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Film Review: Citizenfour

October 28, 2016 Leave a comment

Citizenfour (2014; Directed by Laura Poitras)

The story of Edward Snowden, the NSA (National Security Agency) computer analyst contractor who leaked digital volumes upon volumes of information about the United States government’s top-secret data collection operations and thus revealed a sophisticated and alarming system of state surveillance of private citizens in America and worldwide, is one of the most vital political stories of our time. Citizenfour tells his story practically in real time via the camera of Laura Poitras, the intrepid political documentarian whom he first covertly contacted in his gradual, intricately-planned process of releasing the explosive information about the wide-net surveillance and data collection program.

Indeed it is Snowden’s intricacy, the elaborately considered care with which he chooses his every word just as he chose his remarkable, brave and personally dangerous course of action, that comes through so strongly through Poitras’ lens. The hyperbolic mudslinging directed at him by U.S. government spokespeople, politicians, and media (traitor, radical, Russian agent, even terrorist) invested in delegitimizing his damaging revelations about the NSA’s oppressive overreach of constitutional bounds fails to stick to this characterization.

Snowden states his objections to becoming a public figure via his whistleblowing as well as his reluctance to allow the personality-driven media to make him, rather than the compendious official abuses he exposed, the focus of the story. Still, Snowden has been in the public eye for a few years now, earning much of his income in exile through speaking engagements, and his statements and even his actions since his historic info-dump have not always demonstrated such exquisite circumspection. But in Citizenfour, in the midst of the act itself, he demonstrates a tremendously exacting determination to get every detail of his revelations precisely right. No wonder the NSA trusted him to work on their data dragnet program in the first place.

Citizenfour moves slowly in establishing the developing relationship between Poitras the investigative filmmaker (who remains ever offscreen) and Snowden the prized source, with the text of their encrypted email exchanges sometimes displayed onscreen and sometimes read in voiceover by Poitras, in one instance over footage of the construction work being done on a massive government data centre. But the film gains traction and becomes a galvanizing experience when Snowden joins Poitras and her camera, as well as Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, to hole up in a Hong Kong hotel room for days on end.

There, Snowden and the journalists whom he essentially hand-picked to sift through the information he leaked them about the NSA’s data collection program talk through its operations, its aims, its reach, and the consequences he expects and accepts for himself for revealing this stunning information to the public (he’s highly astute about even those implications; at one point, he tells his collaborators that he expects the authorities to charge him using some obscure and perhaps legally dubious 19th-century law, and sure enough when the charges come, they are under the World War I-era Espionage Act).

Basically, what he tells them is that the NSA, in concert with major telecommunications and internet companies, intercepts, collects and can instantly search the emails, cell phone calls, text messages, and internet activity of millions of Americans and other digital users outside the country as well (including heads of state, such as German Chancellor Andrea Merkel). It’s an extensive mass surveillance system straight out of Orwell which NSA officials told the U.S. Congress point-blank did not exist. Snowden could not countenance working on a secret, unconstitutional invasion of citizens’ privacy any longer, and decided to disclose it to the public in spite of the price that he himself knew he would pay for that choice. With the help of experienced journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill to sort through the documents he gives them and decide what is in the public interest to publish and what might be dangerous classified information to put out in the world (a stark contrast to WikiLeaks’ fanatical insistence on full disclosure), Snowden watches from his room as his revelations, and then his identity, break into the media.

It’s difficult not to be a little shaken by the depths of government surveillance that Snowden reveals, but the paranoid caution that Snowden displays on camera (at one point using a laptop with a bedsheet over his head and the computer to frustrate any possible “visual collection”) deepens the alarm. If someone who knows what he knows about this system is this paranoid, it must be justified (though Snowden’s position in that Hong Kong hotel room is hardly analogous to that of ordinary citizens texting and emailing about crushes, grocery lists, surprise party plans, or even political opinions). Even Greenwald, who has been writing trenchantly about the American government’s post-9/11 curtailment of civil liberties for years and has not a single scale on his eyes as regards the secretive and often malignant operations of the national security apparatus, is intermittently shocked by what Snowden tells him, especially when he reveals that a government watch list runs to over a million names.

Snowden eventually leaves the hotel room, Hong Kong, and Asia entirely, eventually winding up living in Russia indefinitely after the U.S. State Department revokes his passport while he was in transit through Moscow (he’s still there today, at an undisclosed location). Despite his qualms about celebrity and notoriety, and perhaps at least partly because of those qualms, Snowden is presented in Citizenfour as a sacrificing hero, a sort of secular ascetic saint suffering in relatively comfortable exile for America’s sins against its own fabled liberty.

Poitras respects her subject’s wish to not be the subject to some extent, leaving the only background on Snowden’s life to be provided by the man himself, but she’s too good a filmmaker to miss the human story at the heart of the larger, tentacular political one. If anything, it seems likely that she weighs the core issues more heavily than does Oliver Stone in his recent adaptation of Snowden’s story, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the infamous leaker (as much as I enjoy Gordon-Levitt, watching the real Snowden makes it clear that the only choice to play the man on film is mid-1990s Edward Norton). But the camera seeks out a star, and the forthright, intelligent, unerringly accurate Snowden is clearly its preferred focal point.

But let’s respect Snowden’s expressed wishes and focus on the cause of his exile, the sprawling program of official surveillance that he exposed and that, despite that exposure, remains in place. Snowden and Greenwald feel such a program contravenes the U.S. constitution and citizens’ privacy rights, while national security professionals insist that such trespasses, while regrettable, are the necessary cost of protecting the American people from threats they cannot begin to fully understand. Whatever you think of either of those opposing arguments (and I side with the privacy activists in finding the latter reasoning flawed; insert your contextless Benjamin Franklin “liberty/security” epigram here), the concept of a system of total surveillance of all American citizens at the disposal of the President and the government is more than a little troubling.

One might try to argue with any measure of authority that one commander-in-chief, say Barack Obama, would be of impeccable-enough character to only use this avalanche of personal data against truly dangerous enemies of the nation (although Greenwald has frequently asserted that the current President and administration is hardly above reproach in this regard). Even granting this (and we do not), what’s to stop an unstable authoritarian demagogue (I’m trying to think of one who might have a chance of becoming President but blanking at the present moment) from using the information to vengefully persecute personal enemies, discriminate against minority groups, or generally run a Real American neo-Stasi? Basically, nothing. Outside of this worst-case scenario, such power over the nation’s populace being entrusted to any government agency has disturbing implications, particularly if said agency is as non-transparent and immune to electoral pressures as the NSA.

Citizenfour is a conduit for these issues; indeed it focuses them like a laser beam. Despite Snowden’s personal sacrifice and the ongoing crusade of figures like Greenwald, the American surveillance state continues apace. The neoliberal Democrats who rule the White House are temperamentally, politically and ideologically disinclined to challenge the national security apparatus and the Republicans who control Congress are consistently chomping at the bit to wield it against their expanding plethora of enemies, real and imagined, internal and foreign. The discourse of projected strength remains the language of power in the United States, and neither faction of the country’s polarized political class nurturs much of a desire to challenge that orthodoxy. The force of Edward Snowden’s disclosures as narrativized in Citizenfour has not catalyzed such a challenge, necessary though it increasingly proves to be. But Snowden’s act may well have pulled back a curtain on mass surveillance and revealed something that cannot be hidden again, and the battle between privacy and security will rage ever on.

TV Quickshots #31

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Mr. Robot (USA; 2015-Present)

Opening its first season with a blast of consumerism-critiquing iconoclasm and highly particular potentiality, this acclaimed series about troubled anti-corporate computer hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his inculcation in a daring, revolutionary hacktivist plot led by the unpredictable titular figure (played by Christian Slater) reverts to soapy melodramatic plot turns before too long (murder! sadomasochism! gangland intrigue! murder again! secret family connections!). But it never abandons its sharply questing writing, its uneasily-framed cinematography, and its committed, mercurial performances. And it is always eminently watchable.

Working as an engineer at cyber security firm Allsafe, Elliot’s practical and intellectual brilliance melds with near-debilitating psychological problems and social awkwardness. Perhaps to assuage manifest misanthropic tendencies as well as to address latent guilt about past family trauma and corporate servitude, Elliott hacks the people around him, learning every private detail of their lives through email, social media, bank and credit card records, and anything else about them that is within his digital reach: his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), her doofus boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport), his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), his neighbour, drug dealer, and semi-girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw), even his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben).

Elliott also wields his hacking prowess as a tool for social justice and personal retribution. The series’ arresting opening scene shows him exposing the child pornography habit of a coffee shop franchise owner to police; he later blackmails the married man having an affair with Krista into breaking it off (and giving Elliott his dog) and gets Shayla’s drug-lord supplier jailed for this crimes as well. But his true outlet is an insurrectionist anti-corporate hacktivist cell known as fsociety, helmed by a loose-cannon fanatic known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and also including a firebrand hacker named Darlene (Carly Chaikin). fsociety recruits Elliott (or is it vice versa?) for a grand anarchist scheme to infiltrate the vast server farms of the world’s largest corporation, technology and financial giant E Corp (nicknamed Evil Corp by Elliott and other critics of its activities, and sometimes even by its employees), and permanently wipe the reams of data stored there.

Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is such a particular piece of television craft with such rich and often nuanced things to say about modern corporatism and technology-inf(l)ected life that it’s easy to miss its clear influences. David Fincher is the most obvious point of reference. The chilling noir-ish view of digital age alienation suggests The Social Network, whose memorable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is taken as a model for Mac Quayle’s flittering (and, if anything, superior) electronic soundtrack to Elliott’s mounting troubles. Fight Club is an even bigger inspiration, although Mr. Robot thankfully leaves out its tendency towards fascistic masculinity. It does borrow a key portion of Fight Club‘s revolutionary activist group Project Mayhem’s grand plan to undermine corporate capitalism by wiping out all consumer debt, as well as (double spoiler coming) the protagonist’s disassociative identity disorder. The show tips its hat to these roots by utilizing an instrumental version of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”, featured at the conclusion of Fight Club, at a key moment late in the first season.

Mr. Robot‘s dominant tones of paranoia and alienation are consistently, strikingly conveyed through its cinematography, and specifically through its framing, technically referred to as lower-quadrant framing. Without getting too deeply into the technical visual theory (which James Manning does for us in this helpful video essay), this show looks different from anything else on television on a consistent basis and therefore feels different. Its characters are stranded and disoriented within the frame, especially the wide-eyed, heavy-lidded Egyptian-American Malek, who finds the distinction between reality and fantasy, the tangible and the digital, ever more difficult to discern. Mr. Robot has its foibles and its melodramatic tangents and can take it self too seriously by half, but it might be the sharpest and most trenchant narrative and metaphorical exploration of how we live now airing on American TV.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Rams

October 12, 2016 Leave a comment

Rams (Hrútar) (2015; Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)

Rams is a movie about family and sheep. Although the Icelandic rural drama was sold in the North American arthouse market with trailers playing up its quirky off-beat deadpan humour, this film is in truth deeply lonely and desperately sad (although there is one inspired dark-comic sequence that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling: a peculiar “ambulance” of the icy barrens). It’s a portrait of simmering, below-the-surface sibling rivalry and bruised, threatened masculinity pinned down to a vast landscape, with a symbolically-charged deadly sheep epidemic as a strong impetus for conflict, confrontation, loss, and healing.

In the rugged, forbiddingly beautiful countryside of Iceland, two estranged brothers and sheep-farmers tend to adjacent flocks of animals locally renowned for their quality. Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) lives a solitary existence, the occasional strained chats with neighbours his sole form of companionship beyond his beloved sheep. His elder brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíussson) offers little succor despite living on the very next plot of land; their only interactions are conducted via Gummi’s written notes couriered by Kiddi’s dog, to which Kiddi replies with either stony silence or furious, drunken late-night assaults (Kiddi shoots out Gummi’s windows in one such inebriated rage, to which Gummi responds by stoically invoicing him for the repairs). Although Kiddi’s prized ram tops Gummi’s in a local competition, Gummi reveals to an officious visitor that their father did not think the choleric Kiddi was suited to shepherding the family flock, and thus left all the property and sheep in Gummi’s name.

The sting of this paternal judgement is the source of the brotherly enmity that has endured for 40 years (writer-director Grímur Hákonarson leads us to believe that Gummi’s envy of Kiddi’s finer sheep is the catalyst for the sundering before deftly pulling the later-act switch). The chilly distance between them, in spite of their proximity on the land, is visualized by an early shot of Gummi warily crossing the fence line between their plots to examine a dead sheep. The carcass is a portent of calamity for the brothers and the entire sheep-farming community in the remote valley, as is a troubling lethargy that Gummi also notes in Kiddi’s prize ram. The devastating virulence known as scrapie (basically mad cow disease for sheep) is found in the flock, necessitating a wholesale slaughter of all of the sheep in the valley as mandated by the national agricultural authorities.

While Kiddi rages against those authorities and refuses to cooperate, Gummi takes the painful task of slaughter into his own hands. Sigurjónsson’s shaken performance both before and after this bloody act is riveting, and its poignancy is only increased by the portrayal of the crushing loneliness of his life (his solo Christmas, dressed up in vest and tie, lighting candles, playing music, and eating a leg of lamb, is saturated with pathos), from which his adored sheep are his only relief. But his unauthorized cull (the authorities perform a sanitary slaughter of other flocks) only serves as a cover for a secret plan to preserve a small portion of his proud flock, his family heritage, for the future.

Without spoiling too much more, Gummi’s bold ruse will collapse the fences between himself and Kiddi in the dire straits of mutual necessity, and lead them to such lengths as to bring them as close as is humanly possible, symbolically conjoined twins in a womb of winter. The title also refers to the brothers as symbolic hard-headed rams, forever stubbornly butting skulls. Both of these symbolic linkages feed into Hákonarson’s dominant theme in the film: male anxiety, isolation, and impotence.

Both Gummi and Kiddi are unmarried (Kiddi had and lost a few women over the years, Gummi mentions, driven away by his cantankerous temperament) and childless, with no heirs to their humbly proud but gradually dying shepherding legacy, which the scrapie epidemic threatens to erase entirely. Their sense of masculine worth is tied up in their flocks, which are an inheritance from their father, along with their bitter, prolonged feud. Their battle of male egos is transmuted into their best rams, which compete to be the best in the valley (“The sheep intertwines with the farmer’s being,” a grandiose speech at the awards ceremony proclaims as a thematic guidepost). Even their sense of male sexual virility is poured into the animals: the crowning ritual of Gummi’s lonesome Christmas, a moment given a great ceremonial importance, involves freeing his ram and cheering him on to rut with the ewes and breed a new generation, which the old man himself cannot do.

Rams is no mere critique of these tenacious male drives, but an empathetic, affecting depiction of those egoistic but deeply-held tendencies being worn steadily away, leaving raw nerves and fundamental, tenuous human connections. It’s telling that only when literally everything else has been stripped away can the brothers accept and love each other, to comfort each other in tragic extremity. Hákonarson’s beautiful and wry film might sometimes incline in the direction of a comedy so deadpan as to require life support, granted. But it feels its key movements with a poignancy as deep as the vistas of the Icelandic landscape are wide, and that steady sincerity is its saving grace.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: Stranger Things

October 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Stranger Things (Netflix; 2016)

The early fall’s undisputed internet buzz champion of online video streaming series, the Duffer Brothers’ exercise in nostalgic Spielbergian/Carpenterian genre film homage has generated far more involved discussion than has been strictly earned by the text itself. Despite its sci-fi subject matter of telekinetic abilities and shadow dimensions inhabited by predatory monsters, Stranger Things is predominantly concerned with broad, conventional themes: high school hierarchies, teenage hormones, secretive and oppressive authorities, grief and loss, family and friendship. But when those recognizable themes and speculative elements are put together with narrative verve, visual flair, and solid characters played by likable actors, a slightly-above-average success in genre entertainment can present as much more.

Stranger Things is set in the 1980s, and from its period clothes and technology to its pulsating synthesizer soundtrack and constellation of popular culture references and period movie homages, it doesn’t let the viewer forget it for a moment. In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, two concurrent mysteries arise simultaneously: a boy disappears, and a girl appears. The boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), vanishes from the vicinity of the run-down home he shares with his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) on the edge of the woods, after leaving an evening game of Dungeons & Dragons (the game’s fantasy nomenclature provides the boys with frames of reference with which to discuss the odd happenings to come) with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Around the same time, a wordless young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) with a shaved head wearing a hospital gown wanders into a roadside diner. Both children and their mysterious ordeals have something to do with a well-guarded Department of Energy laboratory on the edge of town, lorded over by the white-haired Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

Joyce remains convinced that her son is alive and has been communicating with her, even when presented with firm evidence to the contrary and disagreement on that point with Jonathan. She outfits their home with strings of Christmas lights, believing (and not wrongly, it seems) that Will, wherever he might be imagined to be, can blink out messages to her through lightbulbs. Also convinced of their friend’s endurance are Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into whose protection the girl, soon dubbed Eleven (“El” for short), drifts after fleeing pursuit at the diner. She speaks few words, shows little understanding of the world, and displays an impressive and unexplained ability to, well, do things with her mind. Additional allies include Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whose best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) disappears soon after Will does, and the Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose astute investigative skills lead him to suspect that there is more to both disappearances than meet the eye.

What proceeds from this premise, and indeed what informs it, is fairly standard genre classics of the time period, much of it telegraphed through overt allusive references: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (Mike’s crew rockets around town and outskirts on their bikes, hiding their precious visitor from the sinister government authorities that wish to capture her), John Carpenter’s The Thing (the movie poster is conspicuous in Mike’s basement), Stephen King (in one scene, a suburban mom is reading It). Other reference points are not signposted quite so clearly but are still hard to miss: the shadow-dimension of the Upside-Down from which the titular stranger things emanate is a slavish (and thus distinctly unimaginative) homage to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (Nancy even enters it at one point by crawling through a goopy aperture in a tree trunk), and the monster that inhabits it is a hybrid of that film’s terrifying Pale Man, the xenomorph from Alien, and the carnivorous plant from The Little Shop of Horrors.

Another 1980s film totem for the Duffers would appear to be John Hughes high school movies, and much of Stranger Things‘ episode runtimes is taken up in school social politics. Nancy, a bit of a staid straight-A student, is dating rich, opular big-man-on-campus Steve (Joe Keery) but increasingly feels a tug towards awkward loner Jonathan, whom Steve and his dickweed friends pick on, as their shared paranormal mission heats up. Mike and his friends are harrassed by a pair of bullies as well, and Eleven’s telekinetic powers help to even the score.

Indeed, for the most part, Stranger Things‘ character interactions and sci-fi mythology serve to build up to big, dramatically-satisfying standoffs that are resolved with violence: Jonathan against Steve, Nancy and Jonathan (and a special, redeemed guest!) against the creature who snatched those close to them, Eleven against that monster, the school bullies, the DoE thugs, and her surrogate father Dr. Brennan. That these resolutions are telegraphed does not make them unenjoyable or dissatisfying, but the inevitability hews to a generalized feeling while watching Stranger Things. It’s a reasonably involving experience (though like a lot of narratives with a secret enigma at its heart, it becomes less engaging the more of its central mystery is revealed) that is well-made and well-acted (Brown is a particularly riveting young actress, and Ryder is excellent as a mom who refuses to give in to grief, no matter how outlandish her reasons for hope become) but could benefit greatly from pushing at the boundaries of its formula, of expanding its borders at least a little. Stranger Things could, in other words, stand to be stranger.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Documentary Quickshots #4

October 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Amanda Knox (2016; Directed by Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn)

A fascinating, absorbing documentary account of a sordid and troubling saga of murder, sex, and miscarried justice that captivating the tabloidized media for years, Amanda Knox is a series of bursts of outrage between sober details and thoughtful analysis of an odd episode in true crime. The titular young American woman became a notorious figure in the media due to her apparent involvement in the brutal 2007 murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher in the house they rented while both were studying in the Italian city of Perugia. Wildly spun as a nutty, ice-veined nymphomaniac manipulator who led her naive Italian boyfriend of a few days as well as a crime-prone stranger in a sexualized group killing, Knox endured four trials in the Italian court system before finally being exonerated of having any role in Kercher’s death.

The documentary about her travails finds that Knox and then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were the targets of a breathless media whirlwind, increasingly pressured and harried police investigators who resorted to coercive interrogation tactics to pin the high-profile murder on them, and a prosecutor with delusions of detective genius grandeur and an almost absurd imagination for elaborate criminal fantasies. These forces interweave and feed into each other, with scoop-obsessed media outlets amplifying and reinforcing the fabulisms of incautious and over-certain investigators, whose questionable conclusions were then strengthened by public dissemination.

In a development seemingly out of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, the attractive blond Knox became suspicious to police and to self-styled Italian Sherlock Holmes prosecutor Giuliano Mignini for supposedly strange behaviour in the wake of her roommate’s death. None of this behaviour suggested in any way that she had anything to do with the murder, but rather that she coped with it in a manner that contrasted with the conventional platitudes of grief that are supposed to govern reactions to such shocking tragedies. Knox self-describes as a bit of a goofball and is accused by Mignini of having a rebellious attitude towards authority, as if that itself was a crime (when authority is as capricious and irresponsible with its power as Mignini is shown to be, rebellion seems the only reasonable option). Standards of behaviour doomed Knox as much as any specific evidence ever did.

Media involvement cannot be wholly ignored, either, and the documentary focuses on English reporter Nick Pisa in particular. An unctuous representative of the particularly dirty-fingered London gutter press, Pisa grinningly defends the frantic spreading of any and every rumour and statement about the case by himself and his media compatriots, citing the pressure of scoring the scoop, the public’s insatiable appetite for scandalous detail, and the difficulty of verifying that anything he reports is actually true before reporting it. The press irreparably coloured the wider perception of the case with their tabloid tales of “Foxy Knoxy” and her sex-crazed antics, and carry a sizable measure of responsibility for the legal railroading of innocent people in this instance.

The real responsibility, though, lies with Italian police and their faux-cuddly boss, the prosecutor Mignini. Amanda Knox proves that, for all of the prominence that the malfeasance of American police has achieved in recent years, questionable police and prosecutorial practices are hardly the sole purview of, say, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Coercive interrogations of the separated lovers Knox and Sollecito accomplished dubious admissions of guilt from both, later recanted in a manner that Mignini found dissatisfying. Disgustingly, the police insinuated to the jailed Knox that she might have HIV, apparently in order to obtain a list of her past lovers and slut-shame her in the media to strengthen their case against her. Evidence collection placed both of them in the murder victim’s room via DNA profiles (it also placed the aforementioned stranger, Rudy Guede, there more definitively, and he was separately convicted of the murder which it seems clear that he committed alone). But later independent inquiries into the Perugia police’s evidence collection at the crime scene found their methods to be shambolic and chaotic, making contamination not only possible but likely and tainting the only solid physical evidence tying Knox and Sollecito to the murder. These errors would be key to the eventual exoneration of the pair by Italy’s highest appeals courts.

More egregious than any of these official mistakes were the elaborate and unrealistic theories formulated by Mignini, supported above all by a guiding tendency towards confirmation bias of even the most extreme construction of events. Amanda Knox develops into a kind of juxtaposed character study. It alternates Knox herself, pained by her ordeal but bitingly self-aware and trenchant about the flawed institutions and assumptions that hurt her, with the smug Mignini, cocooned in his Catholic-derived certainty of righteousness and purpose and self-justifying his overwrought quasi-Holmesian deductions (in addition to the Knox case, Mignini also targetted some respected local Masonic lodge members for an incredible Satanic conspiracy and killing spree). If Mignini was really the rabid and knowledgeable fan of detective fiction that he claimed to be, he might have heeded Arthur Conan Doyle’s warning that even the most brilliant of detectives could be led astray by the workings of his own mind (it would be more than too much to ask that he had read Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths”, an even more forceful intellectual warning about such tendencies). The unsettling story told in Amanda Knox gives a startling example of what we might be willing to believe about other people, the broken transmitters of information and authority that enshrine those beliefs, and the costs and consequences of such belief.

The Witness (2015; Directed by James D. Solomon)

A more focused and personalized documentation of the power of public perception when conclusions are jumped to, The Witness examines one of the most notorious and sociologically resonant crime stories in American history to show that it was not what it once seemed.

The brutal 1964 murder of bar manager Kitty Genovese in the Kew Gardens neighbourhood of the New York City borough of Queens shocked the nation at the time and for half a century afterwards not only because a young woman was viciously stabbed and left to bleed out in the street. As reported by the venerable New York Times at the time, Genovese cried out loudly and repeatedly for help and was heard by up to 38 witnesses in the apartment building in which she lived, adjacent to the sidewalk upon which she was fatally attacked. Per the Times article, no one came to her aid or even so much as called the police, allowing the murderer to return and finish her off. Kitty Genovese became a byword for the apathy of America’s largest city and for the alienated condition of urban life in general. Her killing and the reported unconcern of her neighbours, their unwillingness to get involved (the vaunted “bystander effect”), was the subject of many books, was studied and lectured upon by sociologists, has been referenced as “Genovese syndrome” in works of literature and entertainment including Perry Mason, Law & Order, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and was an important impetus for the development of the 911 emergency reporting system in the United States.

The Witness might not constitute the comprehensive probing of the underlying facts and implications of the formidable Kitty Genovese myth that it demands, but it’s a robust examination that cuts through assumptions and conventional knowledge of the situation to find a sort of truth at the soul of it. The wedge that pries open this long-closed interpretive box is Kitty’s beloved younger brother Bill Genovese. Still a child when his sister was murdered, Bill tells us through the film how he coped differently with the notorious case than the rest of his family did. While they buried their grief with Kitty, Bill was driven by resentment at the legendary apathy of Kitty’s neighbours to buck what he saw as his generation’s abdication of national duty: he enlisted in the US Army and fight in the Vietnam War, where he lost both of his legs in an enemy ambush. On the cusp of his elder years, Bill’s obsessive emotions around both the loss of his sister and the heavy personal sacrifice it led him to drive him to understand as much as he can about that fateful night in 1964.

At a remove of 50 years, many of the answers that Bill seeks are lost in the passage of time. Many of the purported witnesses (only five testified at the trial of her convicted murderer, Winston Moseley) are dead themselves, though he pores through trial transcripts, police reports, and newspaper articles to reconstruct their accounts. What he finds is a more complex event than the somewhat erroneously reported one from the Times, where an image of three-dozen lit-up windows gazed down with fearful unconcern on the bloodied body of a slain woman.

Some witnesses report only hearing a scream, others claim to have seen her on the street but then saw her leave the scene under her own power (a widely unreported fact of the crime was that Moseley’s return attack occured around the corner, out of sight of the apartment windows). Still others claim to have called the police only to be told that multiple calls had already been received; the station logs record only a single call about it that night, from the elevator operator in the lobby well after the initial attack, but other studies have found that initial calls were received but the police were reluctant to intervene in what they thought to be a domestic dispute, a reluctance that may have been passed along to the witnesses to deflect blame from the NYPD. One key surviving witness, a good friend of Kitty’s, claims to have rushed down to be with Kitty on the blood-soaked stairwell foyer where she breathed her last.

Bill Genovese finds that the principle figures in the murder also had unglimpsed nuances. Kitty herself was a quick wit, greatly appreciated by the bar patrons whom she served and occasionally cut off from alcohol. She was also a semi-closeted lesbian in a relationship with another woman. Moseley, meanwhile, may or may not have been criminally active prior to killing Kitty Genovese, and spent the majority of the remainder of his life in prison for the murder and subsequent crimes upon brief release, periodically fabricating accounts of the killing and showing what was judged to be insufficient remorse for what he did when he came up for parole (he died this year in prison at 81 years of age). But he had a wife and family prior to the crime, and one of his sons, now a reverend, has a tense and unpredictable interview with Bill that convolutes his feelings about the man who killed his sister rather than offers them any measure of closure (Moseley himself refused to speak with Bill).

At some certain point in the many-years-long investigative odyssey that takes up The Witness, Bill Genovese acknowledges that his mission has become less about finding the “truth” or any measure of peace and closure than the act of searching itself functioning as a form of therapy, to scour his own mind and heart of whatever anxieties and pain linger there from the loss of his sister. This certainly seems to be the only explanation for his climactic project, which involves hiring an actress to re-enact Kitty’s blood-curdling nocturnal screams and desperate final moments outside the building where it happens 50 years earlier. Even if Bill’s personal investment in the murder sometimes proscribes the breadth of his examination and dispelling of its dominant myths, his proximity to its victim allows him to evade the conventional interpretations of the event, or at least to work to push beyond them. Like Amanda Knox, The Witness is an effective caution against the power of assumptions and encourages observers of events to doubt initial narrative around them and dig for deeper truths, difficult as both that digging and the truths themselves may be.

Categories: Film, Reviews