Daily Archives: September 27, 1996

Paradise Lost

A fascinating, revealing, and deeply disturbing–if highly imperfect–documentary feature by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, codirectors of the excellent Brother’s Keeper, about the trials and convictions resulting from the brutal murder and mutilation of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Most of what we see persuades us that two teenage boys have been convicted of these crimes more because of their nonconformity within the community than from any hard evidence (the likeliest suspect, the stepfather of one of the victims, hasn’t even been charged). Unfortunately, the filmmakers refuse to acknowledge their own role in the proceedings, which makes for an incomplete version of the story. Adding to the confusion is the film’s popular assumption that seeing excerpts of a trial qualifies one to reach an independent verdict. Moreover, there are times when the intrusiveness and callow exploitativeness of TV reporters (one early on asks a bereaved mother whether she’s contemplating suicide) seem to be matched by some of the moves of the filmmakers: though it appears that one of the defendants is being railroaded in part because of his taste for heavy metal, the use of songs by Metallica behind much of the footage seems obscene rather than ironic. By the time the second trial’s verdict is read and the defendant’s mother, sister, and girlfriend are seen rushing into the ladies’ room, you half expect the filmmakers to follow them. Read more


Painter Julian Schnabel’s feature is a biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a black graffitist in New York who became famous in 1981 and died seven years later. Art critic Robert Hughes titled his obituary for Basquiat “Requiem for a Featherweight,” and part of what’s so interesting and unexpected about this picture is that it makes fresh observations without actually refuting that judgment. It’s also quite energetic–there isn’t a boring shot anywhere, and writer-director Schnabel is clearly enjoying himself as he plays with expressionist sound, neo-Eisensteinian edits, and all sorts of other filmic ideas. What emerges may be unfocused as narrative, but it’s lively as filmmaking. Others in the cast include David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Michael Wincott as Rene Ricard, Paul Bartel as Henry Geldzahler, and Elina Lowensohn as art dealer Annina Nosei; the actors playing fictional characters include Gary Oldman (as an apparent stand-in for Schnabel himself), Christopher Walken (in a brilliant bit as a slimy interviewer), Willem Dafoe, and Courtney Love. Fine Arts, Davis.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still. Read more