or The Lack Thereof

The Jinx has a conflict between its intent and its execution. The intent behind it is clearly for it to be a nail on Robert Durst’s coffin. Jarecki and crew eventually learned that there’s evidence that could help towards a conviction against Robert Durst. Jarecki personally seems to struggle at every level with the idea of doing such a thing since he seems to give the benefit of the doubt to this man and to be fair to his documentary, it’s not hard to agree with him. Robert Durst’s story is one of a man whose life since his wife’s “disappearance” has been nothing but a terrible occurrence after another, until he eventually seems to have become a shell of a man. Bitter and resentful of the fact that he never seemed unable to connect to other people outside of Kathleen McCormack, Susan Berman and Morris Black. People who eventually seemed to threaten his continued freedom and whose deaths would be linked to him.

In general, the Jinx is at its best when it does that, really. Not so much at extending sympathy to Robert Durst himself but certainly to the victims of his actions. However these moments do not last very long and are mostly compressed within episode 5, where McCormack’s family members reflect on the grief that was inflicted on them. Otherwise, Jarecki’s interviewing of Robert Durst feels like it’s constantly taking advantage of a man who clearly seems to be mentally ill. There are at least two instances where the man talks to himself and his tics are constantly highlighted, not to mention that the show often seems to make Durst look like someone whose detachment from reality can be used for laughter.

It’s a damn shame because Jarecki’s material is enthralling but mostly meaningless. There’s a lot that can and should be said about Durst’s situation. He’s an incredibly privileged man who managed to escape punishment for decades through that privilege. That privilege is also clearly something he resents to the point that he seems to constantly be willing to throw it all away by putting himself in situations that are clearly a risk to his continued freedom. From violating his brother’s Order of Protection to the fact that he contacted Jarecki himself for an interview and a documentary that could lead to a renewed interest and eventually an investigation, it’s clear that Durst’s either audacious, narcissistic or plain naive. Any of those could be the result of a background as a millionaire. None of these aspects of his personality are ever explored.

In general, the story of Robert Durst is overwrought and ridiculous, but also puts in evidence so many of the problems with our society. Durst’s continued freedom is a product of money and a legal system that allows for holes to be poked at by criminals. And The Jinx itself often flirts with such complex ideas as this, the value of closure or the banality of evil. But it fails to deliver on creating a documentary that has anything to say on these things. Yet, the story that Jarecki and crew have found and told is still a powerful story and one that ends in one of the most haunting notes that a documentary could end on. The one big problem of it all is that the film serves two masters. If, aesthetically speaking, this documentary fails, it’s because Jarecki was chasing a conviction. If, in a court of law, this documentary fails, it’s because Jarecki was trying to tell a powerful story.

Overall, The Jinx is must-watch Television. It’s final episode in particular is a grueling ordeal the likes of which have never been seen Yet, it’s also manipulative, cruel and sometimes as banal and dismissive as its subject can be and these two halves often conflict. That Jarecki somehow managed to find the right balance by the end of it all, by manipulating and still trying to approach not an emotional truth but a factual truth, is what will make the conversations in the future about what documentaries should be much more entertaining and downright necessary.