The Blotter Presents 136: Lost Girls and All Good Things

Plus more "The Jinx," a Post/ID marriage, and more

…or, “Love Before The Time Of Coronavirus.” Hello again, B.E. readers; we’re back just in time with another 70 minutes of true-crime-review discussion with TBP Episode 136. Kevin Smokler kindly returned to talk about Netflix’s Lost Girls: is a 90-minute feature the best way to get arms around Robert Kolker’s story? Do all the performances match up in terms of commitment level? How might director Liz Garbus’s primary lane as a documentarian have affected how she built her scripted story?

Later, on what we thought would be the eve of the Robert Durst trial, we looked back at 2010’s extreeeemely thinly-veiled take on the Durst case(s), All Good Things. It’s a worthwhile primer with some career-best performances (and a couple of devastating line readings), but have events too far overtaken it for it to “matter” 10 years later? And who should have played “Durst” instead of Ryan Gosling, who’s good, but wrong at the same time?

“Bonus” “content” includes 1) the sound of brick drilling from next door (it’s like the Winchester House of demolition, this shit); 2) a delusional Spitz barking his head off downstairs; and 3) a bandwidth throttle making Kevin sound like he’s in a bathosphere for several minutes. I really apologize on behalf of the neighbors, Bear, and Skype, and I hope you’ll enjoy the episode anyway! Do me a favor and visit the episode sponsors, Best Fiends and Feals, so I can keep the lights on around here, and pay contributors — one of whom has a rec for you coming up right now! — SDB

Scottish podcast The Storyteller: Murder Most Foul uncovers the aftermath of a twenty-year-old murder and the trial of her killer.

The Crime

In 1999 the body of trainee nurse Melanie Sturton was found in her Aberdeen apartment, with her throat sliced open so deeply that her head was almost severed from her body. She’d been murdered on her doorstep in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The Story

Debut podcast The Storyteller: Murder Most Foul revisits the Sturton killing with the self-styled Storyteller of the title, Isla Traquair. Traquair has twenty years of history with the case, having covered it as a nineteen-year-old reporter who became friends with the victim’s mother. She’s also got impressive access to the police, forensics, and legal teams involved in the killer’s controversial trial. Good series have been made with less.

So it’s not a great sign when The Storyteller kicks off with a dictionary definition: “Murder. Noun. The unlawful killing of another.” Glad we’ve got that sorted.

Unfortunately this isn’t the last undergrad-padding-out-a-term-paper technique to appear. Ever hear of Scotland, “a country of mountain wilderness...lochs, rivers, castles, and some of the world’s finest whiskies”? Yes, because I’ve been to Scotland and picked up souvenir tins of fudge with the exact same description printed on them. Sturton’s death doesn’t need any of this fluff to be poignant — it was nasty, brutish, and random. No one had any obvious motive to end her life, and that’s what haunts both Traquair and Susan Patrick, Sturton’s mother. 

While her commentary is larded with clichés, Traquair’s a solid interviewer who does good accent-wrangling with the Doric Scots dialect that Susan and many of her subjects use. But as interesting as the case and resulting trial are, it’s the storytelling that lets this down. Traquair’s open about wanting emotional closure, but she’d’ve done better to edit more tightly. Lines like “let your imagination create an image” should have been left at the bottom of a loch. Instead, her hunt for resolution gets stretched out into too little that serves the memory of Melanie.

Worth your time?

Stick to the first seven episodes for quality procedural descriptions of a fascinating manhunt and trial, skip the eleven “bonuses” unless you’re a sucker for a Scots brogue. — Margaret Howie

Continuing with my vintage coverage of The Jinx today, it’s the second episode, in which I asked some Tinder Questions (not quite burning, but almost) on — including a couple that came up in Kevin’s and my discussion of All Good Things. Unsurprising given the shared director credit, I suppose.

[Content warning for discussion of suicide.]


Is the death of Durst's mother a reason to pity/excuse his later actions -- or just another means by which he manipulates people and situations?

Reasons aren't excuses, of course, but initially, I did find Durst's mother's suicide a pitiable event. It doesn't take him off the hook for anything, but if his father really did call him to the window to "wave to Mommy" when she was preparing to jump off the roof, everyone involved is a monster, and you can see why Durst might not have turned out functional. Even if Seymour didn't do that, it's a shocking loss in every way.

But it's hard to know what to believe Durst feels about it, or what actually happened. On the one hand, Durst's plaintive "get Mommy out of the box!", with a twinge of teariness in his voice, all these years later is wrenching...but on the other hand, it is all these years later, it is recommended for Durst to appear blighted by the events of his childhood in order for him to win a jury's/the public's sympathy, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that sociopaths can act. "Get Mommy out of the box!" is the kind of response I'd take SVU writers to the woodshed for putting in the mouth of a grade-schooler. It's just a little on the nose.

It's not uninteresting, though, because for my money, the most fascinating thing about Durst is how dumb I think he thinks everyone else is. More on that in a sec, but first, let's go back to on-the-nosiness for a moment...

Is anyone else finding some of the production design on the re-enactments intrusive?

Let me say first that I feel for the creators of true-crime projects vis-a-vis re-enactments, I really do. As cheesy (B-roll focus-pull shot of fluttering crime-scene tape, your table is ready) and predictable (see previous) and budge (Unsolved Mysteries aired, what, 195 seasons? And how many people from the thousands of re-enactments ever got famous? McConaughey. End of list) they usually are, you can't just not have them, or there's no point telling the story in a visual medium in the second place. This is why they show detectives busily typing, or Ken Burns that same homecoming photo of the victim 16 times; if they don't, literally nothing is happening except a Maureen Maher VO, and then it's functionally a podcast.

So I get it, and I sympathize with the position it puts producers and filmmakers in, that it's like umpiring, and the best you can do is not have anyone notice it either way. The Jinx's filmmakers make better decisions than most (not that that's saying much), and occasionally the same decisions as other projects based on the same lack of options (deliberately out-of-focus shots with action happening in the far background, a la Disappeared), but sometimes Jarecki and Smerling try too hard to register, as in the interminable shot of Bernice Durst slo-mo-ing towards the ground:

[there was a screenshot here, but…let’s just not — SDB]

Again, I understand the need to take up screentime, but your real subject is right in front of you; has shared family photos galore with you; and is a compelling enough case study that you don't really need to spread any more film school on it to keep our attention. Ditto the crescendo of music as Kathie is driving away from the party. We heard the line fine. Kathie told Gilberte to look into it if anything happened to her. Much of the rest of the hour is Gilberte...doing that. Ease up on the underlining.

Okay, now back to Durst thinking he's smarter than everyone.

Is he?

We discussed the idea on Extra Hot Great last week that Durst is extremely bright, in that way that's very impatient/can't really deal with lesser intellects, and therefore must have wanted to get caught when he shoplifted that hoagie. I still maintain that it's not that he wanted to get caught; it's that he assumes between his money and his savvy that he won't stay caught. And it seems he's not wrong.

I wonder, though. He says he had a drink with a neighbor; then he admits that's a lie. He says he called Kathie and spoke to her; then he says he didn't. His rationale for lying is that those particular lies would "put her in the city," and "they'll leave [him] alone now" -- meaning, I think, they'll take it seriously as a missing-persons case and get to work looking for Kathie. Because he can't have thought they'd "leave him alone" as a person of interest in her case, or that they wouldn't have figured out he was lying.

...Could he have? Did they, really, until the "junior detectives" got involved?

Because Detective Michael Struk just isn't going to admit, even with the benefit of hindsight, that he may have biffed it with the case, is he?

Struk doesn't see how a shovel might appear significant. He won't admit that the "inconsistencies" in Durst's story about the night Kathie vanished should perhaps have raised a red flag with him. He insists that without a corpse or a crime scene, "this is a missing persons case" -- when 1) that's a distinction without a difference, but 2) it's one Durst assumed you would draw when he maneuvered said case into the portfolio of the overwhelmed and difficult-to-impress NYPD instead of reporting her missing from Katonah.

I mean...Struk's retired. Durst is wearing civilian clothes in his interviews. You got outplayed, bro. Why not just admit it? Don't be that West Memphis 3 prosecutor guy who's still like "but it was a good case!"

Is Durst kind of hilarious, or is it me?

Jarecki's musing about Durst becoming part of the average American family as a result of marrying Kathie. Durst: "More like 'Bob is forced to spend time with the average American family.'"

His dismissal of his mother-in-law's attempts to bond with him over articles in Yankee magazine "about canning" about "not smart," really, because it's not the best look to shit on your former in-laws when you're the chief suspect in your former wife's death, or for a real-estate scion to not just imply but state outright that the 99 percent is not his thing.

But: I laughed, because Durst also admits that he doesn't get along with most people, nor they with him, so I don't think it's a class issue, so much as a misanthrope/real-talk-about-in-laws thing. Tactless, yet relatable.

This is how he gets you, though, I think. — SDB, 2/16/15

Do you have questions for Marcia Chatelain about her book, Franchise? Dr. Chatelain was on The Blotter Presents recently to discuss McMillion$, and I’ll be interviewing her about Franchise in a few days — so if y’all have questions for her, I’d love to include them! You can see what it’s all about here, and get yourself a Kindle copy here; send those questions to bunting at the-blotter dot com! — SDB

Did anyone watch Torn From The Headlines: New York Post Reports on ID on Monday? I’m deeply uninclined to give it a chance, The Post being…what it is, but the logline is as follows, per The Post’s own write-up:

The show will detail some of the city’s most dramatic true-crime stories from the perspective of the journalists who covered the cases.

“We have some of the best reporters around and no one covers a story like we do,” said New York Post Digital Editor-in-Chief Michelle Gotthelf, the show’s Executive Producer.

Strictly speaking, that’s true; this is the tabloid that brought us the legendary “Headless Body In Topless Bar” front-page hed. This is also a newspaper that is referring to the college-student subject of the premiere episode as a “co-ed,” like, when are we? The floridly named series seems like a minor variation on the “four minutes of already-distastefully-packaged content spread over 39 minutes” formula of the National Enquirer’s similarly icky TV project. Can any of y’all confirm? — SDB

I’d also love to know what the rest of you think about this Rebecca Solnit piece on Harvey Weinstein. Solnit is a formidable writer, but for starters, the fractured-fairytale diction that begins the piece is a little precious for my taste, the kind of thing a writer with less stature would have been talked out of. Of course, that’s wrapped into Solnit’s larger point about powerful men’s control of stories and the silencing of women and victims, but then there’s this segment:

I’m sick of the pretense of sympathetic interest in movies and books and the rest that murder women over and over, and too many native women are being murdered without adding a fictional murder to the spatter pattern. I see women die violently every day. I’m getting weary of it. Sometimes I take a screenshot of the front page of the Guardian and ask people how many items have to do with violence against women or men who have abused women, and sometimes it’s most of the lead stories.

Eve and I have wrestled with this…well, “take” is dismissive, so let’s call it an attitude, but it’s one we think about a lot, in Best Evidence and elsewhere: that most true crime is by definition complicit, that centering and discussion narratives of dead women normalizes them harmfully and desensitizes us just as harmfully. I won’t speak for Eve, but I don’t think that idea is entirely untrue or off base. It’s something I as a reviewer and we as consumers have to remain mindful of, and even though I’m sort of ancillary to “the industry” in what I do in/with it, you want to keep the line between “I’m doing my stated job with material that is culturally significant” and “I’m monetizing tragedy” bright and in sight.

…Y’all know all this, you think about it too. So I’m wondering how you are struck by phrases like “the pretense of sympathetic interest” in Solnit’s piece. I personally am trying to parse whether my knee-jerk “ hashtag not all true-crime commentators” initial response to it is a legitimate “weariness” of my own with essay-activism scolding on this topic…or it’s just defensiveness on my part. Like, interacting with this material is exhausting and sickening — but if I’m still exhausted and sickened, isn’t that part of the point, to get 100 watts on the creepy-crawlies? — SDB

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Thursday on Best Evidence: Eve’s one-star review of sheltering in place! …jk. Well, actually, maybe she IS doing that — but maybe it’s more of a 3.5? Tune in tomorrow and find out.

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