I hadn’t experienced an emotional reversal of fortune this dramatic since discovering that the soft-featured prostitute devouring my member was, in fact, a transsexual named Robert. Like that moonlit night long ago, an orgasm is still an orgasm, but it’s forever tempered by disgust and shame. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary The Staircase, then, is a cinematic wonder of technique, insight, and suspense, though after a bit of research within minutes of the film’s conclusion – I had neglected such things prior to the screening, so as to avoid ruining the surprise – I was forced to undertake an immediate reassessment tantamount to a thunderous rug-pulling. While the film played – all six hours of it, spread out over three nights – I was enthralled, stimulated, and even pushed to the brink, but now that I know the facts of the case, the film becomes a hollow exercise in manipulation, deception, and outright falsehood. I’ve been hoodwinked and bamboozled, ladies and gentlemen, and I feel like an utter fool. No, the film portrays an actual case (this is no mockumentary) with flesh and blood human beings occupying the frame, but instead of taking us through the intricacies of the event, the filmmaker instead operates from a position of contemptible bias; using his film to fulfill a sinister agenda, rather than shed light on an infamous murder trial.
Maybe because I don’t watch Court TV and avoid Nancy Grace’s mad ravings at all costs, I was not familiar with the case of author Michael Peterson. In December of 2001, Michael’s wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her lush North Carolina estate. Michael claims to have found her late that night after imbibing a few drinks by the pool, which prompted an immediate call to 911. Having immediately concluded that his wife had fallen, he wept like a grandmother while the dispatcher gathered information. But once the authorities got to the scene, it appeared to be anything but a simple fall. Blood was literally everywhere, and it would have been reasonable to conclude that a knife fight had just occurred rather than a drunken stumble. But Michael maintained his story, even after being arrested a short time later.
The documentary takes the story from its beginning, following not only Michael, but the crack (and well-paid) defense team as they prepared what had to be a difficult case. How could the buckets of blood be explained away as anything but a calculated murder? That there was no murder weapon worked in Michael’s favor, and Dr. Henry Lee was on board, “proving” that the splatter patterns were more consistent with an accident than any sort of beating. Hell, Lee helped acquit O.J. Simpson, so Michael had to feel optimistic about his chances. The backroom discussions, maneuvers, and legal wrangling were stunningly portrayed, and despite being “verite”, it had all the wonder of an old fashioned whodunit. Each new episode brought further revelations, including Michael’s bisexuality (he had a long record of seeking military studs on the internet) and an interesting case from twenty years before, where Michael had been close friends with another woman whom he had found dead at the bottom of her stairs. All told, there were trips to Germany, exhumations, missing evidence, family melodrama, and all the shock of a respected writer facing a long prison term.
Once the case goes to trial, we can’t imagine the jury finding this man anything other than not guilty. Sure, there was all that blood, but wasn’t his shirt completely clean? And didn’t that computerized simulation prove that just such a fall could in fact occur? Wasn’t their marriage the picture of happiness, despite the sexual dalliances of the husband? And if Kathleen had been beaten to death, what about the lack of brain trauma or evidence of a skull fracture? Surely something of Michael’s would have been present at the crime scene, and how could he escape all traces of the carnage? After all, he was spotless when the police arrived. At the very least, there was reasonable doubt, even if suspicions remained. Michael’s gay secrets could have been a motive, but would that be enough? The prosecution’s case, as presented, was appallingly weak, and as jury deliberations began, I could not fathom a verdict other than an acquittal.
It was at this point that my anger towards the jury system took hold. I’ve always been wary of uneducated, “common” folks deciding the fates of suspected criminals, and this case seemed to highlight that concern with bold colors. The burden of proof had not been met, and if the man was convicted, it would be an emotional decision, based largely on disgust with the man’s sexual preferences. This was the South, after all, as well as a largely African-American jury (we remember the O.J. verdict all too well). Whether or not these prejudices were warranted, the film created the sense that Michael Peterson was the victim of a bigoted, small-minded Dixie attitude; where a man is assumed guilty because he had anal sex with young men (even the closing arguments appeared to emphasize this point above all others). Here we go, I thought; the further erosion of Constitutional protections and the substitution of rank idiocy in the jury room. As my blood boiled, I thought once again about the superiority of three-judge panels, or a “jury class” made up of law students, intellectuals, and the scientifically inclined. I was racist, classist, and elitist all at once.
And then the verdict was returned – guilty of murder in the first degree. I was stunned, though I had no right to be. Had these people been observing the same case? Maybe Michael was guilty, but surely it had not been proven? And so I assumed that Lestrade had indicted the entire American system of justice, much as he did with the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Afternoon. Stupidity triumphs, morons send innocent people to jail, and homosexual inclinations are enough to assume guilt. If a man cheats on his wife, well, he must be capable of murder. Oh, the shame of it all. And so I packed up the DVDs and went to my computer, curious to see what had happened since. How was the appeals process going (the judge, after all, had had a few cases reversed, and he did seem to be overly affectionate towards the prosecution), and how is Michael dealing with this bizarre new turn in his life? Instead, I found truth. Shocking, devastating truth that made me bitter and enraged all over again, though in a way I had not anticipated. It was post-cinematic awakening.
Needless to say, whenever 600 hours of courtroom footage are distilled down to six, the full story can never really be told. And yet, we do expect a high degree of accuracy, so that our assumptions about the case reflect the actual record. Instead, Lestrade’s film is a colossal lie; sheer propaganda as vile as anything put out during the political season. Among the director’s unforgivable omissions — the Peterson’s were over $100,000 in debt, and Kathleen was in fear of losing her job; Michael’s shoe print was found on the back of Kathleen’s sweatpants, despite the fact that her body was facing up; though Michael’s shirt was clean, there was blood found on the inside cuff of Michael’s shorts, demonstrating that he was likely above her as the blood splattered; red neuron evidence showed that it took Kathleen nearly two hours to die (what the hell was he doing all this time?); the crime scene showed evidence of an attempted clean-up, including the presence of towels and Windex; and that Kathleen’s body below the waist showed no evidence of bruising, which would be highly unlikely in a traumatic fall. So yes, the filmmaker left out a motive (a million-dollar insurance payout to take care of the debt), blood evidence linking Michael to the scene of the crime, lies concerning the time of death, and most interestingly, Kathleen’s smashed thyroid cartilage, which would point to strangulation (short falls do not produce this kind of injury).
The film also omits Michael’s son’s four-year stint in federal prison for planting a bomb on the Duke University campus, when we are led to believe that he cannot testify about the “suddenly found” murder weapon because of a harmless DWI. It has nothing to do with Michael’s case, of course, but why soften the blow? All of these facts were presented to the jury, and most of them would have, all alone, been enough to convict. But we the audience were denied such details, proving conclusively that the film sought only to distort, rather than investigate a true miscarriage of justice. Michael Peterson, then, was rightfully convicted, and the film played with the truth in order to fulfill an agenda that is both insidious and discriminatory. This film should destroy Lestrade’s reputation forever, but he’s likely to continue making fictional pieces that pass for documentaries, winning countless awards in the process. Given the nature of the distortion, moreover, I must conclude that Lestrade was trying to say that gay men don’t stand a chance in the South, which is hardly worth spending six hours trying to prove. And please, you don’t have to make shit up to show that Southerners are undesirable louts. Their daily lives give us all we need.
Still, despite Lestrade’s mendacity, the blame ultimately lies with me for assuming the inherent truth of the documentary format. I discovered the film’s worthlessness within minutes, but I had dispensed with my usual skepticism in favor of being entertained. And I was, undeniably so. Never before had I found a film nearly perfect one moment, only to declare it thoroughly bogus the next. It’s a masterpiece alright, though of calculated bullshit, rather than artistry. I have no problem with a non-fiction film trying to build a case, but not at the expense of information that demonstrates the very opposite. And so we have a full rejection of Godard’s maxim that “the cinema is truth 24 frames per second”. But that fucker gets everything wrong, as we know. Cinema is simply a perspective – sometimes right, often wrong, and requiring full participation on the part of the viewer that doesn’t end when the lights come up.