“Oh, the history books tell it, They tell it so well
The cavalries charged, The Indians fell
The cavalries charged. The Indians died
Oh, the country was young, With God on its side…” With God On Our Side, Bob Dylan.
“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”. Second amendment to the Constitution of The United States.
“Drop the gun!” a cop urges Sam Brown, the superfly San Diego sidewalk sniper in 1979. The unresponsive Brown (possibly musing over the important message he claims to have brought from aboard the Starship Enterprise) is shot down, point-blank. The first words we hear in The Killing Of America are effectively its message. But as we shall learn, things are seldom as simple as they seem…
TKOA’s status as the Mondo Movie that transcends Mondo, redeeming the genre from the questionable shockumentary practices of its founders Jacopetti and Prosperi by virtue of its ongoing relevance and unflinching verisimilitude (well, keep reading…) is even more remarkable when you consider that this 1981 effort was commissioned by producer Mataichirô Yamamoto in a blatant attempt to emulate the success of that most gonzo of Mondos, Faces Of Death (1978), which had outperformed Star Wars for 13 straight weeks at Japanese box offices. “His problem was that he hired a film archivist and a guy who did Art Films” says director Sheldon Renan, describing himself and writer / producer Leonard Schrader respectively.
Not that it’s likely FODophiles will consider themselves remotely short-changed by TKOA… Thomas Noguchi, LA “Coroner to the Stars” and inspiration for TV’s Quincy ME appears in both and establishing shots here of mortuary workers matter-of-factly going about their daily business are pretty much interchangeable with those in “Conan Le Cilaire”s memorably revolting “video nasty”. Thereafter it’s the expected mix of newsreel footage, CCTV and some original material, all (and here, in the words of the doc’s opening caption, is the kicker) “… real. Nothing has been staged.” Hm…
The other thing that sets TKOA apart from the Mondo competition as worthy of serious attention is the serious Calvinist intent of writer Leonard Schrader (The Yakuza, Blue Collar, Kiss Of The Spider Woman, Mishima) and the attention to structure imposed upon it by renowned film archivist Renan. Starting with shots of America’s geographical scope and splendour (though unfortunately most of this stuff was cut from the American release) he pursues a historical tack (which identifies ground zero for an epidemic of American violence as the JFK assassination) and progressively narrows his focus through a succession of snipers, messianic assassins and serial killers until we find ourselves face to face with Ed Kemper in his cell at the California Medical facility, hear what he has to say for himself and get the chance to reflect on what we might possibly have in common with him.
The structure and thrust of TKOA command respect, even where one might find oneself disagreeing with Schrader’s argument. For example he fetishises the slaying of JFK (difficult not to, I guess) but it’s unlikely that Sitting Bull and Geronimo, were they available to offer their opinions, would agree that American cultural violence was conceived in the room of a book repository or on a grassy knoll in Dallas, TX on 22.11.63. The Zapruder footage, duly trotted out, never loses its impact (though it’s interesting to hear Renan’s observations on the shocking condition that the original film had been “conserved” in), likewise the casual brutality with which South Vietnamese police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executes Việt Cộng member Nguyễn Văn Lém in the street. There’s further familiar footage of Bobby Kennedy’s death (and a mind-boggling interview with his killer Sirhan Sirhan, who offers: “I wish that son of a gun were alive… I’m not mentally ill, Sir, but I’m not perfect either”), the shooting of Ronald Reagan and crippling of George Wallace, protestors gunned down at Kent State, dramatic trial footage (the Manson family, Ted Bundy) and helicopter shots of Guyana littered with dead followers of the Reverend Jim Jones (scenes of Jones gurning idiotically as he does a wacky snake handling dance are particularly creepy, given what was to come)… and on and on…
A Central Park vigil for the murdered peace activist (when it suited him) John Lennon suggests the potential for positive social change, until the dulcet tones of narrator Chuck Riley close the proceedings with the claim that two people were killed at the vigil and that “while you watched this movie, five more of us were murdered. One was the random killing of a stranger.” Sweet dreams, everyone.
You might already be aware of this forbidding documentary from the Severin gang’s earlier DVD edition, when they were trading under the name of Exploited. They’ve hit the ball out of the park once again with this super spanky Blu, which not only serves up the main feature looking and sounding better than ever before, but incorporates as extras (aside from the expected trailer) Renan’s audio commentary plus interviews with him, editor Lee Percy and Mondo historian Nick Pinkerton (who’s been working about as hard as the Sevs on making sure that TKOA is finally seen where it’s most needed, i.e. the USA!) Along with the outstanding documentary they worked on, Renan and Percy’s contributions to this release represent something of a primer for any aspiring documentarian on how to set about making one, but be warned… both admit the adverse effects that making TKOA had on their own mental well-being.
As if all that weren’t enough, this edition includes an alternative Japanese cut of the doc, lasting 20 minutes (!) longer than the US version. Much of the additional material comprises a paean to the American way of life and some of its critics have speculated that Yamamoto felt obliged to somehow “soften” the film’s message out of some misguided sense of politeness. One could just as well argue that these glimpses of the American dream serve to throw the atrocities that litter the rest of TKOA into sharper relief… a legitimate approach, though not one which consistently comes off. There’s an endless sequence of clean-limbed young Americans relentlessly tossing frisbies, roller skating and generally pursuing wholesome leisure activities that almost has you wishing you were back in the morgue among all those cadavers. We also participate in a training exercise during which rookie cops must make split second decisions about whether to shoot or not. The Manson section in this version is prefaced by material about Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme’s attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford in 1975. We also witness Muhammad Ali talking down a would-be suicide, suggesting that celebrity doesn’t always have to be a malign end in itself, in stark contrast to one Robert Smith, who blew away innocents “to get known… I just wanted to make a name for himself”.
Though far superior to the Mondo movies with which it is traditionally bracketed, even the original cut of TKOA is (like Sirhan Sirhan) not perfect. There’s a sequence about the lives of social marginals on Hollywood boulevard that doesn’t really go anywhere and I’ve always felt that the addition of comic piano music to some of the footage detailing Richard Hall’s three-day ordeal at the hands of aggrieved bank customer Tony Kiritsis (above) struck a jarringly bum note. I was further disheartened to learn from Renan’s contributions to this set that he dubbed dialogue over the shooting of the strutting Sam Brown that would tend to support the police’s (contested) version of how that lethal incident went down. Once a film maker has admitted to one such falsification … who knows?
Still, TKOA stands as disturbing yet compelling piece of work whose power hasn’t been diminished by one jot over the passing of the years. On the contrary… Pinkerton says he’s tired of hearing that TKOA is “more relevant today than it’s ever been” but come on Nick, if something looks, sounds and feels more relevant than it’s ever been, then it’s probably because it’s more relevant than it’s ever been. Some things really are as simple as they seem.