Monday, January 18, 2016

Press 2 To Exonerate: The Hazy Line of Reality vs. Fiction

Like most of the population, I watched Netflix's docuseries Making A Murderer on a binge, staying up too late three days in a row, debating evidence with friends and co-workers, and volleying Facebook messages back and forth with something approaching warmth when the person on the other end failed to see my point. Avery's guilt or innocence aside - because at this point the waters are so muddied I don't know what to think - the magnitude of people who are incensed by the series has led me into some dark arenas of thought.

When I learned that a Change.org petition had received over 300k signatures (most recent count: 450k), and that a (separate) petition asking the White House to pardon Avery amassed over 130k, I said to a friend that while the series raised a lot of questions for me, I'm not going to put my name on anything.

Here's why.

I think the filmmakers did an excellent job putting together a masterful narrative, with pacing that is spot on. However, I don't think their claim of neutrality is feasible. Without wandering into details that would derail this into yet another post about Avery's guilt or innocence, I'll only say that as a fellow creative I understand how lighting, positioning, and framing are influencing the viewer subconsciously. A well shot B-roll with the right score cueing up can sway a person one way or another, and while many of us are aware of that - how many more aren't?

What bothers me much more than the details of one particular case is this - what comes next? The entertainment industry has learned that true crime is a huge money maker, and almost half a million armchair detectives were created in one month - and those are just the ones that put their names on paper. If a well executed documentary can open the possibility of freeing a man from prison without all the facts, how far are we from phoning in to exonerate (or hey, let's go there - execute) our favorite accused instead of voting up our favorite singer?

The more than decade-long popularity of reality shows has raised a generation that enjoys seeing real people in real situations - and it's culminating in a world where one such former star is running for President, and public opinion holds real sway in a murder case.

Reality is a twistable thing, especially in the hands of those who know how to manipulate it. It's possible to report facts - which are stubborn things - and still maintain a bias, and it's equally impossible to find news that is imparted without bias. Colorful stories and people will get the most coverage to ensure ratings, spawning recognition, which in turn creates a manufactured popularity.

And in our culture, popularity equals power.

We've all been brought up in this soup, and it's my opinion that many of us can't differentiate between reality and a skillfully processed fiction anymore. In fact, a recent news story (content warning: don't click unless you have a strong stomach) about a cruise line employee who was crushed to death in an elevator shaft drove home to me the flip side: fiction provides a comfortable escape when reality proves too much... yet it also devalues the event itself.

The vacationers who discovered the grisly scene on board the ship described it as "a real life scene from The Shining," the pop culture reference safely dropping the fourth wall to distance the audience from what it was seeing. Likewise, many eyewitness of the 9/11 attacks described that day "like a movie," comparing it to Die HardArmageddeon and Independence Day.

I don't blame any of these eyewitnesses for retreating into the language of fantasy to describe something as horrific as these events, and I completely understand the inability of minds unfamiliar with horrific violence to process it. When fiction is our only frame of reference for such occurrences it is to be expected that we will use such vocabulary. But it opens up the door to the substitution of entertainment for truth, and it seeps into our everyday processing.

In the above video concerning the cruise ship death, one observer can be heard saying, "No, that can't be right! No, that's not possible!" I often find myself saying similar things as reality plays out around me, a statement of denial that instead infers that the speaker truly understands what has occurred, and simply cannot believe it.

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