Court TV’s “Shots in the Dark” provides an informative history lesson, a working primer on the challenges faced by crime photographers and a visual essay on the aesthetics of an unusual genre. From shots of a dying Dutch Schultz to Patti Hearst holding up a bank to the video of the Rodney King beating, along with a multitude of still-life black-and-whites of murder scenes, this docu examines how such images have become an indelible part of popular culture, for good or for ill. Host Harold Evans, author and former publisher of Random House, invests the piece with an intellectual bent in his commentary, which lends the endeavor an atmosphere of class rather than exploitation.
That the latest crime shots still reverberate in people’s minds — those airplane, those very famous and very tall buildings, those horrific explosions and collapses — make this documentary exceedingly relevant, although it’s amazing how fast something like this can need updating. In this case, the producers have decided not to go back and incorporate the recent calamity, but viewers will make the connection nonetheless.
We hear from George Holliday, the plumber who turned his video camera on the Rodney King beatings, after which Evans asks, “Who will be the next accidental historian?” We know the answer even if we’re not familiar with the names of the people shooting video near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
The docu’s queries about civil liberty concerns at the end take on a new perspective in light of the terrorist attacks, although its description of the newest technology in surveillance — a computerized camera that can identify individuals in massive crowds — seems very much of the moment.
But what really sets this documentary apart isn’t so much recent crime photography, which has saturated our media anyway, but the more historical examples. Written by Gail Buckland — who has also compiled a companion book to accompany the film — the piece takes us back into the earlier age of tabloid photography. Buckland examines “the myth of the criminal face,” asks interesting questions about what draws us to these photos and doesn’t shy away from questioning whether a photograph can really give us the truth.
The piece is shot, edited and directed by a single individual, Derek Cianfrance (“Brother Tied”). The shaky camera and odd angles for interviews can get annoying, but placing Evans into a lineup and on a computer screen when he’s commenting on those issues is quite effective stylistically.
Cianfrance also does a good job taking us into the lives of a crime scene photographer with the Newark Police Dept. and a staff photographer for the New York Daily News, whose anything-for-the-shot attitude brings front and center the connection between commerce and the exploitation of death.