Filming everything

The Jinx: HBO, 2015

Behind the Curve – The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015)

If you haven’t been keeping up at home, know that this is the episode where things get really interesting. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that the filmmakers find something. An important something. And thank God the cameras were rolling when they found it, because they might not have been if I were making the film.

Up until the end of episode 4, The Jinx had been a fairly straight-forward, subject-driven documentary. It mainly presented the known facts behind Robert Durst’s situation and the feelings of the people around him. There was no hint of the crew appearing onscreen as characters until the very end of episode 4, when the man interviewing Durst suggests they take a break. After that, we feel focus shift in a major way that continues through the next episode. I wouldn’t say episode 5 is heavily focused on the filmmakers, but they certainly become major characters in the continuing story of Robert Durst.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

We see the crew making phone calls, having meetings and reaching out to persons of interest. It’s all pretty standard stuff when it comes to making a documentary, but what’s impressive is that they had the foresight to film it all. And with pretty good audio, too.

Another large section of the episode revolves around an excursion to Time Square, which I’m almost certain was supposed to be just a B-roll shoot. However a handful of unscripted moments, where the camera and microphone were not turned off, turn that segment into an major turning point in the story.

Understand that if they hadn’t found that thing I hinted at, The Jinx could very well have been a purely subject-focused documentary. It was impossible for the filmmakers to predict that they’d have to be onscreen in the final piece. Those shots of the crew could just have been taking up space on somebody’s hard drive.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

It just goes to show you: if you’re making a documentary, film absolutely everything. Film yourself. Film your friends. Film your cameraman if you can pull that off. You’ll have an obnoxious amount of footage to piece through, but you never know which bits you’ll need to pull the story together.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Deadpool (2016) – Monday, March 7
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14
  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Unhelpful activism

Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014

Behind the Curve – Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)

Cowspiracy is a movie about what long-term effects the business of meat production is having on our planet, especially in regards to global warming. The Netflix description claims that it’s about factory farming, but that’s a bit misleading. While factory farming is a particular focus of the movie, the film reaches much further than that. It’s real agenda is to promote an entirely meat-free diet as the only moral option for an environmentalist. And I choose the word “agenda” quite deliberately. I know that term gets thrown around a lot, but I really think it applies here.

Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014
Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014

I must sound very down on this film, and maybe that’s not entirely fair. I don’t actually disagree with the main points. They bring up some really convincing arguments and actually examine the data fairly objectively. One oft-repeated point is that animal farming cumulatively creates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry. I sensed the vegan/vegetarian bias early on, but the filmmakers at least attempted to suppress it. An effort is made to reconcile the principles of environmentalism with the typical American diet (i.e. one with meat). I assumed this same commitment to inclusiveness would be represented in the film’s proposed solutions, maybe suggesting ways an average person could limit their meat consumption. And I was prepared to at least give that kind of thing a try.

But no. They just tell us that “real” environmentalists don’t eat meat. So we shouldn’t do that anymore.

What? Like it’s that simple. This is hands-down the most unhelpful call-to-action I’ve ever heard in a documentary. Because it’s not going to happen. Period. There was an expert in Cowspiracy who talked about all the ways in which our environment will quickly improve if everybody suddenly went vegetarian. It was a nice sentiment, but in practical terms he might as well have been telling us his zombie plan. I think I’ve a better chance of seeing a zombie apocalypse is in my lifetime than a meatless America.

Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014
Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014

The day when the human race quits eating meat altogether is a long way off. If it ever comes at all. I think the invention of Star Trek replicators would have to come first. Even one of the film’s pro-vegan experts doubts it will happen. Meat is a huge part of American culture and of countless other cultures around the world. And most people do not change their diet, their lifestyle on a dime after watching a documentary. It’s completely unrealistic to expect that from your audience.

What really annoys me is missed opportunity. Cowspiracy had a chance to address the environmental morality of eating meat in a way that was real and wouldn’t point fingers at the meat-eating general population. And for most of the film, they seemed to be on that path. But in the end they chose ideology over pragmatism. They take the extremist position, and thereby shut down the conversation.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but I have to wonder who this documentary is for. Vegetarians and vegans? I’m sure they’ll approve of it, the way a church congregation approves of a Bible reading. But those people are already on-board. Is it for meat-eaters like myself? The presentation and persuasive nature of the film seems to suggest this. But people like me will leave annoyed at the whole vegetarian movement. Because I’m not going to cut meat out of my diet, and the movie said I’m a bad person because of it. The film left me unequipped to make any realistic change in my life and diet. It merely insulted me and ended.

 

Coming up:

  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015) – Monday, February 29
  • Movie: Deadpool (2016) – Monday, March 7
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14
  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28

Expectations in Wool

Wool: Hugh Howey, 2011

Behind the Curve – Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011)

Because the premise behind this blog is to talk about really old stuff, I typically don’t feel its necessary to include spoiler warnings. I assume that the statute of limitation on spoilers is more or less up. And although I prefer entering stories with as little foreknowledge as possible, I feel most aren’t made or broken by spoilers.

The Sixth Sense: Beuna Vista Pictures, 1999
The Sixth Sense: Beuna Vista Pictures, 1999

Wool, however, is like The Sixth Sense in that you might as well not bother if it’s been spoiled for you. With that in mind, I highly recommend you go and read Wool before you finish reading this. Don’t worry; it’s very short and currently free on Amazon Kindle.

Done? Good. That’s out of the way. Let’s continue, shall we?

Wool is a post-apocalyptic novel that seems to take more than a little inspiration from the Fallout series. It features a small community living in an underground bomb shelter, whose only view of the outside is through cameras projecting a continual view of the ruined landscape around them. The only people to leave are those sent to clean the cameras, which is a one-way trip. Even with environment suits, the cleaners quickly die.

Fallout 3: Bethesda Game Studios, 2008
Fallout 3: Bethesda Game Studios, 2008

As the story unfolds, we learn that information is being hidden from the residents of the Silo. Either it was lost during the past uprisings, or it is being actively suppressed by those in charge. In other words, Wool might as well write “THERE WILL BE A TWIST” on the top of every page. And that’s kind of why the book is ingenious.

The whole time you’re reading, you’re trying to guess the twist. There are hints that the outside is perfectly safe and a computer program is being used to make it look desolate onscreen. Who is pulling this deception? And to what end? We think we’ll get an answer near the end when Holston walks out to clean the cameras and for a while it seems perfectly safe. But then Holston dies. You see, the twist is that the environment really is toxic and inhabitable. The program which changed the view of the outside was in Holston’s environment suit, giving him false hope to insure that he cleaned the cameras.

This is a great example of subverting reader expectations. You think that you know how the story is going to end, and it does all it can to support that belief. But right at the end it successfully turns everything you thought you knew on its head and basically calls “backsies” on the twist. I honestly can’t think of another story so acutely aware of the audience experience. It reflects excellent control over the plot. Well done.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) – Thursday, February 25
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015) – Monday, February 29
  • Movie: Deadpool (2016) – Monday, March 7
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28

Being a niche

Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016

Behind the Curve – Lazer Team (2016)

So I’ve been a Rooster Teeth fan for many years now. How many? I wouldn’t like to say, but the Austin-based company has stolen enough hours of my time to write several novels. So it’s not surprising that I enjoyed Lazer Team, Rooster Teeth’s new sci-fi comedy. I thought it was a fantastically hilarious movie. But when I saw that the online reviews were mostly negative, I learned something about myself: I’m part of a niche.

I guess at some level I always knew that Rooster Teeth’s brand of humor was somewhat specific. It’s a balanced mix of dick joke, bickering insults and slapstick pushed through a filter that’s aggressively and gleefully juvenile. It’s not a particularly heady style of comedy. As a matter of fact, it feels designed specifically for shutting down brains..

Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016
Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016

On reflection, I can see how this would rub people the wrong way. And if that kind of humor isn’t your scene, there’s not much else Lazer Team has to offer. The plot is predictable, the characters are mostly shallow caricatures, and the special effects reflect the film’s independent origin. It also loses steam whenever the script tries to get serious, a problem the film shares with its ancestor, Red vs. Blue.

But none of that bothered me in the theater. Because if you’re already on the right wavelength for this kind of thing, it’s one of the funniest films you could watch.

So how should niche insiders like myself respond to negative reviews? Should we berate the reviewer for “not getting it?” Should we try and convert the masses?

Of course not. We should man up and ignore them. Negative reviews shouldn’t lessen our enjoyment of of the movies. And we don’t need some reviewer who’s more interested in Oscar bait to tell us what’s funny. It’s worth remembering that comedy is one of the most subjective types of entertainment. If a reviewer doesn’t like a comedy you liked, it probably wasn’t made for them.

Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016
Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016

Lazer Team isn’t for everybody. Even the positive Lazer Team reviews predict it will be a cult classic. And guess what? Not everybody likes cult movies. Hence the name. Rocky Horror Picture Show was a cult classic, and I found it about as entertaining as a Kindergarten play. Same story for Labyrinth (no disrespect to David Bowie). But other cult classics, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are some of my favorite movies of all time. And that’s the point. Cult classics may have small followings, but they make up for it with sheer passion.

What I’m basically saying, fellow Rooster Teeth fans, is that there’s no shame in being a niche. We’re in quality company.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22
  • Documentary: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) – Thursday, February 25
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015) – Monday, February 29
  • Movie: Deadpool (2016) – Monday, March 7
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14

Changes to Mike Walton Chronicles

Hi Everbody! (Or if it’s still just my friend reading: Hi, Brian!),

Thanks for reading my blog. I just wanted to tell you guys about some changes coming to Mike Walton Chronicles and why I’ll be making them.

My Behind the Curve series will be shrinking from 2 posts per week to just 1 post per week. Here’s how it’ll brake down:

  • 1st Monday of the Month: Movie
  • 2nd Monday: Video Game
  • 3rd Monday: Documentary
  • 4th Monday: Book
  • 5th Monday: Wild Card

I’m doing this to free up time in my schedule for other projects. These pieces take longer to write than you might think. I watch/read/play the media in question all the way through. Then I have to make up something to talk about. Then procrastination. Then the actual writing. More procrastination. Then editing.

In all seriousness, my personal life is such that I have, on average, two or three full days at my desk to work. And I’d like to use some of that time on other projects. I’ve been kicking around ideas for a video series and a Twitch stream for some time now. You might see those in the next few months. Keep an eye out. Other projects, like the book I’m working on, are still a few years out. If it doesn’t end up a trunk novel. Hard to say at this point.

Thanks for reading! I hope you stick around to see some of the cool stuff I have in store.

 

Sincerely,

Mike Walton

Part of the story

The Jinx: HBO, 2015

Behind the Curve – The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015)

There’s a school of thought in documentary filmmaking that says the filmmakers should not be a part of the story. They should remain as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. It’s a philosophy I don’t necessarily agree with, at least not in a hard-line kind of way. I think it really depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell.

Roger & Me: Dog Eat Dog Films, 1989
Roger & Me: Dog Eat Dog Films, 1989

When I was at UpNorth Media Center in Traverse City, I worked on several documentary pieces on poverty and economics. After on shoddy first cut, my supervisor actually encouraged me to put more of myself in the piece. He pointed me towards Michael Moore’s Roger & Me as an example. It’s an excellent example of how an artist can naturally incorporate himself into the story he’s trying to tell. Michael Moore isn’t a distraction when he speaks directly to us in Roger & Me. It works because his personal experiences seem to crystalize the story he’s trying to tell. He’s our guide through a broken, down-on-its luck Flint (which back then was only being poisoned economically).

Of course, that approach isn’t appropriate for every documentary. There are times when having the filmmakers onscreen would seriously detract from the piece. For example, it would make no sense for the makers of Dinosaur 13 to insert themselves. They were telling a story that happened decades ago, and none of the filmmakers were there.

In general, I like when the filmmakers put themselves in the documentary to some extent. I believe it adds personality to the film and prevents what I call “History Channel syndrome.” That is, it saves a documentary (which should be an entertaining story before anything else) from turning into a dry regurgitation of facts, figures and opinions.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

But like every supposed “rule” in art, this is just another suggestion for filmmakers to take or leave. That’s why it bothers me when people make blanket statements like “all video games need X” or “no movie should have Y.” I want to tell them that they’re missing the point. Art is all about pushing the boundaries and seeing what works. Any piece of advice you’ve ever heard can be safely ignored if the artist is skilled and experienced enough to make the piece work without it.

There’s no such thing as rules in art. It’s like Pirate’s Code in that they’re more like guidelines.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Lazer Team (2016 – I can break my own rules!) – Thursday, February 18
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22
  • Documentary: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) – Thursday, February 25
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015) – Monday, February 29
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14

Cultural differences – Nature versus Nurture

Meet the Patels: 2014

Behind the Curve – Meet the Patels (2014)

I’m an introvert, and a pretty extreme one at that. I keep my close friends down to a number I can count on one hand. And even then I don’t get out much. Most of my time I spend secluded in my room writing or playing video games. I’m not saying this to make you feel bad for me. I choose to live like this. It’s not out of shyness or social ineptitude (at least not mostly). It’s not some cynical jab at the quality of people around me. I simply enjoy solitude.

It’s not a widely understood or accepted attitude in America. People usually think there’s something wrong with you if you spend all your time alone. But after watching Meet the Patels, I realized that introverts in this country actually have it pretty good.

Meet the Patels: 2014
Meet the Patels: 2014

The film chronicles the romantic life of Ravi Patel, an Indian man living in America. He’s torn between getting the traditional Indian marriage that he’s dreamed of and that his parents want him to get, or pursuing the white, redheaded American girl whom he loves. One aspect of the movie is the tremendous pressure put on Ravi by his relatives, of which he literally has a whole village. And every single one of them is a nosy busybody, constantly butting into his love life.

I made a comment to my fiance that I would make a terrible Indian because I couldn’t put up with so many people sticking their noses in my business. She had an interesting response, pointing out that I might feel differently if I’d grown up within that culture.

This raises a fairly fundamental question of identity: is my introverted side, which I’ve always considered to be a core aspect of my personality, merely a byproduct of my cultural upbringing? In other words, would I be a different person had I been raised differently?

It’s the age-old “nature versus nurture” debate, a topic on which a great deal of research has been done. I’ve read none of it. So instead I’m just going to engage in some unsubstantiated speculation on the subject.

I find it helpful to contextualize the nature versus nurture debate in terms of a person’s skills, and artistic talent is as good an indicator as anything. In a previous post, I explained how artistic mastery is only achieved through a marriage of hard work and natural talent, a mixing of discipline and predisposition. For example, person can work hard to improve their writing or storytelling, but having an ear for language is something you need to be born with.

Meet the Patels: 2014
Meet the Patels: 2014

So I think it’s a mixture of both nature and nurture, and I suspect my introversion is something I was always going to have. Case in point: my brother. Although we grew up in the same household, he’s just about the exact opposite of me. He’s an actor and a very energetic extrovert. A social butterfly in every sense of that phrase. Yet, we had the same upbringing. Therefore, I must conclude that there is some natural difference between us down at the very core of our beings. And to quote Yahtzee Croshaw, “That’s not just idle fact, it’s cold hard speculation.”

 

Coming up:

  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015) – Monday, February 15
  • Movie: Lazer Team (2016 – I can break my own rules!) – Thursday, February 18
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22
  • Documentary: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) – Thursday, February 25
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14

Marcus Fenix falls victim to Runaway Badass Syndrome

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

Behind the Curve – Gears of War 2 (Epic Games, 2008)

So I’m going to talk about about the story in Gears of War 2. I suppose that’s like discussing the interior design of a whore house. Sure it exists, and somebody probably spent a long afternoon designing it. But it’s not that interesting, and if all you care about is the carpet you’ve completely missed the point. You don’t play a Gears game for the story. You play it because you’re after that specific brand of cathartic power fantasy which the phrase “chainsaw assault rifle” so deftly evokes. But I can’t write a 500-word blog entry about chainsaw assault rifles. If I did it would consist mostly of the words “Awesome!” and “F**k Yeah!” with a liberal addition of grunts and growls.

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008
Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

Instead, I’m going to talk about the main character, Marcus Fenix. Now Marcus is a COG sergeant who leads Delta squad. He’s roughly the size and shape of an average fridge and has a voice so gravelly that you could use it for sandpaper. In short, Marcus seems specifically designed to be the most badass person imaginable. Which is just one reason why he’s the least interesting character in the plot.

That’s not an exaggeration. There are characters in this game with less than five minutes screen time that I find more interesting than Marcus. Hell, some of the Locust were more interesting than Marcus. How did this happen? Personally, I think it’s an extreme case of what I’ve termed “Runaway Badass Syndrome.”

It’s a well-documented occurrence that gruff cowboy-types tend to play well with American audiences. It’s the phenomenon that’s kept Clint Eastwood in the green for years. And there are some “writers” working today who think you can make a character as brash and contrarian as possible, with no sense of context, and the audience will love him.

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008
Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

But that’s not what happens. Instead, Marcus comes across as hopelessly boring and robotic, a huge buzzkill to his more engaging squadmates. Not that Marcus’ comrades are deep or original in any way. They’re mostly one-note stereotypes, but at least they’re likable. Carmine is endearing in an innocent rookie kind of way. Cole is a fun Terry Cruz-type. Dom if fairly boring, but at least he has the missing wife moments that come close to touching. Most importantly, they all go through a multitude of emotions, whereas Marcus is just all gruff, all the time.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a moment in which Dom and Carmine are speculating as to whether or not the Locust feed on “Imulsion.” It was mildly interesting to hear, as it fleshed out the Gears of War universe. I’d have been interested in hearing more, but Marcus shut down the discussion by stammering out some cliched badass phrase. Something like “I only care about how to kill them.”

Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008
Gears of War 2: Epic Games, 2008

And that was pretty much standard operating procedure. Marcus never contributed anything interesting to the plot. He’s a joyless meathead with a constant scowl. It’s hard to tell if he cares about anything, because everything he says is coated with the same bored irritation. His only motivation seems to be “being a soldier,” but I’m not convinced he has any goals beyond that. Sure, he wants to save the world, but if he screws it up I don’t think he’d be that bothered. Because if the Locust are defeated, what the Hell would Marcus do with his time? Go back to school? Find a steady job and a nice girl? He’d be on an office massacre inside of five minutes.

I feel like I’ve seen characters like this a lot lately. Writers try to make their heroes as awesome as possible, but the best heroes, the ones that stay with us, have unique joys and vulnerabilities. They have worries and goals that extend beyond the next big gun fight.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Meet the Patels (2014) – Thursday, February 11
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015) – Monday, February 15
  • Movie: Lazer Team (2016 – I can break my own rules!) – Thursday, February 18
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14

un-American Treasure

National Treasure Book of Secrets: Walt Disney Pictures, 2007

Behind the Curve – National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

National Treasure was a pretty good movie if you like that sort of thing. Not great, but fun and exciting in a Mission Impossible crossed with a Dan Brown novel sort of way that kept it just a step above mediocrity. That said, I don’t think it had enough interesting ideas to merit a sequel. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the sequel took a fatal step down into mediocrity. Today it’s cursed to forever haunt the basic cable movie rotation, the Hell of PG-rated action movies.

National Treasure: Walt Disney Pictures, 2004
National Treasure: Walt Disney Pictures, 2004

And that’s where I watched Nation Treasure: Book of Secrets. I say “watched,” but it was more like “had going in the background while I was doing something else.” And at the risk of kicking a dead horse, I’d like to address a bizarre plot point that made the story fall flat to me.

You see, the National Treasure movies style themselves as smart, mystery adventures for US history buffs. Sort of like Indian Jones meets Taken, but with historic American artifacts taking the place of Liam Neeson’s daughter. Nicolas Cage’s character is so enamored with America and American values that you’d think he were running for office. Which is why it’s feels so strange to me that Book of Secrets‘ plot is so un-American.

It all starts when the dude, who might as well be wearing a “bad guy” nametag, claims that Nicolas Cage’s great-great grandfather was a traitor. Devastated, Nicolas Cage sets out to clear his family’s name.

My question: Why?

National Treasure Book of Secrets: Walt Disney Pictures, 2007
National Treasure Book of Secrets: Walt Disney Pictures, 2007

A major aspect of the America experience has been our country’s rejection of European-style classism. A person’s family was (and to a certain extend still is) a major part of European social standing. You couldn’t get the time of day from social elites unless every ancestor for the last two hundred years was a ping pong champion or something.

But the same is not true for America. Most Americans (myself included) don’t know anything about their family beyond a generation or two. And it doesn’t matter to us. Because our society isn’t suppose to have that kind of social barrier. The heart of the American dream is that even those born to poverty can work hard and improve their fortune (although with income inequality, it’s debatable whether that still applies).

My point is that National Treasure: Book of Secrets feels very British. Finding out your great-great grandfather was a traitor might seriously affect your life and sense of self-worth if you live across the pond. But if I received that news I’d be like, “Who cares? I never met the dude!” It would matter to me about as much as knowing that he preferred Pepsi over Coke.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games, 2008) – Monday, February 8
  • Documentary: Meet the Patels (2014) – Thursday, February 11
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015) – Monday, February 15
  • Movie: Lazer Team (2016 – I can break my own rules!) – Thursday, February 18
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22

Organized crime in popular culture

The Godfather: Paramount Pictures, 1972

Behind the Curve – The Jinx (Chapter 3: The Gangster’s Daughter) (2015)

This episode of The Jinx concerns Robert Durst’s friendship and possible murder of Susan Berman. Susan Berman is the daughter of a Las Vegas mob boss, which is my slim justification for focusing this article on our culture’s relationship with organized crime.

Normal people (those who are just trying to get by, not be murdered and eke out a decent living in our unforgiving, capitalistic society) tend to agree that crime is not a good thing. In fact it’s often a very bad thing. Humanity has worked very hard to create a society based upon rules and laws. So when some jerk goes and ignores those rules, we typically view him with contempt and mutter something disparaging under our breath.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

But I rarely see that reaction when it comes to organized crime. For some reason we give the mob a free pass, at least in popular culture. We don’t see mobsters as contemptible, but as stylish and stoic tough guys with a code of honor and respect. But that’s not really the case. In reality mobsters are amoral psychotics, just as depraved as the next criminal. Perhaps even more so, because you know at some point they sat down and decided they comfortable enough with killing to make it a career. Whereas for other murders it’s just a hobby.

Susan Berman idolized he mobste papa and wrote books about him. El Chapo, the notorious Mexican druglord who escaped from prison, became a minor celebrity. Rolling Stone even printed an interview! Why aren’t we more iffy about glorifying professional murderers?

It kind of reminds me of our depiction of pirates. Whenever pirates are depicted in popular culture, they’re usually the good guys. We admire their roguish charm and rebellious spirit. But historically, pirates were monsters. They were dirty, malnourished criminals who’d pillage and rape innocent people. We gloss over that in modern stories (it certainly would have changed the tone of Pirates of the Caribbean), a tendency I always attributed to the passage of time. Can you imagine if someone from the 1700s watched Pirates of the Caribbean? It would be like someone today watching a movie about Johnny Depp playing a lovable, bumbling ISIS fighter.

And organized crime is still very much a contemporary problem. Sure, mobsters are no longer the societal threat they were in the 20s, when Al Capone basically owned Chicago. But gangsters still murder with the best of them.

Al Capone mugshot, from FBI.gov
Al Capone mugshot, from FBI.gov

Perhaps it has something to do with the mob’s rise to power in the 20s alongside Prohibition. Most Americans agree it was stupid to outlaw alcohol, and the mob said “too right!” and helped us “fight the power,” as it were. Well, technically they were capitalizing on the circumstances to gain power. But they had booze, so beggars can’t be choosers.

Does are culture retain fond memories of mob-run speakeasies and bootlegging? Is that why organized crime gets respect? It’s hard to say. But let me go on the record as saying that I love all members of organized crime, so there’s absolutely no reason to “whack” me.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) – Thursday, February 4
  • Game: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games, 2008) – Monday, February 8
  • Documentary: Meet the Patels (2014) – Thursday, February 11
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015) – Monday, February 15
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22