The West Memphis One: Hollywood Money and Universal Truths in Amy Berg’s West of Memphis

Posted: January 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


(Although this is not, strictly speaking, a post regarding overlapping crimes it does in fact concern overlapping crime documentaries, so bear with me.)

As a longtime fan of the Paradise Lost  documentary trilogy I eagerly awaited the release of West of Memphis;
both works ostensibly deal with the same subject matter—the legal travails of the trio of unjustly-convicted Southerners
who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three. I finally saw West of Memphis  this week, however,
and I positively loathed it—in my opinion there is nothing worse than sentimentality camouflaged as cutting edge cinema vérité.

The first great true crime documentary I ever saw was Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line.
I will never forget the moment midway through when I finally realized that creepy heffalump
Randall Dale Adams was in fact innocent,
and boyishly handsome David Harris was not only a cop killer
but a devious psychopath willing to let an innocent man face execution for his crime.
My first viewing of The Thin Blue Line  was a transformative moment;
I had entered the theater secure in my ability to spot a murderous sociopath, and I exited appreciating that some evil dwelt so deep within the hearts of men that not even a cardiologist could detect it.

To me, the defining difference between documentary and narrative film is that good documentaries
force the viewer to decipher reality. Generally speaking,
in narrative film differentiating between hero and villain is simple—the protagonist wears a white hat,
if only metaphorically, and the villain enters twirling a sinister moustache.
In documentary film, however, figuring out which participants are proffering a trustworthy version of events takes time,
and the truly revealing moments arrive unaccompanied by narrative build-up. Since documentaries force the viewer to unravel a cinematic puzzle the truths gleaned therein hit the viewer,
in my opinion,
with far greater force.

This brings us, of course, to West of Memphis  and the Paradise Lost  trilogy, our overlapping crime documentaries du jour.
Both portray the aftermath of a triple child murder in Arkansas
and the trials and tribulations of the three then-teenagers accused of the crime.
Obviously, as the Paradise Lost  trilogy is comprised of three documentaries filmed over almost two decades
it is a far more complete picture
of the West Memphis community and the shoddy judicial proceedings that masquerade as due process in the Deep South.
The keening grief of the murdered children’s parents, the jocular ignorance of local law enforcement,
the panic and bafflement of the parents of the accused teenagers—all
are minutely depicted in all their brutal glory in Paradise Lost,
the Metallica on the soundtrack as unforgiving as the dentally-challenged townspeople shrieking for the blood of the accused.

Unlike the aura of gloomy despair that permeates the Paradise Lost   films,
West of Memphis  is smug and sunny; at heart not so much the story
of a grotesque murder followed by a grotesque injustice
as the upbeat tale of how Hollywood money and power saved the day.
As most crime aficionados know, after Paradise Lost   raised awareness of the predicament of the West Memphis Three entertainment figures rallied ‘round and funded a new investigation into the crime;
eventually the Arkansas justice system cracked under the combined weight
of global attention and Hollywood-funded expert testimony.
Self-congratulatory correspondence between the participants and various Hollywood luminaries is used as a narrative device and the entitled blathering nearly unhinged me.

Incidentally, West of Memphis  is not, strictly speaking,
a film about the West Memphis Three—Hollywood, as always, wants nothing to do with the unpretty:
Jessie Misskelley, the dimwit, and Jason Baldwin, the pipsqueak with the power mullet and Picasso dentition,
are given short shrift.
West of Memphis  is Damien Echols’ story; true to form,
Hollywood is only interested in the stories of the articulate and conventionally attractive.
Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp certainly don’t identify
with the Jesse Misskelleys of the world,
so although all three unjustly convicted men dwelt in prison for the same amount of time
Baldwin and Misskelley’s relative unattractiveness apparently renders their stories far less worthy of telling.

Upon reflection, the most enraging aspect of West of Memphis  is the fact that the film’s self-satisfaction
is completely bogus—while it’s certainly commendable the West Memphis Three have been freed,
the three little boys murdered in Robin Hood Hills still molder in their tiny coffins,
and the person or persons responsible still roam the nightmarescape of West Memphis.
More importantly, the Arkansas justice systems is as flawed and archaic as it ever was;
common sense dictates that if Arkansas prosecutors were able to convict the West Memphis Three on specious evidence there are surely dozens of other wrongly-convicted inmates languishing in Southern prisons.
To take a self-congratulatory tone in this situation makes me cringe.

There is, however, one saving grace to the two-plus hours I wasted amidst
the self-satisfied circle-jerk that is West of Memphis—I watched an illegally-downloaded copy
of an Academy Award screener,
so at least being waterboarded with Hollywood treacle didn’t cost me twelve bucks.
And because I’m sucker for symmetry, I sincerely hope that Paradise Lost  director Joe Berlinger was the Academy member who leaked his copy of West of Memphis  to Putlocker.

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