“Be on my side, I’ll be on your side”

The other day I watched River’s Edge, a 1987 film based on a 1981 crime. I’d say it falls in the Law and Order category of true crime, as a fictionalization of real events. The gist of the story is that a teenage boy killed his girlfriend, then told people about it at school and brought them to see the body. It took a couple days before anyone reported it to the police, due to confusion, loyalty, and distrust of authority. The community, the media, and the film ask What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society?

The news story:
California Suburb Sorts Out Fear and Confusion in Teen Slaying

I saw this film when it was new in a theater, at a showing that was so packed that we had to sit in the front row. I remember this made for a very intense experience, right in front of the screen, right in front of the speakers, viewing at an uncomfortable distance and angle. The discomfort of the experience accentuated the discomfort of the film. Most of my friends saw the film when it made it to HBO, and interpreted the film as a kind of black comedy. To me, that said something about the difference between seeing a movie in a theater and watching one in the living room.

What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society? Answers offered included media violence, marijuana and heavy metal music, which were often considered to be causes of the decline of western civilization in those days.

“You interest me” the police officer says as he interrogates the teen for reporting the murder. What interests me is that I can empathize with the kid. Who is prepared to deal with a situation like that? How would they know how to behave? One of the reasons people kept quiet about it was they knew no good would come from going to the authorities. It would only mean trouble. The movie, and the real life story, don’t do much to counter that sentiment.

Rewatching it in light of events of the past few years, I thought of how the kids’ struggle with confusion and loyalty in the face of a heinous crime is hardly just a problem for youth. How do officers react when they witness one of their own doing something wrong? Or indeed members of any tribe? Perhaps one function of true crime narratives is to help us think through these things.

The other stories

I watched Ridley Scott’s pseudo- true crime film All the Money in the World yesterday, after having had it sit by the TV for two weeks while I was too busy. It’s about the kidnapping and ransom of J Paul Getty’s grandson in the early 70s. Maybe I should have read Martin Weller’s review before I put it in my queue. Given that Scott made it, I expected it to be a well-made film, but to me the focus was on the wrong story. Weller mentions Getty’s “otherness,” the dehumanizing aspect of his massive wealth, which would have been worth exploring. The movie instead focuses on the family tensions. I’m sure people can relate to that, and it’s what studios want, but personally, I’m not really interested. I would be much more interested in the kidnappers’ story. Wikipedia tells me that they were ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia group I had not heard of. In the film, a motley group nabs young Getty out of the blue, has trouble negotiating the ransom, and basically sells the crime to a larger organization. That’s the story I want to know about. It reminds me of Jim’s take on The Iron Heel, where a story mentioned in passing seems more compelling than the story that’s primarily being told. While the elder Getty operates in a metaphorical cut-throat world, the ‘Ndrangheta inhabit a real one. I wonder about the inner workings of the business deals and decisions that go on there. How was that sale made? What goes in to it? Or the impending decision to cut their losses? What price does the original kidnapper pay when the job fails? Shifting the perspective might have made for a more interesting tale.

Broadband: Make it a Commodity like…uh…a Pork Belly


Click image for Simpson’s take on Enron scam

I just finished watching the 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and it reinforces David Simon’s theory of America as Horror Show. What’s more, it was just a small taste of things to come in 2008 with the global financial meltdown at the hands of the world’s most “trusted” financial institutions.

Anyway, I learned a bit about how Enron defrauded state’s like California out of tens of billions of dollars through loopholes in the legislation for the recently deregulated energy utility market. Through redirected energy and fabricated shortages, Enron could sell California back it’s own energy at an insane markup (kinda like academic publishers :) ). Enron moved from a company that dealt in natural gas to one which manufactured several high-profile gimmicks while hiding its losses in order to trump up its stock value. The Wall Street analysts had as muc h to with the Enron scam as anyone.  It was basically one big lie cashing in on capital running amok.

One of its scams that caught my attention was Enron’s foray into the bandwidth commodity market, in particular teaming up with Blockbuster to deliver on-demand video through their network provider Enron Broadband Services.  What’s funny about that is we were talking about the history of the web tonight in The Internet Course  looking at the emergenc eof the web,  Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. One of the details omitted from that history was the Dot-Com Bubble of the late 1990s. Enron was playing on just that market hype when they made the broadband announcement, and it suggests how their fraud was all about creating a compelling narrative regardless of what was possible (true of the dot-com boom more generally). In fact, broadband was just another utility to be deregulated and you could argue that was what the 30 second commerical is really arguing for. What if broadband was a pork belly?* What if broadband was a basic right, a public utility affordable to everyone so we could avoid the pillaging of the public that was Enron?

Paul Bond and I had talked about including this documentary in the True Crime course if we teach it again, and after watching it I would say absolutely. It frames one of the most heinous premeditated crimes committed against the citizens of the U.S. and beyond in the past thirty years: corporate crime kills!

* Turns out pork bellies are no longer a commodity anyway.

Lifetime’s New Lizzie Borden TV Movie

Looks like the Lifetime Network is doing a True Crime makeover with their forthcoming Lizzie Borden TV movie starring Christina Ricci. (via OUT and H/T Ryan Brazell.)

Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks

After years of books, nursery rhymes, operas and movies, Lizzie Borden is finally getting the Lifetime treatment! The new made-for-TV flick stars Christina Ricci as a young woman who was tried, and later acquitted, for the 1892 murders of her father and stepmother.

Why the network waited until now to make this film is beyond us, but we’re terribly excited.

Final Post

The thing I liked best about this class was the fact that there were no tests or quizzes. So I could enjoy learning about the subject and not have to worry about cramming everything in in order to pass. I didn’t really mind that blogging made up most of the work, the most difficult thing about that was actually remembering to blog. What I didn’t like however was how unclear some of the guidelines were so I never felt like I was doing the right thing. When I did feel like I was doing the right thing, it turned out to not be what was wanted. Another thing that slightly annoyed me was that I did not know how I was doing in the class grade wise but that I could live with because if I was doing really poorly I would have been told. Although the video projects could be a lot of work and some of the readings were a bit too long, I really enjoyed the work. I didn’t enjoy having to lead the class at all though. I’m really not good in front of an audience so I had a hard time trying to say what I wanted too and usually ended up rushing through everything so I didn’t have to talk anymore. Class time itself was usually a lot of fun and I enjoyed joking and talking with everyone. Despite the work I’m really going to miss all of the True Crimers.

Curtains for crime time

curtains for crime time

Our True Crime class has come to an end. As all of the students have been saying, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it. And it was worth it because of the students – the truecrimers – they rose to every challenge we gave them. Jim tells all about it with his usual eloquence and enthusiasm.

I approached this course from my librarian’s perspective. I’m interested in information literacy as a necessary component of lifelong learning. I’m also interested in information literacy as something beyond bibliographic instruction in how to use the library. It starts with creativity and curiosity, which we in the profession define down to “identifying an information need” and culminates in communication, the creation and presentation of information outputs. We had curiosity built-in from the start. All the truecrimers shared our fascination with these stories. We pushed them to exercise creativity, and what they came up with in their videos was remarkable. But there was also creativity in their wiki work, where they made decisions on how to break down the readings, what extra information to bring in, and what they came up with for discussions questions. The wiki, the videos, the discussions and the blogging were all forms of communications and presentation. We dispensed with the traditional research papers, yet achieved the same thing, or perhaps achieved something more, and everyone had a great time doing it.

We could have gone further into evaluating some of the information sources. I would have liked to see the class use more library resources and less Google. But we did get at some of those conversations. I think the class started to think twice about taking things at face value, and they had the experience of drawing on primary sources.

It was a lot of fun working with Jim and the group. I take something away from it professionally as well as personally though. It gives me a success story of a different way to run a class, and a different way to work with faculty. I don’t know if my own institution would give me the freedom to experiment like that, but I can tell the tale and maybe spark some ideas and start some new things.

Oh, and I got the term “crimer” from the Crimer Show on Twitter:


Image credits:
Crime scene part one cc2006 paral_lax
stage curtains from Sherane’s Closet


Reflection on the Course

This freshman seminar was truly a pleasure to be a part of. I originally just signed up for this because I love crime shows and true crime narratives and thought it would be an easy fun course, so when I realized how much reading we had to do I was a little concerned that I made the wrong choice signing up for the class. Although at times I thought we had too much blogging to do, I now realize it was key that we did have to blog because we learned so much by doing so. Having groups run the class week to week was also a brilliant idea because sometimes it is really boring just listening to a professor, but when you have a peer running it, you want to speak up more. I found tracing what true crime is from the beginning with Cotton Mather and public executions to the end with serial killers and gangsters was really fun. I liked the way it was set up too; having Groom there and Paul come in via Skype was really effective. I really feel that having both of them and their input made the class a success. I would recommend for the next time that maybe there be a rubric or something for the videos so that there would have been a clearer picture as to what was expected. It was a blast being in this class and I hope you continue to teach it because it is really a great course led by great professors!!

Peace Out True Crime

This was one of my favourite classes because I loved how close knit we all became. The videos were really fun to do, but I think someone different should be assigned to edit every time because it was a lot of work to do every time. Also…some of those beginning readings were extremely dry. I think next time more time should be spent on organized crime – also I was upset we didn’t have time for Monster (ps you should watch Snow on Tha Bluff) because I love that kind of stuff. The student led discussions were really interesting and helpful but I think there should be more prep time to be able to do that – there was a lot going on all at once and it’s hard for group members to find a time that works for all of them.

One Final Post

I think the group presentations were a great idea because it helped to establish leadership, teamwork, and accountability. But I think it was very hard, or at least in my group, to coordinate the times for the meetings to prepare for the presentation. I dont want to make excuses for these instances, but it is a lot of work to do all of the readings, then have to find time to do background research on a wide umbrella of topics that have to deal with what you are presenting on and then make a wiki page. I think there needs to be a system where somehow the members need to sign an agreement that they will meet at a place and time and have to work done so it is a productive meeting and then they can grade each other on how they believe they and the members worked together and participated in the presentation effort. I think the videos were a great idea because they were really fun to make and we got to be creative and work as a group which i think is an important skill to conquer because as my teacher from high school repeatedly told us that to be successful you need to be able to work with other people. And teamwork is something that i feel is not instilled in us enough in school, whether grade school or college, so I think the presentations and videos allow us to get introduced to working with other people, especially when it is a huge part of our grade. In the end I think it was a great class, that was really fun and laid back, but it was all discussion led instead of note taking which I loved. Finally, even though most of the readings were a real pain in the ass and took forever to read and were really hard to read, but because of them I have become a better reader and I can sit down now and read for long periods at a time, so I would not change that at all.