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Director: Julian P. Hobbs
Features: Rick Stanton, Tobias Allen, Harold Schechter, Elmer Wayne Henley, Walter Scott, Andy Kahan, Joe Coleman
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA

Julian P. Hobbs' documentary Collectors is a disturbing, but utterly intriguing piece of work that deals with twin American fascinations: serial killing and art collecting. The two main subjects of Hobbs' films are Rick Stanton, a funeral director from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and his friend, Tobias Allen. Together, Stanton and Allen collect art works done by notorious serial killers and curate shows around the country to feature it.

The documentary is centered around the planning and execution of a highly controversial show featuring 22 paintings by Elmer Wayne Henley, one-half of a serial killing duo in Houston, Texas, who in the early 1970s raped and killed 27 children and buried them in mass graves under a boat house. In the opening sequence of Collectors, we see the art show being put together in a gallery, and the way people are talking about the paintings gives no indication of the man who painted them. Instead, we see highly competent paintings of flowers and landscapes, along with an impressively detailed pencil sketch of a nude figure that is so meticulous it at first appears to be a black-and-white photograph.

As the film progresses, Stanton and Allen display works from their extensive collection by just about every known serial killer of the last 50 years, from Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez, to David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, to Charles Manson. Some of the works, such as the clown paintings by John Wayne Gacy, are legitimately defensible as competent popular art, while other works, such as the undisciplined scrawlings of Manson or the simplistic, demonic pencil doodlings by Ramirez are more like something a depressed high school kid would draw in his notebook during history class. Yet, as art history has shown us, it is sometimes the artist in question, rather than the actual work of art, that draws attention. Stanton and Allen are fully aware of this, as they refer to Manson's work as "crappy," while admitting it still fetches high dollar because of his name value.

Of course, the central moral dilemma explored in Collectors is whether or not convicted serial killers--who, in most people's mind, are probably the closest thing we have in today's society to the embodiment of pure evil--should be celebrated in art shows while their victims are largely forgotten. As Richard Tithecott noted in Of Men and Monsters, his excellent study of the serial killer, the sisters of two of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims complained about his being on magazine covers while no one could remember the name of their murdered brothers: "Dahmer's presence is gained, as the women suggest, by their brothers' absence."

This is brought up repeatedly in the documentary by representatives of victims' rights groups, particularly Andy Kahan, who works for the city of Houston in the Crime Victim's Unit. At one point in the film, he poses a question explicitly to the interviewer and, by proxy, we viewers: whether or not we could name a single victim of a serial killer. It's a hard-hitting query because, outside of the immediate relatives of the victims, most of us cannot, myself included. Yet, when asked to name famous serial killers, it probably wouldn't be a stretch for most Americans to name at least three, if not half a dozen or more. It's a moment of harsh realization about what we truly value as a society.

Yet, despite this moral dilemma, Hobbs is clearly fascinated by Stanton and Allen's fascination with serial killers. Their interest extends far beyond works of art into various memorabilia. During the film, they visit various sites where famous murders took place (such as the Roman Polanski-Sharon Tate bungalow, a journey that is replayed on videotape) and collect soil samples and take photographs. They also get to know the serial killers whose art they collect. Through both letter writing and visits in prison, Stanton becomes friends with them and is largely responsible for getting many of them to pick up a paintbrush (he still laments not getting to know Dahmer before he was killed in prison).

Stanton and Allen are certainly compelling characters, most notably because they happily articulate their fascination with serial killers and have no qualms about its macabre aspects. In one of the most interesting portions of the film, Allen defends a serial killer board game he created in the early '90s, which he saw as a parody of war board games. Of course, many people were disgusted by the game (even Stanton seems a little put off by it), yet it is clear that there is a fine line, if any line at all, between playing a game in which you take the role of a serial killer and playing a game in which you take the role of an army general. Each entails vicariously enjoying power and the ability to kill, yet one strikes most people as sick, while the other does not.

Your response to Collectors will depend largely on your willingness to concede to that dark part of everyone's heart that, in some small way, understands why Stanton and Allen do what they do. Calling them "sick" or "perverse" is just a defense mechanism against our own fascination with the darker side of life. Hobbs does some interesting cross-cutting between shots of Stanton and Allen discussing their collections and scenes of two family members of a victim describing the horrible torture he suffered at the hands of Henley. It's a disturbing moment that points up the film's central dilemma very well, as do the brief, but effective insertions of police footage of plastic-wrapped bodies being dug out of the ground.

Yet, Hobbs seems to clearly favor the viewpoint of Stanton and Allen. The scenes involving victims' rights supporters and family members of Henley's victims seem at times perfunctory, as if Hobbs felt pressed to show both sides of the debate even though he's really only interested in one.

Still, his documentary is an intriguing exploration of a peculiarly American obsession. The final scene, in which a man buys one of Henley's paintings for $600 for the sole purpose of burning it in the middle of the street says a great deal about how intensely some people feel about the commercialization of criminals. But, the fact that Allen goes out in the middle of street afterward and scrapes up the smoldering ashes as a keepsake says even more.

Overall Rating: (3)

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