Jinxing The Jinx

The unfulfilled promises of true crime

That little word “true” promises much, but usually the result looks and reads like a dirty noir spinoff of historical fiction. Occasionally an investigative journalist puts together an airtight case for “how it happened,” but more often than not the pulpy books and sordid TV documentaries simply open up old cases, cast a voyeur’s glance at all the victims and potential suspects, show how police botched things. Sometimes they mourn the murdered. More typically they settle for confirming grim cynical suspicions about human nature. No opportunities are lost along the way to rifle through the trash of celebrities or other well-known and mostly depressing people.

At its best, the genre spatters the floor with actual blood.

You could say that at its most ambitious, true crime can cast a shadow of a doubt about a trial’s outcome, or supply a reason for a missing person’s absence, and clearly show us what crime — that rather abstract thing, lost in procedure and headlines — means to genuine, existing human characters. At its best, the genre spatters the floor with actual blood. That this blood seems actual simply makes what happened more viscerally criminal; it doesn’t bring us, really, any closer to the procedures of justice which produce the reasons for taking away someone’s freedom. For mystery buffs and the morbidly curious though, like myself, this is more than enough.

Except this time the genre did more than more than enough. When the last episode of The Jinx aired this weekend, it actually fingered the suspect, brought in the perp. Or, at least, it seemed to. Obviously it didn’t cause Robert Durst’s arrest by the LAPD, as the LAPD was quick to point out. But it did turn up new evidence, forced Durst to confront it, and recorded him in the resultant bind. It presented a case that stirred up the facts and the players involved, and it did this in a way that may have made it embarrassing for Durst to continue to roam free.

It seemed to accomplish something stories in general — and not just true crime stories — aren’t supposed to be able to do.

In doing all this, it seemed to accomplish something stories in general — and not just true crime stories — aren’t supposed to be able to do: it gripped reality and directly changed it. This happens more often than we like to think, of course. But even now, after a few days, the flurry of activity this weekend still leaves the impression the show was not only a success in its own right, but raised the bar for effectiveness in storytelling to levels we were not quite aware it could reach. Mike Hale in The New York Times talked of the show’s “artistic and, possibly, prosecutorial success,” referring to the way that the evidence the show brought forth actually may help convict Durst.

Prosecutorial success! That “true” in “true crime” suddenly tallies well with the rumbling “reality hunger” of many other creative non-fictional works. To put together something so convincing out of the facts that it could lock someone up! What an aim! It’s this sort of thing that is taking art, skillful writing, reporting, filmmaking, completely out of its little self-imposed bubble, its quilting-club existence among a little circle of crafting cognoscenti playing with meanings and interpretations and narratives and all those modes of art which dally with tired, sad, boring fiction, and showing instead that assembling information and telling stories directly about the world can literally have an impact on that world. In this case, the effect seems indisputable, almost like evidence itself.

That the last episode of the series spent so much time eschewing its dramatic reconstructions and simply following the producers of the show as they prepeared to interview Durst added significantly to this effect. We got more than a sense of the case itself in this episode: we got a sense of what it was like to investigate Robert Durst. This involved remarkable transparency, taking full advantage of the true crime premise. We saw the producers brainstorming what to do with the letter they received (a personal letter of Durst’s which looked exactly like an anonymous letter sent to the police after one of his killings). We saw them verifying the evidence, contacting a handwriting expert. We saw them scrambling when they couldn’t get a hold of Durst to lock down the interview where they would confront him. We saw them prepare for the interview. We saw producer Andrew Jarecki himself the morning of, talking about how weird it was going to be to go up against Durst this time, since, in many ways, he liked the guy.

The show didn’t really need the trappings of make-believe at all to make a serious claim to which audiences could connect.

It was amazing to watch the episode seamlessly work a kind of “making of” featurette into itself. But this also made a point. Investigation into crime is socially important, yes. Consensus about this allows for a moral cause around which everyone can rally their creative energies. But the investigation of crime also provided a process and procedure for all sorts of attachments and meaningful relationships to develop among the show’s creators and among the network which the investigation created and opened up. Relationships to the witnesses, to the officials, to the evidence, even to the suspect himself. In this last episode, we see these entanglements laid bare. And because it honestly acknowledges them, despite its numerous recreations and re-stagings and dramatizations we get the feeling that the show didn’t really need the trappings of make-believe at all to make a serious claim to which audiences could connect. Because it involved its creators, it involves us.

This approach was so refreshingly direct that it is startling, in retrospect, to realize how quickly our attention turned away from all this and to a moment that had almost nothing to do with the closing interview itself. This was Durst in the bathroom after the interview, muttering to himself the fateful words: “There it is, you’re caught… What the hell did I do? Killed them all of course.” These mutterings are, in the language of many who commented upon them, “proof,” and “evidence” (though perhaps not admissible in a court), so much so that the producers are now facing scrutiny about how long they held on to it and why. At the very least, the incident is an “apparent confession.” Then again, in calling Durst’s rambles to himself by these names, and focusing so much upon them, we’re only following the cues of the episode, of the series itself. It surely doesn’t present them as just more mumbling, asides full of a rather grim sarcasm. For the show, this moment isn’t, for example, mere commentary on how poorly the interview and encounter with the evidence went, on how Durst saw himself being presented to the camera.

Which is odd, because the interview was damning enough, you could say. Jarecki presents Durst with two samples of his handwriting — one from the letter sent to police, and one from the letter Durst himself sent — and asks him whether he can tell which one he wrote. It’s a wonderfully devious way of giving Durst room to evade and yet giving the producers a carpet to pull out from under him. If Durst tries to point out the differences, he opens himself up to proving that they’re the same. The letters are really quite similar, and a mistake would look horrible. If he refuses the whole gambit, on the other hand, he can get out of trying to compare them. But should he choose this option, we can also say he refused because he can’t tell the difference.

He played the game wrong precisely in how he tried to get out of playing it.

Durst doesn’t make it easy for them. He initially answers Jarecki’s query by saying “I wrote this one,” and then points, not to the paper with both samples on them (which Jarecki heroically tries to keep in front of his skinny finger) but to the photocopy of his entire letter on the table — the copy that is not in question, which is clearly labeled and which everyone knows he wrote. But then Jarecki in a moment of genius which he must have practiced in one of those strategy sessions and mock-interviews turns the tables and pins him down: “And, can you tell me which one you didn’t write?” Durst pauses, and then responds simply, definitively: “No.” The emphasis, in saying no, is about refusing the process: No, I can’t do it, I can’t go about the process of telling which. But even as he says it the other meaning of this seems to emerge on Durst’s notoriously shifty face: No, I can’t tell the difference, because there’s nothing that shows I didn’t write both. Then he goes into the bathroom and goes about his muttering, turning over what this means. “There it is, you’re caught,” carries a real self-accusation, an acknowledgement that he played the game wrong precisely in how he tried to get out of playing it.

But by now the show has moved beyond this thrilling conclusion, on to something more, something else. By way of showing the slow emptying of the interview room and notifying us that “Bob’s microphone continues to record while he is in the bathroom,” the show presents this remark itself as part of a separate act of self-inquiry, something different than a mere act of self-recrimination emerging from a very poorly handled interview. We’re in an empty room listening, and everyone has gone. The lights are off, no one is around. We’re apart from the investigation we saw through the whole rest of the episode. The investigation is effectively over. All that is left, it seems, is owning up to what just happened, is acknowledgment. And not of anything that went wrong in the interview, but of the deeds themselves, the murders. All that transparent collaboration and planning in the early part of the episode ironically turns out to have prepared us for a private moment microphones accidentally captured — and which now appears to be the only moment we can truly prove Durst did what he did. “What the hell did I do? Killed them all of course.

All that transparent collaboration and planning has turned out to prepare us for a private moment microphones accidentally captured.

Even now, of course, we can see Durst as merely playing with phrases, playing with voices in his monologue which continue the interview: the idea that any of us speak directly to ourselves and only about ourselves when we use the phrase “me” and “I” is a bit absurd, let alone in the case of Robert Durst. Much of the monologue itself is full of mocking what people will say, and what they will assume when they see him made a fool of in the handwriting game: “He was right, I was wrong… and the burping…” He plays with things he could have said instead. “I’m having difficulty with the question,” he grumbles, as if he wishes he had used the line. He jabs too, bitterly, at the interviewers, who have in a way — Jarecki hints at this interpretation of things in the candid early parts of the show — betrayed him, trapped him. He takes over their language, their questions. Far from the prelude to an admission of what he himself did, What the hell did I do? sounds also like the accusatory, What the hell did you do? as if Durst were, even then, mocking their language. And that of course. It contains a snarl, imputing dishonesty to a charge as much as it would supposedly underline the obvious. Killed them, of course.

We need something more than another moment of interpretation, here self-interpretation, to be added to the piles and piles of interpretations.

And yet we hear all this far away from what just happened, as a voice layered over an empty conference room, like it is a direct interview of the self by the self, somehow more intimate than the interview or even the whole investigation we just witnessed. As much as we all now have against him, in this moment the show can’t let us simply hear Durst dismissively whine, Killed them all, of course — they’ll say. It needs us to hear, I myself, Robert Durst, killed them all, of course I did. We need something more than Durst’s description of how he will be perceived, which only possibly tallies with the actual truth we reconstructed. We need something more than another moment of interpretation, here self-interpretation, to be added to the stack of all other interpretations we get in the episode by experts, witnesses, characters — more and more characters, in an ever-expanding story, who all produce more entanglements, more connections, more investigation. This interpretation may prove useful, may in fact clearly construct a case against Durst. But we were so close to the truth, the fact itself! Durst seems himself to say so!

At the end of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), in order to get his lover off the hook the mystery writer Mark Halliday goes begging to her estranged husband Tony Wendice. Mark asks Tony to tell a crazy story of the night Margot murdered someone, something that will pin it on Tony and get him a couple years in the pen, but at least save Margot from the threat of capital punishment. Only the thing is the story Mark has come up with to use as a plausible story to lie to the court turns out to be exactly Tony’s very real plan to have an assailant murder his wife (which only by accident managed to go awry, though Tony was able to pin the assailant’s death on Margot).

This coincidence is awkward because though right it can’t directly be proved, and it’s a relief that a police investigator actually had suspicions from the beginning that things went a similar way to how Mark described them. He even worked out things a little more precisely, and is able to spring the trap by which they eventually bring in Tony, the real culprit. But the point is Mark was able nearly to pull it off by simply pulling it out of nowhere.

The Jinx bizarrely appeals to the fictions and falsehoods of the liar Durst himself at the moment it marshals the truth of its true crime.

The problem, for The Jinx, is that Durst’s “confession” will always lay claim to a factuality greater than the show already has. For all the meticulousness of the case, the producers couldn’t have left it unused, leaving us merely with Durst’s pathetic “No” — damning as that is. And so The Jinx bizarrely appeals to the language, signs, narratives, fictions, delusions and falsehoods of the liar Durst himself at the precise moment it is able to marshal the truth its formidably factual version of true crime produced. The show we’re watching then turns out to be much more like Mark’s plausible but more conventional true crime story — which can also still be true, but only happens to be so — rather than the assemblage of information by the police investigator pursuing “prosecutorial success.” Durst’s confession itself, in other words, may be the thing that jinxes the pretensions and the promises of The Jinx.

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