Monday, July 25, 2011


Right back where we started

By Edward Copeland
Documentaries can breed false expectations in a viewer in much the same way a fictional feature can and, unfortunately, that is the case with the latest in HBO Documentary Films' summer series, There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane. The film sets up a mystery at its outset about what caused a tragic two-car accident that left eight people, including four children, dead, and implies that the filmmakers uncovered new details about the incident. Instead, by the film's end, the viewer arrives where he or she began, only this time asking what the point of the journey was in the first place.

On Sunday, July 26th, 2009, Diane Schuler drove the wrong way
on the Taconic Parkway for almost two miles, crashing and killing eight people
— herself, her daughter, three nieces and all three people in the oncoming vehicle.

That title card appears in There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane after we hear a flurry of 911 calls from other motorists reporting the minivan driving the wrong way on the freeway as well as concerned relatives who say that the children had called expressing concern about their aunt, saying she wasn't responding to them and was acting strangely and that she wasn't answering her cell phone.

Schuler was heading back to Long Island after a weekend camping trip to upstate New York. She drove the minivan packed with lots of belongings and the kids while her husband Daniel was in another vehicle with the dog and more equipment. A 35-minute drive ended up taking four hours and resulted in one of the worst traffic fatalities in New York state history. The only survivor was her severely injured son Bryan, 5. At first, the well-publicized tragedy led to an outpouring of sympathy for Daniel Schuler and his family, but that all changed nine days later when the toxicology report returned showing Diane had a blood-alcohol level of .19, the equivalent of 10 drinks and twice the legal limit, as well as high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Suddenly, the tide turned and the family was demonized, subject to harassing emails and messages. However, Daniel and his sister-in-law, Jay Hanse, refused to believe this could be the truth and set out on a public campaign to find out what really happened to Diane. Admittedly, many things don't jive with the stereotype of an intoxicated driver. Videotapes from a gas station where she stopped for gas and went inside, apparently to look for an over-the-counter painkiller, though it's not clear how they make this assumption, and nothing seems amiss in her demeanor. Also, all the witness calling 911 to report the driver speeding the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway said that she was driving perfectly straight, without any swerving at all.

Daniel and Jay engage the services of famed attorney Dominic A. Barbara, who says he took more heat for representing Diane Schuler's interests than he did representing the Buttafuocos or Jessica Hahn. Interestingly, not mentioned in the documentary and that I discovered by accident is that Barbara was suspended from the practice of law in New York in February of this year. Surely, the filmmakers had time to add that detail since one of the most interesting parts of the film is that Barbara hires investigator Tom Ruskin who retests the samples from Diane, but then keeps them and never reveals the results though when they get a hold of him, he claims he gave the results to Barbara. Then again, Ruskin doesn't have the cleanest rep either, so you have to wonder if the family was being scammed since in the end the results were the same and all it got them was more stress and huge bills. That is yet another detail absent from the film.

I can't say for certainty what happened in this tragedy, but by the end of the movie I felt more like the daughters of Michael Bastardi, 81, who was killed in the other vehicle along with his son Guy, 43, and friend Daniel Longo, 72. They say they've forgiven Diane, but they can't forgive Daniel or Jay yet because they are in such denial and won't let the matter rest and that seems to be the truth. Throughout the film, they slip. Daniel will say Diane drank like once a month, but then explains the vodka bottle in the minivan as something they kept at the campsite that must have been packed by accident. He says she never smoked pot one minute and then amends it to not that often in another.

Old high school friends that Diane lost touch with tell how she was very private. One mentions that Diane's mother left when she was young and she appears to know what happened, but won't discuss it. The most telling moment of the film to me is when Daniel and Jay, after meeting with another doctor trying to find a medical explanation, stop outside the building. Daniel moves on, but Jay lags behind and puffs on a cigarette, admitting that no one in her family knows that she smokes. In a family that guarded and private, if Jay can smoke in secret, how hard is it to make the leap that Diane might have drank more than her family knew?

The film warns that it contains graphic accident footage and toward the end they show photos of Diane's corpse that really add nothing to the film but by that point, I'd grown tired of watching Daniel and Jay live their lives of denial. It's a sad story and perhaps a larger explanation remains as to what happened to Diane Schuler that tragic day, but There's Something Wrong About Diane doesn't deliver it. The film sets up a premise that leads you to believe new answers might be found but none are. Instead, it ends up making you feel as if you just wasted your time. It's a disappointment from director Liz Garbus who, among many other documentaries, helmed an earlier entry in the HBO summer documentary series, the excellent Bobby Fischer Against the World.

There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane premieres on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific and 8 p.m. Central.

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I liked the documentary. It left me on the fence and I do wish there were more answers.I can understand how the husband and sister in law feels. They truly believe diane wasnt an alcoholic,maybe she was,maybe she wasnt. They arent ever going to be able to have closure.Dont beat them up for just wanting answers.It seems a bit impossible to be able to hold a 100,000 dollar a year job and be an alcoholic. And they say it wasnt a suicide but why didnt she pull over if she couldnt see or when she stopped at the toll and then the rest stop,why didnt she stay put? Thats what's so confusing to me
It's not that I think the family should be beaten up, I just don't see what the filmmakers gained from making the documentary, especially once it had to be clear to them that they weren't going to cover new ground and they bypass possible ground they could have covered in terms of the lawyer and investigator's shady history possibly taking advantage of a grieving family. It's quite telling that the parents of her nieces refused to have anything to do with the film. Either her husband and sister-in-law need serious help themselves to move on or they've become addicted to the spotlight, which sometimes happens. Living in OKC at the time of the bombing, some of the relatives of people killed in the attack became sort of "professional victims" to the point they pissed off the relatives of other victims. Same sort of thing happened with parents of a slain Columbine victim. It's sick, but sometimes in this warped reality TV-obsessed world of ours, people will do anything for a little sliver of fame. Unfortunately, the media is far too willing to be their enablers.
After watching the documentary, I was left with several theories of my own, but the documentary did not present any theories, or conclusions, or solve the mystery of why this tragedy happened.

I think the documentary did a good job of providing the timeline of the tragedy, as well as insight into the personalities of Diane Shuler and her family members.

What I took away from the documentary is that 1) Diane Shuler was a perfectionist, who self-medicated with pot and alcohol, 2) She was a take charge perfectionist who may have been more affected by the abandonment of her mother as a child than she would ever admit, and who may have overcompensated for having a "bad" mother by trying to be the "perfect" mother/person, 3) Daniel Shuler (the husband) is a man-child who was spoiled by his mother (her words), and his "perfect wife" who continued the trend. One of Diane's friends described Daniel as her third child. His constant denial of Diane's autopsy results, and the fact that he is suing the Hance family (yes, the parents who lost three children in the crash) for a faulty van, and the state of NY for the lack of proper road signs shows the man's inability to be responsible, and deal with reality. The lawsuits were filed after the premier of the documentary. 4) There are plenty of shady characters connected to this tragedy after the fact. There's the lawyer, Barbara, who had recently been temporarily disbarred for billing irregularities, and who could not produce the lab results that were done by an independent lab hired by the investigator, Tom Ruskin. Tom Ruskin who couldn't take the time to be interviewed for the documentary, because he was too busy making "tens of thousands of dollars a day" even though he was all over the national news media immediately after the state's news conference (revealing the state's autopsy findings) claiming that he would do a full and thorough investigation into the tragedy. Eventually, a phone call between the sister-in-law, Jay Shuler, and Tom Ruskin reveals what I suspected as soon as I heard the rumblings from the lawyer, the husband, and the sister-in-law about how the investigator mysteriously dropped out of the picture...the independent lab results supported the state's autopsy results, and verified that the samples were Diane Shuler's through DNA testing. 5) I think the sister-in-law was the most sincere, and caring of all the family. I think the phone call with the investigator about the independent lab results broke her heart, and brought her to reality. She is the one who alters her life to take care of Bryan (the surviving child). His father, Daniel, continues with his night job while complaining about the responsibilities of being a single parent. While it seems the bulk of the responsibilities for Bryan are being born by Jay Shuler, and she reveals frustration with Daniel about his parenting. She reveals that Daniel is angry, because he never wanted children, and, of course, his "perfect" wife who wasn't so perfect has left him with this complete mess of civil law suits, and a child who requires ongoing therapy. What's a man to do, but sue somebody?
I knew about Barbara being suspended and Ruskin's checkered past when he was a cop (both of which I mentioned in the review) and they happened long enough ago that the filmmakers certainly had time to insert those facts into the film. Hadn't heard about those latest lawsuits. I don't know what really happened or who the real bad guys in all of this are, I just think it's an example of bad documentary filmmaking, which is a shame since Garbus has made some good ones before.
REMINDER: We've had some good comments that were, unfortunately, anonymous. As it says above we do not publish anonymous comments unless they put a name at the end of the comment.
I didn't see that about having to post your name...yea I know, I should've read it but I didn't.

I liked the documentary but it didn't being any kind of closure to the case. I so wanted someone, anyone, to specualte on what happened that day and we didn't even get that.

Even though some films and documentaries are very entertaining, they can give us a sense that our actions have a decreased effect on other people than we should have. These types of films are not helping our societies progress.
I didn't care for this documentary (and certainly wouldn't call it entertaining) but I also think that the world of documentaries is expansive enough that they can be good and great without having a larger purpose toward "helping societies progress." Just as in fictional features, we need the great works such as a Citizen Kane but we also need the great fun such as an Airplane!
I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED AT THE CAMPGROUND!!!!! if the girls had a rehearsal, why did diane have all the kids in one vehicle? i would be taking my own children home under those circumstances. personally, i would never allow one person to be with 5 kids under 8 years old for, what a 4-5 hour trip? that's way too much to expect. what's the story there? and, why and how long did daniel leave before her?
i reviewed the maps of travel and destination. diane seems to have made a mistake after the tappan zee. her home is to the south be she goes approx 60 miles north on the taconic before taking that fateful turn. i don't think she was confused. she was driving 70mph per the witnesses. know what i think? i think something really bad came out at the campground. i think she was an emotional wreck when she left. she thought she would cut the emotional pain with a little vodka. then she smoked a little pot and if anyone has ever combined pot with booze you all know she now had no real interest in control. maybe drink a little more, smoke a little more. now she's really toasted, but she's not sad anymore about whatever went down. she's PISSED. yup, totally PISSED. and the way pot makes you analyze. she decides, hell, it would be better if she was dead. and, you know what? it'd be better if the kids were dead. then they would never know or suffer from whatever it is that has so blown up her world that morning at the campground. and it makes sense to her, because she's stoned. they way crap always makes sense when your stoned. before you go to sleep and wake up the next morning realizing just how stupid your analysis was now that you are sober. that's what i think happened to Diane. THEY ALL KNOW SOMETHING but they're just not talking. because it sucks and it messed her up so bad, she did something unbelievably stupid. and that would make them responsible too.
Why does it show that three bodies of car #1 was ejected. The operator and two passengers. But the two men who say they were the first ones on the site said the body of the driver fell out on their feet.
And they also said the little boy was underneath the bodies, but the little boy said he flew out of the window like superman.
Also, when it shows her dead body, notice that one pic shows her head turned to the right, the other one shows her head is straight.
Goes to show you what people will do to make money from a pic.
Jeff Smith--I was confused about that too but witnesses who were on the scene said that there were no bodies ejected from the van. One of them opened Diane's door and she fell out at their feet. Then they decided to get the kids out and they said the kids were all in a pile, with little Bryan at the bottom. One of the civilian rescuers was really torn up about it because he said they kept pulling children out and they weren't alive except for Bryan and one of Diane's nieces who still had a pulse (somewhat). The men in the other car weren't ejected but were hanging out of it. I also noticed the difference in the pics like you did. I was wondering if those were "official" pictures taken by the cops or if a bystander had taken them. I haven't seen any info on that.

This case is very disturbing. It does sound like she could have been suicidal. On the other hand, someone mentioned that she could have been having a blackout. She must have started drinking at or after the McDonald's stop. She bought a coffee and an orange juice, so maybe she started out with a screwdriver and then just hit the vodka straight after she ran out of orange juice. She didn't eat at McDonald's either so the alcohol would have affected her more quickly. She went from aggressive driving to "tunnel vision" driving after that last phone call. Something must have happened with her husband to make her think, "To h*ll with it, I'm going to have a drink." Or maybe she just started drinking to calm her nerves. People mention the gas station stop where she didn't look drunk but that stop was not long after the McDonald's trip. She hadn't had enough to drink at that point.
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