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The Staircase
March 10, 2010 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Oscar winner Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's TV documentary series The Staircase can be watched in full on Google Video. It chronicles the defense strategy of Michael Peterson, the novelist who in 2001 was accused of murdering his wife, who he said had fallen down a flight of stairs at their grand house in Durham, N.C. Links inside.

Chapter 1 - "Crime or Accident"
Chapter 2 - "Secrets and Lies"
Chapter 3 - "A Striking Coincidence"
Chapter 4 - "A Prosecution Trickery"
Chapter 5 - "A Weak Case"
Chapter 6 - "The Prosecution's Revenge"
Chapter 7 - "The Blowpoke Returns"
Chapter 8 - "The Verdict"
posted by AceRock (19 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
When I first saw this film, it was pretty obvious from the get-go that the director had an axe to grind. Fair enough. What I didn't learn until after seeing it, however, was the number of vitally important facts that the film conveniently leaves out--the most important of which, to me, was Peterson's profit motive for killing his wife. The derails into Peterson's personal life were lurid and uninteresting.

It's worth seeing, but not necessarily taking seriously.
posted by orrnyereg at 3:49 PM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I agree with orrnyereg ... watch the staircase, and then hunt down info on the films that isn't relying on the film for its facts, and you'll be pretty shocked. A Perfect Husband by Aphrodite Jones or Written in Blood by Diane Fanning provide a good counterbalance, and after watching the film, reading that book and doing some online research, I'm very comfortable in my belief that Peterson is guilty.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:56 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


hunt down info on the films

By which I mean "hunt down info on the crime".
posted by Bookhouse at 3:57 PM on March 10, 2010


I interviewed Peterson for a local alt weekly during his Durham mayoral run a couple of months before the murder (was in the house and everything), and followed the trial pretty closely. There was tons of room for reasonable doubt in this one, and if the prosecution hadn't played up the lurid "he was bi!" angle they almost certainly wouldn't have gotten the conviction.

Peterson's profit motive for killing his wife

That was a real stretch on the prosecution's part, and not something that was demonstrated fully at all. To me, anyway.
posted by mediareport at 4:06 PM on March 10, 2010


What is it with people surnamed Peterson?
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:15 PM on March 10, 2010


One of the best ever documentaries. A lot of stuff was "left out" bceause trials last hundreds of hours. It's probably the most comprehensive filmed account ever presented of any individual trial, barring live coverage.
posted by stammer at 4:16 PM on March 10, 2010


One of the best ever documentaries.

I couldn't disagree more. This is actually one of the worst documentaries ever made. As noted above, the filmmaker absolutely has an axe to grind.

When I saw this film I was stunned at the verdict. I then reseached the case and it was clear what the director had done. This is a perfect (and therefore awful) example of what editing can do in a documentary.

If you're not interested in researching the crime, I highly recommend you NOT watch the film. It's that bad.

It's also the pefect example of why a documentary should never be the sole source of information on any topic. Though the film is well made, technically, it brings into question what makes a documentary "good". Does the documentary just have to be compelling, regardless of the truth? I don't think so. This director obviously does.
posted by dobbs at 4:41 PM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


It forever altered how I feel when I see the Blowpoke ad in the New Yorker. I wonder what they thought of it all.
posted by everichon at 5:25 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I deny everything.
posted by The Pusher Robot at 5:55 PM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I saw this film I was stunned at the verdict. I then reseached the case and it was clear what the director had done. This is a perfect (and therefore awful) example of what editing can do in a documentary.

I understand what you're saying, but consider that over the course of Staircase, which in its totality is shorter than a single season of Two and a Half Men, de Lestrade manages to portray in fascinating detail, within a compelling narrative:

*the internal dynamics of a large, mixed family, when the patriarch is accused of murder
*how a legal defence operates with a near-unlimited budget
*how a legal defence operates when the trial a huge news story
*what it's like to live in a crime scene, when you knew the victim
*a war between the social elites of a poor and unequal city
*the uneasy integration of ex-Bohemians into said elite (see the Yoda-like courtroom coach, whose hippie powers have been harnessed for dark purposes)
*the bizarre professional rivalry of forensic experts and pathologists
*the general stagecraft of a trial
*how grown children deal with past and recurring trauma
*the incomprehensible personality of Michael Peterson
*a state openly arguing that homosexuality is indicative of murderous inclination

Any of these subjects alone would be worth a documentary, and to thread them all together successfully is pretty amazing. You can only do so much in so much time, and considering how much Staircase achieved, failing to present the prosecution's case to the satisfaction of the prosecution isn't that important to me. There are plenty of narratives that present adversarial court procedures relatively even-handedly, but I've not seen any that really approaches the subjects mastered by Staircase.
posted by stammer at 6:15 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Apparently, the new defense theory is that Kathleen Peterson died after being attacked by an owl. Though facially goofy, iIMO the idea seems to have some merit.

Another interesting point: the D.A. the Peterson case, Mike Nifong, is the same one who was later disbarred as a result of misconduct related to the Duke Lacrosse case.

For my own part, I thought The Staircase was a fascinating piece, and whether Peterson is guilty or not, the prosecution's treatment of his sexual orientation sickened me.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 6:29 PM on March 10, 2010


When I saw this film I was stunned at the verdict. I then reseached the case and it was clear what the director had done. This is a perfect (and therefore awful) example of what editing can do in a documentary.

Every single documentary ever made does this to some degree or another, and it never ceases to amaze me that people are scandalized by it. No documentary maker is objective - if they're interested in the subject, they have an opinion on it, and they're going to edit the film to better support that opinion. However, and this is a big however, if your opinion contradicts actual fact and your editing consists of blatantly misrepresenting the truth, your documentary then becomes propaganda and is worthless. There's a blurry line there, and not having seen the film yet I won't comment on which side it falls on, but there is a line.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:58 PM on March 10, 2010


Any of these subjects alone would be worth a documentary, and to thread them all together successfully is pretty amazing.

Your definition of successful is different from mine.

When I studied film, we actually had a class where we were supposed to intentionally misuse gathered material (film/audio) and do our best to distort our subject's pov. The purpose was to show young filmmakers how much power they have and how easy it is to abuse it.

a state openly arguing that homosexuality is indicative of murderous inclination

This is a horrible thing. However, how is it any different than what the director did? He twisted the information he had or had access to in order to convince you of something other than the facts. You're saying he couldn't possibly have included everything. That's true of every documentarian. My issue is with what he chose to include.

Further, I don't see how any of the topics you think he communicated couldn't have been covered by not subjecting the material to the filmmaker's own bias. He chose to distort the facts ... why?
posted by dobbs at 7:07 PM on March 10, 2010


I was entertained by this documentary, but like a few of you I'm not convinced this filmmaker was as impartial as I prefer documentarians to be. This was more docu-drama than anything else.
posted by b2walton at 7:29 PM on March 10, 2010


Further, I don't see how any of the topics you think he communicated couldn't have been covered by not subjecting the material to the filmmaker's own bias.

Of course they couldn't have. Choosing what to film and what not to film is an act of bias. Editing is an act of bias. Constructing a documentary is an act of bias.
posted by stammer at 1:25 AM on March 11, 2010


Choosing what to film and what not to film is an act of bias. Editing is an act of bias. Constructing a documentary is an act of bias.

I've heard this excuse regarding media bias as well, and it seems like a copout. Of course the simple act of inclusion/exclusion is an act of bias, but at a certain point it crosses the line into misrepresentation. Like others I've seen the film and read much of the excluded material and this film crosses the line into distortion of the truth.
posted by mattholomew at 5:29 AM on March 11, 2010


De Lestrade was not partial at all, i remember reading an interview of him at the times where he pretty much admitted it.
Regardless the documentary series is great, it unfolds like a great crime story, biased or not it's really well structured.
The weirdest thing about it is that one of the editor of the series fell in love with Peterson (french article) while working on it.
posted by SageLeVoid at 7:32 AM on March 11, 2010


When I saw this film I was stunned at the verdict. I then reseached the case and it was clear what the director had done. This is a perfect (and therefore awful) example of what editing can do in a documentary.

What's interesting is that I also watched the documentary, and I never believed for a minute that Peterson was innocent. I was actually a bit surprised when I found out after watching the movie that the directors were actually on Peterson's side. From my perspective, they had done a pretty bad job of making him look innocent.

So I don't know, maybe my interpretive frame is distorted by having watched too much Law & Order in the past, but it is certainly possible to watch The Staircase without any additional information and still come out thinking, "Wow, this guy's obviously guilty." That's not to say the directors weren't biased, but in my case, it didn't matter.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:40 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Loved the film? ... own the Blo-Poke!
posted by JBennett at 9:13 AM on March 11, 2010


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