The Thin Blue Line (1988) was not nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards because it was marketed as “nonfiction,” which apparently is different from “documentary.” It’s an amazing film which successfully got a wrongfully convicted man out of jail. It’s a shame Errol Morris had to wait more than a decade to get his well-deserved Oscar, while his most well-known film never got that stamp of approval. What strikes me about it is how visually effective it is. The abstract close-ups of newspaper clippings, the seamless cutting between head-on interviews, the story flowing along as if there is no author, which is of course the sign of any good author–excepting those whose subject is not the real world but art itself, namely hardcore postmodernists–and then at the end, the fortuitous breakdown of Morris’ camera, so that his final interview with David Ray Harris, where he finally admits-but-doesn’t that he was the real killer, is delivered indirectly, through a series of different angles of a tape recorder. Form thus mimicking content, as all the interviews have been head on until now, and Harris has spoken directly until now, when he refuses to say that he was the shooter, yet says it indirectly.
There’s lots of talk in photography circles, and really all of the art and literature world, about how truth is dead. Images deceive. We can never get at the truth. Which is, of course, bullshit to an exponential degree. Sometimes we may never know the truth, but the truth exists, even if we will never be able to find it in some instances, and there is infinitely more value in trying to find the truth than in denying its existence. The Thin Blue Line is “postmodern” in the sense that it shows a series of different re-enactments of the murder in question, based on differing and inconsistent testimonies, but no one who sees the film can fail to pick up on the fact that there is one distinct truth being argued. I like that. I don’t like the subjective wishy-washiness of a lot of art. Everything is a lie, everything is context. Tell that to an inmate on death row.
I’ve been on an intellectual bender after listening to the Serial podcast, hunting down other stories of–possibly–wrongfully convicted murder suspects. There’s the tv series The Staircase, a much more ambiguous tale, which follows the Michael Peterson, his family and his defense attorney as they build their case for his innocence. That led me to Murder on a Sunday Morning, a feature length documentary by the same director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. An excellent film which did win the Oscar, although The Thin Blue Line still remains a much more innovative, forceful, elegant, heartbreaking film–even if you throw in a fifteen-year-old kid and a black denomination singing Hallelujah.
Since The Innocence Project has taken an interest in the case chronicled on the Serial podcast, I’ll link to my review of Taryn Simon’s book The Innocents, a series of photographs of people who were exonerated using DNA evidence after being convicted, mostly, for murder and/or rape. The series, as does Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site, revisits the scenes of crimes long after all signs of the wrongdoing have passed, and in the case of Simon’s book, powerfully situates the innocents at the scenes of the crimes they didn’t commit, but were found guilty of, or at the sites where they actually were at the time of the crime.
I took an interest in this sort of stuff four years ago, and even started an aborted project in that vein looking for the places, forty years later, where the crimes that would lead to the most infamous miscarriage of justice in Norwegian history took place, namely the sad case of Fritz Moen, a disabled and near-deaf man who was tricked or coerced into a false confession for the rape and murder of two young women right here in Trondheim. I didn’t have to do any sleuthing myself, as he had already been exonerated post mortem and a special report prepared for the government investigating the terrible investigation that led to his conviction is publicly available. But it was interesting to pour over original crime scene photos and police statements, even if the conclusion was foregone, and try to piece together the story for myself. I did find the original crime scenes–I think–although one looked almost exactly like it did forty years ago, and the other had been a field and was now a part of the city, with a building sitting over the exact spot, as far as I could tell, where one of the two unfortunate women was found raped and strangled.
Nothing became of the project; there was nothing particularly interesting photographically that I could say about it, and all the sleuthing had been done and the conclusion was, after looking through all the documents, overwhelmingly plausible. There was even a death bed confession by another man, although police never managed to follow up, as the man died shortly after the confession. Still, an interesting dead end that sort of came back to me as I listened to Sarah Koenig describe how she combed through document after document to try to find the truth behind an ambiguous and contradictory set of data.
Current reading/listening: the audiobook version of Errol Morris’ 2012 book A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald.
When I studied photography, the overwhelming focus was on constructing realities. The conversation about art and photography and film is all about fiction, or the elusiveness of truth. I would like it if post-postmodernism is something that–without returning to the most naive aspects of modernism–gets back to the truth, in a way. And I’m happy that Morris, one of the most eminent documentarians working today, is on the same page.
I read a long piece recently about the journalism of David Foster Wallace (advocate of New Sincerity), which I’m a fan of, but which has since his death been exposed as less than truthful in many ways, as less journalism than “inspired by true events,” with characters (i.e., real people) merged, details switched around, taken from other sources but incorporated as first-person observations, and so on. The article argued that this was well within the rights of the “nonfiction” writer, that we shouldn’t confuse journalism with a fiction writer writing an assignment for a journalistic publication and presented as such. That fictional elements, not just techniques taken from fiction but fiction itself, was entirely kosher within “nonfiction.” We still have a long way to go. New Sincerity, my ass. I don’t think Morris, who insisted on labeling his documentary “nonfiction” (and thus unwittingly exempted himself from Oscar consideration), would approve. But then again he made a film about an innocent man about to be murdered by the state for a crime he did not commit, he didn’t write an essay on the aesthetic beauty of Roger Federer’s tennis or the torture of being an intellectual-type guy on a cruise paid for by a journalistic publication.