The Keepers

I was as riveted as just about everyone else was by The Keepers on Netflix this month, but I also couldn’t help feeling like I was being manipulated, double-crossed even. It’s being compared to Making a Murderer and Serial, often favorably, since it courageously disperses the guilt as it goes along instead of pinning it on any one villain – though he gets pinned too.

After three episodes (out of seven) I was overwhelmed by the bald-facedness and frequency of the sexual abuse going on at the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, and wondering if it could get any worse. Spoiler Alert: Yes it does, and weirder! And the level of shittiness somebody inside the Baltimore legal system stooped to to save this priest from jail, or the Catholic Diocese of Baltimore in general from all that embarrassment, is rotten.

The Keepers

R.I.P. Sister Cathy Cesnik.

I’ve always felt that Bowling for Columbine ended on a dreadful note, when Michael Moore wiggled his way into an interview with Charlton Heston. It felt like he took what was a well-developed and powerful broadside against a business complex and a culture of guns, and grafted a finale onto it by pulling a college prank on the elder chieftain of the gun believers. As if from his lips you will hear the kernel of truth, the damning admission, or whatnot.

Ryan White, director of The Keepers, brings you to that precipice a few times: “Oh, here we’re going to meet the person who committed the crime.” Only by the time you’ve arrived there you’re wise enough to see that the guilt, like the crime, is a diffuse business. You can only penetrate those dark corners up to the points where well-established lies, decades in the making, put up barriers.

The Hollywood Reporter felt that White was being “coy” with some important facts, like whether the main abuser was still alive – and that’s an understatement. I’d call it the glaring flaw. I was deeply annoyed, halfway through, with wondering, “Where is Maskell?” and “What about that other girl who got killed?” and “What is the connection between the two?”

The questions all get answered, but it feels both more sprawling and, in the seventh hour, more rushed, than it had to be. When it came to light that another minor had been abused prior to Maskell’s tenure at Archbishop Keough – and we hadn’t heard about it till this late in the series – I was turning numb.

In literary terms, the series has a problem with voice. White has found two extraordinary characters in the self-taught investigators Gemma and Abbie, alumnae of Archbishop Keough who are close to retirement and have made the murder of their beloved teacher, Sister Cathy, their private passion. When they uncover the sexual abuse – and even that unpleasant a phrase is euphemistic, so call it the systematic rapes – you only figure out after the fact that Gemma and Abbie had to have known lots about the rapes before they even started.

As a story-teller you have to either pick a protagonist who’s the eyes of your story, and the viewer knows only what they know, or you juggle all the elements that the omniscient narrative eye can see and give the viewer access to them in a reasonable amount of time, or else those viewers are going to feel a bit played with. It’s a shame to have such a flaw in a series as rich as this one, since I for one rarely got tired of being there in Baltimore with them.

Partly, let’s be honest, it’s the accent! The Baltimore accent is like the Philadelphian, only more so. It’s where the South begins and yet it’s strangely Yankee. Like the musical Wisconsin accent in Making a Murderer, or the deep south of S-Town, the series satisfies the craving to really be someplace. Surrounded by the regional accent, you feel submerged.

Most reviewers point out the novelty of The Keepers‘ having so many great female characters – since Keough was an all girl’s school, and most of the surviving key players are women, it means more time with women on camera than just about any mystery or crime story – but it’s deeper than that. It’s a collage of late middle-aged womanhood. Gemma Hoskins the amateur sleuth interviews hard-boiled, former Baltimore detectives like a pro, presenting as motherly sweetness but discreetly talking circles around them.

In some parts around the second episode we see shots of Jean Hardagon Wehner, the survivor of perhaps the worst of the rapes and the motor behind much of the plot, stretching and meditating. At first you get the idea that this daughter of the Church, a loyal Catholic well into her adulthood, has finally looked beyond the Western traditions for her spiritual well-being. Once you’ve really taken in the enormity of the weight she has carried, and how her 60-some-year-old body is still agile, you realize that one of the themes this series captures is the resilience of the human body and spirit.

Steven Thrasher in Esquire, of all places, takes issue with what he sees as the series’ racial myopia, since racism and racial segregation were such hot buttons in cities like Baltimore at the time. I guess you could argue that racial integration of public schools made lots of Catholic parents value their parochial schools more highly all of a sudden, and made them more prone to trust a counselor like Father Maskell. But was there something toxic about Catholic middle class whiteness around 1969 that made its men more prone to sexual violence? That sounds like sociology too deep for a documentary.

I saw it more as a bunch of families and a community of faith struggling to cope with the changing landscape brought on by the sexual revolution and the counterculture. “Come Together” was a Top Ten hit the week Sister Cathy got murdered, but so was “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies (in its tenth week!). These were the “Sugar Sugar” teens who valued innocence, and whose families trusted priests and policemen, and didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss sexual abuse if they ever had to.

Sister Cathy the acoustic-guitar-playing nun was the best possible ambassador of the counterculture the Catholic families of Baltimore could have hoped for, but she found herself behind enemy lines.

Tree of the Wooden Clogs

Seeing The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (L’Albero degli Zoccoli) in a cinema this week was a neorealist sacrament.

Ermanno Olmi wrote and directed it, in 1978, using both actors and non-actors, in the Bergamo dialect. I saw it with a friend from Milan, which is less than an hour away from the setting, and he swears he had to read the subtitles to understand the dialogue.

Killing an animal onscreen is a kind of rite of passage for documentary filmmakers doing rural subjects. Brother’s Keeper did it. Most recently I saw it in a heart-breaking film called Peter and the Farm. In both of those, the killing goes to show the meanness in the life of the main character. The implication is, of course he might be capable of euthanizing his brother, or becoming a charmingly angry alcoholic, as Peter does, if animal-killing is a common endeavor around him.

I first saw The Tree of the Wooden Clogs in the mid 90s (which means more time has passed since then than had passed from the making of the film till I had first seen it, but I digress: Time!) and the main things I’d remembered about it were the sad shots of the peasants taking the lion’s share of their grain to their landlord, and the central metaphor, and that gruesome scene of a pig being butchered. And mud, mud everywhere.

Life is mean, but it was meaner in the late 1800s. I don’t know if this was the first neorealist period piece, but it’s the best example of sweet, simple, languid story-telling in a period setting. The only other Ermanno Olmi film generally available here is Il Posto from 1961, in the Criterion Collection, but you don’t even have to see that to see Olmi’s sympathies: his sadness for the passing of ways of life, his skepticism about modernity, his appreciation for working people and their complicated family lives, and and his sympathy for both superstitious Catholicism and socialism.

tree

The Tree of Wooden Clogs draws on a wider palette of narrative units than most films. You learn something about a character and have no idea whether that element will ever resurface, but the palette is the thematic message in a film like this: Life is unfair.

Olmi blesses his story with a fantastic opening scene, every bit as expressive as The Godfather‘s: Batisti is struggling to make ends meet, and has a baby on the way, so he asks the parish priest for leave to not send his oldest son Minek, who’s still around 10, to school, since he can use him around the farm. The priest insists, Minek is gifted and should be in school, and Batisti and his wife have to suck it up.

Already you see it all: The power of the church, complicated by the “progressive” influence of the priest’s message about education, and the utter vulnerability of the peasants. That Batisti never wanted to send Minek on the six kilometer daily walk to school in the first place makes the complications that arise from the eponymous wooden clogs only that much sadder, but we don’t see this take shape till a good 90 minutes into a three hour film. It’s monumental.

The Vatican Rag

Pope Francis arrives in the U.S. today, and it’s quite a spectacle seeing so many agnostics and atheists posting quotes by him, as in “See, I told ya, even the pope says so,” about climate change or colonialism or many other things. Of course he doesn’t go far enough for some, and too far for others, but if you don’t have a soft spot for a pope who comes to the U.S. for just five days and visits a prison in Philadelphia, then you just don’t have any soft spots.

As Tom Lehrer said, “Ave Maria, gee it’s good to see ya”: