Binge-r #93: The Staircase + Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 13 episodes now streaming
The Staircase is not only the latest fascinating true crime documentary series, it’s also an instigator of this modern genre. Produced over the course of 17 years, as the charging of a man with his wife’s murder becomes a saga of motive, evidence, and verdict that continually rearranges itself, the initial 2004 episodes helped create the framework of the non-fiction procedural, while the subsequent additions in 2013 and now codify our now burgeoning connection to these works. “This has become a show,” laments successful author Michael Peterson, the accused figure at the centre of this mystery, in the fourth episode, and his words are now prescient.
It was Peterson who rang 911 on the night of December 9, 2001 to report that his wife, telecommunications executive Kathleen, had fallen down narrow stairs at their rear of their North Carolina home. “She was alive when I found her, but barely,” he explains in a subsequent filmed walk-through, but almost as soon as emergency services found Kathleen dead the police identified her husband as a suspect. With seemingly unfettered access, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade captures the initial efforts of investigators, and the shocked, disbelieving reaction of Michael and Kathleen’s blended family of children from their previous marriages.
Head wounds and the amount of blood spilt don’t suggest an accidental fall down 15 steps, but unlike true crime documentaries that begin in the present and look back on a crime by offering a new investigation and possible theories, The Staircase stays glued to unfolding developments, which are numerous. The level of detail is compelling, with the initial eight episodes covering the two years between Kathleen’s death and the unreadable Michael’s first verdict. The passing of months captures the obsession that built for those involved, eventually transferring to the audience.
The intricacies of the story become embedded, so that blood spatter patterns and crime scene photos become a new kind of dialect; you will become familiar with the owl theory. But beyond that this is a reading of the American justice system, with Michael’s defence fuelled by lawyer David Rudolf and a sizable cast of assistants. But his wealth is ranged against institutional failings and prejudice – Michael’s bisexual affairs outside his marriage are seized on by the prosecution as a harbinger of guilt. You watch teenagers grow up and adults get old in The Staircase, tied together by a moment none can agree on. Time’s cruel passing is the only certainty here.
>> From the Archive: If you want another true crime series to follow The Staircase, try Netflix’s The Keepers, an indictment of institutional corruption and murder stretching back 50 years [full review here].
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix, 2018, 69 minutes): You could call Hannah Gadsby’s performance at the Sydney Opera House a stand-up comedy set or a monologue, but it’s equally valid to describe it as a life’s summation or a painful victory over the past. Throughout the show, even as she etches the narrative with tender jibes and askew glances, the Tasmanian-born comic creates and even celebrates what she will destroy via the conclusion. She differentiates between a joke and a story, acknowledging her mastery of both, and then condemns her own reliance on self-deprecating humour. “It’s not humility,” to be self-deprecating from a marginalised position she explains, “it’s humiliating”, and Gadsby steadily deconstructs her life and work, so that jokes are replaced by the truth they obscured and punchlines turn to trauma. Apart from a heartbreaking wide shot, the direction is unobtrusive, but Gadsby’s unflinching humanism holds the frame. By the final cumulative minutes Nanette is a monumental act of self-expression. It is raw, riveting, and virtuosic.
Also New on Netflix: Set it Up (2018, 105 minutes) is an enjoyable vintage-feel romantic comedy – sweet instead of risqué – about a pair of 20somthing assistants (Zoey Deutch and Glenn Powell) who get their respective bosses together and then fall for each other; a lean, lurid noir thriller, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981, 122 minutes) perfectly pairs Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.
New on SBS On Demand: Before Tangerine and The Florida Project, Sean Baker made Starlet (2012, 99 minutes), the story of a formative Los Angeles friendship between two women, young and old played by Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson respectively, that unfolds with unadorned naturalism. The conclusion is sublime.
New on Stan: A nightmarishly stunning experience, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014, 109 minutes) stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien creature luring men to their otherworldly deaths in current day Glasgow before suffering a crisis of identity; a judgment on American inequality and division, the social gathering drama Beatriz at Dinner (2017, 81 minutes), stars Salma Hayek and John Lithgow.
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