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Documentary Review: Netflix's 'Cecil Hotel' doc misses the mark

Documentary Review: Netflix's 'Cecil Hotel' doc misses the mark

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Netflix has promised to deliver more content, and a fair amount of it has been true crime documentaries and series.

In December 2020, the mostly streaming service released “The Ripper,” which — in four episodes — explored the murders perpetrated by the so-called Yorkshire Ripper. Terrorizing the North of England between 1975 and 1980, the murderer, revealed to be Peter Sutcliffe, left at least 13 women dead. I found the series to be particularly fascinating as I had briefly lived in and had frequently visited Yorkshire, and during that time had heard many tales about Sutcliffe.

The series is also notable in that it doesn’t just focus on the grisly murders but details the changing social climate in England during that time. As its official press release states: The murders took place during “a time of radical change, de-industrialization, poverty, masculinity, and misogyny.”

In fact, if you watch how the investigation dragged on, and how maligned and mischaracterized many of the victims were, you can see how all these factors allowed the Ripper to elude capture for so long. (Amazingly, Sutcliffe had been brought in for questioning nine times before he was charged for the crimes. Total incompetence and hubris on display.)

“The Ripper” was so well done that I recommended it to everyone I knew (this means on social media). And when Netflix announced its next true crime installment, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” another four-part docuseries, I waited anxiously for it to drop, which it did on Feb. 10. But unlike “The Ripper,” this misfires on many, many levels.

Like “The Ripper,” “Cecil Hotel” is essentially in two parts. One part chronicles the history of the hotel and surrounding area, and that I found to be worth watching. The second part is about Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old university student from British Columbia, Canada, who during a trip to Los Angeles, stayed at the Cecil Hotel and then disappeared.

This is where everything falls apart, and, to be honest, where the documentary turns into sensationalist fodder.

Going in, I knew nothing about what happened to Lam. I assumed no one did, because, from the beginning, the documentary takes a “we will uncover the truth” attitude. What happened?

Well, it’s known what happened, but instead of being honest about it, the filmmakers decide it’s more fun to string the audience along with all the ridiculous conspiracy theories that played out online by fame seeking vloggers. It’s awful, and Netflix should be ashamed of themselves for doing this.

Some background: The Cecil Hotel opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1927. Close to the city’s sprawling public transit system, it became an important spot where tourists could easily traverse the city. As it was also surrounded by theaters, restaurants, and shopping, there was a lot to do if you stayed there; it was the place to be.

And then, two years later, the Great Depression hit, and since then, the hotel has had its ups but mostly a lot of downs. Interviews with a long-employed general manager and a few people who lived at the Cecil give the viewer some perspective on the area and the types of activities, many nefarious and unsavory, that have taken place within its walls.

As with most large cities — its population is about 10 million — Los Angeles has a sizable community of working poor, unemployed, disabled, and marginalized residents. Many of these people found affordable housing in single-room occupancy hotels, until the majority of these were torn down.

In fact, between 1950 and 2000, 15,000 hotel apartments were eliminated, thus casting many residents into homeless shelters and onto the streets. The documentary contains video of rows upon rows of tiny tents and makeshift housing on the sidewalks.

This large area, where “down on their luck” individuals have been contained — tourist dollars must be protected after all — is known as Skid Row, 50-square blocks located just east of L.A. And in the thick of this is the Cecil.

One way the hotel managed to survive over the years was by catering to a pay-by-the night clientele, some of whom suffered from undiagnosed mental illness and substance abuse issues. A number of these people moved in, and simply never left.

The documentary said that there are residents who have called the Cecil home for 30 and 40 years, paying an unthinkable $400 a month. Because of the nature of its population, the Cecil has been a veritable breeding ground of drug dealing, suicides, and, of course, murder.

In fact, the series reminds us that the notorious serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the Nightstalker, had even lived in the Cecil Hotel at one point. (Netflix, of course, has a documentary about him, too called “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” which has been criticized for including too many salacious details, but I thought it was up there with “The Ripper” in terms of quality and in capturing the 1980s in a fascinating way. I’m not easily creeped out or shocked.)

It wasn’t unusual to find dead bodies in rooms at the Cecil nor was it uncommon for the police to pay countless visits every day.

With all of this in mind — the murders, the suicides, the disappearances! — the documentary brings in Elisa Lam, who we learn about, first person, through her prolific online blog entries.

From these emerges a portrait of a young Chinese woman who had had some mental health setbacks in her life, but who aspired to make her mark; she wanted to see the world. She decided to take a trip, by herself, through California. Her last stop was Los Angeles and the Cecil Hotel.

When she disappeared, the police launched an investigation, but turned up nothing. With only surveillance video, showing her “acting strangely” in an elevator, to go on, they decided to release it online to the public. This is when everything gets out of hand.

Amateur “sleuths” — many who seem to be trying to be as sensationalistic and over dramatic as possible so as to drive traffic to their YouTube channels — became obsessed with Lam; some saying that they watched the video thousands of times, hoping to “solve the crime.”

All of this would be fine. A mere mention of all this “sleuthing,” but the documentary follows a lot of these wild “theories” to a harmful and unnecessary degree. Was she possessed by a ghost? Was it something “evil”? Was it a cover-up by the hotel staff and LAPD? Why were there so many connections/coincidences between Lam and the Japanese movie Dark Water? Just down into the deepest rabbit hole.

The saddest part of the entire “investigation” was that these online, hysterical vigilantes latched onto a Mexican “death metal” musician who had stayed at the Cecil — of course, the documentary doesn’t initially reveal that he stayed there one year prior to Lam’s disappearance so he could not have killed her — and they mobilized their online army against him.

The poor guy received death threats and was mercilessly hounded until he had a nervous breakdown and tried to commit suicide. (Guess what? He’s innocent, and all those online jerks should be sued out of existence for defamation of character.)

Including these wild “theories” was irresponsible and they were included simply to manipulate the audience. Conspiracy theories are dangerous — as we so recently have discovered — and putting a spotlight on them and those who crafted them is just reckless.

This really could have been a fascinating documentary, and at times it was, but the filmmakers decided it was more interesting to go the tabloid route. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Letting conspiracy theory and theorists take center stage disrespects Lam and her family.

So, back to her — and spoilers from here on — her body was found by a hotel maintenance man. She was floating in a water tank on the roof of the hotel; she had drowned. Lam was bipolar, and had suffered from debilitating depression that had left her bed-ridden.

A doctor, who finally is included in the fourth episode, explains that Lam had been prescribed medications to stabilize her highs and lows, including Lamotrigine, Effexor, and Wellbutrin. Some of these have the unfortunate side effect of increasing suicidal thoughts.

What’s more, Lam had a habit of not taking her medications. The result can be paranoia and psychosis. Such a tragic end. No demonic possession. No summoning of the undead. No serial killer on the loose with blood dripping from a knife. Just a mentally ill woman whose death was exploited by these filmmakers and a bunch of jackasses online.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this documentary, but it does reveal how much we need to educate the public about mental illness. How much we need to destigmatize mental illness. The previously reviewed New York Times documentary on Britney Spears; the recent Oprah interview with Meghan Markle, and this documentary drive that home.

Instead of sensationalizing Lam’s disappearance, the filmmakers could have used her tragic death to have a conversation about bipolar disorder. And since they mentioned the “down-on-their-luck” people living in the Cecil, engaging in prostitution and drug dealing, how about instead of further demonizing them, the filmmakers educate the public on how many people like them find themselves in that position?

No one wants to be a drug addict or homeless person. The system fails them. The filmmakers have missed a real opportunity with this one.

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