This is part of an irregular series wherein pretend I haven’t thought of anything new to write about by writing about the last documentary I watched and tenuously trying to link it to a current pop culture phenomenon to give is a semblance of relevance. But there is a little more to my fandom of 1982’s ‘The Killing of America’ than that. Firstly, if the lurid warning above doesn’t set alarm bells off, and you’re of a sensitive/normal disposition, don’t watch this documentary — that’s as close to a NSFW warning as you’ll get from me. I’ve long been fascinated with the mondo strain of extreme documented cinema, but I’m repelled by the frequent violence against animals in them (Victor Schonfeld’s ‘The Animals Film’ is a much better use of that kind of footage) in the infamous ‘Faces of Death’ and earlier Antonio Climati/Mario Morra productions like ‘Ultime Grida Dalla Savana.’ While the genre is often without merit, I still think that the “cargo cult” scene at the end of 1962’s ‘Mondo Cane’ (partly soundtracked by Riz Ortolani, whose work was on the ‘Drive’ soundtrack) is an affecting piece of footage. Laugh it up, but I’d sooner worship that crude plane reproduction than the stuff you’re deifying on your Pinterest boards.
As a child, I was obsessed by the idea of ‘Faces of Death’ — at school, a fellow pupil claimed to have seen it, and described a scene where an ill-fated parachutist drops into a crocodile enclosure at a zoo. It’s worth noting that with maturity, I have less inclination to view this strain of exploitation, but I would love to see that scene. It turns out that my classmate was just a liar. The majority of ‘Faces of Death’s human atrocity is hoax footage, and even the memorable “death” of Pit Dernitz, the tourist eaten by lions on exiting his vehicle was fake, albeit a fake convincing enough to move Gerhard Richter into immortalising the incident in 1990’s ‘Tourist (with 2 Lions)’ painting. These were the days when incidents like a death on a Noel Edmonds show were discussed among peers, but never televised, and the cult of amateur footage had yet to grow into something bigger and murkier.
Those pirated “death movies” seem downright quaint compared to today’s YouTube and WSHH stream of accidents, robberies, revenge punches, unprovoked accidents and CCTV murder aftermath. We’re all rubberneckers at heart, but a documentary like ‘The Killing of America’ at least attempted to apply a message to the collage of mayhem. That production emerged from the success of Climati and Morra’s ‘Savage Trilogy’ and its popularity in Japan (where ‘The Killing of America’ is known as ‘Violence USA’) which led to the production of ‘Faces of Death’ for a far eastern audience, and the box office success of that which unleashed a wave of “shockumentary” mondo compilations. Few death scenes slipped through the edit of these films (though Christine Chubbock’s ‘Network’ style live suicide has never been replayed), but getting Paul Schrader’s brother Leonard in to write ‘The Killing of America’ (with his wife Chieko) made it a little more cerebral. There’s an anti-gun message at the core of the film (still relevant in the light of the recent Trayvon Martin murder), but it’s the way it summarises the flared trouser, moustache, synthetic fabrics and general discontent of the 1970’s in an hour and a half with some heinous acts and rare footage that still shocks me.
There’s a lot to stick to your psyche — the store clerk murder, Mark Essex’s New Orleans hotel shootings (though the film claims he isn’t operating alone), the angry shotgun wielding Anthony Kiristis, a bemused sounding Sirhan Sirhan talking brainwashing, the Jonestown suicide tapes, General Nguyen Ngoc executing a man, the death of Sam “Sidewalk Sniper” Brown (of whom I’ve never learned anything else about), the oddly genial murderer James R. Hoskins who takes over WCPO-TV with a machine gun (and dresses in heritage wear, down to the buffalo checks) before blowing his brains out off camera and those unpleasant flashes of the Greensboro Massacre. All presided over by Chuck Riley’s doomy voiceover (were two people really shot at John Lennon’s Central Park vigil?). The 1970’s were fucking terrible. But this isn’t an anti-American production by any means — it’s just a time capsule of turbulence, yet I’ve never seen much of these things anywhere else. If you’ve got a faintly macabre streak or you’re curious about this kind of film, ‘The Killing of America’ is the only one you need to see, and it’s on YouTube in its entirety.
Remaining unreleased in the States since it was made, and never issued on home video there, I only caught ‘The Killing of America’ when I saw the Exploited VHS release in 2001 alongside their ‘Vigilante’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre — the Shocking Truth’ tapes. It’s a shame that it hasn’t had a wider release. Perhaps it’s not quite gory enough for the ghouls but too trashy for highbrow types, leaving it in a no man’s land, but if you’re a fan of oddball cinema, give it a go. There’s little information about the production online, but that John Lennon-themed peace ending was apparently tacked on to add a little optimism. It seems that even the doom-loving Japanese producers were overwhelmed by that unique strain of Schrader-helmed human suffering.
The Leonard Schrader tribute website’s got some good images from production, but that’s pretty much it. There’s also plenty of ties to another “banned” favourite, ‘Shogun Assassin’ in the film. During the opening credits, an excellent grindhouse double bill of that movie and ‘Humanoids From the Deep’ is visible, Lee Percy who edited this is also the editor of ‘Shogun Assassin,’ the art director, David Weisman was a producer and voice in ‘Shogun Assassin’ and ‘The Killing of America’s producer, Mataichirô Yamamoto produced the original Lone Wolf & Cub’ episodes that ‘Shogun Assassin’ was culled from. In 1985 Mataichirô produced Paul and Leonard’s ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.’ Experienced documentary maker and the director of ‘The Killing of America,’ Sheldon Renan stayed in the educational documentary field, but hasn’t made one since an AIDS-themed production in 1987.
This trashy companion to ‘Bowling For Columbine’s 1970’s aura makes it a little stomach-churning, even if the content is no different to what’s on newspaper sites with content warnings or prefixed with “So sad” or “That ain’t right” on Worldstar. At least Leonard had the balls to enter the cell and go face to face with the likes of serial killer Ed Kemper during production, rather than just hiding behind a screen. Investigate. Even if it’s just for the opening credit music.
While we’re talking killers, during multiple readings of ‘American Psycho’ I’ve long wondered as to whether any of Patrick Bateman’s choice of brands were constructed by Mr. Easton Ellis himself (a former cover subject of ‘Fantastic Man’), particularly Bill Robinson, maker of his wool-crepe suit and Matisse-inspired blue silk tie. The new ‘Fantastic Man‘ has an excellent oral history of Bill Robinson’s life and work that was a total education for me. It’s good to read fashion press that delves and opts to enlighten rather than prop-up existing knowledge with pretty pictures. The feature’s writer, Jeremy Lewis, notes that Bill’s work brings up just a couple of pieces on Google, because he passed before he could attain internet fame. There’s a lot of stories out there that the internet hasn’t told — Robinson’s is just one of them.