Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Errol Morris: Thin Blue Line

diagram of the path of bullets

a prime witness 

an interrogator apparently pointed a gun at the interrogee
Last night Lohbado watched Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line about how an innocent man narrowly escaped the death penalty, but who served 13 years to atone for the murder of a policeman. The movie takes one into a world in which people believe what they want to believe, even if what they say is invented for personal gain and even though innocent people suffer.

Thin Blue Line opens with the innocent man talking, then the guilty man, then map of Dallas more telling of the story then a reenactment of the crime. Diagrams added graphic emphasis... a drawing showing the paths of the bullets that went into the murdered policeman. A diagram of the crime scene included the tossed milkshake. There’s a slow motion sequence of the milk shake flying through the air and splattering on the ground. One sees flashing red lights on the roof of the cruiser, closeup of boots, glare of headlights... bang bang bang bang... a pool of blood, newspaper front page showing photos of the murdered policeman and the policewoman who witnessed the crime. 

One is introduced to people willing to say whatever you like if you are willing to pay. They’ll testify in court and say they saw whatever you wanted them to see. There’s a scene with a woman wearing turquoise eye shadow, scarlet lip stick in a green room. She talked about how the character of prime witnesses wasn’t taken into account, how there are people corrupt enough and willing to lie in court. One of the witnesses was involved in a violent party with a knife fight. 

The killer, 16 at the time, already had a record. They wanted to give the youngster a chance to straighten himself out. He was on a crime spree... break and enter, car and gun theft. Liars, thieves, braggarts, thugs and hustlers all go into the stew. Create the story you like. Present it to the public. Tabloids love it. The jury is convinced. So what if the guy was innocent. He was a drifter, staying at a motel with his alcoholic brother. Who cares about the fate of a drifter? 

The judge agrees with the proceedings. Strong emotions and moralistic fervour boil over. The judge’s eyes water as he thinks of the thin blue line between law and anarchy. Someone must pay for the death of a policeman. Find a scapegoat. Pin it on him. Press for the death penalty. The killer was only 16, too young to be executed. The scapegoat was 28, ripe and ready for the electric chair. Give it to him! Meanwhile, the 16 year old killer is a smiling young man, charming and agreeable, arrogant, no empathy, a sociopath, ha ha ha ha, he goes free to continue his crime spree involving another murder. Eventually he’s old enough for the chair. After years of in and out of jail, they execute him. In the last interview, he more or less says he did it, without coming out and saying it. He agreed with the narrator’s questions and theory that the innocent man got screwed by justice for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the killer says, in a good natured tone, justice is blind. In the representation of justice, she holds a scale and is blindfolded.

Then of course there’s the chilling Dr. Death whose mission in life is to make sure as many people are executed as possible. His job is to verify that the criminal is a threat to society and is better off dead. The psychiatric evaluation of Dr. Death lasted about 15 minutes. He asked the scape goat to explain a couple proverbs and to copy some lines and shapes. On this basis, he confirmed the innocent man was dangerous and should be killed.

The movie illustrates how stories are invented and people choose to believe them, because it’s convenient to do so. It looks good on paper to successfully find and prosecute a culprit. It doesn’t look so good when the investigation fails. When it looks good on paper, the administration is pleased. One is rewarded. False witnesses are paid. Success will look good on a worker’s performance evaluation. It enhances reputation to succeed. 

There’s also the fact of what happened. One could choose the less popular and more complicated path of finding out the facts, or one could take the easier, more attractive path of finding a culprit, even if it involves committing injustice. It’s a powerful movie. It resulted in the wrongfully convicted man being released, although he was never compensated for his 13 years in jail. Aesthetically, the scenes are well composed, warm colour tones, careful placement of each item within the frame. Plus there’s a fabulous soundtrack by Philip Glass.

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