“I Survived BTK”

Paleo Retiree writes:

Charlie Otero in New Mexico

Charlie Otero in New Mexico

Low-budget documentary about Charlie Otero, a Wichita native whose parents and a couple of whose siblings were murdered in 1974 by “BTK,” a Wichita-based murderer who went on to become Kansas’ most notorious serial killer. It’s a rarity — a serial-killer/true-crime doc focused not on the killer or the investigation, but on someone who has endured family members being murdered. When you think about it, it seems odd that the subject should be dealt with so seldom.

Marc Levitz’ film could be criticized for not being slick or clear enough — it’s sometimes hard to know who’s who, what order events happened in, why a behavior is being highlighted, even what’s being said. But I took it more as poetry than as history or journalism anyway — as something rather like “Be Here to Love Me,” Margaret Brown’s very touching movie about the Texas country-folk singer Townes Van Zandt. After all, if and when you want clearly presented facts, there’s always the web to turn to — Wikipedia and much else.

As an evocative thing, “I Survived BTK” is far more crude (even home-movie-esque) than the artful and delicate “Be Here to Love Me.” You might compare its style to strung-out, obsessive, garage band-style rock — there’s a lot of wailing and agitation, murk and muddle. But it’s also undeniably powerful. It’s about how losing loved ones to a horrific, stupid crime can fuck a life up. To all appearances a soulful, decent guy, Charlie has spent years wrestling with booze and drugs, and even in the best of times lives a motorcycles-and-trailer-homes, sub-blue-collar, lost-in-the-fringes kind of life. The movie’s turbulent messiness, even Levitz’s often lopsided organizational choices, convey how the emotions set off by such a crime (rage, hurt, sorrow, impotence) can make a life careen out of control.

A great stroke of luck for the filmmaker: as he was shooting his film about Charlie (mostly in New Mexico), the pyscho who went by the handle BTK was finally apprehended back in Wichita. So we get some glimpses of the murderer, and we get to accompany Charlie as he reconnects with his surviving siblings, returns to Kansas, attends court and copes with the tough new emotions the murderer’s arrest sets off. What a strange and hard hand of cards some people have been dealt.

FWIW, The Question Lady and I have both recently been struck by the same thought — that these new documentaries are now playing the culture-role that long reported pieces in Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s and Rolling Stone used to play: they’re enhancing the news by conveying what experiences we know mostly through headlines are actually like.

We watched “I Survived BTK” on Netflix Streaming. I see that it’s also available (for $3.99) on Amazon Instant.

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About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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11 Responses to “I Survived BTK”

  1. Epiminondas says:

    The father of a good friend of mine was murdered about two years ago. It was brutal. His father was a judge and the murderer slipped into his chambers and killed him with a baseball bat while he was on the phone. Just horrible. The judge had earlier sentenced the man to prison for theft. My friend had all he could do to keep from leaping over the bannister in the court room and physically attacking the perp. The killer was sentenced to death. I was thinking a accompanying him to the place of execution and helping him celebrate. We could do that much.

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    • I often wonder why, in cases where it’s plainly evident whodunnit, the justice system doesn’t hand the killer over to victims’ loved ones and let them torture and kill him.

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      • epiminondas says:

        Because it would start up vendettas between families. See modern Albania. Best to let the state carry out sentences. Lynching, on the other hand…

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  2. Exurban Curmudgeon says:

    Jerzy Kosinski (or one of his ghostwriters) wrote in his novel “Steps” words to the effect that people find murderers more interesting than victims because the murderer is the one who is acting, who is doing — not being done, and done in.

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    • Yeah. Plus there’s something fascinating and hypnotic about watching (and wondering about) crazies. That said, the wife and I watch a lot of true-crime shows and we often wonder why more time isn’t spent on the victims’ loved ones and how their lives are affected by the crimes. This movie is like a total immersion in that question. Props to the filmmaker for spotting the topic as a good one, and going for it so whole-heartedly.

      FWIW, I have a small-t theory that what much drama is really concerned about is crazies — narcissists, liars, nuts, pychopaths — and how they disrupt life for the rest of us. My theory doesn’t hold up in all cases, god knows. But I think it isn’t a bad one. You look at some people and the shit they get up to and you think, “What the fuck?” And there’s a dramatic story for you. 90% of people aren’t nuts, and 90% of what happens in life isn’t terribly dramatic. But then there’s that 10% …

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      • Exurban Curmudgeon says:

        That “talented” 10%, they’re the ones who make the ladies tingle, and the betas all say “Damn, if only…”

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      • Tenneby says:

        Exurban Curmudgeon is right about “That “talented” 10%, they’re the ones who make the ladies tingle”. Women are the audience for all this fascination with violent criminals. Pretty much every serial killer gets their own tv-movie on the Lifetime Network. For women coverage of violent criminals is like a romance novel or movie. If you’re wondering why nobody cares about the victims, it’s not that nobody cares, it’s just that women don’t care and women are the ones being catered too.

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  3. agnostic says:

    Focusing on the killer also assumes that they actually know who it was. If he’s still at large, if there are no leads, or if they’ve narrowed it down but still can’t really tell — well, what is there to say and portray about the killer?

    By choosing the approach of “let’s try to understand the criminal mind,” they bias their view of the sicker kinds of crimes toward an overly optimistic subset where the killer is known, and even some of his motivation, however crazy. What’s truly disturbing is *not* knowing who abducted and raped a 10 year-old girl from the neighborhood, killed her, and left her body in a culvert in broad daylight. And knowing that he’s still out there somewhere.

    Even in cases where the killer’s identity is known, it typically takes a long time to figure it out. The families and communities might have to endure the disturbing uncertainty for years. By the time the guy is caught, the damage is done. Just think of not knowing, day after day, week after week, for two, three, four, five, ten, or however many years. Nabbing the perp is too little, too late.

    True crime or fiction about crime, horror, etc. that focuses on the killer cheapens the reality of going through that experience. It lowers a story where uncertainty is a central feature into a page-turning whodunnit. And unlike the style of clothing that characters wear, or their choice of slang words, where inaccuracies don’t matter too much, this alteration feels more like disrespect, debasement, and desecration. People’s experiences not just with death, but violent death caused by some agent, deserve an inviolable kind of respect in a way that mundane details do not.

    I’m not saying they have to get all emo, focusing exclusively on the outpouring of grief, or forever walking on eggshells around those affected, as though we had confused distance with respect. Just something that puts the victims and those affected, including the broader community, at the center, and shows how the individuals and community try to heal back toward a normal state after such a profound disruption, whose “motivation” they don’t need to know anything about and may never know anything about.

    Twin Peaks is the best example I can think of in fiction. I don’t read true crime, but I’m guessing the good examples are also from the ’80s or very early ’90s, before the trend toward lurid investigation of the criminal mind, bla bla bla, over the past 20 years (clearly evident in horror movies).

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    • Yeah, I think a lot of that’s fair. More recognition of how the crimes affect friends, loved ones, etc would be great. It isn’t just creepy entertainment, after all. I understand the fascination with people who do really bad things, though. They can be horrifying yet fascinating. Also, just a technical point: the way the genre sometimes dodges an excessive focus on the demon-figures is by focusing on the investigation and the investigators. That becomes its own story. There’s even one series (“Disappeared”) that tells the stories of people who have vanished and who, in 99% of the cases, have never been found or turned up. You’d think the people making the show would have a hard time making anything satisfying out of so many open-ended cases, but The Question Lady and I liked the series a lot. The show also gives a generous amount of time to the people whose relatives and friends have vanished. Understandably it’s quite a burden for them.

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  4. Chip Smith says:

    This will seem like a shameless plug, but Mikita Brottman’s “Thirteen Girls” is on point: http://www.ninebandedbooks.com/thirteen-girls/

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  5. Pingback: UR: Now Wikipedia Approved | Uncouth Reflections

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