“Life and Death in the United States of Anger”

The Independent – London, UK, The Friday Review
– Friday June 30, 2000 –

Twenty years ago, Paul Schrader’s older brother, Leonard, made a film about violence in America that Americans never got to see. Even his backers thought it was too gruesome. He still stands by the project. As he tells Geoffrey Macnab, it could save lives.

Leonard Schrader grew up around guns. His family may have been strict Calvinists, but that didn’t put them off hunting. Rifles were almost part of the furniture in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was born in 1944. “My uncles all had hunting guns and hunting dogs,” he remembers. “They went bird hunting, deer hunting.” The guns made him nervous, though. “I was always afraid of them, maybe because they made the possibility of suicide too easy when I was young.” It’s a fear which afflicted his little brother, Paul, too. In the films they went on to write and direct, that fear is often painfully evident.

Why are the Schrader brothers so interested in death and violence? “I think you’re asking the wrong question,” Leonard replies. “You should ask why other film-makers aren’t interested. My answer is that I’m interested in America. If you’re interested in the real America, the real America has got a lot of blood in the soil.”

Last week, The Killing of America, a documentary that Leonard Schrader made in 1981, was released for the first time in the UK (the DVD becomes available next month). It’s one of those films that just disappeared off the radar. Made with Japanese money, it was shelved by its US distributors. “Let’s just say two very powerful people in show business were partners in a company. One loved the film, and paid a lot of money for the American rights. His partner saw it six weeks later, blew up and said, ‘this is exploitation, a terrible film – we’ll just eat the loss and make sure that it never shows in the US’.”

Left to Right: Police go on the attack in “Killing of America,” Schrader directing Mathilda May in “Naked Tango,” Ken Ogata in “Mishima,” and rheumy-eyed John Lennon fans Schrader was forced to include in “Killing of America.”

Schrader won’t reveal who the partners were (“I may want to work with them again”), but it’s easy enough to understand both their points of view. The Killing of America is very, very violent. It begins by bombarding us with statistics. In 1980, when the film was made, there was an attempted murder in the US every three minutes and a murder victim every 20 minutes. “In the 80 years of this century,” the narrator intones, “America had more than a million murders, more than all her fatalities in all her wars.”

No sooner has he informed us of this than we’re treated to slow-motion footage of John Hinkley shooting Ronald Reagan. Then follow photographs or newscasts detailing the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the attempted assassination of George C. Wallace. Political violence is intercut with race riots, student protests, suicidal gunmen taking over television stations, and accounts of “the senseless killing of random strangers”. We’re exposed to the madness of Jonestown and of the Manson family. We see Ted Bundy in court and listen as Schrader interviews Ed Kemper, a serial killer who used to take his victims’ severed heads to bed.

The violence is hardly gratuitous – it’s the point of the movie. “Nothing has been staged. If easily shocked, do not view,” we’re told at the outset. This is an atrocity exhibition which proves, quite apart from anything else, how assiduous television crews and photographers have been in capturing death on camera: Americans may not know how to stop the killing, but they certainly know how to film it.

Schrader first had the idea for making the documentary (which he co-wrote with his Japanese-born wife Cheiko) when he noticed an extraordinary discrepancy in the US homicide statistics. Between 1900 and 1963, the murder rate in America had hardly changed at all. “In terms of the population growth, it may even have gone down, but the rate just rockets after the assassination of President Kennedy,” he suggests. He can’t pinpoint exactly why.

“Maybe the (social) fabric was ripped or there was a sense that anybody can be killed and the old rules don’t apply any more. There’s a lot of possibilities if you want to speculate, but if you look at the statistics, it’s pretty clear the assassination of Kennedy radically changed murder in America.” Murder became almost a fad, “a new form of self-therapy – Americans using other Americans in life or death situations to work out their problems,” as Schrader puts it. By 1970, there were over 100 million guns in America (that works out at about two for every household).

To research the movie, Schrader scoured the country. He bought footage from television stations and “secret, hermit-like collectors”. There were disappointments – a Ku Klux Klan shoot-out in South Carolina that he couldn’t get rights to and shots of actual murders on film that the television stations wouldn’t sell because the trials had all blown over and the killers hadn’t been convicted. He deleted certain scenes in case he offended victims’ relatives. He, Cheiko and his young editor Lee Percy (who has gone on to cut such films as Boys Don’t Cry and Reversal of Fortune) painstakingly assembled the film. (“It was like climbing a mountain with your fingernails.”) A friend of his, Sheldon Renan, is credited as director, but Schrader insists that most of Renan’s footage was unusable and the final cut was all his work.

The Killing of America was shot long before the television networks started showing “real-life crime” shows. Not that Schrader received any plaudits for patenting a new style of documentary – his film still hasn’t been seen in the US.

As for the Japanese, they were both fascinated and repelled. Ironically, 20 years on, their own murder rate has shot up. “Maybe it has something to do with affluence,” Schrader muses. He has spent much of his career in Japan. He’s an expert on Japanese cinema. For four years, he taught English literature at a university in Kyoto. He and his wife have written Japanese plays. Back in the late Sixties, when he was studying creative writing with Nelson Algren and Kurt Vonnegut, he was introduced to Yukio Mishima. He became obsessed with the novelist, who committed suicide in 1970 and co-wrote his brother’s 1985 film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. (This was the film, incidentally, which destroyed the brothers’ relationship. Paul co-opted Leonard’s idea and then started treating him on set, as he confessed to author Peter Biskind, like an “employee.” The two have hardly spoken since.)

Whatever bad, Cain and Abel-like memories Mishima provokes, Leonard is ideally qualified to compare Japanese and American attitudes toward killing. “It’s a vast question,” he groans before repeating a line he wrote 25 years ago. “When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and stabs himself. When an American cracks up, he opens the window, sticks out a rifle, becomes a sniper and kills somebody else. That line is incredibly over-simplified, of course, but there’s a fundamental truth there – the Americans lash out quicker – and the Japanese lash inward quicker, like Mishima… ”

Two decades on, he acknowledges, The Killing of America has dated. America is still the same country, “the same fertile ground for violence,” but “there are all these new trends, you’d have to do Part II or something.”

Apart from anything else, the murderers are getting even younger. In the documentary, he shows footage of Brenda Spencer, the teenager who fired at passing school children with the rifle given to her for her 16th birthday because “Mondays are so boring”. But now, he points out, seven-year-old children are shooting one another. He is baffled by Congress’s continuing failure to ban handguns (“you couldn’t walk into a 7:11 with a rifle very easily – people would see you coming”), but doesn’t think America is ready to give up its love affair with weapons. “If you compare America to Canada, Americans, many of them, just don’t want life to be that boring,” he says by way of explanation.

Schrader, Oscar nominated for his Kiss of the Spider Woman script, hasn’t directed a feature since Naked Tango in 1990. For the past five or six years, he has been busy as a script doctor (“that way you get big money for a short amount of work”), but now has two or three projects of his own ready to go. He reckons prospects for independent film-makers are better in Hollywood than they have been for well over a decade.

The US rights to The Killing of America will become available again in a year or two. There’s thus a prospect that the film may finally be shown to the audience it was aimed at. If that does happen, Schrader hints that he would like to change the ending. The financiers insisted he rounded the movie off with something “that wasn’t murder” – hence his decision to show John Lennon’s rheumy-eyed mourners listening to a recording of “Imagine” in Central Park as a seagull flies overhead. Today, he would go after all the footage of Ted Bundy in the three or four weeks before he was executed, when the anti-capital punishment protesters were parked outside his prison and he was waging a charm offensive with the television evangelists.

“Bundy could be a masterful charmer… the frustration, the homicidal fury (was kept) right underneath the surface.When you run into these people, if you expect to meet a monster, you’re going to be sadly mistaken. Hopefully in this film,” he adds enigmatically, ” you start to pick up a sixth sense.” Forced to elaborate, he says, “They’re different from the rest of us. If you listen to your instinct, you can spot a killer – what you need is experience. You just need a couple of minutes seeing what they’re like – this is what I thought I was providing in this film. I thought the film could possibly save lives.”

‘The Killing of America’ is released on DVD by exploited on 10 July

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