Thursday, October 27, 2005

True crime and philosophy 101 make filthy love in the fissures of my brain...

Yesterday I saw the documentary The Thin Blue Line. It
gave me a lot to think about. On one level, there is the case
the film dissects, which is fascinating in itself. Beyond this,
however, there is the provocative attitude the film-makers
take towards their work. Here we can see, I think, the idea
of a documentary as an active argument coming into its
maturity. Put simply, the director has a definite point of
view and he uses the tools his medium offers him to put it
across. There is nothing novel in this, of course–several
anti-Vietnam war films and a couple of experimental
French/Italian works had already taken this tack–but, with
this film, the approach attains a new legitimacy and eff-
ectiveness. The strategy is risky–artificial elements (re-
enactments, artsy shots, Philip Glass music) are abundant,
contrary opinions are downplayed, and the director’s
biases are obvious. In spite of this or because of it, the
film works beautifully and its method is, in the end, more
than justified.

The movie concerns the murder of a police officer in Dallas
in the mid-1970s. The two people involved in the crime are
Randall Adams, a drifter in his late 20s, and David Harris, a
teenage delinquent. On the day in question, Harris has come
from his small town to Dallas in a stolen car, where he picks
up Adams, who has been hitchhiking after running out of
gas. The two then share an aimless evening, drinking beer,
smoking weed, and watching T&A movies at the drive-in.
Somewhere after the second feature, their accounts diverge.
Adams claims that he drove back to his dumpy motel, where
he then refused to let Harris stay with him. After Harris
drove off alone, he returned to his room, watched the end
of the "Carol Burnett Show" and went to bed. Harris’ story,
however, places the two of them on a seedy street two hours
later. Adams is at the wheel, driving without the headlights
on. A police cruiser flashes its lights and pulls them over.
Just as the cop reachers the driver’s-side window, Harris’
testimony goes, Adams brings out a .22 caliber pistol and
shoots the officer five times before speeding away into the

There are, as one might guess, problems with this version
of events, even though it–when buttressed by a couple
questionable witnesses and hammered home by a zealous
prosecutor–was sufficient to convict Adams of capital mur-
der. Apparently, "I was sleeping" isn’t the sort of alibi to
move a jury, even if it was most likely the truth. Because
of various pre-trial motions, they never heard about
Harris’ criminal record, which was prodigious for a 16
year old and the defense failed in its attempts to impeach
the credibility of the state’s witnesses, all of whom were
weird and all of whom claim to have seen a man resemb-
ling Adams in the driver’s seat shortly before the killing.

The film-makers are not bound by the rules of a Texas
courtroom and this liberty allows them to bring much to
light. The wider jury in the theaters was able to see Harris’
hometown friends marvel at his consciencelessness after
mentioning how he went around bragging that he had
killed a cop. We get to watch the prosecution witnesses
make asses of themselves in front of the camera and we
are encouraged to speculate that they fingered Adams
for reasons other than civic-mindedness and honesty.
Throughout all this, we get long interviews with the prin-
cipals, both of whom were in prison when the film was
made. The men are fairly articulate and they both, in
their own way, make compelling talking heads. Adams,
with his slow drawl, comes off as a reasonable fellow,
even when his bafflement gives way to anger. He is
convincing, sure, but it is clear that he wants to con-
vince. As his story progresses, it seems obvious that he
has said these things many times before, to many diff-
erent people. As sympathetic as he seems, I couldn’t
escape the suspicion that he might be an accomplished
manipulator going through a well-oiled routine, not an
innocent man caught in one of justice’s blind alleys.

These concerns are gradually calmed as we hear more
and more from Harris, whose fleeting smiles for the
camera become only more common as we learn of his
violent streak. Since the policeman’s killing, he has been
in and out of jail and the military, and he eventually
commits a string of aborted sex crimes before killing a
man in the process of abducting his girlfriend. He is, to
say the least, a creepy character, but the audience sees
flashes of the polite, down-south charm that made his
arresting officers so fond of him. He never seems to lie,
he just says things in such a way that there’s no need
for him to tell the truth. This leads us to the final scene,
which is one of the most chilling I have ever seen: as the
camera shows a small, dictaphone recorder, a tape of
Harris’ last interview with the director is played. On it,
Harris comes within millimeters of confessing the police-
man’s murder but never quite comes right out and ad-
mits it. By neither denying nor accepting guilt, it be-
comes obvious that Harris is enjoying the attention
and milking it for all its worth. But without his cheer-
ful smirk to diffuse his menace, the audience is able
to glimpse the man’s true nature. In his bland twang,
he tells us that the murder and its aftermath might be
all about Adams not letting him stay the night at his
hotel. The director’s carefully arranged and detailed
case is driven home here: we realize that we are listen-
ing to the voice of a man who could kill a policeman in
cold blood and then arrange for another man to go to
the electric chair in his place.

And, of course, the movie was eventually proven correct.
Following its release, Harris did finally confess to killing
the police officer and Adams was released. Last year,
Harris was executed. The movie that made these real-
life endings possible drew strength from the innovations
of its style and the passion behind its position, but since
then it has become important largely because it was right.
Its bias turned out to be the accurate one, which justified
the elements that might have otherwise been harshly
criticized. For instance, the director seems to be stacking
the deck in his favor when it comes to the interviews with
the state’s witnesses. He makes them seem like utter
freaks. Now, maybe they truly were utter freaks and
maybe he goosed and edited them into appearing that
way, but it doesn’t matter much now. Nor does the dir-
ector’s defense-attorney tendency to gloss over what-
ever may be damning while giving loving attention to
the exculpatory. In the end, this approach proved to
be the most reasonable one. I maintain that it would have
been reasonable even had Adams actually done what he
had been accused of doing. Had the bias been in support
of an erroneous position, this film would be less powerful,
less respected, and less well-known, but not of any less
merit as a document.

It is not wrong to take a position, after all. It is not even
wrong to take a position dependent on factually inaccurate
premises, provided one does so honestly. Once that pos-
ition is taken, one is allowed to make it look as attractive
and as plausible as possible through the standard methods.
They can ignore the evidence to the contrary and favor the
evidence that favors them. They can question the integrity
of those who disagree with them. They can run through all
sorts of sophistry and any number of impressive intellectual
arguments. This is all acceptable provided that the person
also accepts that their position is valid. The person is advo-
cating a mistake, but they’re doing so in good faith. The
answer to them, then, is a more convincing advocacy of
the true position, not the diminishment of the one who
hews to the false. The people who hold the position are, in
most cases, irrelevant to the position itself.

This is why I’m always annoyed by cries of "bias" whenever
it comes to an argument. Anyone who holds an opinion hon-
estly assumes that their only bias is the truth. Any evidence
for any contested phenomena can always be countered by
evidence from the other side. Truth, of course, does exist,
but it often can be excavated through the process of com-
peting opinions working through a tangle of logic and fact
to justify themselves. Through bias, in other words. A bias
can be right. Bias can be the answer. This film’s bias led it
to a more whole truth than the courtroom process allowed.
In another world, it might have wandered right off the track
of what actually happened. There is authenticity in both
approaches, I suspect.

So there you have it. The Thin Blue Line: a documentary
about a murder and epistemology. But like a hundred times
less dull than that sounds...