Weekly Watch & Read: The Damned United

When I latched onto Leeds United as my favorite team outside the United States I didn’t do it with any sense of the club’s history. Sure, I knew they’d been around a long time, but it was their then-current form that lured me in (and led to years of heartbreak – alas, that is the truth of the beautiful game). What I didn’t know at the time was that for about a decade leading up to my birth they were one of the, if not the, best team in England, winning the top division twice, the FA Cup once, and finishing runners up in both competitions several times between 1964 and 1974.

What I also didn’t realize was that they did so with a bit of a reputation. Think of the infamous Philadelphia Flyers team known as the “Broad Street Bullies” and you’re on the right track, except there were twice as many of them and at the time there was only one allowed substitute in soccer. Any injury often meant the other team playing a man down.

That Leeds team was the product of manager Don Revie who, after the 1973-1974 season ended, left the club to become manager of the England national team. His replacement, Brian Clough, was a former player who had worked wonders as a manager at Derby County, dragging the team up to the top flight and to the league title. One the one hand, it looked like following on from one brilliant manager to another.

On the other hand, well, that’s the story of The Damned United, first a novel by David Peace and then a movie, directed by Tom Hooper with Michael Sheen (current Wales national team hype man) as Clough. They cover Clough’s rocky 44-day stint at the helm of Leeds and the culture clash that led to his ultimate downfall. It’s never a good sign when the new boss comes in and declares that all your prior success was down to “cheating” and you were going to start winning the “right way” now that he’s here.

I saw the movie first around the time it came out, based more on the good reviews than any particular interest in the story itself. Sports movies tend to be built around cliches leading to the “big game” and, honestly, once you’ve seen a few what’s the point of another? What makes The Damned United so interesting is that it turns the cliche on its head – rather than being about a coach who pulls together a group of underperforming misfits into a team of winners, it’s about a team of winners slowly falling apart. Honestly, it would be a good case study for a management class or something, a cautionary tale of how someone so convinced of his own brilliance can get things so wrong.

The biggest difference between the movie and the book was Clough’s motivation and general attitude about all this. Both portray Clough as a supreme egotist, convinced that he’s right about everything related to soccer (Peace uses the word multiple times in the book, so back off) and everyone else is wrong. In the movie, this comes across as more hopeful delusion than anything else. He has a better way to play the game, one that prioritizes attack and frowns on the “dark arts,” and that’s what’s driving him. He wants to improve things, elevate them.

Novel Clough is, by contrast, a complete rage-driven asshole.  This is evident in the book because we’re entirely in Clough’s head, privy to all his thoughts and the loathing he has for just about everyone and every place. While his wife and children come out unscathed (though they’re press so far to the edges that he might as well have been a bachelor, for the book’s purposes), he even goes after his assistant manager/partner Peter Taylor, with whom he had already had (and would again have) great success. It’s unclear at points whether he really wants to reform Leeds or drive them into a ditch. Clough’s head is, for the most part, a frightening place to be.

To be fair, the novel gives Clough some basis for his anger, giving us more detail on his playing and prior managerial career than the movie does. Primarily, we get Clough’s bitterness at his playing career being cut short by a knee injury. I think movie Clough mentions his goal-scoring tally at one point, but book Clough returns to it again and again. It is impressive – 251 goals in 274 games – but comes with a major caveat: all but a handful of those came in the Second Division, making Clough sort of a Crash Davis of English football, without Crash’s recognition that records in a lower league don’t mean all that much.

The other pillar of novel Clough’s anger is his belief that he should be manager of the England national team. This makes his taking over Leeds all the more fraught, given that he thinks Revie doesn’t deserve the England job. It adds an additional layer to the way that Revie haunts Elland Road (Leeds’ stadium) after he’s gone, like a millstone ghost hung around Clough’s neck. That he goes so far as to destroy and burn Revie’s desk is extreme, but you can kind of see where he’s coming from.

Aside from that, the novel and movie tell the same story. I think the movie does it better, partly because I found Peace’s style – which makes copious use of repetition of words (usually in threes) – annoying. As usual, I consumed the book via audio and even with the narrator’s cadence giving it some life, it felt overdone, as if the book (not that long to begin with) could have been a third shorter without it. And I can see why Clough’s family was upset with both the book and movie. One review I read noted that the three main characters – Clough, Revie, and Leeds midfielder/captain Billy Bremner – were all dead at the time the book came out. You can’t libel the dead, after all. Another Leeds player, Johnny Giles, did win a libel lawsuit about the book, although given British libel laws I’m not sure how much that means about what is, after all, a work of fiction.

That said, I kind of wish both book and movie had an epilogue of some sort. If you weren’t a soccer fan you’d think that Clough crashed and burned at Leeds and that was it, his days of success over. In actuality, he went on to even greater heights afterwards, leading Nottingham Forrest to not one but two European Cups (what they call the Champions League these days), an amazing feat for a club that size. Never got to manage England, however.

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Weekly Watch: The Most Dangerous Animal of All

One of my favorite David Fincher movies (of which there are several) is Zodiac. What makes it work so well isn’t that it “solves” one of the most infamous cold cases in American history, but that it compellingly portrays how the obsession with trying to solve something that might not be solvable can ruin a person’s life. In the end, it becomes less a triumph of perseverance and grit than a pathetic throwing away of a life’s potential.

The four-episode documentary series The Most Dangerous Animal of All, adapted from a book of the same name, is an interesting companion piece to Zodiac, although I’d hesitate to call it perfect.

It’s about Gary Stewart, who was adopted as an infant into a loving family. For decades, he struggled with questions of his real identity and what it meant to be abandoned by his birth parents, so he started working to track them down. He found his birth mother easily enough and through her learned that his father was a guy named Earl Van Best, Jr.

Best was a bad dude at the time he met Stewart’s mother. And by “met” I really mean kidnapped, raped, and abused. He was 27 years old at the time, she was only 14. Their “love affair” even made headlines, allowing Stewart to get not just a feel for the circumstances of his birth but pictures and even some in-court film of his father when he was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced for his crimes.

All that was bad enough, but then Stewart, armed with a mugshot of his father, saw a documentary on the Zodiac killer and that iconic drawing of the suspect:

Stewart realized it looked a lot like his father. This sets him off on an odyssey to determine whether his father was, in fact, Zodiac and solve this coldest of cold cases. Through the first three of the four episodes, Stewart marshals his evidence and it sounds pretty compelling. He wrote the book upon which the series was based and then, well, it all went to shit.

What’s particularly interesting is, according to this article, said going to shit started happening while this documentary was in production. This left the creators in a pickle – how to deal with the evidence that seemed to show that Stewart’s argument that Best was Zodiac was full of shit? The way they handled it was to present, point by point, experts debunking each of Stewart’s claims – to him. Essentially, they made the documentary on one track, all the while building the case against Best as the Zodiac (culminating in records showing he wasn’t even in the United States when the Zodiac killings took place) on another, only bringing them together in the end.

The result is compellingly awkward. You might expect that Stewart, confronted with the evidence contradicting his theory (some of which implies he just made shit up), that Stewart would come clean or break down in some way, blame the stress of his quest for driving him down this particular rabbit hole. Instead, he steadfastly holds onto his conclusion that his birth father – who had nothing to do with raising him – is the Zodiac killer.

To what end? It’s not clear. Maybe it’s because Stewart is so desperate for a personal history, an identity that latching onto one that horrible is preferable to not having one at all. Maybe it’s that, if he’s going to be the offspring of a monster, anyway (which Best, by all evidence, was), might as well be the offspring of one of the most infamous (and unidentified) monsters of all time? Or, maybe it was all a grift, with Stewart coming up with a slick way to monetize his search into his background.

I don’t think it’s the last one. From the documentary it really appears that Stewart believes the story he’s trying to sell. Either of the others are heart wrenching, in their own way, and make you feel sorry for him. Which is what makes this series so compelling – come for the potential true crime bombshell, stay for the fascinating portrait of a man who is so wrapped up in the distant past that he can’t come to grips with the more recent version.

Weekly Watch: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Last year, in my review of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I laid out how I’m not really a fan of nu-Trek and was happy to let the rest of that series go on without me. What really dragged it down for me was that it didn’t feel very “Trekky” and it was too slavishly devoted to the modern streaming serialized storytelling ideal.

So along comes Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Another prequel (of sorts), but also a spinoff of something that occurred in a subsequence season of Discovery, Strange New Worlds gets us back on the Enterprise during the time it was commanded by Christopher Pike. Pike is well known to original Trek fans as the guy from the pilot (replaced by Kirk for the series), with said pilot being cut up for use in a later episode that reveals Pike to be horribly injured, but with great loyalty from Spock.

 Although I’m skeptical of prequels, I thought I’d give Strange New Worlds a shot, for a few reasons. First, since there’s not a lot out there on the pre-Kirk Enterprise, I figured there was some room to tell some cool stories. Second, given that this is the Enterprise we’re talking about here and the name of the show is Strange New Worlds, I hoped it would lean into the exploration angle more than Discovery did. Finally, what I read about the show suggested it was going to be less serialized and more “mission-of-the-week,” which, again, provided some room for good stories (and to not be stuck dealing with the aftereffects of bad ones).

I’m fairly happy with how Strange New Worlds met those expectations. The prequel part is the least successful, I feel. It’s one thing to have certain characters involved because we know they were there from original Trek (Spock & Chapel, mostly), but is there a particular reason the security chief has to be named Noonien-Singh?. And isn’t Kirk’s fight with the rubber-suited guy supposed to be first contact with the Gorn? Then there’s the final episode of the first season, which is a take on the original Trek episode “Balance of Terror” (the one where we first meet the Romulans), where Kirk himself shows up. There’s more of him promised for season two, as well, which makes me worry that the writers aren’t confident in the new stories they have to tell and will keep wrapping in known characters from the show as crutches. I won’t get into potential continuity issues with the original Trek stuff (it makes my head hurt) except to say, again, what’s the point of a prequel if it doesn’t lock in certain things about your world?

 All that said, most of the stories told in the first season of Strange New Worlds are really good, some inching towards great. As promised, the episodes do tend to stand alone, which provides a good variety of atmospheres (so to speak). “Children of the Comet” is a pretty cool culture clash story, with the do-gooders on the Enterprise confronted with religious dogma. “Spock Amok,” in addition to having fun body-switching, has a diplomatic plot that reminded me of something out of Babylon 5 (high praise from me). “The Elysian Kingdom” was probably my favorite, using a typical old-school Trek plot device (an energy being!) as an excuse to dress everybody up in fantasy garb to push to a really heart-wrenching ending (sort of). Then there’s the aforementioned “A Quality of Mercy,” which “what if?”s that classic Trek episode in a pretty satisfying way.

My only real beef is that the writers had a lot of issues with endings (I can sympathize – endings are hard). Take “The Elysian Kingdom,” for example, which looks like it’s going to end on a note of melancholy uncertainty as the ship’s doctor says goodbye to his ill daughter who is going to live with/as the nearby energy being. Rather than leave this unsettled – you think you do the best thing but how can you know? – the writers went ahead and threw in a little more to make sure of a happy ending. Not bad, but could have been better. There were a couple of other episodes that went the same way, headed towards really great but they couldn’t stick the landing. Or, alternately, they didn’t do more with it, as in the episode that was less a riff than a cover of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (should have started with that ending and explored what it means).

And I have to say that while these stories were mostly self contained, there was an overarching theme to the season in terms of characters, particularly Pike. Apparently, in the Discovery episodes that spawned Strange New Worlds, Pike learns his eventual fate as we’ve seen from original Trek (it’s unclear if he learned he’ll become a running joke on Futurama) and so in this season he’s trying to figure out if there’s a way around that end. That’s what triggers “A Quality of Mercy,” but Pike confronts it several other times during the season. It’s well done.

Which is to say, I’m cautiously optimistic about the second season. Given results thus far, I’m willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we won’t be overwhelmed by Kirks (Jim’s brother is on this ship, too, for some reason) and we’ll be introduced to more strange new worlds.

Weekly Watch: The Staircase(s)

A few weeks ago, in my list of favorite movies, I mentioned that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Murder On a Sunday Morning, went on to direct The Staircase, an epic (it eventually had 13 episodes) true-crime documentary about the death of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband, Michael. It is basically the urtext of the modern true-crime doc boom. So when I heard that someone had made a non-documentary miniseries not only about the Peterson case but about the documentary itself, I wondered whether this was something the world really needed. Having binged it over a weekend I’m still not sure it was necessary, but it certainly was interesting.

The base facts of the case are fairly simple – in December 2001, Peterson found his wife dead at the bottom of a set of stairs in their home. The scene of her death was seriously bloody, evidence of a violent and tormented death. Everything else is supremely complicated. Peterson was charged with murdering his wife and eventually convicted, but his trial was rife with prosecutorial misconduct and expert witness fraud, leading to the conviction being overturned. Rather than go through with a second trial and risk going back to prison, Peterson eventually entered what’s called an Alford plea to manslaughter, in which he did not admit responsibility for his wife’s death (the point of an Alford plea is to allow a defendant to get the benefit of pleading guilty while maintaining their innocence – admittedly, it’s counterintuitive).

Part of what made the documentary series so riveting is that Lestrade and his team basically embedded with Peterson, his defense team, and his family, providing the kind of in-the-moment access that most true-crime docs can only dream of. The crew initially had similar access to the prosecution team, but that waned as the case went on.

Given that the documentary was such an interior view of proceedings, what does the miniseries bring to the table that it couldn’t?

Primarily, it brings life to Kathleen Peterson, whose death hovers over the documentary but who isn’t given any chance to be developed as a person. The miniseries splits its timeline three ways, with one being events leading up to Kathleen’s death. It does a good job of bringing to life someone who tends to get overlooked in the whole true crime genre and Toni Collette does a great job with the part.

Another thing the miniseries gives us is a more in depth look at the Peterson family and how the trial impacted them. The way that family was put together would strain fiction – two sons from Peterson’s prior marriage, a daughter from Kathleen’s prior marriage, and two adopted daughters whose mother had died in Germany (at the bottom of a set of stairs, no less!). They pull apart in different ways as the miniseries goes on and lends a real sense of how a case like this grinds up everyone who is caught up in it.

Finally, the meta touch of the miniseries is that it includes the makers of the documentary in it as characters. With one notable exception this really isn’t commented upon that much, as in large part their presence is simply noted in the background as filming takes place. The exception – and it is a doozy – is that the editor of the documentary wound up in a multi-year romantic relationship with Peterson while he was in prison, casting her objectivity into doubt (she has issues with some of the facts portrayed in the series – and isn’t the only one – but doesn’t deny the relationship). I mean, it’s an “ooh, I didn’t know that” moment, but unless you think documentaries are rigorous exercises in balance the idea that the documentary had a POV (and it was that Peterson was innocent) doesn’t come as a shock.

But is he innocent? It’s here that I find the differences between the documentary and the miniseries have the most interesting effect.

As I said, the doc is largely framed through the trial itself and the ways the state’s case is shaky (and the doc doesn’t even include an entire state’s expert witness whose testimony was struck for perjury!). That plays into, at least in my criminal defense lawyer brain, the presumption of innocence. If it can’t be proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did it then he didn’t right? The Alford plea at the end of things is meaningless in this regard as the entire point is that it allows a defendant to take a deal while maintaining innocence. There’s a burden and the state didn’t meet it. Simple as that.

But the miniseries, perhaps because of its broader scope, leaves me less certain. I think it’s that in paring away a lot of the legal wrangling you’re left with there being, basically, two stories of what happened – one in which Peterson killed Kathleen for not particularly well explained reasons and one in which it was simply a horrible accident. Neither story accounts for all the physical evidence and the only person who knows the truth, Peterson, has issues with honesty. I still think, if I was on a civil jury, I’d find that he didn’t do it, but it would be a much closer question.

So back to the original question – did we need a fictional take on The Staircase (aside from the incredibly funny Trial and Error)? Probably not. In truth, the miniseries doesn’t shed any more light on the case or the people involved. It does allow for some dramatic speculation, however, about areas that were beyond the scope of the documentary. So necessary? No. Worth a watch? Absolutely.

Weekly Watch: Gaslit

I’m not going to say that finding a great story to tell is easy, but in some ways coming up with the story itself can be easier than figuring out the proper form to tell it.

I’ve been thinking about this as the wife and I have been watching Gaslit, the Starz series about Watergate that wrapped up this past weekend.

See, the thing about Gaslit – from its title to its marketing (as you can see above) – is that it promises a new angle on Watergate. It was supposed to be focused on Martha Mitchell, a political celebrity and wife of Nixon’s one-time Attorney General John Mitchell. She knew all about Watergate and told the truth about it, only to be destroyed privately and publicly by, among others, her husband.

That is a fascinating story, horribly relevant in the world of #MeToo, that would provide some interesting insight into the general Watergate story we’ve all see over and over again. Only it really isn’t. Instead, Martha’s story is buried in the mix, forced to share or cede time to a cast of characters we’ve seen before and about whom the show has little to say.

Take the penultimate episode, which splits time about equally with Martha’s testimony before the Watergate committee – behind closed doors, ambushed by accusation of mental illness – and the struggle of Gordon Liddy in prison to kill a rat. Really, is that what the series is about? It doesn’t help that every time Liddy opens his mouth it sounds like he’s just one step away from lapsing into Doctor Evil’s meat helmet speech.

In other words, there’s a pretty good movie struggling to escape from an eight-episode limited series. A tight two hours or so that trusts the audience to already know what Watergate is and focus on the relationship of the Mitchells (played well here by Julia Roberts and Sean Penn), how it pulls apart, and the effect that daring to tell the truth had on her. It’s particularly sad that we didn’t get that movie, given that we’re in the fiftieth anniversary year of Watergate and we’re going to get lots of other general retrospectives on the scandal, including the one currently on CNN featuring John Dean (who gets a goodly amount of screen time in Gaslit as a Porsche-driving climber who kind of lucks into doing the right thing, eventually).

It’s entirely possible that Gaslit was only ever supposed to be a big ensemble piece and the purported focus on Martha came later, which would explain why much of it is not her story. It’s also possible that the Martha story was what drove the creators, but the network guided into a more blown out story. Obviously, you can’t tell at this point.

What you can tell is that whatever Gaslit is, it’s not what it wants to be or purports to be. Which is a shame, because with the talent on screen it could have been so much more if it had been so much less.

2021 – My Year In Media

It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Books

In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).

The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.

In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).

The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.

As for things I got caught up on in 2021, a lot of it was historical, not fiction. I’ve recently written about The Invention of Murder and how interesting it was. Another bit of history I really enjoyed digging into was  The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom by James R. Green.

It covers the tumultuous history of labor organization in the WV coal fields, generally referred to as the Mine Wars. Very in depth, with lots of necessary background context, but also very readable.

I’d also  recommend  The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson.

It’s probably the most tragic thing I read last year, given that it tracks how the initial enthusiasm for fighting Communism curdled into dictator-propping-up realpolitk cynicism. Oh well.

Oh, and I read an awful lot about the history of the beautiful game.

Music

2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.

As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.

Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.

That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).

I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.

The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.

Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:

Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.

Television/Streaming

You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises  – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.

The poster child for this approach is Landscapers.

On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.

I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.

The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?

Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.

I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.

Finally, I’m giving a provisional shout out to Yellowjackets.

The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.

Movies

I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.

That’s it – on to the new year!

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.

Weekly Watch: The Beatles: Get Back

I am not the biggest fan of The Beatles in the world. Sure, I have every album from Rubber Soul on, but if push came to shove and was forced to save my favorite albums from a fire or something I doubt they’d make the cut. Still, when it was announced that Peter Jackson had cobbled together a multi-part documentary from the infamous Let It Be sessions, I was excited. With a long Thanksgiving weekend, it only made sense to dive in whole hog (or turkey, as it were). I’m glad I did, but I can see where other folks might not be able to push through it all.

It’s a Lot

“Multi-part” doesn’t quite do justice to just how much there is to digest in TB:GB. Each of the three parts is feature-length in its own right and they clock in at almost eight hours altogether. There are reasons for that – there was nearly 50 hours of footage to work with (and three times the amount of audio). In addition, I’ve read that Jackson added some footage once Disney decided the Blu-Ray release wouldn’t have any bonus features and he didn’t want the footage to disappear back into a vault for another few decades. All fine and good, but is it worth it?

It depends on whether you one of two kinds of people – or a third kind with a foot in both camps. The first is diehard fans of The Beatles who will absolutely want to spend all the time picking up on the minutiae of proceedings. The second are people who are interested in the creative process and seeing how the musical sausage gets made. I’m in the third group – I’m most interested in the sausage making and like The Beatles enough to wade through all the music they make in the process (I’d watch a similar, but much more brief, doc on, say Taylor Swift, even though I don’t really like her stuff).

If you’re not in one of those groups, you’ve probably got a better way to spend eight hours. That’s partly because given the fly-on-the-wall approach of this you really have to pay attention to what’s going on. Occasionally there’s text on screen to transition between scenes, but there’s no narration, no talking heads to guide you through what’s going on. You either jump in with both feet or don’t, in other words.

George On an Island

The dynamics of the band as they work are the most fascinating part of TB:GB. For all their troubles at this point, Paul and John and still a unit and tend to drive things (Paul, in particular). They’re not really the songwriting team they once were, but they help shape each other’s material in any case. The other two, well, they’re kind of odd men out. Ringo copes with all this by being Ringo, the most laid back man on the planet. It’s not for nothing that initially at the movie studio in Twickenham he’s on a riser, up and apart from the other three, and then at Apple studios he’s behind a sound barrier with his drums. His ability to let the bullshit pass him by while doing his job really well definitely says something.

George, sadly, doesn’t have the same personality make up, or whatever, that allows Ringo to go along and get along. He seems to be having a serious crisis of confidence through most of the sessions. Early on he brings up Eric Clapton and admiringly talks of his work with Cream, clearly feeling insufficient as a player by comparison (almost anybody would, right?). Later on he has trouble generating enthusiasm from the others for some of his songs, including “All Things Must Pass,” which would wind up as the title track on his first solo album.

It may have ever been thus, but by the time these sessions start the various stresses of the band clearly leave George out on his own most of the time. Which leads to . . .

George Quits

As I said, I’m not the biggest fan, but I did know that Ringo quit for a bit during the making of The White Album. I had no idea George did the same during these sessions. I can’t say I blame him, but two things really stood out about that.

First, it happened without any of the kind of drama or hysterics you might expect. He did not fling his guitar down. He didn’t kick over an amp. He didn’t curse anybody out, yell, scream, or otherwise make an ass of himself. George simply announced that he was leaving and then did. If you were writing drama I don’t know that you’d have a character do it that way, but it almost hits harder for being so low key.

Second, what happens next is, dare I say it, very Spinal Tappish? In that classic mockumentary, lead guitarist and founding member Nigel Tufnel storms off stage and quits the band. Asked the next day about his leaving, co-founder David St. Hubbins downplays it, noting just how many people have been in the band over the years (all those hapless drummers!). When confronted that surely Nigel leaving is different, David eventually admits that he might feel different if he wasn’t sedated.

Part two of TB:GB begins with the band dealing with George’s absence and, at least initially, it’s no big deal. There’s no talk of the band being over. There’s no real talk, even, of stopping the sessions. Things are paused, somewhat, while George is talked back into the fold, but that’s about it. There’s talk of potential replacements, even! No wonder George walked out.

Sparks of Genius

One thing that really comes out of TB:GB is that, even for some of the most lauded songwriters of their generation, writing songs is hard work. There’s slog, there’s false starts, there’s struggle (as a recently departed genius wrote, “art isn’t easy”). As a creative person who often struggles with writing (and music making) it’s encouraging to see that even these guys have a hard time with it.

That said, there are some amazing moments where sparks of genius emerge from almost nothing. Most notably is the genesis of “Get Back” itself. A recurring theme of the Twickenham sessions is that John (with Yoko in tow) is almost always late, leaving the others to fart around waiting. On one of those mornings Paul is absent-mindedly strumming his bass when all of a sudden the opening riff of “Get Back” emerges. It takes hours of work (in documentary time) to actually get the final song out (at one point it takes a diversion into being a protest song about racism and xenophobia in the UK), but the nugget of it comes out of nowhere. It’s very cool to see those things happen.

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Live Show

The original plan for what became Let It Be was for the band to get together to write and rehearse new material (while being filmed for a documentary) which would be the basis for a new album and a live concert. The band hadn’t played live in a few years, so anticipation was high for that, at least outside the band. The band never seemed on board and one of the more amusing themes of TB:GB is how the live concert element continues to morph until it winds up with the famous concert on top of the Apple Corps building.

The plan that made the most sense was to build a set at the film studio and bring a live audience in, but nobody is really that interested in that (they’d done it before). One of the band’s handlers suggests doing the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, but it would take a few more years for Pink Floyd to get there (basically). A sub idea of that was to bring the audience with them on cruise ships to that venue, which nobody in the band is up for. Apparently the only thing worse than being cooped up with their fellow Beatles would be being stuck on a boat with loads of fans. Given that various music cruises are a thing these days (or were, before COVID) I wonder what the artists involve really think of those.

What a Live Show!

Of course they did wind up putting on a show, on the roof of the Apple Corps building in downtown London. If I remember correctly, Paul actual floats this idea early on, but it’s waved away while they consider more traditional alternatives (Paul, in general, is the driving force to have all this wind up being something other than just an another album). We get all of it, which is both great and a little bit of a grind – they only do a few tracks and take multiple takes of most. That said, several of those takes are what make it onto Let It Be in the end, so it’s cool to get them in all their glory.

The dynamic of the band through the sessions really comes into sharp relief up on the roof. John and Paul come alive on stage and are having a blast. George is more subdued, like rocking out on a cold, windy rooftop isn’t the best idea. Ringo just does what he does, unflappable behind the drums.

A word here about the fifth Beatle for this show, keyboardist Billy Preston. He’d met the band way back in their Hamburg days and dropped in the sessions in London just to say “hi.” He wound up drafted in to playing electric piano and organ (and goofing around with a Stylophone!), fleshing out the band’s sound, dedicated as they were to doing it all live. It’s after he arrives that things really get more focused and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that he’s the real hero here.

Another word about the baddies of the piece – the cops who come to shut everything down. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered if Monty Python sketches were too hard on British cops and authority figures, exaggerating for comedic effect, this footage convinced me they weren’t. The cops couldn’t have been more wet blankets if they had been played by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. There’s even a pepper pot who complains on the street! Life imitating art (or vice versa) and all that.

It Just Ends

This is an odd thing to say about an eight-hour long documentary, but it really just ends, without wrapping up stuff very well. After the concert on the roof there’s some brief footage of folks listening back to the recordings the film rolls credits, over which some more footage of the last of the studio recording takes place. It’s an odd choice that, among other things, leaves us without a full take of “Let It Be.”

Beyond that, given that the film is about the creation of these songs, it’s odd not to have a post-script about the actual release of the album. Or about how they went back into the studio almost immediately to work on what became Abbey Road (several songs from that album pop up during these sessions). Or about how Phil Spector got a hold of Let It Be and glooped his production onto it. Or . . ..

I get it – you got to stop sometime and that’s when the footage ran out. Still, given that there’s a little “how we got here” prologue for the band’s history a similar epilogue would have made sense.

Get Back, Jo

As I said, if you’re a Beatles fan or interested in seeing music get made, from the ground up, this is well worth your time. Otherwise, probably not. I’m glad it’s here and I’m glad I had the time to work through it. I don’t think I’ll add the Blu-Ray to my collection, though.

Weekly Read & Watch: Eight Men Out

I’m not a baseball fan. I don’t hate it – life’s too short to get worked up about other peoples’ pastimes – but it doesn’t engage me. It might be odd, then, that one of my favorite movies is Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ exploration of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when a group of Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series.

Of course, what makes the movie work so well is that it isn’t really a baseball movie. It’s a movie about labor relations, in which the ballplayers are exploited at first by the club’s owner, Charles Comiskey, and then by unscrupulous gamblers who don’t even pay the players what they’re supposed to. I won’t say the baseball stuff is secondary (there’s a good deal of on-field action), but it’s definitely used in service to something other than your traditional sports movie narrative.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Eliot Asinof that was first published in 1963.

I only just got around to reading the book itself, which is an interesting contrast to the movie. They tell the same story, but there are some interesting differences that arise from Sayles really driving home the political point of view he’s coming from.

What the book does better than the film, since it has more time to cover the story, is provide more context to what happened in 1919. For one thing, while the movie presents the Black Sox scandal as almost sui generis – a huge breach of sporting life – it turns out the gambling-related scandals were pretty common in baseball at the time. Granted, they hadn’t gotten up to the level of the World Series, but in truth this was the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than a singular incident. Indeed, one of the earlier scandals involved the Sox’s opponents in the World Series – the Cincinnati Reds.

The book also provides more context for what is alleged to be the prime driver of the players’ interest in the fix – that Comiskey was a particularly miserly owner. The movie moves a couple of incidents (involving avoiding paying bonuses) from 1917 to 1919 to help drive this home. While the book argues that Comiskey was a tight wad, it also shows that the rest of the owners weren’t much better. In the days of the reserve clause, where free agency didn’t exist and players were forced to play for basically whatever wages the owners offered, it was easy to be a tightwad. There’s also attention given to contract terms that allowed players to be fired with 10-days notice for just about anything (including getting injured), but they had no similar right to walk away. It’s not as if your best player could fuck off to another team when their contract was up. More than that, given that the country was just coming out of World War I there was a rational (if not completely honest) basis for owners to worry more about money. Being a professional baseball player then wasn’t much better than being a professional women’s soccer player is these days, complete with the side hustles. The movie focusing on salaries makes that easier to convey in a dramatic narrative of just about two hours.

For all that context there’s one area where I wish the book would have provided a little bit more. Having read the book I’m still not sure where gambling fit into society at the time of the 1919 World Series. The gamblers involved in this story are all pretty sleazy characters with connections to organized crime, but gambling itself seemed to be much more open and notorious than it would be in later years. There’s a recurring motif of entertainer George M. Cohan being close to the fix (although not involved) due to gambling that makes it seem not quite illegal – but maybe not quite legal, either? I’d be interested to know what society thought of gambling back then as a way to help explain the reaction to the fix.

The book also dives deeper into the aftermath of the series and the eventual exposure of the fix. The movie keeps a tight point of view on the players, while the book follows the journalists and lawyers who probed the series and the gambling that surrounded it (Sayles compresses most of this into a jazz-fueled montage). In particular, I appreciated the details on how journalist Hugh Fullerton (played by Studs Terkel who, along with Sayles himself as Ring Lardner, act as kind of a Greek chorus throughout) was roundly vilified for daring to suggest that something wasn’t on the level. History proved him right, of course, but that might have been cold consolation.

As for the lawyers – well, if baseball came out of the entire scandal with a damaged reputation, my profession didn’t exactly cover itself in glory. Some of the more melodramatic parts of the movie – grand jury testimony being stolen, outbursts in the courtroom – weren’t added for dramatic effect, it seems. At the eventual criminal trial (where everyone, players and gamblers both, were acquitted) the players were represented by lawyers paid by Comiskey who were more interested in letting baseball (with its new, all powerful, commissioner) deal with the matter than the courts. But my favorite bit of lawyerdom in the movie is when Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge named the first baseball commissioner, takes the job for significantly more pay than being a judge – but keeps his seat on the bench, anyway.

Where the book and movie differ most importantly is when it comes to the genesis of the fix itself. In the book it’s clear that the fix began with the players, who reached out to gamblers about the possibility of fixing the series. The film is a bit more vague. The conversation where it’s first broached by Chick Gandil and gambler Sport Sullivan starts kind of in medias res, with no real indication of who made the first pitch (so to speak). I think it lets Sayles maintain his exploitation narrative without sullying the players too much.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to consider that the Sayles movie is a narrative work of fiction, not history, and the Asinof book is now nearly six decades old. As compiled by the Society for Baseball Research, more recent evidence has emerged that cast some doubts over the story told in Eight Men Out. In particular, maybe Comiskey wasn’t the miser he’s been portrayed as being, although that doesn’t much matter in the end. The book, to a lesser extent than the film, is telling this story from the players’ perspectives and whether their complaints with Comiskey were valid in a wider context doesn’t mean they still weren’t motivated by them.

None of this makes the any less engrossing or means it can’t get at broader truths about America and its economic life. There’s truthiness to it, if not absolute truth. Just means it’s history, which is ever changing upon further evaluation.

Weekly Watch: The Suicide Squad

Fair warning – I’ve never been much of a superhero comic book reader. I read other kinds of stories in that graphic novel format, but something about the endless nature of most superhero titles – they go on forever, double back upon themselves, have alternate versions – makes them impenetrable. Aside from a few Batman titles I read in college, thanks to my roommate, I’ve not really dug into them. Comic book movies, on the other hand, I’ve consumed quite a bit and enjoy. That’s largely due to my wife, who, shortly after we started dating, informed me I had to be up to date on the X-Men movies so we could see the new one the weekend it came out.

Which is to say that all I know of the Suicide Squad (as opposed to The Suicide Squad – the article is important, just like that university in Columbus) is what I’ve seen on screen. What I’ve seen so far isn’t that great.

The first movie (from all the way back in 2016), simply called Suicide Squad, was a mess, going down in flames financially and getting destroyed by critics. I didn’t think it was horrible, but it wasn’t that good. It did get the basic point across, though – the Suicide Squad are a collection of super villains who do special, super dangerous missions for the US government on the promise of getting their sentences cut. Makes sense as the basis for a story about a group of bad guys, right?

The Suicide Squad kind of picks up where Suicide Squad left off, but only enough to get by. There are a handful of carryover characters, but lots of new ones and a new creative team to bring it all to life. Or death, really, since there is an awful lot of blood and gore in this movie. It’s of the “so awful it’s funny” type – kind of like Sam Peckinpah as filtered through Monty Python – but it wears thin pretty fast.

Aside from the gore, there’s lots of crass humor. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – some of it works really well. There’s a discussion between Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and John Cena’s Peacemaker about a particular juvenile insult that spirals into the absurdity of it so far it’s funny. Likewise, when another character says he can only kill if he pictures the target as his mother, that becomes a callback that goes from funny, to not funny, to funny again through sheer repetition.

But there’s not enough of that to go around, particularly for a movie that’s over two hours long. There are other quibbles, too. There’s a kind of bait and switch that happens at the beginning that is apparently hilarious if you’re familiar with the Suicide Squad comics, but if you’re not doesn’t make a lot of sense. Harley Quinn, who’s the most interesting character here (the only one with her own movie to build on), seems like an afterthought, off on her own for most of the time. And while there are some stabs at character development here and there, they’re pretty weak (the motivation for Bloodsport to do all this is laughably badly done).

But where things really go wrong is when the Big Bad shows up. The Squad’s mission is to take out a Nazi-spawned research facility in a fictional South American country. Run by Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker (picture his The Thick of It character sprouting vacuum tubes from his head – at least he gets to keep the cursing!) it actually holds a deep dark secret that the US doesn’t want the world to know about. Fine – it’s not like there isn’t some basis for that in the real world.

But the Big Bad secret is . . . a giant alien starfish? That kills people and controls their bodies by slapping tiny versions of itself over its face? Maybe that works in the pages of a comic, but on the big(ish) screen, it looks ludicrous. It would be a low-level Dr. Who baddie, at best. As the existential threat in a movie it just doesn’t work.

I’d be willing to look past that (I think) if the way the movie ended made any sense for the characters involved. Remember, these are super villains – largely killers – who are so dangerous they’re expendable. Yet, when the oversized aquarium dweller toddles off to destroy this imaginary country and the boss (Viola Davis, who is probably the scariest of them all) calls them home – they all turn into big damned heroes! That’s right, a movie about super VILLAINS ends just the same way as one about super HEROES! What’s so frustrating is they could have reached the same end (a big CGI-fueled battle with lots of collateral damage) and dealt with the “aren’t we the baddies?” issue quite easily, but instead it’s just lazy writing to get to the big finale. The great promise of something like the Suicide Squad in general or The Suicide Squad specifically is that it’s a great chance to take the superhero story conventions and turn them on their heads. These characters aren’t self-sacrificing do-gooders, after all. They’re not out to uphold truth, justice, and the American way (well, the first two, at least). They’re killers, they’re criminals, they’re immoral (or at least amoral) psychopaths. So why fit them into the heroic straight jacket? Have the confidence of you convictions and make them the sleazeballs they’re supposed to be. That’d be more interesting, at least.