The truths behind many movies sometimes upstage the films themselves in extraordinary and improbable detail. But when facts are turned into entertainment, with an emphasis on spectacle and emotional pull, where should a storyteller’s responsibility lie in the balance between accuracy and drama?
That question is unavoidable when listening to Mark Ramsey’s hit Inside Jaws podcast, which concluded last week. Immersive and ambitious, Ramsey’s Inside series, which previously included Inside Psycho and Inside The Exorcist, has repeatedly landed in the Top 10 of iTunes’ podcast chart, with Inside Jaws climbing as high as No. 2 (though no one except Apple knows exactly what that means). Over six or seven half-hour episodes, each podcast recounts the historical events that inspired the film in question, the journeys that led its writer(s) and director to the project, and, consistently, the dissatisfaction of the filmmaker after the movie’s brief cultural reign. Ramsey’s tabloid instincts as a storyteller harmonize with the podcast’s melodramatic music and prominent sound effects (made with sound designer Jeff Schmidt), both elements recalling old-timey radio plays.
Inside often feels like a throwback for other reasons, too. While the #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo movements—along with the greater scrutiny of racial and gender dynamics in general of popular culture in the past few years—have begun chipping away at the great (white) man theory of Hollywood history, Inside is content to prop up the canon as is, never bothering to tackle the harmful real-life consequences of the stories it recounts with relish. Calling a shark feeding on prey—i.e., an animal following its biological instincts—“the devil itself” is dubious enough. Failing to observe that Psycho’s Norman Bates and the popular understanding of serial killer Ed Gein (one of the inspirations for the character) led to a dangerous, decadeslong association in the public’s mind between crossdressing and serial murder (an association further spread by everything from Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill to Best Picture winner Silence of the Lambs to the schlocky Sleepaway Camp) feels incomplete at best and irresponsible at worst.
To be fair, Ramsey doesn’t call his Inside series history, journalism, or cultural criticism. The podcast is meant to be a “deep dive” that’s “inspired by” the movies it discusses, which gives Ramsey, who serves as host and writer, the artistic license to, say, invent (hokey) dialogue between real-life people. Ramsey is akin to a campfire raconteur telling spooky stories, and he’ll go as far as he needs to make your skin crawl. Inside Jaws devotes significant time to the USS Indianapolis incident in World War II, for instance, in which dozens of Navy sailors, after having their vessel torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, were eaten by sharks over several days. The massacre inspired Robert Shaw’s famous monologue in Jaws, co-written by Shaw (himself a playwright), screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, and an uncredited John Milius. But in Inside Jaws, it becomes an excuse for lurid passages like this: “In [the sharks’] wake, a sea of blood. The men were choking on it. And in that sea, shredded clothes and drowning men, their arms and legs ripped apart. Those still alive were barely so. Some drank the salt water. Their tongues swelled. Their throats closed. They foamed at the nose. They were going mad.” Where’s the line between painting a lifelike picture for the audience and exploiting a tragedy that happened to real people, some of whom may still be among us? I’m not sure, but Ramsey is often on the wrong side of it.
Even apart from scenes like that one, Inside Jaws is significantly weaker than its predecessors. The season’s emotional throughline hinges on whether a boy from nowhere who never felt like he belonged anywhere or was exceptional in any sense could succeed at the only thing he cared about. His name? Steven Spielberg. And if you guessed that Inside wouldn’t use the time Spielberg’s grandfather spent in a Nazi concentration camp to gin up sentiment—the boy and his gramps share a Very Special Moment—you probably haven’t listened to the podcast. The suicide of Shaw’s father is dredged up for seemingly no reason, as is the premiere of Spielberg’s most recent film, Ready Player One. At least previous seasons focused on accidents, casting woes, and pitches gone awry. Here, the props didn’t work.
Ramsey’s hero worship of Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Friedkin—and his determination to make listeners go whooooa—leads him to make not a few credibility-straining statements. “Without Psycho,” he says, “we wouldn’t have any movies featuring knife-wielding fanatics,” as if Hitchcock’s mind was the only one in the past 120 or so years of cinema’s existence that could have come up with a person holding a common kitchen implement on screen. The idea that “the demon has come home to Iraq,” where parts of The Exorcist was shot, in the guise of ISIS is nauseatingly flippant. But perhaps no other moment had my churning stomach ready to go all Linda Blair so much as Ramsey’s implication that the murder-suicide that voice actress Mercedes McCambridge’s son committed against his wife and two daughters was some kind of karmic retribution for McCambridge after she fought to be credited properly for voicing the demon in The Exorcist—a struggle that possibly cost the young Blair an Oscar win but would never have taken place if the studio had done its due diligence. Instead, Ramsey all but blames an actress who simply wanted acknowledgment for her work for a brutal act she had nothing to do with.
Still, it’s easy to see the Manichean appeal of Inside compared with, say, a relatively dry but more nuanced (and skeptical) film-history podcast like Karina Longworth’s much respected You Must Remember This. (Disclosure: You Must is a part of the Panoply Media podcast network, which is owned by the same company that owns Slate, but I was a fan before I came to Slate or Panoply existed.) As when you watch many a Hollywood production, you’ll always know who to root for with the Inside episodes. And however it’s packaged, Ramsey’s research is impressively thorough. The vignette-driven format, which skips from eventful scene to eventful scene and flits between decades and locales, is also fairly novel, offering a sense of movement and unpredictability that’s somewhat rare in the podcast medium. But listeners shouldn’t have to choose between a fun podcast and a trustworthy one. You can see the world as winners and losers, or you can see it as is.