Being There by Dave Furman, Free for CaPC Members
Dave Furman’s Being There is intended to help us navigate life with those who are suffering.
I won’t spoil the end of The Jinx here—if by some chance you haven’t already read reports of the much lauded HBO documentary series—but I think it’s safe to say that the finale provided the seemingly “definitive” conclusion we all pined for in Serial. The last episode plays more like a suspense thriller than an open-ended study of the American justice system. The Jinx possesses a clear beginning, middle, and, most importantly, powerful resolution. Not that an open-ended plot can’t have a “conclusion,” but there’s a certain amount of satisfaction attached to having all the answers handed to you before the credits roll (though “all” is certainly up for debate here).
The Jinx offers us a chance to revel in this primitive longing for closure. It sweeps us away in the euphoria of a microscopic eschaton—feelings that are at once ancient, universal, and, I believe, quite spiritual.
Even as The Jinx explores the nature of truth, it also revels in the satisfaction that comes when the unknowable suddenly bursts into the present.The full title for Andrew Jarecki’s six-episode series is The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Deaths in the plural, of course, referring not to Durst, but to individuals near Durst. You see, millionaire Robert Durst is either a psychotic madman or the biggest jinx the world has ever known. The son of a wealthy real estate tycoon, Durst’s life is shrouded in mystery. His wife, best friend, and next-door neighbor have all either gone missing or turned up dead—the neighbor’s body found cut up and floating in the Gulf of Mexico.
With unprecedented access to Durst, Jarecki slowly investigates the mystery, probing each scenario to answer the decades-old question: “Does Robert Durst deserve to be locked up?” The first few episodes of The Jinx serve as infotainment of sorts to Durst’s depravity (or bad luck). Just when the audience is led to believe the situation couldn’t get any more mangled, the plot adds a “But wait, there’s more!” line to the narrative. Halfway through, viewers will likely find themselves in one of two categories: Durst is either a remorseless killer or simply some sort of harmless anti-rabbit’s foot.
While The Jinx emphasizes mystery over man, the plot finding its steam in the “whodunit” of the story rather than Durst’s psychological makeup, it has much to say regarding the power and inescapability of personal bias in the process of storytelling. In The Jinx, everyone wears bias on their sleeves, whether they are aware of this or not. The subjects might be justified in their conclusions, but prior experience and belief still have a way of creeping into the facts, figures, and fragments of the crime-scene evidence. Nothing is ever purely objective. Truth is elusive.
From the very first image—a police car, appearing on the screen alongside an epitaph that reads, “Galveston, Texas – September 2001”—presuppositions bleed through the narrative. This initial shot is one of many recreations staged strictly for the series. Anne Helen Petersen of BuzzFeed chronicles, in great detail, both these editing choices as well as The Jinx’s other timeline arrangements (and goes as far as including the term “manipulated” in her title).
For the record, I don’t have a problem with documentarians using controlled editing, recreations, and source rearrangement to tell an affecting story, as long as it is all done responsibly. Every artist comes to a particular project with prior presuppositions and goals; no documentary is unbiased. Whether The Jinx knowingly manipulated its viewers is to be debated. It is clear, however, that The Jinx’s editing techniques and imagery visually reinforce the role of bias in our perception of the story.
This theme also basks in many of the series’ extensive interviews. Jury members who acquit Durst are still convinced he’s innocent, even after learning new information. His current wife chose to stand by him despite harrowing accusations. The Texas investigators who took Durst to trial for a Galveston murder believed their verdict was airtight. They later found how personal bias became an impediment to proper judicial planning.
Even as The Jinx explores the nature of truth, it also revels in the satisfaction that comes when the unknowable suddenly bursts into the present. The day The Jinx’s final episode aired, police arrested Robert Durst for the murder of Susan Berman. An arrest, by all accounts, that resulted from new evidence turned over by Jarecki and company.
This isn’t the first time a work of art has initiated some sort of legal action, and it certainly won’t be the last. The Serial podcast indirectly led to Adnan Syed being granted an appeal. The Paradise Lost documentaries brought to light investigative inaccuracies in a case involving three teens imprisoned for killing and mutilating young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line culminated in a man on death row being released. Documentaries aren’t the exception either. Kieśowski’s Decalogue V (A Short Film About Killing) assisted in generating momentum for the anti-capital punishment campaign in Poland.
As if we didn’t already know, occasionally a Jinx comes along and reminds us that art has power. Stories move us in ways that legislation and exposition cannot. Emotionally, socially, and practically. This is true with a series like The Jinx, where a staled case became a national sensation simply because it attempted to provide closure.
There is something to be said about humanity’s incessant pursuit of conclusion—the mass appeal of The Jinx’s finale argues that much. The series harkens to our very universal desire to peel off the metal casing and examine all of life’s pistons and pulleys for ourselves. The Jinx gives us, although in a small way, an opportunity to revel in the satisfaction of knowing the truth, despite the seemingly ambiguity of bias.
It’s these desires for controlled conclusions that, I believe, seem to find their reflection in the overarching narrative described in the holy scriptures. “God’s story” is the tale of creation, fall, redemption, and ultimate restoration. History is leading toward an end, a finale that will cause all others to bow in comparison. Wrongs will be made right. Justice will become actualized. Our questions will be answered. All of history will one day accumulate into a powerful, grand crescendo.
This perhaps speaks to why The Jinx strikes a deep cord with so many. For a brief moment, we catch a taste of the end. God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and Jarecki’s story whets this appetite. And though The Jinx doesn’t have a beautiful Revelation-styled ending, it does hint at our longing for justice to be fulfilled. Despite Durst’s depravity, there are seeds of hope.
As the final shot of The Jinx faded to black, the last line still ringing in my ears, I realized what made The Jinx so intoxicating. It had a conclusion. It told (or at least attempted to tell) the whole story. This is why the ending invoked so much emotion. As people made with a larger story in our souls, we yearn to know the answers. We yearn to see behind the curtain.
One day, we will.
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