Friday, February 27, 2009

Aileen Wuornos: the Selling of a Serial Killer

When Paddy Chayefsky wrote the script for Network in the 1970s, he thought he was being satiric. He didn’t have much faith in the integrity of television news, but he was only half serious when he presented it as a crazy cross between mass psychosis and a money-grubbing medicine show. The movie’s wild exaggerations and outrageous jabs have, however, become the standard operating bull of modern tabloid TV. This horrifying evolution is one of the chief points examined in the documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.

Directed by Nick Broomfield for the BBC, Aileen Wuornos… focuses on the quaint American habits of random murder and mass merchandising. Broomfield is a British filmmaker well known for his confrontational approach to social issues in such documentaries as Behind the Rent Strike and Tattooed Tears. He’s also dealt with feminist issues, ranging from women in the military (Soldier Girls) to prostitution (Chicken Ranch). It’s not surprising that he was drawn to the Wuornos case, any more than the fact that he wasn’t interested so much in her crimes as in the money-fueled media stampede ignited by the case.

In case you need a factoid refresher, Aileen Wuornos is the confessed killer of seven men in Florida. Billed by the FBI as America’s first female serial murderer, Wuornos is currently sitting on Death Row for slayings that she contends were acts of self-defense. Raised by an abusive father (who was eventually jailed for raping a child), Wuornos turned to prostitution as a teenager and spent several decades plying her trade along the humid byways and in the sleazy bars surrounding I-75.

Once arrested, Wuornos became a virtual celebrity. A Current Affair and Inside Edition circled ‘round her trials like vultures at a roadkill fest, and the TV movie Overkill was hurriedly produced in order to beat the theatrical competition. Wuornos was a hot media property, and Broomfield became determined to discover the means by which multiple homicides are hyped into gory star status.

The characters in his story include investigating police officers, some of whom were overtly involved in promoting (and profiting from) the various film projects. There’s Wuornos’ attorney, a would-be folksinger who tells bad jokes and has a possible vested interest in getting his client sent to the electric chair. Then there’s the born-again Christian step-mother, a local horse-breeder who adopted Wuornos during her first murder trial. She repeatedly refers to Wuornos’ lawyer as their agent, and wants $25,000 before she’ll talk to the camera.

It’s a circus and even Broomfield has a hard time walking the thin line between documenting exploitation and joining the bidding melee. The easy allure of checkbook journalism is what makes Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer so fascinating to watch. After all, we’re all susceptible to the crass call of hard cash.

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