Before the days of internet video you had to watch your snuff films on VHS and let me tell you, they were not easy to come by. I didn’t happen upon the 1970 Faces of Death series until I was well into my mid-teens and even then I had to sneak around to watch the endless compilation of live autopsies, crime scenes and suicides. When a person is subjected to countless hours of murder and mutilation, the senses become numb and after a while it’s hard to summon up any empathy at all - much like the famous eyeball scene depicted in A Clockwork Orange. There was one scene in the series however, that made me snap back to reality and proceeded to sear itself into my mind. In this scene, a man calls together a press conference where he then reads for a short time before
reaching into an envelope, pulling out a gun and shooting himself in the head.
This part in the movie halted me so suddenly because it seemed to come from a place I could empathize with. The intensity and starkness that these images conveyed had connected with me on a more personal and intimate level. I remember, as I’m sure many others have done as well, that I instantly wanted to know who this man was. I wanted to know more about what happened on the day a group of journalists crowded around a successful politician to watch him end his life.
It would be many years before I would come to know this man as State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer of Pennsylvania, and finally read his story for the first time. Now that video is so casually splashed around the internet at every turn, it’s not hard to find and watch this scene within five minutes of searching for it... ~continue readingThe intensity of the footage however , and its effect on people remains the same as it was 20 years ago when it was hidden away on VHS – And such was also the case for Honest Man filmmaker Jim Dirschberger. “…I ended up downloading the Budd Dwyer suicide [accidentally], So when I opened it up I had no idea what I was looking at, “says Dirschberger, “...After the video ends I just sat there with my jaw on the floor, like ‘What the hell did I just see?” After seeing the footage, he started to take a closer look at the story surrounding the press conference and as more information came to light, he realized that there was a really compelling story to be told. His film, released under the San Francisco production company Eight Four Films, is the culmination of that initial research which has become nearly 4 years in the making.
Abandoning the narration tactic, the film is told primarily on the basis of interviews with Budd’s family members, peers and biographers. If the film is lacking in any department, it definitely makes up for it by having an exceptionally compelling cast of characters appear before the camera. Most notable are his first campaign manager Fred McKillop - who provides some insightful commentary on the early politician as a man, and William Smith - whose testimony during Budd’s trial sealed his eventual conviction. Dwyer’s widow Joanne also speaks at here at length in what would eventually become her last public interview on her late husband before she passed away in 2009. At times the editing cuts a little too quickly between these statements, creating an exhausting pace to keep up with. However, they are vital to the film’s intention of painting an accurate portrait of a man who was viewed in many different lights.
The story and events surrounding Budd Dwyer can at first seem a little dry for a full length documentary. In a country whose current political climate creates new scapegoats every day, his story doesn’t seem particularly shocking or unique. In fact on the surface, the series of developments that led up to his press conference do not relate themselves very easily to storytelling. This is much to do with the fact that Budd was tied up in a complicated legal case which took many years of his life and trying to keep up with all the details can be very daunting the first time through. The case itself could serve as a commentary on many issues that still haunt politics today, but that would be too contrived a cinematic lesson to heap on top of everything. The film looks past all that and questions the look in Budd’s eye as he waved his revolver in front of a crowd of stunned onlookers. That look and its cause is the real lesson here. The meat of this story is written between the lines and is a much more visceral issue than some grainy footage of a public suicide. What is fascinating about this particular story is watching the consequences of what happens when a man is utterly unequipped to deal with his situation. Budd Dwyer lacked the tools necessary to deal with failure and humiliation on such a scale, and as a result we become witness to his breaking point. A man’s breaking point can be a rather variable thing and what he has had to go through in his life can directly influence how far he can be pushed. Throughout his life and career, Budd was constantly succeeding at every endeavor and was well liked by everyone around him. Having never experienced failure on any scale, Bud never learned the coping skills that are vital as a defense mechanism and so when he fell, it was particularly hard.
Dirschberger has created an answer or the many thousands of people who view Budd’s clip every day and are left with a pile of questions in front of them, just as I was fifteen years ago in my living room. Budd wrote in the first line of his final statements to the press “At long last I can speak out”. Eighty Four Films has given him that very chance.
Written by Jesse Pollock
’Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer’ will have it’s San Francisco premier at
the Red Vic Movie House Saturday November 6th, showings at 2pm and 4pm
You can purchase tickets here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/134907
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