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.

Saint Patty’s Day and the “Irish Problem”

Expect a somber Saint Patrick’s Day at my local bar this Tuesday afternoon. Not that I’m not proud of “my people.” Nor am I a stranger to a pint of Guinness, and have drunk more than one for flimsier reasons.

And it’s not because I say “mine” in quotation marks. I am 25% Irish, via the grandparent who happened to give me my last name. I mentioned that I’m “not really Irish” to every native I got to know while attending the Galway Film Festival a few years ago, and without exception they all said something like “Stop it.” Meaning, that’s plenty Irish. As long as you show up with an open heart and good intentions, you are welcome home. It’s honestly easier sometimes to relate to the Irish than to Irish-Americans.

This year, I’ll drink to John Decker, an Irish-American hero I’ve been reading about in The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, by Barnet Schecter. Decker was the chief engineer of the New York City Fire Department in 1863, when the city erupted in riots the day the U.S. government put the first-ever federal military draft into effect. He used persuasion, eloquence, and force to try stopping mobs from destroying innocent people’s property.

Nothing unexpected there, right? That’s what Irish New Yorkers do, support law and order, and fight fires. The early firehouses were often Irish gangs with some firefighting equipment, and the city police department was already an important source of  jobs for the Irish. So a guy like Decker would have been caught between the two worlds: the streetwise firefighters and the professional, mixed Irish and WASP administration.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

But here’s the rub: The mob Decker was fighting was overwhelmingly Irish. The WASP leadership of the city talked openly about the “Irish problem,” and considered us a different race. According to The Devil’s Own Work, when the Civil War broke out, we signed up in huge numbers to stop the rebellion. It was a means of becoming more American. In 1863, though, Lincoln deftly changed the objective of the war from putting down a rebellion to ending slavery, and we were less enthusiastic, to say the least.

True enough, the draft at the time was unfair: A rich person could get out of it by paying $300. That’s why the first targets of the Irish rioters, after the draft offices, were the houses of rich New Yorkers known to be supporters of Lincoln. It took only half a day, though, to start attacking abolitionists in general and successful African-American businesses, a seamless transition that made perfect sense to many of us.

By four o’clock that afternoon, a mob gathered in front of the Colored Orphan Asylum on 43rd Street. That’s when Decker showed up at the front door with only a dozen men, presumably Irish too, and two firehoses, and stared the mob down long enough for the staff and 230 Black children to walk out the back door to look for a police station that would take them in.

One relevant, and very ironic, detail is that the party of Lincoln and Seward had taken over the New York state government a few years before, and was so annoyed with the city police department that it replaced it with its own police force, called the Metropolitans. So New York had just undergone community policing in reverse, and the Irish ghettos went nuts.

As the orphans fled, according to the orphanage’s founder Anna Shotwell, the mob was taunting them, until an anonymous Irishman spoke up and pleaded for pity. The mob, according to Shotwell, “laid hold of him, and appeared ready to tear him to pieces” as she led the kids away, though it’s not clear if this is figurative or literal.

Back at the main entrance, Decker fought the mob, and the mob won. Plundered the furniture. Burnt the orphanage to the ground. That evening and the next day, there were lynchings in New York City as gruesome as the worst atrocities of the K.K.K.

Let me rephrase that. Not, “There were lynchings.” “We lynched.”

A major through-line in the story of our community is racism, and hostility to Black people in particular, and any Irish-American who doesn’t admit this isn’t being honest. Stepping up for material fairness for ourselves, and confusing that with stopping “the negro” from getting something that’s rightfully ours, is one thing we do.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

The recent political fights between the NYPD leadership and the civilian government of New York is just the latest skirmish. “Worst mayor ever!” the crowd chanted at Mayor DeBlasio at the Rockaways Saint Patrick’s Day Parade last weekend. I can only imagine what Blaz feels about the big parade on Tuesday.

Patrick Lynch (his real name) of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association can willfully misunderstand the reasonable things DeBlasio has said about race, and the bit of fairness he’s tried to restore to Black New York, which, in the eyes of the Irish, must suffer collective punishment forever for every crime committed by every fool during the bad, bad days of crack. And he can count on the New York Post and Fox News to back him up every day.  The anti-Lincoln and Irish-American papers during the draft riots blamed the atrocities on the abolitionists. If only they hadn’t provoked the mob by trying to free the slaves… In this mindset, it’s always the African-Americans and the liberals who cause racism. It’s never the police, and never the Irish.

Bill O’Reilly’s parents are 100% Irish, a New York City boy who moved to Long Island when he was two. Hannity is also 100%, also born in New York, and also grew up on Long Island. Like the Italian-Americans on the Supreme Court, I imagine they have, deep inside, a phobia of being found out. Scalia and Alito are Trenton Italians who will always be haunted by the “dago” thing, who will never have the effortless class of a Princeton housewife, at least not in their own minds, no matter how many Ivy League degrees they have, and whose path to claiming a hunk of the Republic is to fetishize the intentions of the long-dead planter class that wrote the Constitution. And like Martha Stewart, the Pole from New Jersey who taught a generation to be more WASP-y, O’Reilly and Hannity have the zeal of the converted, to uber-Americanness, that is.

The Eric Garner-Patrick Lynch-Mayor DeBlasio story has created a “Which side are you on?” moment for white New Yorkers. White millennial and middle-aged people who migrated here after college have had a privileged relationship with the old school whites such as the Irish and Italians, up to now. Some of us are even known to say things like, “I love my Polish neighborhood!” as if a neighborhood is a gym membership and we just had a euphoric spin class. We may sometimes get the uncomfortable sense that we are more welcome as tenants and patrons of their establishments than some certain natives are, but we try not to dwell on it. It’s hard finding an apartment or an affordable, quiet place to drink a beer, so why rock the boat? The longer the P.B.A.-DeBlasio feud lasts, the more times we’re asked potentially friendship-ending questions about our sympathies.


The sidewalk outside of McSorley’s Old Ale House has a charmingly homespun inscription that reads, “Please help us keep our neighborhood in order.” You could call it cuteness, like a sign that reads “Clean Rooms 5¢.” After reading The Devil’s Own Work, though, it feels sinister, like it  reveals something about the Irish-American hard-wiring. Each of us is both thug and self-deputized officer of the law, ready to help keep the order at any time, and “order,” then as now, is an elusive concept.

Groups are always more than the sum of their parts, and there’s something magic about groups of Irish-Americans. We’re good craic, as they say back home. But there are devils in our hearts too. That’s why this Saint Patty’s Day I’ll be toasting to John Decker, and to the unnamed Irishman who spoke up for the Colored Orphans and paid the price. To the ones who got what Lincoln meant by “the better angels of our nature.”

Two Days, One Night, Two Films, Three and a Half Billion Women

Two days, two films about gorgeous women mentally falling apart, so completely different.

First, in theaters everywhere – well, in two theaters here in New York anyway – the Dardenne Brothers are showing that they still got it. The duo that brought La Promesse, Le Fils, and The Kid With the Bike, among others, has teamed up with Marion Cotillard to make another deeply simple drama set in the Belgian working class.

The power of Two Days, One Night (written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) is in the simplicity of its premise. Sandra, suffering from a yet-unnamed illness, gets rousted from bed one afternoon to make an appearance at her job, so she has a chance to keep it. The boss already put her job to a vote, and she lost: Her sixteen coworkers, given a choice between keeping their expected €1,000 bonus and keeping their ill coworker on the team, voted overwhelmingly for their bonuses. But not so fast. It’s Friday afternoon, and Sandra’s best friend/coworker persuaded the boss to let them vote again, if Sandra can show up by 5:00 to ask in person. She gets there in the nick of time, and a vote is scheduled for Monday morning. Now she has the weekend to locate her coworkers, and lobby them to keep her on board.

The depth in the film comes from its portrayal of depression, which is damn hard to write a good script about. It’s so open-ended, the challenge is finding the finite premise, and make conflict out of the character’s penchant for giving up – their hit-and-miss willingness to even engage in the plot – while also tending to the bigger plot. It was probably a simple matter of the French language, but somehow I kept thinking of Gerard Depardieu as Robespierre in Danton, waging a legislative battle from his sick bed, The Terror consuming his body. How much better this was. How much more viscerally I could feel it.

Marion Cotillard

The times I was a tourist in Europe, and, say, took a train from the aeroport to the historic center of town, I couldn’t help but think that “real Europeans” live in the housing developments and bus routes of the suburbs I was zipping past. The Queens Counties and Yonkerses of Europe, without cathedrals. And I love the Dardennes for taking me there again and again.

Not that it’s a strictly personal story. They indulge in one moment that contextualizes the whole thing. As he’s driving away from Sandra that Friday afternoon, the boss points out that he has no choice but to give the crew this either-or decision because the company must compete with the Chinese! It’s a heavy-handed moment that arguably doesn’t belong, but there it is, so all the ads can say things like, “a profoundly political snapshot of an age of economic insecurity.”

Coincidentally, I’m still slowly traipsing, unplanned, through a year of Italian cinema, and I was honestly so bored by L’Eclisse that I was giving up on Antonioni, but since there’s a chapter devoted to Red Desert in a book I’m reading called Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, I thought I’d give him another try. Whoa! Am I glad I did!

Deserto Rosso was written by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, and I’d love to see a major retrospective of films made from Guerra’s scripts. It would include L’Avventura, Blow Up, and Zabriskie Point, but also Amarcord and Nostalghia. In 1964, the same year as Red Desert, was Marriage Italian Style, of all films, which Guerra also got a co-writing credit on.

I guess I’d never tried it before because I was scared of the bombast: “A drama about alienation in the modern world…” the Netflix blurb begins. Well, maybe. I also see, at its core, what could be an independent film plot about a woman who has an affair with her husband’s colleague. I was surprised to read that Antonioni felt his films were direct descendants of neorealism: “I began as one of the first exponents of neorealism, and now by concentrating on the internals of character and psychology I do not think I have deserted the movement, but rather have pointed a path toward extending its boundaries….I am not trying to show reality, I am attempting to recreate realism.”*

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in "Red Desert."

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in “Red Desert.”

I guess this was on his and Guerra’s mind when they wrote the scene in which the heroine Giuliana asks her lover Zeller what he plans to take with him on his long trip to South America:

Zeller: Two or three bags.
Giuliana: If I were to go away, I’d take everything, everything I see, all the things I use every day, even the ashtrays.
Zeller: Then you might as well just stay put. You’d end up missing everything. The street where you live, your city.
Giuliana: You see in classified ads:”For sale, owner must relocate,” as if it were an excuse to abandon everything…or almost. Why? It shouldn’t be like that.**

It’s as if their characters are expressing the thesis and antithesis of their new spin on neorealism. She wants to record reality as it is. He wants to keep two or three suitcases of it and construct something closer to a whole picture of reality than just turning on a camera and letting it roll. Genius, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I can tell that, like Amarcord, I’m going to have to watch this film again and again.

Not that it’s completely invulnerable to criticism! Giuliana’s insanity is hard to swallow. Monica Vitti is one of those Italian women with faces so beautiful, and noses so imposing, that you turn into a stuttering idiot while you talk to them. If she appeared at your door in a toga and pouted, you’d ask if you could please go to ancient Rome with her. She stands still and the film revolves around her.

"Through a Glass, Darkly": woman as a timeless vessel.

“Through a Glass, Darkly”: woman as a timeless vessel.

So why is she writhing on the floor every time she gets stressed out? “Alienation in the modern world” got you down, Giuliana? It’s as if Antonioni and Guerra lost their nerve and couldn’t merely make a film about a couple in crisis, who shine a light on their era and all its splendid, polluted alienation. They even include a dreamy story-within-a-story that Giuliana tells her young son, about a pubescent girl on a red sand beach who follows an empty ship and discovers sexual desire in a metaphorical sense, and it cures the boy of his own “ailment.” They place the motive in every male in a voice this girl hears in that eponymous red desert, where “from an inlet among the rocks, the numerous rocks that she never realized were like flesh, and the voice in that spot sounded so sweet. Everything was singing. Everything.”

That’s plenty for me, but they had to make Giuliana freak out too. Make her embody and be her own alienated time. I guess they took the ship metaphor from Through a Glass Darkly – decrepit ship as crazy place where women dwell and men come of age by following them there – which was only two years old when they shot this, and went deeper with it.

I suppose this will happen as long as men write scripts in which women are a psychic element and not characters in the complete sense. Every woman is all women, all three and a half billion of them. And her insanity is a metaphor for what ails reality in general.

Two Days, One Night, which would be a great-niece of neorealism, or something like that, is a step in the right direction, since Sandra’s insanity is just what it is, a big pain in her ass, that makes everything harder and shines a light on nothing.

*From Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism.
**Apologies to Guerra and all Italian speakers: I jotted the dialogue off the Criterion Collection subtitles.