THE KILLING OF AMERICA (1981)

PrintE-mail Written by John Townsend

The finale of Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s 1982 murder-compendium-cum-documentary centres on a peace vigil held for the recently killed John Lennon. As Imagine plays across the crowd we are offered glimpses of distraught fans, young and old, who made the pilgrimage to Central Park to honour their hero. As the melancholic music continues narrator Chuck Riley, never less than monotone and morosely emotionless throughout, delivers a most poignant punchline: “At this peaceful vigil, two people were killed.” And in that moment you get the only real comment that exists within The Killing of America.

In a world in which Michael Moore lives and thrives, the re-issue of a documentary focusing on the decline of American society and the rise of gun ownership and its use feels somewhat redundant. Moore has covered this and other topics in detail and provoked considerably more political debate from it. We’ve also had numerous films and documentaries on some of the subjects of Renan and Schrader’s feature, whether it be the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, the murders by Ted Bundy or the crimes of the Manson Family so much of the content feels somewhat sterilised.

To really understand The Killing of America, it is necessary to try and understand the time when it was made. There is an undertone of surprise to some of the narration, as if the fact any of this could be happening in America, this America, is preposterous. There is also a sense of mystification regarding the featured murderers: some of these young men and women who suddenly seemed to become killers were all pleasant and presentable just five minutes ago; what could possibly have possessed them?

That the film offers no conclusion, only reels of grainy evidence leaves The Killing of America feeling a little empty when you finally reach the end. There is the suspicion much of the footage was included just because it could be, with previously unseen police film often just for effect or emphasis. As such, The Killing of America becomes as much an example of what could be shown to be happening, than what actually was happening. It is fitting, then, that the most interesting sections of the film surround interviews with Sirhan Sirhan, who shot Robert Kennedy, and mass murderer Ed Kemper. The latter wonders to camera if he was perhaps a little crazy, immediately after talking of beheading his victims and sleeping with several heads. Both come across as literate and weirdly engaging, and perhaps this would have been a more interesting topic for the filmmakers to have concentrated on.

As a time capsule from the early 80s, and with some interesting footage mixed in with some included purely for shock value, The Killing of America carries some historical value. It would make an interesting double bill with Moore’s Bowling for Columbine; just make sure you’re in a happy place.

THE KILLING OF AMERICA (1981) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTORS: SHELDON RENAN, LEONARD SCHRADER / SCREENPLAY: CHIEKO SCHRADER, LEONARD SCHRADER / STARRING: CHUCK RILEY, ED DORRIS, THOMAS NOGUCHI, ED KEMPER / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 31ST

 


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