Sunday, October 19, 2008

Movies: True horror stories.

Before we get to the movie review, I thought I'd share a bizarre meta-data fact about And Now the Screaming Starts. A slight majority of the readers who stop by either come directly here (they've got the blog bookmarked or type it right into their browser's address bar) or they come from links on other blogs. The rest find ANTSS through Google searches. And the number one topic that leads people to this blog is the 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens. This handily beats out the next two highest-ranking topics which are, in order, Gustave the enormous man-eating African crocodile and the haunted house rides of Coney Island. Curiously, these searches are looking for non-fiction subjects. I have yet to get any searches for the The Girl Next Door or Primeval, the fictional works inspired by these cases. People want info on the real-life stories, not the fictional re-imaginings.

I bring this up because today's film, 2007's An American Crime, purports to be "the true story" of the Sylvia Likens murder, unlike 2007's The Girl Next Door which exists twice removed from the incident, being an adaptation of the novel of the same name, itself very loosely inspired by the infamous crime. Though An American Crime is probably not considered a horror film in a tradition sense, being perhaps better labeled a dramatic film about a horrible event, I've covered previous adaptations, so I feel its appropriate to cover it here.

The filmmakers of An American Crime put the issue of realism front and center. The film begins with title cards that not only give viewers the standard "based on" disclaimer, but also claim that the film is drawn from information in the court transcripts. The story will be familiar to anybody who has seen the aforementioned film or is familiar with the case. In 1965, the Likens, two traveling carnies, leave their daughters, Sylvia and Jennifer "Jennie" Faye, in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother with a house full of kids. (The real Baniszewski had seven children, but only six appear in the flick for some reason.) Unbeknownst to the Likens, Baniszewski has a history of mental trouble, and an alcohol problem.

At first, things are awkward, but not entirely unpleasant. The nomadic life-style of the Likens family has meant that Sylvia and Jennie have never had many friends. They enjoy suddenly finding themselves among a whole tribe of kids. Sylvia begins to meet people at school and, aside from Gertie's chemically driven moodiness, there's not much to complain about. Though there are some creepy hints of the horrors to come. Gertie is capable of sudden and explosive violence. And Jonny, the sole boy in the family, seems to take pleasure in small, but disconcerting acts as cruelty, such as leaving a dog's food dish nearly out of reach of the animal or abusing the toys of his sisters.

In less than a week, the inoffensive Sylvia finds herself pulled into a family struggle between Gertie and Paula, the eldest and slightly out-of-control daughter of the Baniszewski clan. Not understanding the family dynamic, Sylvia quickly becomes the scapegoat for the Baniszewski clan's social and financial woes. The mentally unbalanced
Gertie starts to subject Sylvia to series of increasingly horrible punishments, beginning with whippings and getting rapidly worse. Sylvia is trapped in an insane cycle of punishment and groundless accusation – every thing Baniszewski does to her seems to confirm, in the twisted mind of Gertie, the need for further torture. Things come to a head when Gertie accuses Sylvia of sexual improprieties with some local boys. As punishment, Gertie forces the horrified Sylvia to sexually violate herself with an empty Coke bottle as the Baniszewski children and a neighborhood boy watch. This torture is interrupted by the arrival of more family members and Gertie, deciding that Sylvia is to corrupting an influence to leave free to roam, sentences her to be locked in the basement. When Sylvia resists, the Baniszewski children literally throw her down the stairs.

What comes next is a matter of the historical record. For several weeks, the Baniszewski children and numerous neighborhood children come to "play" with Sylvia. She is beaten, burned, stripped and hosed down, denied adequate food and water, and otherwise tortured. Both young men and young women take part in her torture. Most of this occurs with the knowledge of Gertrude Baniszewski, who acts as if the children are playing house and not slowly killing a young woman. Eventually, under the direction Gertie, a neighborhood boy brands "IM A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on Sylvia's stomach. This whole latter part of the flick spools out as a long, horrific montage of outrages, much of it filmed from the first person perspective of Sylvia (as if she's fading in an out and all she's conscious off is a nightmarish series of disjointed painful attacks), punctuated by short dramatic set pieces. There's also a short, hopeful dream sequence that serves to cruelly elevate the hopes of the viewer. The conclusion is foregone.

In the end, Sylvia dies from the treatment. Panicked, the Baniszewski children call the police. Officers arrive on the scene and Jennie, who has been silent all this time, fearing the same treatment, tells the cops that she'll tell them everything if they'll take her away from the torture house.

The narrative of the film jumps between Gertrude Baniszewski's murder trial and the events unfolding in flashback.

Honestly, I don't know what to tell you about An American Crime. It is well written and beautifully shot by writer/director Tommy O'Haver (who shot this nightmare as the follow up to his 2004 Ella Enchanted - I kid you not). The acting is fine, though many of the characters seem to intentionally be a sort of appendage of the Baniszewski family-beast, so they don't have a lot to do. Ellen Page, in a reversal of her avenging angle role in Hard Candy, plays the martyr here. It's a kinda thankless role. For a considerable portion of the movie she has to act semi-conscious and on death's door. It is hard to make that role your own. Plus, given the horrendousness of the crime, the tendency on the part of everybody who has tried to work with this material is to turn Sylvia into flat icon of purity, violated by a cruel world. This is weird because it seems to imply that the horror of the incident was that she was innocent, instead of making the moral stance that nobody, anywhere, under any circumstances should be treated this way. Compare this to Boys Don't Cry, which had the same producers. Nobody felt the need to make Brandon Teena's behavior beyond question – including minor criminal activity and the ethical implications of her deceiving others about her identity – but the result in no way mitigates the horror one feels at what happened to her. What happened to Sylvia Likens wasn't wrong because it happened to a nice person, it was wrong because it happened at all. I know this sound obvious and utterly moronic to even make such a point, but in our current judicial and moral climate it is, sadly, not a universally accepted concept. Acting-wise, the real standout is Catherine Keener, who actually flirts with making Gertrude Baniszewski sympathetic before the character slides into irredeemable vileness. This is a pretty gutsy move and many reviewers have expressed disgust at Keener's effort to humanize Baniszewski. It would be a much more comfortable story if Baniszewski wasn't, in fact, a human.

[I'm adding this revision the day after posting. It occurs to me that I should clarify what I mean by "cleaning up" the Sylvia character. I've left it too vague and I worry that some reader will think that there was something in the true story that implies she might have caused or deserved her fate. This isn't the case. What I'm talking about it a minor whitewash of the details of her life. For example, she and her sister were, in real life, left at the Baniszewski house because their mother, in whose care they were in, went to jail for shoplifting. When they first met the Baniszewski daughters, the Baniszewski girls told them they could spend the night at their house. Sylvia and Jennie did so without asking their parents' permission because their mother was in jail and their father wasn't in town. Their father didn't find the girls until the next morning. In the film, this incident is portrayed as a daytime, after-church visit. In the film, both Likens parents are in the girls' lives and the father picks them up before sundown. The implication is that the Likens had it hard, but they were essentially responsible normal parents. The film also glosses over something the Likens girls' father really told Gertie Baniszewski. When he left them, he left Baniszewski with some vague directive about "straightening out" his daughters because he felt their mother was letting them run wild. Another example of the filmmakers ignoring Sylvia's real life details is the fact that Sylvia once admitted to shoplifting. This is notable in that one of the first times Sylvia was punished by Baniszewski, the rough treatment was supposedly punishment for leading the Baniszewski kids to shoplift. None of that appears in the flick. Does any of this imply what happened to Sylvia was right? No. Even if she was shoplifting - which is by no means certain - the vicious nature of the Baniszewski clan's crime makes it obvious that the motivation was not disciplinary. What the Baniszewskis did is still a horrific crime that staggers the imagination.]

Still, it was an oddly empty film experience. Despite the "realistic" label it wears – which is, I imagine, the film's first line of defense against those that would label it exploitation – there's something strangely stagey about the undertaking. I say this ignoring the factual liberties (the oddest is the transformation of Paula Baniszewski into a more sympathetic character). First and foremost, there is the Sunset Boulevard/Menace II Society style first person narration from beyond the grave: Sylvia narrates a few sections of the flashback. Second, there's the historical setting. The Baniszewski home at 3850 East New York St, Indianapolis, (you can Google map it if you like) is not far from the downtown of Indianapolis and it isn't the sort of suburban utopia we've come to equate with American innocence through nostalgia exercises like The Wonder Years. Yet there's something wrote about the period atmosphere here – sun-drenched and bopping along to a selection of period correct pop hits – that seem to imply they exist not in 1965, but in the fantasy realm of the prelapsarian youth of America. This becomes important because the film makes a bid for social relevance later when Sylvia's narration attempts to position the crime as one of those moments when the country as a whole lost its innocence. Both historically and aesthetically, that's a hard proposition to swallow. In contrast, the fictional Girl Next Door frames its narrative is terms of the guilt of the young narrator who stood by and did nothing. Lacking in historical gravitas, it nevertheless achieves a greater universal theme. Whether we've let evil triumph by simply failing to actively be good is a perennial question. The courtroom drama falls weirdly flat because we know how the story ends. The result is that the framing device feels too much like a tool for shoe-horning research details in.

Weirdly, it's the fake story – the adaptation by Ketchum and the movie made from that – that might better get at what is so important about the Likens murder. An American Crime rightly shows us that what happened was horrific. We watch it, we are repelled by the inhumane acts we see, and we pass judgment. Girl Next Door centralizes the moral dilemma of the witness. We are asked to judge not just the monsters, but those who watch the monsters do their work.


spacejack said...

Yeah, I don't think I'll be seeing this or the other movie any time soon. But you make some interesting observations on the difference between the "true" story and the fictionalized one. I'm not sure what the point is of attempting to accurately reconstruct events like that on film.

I probably also won't be watching "Karla" either.

On a more positive note, I saw P2 recently, which I thought was surprisingly good.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Never saw P2. I'll queue it and give it a shot. Thanks.

And Laura "That 70s Show" Prepon as Karla? Really? What was her agent thinking?

Anonymous said...

"... the tendency on the part of everybody who has tried to work with this material is to turn Sylvia into flat icon of purity, violated by a cruel world. This is weird because it seems to imply that the horror of the incident was that she was innocent, instead of making the moral stance that nobody, anywhere, under any circumstances should be treated this way. Compare this to Boys Don't Cry, which had the same producers. Nobody felt the need to make Brandon Teena's behavior beyond question – including minor criminal activity and the ethical implications of her deceiving others about her identity – but the result in no way mitigates the horror one feels at what happened to her. What happened to Sylvia Likens wasn't wrong because it happened to a nice person, it was wrong because it happened at all."

Well, but...

... when you say "the result in no way mitigates the horror one feels at what happened to her", are you stating that the result does not mitigate the horror for you? Or that the result does not mitigate the horror for any viewer, except of course some extremely disturbed segment of the population which simply doesn't react with normal human emotions anyways?

Substitute "should not" for "does not" and I'm right there with you all the way. However, some research has indicated the existence of the so-called "just-world effect", where people deal with the evidence of this world being a very unjust one where bad things happen, by trying to believe that they're primarily happening to bad people. If a filmmaker wants to communicate with their audience, they needs to be aware of what may be going on in their audience's heads that will skew incoming data. And frankly, in this day and age, you don't need to worry only about what your audience might think, but about what someone in your audience might think that you're wanting or allowing the audience to think. I'm sure that the makers of An American Crime wanted people to confront the fact that this truly was a horrible thing that happened to Sylvia Likens, and did not want them to have the cop-out of saying "oh, well she was a problem child to begin with, so..." and even if they could have been sure that none of their audience would do so, I think it likely that before writing in a scene where young Sylvia shoplifts they would hesitate and ask "is this going to bring us heat from people who think that we're saying it's okay that Sylvia was tortured and killed because she wasn't 100% good?"

CRwM said...


You raise an important point. Especially when you're dealing with brutal and sensitive material, how do you make sure you get your message across?

Still, I'm going to have to stand by my original position.

There may very well be a segment of society that believes burning a young woman with cigarettes, forcing her to violate herself with a Coke bottle, and then slowly torturing her to death by making a Lord-of-the-Flies style experiment for the kids in your town is a fair and just punishment for the alleged (and I emphasize "alleged") crime of shoplifting.

But then, honestly, you're dealing with a complete moral idiot.

What possible good could come from discussing the conditions and results of a true incident if you have to distort the facts of the case in order to fit an absolutist and impossible moral framework that represents moron's viewpoint anyway?

There isn't anybody in the world that would say that rough treatment of a perfect saint is morally justifiable. It's a fake issue because 1) there is no other side of the coin and 2) it is a "dilemma" that doesn't occur in the real world. It's like claiming the death penalty is wrong because it only kills innocent people. It's a view of the world so self-evidently correct that it replaces a real moral issue (Can you deal out the death penalty without killing the occasional innocent person? Is it ever justifiable for the state to use lethal force against its own citizens? Etc.) with an easy-to-swallow platitude.

Real morality must be carved out of the confusing and messy details of life as it is lived. In a world of angels and devils there wouldn't be any moral decisions to make. But in a world of people, alloyed as we are of good and evil, we have to make judgments and draw lines to make moral sense of the imperfect world around us.

The issue at stake in child abuse cases, of which the Likens murder represents some near-final extreme (I would have said it was the ultimate, but later sickening cases suggest that's sadly not true), is whether there is a limit to discipline past which no justification exists and, if there is, where is it.

In the real world, observers of potential child abuse have to ask themselves, "Do I know what's going on here? Maybe I'm interpreting this wrong? Maybe there's something going on here that makes this make sense and I'm not seeing it?" This is what leads to the famous "better not get involved" reasoning behind people who ignore sometimes even the most hideous abuses. (This can be extended past the issue of child abuse and into the question of physical authority in general. Are there something things – death penalty, torture – you just don't do despite justification?)

Ironically, by never putting the viewer in any position were they need to make a moral stand (the issue is spoon-fed to them and the difficult work of making sense of the world avoided), the filmmakers actually recreate the cop out attitude that allows people to stand by and let this sort of thing happen. How often are you going to faced with a situation where you must jump to the defense of somebody who could in absolutely no way be interpreted as having ever done anything even the slightest bit wrong?

As for taking the filmmakers being afraid of taking heat – I don't buy that. These people made a move in which we watch some pretty heinous tortures perpetrated against a juvenile girl. We watch kids participate in this abuse joyously. I also noted that they chose, boldly and I feel rightly so, to avoid making Baniszewski an all-out inexplicable monster. (If they could avoid making Baniszewski a cardboard cut-out demon, why must Sylvia be a paper angel? Surely if they were worried about offending the morality of people who foolishly assume the world's so simple that good people get good and bad people get bad, they would have avoided generating sympathy, however limited, for the devil.) The movie has got tons of heat-generating choices in it already.

For me, it comes down to this.

1. The movie makes a big deal of being "the real story," but simplifies a bunch of issues that hinge directly on the issue of responsibility for Sylvia's fate. This is especially true when dealing with Sylvia's parents.

2. The film's power as a look at the moral failings and attitudes that produce these horrible conditions is blunted by the aesthetic decision to play Sylvia as an icon rather than a flesh and blood human being.

3. Condescending to the lowest common denominator of audience expectations is perfectly acceptable in genre entertainments; but I think it valid to ask more of filmmakers who propose to tackle larger issues. I think it is fair to demand audiences occasionally take a hard look and some harsh realities of the world – but then audiences can justly demand that filmmakers be equally unflinching.

sexy said...
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lauren said...

well, i just watched an american crime last night. im 15, so i got the whole jealousy of another situation when paula was jealous and making up things. clearly, gertie was sick, but also, her father should of re-thought letting his children stay with a woman he just met. sylvia did absolutely nothing wrong. just a simple little church girl who has never even had her first kiss. making her violate herself with an empty glass coke bottle was sick. especially having people watch. she brainwashed her children into thinking that beating her, burning her, and etc were just punishments for what she has done. let alone did they know, they killed an innocent girl. when they say don't judge a book by it's cover, they sure do mean it.