First there was the mon­do movie, a glo­be­trot­ting and mis­an­throp­ic pseudo-doc­u­men­tary gen­re pio­neered by Gualterio Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi.  As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, it mutat­ed into the much grim­mer, oft-nihilis­tic shock­u­men­tary gen­re that pro­duced films like Faces Of DeathThe Killing Of America killam-posemerged dur­ing that time and it’s often lumped in with the shock­u­men­tary cycle but it’s actu­al­ly its own unique ani­mal.  It has the ambi­tion and cin­e­mat­ic vocab­u­lary of the mon­do film while also chan­nel­ing the grim, unspar­ing tone of the shock­u­men­tary — and the results are as har­row­ing as they are artis­ti­cal­ly valid.

The Killing Of America was a 1981 col­lab­o­ra­tion between erst­while screen­writer Leonard Schrader and archivist/clip-show direc­tor Sheldon Renan.  It approach­es the epi­demic of sense­less, ran­dom vio­lence in America by propos­ing a the­o­ry that the wave of assas­si­na­tions in the ‘60s — John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King — set the stage for a new type of atten­tion-seek­ing killer who could give vent to his or her frus­tra­tion and earn instant noto­ri­ety.  As a side the­me, it also com­ments on how the pro­lif­er­a­tion of guns in American soci­ety aids and abets this wave of vio­lence.

Though its time­line of events ends at the dawn of the ‘80s, Killing Of America remains dis­turbing­ly pre­scient in its explo­ration of the­se con­cepts over three decades lat­er.  Schrader and Renan method­i­cal­ly lay out the sit­u­a­tions and illus­trate them with a mix­ture of file footage,  atmos­pher­i­cal­ly shot new ciné­ma vérité mon­tages (Godard cam­era­man Willy Kurant con­tribut­ed to the pho­tog­ra­phy) and a restrained but art­ful use of graph­ics.  As exam­ple after exam­ple is laid out in a “you are there” fash­ion, you might find it hard to breathe.  The hard­boiled, deeply-voiced nar­ra­tion adds facts and sta­tis­tics that seal up the grim mood in an air­tight fash­ion.

The result­ing film aban­dons the globe-trot­ting ele­ment of mon­do movies but retains that type of scope in how it goes from case to case and decade to decade with­in the United States.  It doesn’t spare the audi­ence from shock­ing imagery — there’s a quick tour of the L.A. County morgue near the begin­ning and a num­ber of grue­some crime scene pho­tos — and yet it is care­ful how often it throws the­se punch­es, using them to con­vey the life-and-death stakes of the case the film makes rather than for cheap shock val­ue.

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Instead, what makes The Killing Of America dis­turbing is how it allows the view­er to step inside the minds of  the string of seri­al killers and mass mur­der­ers that it chron­i­cles by allow­ing said killers to dis­cuss their motives and rea­son­ing in their own words.  Along the way, you see Kenneth Bianchi mug­ging for the cam­era in an unsuc­cess­ful attempt to sell an insan­i­ty plea, Manson toy­ing with reporters and Sirhan Sirhan giv­ing an inter­view where his insan­i­ty keeps ruin­ing his attempts to appear even-keeled.  That said, the scari­est moment is an inter­view with Edmund Kemper, who cheer­ful­ly relates his bizarre way of think­ing and awful crimes in a mat­ter-of-fact man­ner that will chill your blood.

To sum up, The Killing Of America is as unnerv­ing as any mon­do or shock­u­men­tary film but artis­ti­cal­ly, it plays on a whole dif­fer­ent lev­el.  It’s as thought­ful­ly craft­ed as it is shock­ing and it uses its bleak pow­er to make points about the under­side of American life that remain res­o­nant and nec­es­sary.

The Killing of America — Severin Films Trailer from Severin Films on Vimeo.