Three recent docu-dramas on Netflix have left me thinking about how our species deals with wrongness. The first was a miniseries; the other two were feature length films; all three were based on real events. Warning: plot spoilers ahead, though I’ll try to keep them limited.
The Ripper is a four-episode mini-series about a series of murders in the County of York, England, in the 1970’s. A woman walks alone in the wee hours of the morning, through a neighborhood of late-night bars believed to be a favorite hangout for hookers. Essentially, due to sexist attitudes that seem hard for us to believe fifty years later, the all-male detectives who become the series’ bumbling anti-heroes are insensitive to the possibility that a single mother in the modern world might have occasion to get a drink after work, and (quite sensibly) choose to walk home, rather than drive under the influence. They become increasingly convinced of the theory that a woman walking alone in such a neighborhood at that hour of the morning must be a prostitute. When other women are killed in similar ways, they realize there’s a serial killer at work, but their profile of the killer as a man who targets prostitutes becomes more than a theory. As it gets shared with the detectives’ superiors, with the press, and with the public, their careers and the authority of their superiors in law enforcement become invested in it. As the press hounds law enforcement for theories, those theories become part of “the truth known by all.” Reputations, and the public’s confidence in law enforcement, in the press, and indeed, in government itself, are at stake. When evidence mounts that some victims were not prostitutes, the cops don’t abandon their profile of the prostitute killer, they theorize that the killer must have mistakenly thought that the victims were prostitutes. (Someone is was wrong, not us.) Their attachment to their theory gets stronger and stronger as the murders mount, to the point that – well, there’s no need to ruin the whole plot. It’s a fascinating expose of the power of confirmation bias, with extreme consequences we’d like to hope are rare – but which, methinks, probably aren’t.
The second Netflix offering that left me thinking is Made You Look. One promo description of it is, “A woman walks into a New York gallery with a cache of unknown masterworks. Thus begins a story of art world greed, willfulness and a high-stakes con.” When the woman (Galfira Rosales) walks into the ultra-prestigious Knoedler Art Gallery with a single painting by a modern art master with no personal credentials and no proof of provenance for the artwork, Ann Freedman, Director of the gallery, is naturally skeptical. But Rosales has a credible story, so Freedman submits the painting to various experts for their opinions about the painting’s authenticity. One after another, they vouch for the beauty and authenticity of the piece. Some time after Freedman sells it for a substantial sum, Rosales comes to her with another painting, which Freedman also has evaluated for authenticity, and which, after the experts vouch for it, she also sells. Over a period of some seventeen years, the process is repeated many times, until finally an evaluator questions the authenticity of a piece. An investigation ultimately results in Rosales confessing that all the paintings she has sold to Knoedler and which Knoedler has re-sold to wealthy art afficionados — for a total of eighty million dollars – are forgeries.
In its review of the documentary, the LA Times calls Freedman “unrepentant,” a description I’ll get back to in a moment. What stands out to me about the film is the harshness of Freedman’s critics as they accuse her of complicity in the fraud. Many of the “experts” who originally vouched for the art quickly back off (once Rosales admits the fraud), claiming that their opinions as to authenticity were never really that at all. (Their reputations as experts being on the line, they strive to explain their own words as anything but the words of people who’ve been duped.) Meanwhile, the wealthy art lovers who paid millions of dollars for fakes are acid in their condemnation of Freedman, certain that she was in on the fraud, clamoring for her imprisonment, ruination and (one imagines, if it were possible) her permanent exile from planet Earth. Neither the experts nor the buyers who’ve been taken in seem “repentant” for their own gullibility, but that’s understandable: human nature fights to preserve our sense of self-worth, and if that self-worth is imperiled by evidence we were duped, we naturally seek to pin the blame on others – in this case, on the evil, cunning, inexcusable co-perpetrator Ann Freedman, whose intentional trickery must bear the responsibility for our own mistakes.
One of Freedman’s harshest critics is New York Times reporter M.H. Miller, who is repeatedly featured in the film. Miller is completely convinced that Freedman was in on the hoax. He argues his case like a prosecutor, pointing to all the “obvious” reasons that Freedman must have known the works were fake. Unlike those who were duped, Miller’s certainty can’t be explained by the psychological needs of a duped victim. Rather, it must be explained by the persuasive power of what Miller and The Times might call objective facts. Of course, at the forefront of those facts is the eventual confession of Rosales. Miller applies his expertise as an objective news reporter with all the benefit of hindsight. He “knows the truth” – that the pieces were fakes – from the outset of his own understanding of the facts, and he condemns Freedman as complicit in the fraud, refusing to believe that she didn’t see things as clearly as he does.
I submit that when you “know the truth from the outset” people who saw things differently along the way inevitably look blind to it. In any case, back to the review in the LA Times, calling Freedman “unrepentant,” the description seems to me to suggest The Times’s implicit conclusion that Freedman was in on the hoax. On the West coast, just as on the East, then, objective reporters with the benefit of hindsight seem to share an underlying belief in objective truth. If you’re seeking a Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting – as journalists these days all seem dedicated to doing – is there, perhaps, an essential requirement that you believe that objective truth not only exists, but that it can and should be convincingly exposed for what it is (by you)? When one has the benefit of hindsight, clear logic and evidence must make Truth irrefutable, no? Evidence that points to any other conclusion must not really be evidence at all, if properly understood. And people who see the evidence as pointing in any other direction must, like Freedman, be guilty of wrongdoing. And therefore “unrepentant.”
But the art experts who vouched for the authenticity of the fakes defended their reputations by trying to explain away their prior words. (Unrepentant?) The wealthy but duped buyers never admitted their gullibility, defending their purchases by pointing to the reputation of the Knoedler Gallery and the sheer deceptive skill of its con-artist Director, Freedman. (Unrepentant?) In fact, Freedman is the only character in the drama who says she was duped, the only character willing to acknowledge that, despite her life’s work as an art dealer, she made some stupid mistakes. Sure, she liked the idea of being in on the discovery of previously unknown works of masters, and of bringing them to the world’s attention. If they were real, she profited; if not, she didn’t. Her self-interest and sense of self-worth therefore blinded her to the evidence of forgery. But as I see it, Freedman acknowledges as much, and no one else involved comes close to the depth of her own acceptance of responmsibility. Everyone else tries to cast blame elsewhere.
The third Netflix offering that got my attention, Spotlight, is an account of the Boston Globe’s investigation into Catholic Church pedophilia in Boston. Like The Ripper and Made You Look, it ultimately paints a picture of eventually-known truth, on the one hand, and years of widespread blindness to that truth, on the other. It, too, is a study in the human capacity for being wrong. As the extent of pedophilia in the church becomes gradually clearer, it isn’t only the Church itself that tries to cover it up. Parishioners deny it. Law enforcement denies it. Family members of victims deny it. Lawyers and prosecutors deny it. Each element of the population with a role in the drama has its own self-serving psychological influences – I won’t call them “reasons” – for being blind to the extent of the problem. I don’t think it’s a better docu-drama than the other two, but as I see it, Spotlight does us a favor. The best part of it, for me, is that one storyline within Spotlight deals with The Globe’s own culpability, it’s own past blindness to the extent of the problem. As everyone else is asking how complaints could be ignored and abuse excused for so long – by others – Spotlight depicts The Globe as asking the same question of itself.
The Globe, it seems to me, was complicit, but now, to its great credit, is portrayed as acknowledging as much. I might even say that the Globe comes across as “repentant.” But Mr. Miller, of the New York Times, seems convinced that anyone with a brain should have seen what he sees, while the L.A. Times calls Ms. Freedman – and only Ms. Freedman – “unrepentant” when she alone has admitted to her wrongness. Alas, I often feel that such self-righteous condemnation of the motives and beliefs of others is – how best to put it – a “sign of the times”?
All three are worth watching, both as studies of our human capacity for wrongness, and of how we respond when our ideas are tested by contrary evidence. All in all, a good mix to remind us of the ways we may be wrong.