Wednesday, April 29, 2009

TFF Movie #6: Cropsey

The Documentary, Cropsey says it is about the exploration of an "urban legend" that comes true, but it is mostly a true-crime documentary about the cases of missing children on Staten Island in the 1980s and trials of Andre Rand, convicted in two kidnappings. The film conveyed the horror of these disappearances as well as the generally creepy atmosphere around the grounds of the old Willowbrook State School, where Rand used to work, and where he continued to camp out after it was closed down in 1983. It is also the grounds where the body of one of the missing children, Jennifer Schweiger, was finally found.
The film-makers worked very hard to track down people who knew Rand, and established a correspondence with him while he was in prison during his trial for the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes, who like the other missing children from Staten island in the 1980s has never been found. However, they were never able to get an interview with Rand, so the film has to rely on comments by police, neighbors, and the defense attorneys. Their treatment of Rand is balanced, and they present a nuanced analysis of the atmosphere around the trial by comparing Rand to the urban legend of "Cropsey" and describing him as a "perfect scapegoat" for a community traumatized by horrible, unsolved disappearances of children. These disappearances are truly tragic and I felt so terrible for the Staten Island community while I was watching the film. I had never known about these cases before.
Another truly tragic story in the film is about the Willowbrook state school, which is the most convincing connection between Rand and the missing children. Many of the missing children were developmentally disabled and Willowbrook was a school for the "mentally retarded" with a truly scandalous history. According to police, when they showed Rand footage from Geraldo Rivera's 1972 expose of the school, he became very, very disturbed - his eyes rolled, he drooled, and he began rocking. Having been so traumatized by working in a school where children were left naked, lying on the floor in their own feces, Rand then continued to live on the grounds of the institution, which has an elaborate underground tunnel system, after it had closed.
While the film-makers interweave a discussion of growing up on Staten Island with the tales of the abandoned grounds and tunnels of Willowbrook, which they tramp through several times, I think the film might have been more interesting if they had done more with their own experiences as kids growing up in a town where children disappeared. People talk about Staten Island as a "dumping ground" in a general way in the film, but that aspect of the story could have been elaborated more. To me, the most surprising story in the film was told by a Black man from the island who was, along with about five others, taken on a "trip" in a van by a man and didn't know at the time that he was actually being "kidnapped"! Was there a connection to Rand? We don't know. Instead of delving further into how people felt as these news stories about disappearances came out, they investigate truly ridiculous claims by police that Rand was the Jim Jones of Staten Island, the leader of a secret Satanic cult lodged in the tunnels of Willowbrook. That's where I thought the film really took a wrong-turn - literally, going back to the same tunnels again, where by that point, the dark images of dirty walls and trash had ceased to have an impact. Even though the film-makers don't wind up agreeing with the cult allegations, they don't weave them into their own "urban legend" analysis, which remained too superficial.
A more successful treatment of the impact on a community in such a case is the novel about Atlanta's child murders by Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta, which had much greater psychological depth. Of course, novels and films are totally different media, but without an answer about Rand, or going into greater depth about the surrounding community, it just became repetitive. I wearied of seeing grafitti-ed walls, clips of television coverage of the murders, the trial, and the Willowbrook school, and of the inconclusive hunt for the truth about Rand. This was an interesting film, but I thought it was foiled by an overuse of the generic conventions of "true crime" so that it felt more like a TV special than a feature film.

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