OJ: Made in America


As an Irish girl with no interest in sport of any kind I had never heard of OJ Simpson until 1995, but on holiday on the west coast that summer it was a conversation that was impossible to avoid. I watched American Crime Story earlier this year, the dramatisation of the trial starring Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Cuba Gooding Junior. While the performances were excellent I found the pace very slow. When I read early reports of the documentary miniseries OJ Simpson: Made In America I knew it was much more up my street.

OJ Simpson: Made In America was broadcast by ESPN in June in five parts totalling eight hours, starting with OJ’s glory years: football in USC in late 60s including what became known as ‘The Run’, a 1967 match against UCLA, his acting career and subsequent fame. Adored by the public and by his friends, he was charismatic, handsome, charming and funny: ‘everybody’s best friend.’

It was in his relationship with Nicole that his dark side surfaced. He met her in a nightclub when she was just eighteen. He was married but they started an affair, then OJ divorced his wife and married Nicole. True to form he continued having affairs yet he was incredibly jealous of Nicole, often becoming violent and verbally abusive. A couple of Nicole’s phone calls to 911 are played and she is clearly in fear of her life as OJ rages in the background.

In tandem with OJ’s story the documentary shows the history of black people in Los Angeles: Watt’s Riots, Rodney King, 1992 Los Angeles Riots, police brutality and racial profiling. It’s impossible to talk about OJ without seeing the murder trial in this wider context.

OJ’s trial became about race and he became a symbol of civil rights injustice, when in fact he had turned his back on the African-American community throughout his life. When he was asked to become an activist he refused, he married a white woman, he socialised with white people and lived in Brentwood, a predominantly white and very affluent suburb of LA. OJ often said, ‘I’m not black, I’m OJ’, believing that his celebrity transcended race.

The interesting thing is that when discussing the verdict both jury members and onlookers viewed his exoneration as payback for how black people were treated in America, ‘for Rodney King’. Almost nobody discusses his guilt or innocence, as if that was such a secondary issue it wasn’t worth mentioning. To this day no-one else has been tried for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, and OJ has on numerous occasions outright confessed or alluded to his guilt.

The final part of the documentary focusses on OJ’s life after his criminal acquittal and it’s a sleazy and sordid mess, involving drugs, alcohol, sex and bad rap music, culminating in his 2007 arrest for robbery in Las Vegas. Thirteen years to the day after he was acquitted for the double murder he was found guilty of robbery, then sentenced to thirty-three years in jail.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of documentary filmmaking. OJ: Made in America is one of the best I have ever seen, a meticulously researched and riveting piece of investigative journalism which deserves a huge audience.

A Mega-Bumper Netflix Round-Up

As I mentioned last month I was pretty ill with the flu for a few weeks, lying flat on my back in bed and getting huge mileage out of my Netflix subscription. Although the weather this weekend is supposed to be spectacular and you’ll probably be outside soaking up the sun, here’s a quick round-up which you can bookmark for when the rain inevitably returns.

Stranger Things
At this stage you can’t have failed to hear about Netflix’s new hit. Paying homage to classic 80s sci-fi, Stranger Things follows a group of boys whose best friend disappears and who simultaneously find a mysterious girl named Eleven or ‘El’ who needs their protection. It has spawned much discussion online from a thorough run-down of every film reference (spoilers in that article), to criticism of the series’ depiction of women. Netflix have even announced that an official soundtrack is on the way due to popular demand. It’s a bona fide TV phenomenon which I enjoyed but I’m not a rabid fan in the way so many others are.

Both seasons of Fargo are now available to watch and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Set in the same fictional world as the Coen Brothers eponymous 1996 film, Fargo is an anthology TV series, with a different cast and different plot set in a different era every season. Season one stars Billy Bob Thornton (in a career best performance), Mark Freeman, Colin Hanks and Allison Tolman and is set in 2006. Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, a hitman travelling through Bemidji, Minnesota, who causes chaos when he interacts with local residents. Season two is set in 1979 and stars Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson and Jesse Plemons. Dunst plays beautician Peggy Blumquist who covers up a hit and run accident involving one of the town’s most notorious criminals which leads to carnage. Both seasons were hugely praised and season three is due to premiere next year. If you haven’t seen it, get on it immediately.

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets
Marc Silver directed this documentary about the 2012 shooting of teenager Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn over an altercation about loud music. (Do I have to even say that this happened in the USA or did you assume that already?) It’s a brilliant documentary with interviews with Davis’ family, the witnesses to the crime and Dunn himself, and containing footage from the subsequent trial. Gun control in America is an oxymoron – as far as I can see there’s barely any control at all – and this documentary highlights the reasons why.

Tallulah debuted last weekend, and I had looked forward to it as it stars one of my favourite actresses, Alison Janney. Tallulah (Ellen Page) rescues a baby from an irresponsible mother (Tammy Blanchard) and pretends the child is her own, using the baby to form a relationship with her ex-boyfriend’s mother, Margo (Janney). I had such high hopes for this film, remembering the great chemistry the two actresses had in Juno. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to my hopes and I think the script was at fault. Both leads did their best but ultimately it seemed flimsy and predictable.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
After so much drama I want some light relief and so a mate recommended Crazy Ex-Girlfriend starring Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch. Bunch is stressed out and about to burn out in her job as a corporate attorney in New York. After a chance encounter with her ex-boyfriend Josh Chan she decides on a whim to move to his town, West Covina in California. I was hesitant about watching the show for two reasons: firstly, American comedy doesn’t make me laugh a lot of the time, and secondly, the show has a couple of musical numbers per episode (nooooooo!). However I did end up watching the entire season and although the musical numbers do get a bit tiresome there are some absolute gems and Rachel Bloom is just brilliant.

Steve Jobs

(No posts for almost a month! Swine flu will do that to you, I guess. Yep, that’s right, swine Jaysus flu. I tried to deal with it by myself for two weeks and then admitted defeat and went to the doctor whereupon I was scolded, told I was a lot more sick than I thought, and put on various forms of medication. I very rarely get ill but when I do, it appears to be along the lines of ‘go big or go home’. Nearly better now though. And back to the matter at hand…)

I have never been a tech-fetishist. For me phones and computers are just devices that make life easier, like washing machines or hoovers. I don’t much care what they look like as long as they can do the basic job effectively. I have never owned an iPhone because the battery life sucks and the cameras on Androids are way better, and paying hundreds of extra euro for an Apple symbol just seems silly.

So for me, the massive outpouring of grief that happened when Steve Jobs died was bizarre. I found it hard to understand why people felt such a personal connection to a product and I didn’t get why people thought he was a genius. People like Steve Wozniak seemed to be the technical innovators. Jobs didn’t code, he didn’t design and he wasn’t an engineer. To me Jobs was just a savvy marketeer.

I watched two films to try and get more of a handle on why he was perceived as one of the greatest minds of his generation: Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle, and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a documentary directed by Alex Gibney.

The film takes a three act structure, with each act taking place before a huge product launch. It’s a great construct which enables us to see the kind of pressure Jobs exerted on everyone including himself. At one point Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) questions what Jobs has really contributed to computing history and Jobs replies that he is the conductor of the orchestra and people like Wozniak are the musicians. It’s an interesting answer to my original question but not one I agree with. Fassbender was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance and he’s brilliant in the film, and the script by Aaron Sorkin is excellent.

The documentary is another impressive addition to Alex Gibney’s filmography, and provides a more rounded look at Jobs, containing interviews with most of the key figures in his life. He comes across as a fairly horrible individual. An early anecdote shows him ripping off a friend, claiming they got paid a tiny amount of money for a project when in fact Jobs just took the lion’s share for no reason other than greed. His rejection of his daughter Lisa is well documented, allowing her and her mother to live on welfare for many years while he earned millions. He often publicly humiliated his employees and rarely gave praise. Excuses are made during the documentary, such as the fact that he never got over being adopted, or he was such a genius that his failings should be tolerated. To which I have one response: really?

Both films are well worth a watch, but they haven’t really changed my mind. Jobs was probably one of the best marketeers the world has ever known, but Wozniak emerges as the true genius. I suppose it’s emblematic of our culture that the promoter is deified rather than the revolutionary.



Iris, Dior and McQueen

I’ve been on a documentary binge recently, devouring anything that has been recommended to me or that I’ve come across on Netflix. Sometimes you really have to trawl through a lot of random 80s movies and B list thrillers to find anything worthwhile on Netflix but I can still usually justify the seven quid a month.

Iris Apfel is a ninety-three year old reknowned fashionista living in New York City who was the subject of a documentary released in 2014 called Iris, directed by Albert Maysles and currently available on Netflix. Apfel ran a business called Old World Weavers with her husband Carl (who died in August of this year aged almost 101, and was married to Iris for sixty-seven years) and they travelled the world sourcing fabrics for their high-society clients. They even worked with the White House under nine different Presidents. Iris has retired but in her later years has become a global fashion icon due to a 2005 exhibition of her clothing at the Costume Institute, and the press attention that followed. Albert Maysles, famed director of Grey Gardens, decided to make a documentary about her and in fact this was one of the last films he made before his death from cancer in March of this year.

Iris is irrepressible, droll, full of energy despite her advancing years and incredibly creative when it comes to fashion and aesthetics. This is a great watch.

Dior and I is a documentary about Raf Simons’ first couture collection as head designer for Dior, a position he undertook in 2012 after the very public dismissal of John Galliano. Simons’ is a Belgian designer who has his roots in furniture design and has in fact never studied fashion formally. He came to the Dior atelier without a word of French and without the technical skills that would usually characterise a couturier. The documentary shows the process in the run up to his first show, Haute Couture Autumn Winter 2012, which was very well received by the fashion press and buyers and included a fantastical runway space with walls of flowers.

My favourite parts of the documentary were the behind-the-scenes look at the atelier and the women who have worked there for decades. Their skill and painstaking attention to detail is astonishing and shows exactly why the clothes command the astronomical prices they are famous for.

And lastly there’s a documentary available on Youtube which was first shown on Channel 4 called McQueen and I, an exploration of Alexander McQueen’s work and his association with stylist Isabella Blow. At just over an hour long, the documentary is not an in-depth look at either but it does contain interesting archive footage of McQueen’s shows which were more like performance art than mainstream fashion events, and it also contains some interview material with Detmar Blow, Isabella’s husband, who explains the reasons that lead to her suicide in 2007. McQueen followed in 2010, apparently devastated after the death of his mother, although it has recently come to light that he also suffered from childhood sexual abuse and this may have contributed to his drug use, unhappiness and eventual suicide. It’s a short but interesting documentary and well worth a watch.

Running from Crazy

Running From Crazy is a documentary directed by Barbara Kopple about the Hemingway family, specifically regarding mental illness throughout the generations. Ernest Hemingway is the most well known member of the family, but you may also be familiar with his granddaughters, actresses Mariel (on whom the documentary is mostly centred) and Margaux, and also Dree Hemingway, Mariel’s eldest daughter who is a successful model and actress.

Mariel compares the Hemingways to the Kennedys, another great American family that were seen to suffer from a ‘curse’. Depression seems to have been the illness that has dogged the Hemingways for generations, and it has manifested as seven suicides (Ernest, his father, sister and brother were four of them), and also sexual abuse, alcoholism, ruthless competitiveness and familial estrangement.

I first blogged about this documentary in 2013. Obviously I have an interest in the subject matter as I have Major Depressive Disorder and, like the Hemingways, it is an illness that reaches back through generations in my family.

Running From Crazy was described by the Guardian reviewer at Sundance as ‘one of the bleakest snapshots of the human soul’. It is certainly very sad in parts but it is refreshing to see a documentary about an artist suffering from depression that doesn’t glamorise the illness or somehow make it the rarified domain of the creatively gifted.

Mariel also lifts the film and makes it very watchable. She’s immensely likeable, level-headed, warm and wise, while still honestly admitting to her own failings. In fact, Margaux, Mariel and Ernest all possess a joie de vivre, a sunniness that shines from them, a charisma that is instantly appealing. Their drive to celebrate the best in life is perhaps the flip side of their depression.

These days Mariel has dedicated her life to suicide prevention and awareness of mental health issues. The last scenes in the film take place at a suicide prevention event in New York, with family members of suicide victims present. Mariel speaks beautifully, with sincere empathy and compassion, and she is a wonderful ambassador for this cause. Running From Crazy is at times a tough film to watch but also a truthful and inspiring portrait of an iconic American family.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

As regular readers of the Multiverse know, Alex Gibney is one of my favourite documentary makers and his latest film Going Clear, broadcast last weekend in the US on HBO, has been the subject of much discussion and controversy. The film is based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief published in January 2013. Given the fact that 1.7 million people tuned in to watch it last weekend (HBO’s biggest documentary premiere in almost a decade) it would appear that interest in Scientology is huge and for many viewers, including me, this is the first time they have been made aware of the abuse, violence, brainwashing and fraud that the church has been involved in.

Gibney interviews eight former Scientologists, some of whom were high ranking members, and many of their experiences are horrifying. They recount how they got into the church, the methods of mind control, brainwashing and isolation that the church utilises, and their reasons for leaving. The ‘auditing’ process is explained in detail, whereby the church learns each member’s weak spots, secrets and vulnerabilities, and uses this information to keep members in line. 

Gibney also uses footage of Scientology events (some of which look like the Nazi propaganda rallies) and archival footage of two of Scientology’s most prominent members, Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who are used as recruitment tools and as the public face of the religion. Through recruitment of celebrities and crucially the 1993 designation of Scientology as a recognised religion by the IRS and therefore tax exempt, the church is an incredibly rich organisation having amassed billions of dollars in assets and property.

Many of the ex-members speak of misconduct and abuse by church leaders, especially David Miscavige. It is alleged that Miscavige encourages harassment of journalists and ex-members of the church, has humiliated, intimidated, imprisoned and in some cases physically beaten members, and knowingly exploits vulnerable people. Particularly disturbing are the accounts of ‘The Hole’, a facility where dozens of members are imprisoned and subjected to reindoctrination. What this seems to mean is extreme physical and mental abuse, and hours of interrogation with the aim of getting the members to ‘confess’, i.e. relate criticisms of the religion or of David Miscavige, or confess homosexual tendencies and sexual fantasies. It sounds a bit like a POW camp.

Unlike some previous criticisms of Scientology, this documentary has real weight and therefore the power to affect change. Alex Gibney is an Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker, someone who is highly respected, someone who has built his reputation on thorough research, not some fly-by-night with a video camera and a grudge. In addition the film was produced by HBO who employed over 150 lawyers to review it before broadcast. Although the church, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and others declined to be interviewed and have denied the claims in the documentary through their lawyers, an injunction was not taken out before broadcast leading us to believe that the film is factually correct, truthful and therefore must be taken seriously.

Hopefully Going Clear will be the catalyst for authorities and the media to investigate Scientology further, the start of which should be the IRS reconsidering the tax free status of the church.


The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Back in February HBO aired a six-part documentary series on Robert Durst, the wealthy scion of the Durst family arrested in March on suspicion of murder. It might seem like the timing of the broadcast and Durst’s arrest was coincidental, but his arrest was in fact partly due to the documentary makers uncovering new evidence and turning it over to police.

Durst is the eldest son of the Durst family who own the Durst Organization, a real estate company in New York City whose holdings include One World Trade Center and the Condé Nast Building on Times Square. He first came to police attention when his wife Kathleen disappeared in 1982. The couple had been fighting in the months before her disappearance, with Kathleen complaining to her friends of increased violence from her husband, even telling them that if anything should happen to her they should investigate Robert. When Kathleen disappeared, her friends suspected Durst of murder but without a body there was little law enforcement could do.

Durst was then arrested in 2001 on charges of murder when his neighbour’s dismembered body was found floating in Galveston Bay in Texas. The body parts were in trash bags which also contained evidence linking the body to Durst. Durst claimed self-defence, and given that he had unlimited wealth to hire the best lawyers, he managed to get off. His most recent arrest is on charges of murdering his best friend, Susan Berman, a woman who may have had information about his wife’s disappearance and who was found shot dead, execution style, in her Californian home in 2000.

Durst is an odd man, given to bizarre statements, who seems disingenuous, clinical, obtuse and at times deliberately provocative. He has in the past been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, but it felt more like some form of sociopathy may be present, given the emotionless and unsettling way he speaks during the interviews. Even his own brother finds him dangerous and unpredictable and in the past hired a bodyguard to protect himself.

The Jinx is a brilliant documentary series and well worth watching. In particular it reminded me of The Staircase which I reviewed on the blog a while ago, in that it’s in-depth and also illustrates how money can make the difference between an innocent or guilty verdict. It will be interesting to watch Durst’s current legal case as it unfolds in the coming months. Not only was he denied bail earlier this week but police are now looking at Durst in connection to three more women who have disappeared, two in 1997 and one in 1971.