Podcast: The Jinx & By Reason of Insanity

Some brief thoughts in a video/podcast on two recent television documentaries: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, directed by Andrew Jarecki; and Louis Theroux’s By Reason of Insanity. Incidentally, Louis’s Transgender Kids has just commenced on BBC Two.

Extended Transcript
I’m talking today about two documentaries which recently aired on television in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The first is The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. This aired on HBO from the beginning of February to mid-March. There were six episodes in total, with the last showing a couple of weekends ago. It was directed by Andrew Jarecki, whose brothers are also filmmakers. However, he seemed to have succeeded by the end of The Jinx in establishing himself with the mononym: just ‘Jarecki’, the name by which he referred to himself and by which others – including Durst – referred to him. This seems like the seed of a sibling rivalry if ever there were seeds.

There are three pieces of pertinent visual information. In the outdoors, daytime world, Robert Durst looks like a newly-hatched chick. Detective Cody Cazalas – the lead investigator on the Morris Black murder case in Galveston, Texas – resembles a cross between John Travolta in The Punisher and John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 123. And there was this man wearing a ridiculously oversized suit.

Another interesting point concerns Dick DeGuerin, the lead defence lawyer in the Morris Black murder trial. Because it feels like ‘DeGuerin’ is a rare surname that actually complements the forename ‘Dick’. Not many people can get away with ‘Dick’, but it feels like a DeGuerin can.

Robert – or Bob – Durst was born into a wealthy real estate family, whose interests centre upon Manhattan. When he was thirty, he married a twenty-year old woman named Kathie McCormack. It sounds like the two spent a brief spell running a health food store in upstate New York, before Durst was convinced to return to the family business. After nine years of marriage, in January 1982 Kathy went missing. And she hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Kathie’s family and friends quickly suspected that Durst had something to do with her disappearance. Some of her friends actually took Durst’s garbage, and found an incriminating list, which appeared to be a sort of methodology of how to dispose of a body. But the New York State Police don’t seem to have investigated the case thoroughly: they didn’t follow up several inconsistencies in Durst’s story, and the case was left unsolved.

Then in 2000, New York State Police reopened the case. And a few months later, on the day before Christmas Eve, a woman named Susan Berman was found murdered execution-style in her house in Los Angeles. Susan had been a close friend of Durst’s particularly through the 70s and 80s, and it was believed that she knew something about Kathie’s disappearance and was willing to talk to the police.

The LA Police Department initially suspected Mafia involvement, because Susan’s father was connected to the Mafia. She had apparently been writing a book on the subject. But someone – presumably the murderer – had sent a handwritten note to the police, informing them that a ‘cadaver’ was to found at the location of Susan’s address. This helped the police recover the body. And because it seemed to show some concern for the body – and being handwritten, was potentially incriminating – they ultimately ruled out the Mafia.

Meanwhile Durst moved to Galveston, Texas – by his own account because he wanted to escape all the attention around the Kathie case. He posed as a woman. But when his neighbour, a man named Morris Black, was found dismembered in Galveston Bay, Durst was – eventually – apprehended and put on trial for the murder. Durst essentially argued self-defence; and that after shooting Black amid a struggle, he had cut him up to dispose of the evidence. He was acquitted of murder. But he did spend a few years in prison for jumping bail and for tampering with evidence.

A number of sites and news outlets have taken Jarecki to task for misrepresenting the timeline of events through The Jinx. Buzzfeed have offered a particularly detailed analysis of this. I feel that sites like Slate and Buzzfeed get a lot of mileage out of these sorts of things: they were all over Serial, for instance – and they’re very quick to criticise without acclaiming or equalling the hard work these shows put in. In a perverse way, it feels like Serial got undue criticism for being inconclusive; while The Jinx has been criticised for offering too taut of a narrative conclusion. I don’t think the timeline issues undermine any of the evidence The Jinx presents. But they do offer a different reading of some of what we are shown.

The main issue is with the timeline depicted during episode six. At some point Durst was arrested for loitering near his brother’s house, and breaking a restraining order. Jarecki and his team present this as a breakthrough. They suggest that Durst had been avoiding a second interview; but that footage they’d shot with Durst in Manhattan, which he wanted to use to help his case, gave them the leverage to secure a second interview. A close look at the film indicates that the second interview actually took place before their walk round Manhattan; and well before Durst’s arrest. So the order wasn’t Manhattan walk – arrest – second interview; it was second interview – Manhattan walk – arrest.

This reframes the conclusion to The Jinx. I’ve given an outline of Durst’s story – but little of the nuance, and I won’t spoil the ending of the series for those who haven’t watched yet. But broadly, between the first and second interviews, The Jinx uncovers some incriminating evidence against Durst. It is on the basis of this evidence that Durst has now been arrested. The final episode of The Jinx concludes after Jarecki presents this evidence to Durst. With the interview wrapped up, Durst retreats to the bathroom, not realising his microphone is still on.

It doesn’t cause us to reread either the evidence or Durst’s words in the bathroom – and Durst’s words aren’t necessarily incriminating, because he seems to be acting out a dialogue with other voices – but it offers a different perspective when we realise that Jarecki and his team apparently went out into Manhattan with Durst immediately after this second interview. Incidentally, Durst does have a record for incriminating himself at toilet: in 1994 he apparently responded to being cut out of the family business by urinating in his uncle’s waste basket; and in July of last year he was arrested for urinating on a rack of candy in Houston.

Jarecki has suggested that the recording of Durst in the bathroom took the best part of two years to uncover. Apparently an editor stumbled upon it one day while editing. This is hard to believe; especially when an earlier scene in The Jinx suggests Durst’s tendency to talk meaningfully without realising his microphone is switched on.

And I found The Jinx enthralling; but there were a few experimental scenes like this that offered an ostensible realism – the camera running between takes, Jarecki looking dishevelled and talking over his methods with his crew – which in fact lended much of the series a strange air of artifice. And where did the repeatedly-shown footage come from of Durst and Susan’s son, shot from a distance, sharing a cigarette by a car?

The second documentary I’m discussing is Louis Theroux’s By Reason of Insanity. This aired on BBC Two, in two parts over the last couple of Sunday evenings. It was filmed in an Ohio state psychiatric hospital. And it looks at patients who have been declared not guilty or unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity.

Louis is one of our great documentarians. But he perhaps isn’t always regarded as such, because he produces films for television rather than feature works. The first part of By Reason of Insanity seemed to receive a lukewarm response, compared to many of his other films. I thought it was typically engaging. And naturally the first part established a world which the second part was then able to explore in more depth.

There were two cases which developed in particular across the second episode. The first involved a man characterised by doctors as ‘malingering’. This isn’t a mental illness, but it refers to someone who exaggerates their symptoms for personal gain. Louis empathises with people without sympathising, condescending, or shrinking from them on a physical or intellectual level. There was a scene where the man – having apparently sought Louis out – became agitated and hostile. Owing to steady and direct questioning, Louis saw the man accept his own malingering. But he also revealed a restless and fairly astute mind, diffused the situation, and left him on decent terms.

The second case was more perturbing still, because it was about a young man who had sexually assaulted his mother. Louis visited the mother – who at first seemed almost oblivious, but emerged as profoundly caring, realistic, and dignified – and had several talks with the young man. There was certainly room both in his past and in his present demeanour to vilify the man. And some viewers perhaps developed the sense that he was deceitful, or deserved to be in prison for his crime. But Louis persisted with him and I thought received an honest response: he wasn’t sure if he had a mental illness, was unsure of what it meant to have one, and seemed to bear genuine remorse. There was a wonderful, really thoughtful end to the episode, with Louis considering the uncertain borders between mental illness and the self.

Louis has another film showing this coming Sunday. It’s again on BBC Two, and it’s titled Transgender Kids.