The Killing of America focuses on what the director feels is the decline of the United States. It features interviews from Ed Dorris, a retired sergeant of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, as well as Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi. The documentary also shows several interviews with convicted killers such as Sirhan Sirhan as well as footage of murders and news broadcasts.
The Killing of America was initially shown in New York City in 1982 at The Public Theater, but did not receive a commercial release in the United States, although it did receive a home video release in Britain. The film received a wide release in Japan, where financial backers reportedly pressured Renan to add footage of peace vigils for John Lennon as a way to make the documentary less depressing. Years later the documentary would receive a 2013 North American release at Fantasia Festival in Canada.
The film uses music by Robert Houston, Buffalo Springfield, John Lennon, Nick Cash, and others.
It's interesting facing a piece of controversial filmmaking and looking at through an aged lens. Time passes quickly and a good documentary can serve as a neat little time capsule reminder of how things once were. Sheldon Renan's 1981 documentary 'The Killing of America' lit up a storm of controversy in its day. As an unflinching examination of America's fascination with guns and the juxtaposition of violent acts, the film may have once been a lightning rod in its day, but has since become almost quaint by today's standards.
Where 'The Killing of America' and it's 20-minute longer Japanese-language counterpart rise and fall is due to its intention. This was a film that was designed to shock its audience with uncensored (or at least damn near close to it) images of actual people being shot and killed on screen. From Charles Manson to Charles Whitman to John Hinckley Jr. and his failed assassination attempt of then-President Ronald Reagan, 'The Killing of America' paints an alarmist picture of events using actual event footage to piece together its narrative of gun violence and American culture. The film tries to be equally optimistic and pessimistic with its outlook towards these events. While the film works to show the audience a so-called "way out of the problem" it falls into the pit of being almost too exploitive.
My first encounter with this film was an introduction to documentary class I took in college. This class wasn't geared towards handing students a camera and tell them to film something from life, but to understand the tricks of how to make an effective documentary. When it came to showcasing footage manipulation and how to make a short event seem more dramatic, segments from 'The Killing of America' among other more recent works were shown. The reason this film was shown was for its use of the infamous JFK assassination footage shot by Abraham Zapruder and the use of footage surrounding the attempt on Reagan. My professor wasn't using these scenes to shock or make a statement about the film's intention, they were merely pointing out how the footage had been altered for effect. In spite of what the footage looks like today, Zapruder was not cool as a cucumber when he shot the footage of Kennedy being killed, it's actually quite wobbly given that the camera wasn't mounted on a tripod - for this film it was stabilized to remove the shaking and allow the audience to focus on the horror of the event. As for the Reagan shooting, the footage was slowed to a crawl. While it may not seem like a very long moment as you watch it, you do start to feel an anxiety waiting for Hinkley to make his move. You almost want to yell at the people on the screen like some sort of omniscient god-like observer who can somehow turn back time.
Throughout the film, Chuck Riley provides a somber narration that works to tie together all of the random events. But therein lies one of the larger issues with this documentary - its randomness. While it certainly provides a graphic and unflinching look at violence in our country and the aftermath of horrific shootings - 'The Killing of America' does start to feel rather piecemeal. Bits and pieces on their own resonate, but taken as a whole the film just doesn't connect. My reaction to seeing this film in its entirety could stem from the fact that 'The Killing of America' hasn't aged all that well in the subsequent 35 years after its release. When I said in my opening that this film seems "quaint" today, it's because by all accounts it is. Turn on any news program or cable channel today and you'll no doubt see something just as graphic and shocking. After a summer filled with dash-cam footage, cell phones, and people being shot while on Facebook Live, 'The Killing of America,' almost feels tame by comparison.
All age and footage issues aside, my real issue with this fascinating and still somewhat shocking documentary is that it catalogs these events without ever really giving credence to motivation. By uniformly lumping these unrelated events together in one big hunk, it becomes all too easy to forget that a number of these events such as the Manson Family stemmed from issues with mental illness. John Hinkley Jr.'s need to show his love for Jodi Foster after watching 'Taxi Driver' is mentioned, however, it's almost dropped in as a passing thought. As I watched this film I found myself facing a frustratingly overt sense that in almost every case the fact there was a gun involved is the reason to be shocked. Not that the event in question actually happened, but that a gun was used in the incident. For me, this shortchanges the bigger and more relevant socioeconomic issues.
Taken as a whole, 'The Killing of America' certainly is an interesting and oftentimes fascinating look at a very troubling issue. Whether or not either the English language version or the Japanese version obtain their goal is going to be on a case by case basis. Though longer, the Japanese cut doesn't really offer a much more substance. There is a bit more material about more recent serial murderers of the era like John Wayne Gacy, but that material seems tacked in rather than being organic to the central idea. Just because I had a middling detached reaction to the film doesn't mean others necessarily won't have a more passionate response. The best I can say is that it's a film people should see. Even after 35 years, 'The Killing of America' raises a number of important questions and makes some great points. Check it out and see it for yourself. That is possibly the best recommendation I can make for it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Killing of America' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Severin. Both cuts of the film, the 95-minute cut 'The Killing of America' and the 115-minute Japanese version 'Violence U.S.A.' are pressed onto a single Region Free BD50 disc. Housed in a sturdy Blu-ray snapper case, the disc loads to the main menu and features traditional navigation options.
When discussing the transfer for 'The Killing of America' a baseline needs to be established. This film is cobbled together from multiple elements shot under an array of conditions. To that end, this 1.33:1 transfer is about as good as it gets considering one source could look like a million bucks and the following scene could look like the film was processed through a meat grinder. Coupled with that, image artifacts and anomalies are all over the map. Some footage was blown up to highlight certain aspects leading to a more pronounced and noisy grain structure, more than a few pieces are taken from early generation VTR source elements. With those caveats aside, 'The Killing of America' does look pretty darn good for its age and standing in the marketplace. There are some scratches here and there, but nothing too terrible. Colors, details, and black levels can shift depending on the source elements, but otherwise, the film displays a uniformly rough around the edges look that no-doubt replicates the original theatrical presentation.
Presented with an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono track, both cuts of 'The Killing of America' earn high marks. As this film is largely narration based, there isn't much in the way of background sound effects or scoring. As should be expected for a documentary about gun violence, the sounds of gunfire are about all that sounds particularly resonate - if even at a heightened level. What little music or background sound effects appear in the mix are there simply because the source element featured them. To that point, the quality of those sound effects elements is dependent on the source material. Some news material can sound a little strained with voices having a tinny quality to them.
Audio Commentary: Available on the English language version, Director Sheldon Renan offers up a pretty insightful look at the film, how it was made, why they took it upon themselves to make it, as well as the film's reception.
The Madness Is Real: An Interview with Sheldon Renan: (HD 20:22) This is a solid interview piece that works as a companion to the excellent commentary track.
Cutting the Killing: An Interview with Editor Lee Percy: (HD 16:09) This is an interesting if somewhat oddly entertaining interview with Percy.
Interview with Mondo Movie Historian Nick Pinkerton: (HD 14:48) Piinkerton offers up a solid historical look at the film and how it's content and the shocking nature of the film made it a sought after piece
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 1:52)
'The Killing of America' may be a documentary that hasn't aged all that well - at least in the sense that the gun violence issue still rages on in the country. However, the film does serve a historical purpose and certainly earns its status as a "Shockumentary." Severin has done a bang up job with this release by including both the American release cut as well as the longer Japanese version of the film. The A/V presentation for both cuts are really only as good as the source elements being shown, but still works well for this film and I'd wager preserves the intended look and sound of the theatrical viewing. Extra features are plentiful and informative. Fans of the film will certainly want to give this release a go, otherwise, I'd say it's worth a look. It's certainly not for everyone.