Judges, Juries and Executioners

Empty Courtroom

It’s my birthday today. I am thirty-two. I hope you don’t mind because there isn’t anything I can do about it. (I’ve tried.)

When I started this blog one year ago (it’s my blog’s birthday, too) I very deliberately did not want it to be a record of personal things. I’ve done that before, several times, and it always leads to unfocused rambling that can’t possibly be of interest to anybody other than myself. So I decided to focus on pop-culture instead, and I told myself that if I ever felt the need to use the “personal” tag when categorizing a post, then it didn’t belong on this site. I’ve now broken that rule 16 times.

I can’t speak for the others, but I think number 16 is important, because I went through a transformative experience just last month. I’m still processing it. Maybe writing about it, and opening it up for discussion, will make something more clear about it.

Maybe not. But I wanted to talk about it anyway, because it’s important to me, and I don’t know what else to do with it.

I served as jury foreman for a domestic violence case. And it was an experience I’d like to share with you here. Why? I don’t know. Maybe you can tell me.

I’ve often grappled with what should be a very easy question to answer: am I a good person?

I don’t know why I’d grapple with that. The answer should be yes. Right? Well, why? If I’m a good person, then why am I a good person?

Because I don’t do bad things, I guess.

Except I do do bad things, sometimes. I tell a lie or I hurt somebody’s feelings or I don’t volunteer my seat on the train to an old person. I’m a real bastard.

And besides, even if I didn’t do that stuff, is it enough to not do bad things? “Good” shouldn’t be a neutral category; you shouldn’t end up there simply because you didn’t do the opposite. It should be an active category. It should be something you earn.

And what have I done to earn it?

I’ve thought about the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life many (many, many…) times. Jimmy Stewart runs through the streets of Bedford Falls positively bursting with the sheer joy of being alive, not because anything is going right for him — it sure as heck isn’t — but because he’s just been shown how important he is to the world around him. If he hadn’t saved all of these people — he actively saved all of these people — they wouldn’t be around anymore, or would be far worse off. He did that. He wasn’t a nice guy because he sat quietly and didn’t bother anyone…he was a nice guy because he changed people’s lives for the better. He could see that if he was never born, things would have gone much worse without him.

But what have I changed? Certainly I’ve been important to many people, but if I hadn’t been there, would their lives really be worse? Did I change anything, or was I just party to their decided trajectory? I think people would miss me if I’m gone, and that says something, but would anything really change? If it didn’t, then can I really be good?

It’s an interesting thing to ponder. And now I actually do know somebody whose life would have changed without me. He doesn’t know my name and I’m already starting to forget his, but I did something. I actively did something. And because of that, a switch got flipped somewhere along the track, and he’s in a different place because of me than he would have been without.

He was the defendant in a domestic violence case. If I understand correctly I am actually able to discuss details of the case now that it’s over, but I’m choosing not to, as I don’t think it’s worth making anything traceable for those involved.

I’ve been chosen for jury duty before, when I lived in Florida. For those unfamiliar, a large number of potential jurors are first chosen from a pool of registered tax payers. From there that number is whittled down the day before your scheduled court date, as they have a better idea then of how many jurors they need. You call the night before to find out if you even need to show up. Often you don’t.

From there the pool that shows up is divided into smaller groups who are called into court rooms to serve. If you’re not called, you get to go home…and that’s as far as I made it in Florida.

Once you get to the court room that group is further whittled down when the judge asks questions of each individual and determines whether or not there are any reasons they shouldn’t serve on a jury. And then after that the prosecutor and defense attorney both get to ask questions and discharge any juror they like (without having to provide a reason) until only the required number of jurors remains.

I remained, and so did seven others. At every step of the process I expected to be sent home, but I never was. I remained.

The defendant was accused of physically abusing his wife, and also disturbing the piece, though obviously that latter charge was much less serious and the prosecutor hardly argued it at all.

The real meat of the case was the domestic violence. It was alleged that the defendant returned home to find his wife in bed, and she woke up with his hand around her throat. She ran outside and called 911. The police arrived, and before any questions were asked the man said to the police, “I didn’t touch her. I didn’t do anything.”

That — in tandem with a recording of the 911 call — was the entire case. There was no other evidence, and only two people gave their testimony: the wife, and the police officer who responded.

The defendant was a black man who spoke very little English.

There was a recess about 2/3 of the way into the case. The judge dismissed us to a small room with only a coffee pot and some old issues of Readers’ Digest. As might be expected, I kept to myself…doubly so when I heard the others talking. I don’t wish to paint them all with the same brush, but I heard enough talk about him being “obviously guilty” and a few people who “think he did it” that I knew I didn’t want to participate. I kept my head down until we were allowed back into the court room.

Here’s the thing: justice works in a very specific way in this country. At least, it’s supposed to. See, we were reminded many times — and would later be given documentation reminding us of this fact as we went off to render our verdict — that the burden of proof was on the prosecutor. That is to say that we were to consider the defendant innocent, until proven guilty. It was not up to the defendant to prove his “innocence,” and it never was. It was up to the prosecutor to prove the defendant’s guilt…and if the prosecutor failed to do that beyond a reasonable doubt, then we must find the defendant not guilty.

That’s why we find them “not guilty” instead of “innocent.” We’re not being asked to declare whether the defendant did or did not commit the crime…we couldn’t possibly know that. We are instead being asked to determine whether or not it was proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did commit the crime.

What I heard from my fellow jurors was that he must be guilty, because why would his wife lie? I heard that he must be guilty, otherwise why wouldn’t he testify for himself? I heard that he must be guilty because people had a bad feeling about him. I heard nothing of the evidence, or of any serious consideration. I heard people speaking from the heart…the part of them that hears that a woman has been beaten and reacts to that statement, rather than trying to assess how much truth is behind it.

I understand the impulse. I had a hard time fighting it as well. Spousal abuse is a touchy subject, and one that triggers floods of emotions. I’d imagine that crimes against children or even animals would do the same thing, and people want to render a guilty verdict just to show that they are not fans of these crimes…as though that even needs to be demonstrated.

When we walked into the small room for the final time to deliberate, one fellow juror was outright convinced he was guilty. The others were all leaning guilty. I was the sole holdout for a verdict of not guilty.

And when we left that room, we were all in agreement: the man was not guilty.

I still don’t know how I did that, but I know that I did. That’s not the kind of thing I can usually do. Getting my own life together is hard enough most of the time, but then, with something very serious and immediate on the line, when it was a man who was about to go to jail even though the prosecution had not proven that he did anything, I was able to fight. I was able to pull it together…and fight.

And I fought with the only thing I really had on my side: logic.

Because there was no evidence.

Nobody saw them argue. Not then.

Other times they saw them argue, witness reports state that the defendant walked away from the conflict. He shouted, just as his wife did, but ultimately he walked away when he was asked to.

The 911 call revealed the woman shouting repeatedly, “He’s going to kill me! Come over now, my husband is going to kill me!” Yet there are no sounds of him anywhere, and by her own testimony she was outside while he sat on the couch in the living room waiting for the cops to come. He could clearly hear her shouting these things, so it’s no surprise that he said “I didn’t touch her,” as soon as the police showed up. I certainly would have said the same thing.

The woman’s testimony — and she was the only witness, apart from her husband of course — contradicted itself on large issues. For instance at first she claimed that she woke up with his hand around her throat. Later she claimed that she was awake and heard him come in. A relatively small detail, but later on she was asked how much time passed between his coming home and the attack. She didn’t know. She first said that he came right into the room and grabbed her, then later said that he might have taken a shower, made dinner, eaten it, and then grabbed her. And there’s a big difference there, especially if she claimed to hear him come in…it’s not a detail.

Additionally, the logic of the actual events wasn’t sound. He was clearly strong enough to overpower her physically, there wouldn’t have been a surprise there, but evidently he grabbed her throat out of nowhere — no argument — then released it just as suddenly, and made no attempt to interfere with her calling 911 on him. When the police arrived, there were no marks on her, and the husband was calm. I have a hard time believing a flash of violence like that could occur out of nowhere, and just as quickly disappear into nowhere, without there being any history or any evidence that anything even happened.

Do I think he did it? Here’s my answer: it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter, because based on the available evidence and testimony, we can’t prove he did it. And because of that we can’t find him guilty. We simply don’t have any choice other than to find him not guilty.

Several of my fellow jurors protested to the end that they felt he was guilty. That’s okay, I let them know. They can think that. But we weren’t called to let the judge know what we felt; we were called to render a verdict based upon the judicial system we have established in this country.

Americans like to make their own calls. Americans like to tailor the law to whatever it is best suits them at the time. That’s how Trayvon Martin got killed; he violated the law that existed in one man’s head, was found guilty, and was summarily executed. That’s how Bernie Goetz killed four teenagers who attempted to mug him in New York. That’s how black men who don’t speak very good English get sent to jail for crimes nobody actually saw them commit.

It was scary. It was scary because, one day, that could be me. I could well be on trial for something I didn’t do, something that would similarly cause an emotional response in jurors. And I’d hope that a complete lack of evidence would mean that the jurors would know better than to listen only to their hearts and their hatred of awful crimes…but what I saw in that room convinced me that I can’t rely on that. And neither can you. Nobody can. The heart makes decisions today that the brain may regret long after the deal’s been done. By that time, we’re already gone.

I stopped a lot of hearts from making that decision that day. If I hadn’t been there, he’d be in jail. And he’d be in jail for a crime that nobody managed to prove even happened.

I don’t know what to make of the experience. I really don’t.

I’m equal parts proud and baffled by it. Justice was served, as it should have been. It was my job to see that that happened. But what if he did do it? It wasn’t our job to determine that…but what if he did? Did the other jurors have a point? Is it better to put a man who you believe did a bad thing behind bars than to let him go free simply because nobody could prove it? Of course not. But what if he did?

I argued for justice, and justice was served. Does that make me a good man?

Again, I don’t know. I did the thing I was asked to do, and I fought to make sure others did it as well. The wheels of justice turned, and the only fair verdict was read aloud in that courtroom in mid-January.

A man went free, because I changed things.

Maybe that doesn’t make me good, but that does make me responsible.

And that’s not a bad thing to be, I suppose, moving into year 32. I just really hope that if I’m ever in that situation, somebody will be willing to risk feeling like an outcast, will be willing to risk dying of anxiety, will be willing to risk fighting a terribly lopsided battle, to help justice — rather than passion — be served.

I know I can’t rely on that.

The defendant that day couldn’t have relied on it either.

But for better or worse, I made it happen. And I can only hope, for better or worse, someone would make it happen for me.

Thanks for listening.

Steve Zissou Saturdays #5: I Guess We’ll Have to Loop That Line

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Hello again! Returning from our post-holiday break we’re picking up our ongoing examination of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou at exactly the nineteen minute mark. If you’re following along at home you’re…probably a pretty patient human being.

This week’s entry might turn out to be a bit short, as I couldn’t find a particularly convenient breaking point…at least not one that comes in a reasonable amount of time. So our abrupt departure coincides with the abrupt arrival of Jane Winslett-Richardson, another new addition to Team Zissou, albeit one whose fresh perspective isn’t filtered through their celebrated past, like Ned’s. Jane’s perspective on Team Zissou is fixed much more solidly in the disappointing present, giving us our our ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, if we seek to carry on with our comparison of The Life Aquatic and A Christmas Carol. And, yes, we do.

With Christmas itself so recently behind us, it’s perhaps worth mentioning a couple of other small details as to how this can be read as a Christmas film. It’s something we’ve discussed in general earlier, but the holiday season itself reminded me of two other small things: Steve’s most obvious physical traits — his white beard and red cap — synch up nicely with those of Santa Claus, and his shipmate Klaus — of whom will see a lot more of in this installment — bears the name of that jolly fat man.

Neither of them behave in manners befitting at all of Father Christmas — they’re much more Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, respectively — but much like the Christmas lights at Loquasto, these are small details sprinkled throughout, decorations if you will, that allow us to maintain such a reading. As the film progresses, the parallels will get that much stronger.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We’re not going to talk exclusively about Christmassy coincidence, however, as we have more pressing matters at hand: the death of Steve’s cat Marmalade. What’s really interesting through isn’t what this tells us about Steve or Eleanor, but what we learn — if we pay attention — about Ned. It’s a great credit to Owen Wilson that even when the attention isn’t on him — and as passive and polite as Ned is the attention isn’t frequently on him — he’s still acting. He’s still Ned. He’s still being this character, rather than standing around and waiting for his next line.

Here we have two great little moments that I’m not even sure I noticed before, both of which are silent and neither of which call for any attention from the audience. It’s only when you allow yourself to be detached from the dominating presence of the other Zissous that you notice the smaller things at all.

For starters, when Steve and Ned are walking away from the plane that delivered them to the Zissou Compound on Pescespada Island, Steve walks purposefully ahead toward his sanctuary. Ned lingers just slightly, and then turns around and waves in gratitude at the unnamed pilot. The pilot is unnamed because Steve never cares to share his name, or perhaps even learn it. But Ned is more polite than that. Strictly speaking all Owen Wilson had to do was follow Bill Murray toward the camera, but that small moment says volumes about how deeply he and Anderson understand his character.

The second moment requires us to jump ahead a bit. Steve pours himself and Ned a drink (Campari? Can anyone confirm?). While I could absolutely accept that Steve would carry a bottle of booze around — along with two glasses — I was a bit caught up this time by the fact that Ned would accept a hard drink so early in the morning.

Then, however, Wilson and Anderson demonstrated that they had the same concern. Ned doesn’t take a sip, and as he walks away from Steve he looks back. I always thought this was a glance backward to make sure Steve was okay, and I still believe that’s part of it, but more immediately Ned just wants to make sure Steve isn’t looking as he tosses the contents of his glass into the bushes. He doesn’t drink in the morning, but he’s too polite to refuse. I love Ned.

Rather than say hello, Eleanor greets Steve — and ignores Ned — with a flat, “Your cat’s dead.” It’s impossible to know how much this really affects Steve in itself (he doesn’t seem to have much of an attachment to any of the animals* on Pescespada…a stark contrast to Cody later) but he’s clearly upset by Eleanor’s cold demeanor. He explains that she was “raised by maids,” and that this accounts for her social shortcomings, but that of course doesn’t explain Steve’s. He spends the rest of the scene rolling his eyes whenever Eleanor speaks, not responding verbally, and cruelly pointing out that while her parents have financed several of his films, they’ve financed the worst ones. He then scoffs at the fact that anyone could consider her the brains behind Team Zissou.

Ned, always the gentleman, asks what kind of cat it was. In Steve’s defense, he eventually does answer that it was a tabby**, but his first impulse is to rebuff the man with a curt, “Who gives a shit?” Eleanor was raised by maids…what’s Steve’s excuse? Right now we don’t know…and we won’t find out anything conclusive about his upbringing for the rest of the film. But there’s a bit we’ll be able to infer, later on.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve then, listless and disheveled, seems to wander Pescespada on his own. We get only one seconds-long snatch of this, as he extends a fish for an orca who leaps for it. It’s Steve, once again, comforting himself with cliche. As a celebrity oceanographer he’s comfortable only with neutral public perception, and he retreats behind images like this. Images that say and suggest nothing, but fortunately play well with focus groups and reinforce, to him at least, that he is who he thinks he is. We’ll see more of this when we get to Jane’s interview next time.

Pescespada itself is worthy of discussion, too. Its weeds are overgrown, its paint is chipping, animals roam the island at will, and abandoned vehicles litter the grounds. The technology, of course, represents various attempts at bringing the island up to date but never quite getting there, and then only dragging it further back as time marches on. It is, I think, a beautiful and distressing physical expression of Steve’s own mind.

It’s a jumbled and directionless monument to the past — to a time when Steve, or Eleanor’s parents at least, could afford an island for Team Zissou — and its passively crumbling infrastructure mirrors Team Zissou itself. Everything is in disrepair, but at the same time Steve keeps antiquated memorabilia on display, and even keeps a cache of Adidas sneakers from an expired endorsement deal in their original packaging. He fixates on the high times, and genuinely does not see anything else. Perhaps this lack of acknowledgment is deliberate, and he believes, on some level, that if he does not accept the fact that his reality is crumbling, it will not crumble. Whatever it is, we see very clearly at this point something that undermines by design the early conceit of the film: Steve Zissou is not reeling from Esteban’s death; he and his team were lost long before that.

By now we also know why Steve would want — or perhaps need — an island of his own: it’s isolated. He’s a man who is only ever at home on his ship (and sometimes not even then), adrift in the sea and far from the prying, judgmental eyes of people everywhere. It makes perfect sense that the only land which Steve could make his own is also out to sea, accessible only by private appointment.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

At 2:03 the next morning, Ned is awakened by Steve’s voice on the EchoBox, which is another decaying piece of technology that’s hanging above Ned’s bed. He tells Ned to answer him by pushing the red button. Ned mishears it as the white button, and presses it to respond. As far as I can tell, there is no red button on the unit at all, turning the joke toward Steve rather than Ned. Even now, though, I’m not quite sure what Anderson is after here…except perhaps foreshadowing the communication difficulties between the father and son.

In fact, those communication difficulties are manifested again in a technical sense in the very next scene, as Ned improperly holds the boom mic during an impromptu shoot on the beach, rendering the footage at least potentially unusable.

The reason Steve has called Ned out to meet him is that Bobby Ogata, Team Zissou’s frogman, noticed a “rubber tide.” This is a phenomenon that the crew has never encountered on film before, and just like that, in their pajamas and bare feet, Team Zissou is recording a scene for a documentary that doesn’t exist yet.

Without any structure whatsoever, nor any larger film into which Steve could insert such a scene, he’s lost for what to say. He describes briefly the rubber tide, mentions Ogata alerted him to its occurrence, and then turns to the camera to deliver a pathetic shrug, admitting silently that even he isn’t sure this was worth recording.

Of course Ned comes to the rescue by asking a question that, perhaps, Steve as a documentarian should already have thought to answer: what causes the creatures to glow like this? Only with fresh eyes can Ned even see that the most interesting thing about these jellyfish isn’t that they’re washed up ashore, but that they pulse illumination into the night. It’s one of nature’s many wonders that Steve can no longer even recognize.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve is impressed by Ned’s simple adlib, and it inspires him to shoot another scene: a simple two-shot of he and Ned. Here, he unleashes a “goddamned tearjerker” when he invites Ned to join Team Zissou.

We’ve already discussed some confusion here. He spoke to Eleanor after Loquasto (and in Ned’s presence) about Ned joining them, and I’m not sure what that meant. It didn’t mean joining Team Zissou proper, as Ned’s not invited until now and initially declines, and it didn’t mean coming to Pescespada Island as that invitation was extended specifically in the section we covered in part 4. There sure is a lot of inviting going on, and I’m personally not convinced even Anderson knows why that is, or what some of it means. It feels like detritus leftover from merging various versions of the script. It doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the film at all, but it does feel interestingly inexplicable.

Ned’s reluctance to join the crew has to do with a lack of experience and knowledge of the field. Steve deflects this question by saying none of them know what they’re doing. Klaus was a bus driver, and Wolodarsky — Team Zissou’s physicist in residence — was a substitute teacher. “We’re a pack of strays,” Steve proclaims proudly, and all at once it’s clear what Team Zissou really is: they’re not a band of people drawn together by their love for the ocean, or film making, or even each other. They are — on Pescespada — an Island of Misfit Toys. They don’t belong anywhere else, and that is the tie that binds: without Team Zissou, where would they be? Where could they be?

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai starred Jeff Goldblum and ended with the team walk that inspired the final moments of The Life Aquatic; it’s absolutely a film embedded in The Life Aquatic‘s DNA, and it features Team Bonzai, with every member hand-picked by Buckaroo and able to provide some valuable service to the team that no other human being could. Team Zissou is Team Bonzai’s antithesis: Steve doesn’t hand-pick anything. He is found by misfits without any other place to go. Team Zissou is the team you end up on because no other team wanted you.

And he takes them aboard, and gives them an identity, and provides for them as best he can, offering a small-scale social acceptance that they wouldn’t have anywhere else.

He sounds like a really nice guy when you put it that way.

Ned also mentions that he’s “not even that strong a swimmer.” Some more early foreshadowing — in a comic exchange — of Ned’s eventual tragedy.

This invitation offends Klaus, who has been filming the scene but has not seen it fit to inform Steve of the useless boom placement until afterward. We’ll get into Klaus and Ned’s relationship soon enough, so for now let’s just leave them stewing.

What’s more interesting right now is Steve’s seething anger that Klaus stopped rolling before Steve called cut. For Captain Zissou this is about as severe as crimes can get. Steve’s life is one of post-production, of edit-booth sweetening and of looped lines and flattering inserts. Without the camera capturing the moment in the first place, Steve has no hope of immortalizing a better performance, of slaving over detail to get it just right. In short, without the camera, he’s stuck with what actually happens. And that’s not something that makes Steve happy.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Their spat is cut short by the arrival of Jane Winslett-Richardson, the reporter from Oceanographic Explorer who will be writing an article on Steve. Her arrival is heralded by a wave of flashlights shining her way from the team who forgot to pick her up at the airport. (More specifically it was Klaus’s job. It was also Klaus’s job to maintain the helicopter that will end up killing Ned.) It’s also scored by a track called “Zissou Society Blue Star Cadets,” though when we hear another version later in the film it’s referred to as “Ned’s Theme Take 1.”

Ned’s face lights up as much as Jane’s, though in her case it’s due to the flashlights, and the jellyfishes, though in their case it’s the moon’s light bouncing off their outer membranes. Also, Jane informs them, they’re not jellyfish. They’re Vietcong Man-O-Wars***.

Steve tests one with his foot and sure enough she’s right. He makes a note to loop that line in post-production, yet again casting some (admittedly small) doubt on his integrity as a documentarian. This goes to show how unimportant it is for Steve to ever get things right the first time — when you’re used to edit-suite tinkering there’s less of a need to worry about that — and how deluded Team Zissou is about what it is they actually do. More on that, of course, later.

Jane claims that she won’t even ask what they’re all doing out there in their matching pajamas, which is a bit of a throwaway line until we cut back to Steve and Klaus and see, funnily enough, that their pajamas don’t actually match. Klaus’s stripes are wider, though the intention (on the part of Team Zissou) was clearly to standardize them. It’s another example of mismatch in place of true uniformity. “Close enough” might as well be the motto carved into the Team Zissou crest.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Klaus, Steve and Ned show Jane to her room, and we’re introduced to three things about her: firstly, she’s pregnant. Secondly and thirdly are things that she’s doing to prepare for having a child: she says “effing” instead of “fucking” to get out of the habit of cursing, and she chews bubble gum, likely to get out of the habit of smoking. The father, as you might imagine, will become a conversation point in the near future, and we’ll see plenty of echoes of Steve and Ned there as well.

They discuss, again, the possibility that Ned might be Steve’s son — she’s dubious — and Steve makes his intentions known to Klaus with a loaded, “Not this one.”

We’ve seen how Steve’s romantic advances have paid off in the past, but we’ve also seen how Steve likes to sweeten his memories after the fact. If you think he’s learned from anything in that regard, you haven’t been paying much attention.

* There’s a nice little deleted scene on the DVD that shows that Steve keeps a penguin on the island as well. Ned asks Eleanor about it, and she replies ominously that he should not join Steve on his journey. In lesser hands it would have been clumsy foreshadowing, but here, in this film, with that character, it feels correct…especially as she seems to be the only one still aware of what happened to Esteban. Of course the scene was deleted and might not be worth saying much else about, but I found it interesting, and it makes it even more clear why she will soon storm off in the night, leaving Team Zissou to its self-imposed tragedies.

** Garfield is also a tabby, and the live-action film that starred Bill Murray as that orange cat was released the same year as The Life Aquatic. I’m willing to believe this is coincidental, but it certainly is an interesting fact.

*** They also visually call to mind the landing lights at an airport. It reminds me of Rushmore, and the times Anderson used visual cues there to suggest that characters arrived by air, even though they didn’t. It’s a director having fun with images and expectation, and it’s that kind of easily missable humor that Anderson does best.