Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 28, 2015 4:00 pm 
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New York Film Festival - Spotlight on Documentary

Obsessive investigation of a sister's death falls short of a sense of closure

Bill, younger brother of Kitty Genovese, a favorite of hers and sixteen when she died, is filmed in this documentary by writer-producer James Solomon, who covers Bill's tireless effort fifty years later to investigate the famous case of his sister's murder. On 13 March 1964 in Kew Gardens, Queens, below the Mowbray apartments, Kitty was robbed, raped, and stabbed to death with many watching and doing nothing, so a New York Times story said. The case became universal symbol of modern urban anomie, human coldness and indifference. Bill investigates this legend and exhaustively ferrets out details about the crime and Kitty herself in search of closure that proves elusive.

Solomon stays out of the picture, with Bill Genovese the narrator and protagonist, missing both legs (lost as a Marine in Vietnam) but vigorously active, contacting sources and visiting them. Bill's first question is whether the Times story was true. Were there really 38 witnesses who did nothing? Yes and no, and maybe not. It is not clear that it happened that way. Very few saw anything, others only heard, and some may not have understood what the sounds meant. Some apparently did do something, called the police, more than one, at least according to one interviewed witness. But if so, why was she not saved? The auditory witnesses seem to ahve been confused by the the fact that the perpetrator, Winston Moseley, fled the scene for twenty minutes or so and then returned to finish off his victim.

A surprise discovery is that Kitty did not die alone: a woman friend (heard from near the end) rushed down to her and Kitty died in her arms. There was nothing of this in news stories or police reports.

Next comes the investigation of Kitty herself. Her death had clouded a sense of her life. It's said that she was not a barmaid as first reported, but a bar manager. She sometimes handled illegal betting in the bar, and it turns out the photo shown above was a police mug shot from a time when she was arrested for this activity. She was smart, a maverick who often cut class in high school, yet popular and a leader of the pack. We see numerous film clips of her, a lean, lively life of the party who drove a red FIAT. Bright though she was she chose not to go to college. When the family moved to Connecticut to be in a safer place she chose to stay in NYC. Perhaps an explanation is that -- a surprise to Bill Genovese, perhaps to all her family -- it turns out that though briefly married, Kitty was a lesbian. Her supposed roommate in the Mowbray apartment was her lover (also heard from). Her sexuality may have had much to do with her choosing to remain in the freer atmosphere of the big city where she could live with her girlfriend.

Later Bill/Solomon delve deeply into press coverage as well as later TV reexaminations of the murder case, revealing that author of the original front page Times story consciously overstated the indifference of witnesses to make a better story. The film is excellent in the thoroughness of its investigation of this, with numerous interviews, including one with the late Mike Wallace.

Finally we learn about Winston Moseley, the diminutive light-skinned black man who confessed to this and another murder, and also later escaped from prison, committed more crimes, and was caught. He was bright, with an IQ of 130, and eventually got a correspondence degree in sociology. Prosecutors and lawmen are interviewed. The word for Moseley's personality is "ice." He is clearly a sociopath who might, if he'd remained at large, have turned into a serial killer. Apart from his escape he has remained in prison for fifty years and every parole application has been denied. Bill meets with one of his sons, a man of the cloth, in compensation, perhaps, who nonetheless appears to believe false justifications for his father's crime. The rapist-murderer himself unfortunately refuses to meet with Bill. But later he sends him a preposterous letter inventing a story according to which a mafia gangster perpetrated the crime in his presence. It's a sad way for things to end, with lying and delusion, and at this point I began to wonder if The Witness provides enlightenment or only confusion.

All this aside, the Kitty Genovese story remains a tenacious modern myth of human indifference, even if it's a distortion of the facts it was originally based on. James Solomon and Bill Genovese's film represents an impressively thorough investigation. Alas, it does not leave one feeling enlightened about the crime or the legend it credated. There are many versions of the Kitty Genovese story in fiction, film and TV, and some are alluded to in this film. One I recently reviewed was Lucas Belvaux's 2012 feature film 38 Témoins ("38 Witnesses"), from a French novel, starring Yvan Attal, and focused on the subsequent tormenting sense of guilt felt by one of the witnesses to a parallel scene of murder and indifference set in Le Havre. This film is not satisfying either, but it represents an important topic that The Witness, despite its title, doesn't provide access to: the guilt the witnesses may have felt in Kew Gardens when they learned a horrible crime had happened that they might have stopped.

Solomon's film is an interesting portrait of a family member's tireless investigation of his sister's legendary death. At one point I was thinking it might turn out to be one of the best documentaries of the year, perhaps even comparable to Nathaniel Kahn's extraordinary investigation of his father, the great architect but very flawed father Louis Kahn in the 2003 film My Architect. But The Witness, though about a worthy topic, leaves us, like Bill Genovese, without ultimate closure. Its over-thoroughness becomes under-revealing. It lacks My Architect's emotional rewards and beautiful shape. The investigation itself is at fault, but also the vagueness of Solomon's role.

The Witness, 96 mins., debuted at the 2015 New York Film Festival (6 Oct.) as part of the sidebar Spotlight on Documentary series. A Submarine release. It opens (Internet) and theatrically (in NYC) June 3 2016. . Opening in San Francisco - Roxie Center July 29, 2016.

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