Joe Berlinger explores True-Crime Fascination in 'Crime Scene'
The director of fundamental works such as Paradise Lost turned his lens to the fans and online sleuths in his new Netflix docu-series who are changing the stakes of true crime.
In real-crime documentaries these days, it's hard to find anything that is redeeming. They seem to display the worst of humanity, there's a seemingly infinite supply, and they're so boring in general that it's hard to tell each other. You can watch the four-part "Night Stalker" on Netflix about serial killer Richard Ramirez in Los Angeles, and then click on the four-episode "Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel," where Ramirez makes a cameo.
But there are several other guest stars in "Crime Scene," directed by real-crime veteran Joe Berlinger, and they make the business a little different than others. One is the title character, in downtown Los Angeles, the towering Cecil Hotel. The Cecil, located in the drug-and-crime-infested Skid Row section of the city, and known for its horror past, has stories to tell.
So do the players endorsing it. They witness what they have not seen, one by one, peering out from their computer screens and giving descriptions and verdicts. The crime was covered up by the police. She was murdered by a death metal singer. Wait, it's just a horror movie like that. Or maybe it's a story about a ghost.
They are online sleuths, and in "Crime Scene," which premiered on Wednesday, they together form a kind of uninformed Greek chorus. It covers the well-chronicled disappearance of a 21-year-old Canadian tourist, Elisa Lam, in 2013. But the tale ends up being more about the nature of reality and mass speculation than about any single crime, and about the ethics of true crime in general.
"The sleuths are very integral to the show's structure because perception is what's interesting to me," Berlinger said last week in a telephone interview. "In terms of gathering information and the rabbit holes they went down, I wanted the viewer to really experience it the way the web sleuths did."
Berlinger, who frequently deals with Netflix but often does projects for other networks, has been at this for a while, since the airwaves and online services were flooded long before true crime documentaries.
In 1992, he debuted "Brother's Keeper" with Bruce Sinofsky, the wrenching story of a barely literate farmer accused of murdering his own brother. In 1996, he and Sinofsky published "Paradise Lost: The Robin Hood Hills Child Murders," which challenged the circumstantial evidence that put three Arkansas teens in jail on charges of murdering and mutilating three young children. All three "Paradise Lost" movies were made by Berlinger and Sinofsky, and the teens, commonly known as the West Memphis Three, were finally set free.
This would seem to be a far cry from "Cecil Hotel," whose eight-year-old core mystery anyone with an internet connection can solve. Berlinger, though, sees commonalities. Those site sleuths, for one.
In 1996, the internet was not what it is now. Berlinger, however, remembers those who went online, pre-social media, and provided essential West Memphis Three details. "People can see that regular people's investigations of this kind can lead to some positive results," he said.
The sleuths go after a death metal artist and ruin his life with false allegations (a touch of satanic hysteria with shades of "Paradise Lost," in which the prosecutor uses the taste of the West Memphis Three in heavy metal to help construct his case). That's not really the case in "Cecil." They obsess over a piece of footage of elevator surveillance, finding signs of manipulation of evidence when none existed. Apparently, they support every theory but the simplest one. They get in the way in general.
Some fear that the genre of true crime is still getting in the way of other kinds of documentary and storytelling in general.
"Media companies have grown dependent on the genre," Thom Powers, the Toronto International Film Festival's documentary programmer, said in an email. (Powers is a fan of Berlinger, and his work has been programmed in the past). "I'm worried that it's becoming an escape entertainment that depletes other stories' resources."
"The true-crime genre at its worst is propaganda by law enforcement," he continued. "Storytelling is so concerned with the lurid details of crime, it rarely pulls back to study greater dynamics."
Berlinger, too, has concerns about the genre. His new body of work includes several TV documentaries on sensational crimes, including "Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," "Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers," and "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich." But call him a filmmaker of real crime and he's bristling.
He admitted, "I'm described as a true-crime pioneer." "I liked the role of the pioneer. The truth-crime thing makes me a little anxious because I think of myself more as a filmmaker of social justice who spends a lot of time in the room of crime.
"He added: "I think there is a lot of reckless real crime being committed where there is no greater message of social justice or where there is no greater reflection on society. It's all about wallowing without any greater intent in the pain of someone else's tragedy.
The Cecil has considerable symbolic significance related to its surrounding social history and issues. When it was built in 1924, a grand Beaux Arts institution, the Cecil, which is no longer accessible, deteriorated gradually along with its neighborhood. In the '30s, the area now called Skid Row expanded into a center of crime and homelessness, and the Cecil, a behemoth of 700 rooms, became notorious for cheap residential accommodation and tawdry activities. It was popular for narcotics, prostitution and suicides. The body of a well-liked former telephone operator, Goldie Osgood, was found raped in her room in 1964, stabbed and battered. The offense has never been solved.
Ramirez, the serial killer, was a guest; after a tiring night of killing, he would allegedly go there, tossing his bloody clothes in a nearby dumpster before returning to his room. So was Jack Unterweger, the notorious Austrian serial killer who, posing as a journalist, continued his rampage by murdering three sex workers in Los Angeles.
A dark aura is not difficult to summon around the hotel, and several media accounts have done just that.
In a recent phone interview, Amy Price, the hotel manager from 2007 to 2017, said, "It's shown as a really dark place, with Richard Ramirez being there and, of course, Elisa Lam." She stars in the series as well. "But I thought it was authentic and very fair how they presented everything."
Without Lam's disappearance, with all that happened at the Cecil, there would be no documentary, and perhaps very little interest in the hotel today. The web sleuths profess their love and admiration for her, none of whom have met her. As if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls, they, and the series, pore over the elevator footage. As Lam punches a row of elevator buttons and squishes herself into a corner of the elevator, we wait, over and over again, then exits and makes some strange hand motions. This must certainly all mean something.
Or, maybe not. And here's where you either quit reading or carry on to the not-terribly-mystical conclusion (assuming you haven't already Googled the case). Ultimately, indeed, Cecil was the scene of a murder. Several times over. But it seems like there was nothing criminal about the Lam case, which was a sad accident, according to the investigators.
Asked how he reconciles his higher-minded values with the necessity of entertaining the true-crime genre, Berlinger pointed to the fact that "Cecil" explores topics at its heart that go beyond the corpse, including cyberbullying, homelessness and mental illness. But he also knows that for the more lurid details, true-crime fans are tuning in, and sometimes that gives him pause.
I'm asking myself, if anything happened to me or my family, Heaven forbid, would I want anyone to share the story? "In a follow-up note, he said. "If I'm completely honest, I would only want that if the purpose of telling that story was greater than just 'entertainment.'"
Has Berlinger had it both ways? Maybe. Maybe. But the same is true of every news report about the series, as the meta-critique layers pile up. He argued with "Cecil," playing with the true-crime imperative is precisely why it works.
We're very self-reflexive in certain respects of using the norms of true crime to seemingly tell a mystery of true crime," Berlinger said by phone." "Then, at the end, we turn it on its head."
I thought it was fitting and fascinating to select a crime that is not really a crime, with a presumption that something nefarious happened, but it was really not a crime at all," he added."
That's probably one way of tweaking the genre of true crime. Only get the offense removed.