Tuesday, June 21, 2016

An American Nightmare

I have now made it through the five parts of ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America, all seven hours and 44 minutes of it. I suppose watching and playing in poker tournaments -- or maybe it’s all those transatlantic flights I’ve taken -- has made sitting through nearly eight hours of anything seem a lot less remarkable than it was before.

The reviews of the film, directed and produced by Ezra Edelman, have been consistently glowing, and I, too, thought it very good and compelling throughout. Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) is an obvious influence (narrative pace, music, editing, interview format), and as I greatly enjoy Morris’s films and storytelling style that ensured I was hooked from early in the first hour.

I knew a lot about Simpson’s background, though the film presents numerous details that were new to me (and to most viewers, I’d imagine). Much of what was presented concerning the murders and trial was very familiar, while some of the participants’ reflections were interesting to hear articulated for the first time.

The civil case (in which Simpson was found responsible for the murders) was mostly familiar ground as well for those who followed it when it happened. Meanwhile the entire post-trials sequence detailing Simpson’s downward spiral into decadence and his eventual arrest, conviction, and imprisonment in Nevada for a different crime was mostly new to me.

The film clarifies in a comprehensive way how studying the complicated legacy of race relations both in southern California and Los Angeles in particular and in the nation as a whole adds considerably to our understanding of why the trial played out as it did. It also sheds light on Simpson’s own strange, frighteningly-destructive psychological makeup, which helps explain -- as much as is possible, anyway -- how exactly he had become a person able to perpetrate such horrors.

“There was nothing ever, ever in the past that would indicate would be capable of doing what he’s doing right now” says Al Michaels on air during the Bronco chase, articulating the position of the great majority of the public at the time who thought they knew Simpson but really did not. The film helps make it clear that not only was Simpson capable, but predisposed to commit such acts.

Probably the most affecting part of the entire documentary (for me) was the creeping, mounting, chest-tightening dread that builds toward the end of the second part when all of the many, many instances of abuse and other loud forewarnings build upon each other -- both saddening and maddening. I also was affected during the discussion of the Rodney King beating, trial, and the L.A. riots, as they triggered some anxiety-filled memories of that time. (As well as some trepidation about how such a situation might play out today, nearly a quarter-century later.)

In the end, I appreciated the lengthy exposition (i.e., the first two parts) a bit more than the narrative of the trial and its aftermath, probably because the latter was on the whole both more familiar to me and tended to be overwhelmed at several points by the incredibly sensational aspects of the murders and trial.

As I say, the argument that race relations was a key component to America’s “making” a figure like O.J. was persuasive and thorough. But when it was over I was thinking also about other influences upon attitudes and values -- namely, sports, celebrity, and money/class -- all suggested as well by the film, but not explored as fully. Of course, that might’ve carried the film another couple of hours further, as it didn’t appear there was much included that didn’t seem to belong.

I’ll finish with one last observation about the documentary. Early on it is established how Simpson not only avoided drawing attention to race and the many injustices marking race relations as his personal fame and cultural stature grew, but overtly defended his right to pursue self-interest. The position is uniformly opposed by others in the film, and indeed Simpson’s lack of interest in any larger community is made to appear monstrous -- another piece of evidence presented to explain Simpson’s narcissism and lack of regard for anyone but himself.

As that case was being made, though, I found myself thinking -- how unusual is that position, really? Especially today. We’re surrounded by others adopting the exact same approach to society at large and their place within it, not feeling any responsibility at all to the “community” and appearing exclusively and unembarrassedly motivated by self-improvement.

It’s a not uncommon type, and also -- to an extent -- “made in America.”

Image: ESPN.

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