JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Canted angle from a “crop dusters” POV of the trailer park where the accused lived. Here rows of corn were turned into rows of (im)mobile homes.

Jessie Misskelly, Sr., father of accused, .....

who lives in this (im)mobile home, provides the signed, coerced confession that becomes the major evidence in the trials.

Joe Hutchinson, father of accused Damien Echols.

Deputy Prosecutor John Foglemen repeatedly defends how police got Misskelly’s confession, in an unrecorded process.

Mark Byers and Todd Moore shoot pumpkin effigies of the accused. Mark Byers often performs staged events for cameras, seemingly attempting to form public opinion through image.

Mark and Melissa Byers at Christopher’s grave in a staged mourning scene. It’s symbolically complicated as the shadow of a star atop a Christmas tree gets cast on Mark’s forehead.

The camera zooms in to capture this striking image. The five-pointed star is associated with Satan worship. The contrast between this image and Byers’ pious preaching indicates both films’ suspicion that Byers is the real killer.

Dan Stidham, Public Defender for Misskelly, never tried a capital case prior to this. He is the only member of the original defense teams to continue to work on the cases.

Damien Echols takes the stand during his trial.

Dale Griffis is the prosecution expert on the occult. He got his education through the mail, never attending a class or taking a test. His folksy nature contrasts with defense experts’ professionalism and credibility.

Richard Ofshe, defense expert on false confession, skewers the prosecution on the confession’s integrity, but his testimony does not convince the jury. He is from out of state. The prosecution discredits him by declaring him an “outsider.”

 

Documentary and gothic narrative

The Paradise Lost films document the process whereby these convictions took place, providing vivid detail of the people and places that shaped these stories. Beyond a tale of “wrongful conviction,” these films act as a catalyst in the circuit of culture, accelerating the process of cultural reproduction as gothic narratives weave between the real and the unreal.

The tensions between documentary and narrative film have been a contested terrain for many years, with scholars attempting to define the boundaries of technique and content that differentiate the two traditions (Nichols 1991; Nichols 1994; Ponech 1999; Bruzzi 2000). Nichols (1991) early and influential theorization of documentary film outlined “modes of representation” and traced the history of approaches to the genre. Nichols (1994) went on to explore the “blurred boundaries” of non-fiction film and stressed the filmmaker/audience relationship in the meaning making process, arguing that

“signification resides within the selection and arrangement of indexical representations, not in indexicality per se any more than in things themselves” (xi).

In other words, images are only trusted as “real” based on the context in which they are produced and consumed. Ponech (1999) emphasizes the role of the filmmaker in differentiating fiction from non-fiction film, calling documentaries “cinematic assertions” where filmmakers “openly indicate something to somebody else” (11). Bruzzi (2000) builds on this theoretical lineage, arguing that the documentary film is a “perpetual negotiation between the real event and its representation” (9). Documentary film occupies a space where fiction and non-fiction intersect, offering a powerful site to examine the circuit of culture as it moves within and between the imaginary and the real.

The Paradise Lost films fall into this contested terrain, merging courtroom footage, traditional sit-down interviews, live action shooting and “staged” encounters where participants can be seen shooting guns or lighting fires at the site of the murders in an act of ritual cleansing. Drawing primarily on what Nichols (1991) has called an “interactive mode” of documentary; Berlinger and Sinofsky keep their presence invisible throughout both films. This technique involves removing the questions asked of participants, editing together responses in such a way that the social actors sound as if they are speaking extemporaneously, telling their story in their words.

This technique contrasts with an “expository mode” where an omniscient narrator provides context and often interprets events for the viewer. In the interactive mode,

“textual authority shifts toward the social actors recruited: their comments and responses provide a central part of the film’s argument” (Nichols 1991, 44).

In the first film (1996), Berlinger and Sinofsky had extraordinary access to the families of the victims and the accused, cameras in the courtroom, defense lawyer meetings with the defendants, interviews with the prosecutor and the judge as well as a range of comments from people in the local community over the course of the two years (1993-5)  that it took to produce the film.

Although Berlinger and Sinofsky strive to keep attention focused on the social actors and not on the filmmakers, the first film has a couple of reflexive moments, and the second film (2001) is colored by a reflexivity that models a pop culture example of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle where the physical act of observing a phenomenon is said to change the phenomenon itself, thus calling into question the very possibility of neutral observation that has become the cornerstone of the scientific method. During the trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, police investigator Gary Gitchell is asked about a knife that has been introduced as evidence. Gitchell says that the knife was given to him by “Joe and the folks at HBO.” Text is used to tell the viewers that a knife was given to the filmmakers by Mark Byers, the step-father of Christopher, one of the victims. This is one of a few instances during the first film where reflexivity emerges, drawing attention to the filmmakers’ active participation in the development of the story.

“The reflexive mode of representation gives emphasis to the encounter between the filmmaker and viewer rather than filmmaker and subject” (Nichols 1991, 60).

In this case, the filmmaker did not address the audience directly but the illusion of a faceless, voiceless, objective camera operator was shattered and the audience was temporarily reminded of the active engagement of the filmmakers. This moment is problematic for the film because this film and the follow-up are predicated on a search for the truth, the power of evidence, and an on-going attempt to identify the murderer/s of the three boys. Reflexive strategies draw attention to the limits of communicative practice and “emphasizes epistemological doubt” (61). For the reflexive filmmaker,

“realist access to the world, the ability to provide persuasive evidence, the possibility of indisputable argument, the unbreakable bond between an indexical image and that which it represents – all these notions prove suspect” (Nichols 1991, 60).

In a film about the quality of evidence and the search for the perpetrators, “persuasive evidence” becomes very important.

The second film contains core elements of reflexivity, though the filmmakers continue to avoid any on-camera images of themselves and only an occasional question posed in an interview can be heard. The reflexivity that runs throughout this piece appears through numerous references to the impact of the making of Paradise Lost on the first trials and a desire to avoid those same impacts during the appeals process.

Thus, Paradise Lost II: Revelations (2001), picks up the plight of the boys turned men—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly—who had been convicted in the trials documented in the first film. This second film chronicles the appeals process, with the added attention to the audience support group that emerged in response to the first film. The impact of this group will be examined in detail in shortly, but for now, it is important to recognize the power the first film had on the initial trials and to examine the response to this impact in the second film.

Interestingly, the film also bears a resemblance to a principle in physical science, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg, in describing subatomic particles, said:

“The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa” (Heisenberg 1927).

This notion of uncertainty has been lifted from the hard sciences and interpreted by a host of social science and humanities scholars, often cited as a foundational argument in the limitations of science as a way of knowing. Heisenberg’s description of atomic particles is often used to make the argument that the very process of measuring alters that which you seek to measure. In this case, we can see the act of filmmaking altering the first trial in a number of specific ways. First, HBO paid a number of the participants for their participation in the film, giving equal honorariums to the three families of the victims and the three families of the accused, further blurring the lines between social actors and paid actors (Leveritt 2002). These payments were essential to the first trial because of the lack of resources available to the public defenders assigned to the cases. This money was used to pay a number of expert witnesses who testified for the defense, tangibly altering the trial process.

Ironically, in the second film, a crucial significant argument in the appeals case was the idea that the first trial had been significantly compromised by the presence of the filmmakers and the financial incentives offered by HBO. Despite the controversy over money, HBO continued to pay subjects in the second film, with notable attention to Mark Byers, who was described as “starring in his own horror movie” by one film critic (Leveritt 2002). Byers is highly visible in both films, taking on a range of personalities from doting husband, pious churchgoer, and vindictive father of a murder victim.

The interplay of money, class tensions, and access to quality judicial representation conspire to provide extremely candid footage in both films, while at the same time tainting that footage with the power imbalance of a New York HBO film team and a small Midwestern community hungry for justice. On the one hand, the power of the film(s), with the resulting national and international attention, has transformed what might have otherwise been another case of neo-liberal (in)justice. At the same time, the money and influence infused into this case through the filmmaking process altered the process and introduced new financial motivations. Thus the two films are deeply intertwined with these trials and the apparently “neutral” filmmakers have moved to the center of an on-going controversy.

Class, capital and American gothic

Two recurring images in both Paradise Lost films reveal the class tensions embedded in this small town story of murder and monsters. First, Berlinger and Sinofsky use repeated shots of low aerial footage of the town and site of the murders. This aerial footage is often canted, altering the landscape, providing a crop duster pilot’s glimpse on farmland turned light industrial sprawl. The second recurring image is that of the trailer parks and mobile homes where both the victim’s families and the families of the accused lived. These images are usually accompanied by the heavy metal music of Metallica and serve as brief interludes from the interview driven storyline. This music is a reminder of the popular “goth” culture that is so central to these trials and the perceptions of “satanic” worship on the part of the accused. The filmmakers remind the audience of the ubiquity of Metallica’s music and the Hollywood marketing behind teen goth culture. More importantly, these images play a central role in locating this story at a particular time and place, drawing attention to the connections between people and space.

In writing about the Grant Wood painting American Gothic, Eric Savoy argues that the house behind the couple in the foreground plays a central role in the symbolic power of the painting. This house is said to contain a “historical preterite” that “haunts the national couple.” This farm house is said to

“bring forward the underside, the Otherness, of the narratives of national self construction” (p. 18).

In a similar fashion, Berlinger’s and Sinofsky’s repeated use of iconic images of trailer parks and mobile homes can be seen as the contemporary  modern updates of Wood’s gothic farmhouse.   In this case, the farm house of the working class has been replaced by manufactured homes, the rows of crops replaced by rows of equally linear homes and trailer parks. Where Savoy raises questions about “the tenant” that resides in the haunted house of gothic fiction, Berlinger and Sinofsky take us inside the homes of “monsters” to meet the tenants who reside within the “haunted” mobile home.

What we see is the banality of U.S. culture in the late twentieth century: televisions and cigarettes, coveralls with names embroidered on the upper left label, inscribed with the marks of manual labor; rusted cars; and marginal dental care. These are the families and people who lived with the “monsters,” identified as Other by their location within the “scary” and “dangerous” world of the trailer park, a once transient place turned permanent township of class segregation. The (im)mobile homes have ceased to move as there is no place to go with the frontier long closed and the encroachment of the gated community incessantly pushing these communities closer to the ex-urban skin we drive through on our way to some better place.

This ex-urban skin, when seen from the air, reveals the changes of the American heartland landscape since Wood’s painting. Berlinger and Sinofsky provide us with a crop duster’s point of view, swooping down on the highways and patches of asphalt that divide and connect so much of modern United States. This is the location where the murders happened, but it is also the industrial landscape that is intimately connected to the people who live and work in the (im)mobile homes that haunt these films. From this aerial view, we see the landscape cut up and divided by highways, dividing lines that recede to the horizon line, locating West Memphis as a place between, a stopping point, a place to refuel. These highways and asphalt patches parse the farmland where Wood’s farming couple struggled in what Jonathan Raban called

“that sad and unlamented West where bitterness and fury were the natural offspring of impossibly great expectations” (quoted in Savoy, p. 18).

The unseen pilot of the plane that gives us this vantage point remains silent, a specter of a crop-duster in search of fields that have not been violated and encroached upon by the expansion of capital, or possibly in search of “pests” that have infested this cultural crop. From the air, we see the small patch of woods–bordered by highway and fast food–a remnant of the great stands of Midwestern hardwoods leveled as the Europeans moved west. Amid the noise and dangers of interstate highways, this patch of woods was a natural refuge for kids in search of a stream to play in and a tree to climb. In further class coding, we come to know the victims and the accused as kids without the benefits of after school programs, private music lessons, or stay at home parents. With the unstructured time of youth, these kids sought the comforts and timeless attraction of the woods, though in this instance, those woods were bounded by the transience of industrialism, a mobility that lies in stark contrast to the immobility of the homes where they live.

What emerges from this collection of images of the land and the homes of West Memphis is a new portrait of the modern American Heartland, a place transformed by industrial agribusiness and increasingly referred to as “fly-over country” as the captains of the culture industries fly between New York and LA. The very gothic imaginary that is so carefully crafted in the cultural centers of the East and West Coasts takes root in the people and practices across the continent and increasingly around the world. These films demonstrate the tangible implications of a carefully constructed culture of fear.  In a very visible sense, we can see what Ingebretsen means when he argues that “monsters warn” (p. 4).

Paradise Lost (1996, 2001) offers a stark warning about the intersection of class and justice, and the political economy of a criminal justice system that is balkanized according to income. Taking place during a similar time period as the OJ Simpson trial with its 24 hour news coverage, teams of high profile lawyers and endless speculation about evidence and motives, this case took place far from the probing camera lens were it not for Berlinger and Sinofsky. Their attention to the “monsters” of West Memphis warns us of the dangers posed by a monstrous system of capital driven justice. Halberstam (1995) argues that the gothic monster

“is an economic form in that it condenses various racial and sexual threats to nation, capitalism, and the bourgeoisie in one body” (p.3).

In contrast, Berlinger and Sinofsky recast the monster as capitalism itself—the very system that allows for justice to be predicated on access to quality legal representation, access that is denied to most Americans and whose very denial is effaced by judicial representations that valorize power and celebrity (O.J. Simpson) or trivialize everyday life (Judge Judy). While these films follow the search to find the monstrous killer(s) of three eight year old boys, they also probe the intersection of class, culture and the U.S. justice system. Interestingly, the murders took place in “Robin Hood Hills,” another marker of class tensions where stealing from the rich and giving to the poor has been replaced by the poor stealing from each other. Unlike the Sherwood of old, where the road brought riches to “merry men,” this road is a highway that divides a community, leaving behind effluence and roadkill.

Continued: Activism


To topPrint versionJC 47 Jump Cut home