Essential Viewing

The first hot day of the summer, and the Sunday before Memorial Day, was a good one to take a holiday from social media. With apologies to my Really Smart Friends (RSF’s) who shared links about the Santa Barbara killer, I couldn’t watch or read anything. I wish I’d never seen the video I’d watched the day before, the one the 22-year-old killer posted to Youtube saying what he planned to do. Neither did anyone want to see it, apparently, since he posted it a full day ahead of time. It turns out, he had to email a PDF of a 140-page lonely guy manifesto to his parents, minutes before he started the killing spree, to get anyone’s attention.

Guns and misogyny, yes and yes, and one RSF even started an insightful discussion by posting right away that he bet the killer was on prescription anti-depressants for years – and I would like to know how many of the recent spree killers were on them, or just coming off. Now I guess it’s going to be essential viewing for someone in law enforcement to watch every dumb Youtube video. We shouldn’t watch them after the fact for the same reason we shouldn’t buy Ed Geen memorabilia: The pre-killing Youtube testimonial only codifies what’s long been a truth, that killers, like the rest of us, have narratives in their heads in which they are heroes. By adding currency to the stories, we are making them more attractive to future author-characters in the genre. So unless we’re proposing solutions, let’s actually talk about anything else!

Stranger by the Lake:  So good-looking he's sinister.

Stranger by the Lake: So good-looking he’s sinister.

Till then it had been a month of catching up on essential viewing: movies and plays that were a responsibility of sorts. These ranged from the tight Chicago indie Drinking Buddies (2013), a very warm story of a friendship with extra sexual charge in it that packed a few nice surprises, to a new-to-me William Inge play called A Loss of Roses that flopped in 1959 but fifty years later holds up beautifully, to the unique Stranger by the Lake.

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake or L’inconnu du lac(2013) is about a sympathetic guy named Franck at a gay cruising beach in southern France, who’s so smitten by a hunky newcomer that he’s willing to overlook the inconvenient fact that he saw him murder another guy by drowning him in the lake. Like cruising itself, it’s full of scenes in which the dialogue is beside the point. Just by positioning himself next to another sunbather, a character triggers all kinds of communication. It’s a good lesson in another take on characterization: Don’t make your villain a sweaty scarface with a lazy eye and a too-obvious chip on his shoulder, make him literally so good-looking it’s scary.

When the body of the deceased turns up, a detective starts asking questions, ultimately creating a real relationship issue. Stranger by the Lake is memorable for its explicit sex scenes, which says a lot about the sex-phobic eye of the viewer. Early on, before he’s wooed his Brawny paper towel guy, Franck has a dalliance with another man, and we see the come shot in shocking detail. Minutes later, we see a man get murdered by drowning, also rendered in a long, explicit take, but guess which image is, uhhh, stickier.

With an extra layer of narrative about safe versus unprotected sex, equating unsafe sex metaphorically with the complicity to kill, this was another seriously overlooked film of 2013. The effect of the explicit sex is to heighten the suspense: If this is how Guiraudie renders taboo sex, then what’s he going to make us look at when the handsome stranger turns on Franck?

Which brings me to the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five. Heartbreak! For New Yorkers and everyone else. No doubt the cops and D.A. thought they were doing a great service when they railroaded these kids, and that they “just knew in their hearts” they were guilty, so the ends justified whatever means. Anyone who stood up and cheered for Zero Dark Thirty should watch this closely: Law enforcement believing their hunch above anything else isn’t always heroic. Independent filmmakers like to piss and moan about Ken Burns, being the establishment documentarian of our time, but I dare them to watch this and not be moved.

Among its tough philosophical medicine, mostly delivered by the historian Craig Steven Wilder, there is a point about video. VHS was still a bit of a novelty in 1989 when the NYPD’s best detectives coerced phony confessions out of the five teenagers. One thing the boys accused of the crime of the decade did for fun was rewind and rewatch videos from Yo! MTV Raps all day. Only after police had hounded the five confessions into one reasonably similar narrative did the D.A. come and start videotaping. Even though terror is all over their faces, and all of them recanted almost immediately, and the official story was riddled with serious problems, the D.A. convinced the jury that video does not lie.

New York in 1989 was not the last racially charged place on earth, but teenagers and jurors today are probably too video-savvy to get caught in exactly that kind of trap. The social media revolution promises that we can all seize control of how what we do in the unmediated, real world gets interpreted, and video is the most authoritative expression of that spin-doctoring. As a writer I like to think I still live in the kingdom of the written word, but if I get on your website, and there’s a video embedded in it that says anything about your work, you can bet I’ll click on that video and at least half-watch it while I leaf through the rest of your content. The frighteningly cute Santa Barbara killer was 13 years old when Youtube was launched. Whatever he did in life he was going to try defining it himself via video. He saved his 140 page PDF for mom and dad.


  1. It’s sad that what is happening in the world, some people don’t seem to be bothered by it. I heard about the story of the guy in Santa Barbara and I must say it broke my heart. I pray for those who were affected and who even live in the area. I pray that the world gets better. I want to write a book or a screenplay about minds of hurt people who choose to take lives instead of prospering and making their lift better. Just a thought. Great post.

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