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The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021): Netflix Documentary About Crime in LA

The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021): Netflix Documentary About Crime in LA

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On February 10, Netflix released a new documentary series entitled Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. In four one-hour episodes, it takes a look at the strangest cases that have occurred at the iconic Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Although it focuses on the case of the disappearance and death of Elisa Lam in 2013, Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel serves as a testament to the economic and social degradation of the state of California as a result of its socialist policies.

Netflix’s new documentary series promised to become a new television milestone for the company, as Making a Murderer was. Not in vain, it was produced by Imagine Documentaries, RadicalMedia, and Third Eye Motion Picture Company, that is, the legendary Ron Howard and Brian Grazer; and had Joe Berlinger as executive producer and director. However, Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel has not been well received by critics and audiences.

Joe Berlinger has been responsible for some very interesting and impactful crime genre documentaries and films. For example, his three documentary films entitled Paradise Lost, were instrumental in the release of three teenagers who were wrongfully convicted.

Known as the West Memphis Three, three teenagers were convicted – two of them to life imprisonment and one to the death penalty – in 1994 for the gruesome murder of three children in 1993. After Berlinger’s documentary series resurrected interest in the case and raised serious questions about the judicial process, the three young men were released from prison in 2010.

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Also from Berlinger, in collaboration with Netflix, are both the 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and the 2019 documentary series Conversations with a Killer, both about the figure of Ted Bundy, one of the most infamous serial killers in history.

Finally, in 2020, Berlinger had made for Netflix the documentary Filthy Rich, about Jeffrey Epstein, who everyone was talking about just before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic from China.

With these credentials, the documentary about the Cecil Hotel and the disappearance of Elisa Lam was one of Netflix’s top bets of the year in the crime documentary genre.

The tragic case of Elisa Lam was an internet sensation in 2013, due to a video that went viral online. Elisa Lam, a young Canadian student of immigrant parents from Hong Kong, was last seen in early February at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, where she was staying. After several days missing, the Los Angeles police released a video from the hotel’s security cameras, where the ill-fated young woman could be seen behaving strangely in the elevator just before she disappeared.

The video, very strange and disturbing, went viral and all kinds of theories about her disappearance proliferated, as well as a mobilization of the so-called “Internet detectives”, who set out to try to solve the case in the hope of finding her alive.

Unfortunately, almost a month after her disappearance, Elisa Lam’s lifeless body appeared in the water tanks on the roof of the Cecil Hotel, and although from the beginning everything pointed to a crime, the case was officially considered an accidental death.

Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and LA crime

As told in the documentary series, the Cecil Hotel has always been surrounded by a dismal aura, as many murders, suicide and overdose deaths have taken place there. The Cecil Hotel was also home to the notorious serial killer known as the “Night Stalker” during the 1980s, about whom Netflix has another documentary.

Looking at the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel superficially, one might think that the hotel simply suffers from some sort of curse, as indeed is implied on several occasions. However, reading between the lines of what the documentary tells us, it is not unreasonable to blame its misfortunes on the socialist policies that have degraded California in general, and downtown Los Angeles in particular.

According to the hotel manager during the Elisa Lam case, interviewed for Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, the hotel had to call the police between 1 and 3 times a day on average. Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, and with very cheap rates, the hotel used to host clueless tourists who, perhaps like Elisa Lam, did not know they were staying in the epicenter of the area known as Skid Row, one of the most dangerous areas in the United States.

Skid Row, which covers an area of about 50 blocks, has one of the largest stable homeless populations in the country, estimated at between 4,000 and 8,000 people, and is a constant target of crime and police raids. This unusual concentration is not the result of chance, but, as the documentary timidly points out, is due to the combination of a series of public policies that have only aggravated the problem since the 1930s.

On the one hand, Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel explains that it has been common practice in this area to “dump” people with mental problems, released from psychiatric institutions. And on the other hand, one can hear a comment from the hotel manager who, in passing, explains why the situation has not been able to improve.

In 2014 the Cecil Hotel was bought for $40 million by a New York business group that planned to renovate it and reverse its dark trajectory, taking advantage of the incipient process of gentrification in the area.

When they wanted to evict hundreds of tenants who had been paying ridiculously low rents -and many of them the cause of the Cecil Hotel’s endemic insecurity problems-, the local government passed a regulation that obliged to allocate a percentage of the rooms to this type of “social renting”, forcing an impossible coexistence between tourists with high purchasing power and the problematic regular parishioners of the area.

Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel only points to this problem, but never shoots, leaving in the air the aroma that the hotel’s problems are due more to an esoteric black legend than to the palpable consequences of political measures based on “social justice” and the progressive good intentions of the “angelic” leftist rulers.

Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel - El American
Facade of the Cecil Hotel in the trailer of the documentary by Netflix on YouTube.

Ignacio Manuel García Medina, Business Management teacher. Artist and lecturer specialized in Popular Culture for various platforms. Presenter of the program "Pop Libertario" for the Juan de Mariana Institute. Lives in the Canary Islands, Spain // Ignacio M. García Medina es profesor de Gestión de Empresas. Es miembro del Instituto Juan de Mariana y conferenciante especializado en Cultura Popular e ideas de la Libertad.

Social Networks: @ignaciomgm