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February 6, 2008Killers have always made killer stories. The fascination with sensationalized crime sagas has been at the forefront of news media since penny papers first took over the news trade in the mid-19th Century. Something about the exploits of the antisocial has made for great news ever since. Perhaps the most captivating stories of crime involve the element of murder because of some fascination with knowing there are monsters in our world. Perhaps it is a symptom of industrialization and media growth that helps these killing sprees gain the attention they do. The exploits of one couple of killers have been particularly captivating and have wedged themselves into American culture through numerous representations in various forms of popular media. The Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate killing spree hit America's heartland around the time of nuclear proliferation, when our concerns centered on violence from outside our country, and the violence that these young children committed functioned to shock the public into the realization of the violence brewing under the surface of the American family and, particularly, its youth.
The killings took place in 1958 when Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old fan of James Dean and minimum-wage worker and 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate embarked on a 500-mile killing spree from Lincoln, Nebraska to Douglas, Wyoming where the couple was finally apprehended, leaving along their path the deaths of some eleven people including Fugate's parents and two-year-old sister. The brutal killings left a scar on America, and their exploits began to worm their way into popular culture where they would be reincarnated to kill over and over again. The Starkweather-Fugate murders were to spawn a sub-genre of films sporting this same Lover-Killer variation, and the history of these films can be seen to display the increasingly mediated discussion of sex, violence and American youth who have grown up through media. Two such films, Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994), represent the changing face of America's obsession with violence. The two films are both loosely based on the murders, primarily working with the basic themes involved in the spree: a young boy and a young girl romantically involved who go on a killing spree. The films, however, deal with these themes in completely different ways, both stylistically and narratively speaking. The Starkweather-Fugate killing spree, which otherwise might have become a minor footnote in American cultural history, has been revisited throughout pop culture and these revised narratives, such as Badlands and Natural Born Killers mirror the atmosphere of the media at the different times they were made while strengthening the lover-killer sub-genre and mythology that surrounds the actual events.
The majority of the media produced at the time of Starkweather-Fugate killing spree seems remarkably incomplete. Covered mainly by both The Washington Post and Times Herald and The New York Times, each of the articles seems a single piece of an immense puzzle that has only been made whole in secondary sources such as Allen William's 1976 Starkweather: The Story of a Mass Murderer and Jack Sargeant's 1996 work Born Bad, The Story of Charles Starkweather & Caril Ann Fugate. The primary news coverage of the event begins after the couple's capture on January 29, 1958. National Gaurdsmen caught up with Starkweather just after finding who they believed to be his 10th victim, Merle Collison, 37 ("Tenth Victim," A1). The capture and the days to follow were perhaps the greatest amount of media coverage the case got at the time. Focusing mainly on the sensationalized fact that "a red-haired 'tough guy' in a leather jacket, was fleeing one of the biggest manhunts in Nebraska history" after Starkweather had crossed into Wyoming and the "110-mile-an-hour chase and gun-fight" that ensued, press chose to filter in the facts of the case in the days to follow ("Tenth Victim," A1). Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old Nebraskan garbage collector from a lower-class background, and his girlfriend, the 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, were the ones responsible for the spree which began with Charles' killing of Fugate's mother, Velda Bartlett, 36; her stepfather, Marion Bartlett, 57; and her 2-year-old sister, Betty Jean ("Tenth Victim," A3). The trigger for this incident seems to be the fact that Caril's parents did not want her hanging around the trash-collecting tough guy five years her elder. Caril's stepfather ordered Starkweather to "stay away" from their home ("Teen-Ager Seized," 11). After Charles was sentenced to death for these and eight other killings, he was a witness in Fugate's trial when he described the incident that triggered the spree:
"...he had argued with the Bartletts before Caril came home from school last Jan. 21, then went out to sit on the back porch. He said Caril went into the house and 'I heard them yelling so I went in.' He said Mrs. Bartlett 'slapped me, and I hit her back," then Bartlett came in and 'got in the fight. 'I shot him,' said Starkweather. 'I shot her (Mrs. Bartlett) too." He added the he killed the baby by throwing a knife at the child." ("Sweetheart Implicated By Killer," B8).
This statement and others in Fugate's trial later functioned to earn her a life sentence, as Starkweather and others testified that she was left alone many times and had not tried once to escape until the law caught up to them ("Sweetheart Implicated By Killer," B8). Much of the revealing of specific aspects of the case occurred many days after the couple was captured, and during their respective trials, it was obvious that their stories on who was responsible for what and what had actually happened during the spree were very contradictory. The articles in both the Post and the Times go on to talk about the deaths of the seven other people after the couple embarked on their 500-mile trek to Wyoming, but names and no real circumstances are the only things mentioned. The list of those killed included: August Meyer, 70-year-old farmer; Robert Jensen, 17-year-old high school student; Carol King, 16-year-old high school student and "the victim of an unnatural sex act" ("Tenth Victim," A3); C. Lauer Ward, 48-year-old president of Lincoln, Nebraska's Capital Steel Works; Clara Ward, 46-year-old wife of Ward's and Lincoln socialite; Lillian Fencel, the Ward's 51-year-old maid; Merle Collison, 37-year-old shoe salesman; and 21-year-old Robert Colvert, service station attendant ("Gunman Admits 11th Slaying," A3). The 11th victim, Robert Colvert, was actually Starkweather's first murder, which took place around December 1, 1957, but the papers do not go into detail about this first killing nearly two months before the official spree began ("Gunman," A3). The first three days of coverage on the event emphasized the uncertainty of the real story behind the killings and merely summarized the more sensational aspects of Starkweather's capture. After a short trial in which he was found guilty for the murder of Robert Jensen, Starkweather was sentenced to death in the electric chair ("Killer Sentenced to Death," 86), but not before he was called to testify against Caril Ann Fugate. Fugate's trial, in which Charles testified that she had plenty of chances to run away and had even willingly participated in some of the murders, ended in a life sentence which would be battled in court for many years when in 1970 she would be let out on parole ("Sweetheart Implicated by Killer," B8). With the trials of the two, the papers still had quite a bit of material to put together. The headlines of the papers show evidence of the vastly different approach to covering the event that the Times and the Post used. While the New York Times has a number of articles summarizing in colorless language the events of the trial with headlines such as "Nebraska To Try Youth As Slayer," "Gunman Admits 11th Slaying, Faces Death Trail in Nebraska," "Killer Sentenced to Death" and "Slayer of Eleven Dies: Starkweather is Executed in Nebraska Electric Chair," the Washington Post and Times Herald has such sensationalized headlines as "Killer of 10 Seized in Gun Battle," "'Worthless,' Family Says Of Slayer," "Sweetheart Implicated by Killer," and "Starkweather Is Electrocuted; Doctor Dies," which functioned to build up a cult celebrity of name around Starkweather. From the very first articles published in the Times and the Post and the headlines that followed, it is easy to see how the two papers chose to address the telling of the events of the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree.
The Post's coverage of the spree summarized the list of victims and the progress in the case so far along with an article on Starkweather's family's description of the 19-year-old: "A swaggering good-for-nothing in blue jeans and a black motorcycle jacket… mad at the world… devoted to comic books… with but one major accomplishment: an eye that sweeps across a gunsight sure as radar and hands dead-steady with a gun" ('Worthless,' A3). This initial reaction to the news of the killings and capture would set a course for the Post's coverage of the spree, as they focused more on Starkweather's appearance and attitude, offering a strong image of the monster and, from the very first day of coverage, positioned his name and representation as the item of interest to their readers. Choosing to focus on this representation, the excerpt illustrates here a major difference in coverage between the Post and the Times. First off, the Post, in its 3 day media frenzy following Starkweather's capture which saw five different articles on the spree, draws a picture of Starkweather as a "red-haired 'tough guy' in a leather jacket" ("Tenth Victim," A1) and tries to paint the entire story with the more colorful aspects of Charles's character with quotes from the killer and drawn-out descriptions of the "tough guy" that bring to mind the image of James Dean, "Starkweather stands only 5-feet-5, weighs 140 pounds, has green eyes and dark red hair cut short on top. There's a short scar over his right eye. He is very bowlegged and a little pigeotoed, but he walks with a swagger in black and white cowboy boots" ("'Worthless,'" A3). Complete with psychological explanations for the killings the Post sought to create a mythology around this killer ("Gunman," A3). The sensational aspects the Post chose to focus on were not "All The News That's Fit To Print," and the New York Times coverage of the spree was decidedly more separated and clinical, and sparing much of the storytelling and romantic embellishments of the Post, the Times seemed more concerned with the trial than the representation of the killer. Aside from the first day of news coverage, the Times tended to blandly describe the happenings of the trial in one-column follow-ups to the initial, more sensational "Teen-Ager Seized in Slaying of Ten," with such breif comments as "he took the verdict with a mixture of indifference and bravado that has marked his three week trial for murder" that offer glints of character but is not nearly as thoroughly sensational as the Post's coverage ("Starkweather Guilty," 11).
The two distinctly different approaches to covering the case, as represented through the articles of both the Washington Post and Times Herald and The New York Times, would set a course for later representations and revisions of the killing spree in popular media. While Terrence Malick's Badlands, whose approach is much like that taken by The New York Times, operates as a clinically bland and detached fictionalization of the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree, Oliver Stone's 1994 sensational opera of violence, Natural Born Killers mirrors the Post's fetishistic portrayal of Starkweather as a name and a media-created image.
With his debut film, Badlands, writer/director/producer Terrence Malick presents a fictionalization of the story of the Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate murder spree. Malick's work focuses on the 25 year-old James Dean wannabe, Kit Carruthers, played by Martin Sheen, and the freckled 14 year-old, baton-twirling Holly Sargis, skillfully played by Sissy Spacek. The story is narrated by Holly in a monotone, pulp romantic literary style. The couple meets when Kit walks up to Holly twirling her baton in the street. Soon after, the two "fall in love," but Holly's father, played by Warren Oates, refuses to let Kit, who was formerly a garbage collector and has taken on work as a ranch hand, see his daughter. When Kit goes back to see Holly after her father had told him to stay away, he is further reprimanded for his steadfast disregard for the father's wishes, and responds by hastily shooting Holly's father in the stomach. In an attempt to avoid the law, the couple burns the house down with a recording of a staged suicide note by Kit. The film follows the two empty souls on their run from the law and the half-dozen killings that ensues. Both characters are played as emotionally immature social outcasts. Kit is devoid of any sense of guilt with the numerous killings he commits, and Holly is just as emotionally empty, watching her father die without the slightest hint of psychological disturbance. Presenting his story from a distance -- both a visual and psychological distance from the characters and their unflinching "blah"-ness as Holly describes it -- Malick forces the audience to see the film, but not connect directly with it in any way. In Badlands, Malick uses the distance from the characters and the theme of emptiness to present an objective realism that operates as a counterpoint to the deception of the Hollywood morality and psychology which fell through in the complex times of social upheaval and violence that surrounded the 1970's generation.
America was in the process of pulling out of Vietnam during the film's production in 1973. At the peak of one of America's most intense media coverage of a war, violence was not an uncommon sight, and many of the films of the decade chose to deal with the violence that had begun to leak into the culture from foreign soil by portraying the atrocities of this violence in increasingly realistic ways. The proliferation of violence in the films of the decade was not limited to war movies, and more and more, it seeped into the medium, saturating the landscape of the films of the decade with the blood of everyday American life. Badlands is so disturbing because of the distance and indifferent eye with which the audience sees the increasingly more explicit violence perpetrated by the unwaivering Kit. This approach is effective in evoking the horror of the successive, singular killings while placing no judgments on the actions of the characters. Malick's objective portrait of violence and the empty characters, or "little strangers" as Holly puts it when commenting on her father's view of her, is an edgy commentary on the subjective nature of morality on the different sides of the violence abroad.
The television generation rose from the haze of the 1970's and cemented in its citizens the reality of the human experience that the Hollywood films that had done so well in the past had so romantically disregarded (Lev, xvi). With the news of violence, impoverishment, and real people coping with the troubling present being piped into their homes night after night, the culture grew tired of the Hollywood films' inability to discuss the social and political problems so present in their everyday life. Soon, Hollywood's traditional vein of filmmaking proved to be unsuccessful in gaining an audience. In response, the big-budget productions were abandoned for a more popular intimacy in films, portraying real people in real situations, and as a result, the films of the decade began offering the ambiguities and complexities of everyday life and the social turbulence that the culture was entrenched in to a new generation of film-goers. Audiences and critics responded and we were left with some of the most skillfully made, interesting films in the history of cinema (Lev, 60-62).
Malick's film is a much more troubling one because it takes the process a step forward and, very purposefully, removes every sense of cinematic involvement. The gritty tale is told through objective eyes and there is no character background given. The characters wander around in circles in a search for some kind of meaning, trying to survive the results of Kit's inexplicable decision to kill Mr. Sargis. The film is removed of all emotional attachment and does not attempt to place any judgment on the psychological reasons for Kit's senseless killing. Though many reviewers have found little meaning beyond the mirroring of Kit and Holly's emptiness and many find this distance and emptiness completely ill-used and inappropriate, Malick's use of the complete removal of the filmic traditions of Hollywood films is done deliberately and successfully operates with the film as metaphor.
Most widely accepted as one of Malick's greatest contribution to film with Badlands is the beautiful photography most often attributed to Tak Fujimoto. The film has received comments on how the beautiful imagery is incongruous with the emptiness throughout the film. Environmental awareness was another social issue that made itself apparent in the 70's, and Malick's film is untarnished except at the hands of humanity. His odd close-up of the ugly grinding of the trash truck at the beginning of the film works to foreshadow the theme of man's ugliness that makes itself known throughout the film. In the same scene, Kit finds a dog dead by the side of the road, a brutal image against the beauty of nature Malick points out early on in the film. Malick's shots all work to lead us to an acceptance of the harshness of humanity, and by having beautifully framed, colorful, Maxfield Parrish-esque (as critic Pauline Kael somewhat contemptuously describes it) landscapes destroyed in the audience's eyes by images of violence in the beautiful wilderness. This commentary on the brutality of man on the environment is furthered with the burning of Holly's house after the murder of her father. Shown in all its blazing glory, the flames of the fire suggest man's use of the untameable force of nature for destructive purposes.
Similarly, Malick's focus on animals throughout the film, with several close-ups during the Swiss Family Robinson-esque tree-fort-in-the-wild scene, seems to imply the bestial nature of Kit's killings, and in turn presents the violence that occurs as a necessity for survival in Kit's eyes. Malick's approach to the film, in this sense, closely resembles an educational wildlife documentary. The narrator and the characters are unable to convey their emotions to the audience, and the distancing of the audience has a powerfully objective effect; we are forced to try to understand these wild animals. We end up examining ourselves without the preconceived notions of morality and psychology ever-present in the Hollywood films that failed to address the concerns of the generation and attempt to translate the characters' actions into human emotions as we would with the attack of an alligator on a pack of hydrating gazelles or a group of apes sitting around picking at themselves and signing to kittens. Kit kills Mr. Sargis in what is shown as if it were part of an accepted courting ritual. Kit is an animal and dies like an animal at the hands of the other animals in the film, us. Kit is chained to a leash after his capture while the onlooking guards ask him questions and observe this exotic rarity, the sociopath. There is no implied statement on the correctness or incorrectness of his death, but it is generally accepted that his death is necessary. These visuals are so compelling and the storyline is there so that we unconsciously lend the occasional emotion to the actions of the characters, but tend to accept the actions as necessary and place no judgment on the harshness or brutality of Kit's otherwise unexplainable actions.
Malick's detachment of the audience from the characters also works as a commentary on the objectivity of violence. Since the characters he draws are all so devoid of emotion - when Kit shoots his friend in the stomach, the friend looks shocked and is casually helped into the house by Kit, but never displays any other emotional response to the actions - the audience does not side with the victims or Kit and Holly unevenly. It is a troubling discussion, but in a time of such a highly-divisive and extremely violent war, there had to be some justification for the violence committed by both sides. The men sent to Vietnam had to kill to survive, with the exception of a few crazies that killed for the pleasure of it (Lev, 120-21). Kit gets no pleasure or pain out of his murders - he just does it because he has to survive the results of his initial misguided attack on Mr. Sargis. Acting possibly as a metaphor for Vietnam, the film uses its distance from the actions that occur throughout the film to suggest the news footage of a far-off war.
The film's emptiness challenges the traditional psychological foundations of film. The emotional reactions of the characters mean nothing more than the things they say. There are none of the clichés of classical Hollywood films that go unpunished. The love that Holly and Kit confess to feeling for each other in the beginning of the film is never apparent outside the empty romantic clichés of Holly's pulp novels. At the film's halfway point there is no hope for the couple and in no place do we feel there is anything other than infatuation between them that is perpetuated by their search for safe-haven from the murder in which they are both already implicit.
By limiting or eliminating entirely the conventions of narration, character, and subjectivity, Malick forces the audience to do the work for him. They must strive at ascertaining what exactly he is trying to say, while at the same time gazing in wonderment at the spectacle that unfolds before them. The film is extremely conceptual, but it works. The people and actions in the film, in not attempting to evoke any particular emotion or feeling, are in essence a metaphor for the society that was lost to itself but that was able to start anew from the crash of traditional morality and psychological depth. The distance that Malick presents us with is intentional and skillful. He does make the audience feel better than the subjects, but by doing this, he enables us to examine the ideas presented with an unbiased middle-man. Malick removed the filmic elements that typified the deceptive romanticism of Hollywood films so that audiences could further connect to the complexities within themselves and around them instead of simply putting the weight of the film on a single character. We see the brutality that is present in nature and in turn, ourselves, and each person lends their own interpretation to what is being said in the work. This is, in essence, what most of the films of the decade were striving for, but by taking the process of realistic portrayal a step forward, Malick created in Badlands a film that challenges the subjectivity of morality, violence, and survival in a time when America itself was trying to survive the violence abroad and the social upheavals and deception within the country.
Natural Born Killers
In the late 80's and early 90's, a number of films based in this Starkweather-Fugate mythology and lover-killer sub-genre arose in the face of increasingly mediated culture. Though taking preliminary inspiration from the news clippings concerning the events of the spree, the films seem more strongly based in the popular mythology surrounding the case. David Lynch's Wild At Heart was possibly the first to tackle the lover-killer genre after Badlands, but a number of Quentin Tarantino-penned and inspired riffs on this genre appeared a bit later in Natural Born Killers, True Romance and Kalifornia. True Romance shares theme music with Badlands and takes the same innocent narration as its predecessor, but turns into a Tony Scott action-comedy. Few of these films succeed in the same capacity as Badlands because of a lack of innovation in adequately reinventing the mythology until Natural Born Killers.
Oliver Stone's 1994 Natural Born Killers functions as a satire on the instant celebrity achieved by media subjects, including killers, in a world where the 24-hour news cycle has beginning to take hold as CNN tightened its grasp on American audiences, promising real-time tension as stories unfolded (CNN founded in 1980 according to Wikipedia). The film focuses on two lovers, Mickey and Mallory Knox, whose story is extremely similar to that of Starkweather and Fugate's. Early in the film, we learn that Mallory's father has been sexually abusive and downright lecherous in a parody of classic 50's sitcoms called "I Love Mallory." Soon, Mickey is positioned as the Knight in shining armor that rescues her from the home by killing her family and embarking on a road-trip of carnage. The two wed through blood and continue killing out of some dark destiny they must fulfill. Unlike in Badlands, the motivation for the killings is discussed in full, both among themselves and once the couple are captured -- was it, as one criminologist was reported saying of Starkweather, because of a "compulsive drive for dominance and public recognition" ("Gunman," A3) or just out of boredom? -- but nothing other than the title resounds: they're just born bad. The story pretty much goes the same, except for the fact that, once captured, the couple has garnered enough media attention as to incite a riot when Mickey is interviewed live from the maximum security prison, and through the riot, the couple kill numerous lecherous authoritarian figures (which Stone envisions as just as sick as the killers themselves) and get out of the prison with the help of Wayne Gale, the Australian news journalist whose news magazine-type show features the exclusive interview with Mickey. The couple escape and their final kill is put on the board live and on camera as they kill one of those responsible for making them famous. There is some psychedelic drug use, Native American spiritual rituals, rattlesnakes, the devil and numerous heavy-handed subjectively rendered ideas on the sickness inherent in our culture that produces these killers, from incest to overmedication.
The film's in-your-face attitude was created through a barrage of sound and image. More than 2,500 cuts were used in creating this barrage compared to the average 600-700 cuts as reported by the Internet Movie Database's trivia for the film. Along with this, around 18 different formats of film and video were used to shoot the film, so there is a complete lack of continuity both visually and along the story line which shifts back and forth through time rather quickly. The use of colors such as neon greens before violent acts take place was symbolic of the spots where the cultural sickness in the killers' minds bubble up into the "homicidal orgy" that leaves 50 people dead in their wake over the course of the film ("Mass Killer Convicted," A3). The hyper-real pastiche of pop culture and anarchic visual rhythm can be seen in these examples, but the gleefully demonic satire has much more to offer than astoundingly assembled montage. The film's goal as stated by Stone in an interview on the DVD was to make a satire and mock both the media of the 24 hour news cycle, so hungry for the next big lead that it would celebrate a killer and shower them with gifts for exclusivity, as well as the killers themselves, but the romantic motifs throughout the film seem to revel in the characters' freedom and unabashed self-confidence. They come off looking much more respectable than the prison's warden (Tommy Lee Jones), Detective Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), the journalist (Robert Downey Jr.), or any of the many disgusting caricatures of humans that will soon fall into M & M's sites. The film is the sensational Post with its love for his characters, giving them the only moments of tenderness in the film, while saying rather unconvincingly that what they're doing is bad. An aspect of the Starkweather killings that the film dealt with possibly better than Badlands is the sexuality involved in such tremendous instances of crime. Though mentioned only obliquely in the Post article, the events of the sexually-fueled killing of Carol King are shown in grotesque detail as one of the more disturbing scenes in the film. Mallory's exploitation of her sexuality throughout also might be the missing consideration in Caril Ann Fugate's part in the killings. Dealt with disturbingly but questioningly, the film's discussion of sex and violence is successful in putting another piece of the Starkweather-Fugate mythology back for later revision.
Here's the main allure of the killers though... The characters know how to manipulate the media. With every killing, they leave one person alive to tell the story to the media, and thus their intrigue grows. The main success of the film is its satire of the media, though the portrait of the killers is oft too gentle, and the portrayal of the media may, at times, be a bit heavy-handed and overly cynical. At a time when news was available anytime, however, the news media's stretching for ratings and in-depth live coverage of murder trials, car chases and other violence-rooted crime stories led to a wide variety of sensationalized celebrations of criminals as Americans began letting crime into their home more and more, night after night. Natural Born Killers shows a genuine concern for what might become of would-be Starkweather-Fugates in this kind of news media atmosphere, but his handling of the mythology romanticizes the killers and detaches the victims too much to be entirely successful as either a satire or a drama. The film, instead, turns into a music video of carnage that itself glorifies and stylizes the extreme violence and sexuality of its main characters, and, though not quite a news producer, Stone's responsibility as a media producer was never put into question as he focused primarily on the news and television.
Badlands' style can be seen as a type of transcendental National Geographic exploration of the murders while Natural Born Killers sports a radical and decidedly anti-formalistic hyper-real narrative of sex, violence, the cultural fetishism of killers and the media's role in creating celebrities out of killers. The films were made under the tutelage of two completely different directors who have long since solidified their positions along the ancient Kane-Potemkin, fomalist-montage lines of battle, but, despite just being the films of particular auteurs, the cultural and social conditions under which they were made - 20 years apart from one another - conditioned the approach taken by each of the films' authors and mirrored a certain sentiment in the culture and media of the time, thus developing and evolving the mythology surrounding the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree. SEE ALSO: www.lincolnlibraries.org/reference/Starkweather_Case.htm
SEE ALSO: www.imdb.com/title/tt0069762
SEE ALSO: www.imdb.com/title/tt0110632
SEE ALSO: law.jrank.org/pages/3085/Charles-Starkweather-Caril-Fugate-Trials-1958.html
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