There are some SXSW panels that stick with you. Reel Murder: From Crime Scene to Big Screen wasn't memorable just because of the guests or the topic. It was because the panelists spoke from experience about the horror of violent crime.
Hart Fisher, the publisher of Boneyard Press, achieved notoriety for his comic Jeffrey Dahmer: An Unauthorized Biography of a Serial Killer. Phil Anselmo became famous as the singer for Pantera and was in town to perform with Arson Anthem, but earned his place on the panel after contributing music and investment for Jim van Beber's near-legendary The Manson Family.
Both men have been savaged by the mainstream media for supposedly prurient depictions of real crime. Considering that, as Fisher put it, many outlets gloss over Dahmer being "a murdering pedophile piece of shit," that seems a little bit hypocritical. Same goes for the Manson family: Charlie becomes the great devil, while his followers are all just brainwashed.
Fellow panelist Ami Canaan Mann suggested that narrative depictions of true crime are inevitable. Her movie The Fields (a fictionalized history of the infamous Killing Fields body dump near League City) is due out July 16, and she can probably brace herself for criticism right now. People are drawn, she said, to "the bad place down the road, the haunted place down the road where the bad things happen." At the same time, as the whole panel agreed, honest depictions of the worst crimes will always draw flack.
So there is a weird balance. There is a bloodless way to deal with such crimes that does not upset people and instead somehow normalizes the horror. But if a director or writer shows crimes for what they are, they are accused of glamorizing or fetishizing crime. Take the response to A Serbian Film or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, where critics seemed surprised that they were almost unwatchably gruesome. Fisher summed up the mantra of talk show talking heads like Sally Jesse Raphael to real life crime dramas as "Blood money, blood money, how can you exploit the victims' families, you son of a bitch?" All the while, of course, crimesploitation docs and 'based on real events' dramas are what keep a bunch of cable channels afloat.
What makes this all the more painful for both Anselmo and Fisher is that they have both lost people close to them in violent crimes. Fisher's girlfriend Michelle Davis was raped and murdered while he was making his film The Garbage Man. Anselmo's old band mate Dimebag Darrell Abbott was shot down in a club, along with security guard Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, fan Nathan Bray and venue employee Erin Halk, by a deranged fan.
Anselmo had his relationship with his former band mate and friend explored in an episode of VH1 Presents: Behind the Music. Nominally about Pantera, the 45 minute documentary spent a third of its length on Abbott's murder. "It's that damn VH1 thing that eats me alive," Anselmo said. "You make a documentary about a band, you make it about the band. Pantera was not about Darrell's murder."
The most troubling part for Anselmo was not just the show's fascination with Dimebag's death (which happened a year after the band split up) but their portrayal of the front man as the bad guy throughout. "They may as well have put the damn gun in my hand," he said. Much as that portrayal pains him, he added, "I was silent. I did not want to get into the pissing contest."
Anselmo's occasional public comments on the show are the polar opposite of Fisher's reaction to his public lambasting. When the religious right and the moralizing media launched their crusade against him, he fired back with ever more controversial comic books. He noted, with no small irony, that the controversy made them much bigger sellers than a minor indie comic ever deserves. However, that does not mean he has not been through the media wringer. As low as his opinion of broadcast journalism was before writing his books, the experience of being smeared and savaged since their release has shoved it down further. "What you see on TV is molded, shaped, and it is not the truth," he said. Some of the fake criticism has been laughably misguided and predictable. "I'm an atheist," he said. "I don't believe in god or the devil, and all of a sudden, I'm a satanist.
Even after all he had been through, Fisher still fought publicly and through the press to get the story of Davis' murder out. That left Anselmo a little shocked. After he had been burned so badly by everyone from Larry King to his local CBS affiliate, he asked, why would Fisher deal with them at all? The answer was simple: To help find, convict and incarcerate the man that killed Davis.
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