Unreleased in America and banned in some territories, the in-your-face study of America's "age of mass murder" THE KILLING OF AMERICA comes to Blu-ray from Severin Films in a packed special edition.
Opening with an LAPD ride-along of the city's violent Watts neighborhood where the police respond to skirmishes, disagreements, domestic violence, and the murder of an entire family (with only the devastated father left to mourn), before taking the viewer right into the thick of the L.A. county morgue, THE KILLING OF AMERICA notes that violence is as old as the Old West but the statistics have and the variety of expressions of America's propensity for violence have increased dramatically over the last twenty-odd years. Tracing the irreparable crack in America's psyche to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of the film's themes is of peacemakers gunned down by killers with a variety of motives from profit to insanity, from hate to extreme idolization, from Robert Kennedy to Martin Luther King to the attempt on George Wallace and the most recent killing of John Lennon (the attempt on Ronald Reagan is thrown in there too, but more likely because the footage was available). Profiled alongside the assassins are the snipers like Charles Whitman, "I don't like Mondays" teenager school shooter Brenda Spencer, serial killers from Manson, Gacy, Son of Sam, and Bundy to Edmund Kemper (the subject of a disturbing interview conducted by the filmmakers). Most disturbing to the narrator – the "savior" killers like Herbert Mullin (who killed thirteen people to prevent an earthquake) or Jim Jones (with footage of the congressional visit, the air strip shootings and aftermath of the suicide). The film speculates on the devaluation of human life and inward aggression turned outwards, and makes early appeals for the gun regulations but seems despairing of a solution (the Lennon memorial peace rally footage was reportedly added at the behest of the Japanese co-producers to end on an optimistic note). Unflinching and exploitative certainly, the film managed to hit too close to home then and is still relevant today (even if the violence statistics now seem hopelessly outdated). The synth score was provided by Paul Revere & the Raiders' Mark Lindsay and W. Michael Lewis (NEW YEARS' EVIL) and supervised by actor-turned-filmmaker Robert Houston (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) who had used the two composers on his recut of SHOGUN ASSASSIN for New World (Houston's production partner David Weisman supervised the still sequences and designed the title sequence). Although direction is credited to Pacific Film Archive founder Sheldon Renan, the film was the brainchild of Leonard Schrader – brother of director Paul Schrader (TAXI DRIVER) – his wife Cheiko, and Towa producer Mataichirô Yamamoto who would go on to producer Paul Schrader's MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS and more mainstream fare like VAMPIRE HUNTER D and Takashi Miike's CROWS trilogy.
Restored from 2K scans of the original negative, Severin's dual-layer Blu-ray includes both the uncut US version (95:09) and the longer Japanese assembly (115:42). The Japanese cut appears to be a composite since the opening and closing credits remain in English and there are no Japanese subtitles for the English dialogue. The film will never look stunning as the sourced footage comes from ¾" video, 8mm, and 16mm negative and positive in variable condition blown-up to 35mm while the 35mm footage shot by the filmmakers generally looks better but is also subject to the shooting conditions. The best-looking parts of the English version come from the Kemper interview while the Japanese version's best-looking footage comes from the FBI training film exclusive to that version. The English version includes optional English and English SDH subtitles for the LPCM 2.0 mono track while the Japanese version's LPCM track also features optional English subtitles for the narration as well as SDH subtitles that translate Japanese narration, transcribe English dialogue, and provide the SDH notations.
The Japanese version is certainly "more exploitative" as described in Severin's ad copy, with additional autopsy footage in the morgue opening, additional stills of suicide victims, and successive replays of the Zapruder footage of Kennedy's head shot, while the Japanese narration is simultaneously more didactic and hyperbolic. The bulk of the additional footage includes an opening sequence of America the Beautiful as conveyed through a montage of the Grand Canyon director Renan's original conception not included in the English cut), a longer version of the Lennon segment, an entire musical montage of American competition and recreation, a piece on Michael Clark during a section about young killers, an entire FBI training short for the police on shooting situations, and an extension of the KKK massacre sequence aftermath. Additional shots and extensions are also dotted throughout the Japanese cut.
The US version is accompanied by an audio commentary by director Renan even though the Japanese version starts with Renan's intended opening sequence. He discusses his reputation before the film for assembling "clip shows" including a twenty-seven hour-long underground animation show, and how Schrader approached him in search of footage early on. Although he is credited as director, he attributes much of the creative input to Schrader, his wife Cheiko, and editor Lee Percy (FROM BEYOND), along with the guiding hand of producer Yamamoto. He also discusses at length what he and the crew learned from co-cinematographer Willy Kurant (Godard's MASCULIN-FEMININE) who had experience in warzones and advised them how to dress and act in such situations including the Watts shoot. He also notes the contributions of Weisman on the still sequences, project coordinator Lyn Jackson who sourced the Lennon footage as well as securing the right to use his music for the film in perpetuity, and sound editor Val Kuklowsky (NIGHT WARNING) who had been editing punk music videos and would goose the temp sound mixes with odd sound effects to shock the filmmakers during screenings. Most interesting are his recollections of the Kemper interview filmed by himself and Schrader.
"The Madness is Real" interview with Renan (20:22) reiterates much of the same points in more compact form but also has him describing the film as a "more artistic version of FACES OF DEATH" with the goal of educating rather than just shocking the viewer. In "Cutting the Killing" (16:09), editor Lee Percy recalls starting as an assistant editor Noel Marshall's ROAR which was produced on deferments from Panavision and Kodak. Faced with a ridiculous amount of printed footage (over one million feet), the editors – one of whom was future SUBSPECIES director Ted Nicoloau – bumped up Percy to editor. Of THE KILLING OF AMERICA, he discusses the various formats he had to pre-edit to save money on blow-ups, the twelve-to-fourteen hour days in the editing room (during which Matamoto and Renan made sure the needs of himself and the crew were provided for including food, house cleaning, and gas for their vehicles), searching for narrative and emotional threads in the footage, and the psychological effect of repeated viewings of the footage. The interview with "Mondo" movie historian Nick Pinkerton (14:48) provides a digest history of the Mondo craze starting with MONDO CANE through to FACES OF DEATH (and TRACES OF DEATH) before getting to Pinkerton's fresher views on THE KILLING OF AMERICA. The disc closes out with the film's theatrical trailer (1:52). (Eric Cotenas)
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