Investigators in Washington struggle to solve the series of brutal murders despite witnesses hearing the suspect identify himself as 'Ted'. Later, after Bundy travels to Utah, a young woman manages ...
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A finger presses the "record" button on a 1970s/1980s-era cassette recorder in the title sequence -- but not the "play" button. Pressing the record button alone, however, would not start the tape, as both the record and play buttons must be selected in tandem for the machine to start recording. This is repeated often in the first episode, as well. See more »
More of a conventional documentary than advertised, but it provides a good overview, and is a nice companion to the film
In many ways, Ted Bundy is the archetypal serial killer, embodying many of the characteristics we today associate with such criminals. Most significantly, perhaps, is that he was the first celebrity serial killer, and remains the best-known example (Charles Manson doesn't count; he wasn't a serial killer). Bundy was a man whom the media fell all over itself to profile, fascinated with his charm, humour, and intelligence. Most importantly, he embodies something we take as given today - media and cultural fixation with killers, almost always at the expense of their victims. And although Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes certainly has merit, and is extremely well-made, it's also somewhat guilty of the same thing - focusing on the killer whilst giving little time over to the victims. Written and directed by Joe Berlinger, one gets the distinct impression that Bundy himself, with all his narcissism, sense of the dramatic, and delusions of grandeur, would have been immensely happy with it. And that's not really a good thing.
Conversations is derived from over 100 hours of audio recordings of Bundy, the transcripts of which have been available online for many years, but which have never actually been heard before. In early 1980, sitting on death row and vehemently maintaining his innocence, Bundy began to seek someone to write a biography that he hoped would disprove his guilt. Enter Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth; whilst Aynesworth set about re-examining the evidence, Michaud began interviewing Bundy. Neither had any doubts as to Bundy's guilt, but they recognised how good a story it was.
One of the most important aspects of the series, is that Bundy would not discuss the murders, and so, to trick him into talking about them, Michaud asked him to act as a kind of consultant and to speculate as to the killer's motives and sociopathy. Not recognising that Michaud was exploiting his narcissism, Bundy immediately began to talk about the murderer in the third person.
And to say that some of his statements are fascinating is a major understatement. For example, conjecturing as to the origins of the murderer's psychopathy, he states, "perhaps this person hoped that through violence, through this violent series of acts, with every murder leaving a person of this type hungry. Unfulfilled. But also leave him with the obviously irrational belief that the next time he did it he would be fulfilled." Speaking of the killer's attitude to women, he states, "women are merchandise. From the pornographic to Playboy right on up to the evening news. So there is no denying the sexual component. However, sex has significance only in the context of a much broader scheme of things. That is, possession, control, violence." Concerning the killer's sexual urges, he states, "the early manifestations of this condition, which is an interest concerning sexual images, your standard fare that you'd see in the movie house or in Playboy magazine. The interest becomes skewed toward a more specialised literature, some of it pretty grotesque, which would preoccupy him more and more. It would reach a point where the anger, the frustration, the anxiety, the poor self-image, feeling cheated, wronged, insecure, he decides upon young attractive women being his victims."
However, despite quotes such as this, the promise of an unprecedented deep dive into Bundy's psyche is never really followed through, with Conversations more of a conventional documentary than you might expect. This is not necessarily a criticism, as the chosen biographical material, whilst never earth-shatteringly original, is interesting and extremely well put together; his involvement with the Vietnam Anti-war Movement, his work on Daniel J. Evans's 1972 re-election campaign for Governor of Washington, his volunteering for a Suicide Hotline, his work as Assistant Director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission (where he wrote a well-received pamphlet for women on, of all things, rape prevention),
A very interesting moment is that during his 1979 trial, where he acted as his own co-council, Bundy repeatedly made Officer Ray Crew go into minute detail about the murder scene at the Chi Omega sorority house. It's a fascinatingly disturbing scene, with Bundy not just relishing his power, but vicariously reliving the night of perhaps his most savage murders. Also interesting is that as he sat on death row, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, examined him and diagnosed bipolar disorder and possible multiple personality disorder, arguing there was something unique about his brain which made him literally incapable of empathy.
An equally fascinating aspect of the series, but one which is under-explored, is how Bundy's white privilege factored into his murders. As a well-educated, well-dressed, humorous, respectable middle-class white man, obviously intelligent, and seemingly charming, he was able to hide in plain sight, because no one could conceive of a man like him being a sadistic murderer. Even after his initial conviction and double death sentence, Judge Edward Cowart told him, "you'd have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. I don't feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Take care of yourself." In this sense, Bundy's reign of terror is, in effect, an indictment of American society and the importance of inherited privilege, as he set about charming all with whom he came into contact.
The problem with the series, however, is that it falls into the same trap; Bundy's wit and charm appears to win Berlinger over. The last episode, "Burn Bundy Burn (2019)", in particular, is guilty of giving him the ball and letting him run with it, especially in the extensive use of court footage, with Bundy turning the trial into his own personal variety show. Any hint of getting under his skin completely fades away at this point, as Berlinger seems to be just as fascinated with Bundy's antics as the media and public were at the time. To be fair, the show doesn't glorify him; Berlinger ensures the audience knows he was a monster. However, he is clearly enamoured, raising the question of when does documenting a violent narcissist transition into giving them a platform?
With this in mind, unfortunately (but predictably), the victims receive relatively little attention. All of his 26 known victims are mentioned by name at least once and at least one photo of each is shown, but many are never mentioned beyond this. Some, like his youngest victim, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, receive a fair bit of attention, but others are lumped together. Berlinger makes no real effort to characterise them. Instead of giving us a vivid illustration of who they were by interviewing family and friends, Berlinger gives us a rough pencil sketch made up of contemporary news reports.
Aside from the side-lining of victims, the most obvious issue with Conversations is that it's a far more conventional piece than a deep dive into previously untapped reservoirs of Bundy's psyche. Part of the reason for this is the dearth of actual audio material, as from the 100 hours available, Berlinger uses about 20 minutes all told. Pretty much everything else is standard bio material, nothing that anyone familiar with the case won't already know.
There are also some very strange aesthetic choices. For example, as Bundy discusses his relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer, a montage of contemporaneous footage depicts exactly what he's talking about (so, for example, when me mentions eating dinner, there's a shot of a family sitting around the dinner table and a close up of a can of soup being opened; when he mentions being nervous, we see someone biting their nails). It's a spectacularly on-the-nose montage that accomplishes nothing other than drawing attention to itself. A similar moment sees Bundy discussing sexuality, and Berlinger shows us a rapid montage of hardcore S&M porn, which is not only distasteful, it's ideologically reductionist. The worst example is when Carol DaRonch, one of five victims to survive Bundy, mentions that when he tried to handcuff her, her life flashed before her, and Berlinger literally inserts a montage of quaint home movie footage.
If all that sounds very negative, however, let me be clear, I did enjoy Conversations, I was just a little disappointed in it. People already familiar with the case won't learn anything new, and those looking for a unique entry-point into the mind of a killer will be left wanting. Nevertheless, this is the story of a sociopathic narcissist that comments not just on societal privilege, but which also interrogates our own ghoulish fascination with such monsters. And yes, Berlinger seems unaware of the glaring irony here, but that doesn't change the fact that he has fashioned the ramblings of a mad man into a fascinating piece of work.
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