Friday, March 09, 2012

Dear Zachary (2008)

(This is also my contribution to the Movie Morality Blogathon, March 6-14, at Checking on My Sausages.)

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, USA, 95 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/music/editor: Kurt Kuenne

Dear Zachary roots itself with ease and confidence inside the true-crime subgenre of documentary filmmaking, where all talk sooner or later focuses inevitably, and naturally enough, on "evil" and "justice." I say "naturally enough" because the impulse and point of view in these cases always seems to come from an emotional space still reeling from shock, virtually bludgeoned into a state of incomprehension, one that still seeks and indeed gropes and flails for ways to make sense of insensible events. Implicitly, by true-crime conventions, we are expected to trust the morality of victims ipso facto, when all that's left to them, practically, are the two aching desires: first, to understand (hence "evil" because such events are otherwise impossible to grasp), and second, in addressing the morality, the need to set things right again, back to the way they were, which is equally impossible but is nevertheless the driving impulse behind the continual talk of "justice" and "closure"—neither of which happens, as surviving crime victims say again and again, even when criminals are caught and punished.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne has to take his place here as a true-crime documentarian to reckon with, not because he has made such an intensely personal film, with his sad, grieving, outraged personality occupying every square millimeter of every frame. That would itself make sense when a person of some talent and skill directs, writes, shoots, scores, and edits the story of the murder of his childhood best friend, and everything proceeding from the crime. But when the story is full of the kinds of twists and turns no one can make up, with each development more dramatic and astonishing than the last, with copious examples of perverse human behavior operating at multiple levels—that's the domain of the true-crime documentary. It's also the reason I had better warn of spoilers ahead if you don't know this story, whose details are best understood via the picture.

In police annals, the story of Andrew Bagby and Shirley Turner and their son Zachary may not be so remarkable. Bagby was a well-loved friend and son and a medical doctor about to embark on his career, after finishing medical school in Newfoundland. He became involved with Shirley Turner in Newfoundland, who was 13 years his senior and had multiple children by multiple fathers. She was also a medical student. As Kuenne presents it it sounds mostly like a relationship of convenience under circumstances of isolation and loneliness.

After they finished medical school and moved on to residencies in geographically separated areas—Turner in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Bagby in Latrobe, Pennsylvania—Bagby ended the relationship. But Turner did not want to end it and persuasive evidence exists that she drove the thousand miles or so that separated them, shot Bagby five times in a public park in Latrobe, and drove back to Iowa. Here the forensics rotates in like the dancing ladies in a big show and it's all about cell phone calls and cell towers accessed, evidence that can locate a person fairly precisely in time and space. Short answer: she did it. Shortly after that, she turns up pregnant with Bagby's child, Zachary, and the focus of the film then shifts to custody battles between Turner and Bagby's parents even as the legal process in the homicide case proceeds, which is complicated by the fact that Turner is a Canadian citizen.

At that point, the conceit of the documentary, which always feels remarkably and compellingly in-the-moment, though later reflections disclose how artfully it is actually composed, is pretty much as the subtitle would have it, a letter to a son about his father, intended to exist as a way for Zachary to learn more about who his father was from the people who knew him best, a kind of time capsule. So off goes Kuenne on his odyssey, gathering numerous interviews with Bagby's parents and friends and with more relatives and more friends in the UK and the South and California and Canada and wherever. All of the people interviewed clearly and unaffectedly have a good deal of regard for him. There is also footage of Bagby himself, who indeed appears to be as likeable and almost charismatic as all his friends say, even in these fleeting glimpses. And there are moments from the interviews when all of these people give messages directly to Zachary, looking right into the camera.

Because of what we come to know, it is intensely personal at such moments, straying into territory not seen so vividly since perhaps Capturing the Friedmans, palpable moments when one feels one has crossed lines of propriety and into matters simply much too personal for such public consumption. While this movie did have some brief and limited theatrical runs, I saw it first on cable TV's MSNBC channel, whose name indeed is still attached to it. It fit neatly with the kind of true-crime fare featured there, the "Dateline" episodes and prison documentaries and so forth. It has a murder. It has forensics. It has a case that wends this way and that in ways you could not expect. It is ultimately so shocking as to be nearly sickening—the MSNBC touch, pre-Lean Forward.

Kuenne is a natural storyteller, and as many others have noted about Dear Zachary it's most obvious in the fussy, painstaking, stream-of-conscious way he edits it all together, never afraid to resort to freeze-frame, high-speed rewinds, iconic image repetitions, and other tricks that veer close to plain flashy stunts in order to tell the story the way it occurs to him to tell it—which is the way any natural storyteller tells a story, skipping and jumping and running away on tangents all at the same time. The picture is short but never less than riveting from start to finish. As with talhotblond, which came a year later, it's not afraid to take the basic elements of true-crime TV fare, the way we know and understand it today, and amp them up impossibly high. You cannot watch this without breakdowns of your own. It's almost impolite about the way it gets its hand on your throat and squeezes, makes you feel its point of view viscerally—the furious anger, the utter pathos, the loss, the shame, the baby pictures. Something's going to get you, that's guaranteed.

Because there's no justice here. Morality gets no purchase, and is revealed for what it is: merely good ideas, not mandatory. One person managed to successfully trample the system at large for a few years—separate criminal justice systems in Canada and Pennsylvania—for no more reason than that she wanted to, and along the way she irrevocably destroyed multiple lives and sent many dozen more sprawling in one way or another. She did all that and there will never be any way that any of it can be undone. So it goes. Morals and morality have nothing to do with it. It just sits there, an injustice that humiliates everyone associated with it, including us for knowing the story, and Kurt Kuenne for telling it so damnably well.

Top 10 of 2008
It's probably as fair to say that 2008 was an off year as that 2007 was an oversize year, and I suspect it's probably true too. It's a year that mostly occupies either side of the standard deviation for me. Very few things thrilled me in the movies of 2008. Yet even among those I didn't like much I didn't actually hate very many either. My #1 remains a sentimental favorite. I only recently saw Wendy and Lucy for the first time and loved it. In the fullness of time it may become my first choice for the year, I wouldn't be surprised. After that is a motley heap, all recommended one way or another. Love Exposure is a four-hour Japanese movie that comes on like teen fare and makes it go Shakespearian (and Rabelaisian). Melancholia is an eight-hour Filipino picture that moves as slow as anything this side of Bela Tarr but is such a pleasure to sit and look at.
1. Rachel Getting Married
2. Dear Zachary
3. Wendy and Lucy
4. The Dark Knight
5. Love Exposure
6. 35 Shots of Rum
7. Waltz With Bashir
8. Melancholia
9. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
10. Sunshine Cleaning

Didn't like so much: Flame & Citron; Hunger; Summer Hours; Synechdoche, New York; Wall-E

Gaps: Goodbye Solo, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Wrestler


  1. I've had this movie sitting in my instant queue for months. Sounds like I should finally give it a watch. Great review.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  3. Out of curiosity, why the essay on Dear Zachary if Rachel Getting Married is your #1? Also, 3 of your "didn't like so much"s would probably be high among my top 3 for 2008 haha (Summer Hours, Synecdoche, and Wall-E).

    As for the doc, I had to stop reading after your first couple paragraphs as I haven't seen it yet. But I'm intrigued particularly as I'm currently working on a short film idea coincidentally somewhat similar - in both content and possibly even form although ultimately the purpose seems rather different (naturally - among other things it's fiction).

    Like Alex, for me this has hovered in various queues for years without me knowing much about it. I wonder if I should watch it before/after I move forward with my own idea...

  4. Sounds like an interesting project -- keep me posted! To answer your question, I had already written about Rachel Getting Married, and though I probably could have reworked and improved it, part of the fun of this project has been picking and choosing which movie I'm going to write about for each year, and letting them stray somewhat (though not always) from the obvious or consensus.

  5. I will probably post something on my blog in early November, as much a cry for help as an announcement haha. Kidding - kind of...

  6. I have never cried while watching anything, but this.... All I can say is wow.