“Capitalizing” on crimes?

“Capitalizing” on crimes? March 29, 2005

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between real-life crimes and the movies lately.

A couple days ago, I finally got around to seeing documentarian Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), his follow-up to Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), and it is interesting to see how his new film looks at the effect that his last film had on the lives of some of the people it portrays; the new film begins, in fact, with Broomfield being summoned to appear in court because of claims he made in his earlier film. It is also interesting to see how Broomfield, who has shown a knack for infusing his dry British wit into some pretty sensationalistic American stories (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, 1995; Kurt & Courtney, 1998; Biggie and Tupac, 2002), lets us peek into the subjective processes by which he takes the objective facts of Aileen’s life and fashions them into something dramatic and watchable. And if there remains any question in anyone’s mind that Broomfield is no longer a mere observer but has made himself a part of the story, the sequence leading up to Aileen’s execution includes footage of American reporters interviewing Broomfield outside the prison, hoping that his special access to Aileen (he filmed her last interview, a fact that is trumpeted like a National Enquirer headline on the DVD’s cover) might give him some sort of special insight into her case.

One theme that comes up in both of Broomfield’s films is how people exploited Aileen, whether for money or for political gain; and of course, the question any viewer must ask is whether Broomfield himself is exploiting Aileen — and despite the sensationalistic tone of the film’s promotional materials, I am inclined to say, “No, he isn’t,” or at least, “Not primarily.” I think Broomfield is sincerely disturbed by the way the legal system may have let Aileen down — or, for that matter, by the way Aileen might have let herself down — and I do sense an empathy of some sort in his portrayal of her unfortunate life.

I was reminded of all this when I wrote my recent post on Sturla Gunnarsson and was reminded that one of his films, Scorn (2002), had been all about a couple of real-life murders perpetrated by an arrogant high-school student against his own mother and grandmother here in British Columbia.

And I happened to watch Broomfield’s film while another movie about a real-life killer was making the news here. As reported by the Canadian Press, Studio Briefing, and my friend The Shining Path, there has been some controversy lately over an upcoming American film based on the murders committed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka over a decade ago; notably, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has called on people in his province to boycott the film outright. The situation is somewhat aggravated by the fact that there was a publication ban on the original court case at that time — although that didn’t stop some Canadians from taking advantage of this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web to see what the American media were publishing about the case.

Now National Post columnist George Jonas has this to say about the whole affair:

To wean himself from the worst impulses of philistinism, an asset for a politician but a liability for a film critic, Mr. McGuinty must start vocalizing the phrase “not what but how” just before breakfast. When repeated assiduously 15 times on an empty stomach, the line gradually penetrates a politician’s mind and leads him to grasp that the value of a piece of art or entertainment isn’t determined by what it is about but by how it is made.

Many works of art — cinematic, visual, literary — capitalize on terrible tragedies. Schindler’s List capitalizes on the Holocaust. Gone With The Wind capitalizes on the Civil War. Shakespeare capitalizes on some of the bloodiest chapters in English history. Much of medieval and renaissance art capitalizes on the story of the Crucifixion and Calvary.

Here’s what confuses many politicians. The same tragedies that inspire master craftsmen and superb entertainers also motivate tin-eared dilettantes and ambulance-chasing ghouls. Using the same kind of story Truman Capote used to produce In Cold Blood, the dilettantes and ghouls produce garbage.

That’s where critics come in. Brave and sturdy souls, they take a deep breath, wade into the cesspool, filter out the filth and guide us to the pure stuff. One can only commend Mr. McGuinty for volunteering to join their ranks. Alas, to be a critic requires (a) viewing movies before calling on people to boycott them, and (b) not spouting rubbish about capitalizing on tragedies.

Exactly. Amen. I agree. Couldn’t have put it better myself. But even so, I think concerns remain.

Documentaries, at least, can provoke a certain degree of necessary doubt, but, as G.K. Chesterton warned, dramatizations cannot help but feel more definitive — writers of fiction, even historical fiction, must make choices between available interpretations of any given historical event — and when Aileen, in Broomfield’s new film, begins to contradict everything she said in his earlier film about her victims being rapists and abusers, you begin to wonder if Monster (2003), the Oscar-winning feature film about her life, may have needlessly tarnished the reputations of Aileen’s victims by accepting her original version of those events. In addition, there seems to me to be something a little unseemly about glamour dolls like Charlize Theron accepting Academy Awards, in glamorous ceremonies populated by similarly glamorous people, for playing such troubled and marginalized individuals who had such a terrible effect on other people’s lives.

James Cameron earned a fair bit of scorn when, at the ceremony where he won his Oscars for Titanic, he asked for a moment of silence for the victims of that ship — but I can respect that impulse, at least in principle. If you are going to assume the responsibility of helping to shape our cultural memory of a real-life tragedy, then you have to keep that real-life situation in mind, even — if not especially — when you are being praised for the technical skill with which you helped to shape our collective memories. I wonder what might have happened if Theron had done something similar when she won her Oscar; I wonder what might have happened if she had asked for a moment of silence for Aileen’s victims, or for that matter if she had asked for a moment of silence for the recently-executed Aileen herself.

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