|Director: Julian P. Hobbs |
|Features: Rick Stanton, Tobias Allen, Harold Schechter, Elmer Wayne Henley, WalterScott, Andy Kahan, Joe Coleman|
|Year of Release: 2000|
Julian P. Hobbs' documentary Collectors is a disturbing, but utterly intriguingpiece 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 BatonRouge, Louisiana, and his friend, Tobias Allen. Together, Stanton and Allen collect artworks 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 controversialshow featuring 22 paintings by Elmer Wayne Henley, one-half of a serial killing duo inHouston, Texas, who in the early 1970s raped and killed 27 children and buried them inmass graves under a boat house. In the opening sequence of Collectors, we see theart show being put together in a gallery, and the way people are talking about the paintingsgives no indication of the man who painted them. Instead, we see highly competentpaintings of flowers and landscapes, along with an impressively detailed pencil sketch of anude 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 byjust 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, suchas the clown paintings by John Wayne Gacy, are legitimately defensible as competentpopular art, while other works, such as the undisciplined scrawlings of Manson or thesimplistic, demonic pencil doodlings by Ramirez are more like something a depressed highschool kid would draw in his notebook during history class. Yet, as art history has shownus, it is sometimes the artist in question, rather than the actual work of art, that drawsattention. 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 notconvicted serial killers--who, in most people's mind, are probably the closest thing we havein today's society to the embodiment of pure evil--should be celebrated in art shows whiletheir victims are largely forgotten. As Richard Tithecott noted in Of Men andMonsters, his excellent study of the serial killer, the sisters of two of JeffreyDahmer's victims complained about his being on magazine covers while no one couldremember the name of their murdered brothers: "Dahmer's presence is gained, as the womensuggest, by their brothers' absence."
This is brought up repeatedly in the documentary by representatives of victims' rightsgroups, particularly Andy Kahan, who works for the city of Houston in the Crime Victim'sUnit. At one point in the film, he poses a question explicitly to the interviewer and, byproxy, we viewers: whether or not we could name a single victim of a serial killer. It's ahard-hitting query because, outside of the immediate relatives of the victims, most of uscannot, myself included. Yet, when asked to name famous serial killers, it probablywouldn'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'sfascination with serial killers. Their interest extends far beyond works of art into variousmemorabilia. 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 onvideotape) and collect soil samples and take photographs. They also get to know the serialkillers whose art they collect. Through both letter writing and visits in prison, Stantonbecomes friends with them and is largely responsible for getting many of them to pick up apaintbrush (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 happilyarticulate 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 gamehe created in the early '90s, which he saw as a parody of war board games. Of course, manypeople were disgusted by the game (even Stanton seems a little put off by it), yet it is clearthat there is a fine line, if any line at all, between playing a game in which you take the roleof a serial killer and playing a game in which you take the role of an army general. Eachentails vicariously enjoying power and the ability to kill, yet one strikes most people assick, while the other does not.
Your response to Collectors will depend largely on your willingness to concede tothat dark part of everyone's heart that, in some small way, understands why Stanton andAllen do what they do. Calling them "sick" or "perverse" is just a defense mechanismagainst our own fascination with the darker side of life. Hobbs does some interestingcross-cutting between shots of Stanton and Allen discussing their collections and scenes oftwo family members of a victim describing the horrible torture he suffered at the hands ofHenley. It's a disturbing moment that points up the film's central dilemma very well, as dothe brief, but effective insertions of police footage of plastic-wrapped bodies being dug outof the ground.
Yet, Hobbs seems to clearly favor the viewpoint of Stanton and Allen. The scenesinvolving victims' rights supporters and family members of Henley's victims seem at timesperfunctory, as if Hobbs felt pressed to show both sides of the debate even though he'sreally only interested in one.
Still, his documentary is an intriguing exploration of a peculiarly American obsession. Thefinal scene, in which a man buys one of Henley's paintings for $600 for the sole purpose ofburning it in the middle of the street says a great deal about how intensely some people feelabout the commercialization of criminals. But, the fact that Allen goes out in the middle ofstreet afterward and scrapes up the smoldering ashes as a keepsake says even more.
©2000 James Kendrick