A history of violence in the good ol’ US of A.
Dir. Leonard Schrader & Sheldon Renan, 1982, 90 min, Viewed via YouTube
The Killing of America is one of those films that teeters on the border between a brilliant piece of work and schlocky exploitation. You might think that there’s a wide field of degrees between the two, but quality in cinema doesn’t exist on a spectrum so much as it does in a mosaic of overlapping circles. It’s like what it looks like when you randomly scribble on MS Paint for no other reason than to fill in the spaces with color. If you fill in half of those spaces, then think of half of them as something “good” and the other half as something “bad.” Except this all exists on a shifting basis, because context is king.
This documentary is one long series of deaths, one after another. It begins with the Kennedy assassination and goes on through the Vietnam war, the protests against the Vietnam war, escalating crime in America, dozens of serial killers, the Jonestown massacre, and much more. Where it is available, there is footage, presented raw and unvarnished. A dispassionate narrator explains the various scenarios surrounding each incident of killing. The purpose is to draw up some kind of comprehension of the sheer scale of America’s problem with violence.
This movie is somewhat similar to Bowling for Columbine, in that both circle around the same theme: that the US has a much, much higher rate of murder than any other first world country. In Michael Moore’s film, he started with the presupposition that our gun culture was to blame, but in the process of exploring that thesis, it became clear that gun culture was a symptom, not the disease itself. Moore somewhat seemed to realize this, but never delved deeper into the underlying issue. That was that doc’s biggest failing, and it somewhat plagues this one as well. It tells us over and over how bad things are, without asking what the reason is. It isn’t as big of a problem, though, since The Killing of America isn’t really interested in the “why.” It just wants to confront you with the truth.
And what a confrontation. Every time I think that movie violence has completely desensitized me, some true violence comes along and shakes me out of my comfort zone. Which is reassuring for my humanity, I suppose. Although I certainly didn’t feel reassured after viewing this film. There’s so much ugliness on display that it almost becomes numbing, which might just be part of the point. Apparently, during the 1970’s, sex-related serial murders were so common that one case with over 20 victims was ignored by the media.
I’ve been mulling it over, and I’m still unsure of whether the film is able to successfully shock and rattle without veering into luridness or bad taste. Sometimes, the attention to gory details feels fetishistic. There’s a series of mondo films (movies from the 70’s and 80’s, mixed from fact and fiction, made to horrify) called Faces of Death, which purports to show various death scenes (some are real, some aren’t), and at times, not much seems to separate this film from those. Is it honest social critique or pandering exploitation? I lean a bit towards the former, since director/writer Leonard Schrader was involved in a number of socially-conscious films, including the too-little-seen masterpiece Blue Collar.
No matter what the degree of artistic sincerity, there’s a disquieting thought looming over The Killing of America that can’t easily be shaken. Just why is there so much death in our country? Why are our murder stats higher than those of most other industrialized nations combined? The fact that the movie offers no answers makes it all the more effective. With no concrete problem, there is no hope of a solution. What then are we left with? Just a legion of terrible things to reflect upon.