Dear Joe Berlinger: Quit It

Plus Erika Jayne, and an elephant on the lam

Lord, where to begin with the Joe Berlinger drama. Let’s rewind first to Monday’s Best Evidence, wherein I mentioned Amber Sealey’s scripted Ted Bundy film No Man Of God, which stars Luke Kirby (Rectify, ironically) as Bundy and Elijah Wood as early FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier. The picture’s at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Owen Gleiberman reviewed it last week for Variety. Gleiberman seemed to think well of it overall, while at the same time wondering whether there’s any point in continuing to “explore” Bundy and his ilk. Talking about a climactic (if you’ll excuse that phrasing) scene towards the end, Gleiberman echoes a sentiment I’ve expressed many times while reviewing serial-killer properties, namely that, because viewers are in the main not antisocial murderers, we can’t really comprehend what motivates the Bundys of the world:

At that moment, “No Man of God” takes us about as close as we’re going to get to “knowing” Ted Bundy. But what you may feel is that even then, you don’t know him at all, that it’s impossible to understand crimes like these from the inside.

Still, there’s opportunity there for an actor, and Gleiberman feels Kirby takes advantage to the extent he can, and on balance it’s a positive review — but that’s not why Joe Berlinger, who as you no doubt recall had not one but two Bundy properties out in 2019, reached out to Amber Sealey via email. No, Berlinger sent Sealey a mult-screen screed because, it’s implied, Sealey’s been talking some shit about Berlinger’s Bundy films while promoting her own — specifically that The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile both glorify Bundy.

Oxygen’s recap of the kerfuffle, which is what tipped me to it, is right here, and links to Sealey’s Instagram, on which she posted the entire email:

IndieWire’s write-up of the flap contains follow-ups from both Sealey and Berlinger, Sealey noting that Berlinger’s name “has come up” exactly once, and she hasn’t mentioned him in particular during her press interviews for No Man Of God, and Berlinger whining that she posted his private email to her Instagram and well I never blah blah blah. An email, by the way, that he sent her the day her film premiered, and that is classic white-man bullshit: whiny, condescending, self-important, and sent via two different media just to make sure the woman on the other end (and come on, there is no way Berlinger sends this foolishness to a dude) gets knocked down a few pegs by The Great Dye-Wreck-Tore. I mean, I guess in theory it’s not cute for Sealey to air that shit out on socials — but in practice, Berlinger 1) is trying the professorial-bully thing, 2) and not for the first time! I can’t find links right this second, but Eve’s and my Slack contains numerous references to “Grandpa Joe” coming after Emily Yoshida two years ago for not bathing Extremely Wicked in saliva.

Eve noted just yesterday that Berlinger apparently has some difficulty departing his own navel when it comes to the docs that don’t get uniformly glowing reviews (read: give him a pass for unrigorous trash based on his (admittedly hall-of-fame) résumé — nearly all of which he listed for Sealey in that email). The director’s defensiveness, particularly around The Bundiana, is something we’ve discussed around here for two years, not least his ambivalent take on the genre itself — which, as we noted in a Slack discussion at the time we linked to that piece, seems rooted pretty strongly in sexist ideas of who true crime is “for” and resistance to the concept that subjects women are interested in are by definition unserious. We’ve done enough eyeroll-dot-gif material on Berlinger that I’m starting to think we’re next on his assful-of-buckshot list, although on the other hand, I’m that one critic who keeps bringing up Cold Blooded as an underrated limited-series gem, so maybe he doesn’t have to try to get my pretty little head screwed on straight. (Eve better look out, though!)

Into the middle of this flapdoodle stepped our esteemed colleague Margaret Howie — no, not by breaking into Berlinger’s home office and pouring an entire Coke Zero into his keyboard, although somebody who cares about Gramps should consider doing that, like immediately. Margaret actually sent us a link to The Ringer’s look at the legacy of the Paradise Lost trilogy, which premiered a quarter of a century ago (!!). Here’s a snip from the piece by Justin Sayles:

A spiritual successor to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, and a forerunner of more recent documentaries like Making a Murderer, the film stands today as the most affecting examination of one of the most studied legal cases in U.S. history—one that put heavy metal lyrics and black T-shirts on trial and helped lay the groundwork for the current thinking around false confessions. Paradise Lost also led to a famous citizen-activist campaign championing the release of the three teens that caught on at the dawn of the Internet Age and would eventually pull in Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and a who’s who of the rich and famous.

Sayles’s piece brought me back to seeing the film(s) for the first time; to going on the website and buying all the merch; to how I watched the Alford plea hearing live online, huddled on a couch with my brother, both of us teary-eyed; to how I saw the third film in the trilogy at Tribeca, years ago, and the West Memphis Three were present, and my man Joe Reid and I looked up to see Damien Echols on a balcony above us, and we pointed at him and burbled like we were seeing a meteor shower. The case became a part of my life, and the way it came into my life informs what I do in the true-crime-review part of my life to a significant extent — and Berlinger deserves credit for that, which I will happily give, and for many other achievements in the genre, which I will also happily give while encouraging him to think in a less retrograde way about what makes things “important.”

But seriously: boyfriend needs to get a paper journal for this petty shit* and start acting like he’s been here. It’s a bad, sad look for a guy whose accomplishments are sizable and real, and if he can’t start behaving with a modicum of grace, he’s going to undercut those accomplishments. — SDB

*any objection to classifying this subtype of petty shit as “Berlingerence” from here on out?

Leave a comment

Let’s hope this is the last Berlingitem for a while, and move on to some upcoming premieres of note!

  • The second season of the Chameleon podcast, High Rollers. Season 1 zoomed in on the so-called “Hollywood Con Queen” with Josh Dean and Vanessa Grigoriadis; for Season 2, Trevor Aaronson hosts a “stranger-than-fiction tale of a two-year FBI undercover sting in Las Vegas that went bust, with no one convicted of crimes,” so if you’re in the mood for some law-enforcement incompetence, this sounds like a story for you.

  • A Crime On The Bayou opens Friday. “Washington, D.C. attorney Richard Sobol stands up to a racist legal system to defend Gary Duncan, a Black teenager wrongfully accused of assaulting a boy in 1966 New Orleans.” Here’s the trailer:

  • Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer also hits Friday on NatGeo. The film “comes one hundred years from the two-day Tulsa Massacre in 1921 that led to the murder of hundreds of Black people and left thousands homeless and displaced. The film will premiere on National Geographic on Friday, June 18, at 9 p.m. ET/PT and will air globally in 172 countries and 43 languages. It will also be available to stream on Hulu the same day, commemorating Juneteenth, when the last enslaved Black people in Texas received news of their emancipation. 

    Award-winning Washington Post journalist and Oklahoma native DeNeen Brown is at the heart of the film, reporting on the search for a mass grave in her native state. Digging into the events that led to one of the worst episodes of racial violence in America's history, Brown reveals insights into racial conflict incidents that erupted in the early 20th century.” A couple reviews have gone live already; it looks like you’ll want to set your DVRs for this one.

  • And the first three episodes of Relentless hit Discovery+ Friday, June 28. The press materials make it sound like this could go either way: twisty and compelling, as we follow the story of the story; or overwrought and tiring, as we drum our fingers through a lot of shots of staring into the middle distance. Relentless “will follow Christina Fontana[’s] search for what happened to 21-year-old Christina Whittaker, who disappeared in the small town of Hannibal, Mo., leaving behind her 6-month-old daughter.

    Eight months later, Fontana met Whittaker’s mother, Cindy, when filming a documentary about the families of missing persons. Fontana was deeply moved by Cindy’s determination to find her daughter and turned her camera on Whittaker’s family.”

  • And that I’ll Be Gone In The Dark bonus episode drops next Monday; I’ll have a review of it next week. — SDB

I reviewed The Housewife and The Hustler on this week’s Extra Hot Great, and if you’re looking for a quick link to the Chris Murphy piece in Vanity Fair that I mentioned, you can find it here. The tl;dr version of my EHG segment is that, while the ABC News doc is pretty good, it tries to split the difference between using RHOBH star Erika Jayne as a lede, and really digging into the allegations against her recently-ex-husband, class-action maven Tom Girardi.

Alas, we recorded before the latest related news dropped, to wit: Erika Jayne’s lawyers have dropped her thanks to the Hulu doc. Well, so the Page Six headline claims, but the explainer is obliged to note that

While it is unclear what exactly went wrong, the lawyers said in their court documents that “the relationship of trust and confidence that is essential to a properly functioning attorney-client relationship has broken down and, in the good faith assessment of counsel, the relationship is irreparable.”

You mean a Housewife wasn’t forthright with her attorneys?? What a world.

Of course, by the time you read this, some bottom-feeder will have already replaced Dewey Cheatham & Howe— er, Dinsmore & Shohl LLP as EJG’s reps. We’ll see how far the new firm gets in trying to get the “Expensive” Housewife out of bankruptcy hot water. — SDB

What’s it like to go on the lam with an elephant? The Guardian’s Laura Spinney has a fantastic, tense longread on a circus family; the elephant they’ve worked and lived with for over forty years; and the standoff between local regulations vis-a-vis elephant fencing (…ikr?) and animal-rights activists led the family — including “Dumba” — to hit the road.

The piece moves from there into the circus background of Yvonne Kruse (above), plus advances in studies of animal cognition, and the perception of circus “husbandry” as cruel to the animals it employs — and what happens to the aging animal performers activists are trying to save.

William Kerwich, president of the French union representing animal trainers, insists no one is better qualified to care for an animal than the trainer who has known it all its life. He is deeply suspicious of the do-gooders who set up animal retirement homes paid for by donations from a public who, he suggests, have been duped into thinking that all circus folk are animal torturers. “If there were to be a ban – and we’re not there yet – it is out of the question that our animals should go to a sanctuary where there is no one competent to look after them,” he said.

If you’re worried that this ends badly, so was I — but the true-crime element is whether there is a crime here, according to European laws, and Dumba’s journey is just that. — SDB

Thursday on Best Evidence: Lester Holt and Airbnb.

What is this thing? This should help. Follow Best Evidence @bestevidencefyi on Twitter and Instagram. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.