- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore
In Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a delusional comic manqué who kidnaps late-night talk-show host Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis), pledging to release him only after Pupkin gets a stand-up set on Langford’s show. Pupkin’s ploy works to perfection, and after serving two years and nine months of a six-year prison sentence—during which time he wrote his autobiography for a $1 million advance—Pupkin is given his own talk show. The film ends with slow zoom-in on Pupkin as he basks in endless cheers of welcome from his adoring fans.
Whether or not you can see something Pupkinesque happening behind Matthew Cordle’s eyes, it’s easy enough to spot in his actions. If we take Cordle at his word, the motivating force behind his three-and-a-half-minute video confession that he drunkenly and homicidally piloted his car into oncoming traffic is to stop others from doing the same.
Even though three months ago he paid no mind to the well-documented potential consequences of such behavior, for the sake of argument say that now he really, really does. But is that all that’s happening here? Well, let’s go to the tape.
Cordle’s confession, with its teasing “I killed a man” title, begins dramatically, Cordle’s face tiled out, his voice pitch-shifted into a slurring basso profundo. Synthesizer strings provide a dark atmosphere as Cordle talks of his struggles, while a careful camera edit gives us a panning overhead shot of his non-tiled body: elbows on knees, hands together pensively. “Sometimes I drink because I struggle with depression every day,” he says, “and I just drink to get out of my head for a few hours.” (Cut to a shot of the back of his head here.) He doesn’t like the person he becomes when he drinks, he says, building our sympathy.
Then he admits to his crime: “I ended up going the wrong way down the highway, directly into oncoming traffic, and I struck a car. I killed a man.” He takes us further into his confidence, saying he consulted some “high-powered attorneys” (showing off his superior socioeconomic status) and was told he had a reasonable chance to minimize or avoid personal repercussions. “They were convinced that they could get my blood test thrown out,” he says, “and all I would have to do for that was lie.”
But Cordle is above such baseness. “I won’t go down that path,” he avers with conviction. Then the music stops, and out of the blackout comes a wan but handsome young face. “My name is Matthew Cordle,” he says, his true voice revealed against the background of our first piano notes, a ray of light breaking through the darkness, “and on June 22, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani.” There is an artful cut to Cordle intently inscribing a message on a business card. I will take full responsibility for what I’ve done, it says, the piano notes now joined by choir of electronic angels. On the card’s bottom right is a pre-printed message: because I said I would. Matthew Cordle is a man of his word. The card says so, after all.
Cordle proceeds to tell us he’s taking this route because he “won’t dishonor Vincent’s memory,” for the second time in the video using Canzani’s given name, the familiar, like a friend. The music stops once more while Cordle begs us not to drink and drive. “I can’t bring Mr. Canzani back, and I can’t erase what I’ve done,” he says. You half-expect the next line to be: “But I can turn this tragedy into triumph.” Instead the video ends with Cordle’s catchy hashtag, #saveyourvictim (“save,” as if Cordle is now leading at the vanguard of a heroic cause, rather than #spareyourvictim or #don’tbeakillerlikeme), and you can’t help wondering whether he has copyrighted the phrase, whether bumper stickers and coffee mugs will on sale soon.
According to becauseIsaidIwould.com—which labels itself “a social movement,” apparently based on its willingness to send you 10 little “promise cards” for free (extra promise cards can be had from the online store starting at $10, which you can hold in a $12 promise-card case while you proudly sport your $19 because I said I would T-shirt)—Cordle contacted the organization on August 9. Founder Alex Sheen apparently jumped at the chance to get on board the Cordle fame train, not only helping to popularize Cordle’s video (it’s featured prominently on the Website), but also becoming something of an apologist for Cordle. “After getting to know Matt, I can say with confidence that he truly regrets his decision that night,” writes Sheen, who by his own account has known Cordle for less than a month. “[…] I deeply respect Matt for his promise to take full responsibility for what he has done.”
As Cordle’s YouTube video passed 1 million views, the media played right into Cordle’s Pupkinesque hands, with Good Morning America pridefully drooling all over themselves for getting a hold of the country’s newest reality star. “In his final moments of freedom Monday, Matthew Cordle sat down with us exclusively,” the GMA correspondent says, “his last public statement before turning himself in.” Cut to shots of photographers crowding in to get a shot of America’s new favorite repentant sinner as police handcuff him and take him away.
Cordle faces up to eight-and-a-half years in prison, which means that at worst he will be free by the time he turns 30. That fact helps us process the risk:reward ratio Cordle considered before embarking on a media tactic that has yielded the kind of exposure you simply cannot buy. He was probably going to jail, anyway—a blood-alcohol level of .19% + wrong-way driving + homicide generally equals jail time, no matter what your “high-powered attorneys” say—so why not go all-in for assured fame and possible fortune, even if it means you may have to do a few more months in the pokey to get it?
His attorney, of course, hopes that Cordle’s video helps Cordle avoid taking legal responsibility. “What Matt has done [i.e., publicly confessing] has demonstrated substantial character,” attorney Martin Midian told GMA, “and I worry that if the maximum sentence is imposed, it’s going to send the wrong message to people.”
But supposedly Cordle is taking full responsibility. After all, he says, “This video’s not about me; it’s about the message.”
Midian says that’s another reason to be lenient with Cordle, including letting him out on bail while the sentencing procedure runs its course. “We think he can do a lot more good out for the next 30 days than he can do in a county jail,” Midian says.
He’s right, of course: Cordle’s being free before he goes to prison can do more good—for Cordle—than incarceration. Which is, of course, what this is all about: what’s good for Cordle. Because it’s not like he spared the police months of investigation by confessing in a timely fashion. First he had to find the best way to put himself in the public eye. And it’s not like he contacted Canzani’s relatives to see how they’d feel about his producing a slick video on his way toward Internet stardom. Even if Cordle really has learned a lesson about drinking and driving, it seems he’s as willing to be selfish at the expense of others as he was when he slipped behind the wheel on the night of June 22.
Canzani’s relatives, et al., see Cordle’s video as a legal ploy. But it’s much worse. America is watching (and watching, and watching) a young man attempt to build a lifetime of profit on a foundation of homicide. Matthew Cordle is coming to a television near you, interview by jailhouse interview. Your can bet that somewhere in a New York boardroom a book deal is being concocted, unbeknownst to other boardroom making exactly the same plans. In Hollywood a “Matthew Cordle” project is in the first stages of development.
Rupert Pupkin couldn’t have done it better himself.