A Simple Question Belies Depths in ‘The Jinx’

Sometimes an interview question seems so simple that it belies the cultural depths that inform it.

A question like this appears in Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Murders of Robert Durst (2015). This six-episode HBO series retraces the unsolved murders linked to Durst through archival footage, reenactments, and interviews, including with Durst himself. Throughout the episodes, Jarecki asks questions from off camera in order to move the inquiry along.

The second chapter, titled “Poor Little Rich Boy,” addresses the traumas of Durst’s childhood and the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie. According to the “official” story, Kathie took the train back to New York City, arrived at her apartment around 11:30 p.m., called Robert to let him know she was there, and called her medical school to report her absence the next day. After that last call, she disappeared. After a few days, Durst filed a missing persons report. Kathie’s friends, however, believed that Durst killed her, and they undertook their own investigation into the situation.

Part of Jarecki’s revelations include details about Kathie’s dealing with abuse that escalated during their marriage. It included hitting, kicking, shoving, a forced abortion, and monitoring that required Kathie check in with Robert via telephone wherever she went. Her friends recounted Kathie’s fears over Robert’s potential anger. Kathie also had filed for divorce, but Robert had refused.

The question comes in an interview with Kathie’s friend Geraldine McInerney. With the documentary’s uncovering of these abusive behaviors, they had become the elephant in the room. Jarecki asks, “Why didn’t she leave?”

McInerney pauses for a moment and then replies, “I don’t know. I think she was afraid of him.”

While the question fits the context of the series, it also points to the myths surrounding domestic violence. Groups such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Domestic Abuse Project offer information that counter these myths. A hashtag campaign, #whyIstayed, also raises awareness.

Several reasons exist for why people stay in domestic violence situations. Some survivors remain unaware of options available to help them. They face cultural, religious, and familial pressures. Emotional issues such as low self-esteem and depression entrap them. Some abuses they endure ensure they cannot leave, such as tight control of finances, transportation, social activities, and communications. Many stay because of their children.

Leaving can pose more dangers to the person’s safety than remaining in the abusive relationship. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone who leaves an abusive relationship is 75 percent more likely to experience separation violence or even be murdered by the partner.

Jarecki’s investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Robert uncovers parallels these issues. The physical altercations increased over time. Robert monitored her movements, such as his calling during the party at her friend’s house the night she disappeared. Kathie’s friend recalls her being rattled by those calls. Another friend questioned why Kathie had to call and check in with Robert when she out.

A tougher decision becomes another example. Kathie got pregnant in the late 1970s, and Robert offered her the choice of the abortion or divorce. In his interview with Jarecki, Durst claimed that he was jinxed and didn’t want children. We have no insight into Kathie’s thoughts.

The police response to her disappearance also suggests the legal issues that might arise in domestic violence situations. Those who claim abuse sometimes struggle with police believing their stories and their seriousness. In the series the police do ask about the state of the marriage, but they figure she left of her own free will. Even with Kathie’s friends telling them about the situation, the original detectives make no further investigation in his disappearance and close the case as a missing persons file, not a murder.

The divorce filing, which had happened three days before, might have been the final straw as it represented a move to freedom and thus posed a threat to Robert’s control over her.

These comments here are not to say that Jarecki’s posing of the question furthers the myths of women staying in domestic violence situations. The question fits the context of the film, and it is a question many viewers might have had. What’s better, though, is how the film answers the question through its investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Durst and the points it raises about that relationship.

Constructing Conversations about Race in ‘Trick Bag’

Kartemquin Films’ Trick Bag: A Black and White Film tackles a tough subject: race issues in 1970s Chicago.

Their 1974 short film shows a series of interviews among people across Chicago during the early 1970s. These people, mostly youth, gather at parks, on street corners, and in people’s homes. Race issues dominate these interviews, though intersectionalities with class -— a theme across Kartemquin’s catalogue -— also appear. Brief sequences of well-chosen music and some voiceover comments set up each scene and its key idea.

Unlike the usual lone talking head, this short approaches these interviews as conversations. In a kitchen, for example, several men sit and talk about their experiences while serving in Vietnam. Each of the men, who remain unidentified, share comments and anecdotes about what they went through there. An African-American man talks about how he had time served and rank and yet white men still got promoted over him. A white man shares his story about being harassed by a higher-up. While the camera cuts from speaker to speaker, we also see and hear some reactions from the others in the room, such as a reaction shot of a man nodding or a two-shot with another man laughing.

Other scenes offer more insights into the interactions among the people talking. One girl early in the film talks about bringing an African-American woman to her apartment before attending a show, and the landlord calls and tells her to have the woman leave immediately. The girl refuses to remove her friend, and the landlord gives them a 30-day eviction notice. As she talks, several people laugh almost nervously, making her smile as she talks though the man framed in the shot with her listens intently without much facial expression.

A conversation outside a Schwinn bicycle factory shows the most exchange among the speakers. Some start the comments, and others chime in to agree. Still others raise different points to the conversation. Shots show some people talking and other people listening, such as an African-American man talking and a white man listening.

While the sequences are set up as conversations with multiple people present, the editing still focuses on one speaker at a time for the most part. The conversation approach complements the discussions about race and class within the film in that it sets up a flow of honest, direct exchange. No sugarcoating happens here; the problems are clearly stated. One man says, “They say there’s a race problem between blacks and whites. It’s not really as much a race problem so much as it is a class problem.” After talking about the differing treatment of African-American and white factory workers, another man says, “You know who really gets [deleted]? Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.”

The comment that most stuck with me was this one: “We’re losing like 5-6 dudes a year.” That’s a sobering comparison to the number lost each day in Chicago. It would be interesting to hear what these conversations sound like today.

Performance, Music Come First in ‘Stop Making Sense’

Concert films are a well-established sub-genre of documentary. Think Woodstock, Monterey Pop, The Last Waltz. Their conventions, by now, are well known: interviews with the stars and the fans, shots of performances, and hopefully some deep dish about the band not available elsewhere. While often dismissed by critics as publicity vehicles, concert films still provide the best seat in the house.

Stop Making Sense is a different kind of concert film, one that relies all on the concert footage and none on the rest of the conventions. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 documentary starts with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne walking onto a bare stage with a guitar and a boom box (remember those?). He greets the audience, turns on a synth beat on the boom box, and launches into “Psycho Killer.” As the concert continues, more band members join Byrne on stage, and the crew sets up more equipment along with them. Pretty soon, the entire band is on stage and performing.

The audio belies the illusions of these visuals, however. No boom box, no matter how many “D” batteries one packs into it, can emit that clear of a sound in a concert hall. The back-up singers lend their voices to a couple songs before they even appear onstage.

While many concert films include multiple shots of adoring fans, the audience remains in the dark for most of Demme’s film. A couple extra long shots of the stage show the audience members’ silhouettes bobbing their heads to the beat, but not until the end of the film, when the concert winds down, do we see the fans’ faces and their dancing to the songs.

Stop Making Sense makes for what might seem an overly simple documentary, but that simplicity is what I like about it: the music and the performance come first.