Now on DVD, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is a documentary that attempts to tease out the effect the infamous serial killer's actions had on the city of Milwaukee Wisconsin, particular the largely black neighborhood where he lived when he committed his crimes.
The film, originally titled Jeff, debuted last year at SXSW. In his review for ScreenAnarchy, Scott Weinberg wrote that it "whittles a massive, disturbing story down to its essence. ... From the memories, insights, and anecdotes of Pamela Bass, Pat Kennedy, and Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, we learn all we need to know about Dahmer's repulsive activities. If you're looking for a documentary that focuses on Dahmer's childhood, his psychoses, or the media frenzy surrounding his arrest, look elsewhere. This film, to its credit, focuses mainly on the days before and after the cannibal's arrest."
While watching the film, I started to wonder about myself. At age 48, I'm glad to look in the mirror through my trifocals (no kidding, I got trifocals last year) and through the exhaustion of raising two special needs kids, aged 13 and 10, and see a man who still has plenty of passion, however mediated, for cinema. If I never wrote another word, I'd still be watching. I'm a lucky guy. I have a wife, two neat kids, and get to do something I love at a pace that suits me and my talents.
But what would happen if you took something out of the equation here? Wife dies, kids don't turn out so good, my depression medication sends me for an unexpected spin.
Who am I then?
I'm old enough to remember when they started pulling bodies out of John Wayne Gacy's crawlspace. I was in my early teens, just the right age to have a morbid interest in serial killers. As Gacy's body count rose on TV, there was an excitement in the air. A real life monster had been caught and catalogued. Dracula never had a better biographer than ABC News. And when the details proved too full of devils for anchormen to speak, the rumor mill kept everybody in my class plenty entertained.
By the time it was all over, my generation had been given a crash course in America's new bogeyman. He could live next door. You might even have hired him to make balloon animals at your kid's birthday party. A new category had been created for what evil looked like. Very shortly after, Ted Bundy followed. and fell neatly into that box. Even creepy, old Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez seemed to fit the bill somewhat. Believe me, by the time Dahmer came along he was an afterthough,t an inevitability in a world where you could Google beheadings and car accident photos. And he was absolutely no different than those other guys.
When you looked at photos of Gacy or heard him talk to the press, he was alive. A fierce feral son of a bitch who had no apologies about what he did. You got the impression his clown makeup never really came off, that life was performance. There was something behind those eyes that said, "If I can get you close enough, I could..."
Dahmer? He'd killed, gutted, and/or eaten at least 15 people. He had experimented on some of them by drilling holes in their heads and injecting different homemade solutions to see if he could create a docile, unquestioning sex partner. It seems, that for a while anyway, who knows how long, some of these people lived in that state. When they died, he preserved body parts, filled pots and pans and cardboard boxes with penises and heads and skulls and hands. He dissolved his victims in large barrels of chemical solutions. And he did it all in an efficiency apartment no bigger than the closets of many rich folks.
And he was boring as hell to look at. He could have been one of his own zombies. At best, he seemed like a terminally bored loser, trapped in a dead end job, living in a crummy apartment, with relatively little to show for his twenties and uncaring that he was now the most famous serial killer in history. Gacy reveled. Dahmer was a schmuck.
When he was being interviewed on the night of his arrest, he engaged in a long conversation with Police Detective Patrick Kennedy that ranged all over the map. Did Kennedy believe life had meaning? Did he believe there was a God? Never anywhere was there remorse. Just a vague sense of dissapointment that he had worked hard experimenting with life and was still unsure how to live it.
That's when I found myself aware of where I was standing.
Past Gacy's deterministic snarl, past Dahmer's glazed eyes, so black it was hard to see, was the outline of the average person. Mute, staring, bored, uncertain, making choices in what often felt like a void. But it wasn't a void. It was simply an outlook on life that pre-determined that the search for creature comforts and pleasures would always be equally or more impoortant than the big questions.
In other words, "Are we running out of beer?" and "Do life and my actions have meaning?" were functionally the same question.
That was an abyss that lay behind our whole race.
These were my thoughts as I watched The Jeffrey Dahmer Files.
In the only key special feature on the Region 1 DVD, a Hot Docs 2012 Q and A, Kennedy discloses that, while in prison, Dahmer was struck and killed with a barbell exactly like the one he confessed to using in his first murder. Pondering the cosmic sense of justice that invites, I wonder what may be waiting for me down the road.
I could never be a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer, but I am a man who struggles to keep asking the questions that run deeper, to keep at bay the things threatening to swallow my hope, and by extension my love, whole. I am a man not unlike him at all.
It's easy to live as if all that matters is another cold one in the fridge. It's also frightening as hell.
(Video Reflections is a column examining the effects of watching movies at home.)