Touched by the Devil

The most Python-esque movie on Netflix right now is a documentary about a Dutch painter who’s been dead for 500 years. Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is 90 minutes of great TV. Even if it peters out as a film with a single narrative thrust, who doesn’t want to hear Bosch scholars going off script about what they see in his paintings?

I think of Monty Python first, not just because of Bosch’s obvious influence on Terry Gilliam, but because the comic levity in Touched by the Devil (written and directed by Pieter van Huystee) comes from the straight-laced curators poring over the minutest details of a painter with a head full of superstition and hallucinatory ch-cha-cha, reminiscent of John Cleese playing the prim foil to the surrealism unfolding around him.

Bosch detail one

Like a good adventure film, we meet the A team early on: the conservator, the photographer, the dendrologist, the infra-red specialist, et cetera. With the nerdily handsome Matthijs Ilsink as its leader, the Dutch team visits museums trying to make deals to borrow the major works of Bosch for a commemorative show in his hometown, Den Bosch, for the quincentennial of his death in 2016.

But how do you identify a true Bosch? The team has so much digital technology at its disposal, including infra-red photos that show the drawings underneath the paint – apparently Bosch “took notes” like anyone – that they’re able to speculate on which specific assistant helped draw which composition, and which revisions “the master” himself painted.

While a part of me wants to protest that this kind of history lacks poetic imagination, the defenders of a more intuitive approach to art history in Touched by the Devil are the duo from The Prado, who seem like real jerks. “You either have an eye for it or you don’t,” one says about her eye for identification. It seems like a cover for snobbery, or fear of what we might find out, what assumptions we might have to throw away.

Bosch detail two

You have to admit, though, that the jerks from The Prado raise a fair question: Are we really willing to stop seeing “a Bosch” as the work of a singular mind? Is it a modern prejudice, to believe in “a master” making an artistic (or religious) statement? Can we really know what that person, Bosch – Jheronimus van Aken, El Bosco, Jerry from Bosch – was trying to say? It’s something we who love old art have to think about – or maybe, resign ourselves to giving up on.

The conflict Touched by the Devil prepares you for is whether or not The Prado, which has the most Bosches of any museum, agrees to lend them back to the Dutch for the quincentennial show in his small town museum. Spoiler alert: They co-operated, except for the one piece Ilsink and the Dutch really wanted, Bosch’s most complete masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Like the British Museum refusing to lend the statuary taken from The Parthenon back to Greece for the 2004 Olympics, some masterpieces just look so perfect right where they are, adored by people who can truly appreciate them.

Writer-director van Huystee is of course Dutch, and his sympathies are clear. You get the sense, partly from his interaction with John Hand, the U.S. National Gallery curator who delivers his historically nuanced opinions about Bosch with a Trumanesque twang, that there’s an affinity between Dutch and American people.

It’s a fitting conclusion when Ilsink, who’s spent much of the film busting curators’ bubbles, figures out with scientific certainty that a painting of Saint Jerome in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is actually a true Bosch. The pride with which that curator comes to Den Bosch to present the painting resolves the dramatic problem presented by The Prado.

Rarely do I see a feature documentary and wish it were a TV series, but I’d have watched hours more of this.

A Tragic Lack of Humility

Making a Murderer, like most good binge-watches, is like lying in the bathtub after unplugging the drain. You can feel the water tugging at your shoulders and ankles, until it starts sounding like it’s accelerating in speed. For me last night was the night we said, “Let’s just finish this.”

I feel for the makers of Serial, who released their own Season 2 the same week or so that Netflix started streaming this show, exposing themselves to inevitable comparisons. Serial is still probably reaching enough listeners to be the envy of anyone who ever tried making a podcast, if not for the inflated expectations that followed its Season 1.

It could just prove what we already know, that we, the public, like a murder mystery. I like to think I’ve got a discursive mind, and I’m not addicted to the thrill of suspense at all. In fact, I knew the general outcome of Making a Murderer beforehand and still loved every second. Still, I felt the first episode of Serial Season 2, about the Bowe Bergdahl case, gave the story away. I put it on the mental “check that out sometime” list, like a New Yorker issue under the coffee table, opened to a long profile I never quite make time to read. I guess I’m a sucker for a story like anyone else.

The more profound difference between the two series is that Making a Murderer has no narration. I know, one’s radio, one’s TV, and they have different possibilities, but Making a Murderer is so much more complete an experience because it’s mostly footage and audio-taped phone calls of the participants while it’s unfolding or shortly afterward, mostly in beautiful Wisconsin working class dialect. And I do mean that without sarcasm: if you’ve spent any time in Wisconsin, and I’ve spent some, you know what a distinct place it is, full of good-hearted, trusting people, but a state with a mean streak. Making a Murderer immerses you there. You sometimes hear the word “musical” to describe accents from the Deep South, but Wisconsin has a music in its o’s and a’s too, strange and dissonant but musical nonetheless.

Serial, by comparison, has lots of its public radio hosts’ ponderous observations. It feels like you’ve landed at a dinner party in Brooklyn Heights or Ann Arbor, with all the familiar reference points, and started eaves-dropping on a fascinating conversation between an attorney and someone just home from the Peace Corps. Fascinating, but pass the quinoa.


D.A. Kratz, smug perv of the year.

In Making a Murderer, it’s not till the third or so episode, out of ten, that the series introduces its heroes, the defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, two Atticus Finches of the North. A Kirk-Spock or Luke-Han Solo duo with more muted Midwestern accents, they seem like small town guys who got advanced degrees but kept a soft spot for the folks on the wrong sides of the tracks.

By then we’ve already met the villains, the faces of the law enforcement-prosecution machine that Strang ultimately has the last word on: guys with a “tragic lack of humility.” As it goes on, you occasionally hear the defense’s researcher break down what’s going on, in that knowledgable way that only an ex-cop can deliver.

Strang himself attributes the success of Making a Murderer to two trends in public thinking that are seemingly at odds: That shows like CSI have gotten people to think of court rooms as places where scientific certainty can be found; and that DNA evidence has exonerated enough convicts in the past 15-20 years that people are open to the fallibility of courts. I’d only add that Black Lives Matter has put police-prosecution systemic bias on the map like never before. Making a Murderer is an in-depth look at a control group for what ails Ferguson or Cleveland: a lily white community with similar stories, but different skin tones.

Only Episode 10, when the lawyers proliferate, feels like we’ve emerged from the depths of the Wisconsin working class into the fresh air (pun intended) of the collegiate, free-tote-bag set, but I didn’t mind that at all either. I was ready for some commentary to make sense of it all, and I don’t feel like throwing a dinner party.

I see why this is the series, and the Serial, of the winter of 2015-16.


The 2007 documentary Heima, about the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, has given me a big case of creative envy. For the past several nights, as winter here drags on, I’ve watched bits of it before bed. Although it comes in two parts, you could watch just Part One and not “miss” a thing. The second part is literally more of the same, meaning more music and clips from from the same scenes in Part One, but I opted to keep watching till the end.

I guess I couldn’t get enough of seeing an artist embraced by its whole country like that, not to mention a psychedelic-friendly art rock band whose vocalist sings in a made-up language, often in falsetto.

You have a lot of time to think while listening to Sigur Ros. By adding B Roll of landscapes, and showing families hauling lawn blankets to the parks in small towns, some of them depopulated, and seeing kids horse around while their parents wait for the show to start, Heima is that ambitious kind of documentary that both captures the Icelandic people today and offers Sigur Ros the mantle of the musicians laureates of their nation. And they take it, with modesty and grace and three-minute electric guitar solos using a bow. Love it!

Timeless Stories, Digital Landscape

Is there any contemporary story, even a botched “secret ops” raid in a remote village in Afghanistan, in which the main prop it all hinges on isn’t a digital image captured by a telephone? That’s the question that gnaws at the screenwriter in me a few days after watching Dirty Wars.

It did take a few days, mind you: I’m not a total writing wonk. The first, overwhelming feeling Dirty Wars gives one as a U.S. citizen is the heartsickness it’s aiming for. It’s all about the covert war that the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command is escalating both inside and outside of declared war zones.

Correction: It’s all about journalist Jeremy Scahill’s persistence at uncovering JSOC, and his evidence that the scope of its war has systematically widened in the past decade. It’s hard to write a satisfying feature-length story on such an unwieldy topic, so an easy “in” is making a hero out of the person who uncovers it. In that sense, Dirty Wars is fairly conventional. Like Cuban jazz (Buena Vista Social Club) and the omnipresence of corn (King Corn), to name just two, our window to the war on terror is a young American man’s journey. But that’s being a jerk about it. They got an Oscar nomination, and a lot of new people questioning JSOC’s legality, so what the hell?

Even Woody Guthrie's cell phone might read, "This machine bores people."

Even Woody Guthrie’s cell phone might read, “This machine bores people.”

Early in the film, Scahill visits the home of a local police chief who’s been shot dead, along with a few family members. He’s far from the “safe zone” in Afghanistan. The unidentified U.S. forces who raided the wrong house went so far as to dig their bullets from the corpses using knives – but inexplicably let the family take video closeups of the bodies while the soldiers were doing the same, capturing American voices on the audio.

I’d be embarrassed to write such a thing in a thriller: Any villain who’s so cautious he’ll destroy the ballistic evidence certainly isn’t going to commit his voice to cell phone video. But there it was. And (Now I am being wonky.) there arises Scahill and co-writer David Riker’s dramatic problem: Who are these killers?

As the narrative breaks into Act Two, another digital nugget propels it forward. An American delegation has come with a sacrificial sheep to offer its apologies, and another villager has snapped a photo, over the objections of the leading delegate’s handlers. It shows a U.S.naval officer with his name clearly on his uniform. There is no public record of this guy, except for one old War on Terror press release about something called Joint Special Operations Command. Since the mission is to apologize and offer good will, the special circumstance means the secret ops boys have no choice but to let themselves be photographed (That detail I would be proud to write.), and now we have a movie: Who is JSOC?

This is an example of writers telling a good story in the digital landscape, which apparently does reach every corner of the world, but it’s only satisfying because it happens to be true. Screenwriters work in constant ambivalence about these little digital truth machines. On the one hand, a contemporary story with any kind of realism must account for them. On the other hand, it’s boring to watch people interact with technology, and it’s never entirely satisfying when a cell phone, surveillance video, or GPS figures decisively in a narrative.

There seem to be two ways forward. For one, you can pretend a technology doesn’t exist. It is, after all, fiction you are writing, and you still set the parameters of that world, even in the present day. Instead of constantly saying “Now he would take a photo with his cell phone,” or “Now she would call for help,” you can say, “Let’s suppose they didn’t think of their phone right now.” No explanation needed.

Secondly, you can introduce dramatic circumstances via digital means, the way Scahill and Riker do, and then make sure the decisive action is more flesh and bones than click and upload. The story will likely be better – not necessarily more realistic – but harder hitting, because of it.