I’m old enough to remember what we used to call people who liked watching true crime: rubberneckers.
Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of the genre in either its TV, film or podcast forms. I mean, if I really wanted to watch the actions of amoral, depraved individuals, I’d just subscribe to C-SPAN.
For me to really connect with a true crime documentary, it’s got to offer much more than just heinous homicides and hapless cops being outwitted by dastardly nemeses for decades.
That’s why wild horses couldn’t get me to watch “The Ripper” or “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” the recent Netflix documentaries on Peter Sutcliffe and Richard Ramirez, disrespectfully. (Related question: Does anyone know how to get a remote control out of the clutches of a horse? I’ve tried whispering and it’s not helping.)
Of course, there are examples that have transformed this genre from muckraking to an art form over the years. Some illuminated criminal injustices (Errol Morris’ 1988 movie “The Thin Blue Line”; Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost” film trilogy); some offered unparalleled access to the accused in murder mysteries that the combined might of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple would struggle to solve (“The Staircase,” which remains one of my favorite TV shows of the millennium); and some did something a team of detectives hadn’t and caught someone red-handed, or at least hot-miced (“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”).
The best true crime documentaries put more than just the felony under a magnifying glass. They also ask probing questions of society itself – including the glaring one of why so many people are drawn to the genre and inadvertently help turn lowlife criminals into high-profile stars.
Who else was shocked when Donald Trump failed to pardon “Tiger King” star Joe Exotic last month? Well, Joe for one, since he reportedly had a limousine and hairdressing-and-wardrobe team standing by, awaiting his release from federal prison. Such is the power of the true crime doc (well, almost in Joe’s case).
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I must also confess to being guilty of “celebritizing” true crime personalities myself, having paid top dollar a few years ago to see everyone’s favorite Jewish lawyer, David Rudolf, talk on stage about his involvement in “The Staircase” and theories about the death of Kathleen Peterson, which still generate heated debate 17 years after the show first aired.
While the likes of Rudolf and Carole Baskin managed to parlay their “roles” into something bigger, I don’t think anyone will be conducting speaking tours on the back of the new true crime shows “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” (Netflix) and “The Lady and the Dale” (HBO). However, both are powerful, shocking shows that shouldn’t be missed.
‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’
In many ways, I was the perfect audience for Joe Berlinger’s compelling four-part documentary about the case of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian tourist who disappeared from Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel on February 1, 2013.
I say the perfect viewer because I knew less about Lam’s case than I do about shorting stocks – and, as I have recently discovered, I know absolutely nothing about that. (Don’t worry if you don’t either, there are currently no fewer than three films in development about the Robinhood/GameStop saga.)
Lam was staying in perhaps the most notorious California hotel the Eagles never sang about – a seedy place in downtown LA that opened in 1924 and whose best days were already behind it by the time FDR unveiled his New Deal in 1933.
It’s described by one local historian on the show as “a place where serial killers let their hair down,” and indeed the aforementioned Ramirez was a long-term tenant there in the 1980s due to the hotel’s cheap rents and no-questions-asked policy about blood stains on the carpet.
As journalist Josh Dean explains early on, the Cecil is as much a character in this story as Elisa. But this is also a tale of what happens when a city tries to squeeze all of its social problems into one part of town – LA’s Skid Row, which was within spitting distance of where the hotel was located – and then tries to forget about them.
While (spoiler) Lam’s fate may not be explicitly linked to what happens on skid row, it’s a vital subplot whose presence highlights the fact that the “scene” plays just as important a role as the “crime” in such documentaries (hence this one’s name, presumably).
If the show has a breakout star, it’s undoubtedly Amy Price. She was the Cecil’s general manager from 2007-2017, and looks and sounds like someone Amy Poehler might have played in a “SNL” sketch about a seen-it-all hotel boss.
For instance, Price recalls how when she was given her initial tour of the hotel after taking the job, she had to stop her guide after a while and ask: “Is there a room here that maybe someone hasn’t died in?” She then recounts how about 80 people died at the 700-room hotel during her tenure – though I’m pretty sure she has an alibi for each of them.
The Cecil’s dark history may make it sound like something out of a Stephen King novel, but that’s ultimately all garnish for the real story here: the internet.
The web is forever flexing its muscles to demonstrate how powerful it is – the most recent example coming just this past week when an English parish council Zoom meeting went viral.
And while that power can be benign – as demonstrated in “Cecil Hotel” when Lam’s poignant words from her numerous Tumblr posts are recited to highlight her mental state – it’s oftentimes as dangerous as a pyromaniac in a fireworks factory.
It was last year’s moving HBO documentary “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” that first introduced me to the world of web sleuthing – that digital domain where amateur detectives pore over evidence in the belief that they alone can crack unsolved cases, despite gleaning all of their knowledge from, well, true crime shows.
That’s why, when one interviewee is introduced here as “web sleuth,” I didn’t automatically burst out laughing. Ditto when another key interviewee defines his career as “YouTuber” – to which he has the knowing grace to add: “which I think has been added to the dictionary now.” (He’s right.)
“Cecil Hotel” is great at showing what happens when a pack of well-intentioned web sleuths started seeing “clues” everywhere after the LAPD released a video showing Elisa’s last known movements: four-minute CCTV footage of her getting into a hotel lift and acting mightily spookily.
As a detective wistfully puts it, “That’s where the case starts to go askew.” But that’s also where the documentary starts to go into really interesting places, encompassing such unlikely subjects as Japanese horror movies, the Illuminati, and the connection between an LA bookstore and a Vancouver cemetery.
The show is artfully assembled by Berlinger so that it reveals its secrets seamlessly, and serves to remind us that it’s not just right-wing crazies who like sometimes to peddle dangerous conspiracy theories.
‘The Lady and the Dale’
All true crime documentaries need a hero and a villain – and it’s not always the criminal who has to assume the latter role. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in HBO’s wonderful four-part documentary “The Lady and the Dale,” an amazing story that, to paraphrase the old English comedian Frankie Howerd, left my gast totally flabbered.
Again, my lack of knowledge about the subject made me the perfect audience for this show about a charismatic woman called Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael. She sought to go head-to-head with the big three U.S. car giants in the early ’70s with her company’s revolutionary-sounding new car, the Dale – a three-wheeler (the third wheel was at the rear) that promised owners 70 miles to the gallon. With the gas crisis raging, sparked by the Middle East conflict, that was a major selling point at a time when most gas guzzlers struggled to do 13 miles to the gallon.
“The two most important things about me [are] that I have endless energy and I am totally honest,” Liz is quoted as saying while promoting her vehicular vision. But it’s apparent from the very first moment that only one of those statements was ever true.
Liz Carmichael was actually born Jerry Dean Michael, a recidivist with a rap sheet as long as his 1.9-meter (6 foot, 2 inch) frame. Married three times and with five children from his most recent relationship alone – the fact that one of the kids is called Michael Michael is just par for the course here – Jerry began transitioning while on the run from the FBI in the ’60s – all while having wife Vivian and young family in tow.
If you think this sounds like something from a Billy Wilder comedy, think again. Jerry’s transitioning was no act of subterfuge, instead being borne from the desire to be his true self: a very ballsy (metaphorically speaking) woman.
It’s an incredible story, especially as Liz is also driven by the desire to become a billionaire through her kooky car company. The fact she’s prone to lines like “General Motors? I’ll kick the shit out of them” and “I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac, but I’m a genius” somehow makes her even more adorable.
As well as offering a full account of Carmichael’s life story – often using rudimentary but highly effective animation to recreate the most outrageous stories (which invariably involve fleeing the law) – directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker also use this singular, trailblazing woman to offer a brief history of notable trans Americans in the 20th century.
This was, we are reminded, a time when to be transgender was to be regarded as only marginally less alien than if you actually came from Mars, and Liz’s treatment at the hands of the media and prison authorities when her truth was revealed is truly horrifying.
So, to circle back, if Liz is the hero of our story, who’s our villain? I’m not going to name names here, but I think that for most viewers, the actions of a certain TV reporter will prove that the apple never falls far from the tree.
“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is on Netflix from Wednesday. “The Lady and the Dale” is on HBO in America on Sundays. In Israel, it’s on Yes Docu on Mondays at 10 P.M., when it’s also available on Yes VOD and Sting TV. It airs on Cellcom tv from February 15 and on Hot 8 and Hot VOD from February 18.