Wednesday, October 12, 2016
1:46 AM |
Women in Peril: The Witness
Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in
Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.
Here is a documentary that runs like an unconventional horror movie of the true crime variety -- with a coda in the end that horrifies and curdles the senses for its depiction of the desperate reach we sometimes have to do to grasp the “closure” we think we deserve. It springs from a murder that has now become almost mythological -- partly sociological parable and partly urban legend.
In 1964, a young woman by the name of Kitty Genovese came home from her work as manager in a neighbourhood bar in Queens, New York when she was accosted by a man named Winston Moseley. She is our woman in peril for this series. Moseley knifed her in the open air, along the quiet sidewalk only a corner way from her apartment. Her terrified screams for help alerted several people in the neighbourhood, and she frightened her assailant just enough that he immediately walked away. Bloodied, she carried on slowly towards the front door of her apartment building -- only to find that the assailant had come back to rape her and finally finish her off. According to the newspaper accounts at that time, with the venerable New York Times leading the charge in reporting, about 38 people heard her scream and watched her die, and did nothing, most of them reporting later on the same mantra: “I didn’t want to get involved.”
The news story proved a sensation
, spurred people into action, and seized the wider cultural imagination: it has since given birth to the term “bystander syndrome,” which describes the apathy of people in stopping a crime they’re witnessing, and also allowed the installation of the 911 system of calling the police.
But James D. Solomon’s The Witness
(2015) is more than just mere true crime sensational retelling. For me, at its basic level, the film is a thorough and powerful examination of the subconscious biases we bring and even nurture in order to tell the stories we need to tell
. Its title then is a perfect capsule of its [unintended?] theme: we are only witnesses to the truth we are comfortable with, and from that springs our versions of the tale.
Ostensibly, the documentary follows the investigations of Kitty Genovese’s younger brother Bill, who was closest to his sister and was a very young boy when she was murdered. Now much older, legless, and ambling around in a wheelchair, he feels a consuming need to find out what exactly happened that fateful night on March 13, 1964. Did 38 people really turn away as his sister was being assaulted? What explains this psychologically? All his life, this murder and this knowledge of what was now being called “bystander syndrome” have singularly defined every choice he has made -- including signing up for the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War. In a culture where young men like him were finding ways to shirk from the war, he had volunteered -- because he didn’t want to become one of those “38.”
And yet the questions remained, and his family was not much help either: Kitty’s death also murdered her memory within the family itself, with most of its members having since refused to talk about her, preferring instead the comfortable silence. Perfectly understandable, given that the murder totally devastated everyone, leading soon to the deaths by stroke of Kitty’s mother and then father. As a much-younger niece recounts in the film: “I first read about the story in my high school class. I was deep into reading it when I finally realised it was actually about my aunt.”
Thus begins Bill’s decades-long investigation: first, he pursued leads and compiled the names of the 38 witnesses, and interviewed those willing to meet with him. Many of them had since died, complicating the filling out of the narrative, but for some of those who are still alive, a significant detail soon comes out from their telling of what they remember: some of the witnesses actually did try to help, and some actually called the police.
version of the story then is the newspaper version, as well as the prosecutor’s version: that 38 saw and did not help.
But now a second
version comes out: only a very few of the 38 saw the assault, most only heard screams, and almost all did not know a murder was being committed.
Bill tracks down the legendary journalist Abe Rosenthal, who was City Editor of the Times
who had given the green light to publish what was now clearly erroneous reporting. The third
version of the story now emerges. In hindsight, for Rosenthal, the details of the report were flawed and not entirely factual, but he insists on the “power” of the story: it is now a story discussed in classes, in books, in films. Its implications have become important sociological theory which has in turn done much good, including the implementation of 911 and the better policing of tough neighbourhoods.
But for other critics, there is a fourth
version of the story, a shadow narrative of Rosenthal’s insistent one: Kitty’s murder and the 38 have became a metaphor for “big city indifference,” for the soullessness of metropolitan living. It transformed New York into a dangerous place of the imagination.
The inconsistencies in the original reporting leads Bill to find out that his sister was not a “bar maid” as reported, but actually the bar manager -- and then he stumbles on Kitty’s secret life as a lesbian. He tracks down an old lover, and from her he gets his fifth
version of the story: about young women in the closet in 1960s America, and the perils of having to identify the body of a murdered secret lover.
Further in his investigation, Bill finds his interest slowly leading to the murderer himself. Upon arrest on an unrelated case of robbery, Winston Moseley had confessed to police about an earlier murder of another woman, and later on also the murder of Kitty Genovese, which was brought about apparently by another psychopathic hankering to randomly kill another woman. That’s the sixth
version of the story: the original confession of the killer.
version came some years later: in an earlier bid for parole [since denied], Moseley wrote an editorial for the Times where he proclaimed himself reformed, and now ready to become “an asset to society.” This is no longer the story of Kitty Genovese but the story of a poor man who had lost his way, and now was ready to make amends to the world.
Bill approaches prison authorities to arrange a meeting with the convicted murderer. Later on he learns that Moseley has denied the request, feeling that the media has already “exploited” him much too much for a good number of years; being filmed in conversation for a documentary with the brother of the woman he had killed was not something he wanted to do.
Undaunted, Bill seeks out Moseley’s grown-up son, now apparently a minister. The conversation that happens is fraught with tension, and here an eighth
version of the story comes out: the son obliquely accuses Bill Genovese of belonging to an Italian crime family [not true], and tells him that his father Winston had suggested that Kitty had been killed because she had verbally attacked him, calling him racist epithets, and he had snapped.
Later, learning that Bill had talked to his son, Winston finally writes him from prison, and in the letter, a ninth
version of the story comes out: Winston now claims he never killed Kitty, that he was just the getaway driver for the true murderer who had warned him never to tell the real story.
Bill Genovese responds with what for me is the truest line in the documentary: “It’s kind of like the human condition,” he wearily tells his wife who read the letter with him. “One believes their own bullshit in evolving stories.”
Now fully cognisant of the fact that he can never really truly get to the truth, he turns to one device that makes the film a perfect real-life turn for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: he stages a “reenactment” of the crime in the very neighbourhood his sister was killed. He requests a friend, a young woman, to go to the Kew Gardens neighbourhood with him, and in the exact locations of the unfolding of that 1964 murder, he instructs her to do the exact same screams.
From the opposite side of the road, Bill becomes the titular witness -- the young woman follows Kitty’s haunted footsteps, how she had walked from the nearby parking lot where Kitty had parked her car, on to the sidewalk where she first encountered the shadowy form of Winston Moseley, on to the first screams she made upon being knifed, on to the pained walk she struggled through as she sought her apartment building door after the assailant had run away, on to the second screams she made when she found out he had come back to finish her off. The screams curdle as the night wears on.
Are we witnessing catharsis for Bill? Did the reenactment give him the closure he needed? The tenth
and final version of the story, after all, is the personal legacy of that night, and it involved him: in not wanting to become one of the “38,” he had gone to Vietnam, and in the middle of the hell of that senseless war, he became seriously injured and he lost his legs.
In the end, he confesses to the futility of his obsession to find out the truth of that night. There is no truth, only versions of the “truth,” and every witness has a bias to skew it for a story that best fits them.
And so, in the light of the tumult in our ongoing political tribulation that seems to have no end, we must remember that we have accused everyone of bias -- particularly the media. Is media biased? Of course it is; to tell a good story it can sell. But then so is everyone, including you. We all trumpet the story we want to hear because we love the smell of our own bullshit.
And everything in the world, in fact, is bullshit.
Labels: documentaries, film, issues, media, politics, psychology, sociology, true crime
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