Reviewed in July 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Directors: Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio. Documentary about a series of unsolved child abductions in Staten Island in the 1970s and 1980s and the man who goes to trial for committing at least two of them. Screenplay: Joshua Zeman.
Twitter Capsule: Material here for an arresting doc, but filmmakers seem both credulous and self-aggrandizing. Structure remains a problem.

Photo © 2009 Antidote Films/Afterhours Productions,
© 2010 Cinema Purgatorio
Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio's documentary Cropsey, featured at last fall's Chicago International Film Festival, will soon commence a half-week commercial run at the Music Box Theatre, which continues to offer invaluable exhibition opportunities to nonfiction, international, and independently financed films. Cropsey is already scheduled to be supplanted on August 6 by the arrival of Todd Solondz's well-buzzed Life During Wartime, but watching an advance screening of Cropsey, I couldn't help wishing there were some way to follow it instead with a booking of Solondz's previous and unjustly derided feature, Palindromes. That film, as is chronically true of Solondz pictures, features a major character with dangerous, self-hating, ungovernable desires for children, yet Solondz ropes the audience's predictable contempt for this pedophile into a disconcerting braid with his barbed, creepy representations of how even well-meaning Americans distort the lives of children by adoring them too much, parenting them obtusely, sanctifying their images, spotlighting their disabilities, and idealizing their own paths to motherhood, even at very young ages (to include the unequivocal equating of fetuses with children). There's no question Palindromes has a pitiless streak, though I would not call the film uncompassionate, and by taking such an acerbic distance from storylines that might have been handled otherwise, it manages to see something troubling in America's relationship to childhood that is rarely glimpsed in other films.

Critical distance, pitiless or otherwise, is precisely what Cropsey needs more of, especially as it continues, and the conceptual, even poetic inquiry that percolates in the opening scenes gives way to flat-footed and unresolvable detective work that makes the filmmakers themselves too important, without exactly showing them to aesthetic or journalistic advantage. If Solondz had made Cropsey, I expect he would have drawn some ire by refusing to tilt his film completely against the documentary's crucial though staunchly liminal figure: Andre Rand, a wild-eyed, drooling, homeless former staff member of a notorious Staten Island orphanage-cum-TB hospital-cum-asylum. Rand went to jail in the late 1980s for the kidnapping of a 12-year-old local girl with Down's Syndrome, who was later found murdered. While his first sentence continued but as he approached eligibility for parole, he was accused of having abducted another young girl named Holly Ann Hughes, who went missing in 1981 and was never recovered. In any number of ways, Rand is a profoundly discomfiting figure, though Cropsey only occasionally conveys that his erratic behavior and probable madness could have as much to do with a lifetime's worth of domestic calamity, grim labor, and community scapegoating as with rotten character or lethal impulses. I have to grant that Cropsey at least rhetorically invokes the idea that Rand is an undecidable admixture of walking menace and paranoid projection. The filmmakers technically "get it" that Rand isn't necessarily or even probably guilty of everything with which he is charged. The impact of this realization is badly dulled, though, by the necessarily speculative but nonetheless flimsy ending of the film, in which co-director Zeman lamely fobs the burden of decision-making onto the audience, underscored by a sudden and clichéd cut to black. A better-organized and frankly more serious version of Cropsey might have prepared us to inherit that juridical responsibility, rather than just leaving us to grasp around at the same half-truths and opaque circumstances that confound the filmmakers over and over—sometimes in ways that can't be prevented but sometimes in ways that they all but compound. The real problem is that they even imagine that we are in a position to adjudicate Rand's culpability or innocence, which is both a less attainable fact and an outgrowth of a completely different, less appropriate question than the ones which catalyze the film.

The fact that the film seems jerry-rigged against Rand yet simultaneously too caught up in the particulars of his case springs not so much from Zeman and Brancaccio's evocation of his life story as through their palpable reluctance to be nearly as searching or critical in the way they relate to other key interview subjects. Local lawmakers give earnest but inconsistent accounts of how they tried to crack the cases of five children who vanished on Staten Island within a 15-year span—most of them developmentally impaired, all of them linked by community consensus as the work of a single assailant. We can feel the filmmakers' antsiness with some of these retired lieutenants, lawyers, and neighbors, several of whom make for remarkably unreliable but patently influential trial witnesses. One woman even confuses herself with the 7-year-old victim, testifying that she, not Holly Ann Hughes, went to the corner deli for a bar of Ivory Soap on the day Holly vanished. The degree of over-identification that could prompt that sort of delusion is staggering, and it's a suggestive riddle for Cropsey to raise, but the filmmakers seem helpless to take it anywhere. They just stand by, feeling that their hands are tied as the second Rand trial barrels forward with a momentum from which they feel largely excluded.

Even in cases where more pressing on their parts would not have entailed a tactless lunge into intimate sorrows, Zeman and Brancaccio betray no gift for getting their interviewees to question their own assumptions. Some of the most glaring problems in this regard accrue around the figure of Donna Cutugno, a self-appointed bloodhound who has been scouring the same woods for evidence of the missing children for over two decades. Neither she nor her steadfastness deserve to be brushed off: her network of sleuths did once unearth, literally, the location of a murdered child's body, though the circumstances of how this shallow grave had eluded so many previous searches remains a troubling question mark. Nonetheless, it is unnerving to watch someone poking around the same plot of land so single-mindedly for two decades at a time, wearing clothes embroidered with the names of the missing children (none of whom are hers). At least according to her portrayal in Cropsey, Cutugno has relinquished almost any sense that, for example, debris left by homeless squatters may not imply a chain of proofs leading directly to sex-murder. But the filmmakers won't ask, and despite framing the beginnings of their film in relation to lurid mythmaking—the title, Cropsey, refers to a locally generic name for murderous maniacs, most of them no more real than the Loch Ness Monster—Cropsey gets swept up into the scab-peeling, finger-pointing, and logic-testing impulse to establish a truth, rather than its more promising impulses to dissect a neighborhood's traumatic notion of itself as a perennial locus of decrepitude.

This increasingly literal bent culminates with Zeman and Brancaccio trying to get an interview with the real Andre Rand, and structuring much of Cropsey's second half around the fruitlessness of that effort. For reasons I have indicated, I can see why the filmmakers craved an opportunity to compare a direct experience of Rand with the embellished fears and demonizations swirling around him, which take an almost humorously predictable swerve into murmurs about devil-worship. But as executed, this pursuit prompts Zeman and Brancaccio to frame themselves rather self-aggrandizingly as thwarted but insistent cub reporters, reading bits of correspondence aloud and even marveling over an envelope from Rand before they have opened it. Zeman sounds a bit peevish about New York being one of the few states that doesn't allow cameras in court, a sign that the appetite to make a noteworthy film is starting to surge ahead of a level interest in unpolluted, unsensationalized judicial process. They report that they are forced to wait outside the courthouse and get "second-hand information" from lawyers and witnesses. A few of these encounters are illuminating in their way, but not precisely as "second-hand information"; again, Zeman and Brancaccio seem locked into the desire to extricate facts in very nearly hopeless circumstances, rather than recognizing that even outside the courthouse, even in the courthouse, recoverable facts (much less recoverable bodies) have long ago been contaminated by febrile superstition, and overtaken by idiosyncratic fantasies and agendas, whether conscious or unconscious. And as far as those agendas go, conscious or unconscious, Zeman's and Brancaccio's own fantasies patently involve aestheticizing themselves into an iron-willed fusion of macabre storytellers and intrepid fact-finders, a pose that finally exceeds their grasp. I groaned at some moments that are played for spontaneity but are clearly predetermined, as when they "disagree" about whether or not to conduct the Blair Witch-style spelunk into the grotty, graffiti'd carcass of the Willowbrook State Hospital. Cropsey has been moving inexorably toward this low-light hunt for real or invented horrors almost since it began. Poking no less insistently but barely more coherently than Donna Cutugno, the directors have to settle for a scary run-in with local kids and an endless series of still shots or portentous, slow-motion tracks over the dilapidated facility, very nearly implying that the collapse of the Willowbrook infrastructure is some kind of poetic emblem for moral rot. The community badly wants to believe that something malign lurks in their community, almost supernaturally hard to extirpate, and Cropsey gets tugged into that sort of irrational belief, that hunt for crouching tigers.

Many of the most potent images in Cropsey belong to, of all people, Geraldo Rivera, whose exposé of lewd, criminal neglect inside the Willowbrook facility helped to make his name in journalism (such as it is) in the early 1970s. Cropsey is clearly, appropriately gripped with the shivery awareness of how much sadness and cruelty has been perpetrated inside these walls as the decades have passed—more of it, we learn, after the Verrazzano Bridge incorporated Staten Island more heavily into the larger life of New York City than before, when the borough was comparatively cut off. What does it mean to inhabit a neighborhood whose own residents often view it as Brooklyn and Manhattan's black-sheep sibling, as a landfill of physical and psychological debris? These are the kinds of questions that Cropsey activates in its beginning and occasionally reconnects with, but too much of the movie gets swept into the particulars of one tortuous case for it to eloquently critique the scattershot paranoias and contagious projections that Cropsey sometimes comes close to exemplifying. The recurring facts of the Rand case and of the five disappearances with which he is more or less charged keep demanding that Zeman and Brancaccio find some delicate but unembarrassed way to ask why the residents of Staten Island think that their disabled children are especially at risk, and whether they feel Staten Island itself gets stigmatized or victimized as a sort of "disabled" borough, and how they square their compassion with embattled kids with their nightmarish imaginings of broken, abandoned adults. Eventually, through some careful arranging of interview footage, we find out that Andre Rand has made a series of public pronouncements waffling between the idea that disabled children should be eliminated and that they should be saved from people who don't love them. Everyone except the audience has apparently heard this refrain quite a few times; its postponed articulation until nearly the end of Cropsey yields one more symptom that the filmmakers are dispensing information when it is most likely to startle us, not when it will most help us to think fully and clearly about the case. Still, none of the interview subjects are forced into the squirmy but necessary position of speaking back to Rand's queasy "logic," or opining how Staten Island specifically could produce both lewd delusions that appear to afflict Andre Rand as well as his neighbors' aggressive, condemnatory, shaky but unflappable certainties about Andre Rand.

Cropsey has the temerity, at least, to sidle up to painful, sensitive ideas about the plight of the disadvantaged, the feeling of being disadvantaged, and the multiple ways in which people who are downtrodden in one respect can make victims, scapegoats, or treasures out of other people who are perceived as limited, diseased, neglected, or "slow." But whether Zeman and Brancaccio see that they have wound up in this volatile territory is unclear, and what they're prepared to do about it is even less clear, except to imply that juvenile fantasies—of bogeymen, of Hardy Boys epiphanies, of The Truth—become the fantasy crutches for lots and lots of adults, especially if they refuse to take a wider view of ground they have trod over and over again. Doubtless Zeman and Brancaccio want to know what happened to the four girls and one boy who evaporated from their neighborhoods, but they would also, quite patently, like to generate the Thin Blue Line of their homegrown criminal saga. Instead, Cropsey stumbles into a Nick Broomfield groove of heightening the filmmakers' resolve but also their unpreparedness, their heedless self-image as being perfectly cast in an unworkable role that, from their perspective, nobody will allow them to fulfill. Meanwhile, as is usually true of Broomfield, they lose almost entirely the sociological threads of the story they had promised to unfold. That we feel their disappointment at Rand's rejection of a promised interview as a personal setback rather than a resonant twist within the film's larger thematic fabric betrays how much they have put themselves and their debatable form of journalism at the center of Cropsey—the place where a more sophisticated, more democratic, and ultimately more disturbing mystery is meant to be. Grade: C

VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
A lot of what's stirring about Cropsey is built into the archival footage, the events described, and the facts or ostensible facts of the case. How the filmmakers shape all that material is, increasingly, what's wrong with the movie, and by the end it seems too aggrandizing of their role.

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