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Hulu’s The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For is a docuseries about a once-inescapable fad, a show that feels bound by two ubiquitous trends of the moment: 2000s nostalgia and true crime. But it fails to divine what should be the big takeaway of any look back at a what-were-we-thinking craze — that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s a good look.
Directed by Andrew Renzi, the three-episode miniseries chronicles the rise and fall of the company behind the trucker hats that seemed glued to the heads of every celebrity at the turn of the century. It’s a saga that goes well beyond the usual bloodless corporate intrigue — as promised in the opening minutes, the story leads to a co-founder being tried for first-degree murder. And it’s one that seems full of turmoil from the get-go, with three men, in three separate interviews, trying to claim credit for “creating” Von Dutch. In the decade or so between the brand’s inception and its implosion, the documentary offers tales of drugs, gangs, shady contracts and threats of physical violence over shady contracts.
The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For
Airdate: Thursday, Nov. 18
Director: Andrew Renzi
Then there’s the brand itself, so inextricably associated with a fixed spot in time that the sordid tale can’t help but feel like some reflection of the era itself. (The nostalgia hits especially hard when half-forgotten songs like Crazy Town’s “Butterfly” pop up on the soundtrack.) There’s certainly a story here, and Renzi has collected a list of subjects who should know it better than anyone. He speaks to not only the founders but also their friends, family members and former colleagues, along with A-listers like Paris Hilton and Dennis Rodman whose support helped take Von Dutch from an underground name associated with hot-rod culture to one of the hottest logos in the world.
But the narrative shoots itself in the foot with its framing. The Curse of Von Dutch is really an awkward marriage of two stories. One is about Von Dutch. The other is about a murder that, though committed by a man integral to the early days of Von Dutch, seems to have very little to do with Von Dutch. This fact is obscured by a roughly linear structure that has the added effect of imposing a true-crime framing where none belongs. The whodunit isn’t actually much of a mystery at all — there’s very little dispute about who did what and why. It becomes the series’ central mystery only because Renzi withholds those basic facts, all the better to dangle the promise of murder in front of viewers like a cheap shiny prize.
This tendency toward coyness frustrates any attempt by the viewer to contextualize any of the information being lobbed at us. At one point in the first episode, a subject goes on what seems like an irrelevant detour about a childhood friend. While the details will prove to be pertinent later, it’s unclear in the moment what we’re meant to do with them, or how we’re meant to feel about them — or even if any it is true. That The Curse of Von Dutch unfolds mostly through interviews with people who were there isn’t a problem in itself. But the filmmakers’ apparent lack of interest in seeking the objective truth between sometimes conflicting accounts makes it impossible to tell how much stock we should put in anything anyone is saying, or in the self-consciously cinematic reenactments Renzi sometimes deploys to illustrate them.
Sometimes these obfuscations become downright queasy. The Curse of Von Dutch holds out as long as possible before finally telling us who died, even intercutting separate accounts of two unrelated events to keep us guessing in the minutes leading up to the big reveal. In doing so, it casts the murder as simply a way to spice up a story about an embattled company. Renzi does make an effort to humanize the people involved, to avoid casting the tragedy in stark terms like “villain” or “victim.” But the details of the incident are heartbreaking in a way that makes for an uneasy payoff to all the teasing about how “this story ends in a murder” leading up to it. The toxic dynamic it’s rooted in might make for a compelling story in its own right, but there’s not much room for deeper exploration when The Curse of Von Dutch has other, more Von Dutch-centric matters to dwell on.
Like the very idea embedded in its title. In the last hour of the documentary, Renzi asks several of his subjects about the possibility that the Von Dutch name itself (which belonged to a real person who had nothing to do with the company) might have been cursed. Most respond with speculation that, at least to this viewer’s ears, sounds more like people trying gamely to go along with someone’s suggestion than people espousing some firmly held belief. It feels like another attempt to add intrigue to the story, when The Curse of Von Dutch has plenty of that already. What it really needed was more of what most of us gain when we look back at the wild and crazy days of eras past — a sense of perspective.
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