--> Once upon a time, we didn’t have 24-hour news coverage. As a society, we weren’t bombarded with images of atrocity. But even with the Internet it takes a bit of work to find unedited footage of real death. When Osama bin Laden, arguably America’s greatest villain, was shot and killed by Navy SEALS in 2011, images of his corpse were with held from the public, deemed “too gruesome” and leading to even more theories of conspiracy and government malfeasance. In a way, the post-9/11 culture was denied emotional closure after years of living under outside and domestic terrorism. Contrast that with the horrific execution video of journalist Daniel Pearl by Al-Qaeda operatives, which horrified (and fascinated) all who viewed it, even in its jittery form. As has been stated by countless psychologists, we’re a culture both attracted to and repelled by violence. We are addicted to gazing into the abyss.
In 1981, Leonard Schrader, brother of filmmaker Paul Schrader (whose films are far from pacifist), wrote The Killing of America for the Japanese market. Uncomfortably lumped in with the sensationalistic so-called “mondo” movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Killing of America is a deadly serious look at the rise of gun violence in the country. As a catalyst, it starts its analysis with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, repeating a tight close-up of the infamous Zapruder footage so familiar to us now from Oliver Stone’s JFK. During the images of the aftermath, the funeral procession and the iconically uncomfortable prompting of John Jr. to salute the body of his father, we are presented with a montage of Wild West Shows, the attempted assassinations of Ronald Reagan, Jim Brady, George Wallace. On a regular afternoon, police gun down “sidewalk sniper” Sam Brown at point-blank range. As he collapses to the sidewalk the narration tells us, “America is the only industrialized country with the murder rate of countries at civil war like Cambodia and Nicaragua. An attempted murder every 3 minutes. A murder every 20 minutes.” It leaves us with a statistic of 20,000 murders a year by 1980. (Today, according to some sources, that number has grown to 100,000 deaths by gunshot annually.)
Following RFK’s assassination from the gun of Palestinian fanatic Sirhan Sirhan—“He looked like a saint. I wish that Son of a Gun were alive today. So I wouldn’t be here. […] I’m not mentally ill, sir, but I’m not perfect either.”—Charles Whitman’s sniper rampage in ’66, it’s posited that these incidents gave rise to a “new kind of killer,” and a surge of “the random murder of strangers.” At no point does the camera shy away from the true-life tragedy captured by news cameras. The viewer sees blood spurting and bodies dropping in a way that belies all the cinematic heroic bloodshed we’ve been conditioned against. The raw, grainy imagery screams “reality” in a way that the crispness of modern-day reality does not. Maybe it’s the impact of history, but there’s an element of The Killing of America that doesn’t offer a release. The footage is, to use the coveted marketing phrase, “shocking”.
Chuck Riley’s narration drags us through twenty years of violence, touching on the familiar like John Wayne Gacy and the chilling off-handed confessions of Ed Kemper, who threw darts at his mother’s severed head, “I did it in my society.”—the less-familiar like “Mondays are so boring” child-killer Brenda Spencer, through events obscure but no less hideous. James Hoskins’ unhinged 1980 take-over of a TV station following his murder of his girlfriend; bystander Richard Townsend forced to rob a bank at gun point; mortgage broker Richard Hall taken hostage in his own office by bartender Anthony Karitzis, who wired a shotgun to the back of Hall’s head and marched him through Manhattan for three days. “I hope that this doesn’t go off, I’m having too much fun.” The birth of the murderer as cause celebre.
As the film progresses, it stretches the causation of “more guns equal more lunatics” that the right constantly accuses the left of using erroneously, but it’s hard to argue when heads are bursting undramatically before your eyes. Following Whitman’s rampage, the practice of ordering guns and rifles through the mail was suspended, which, the movie posits, resulted in the skyrocketing of private gun ownership. During the 1980 candle light vigil for John Lennon which caps the documentary—the only footage I personally witnessed in my lifetime—over the inevitable soundtrack of “Imagine”, the narration tells us, “While you watched this movie, five people were murdered. One was the random killing of a stranger.”
While history supports that gun violence did taper off during the mid-80s and through the ‘90s, thanks in part to the Brady Bill, following 9/11 it’s difficult to dispute that gun violence has once again been on the rise, and in a manner that the documentary could not have foreseen, despite all of its portents. The tragedies in Sandy Hook, in Columbine, in Aurora, Colorado, would seem to indicate that we’ve returned to the cycle of violence so persuasive through the ‘60s and ‘70s, making Killing of America all the more relevant today.
Since 1981, we’ve grown accustomed to sensationalistic reporting and biased, agenda-driven “enternewsment”. Which makes the hindsight viewing of Killing of America so much more powerful. Modern eyes may take a few minutes to adjust because the film is presented without irony, without self-reflection. It states its case that America has grown increasingly dangerous because of political disillusionment, special interest groups and the decline of mental health care. Today this message is still espoused, but it’s tinged with barely-related self-righteous outrage from both sides of the political divide, the dialogue almost as violent as the misanthropic gunfire. Just as today, America had as many voices shouting for the right to own murder weapons versus those who shout for the complete eradication of firearms. Neither side is any more willing to discuss the problem now than they ever were.
As Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes.”
The Killing of America was released on a special edition DVD through Exploited. It may be difficult to find, but a good starting point is www.exploitedfilms.com.