Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug5crloEWck
I’ve got a buddy who says if he’s ever elected to public office, his stance on the death penalty would be a direct reflection of his constituency. He doesn’t care about the issue, so he figures that he would simply just please those who elected him. I couldn’t help but think of my buddy as I was watching Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, the new documentary playing at E Street. The two men at its focus are bursting with wit and intelligence, and are obsessively devoted to the issue of capital punishment. It seems like a waste of great minds, but then again, one of them has little else to think about.
At first I thought Robert Blecker, a New York law professor, is a complete prick. He’s an avid death penalty advocate who believes that only the worst of the worst should be killed by the state. He approaches the issue as a “emotive retributionalist” – one who thinks that execution is a moral necessity for the good of society. He initially sounds like a prick because of the simple language he uses. “I want this man to die” is a phrase that is never far from his lips. As the movie continues, a consistent philosophy emerges, and I realize that his argument has a sturdier framework than simple blood lust. A great mind like his needs a great foil, and he finds one with Daryl Horton, a death row inmate who killed his four children. Horton never claims to be innocent of his crime, and sees the murders as an altruistic act. By killing his children, Horton thinks he was saving them from hell. These two begin to correspond. Blecker is impressed by Horton’s eloquence, and through their letters, this odd couple find a mutual cause. Horton wants to die, and Blecker wants to see him dead.
Watching the movie is akin to having a passionate debate. In my head, I found myself arguing with the positions Blecker and Horton present. Director Ted Schillinger trusts the material, and most of the time understands it needs no frills. Horton and Blecker develop a bond based on the mutual respect of the other’s intelligence. Of course, this poses an ethical problem for Blecker. He begins to like the same guy he wants killed. And even if Blecker does like the guy, he must remember that, yes, Horton killed his children in cold blood. Blecker fervently denies that Horton is his friend. I think he’s deluding himself, and is perhaps sad when the inevitable finally arrives. Until then, Horton has oodles of time, and is happy to have someone passionately engage him. The movie isn’t as insanely dark as it sounds. Both men are frequently funny, and Horton (literally) infuses gallows humor into his conversations. If there’s one weakness, it’s Schillinger’s corny attempt at symbolism. By the end, Blecker is literally on the fence between capital punishment advocates and abolitionists, and the image is just a little too on the nose. Luckily, much of the movie’s running time is simply spent watching these men talk.
Blecker’s position is an interesting one – I kind of see where he’s coming from, but only up to a point. He wants juries to trust their emotions as they choose an appropriate punishment, yet juries are instructed to judge the facts with reason. I would love a chance to bring this point up with Blecker himself. When I bought my ticket, the guy at the box office informed me both he and Schllinger were attending screenings later that evening. I couldn’t go, and as I left the theater, I felt like I was wasting a great opportunity. The movie held in my interest by consistently engaging my mind, an experience that’s often sorely lacking in the movies. This is a fascinating documentary, and if you’re the sort who likes to argue, you should see it now. Even my buddy was intrigued by the subject.
Here are other documentaries concerning the more dubious aspects of our justice system:
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Originally airing on HBO, this documentary gives the gnawing feeling that our justice system is fundamentally flawed. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky focus on three Arkansas teenagers, later called the West Memphis 3, who are imprisoned for the brutal murders of three second-grade boys. The media argues that the brutal deaths are part of a satanic ritual. One of the defendants, the brooding Damien Wayne Echols, makes for an easy target since he listens to Metallica, and therefore must worship the Dark Lord. All three defendants are easily found guilty. The directors film the trial and interview those involved (law enforcement, parents of victims, etc). It becomes clear that John Mark Byers, a victim’s stepfather, is seriously disturbed and should have been considered a suspect. In a bizarre turn, Byers gives the directors a blood-stained knife as a gift. Lab work confirms that the blood type matches Byers and one victim. The directors subtly argue that the West Memphis 3 are innocent, and convincingly suggest they never received a fair trial. For bonus points, I suggest that you check out the sequel, which documents the appeal process, and further damns Byers as the culprit. As of summer 2008, a judge denied Echols a DNA test, citing inconclusive evidence.
Capturing the Friedmans. This documentary follows the trial of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, and their child molestation trial. Director Andrew Jarecki never makes it clear whether Arnold and Jesse are justly imprisoned. His movie does serve as a condemnation of the justice system, and is at its most fascinating when Jarecki looks at how the trial rips the Friedman family apart. There would be no movie if David Friedman, the oldest son, did not tirelessly film his family history. We eavesdrop as Arnold and his wife fight bitterly. We see moments of raw anger and unexpected tenderness. Sure, the material sometimes feels like an arthouse episode of Jerry Springer, but at least the director never exploits. Arnold is a pedophile and capable of molestation, and the movie also argues that the police are equally capable of a hatchet job. Witnesses are manipulated and there is little physical evidence damning the father and son. We are once again soberly reminded how easily the legal system can fail. As an added bonus, the DVD features festival discussions in which those involved angrily complain about how they’re portrayed.
Mr. Death. Documentarian Errol Morris always manages to find the most peculiar subjects, and Fred Leuchter is no exception. Despite training as an engineer, Leuchter found his true calling in designing “more humane” execution machines. I suppose a faulty electric chair could lead to truly repulsive consequences, so it follows that somebody has to make sure that the inmate doesn’t boil. Needless to say, Leuchter is a strange guy. We learn that he drinks 40 to 60(!) cups of coffee a day, and that’s how he meets his waitress wife. On their honeymoon, Leuchter makes an unlikely stop at Auschwitz. After a completely unscientific study of Auschwitz’s soil, he becomes a fervent Holocaust denier, and gets chummy with members of the Neo-Nazi movement. Morris tracks Leuchter’s rise and fall with attentiveness and curiosity – as with his other documentaries, it’s difficult to determine what exactly Morris thinks of his subject. The director also uses his famous interrotron, a unique device that allows the interviewee to look at both director and camera simultaneously, which makes an interview seem more like a confession. You may want to shower after spending time with Leuchter, yet I nonetheless recommend this documentary because it shows us how weird people can get.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I rob a CEO.