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Kill joy

Arthur Dong looks at murderers of gays

[Licensed To Kill] A friend of mine, a kinky-haired, dark-skinned Moroccan Jew, made a documentary for French television about the KKK; it was based on his time in the American South hanging out with ever-friendly robed Klansmen. Never once did they challenge his glaringly non-Aryan identity. Another friend, another Jew, has had local neo-Nazis march into his production office . . . to help him with his nonfiction film about a Holocaust revisionist. Nary a Hitlerian has asked him about his religion.

This is a phenomenon I've heard about often from astonished filmmakers: the hate-everybody narcissists whom they interview never ask questions of their interrogators. What's the explanation? We are in the land of the pathologically self-absorbed, who pump themselves up by talking at others about their racial/sexual theories. These anti-Semitic, racist homophobes can't afford to verify what they might suspect of their questioners. Media crazy, they'd have to stop the publicity. Anything but that.

So Arthur Dong, a gay Asian-American, got the unquestioning cooperation of a half-dozen convicted killers of homosexuals (a seventh interview was taped by police) for his mesmerizing, ultra-creepy documentary Licensed To Kill, which opens this Friday at the Coolidge Corner. When he brought sound and camera into the various maximum-security prisons, Dong found that none of the murderers asked about his sexuality. Neither did they ask why he was filming them.

In 1977, Dong was himself the victim in a San Francisco gay bashing, when four teenagers attacked him in the Castro. Still traumatized two decades after the vicious pummeling, he decided to do, he says in voiceover, "the most difficult thing" and talk face-to-face with men "whose contempt for homosexuals led them to kill people like me."

Dong had no trouble getting his killers to talk candidly. That's in part because he's a skilled interviewer, but he also found that those long in jail are invariably articulate about the murders they committed, and the trials that took them away. Reciting well-sculpted, much-practiced narratives, they discuss not only what they were doing the night of their hideous crimes but their motives, their personal histories, their bizarre worldviews, and whether they have any regrets. Finally, they reflect on whether they've learned anything, or altered their philosophies, as they stew -- one on Death Row, the others with 20-to-life sentences.

Even with just seven murderers as a test pool, the clear message of Licensed To Kill is that you can't generalize about killers of gays. Some went out of their way to root out homosexuals and execute them. Others said a gay man made a surprise pass, and they, spur-of-the-moment, killed the one who wanted to love them. Jay Johnson, a minister's son, was secretly gay himself, but he felt such self-loathing for his obsessive cruising that he shot down three other homosexuals.

The most pathetic killer is William Cross, who was sodomized at age seven by a friend of the family. Since, he's been afraid to be touched, by man or woman, and convinced he's lost something essential of his identity. Here's someone desperately in need of psychiatry. Too late. Instead, he claims that, when an older man grabbed his testicles, he flashed back to his childhood hurt and blacked out, just as he killed the other man.

In Illinois, Cross is serving a harsh 25-year sentence, five years more than that in Arkansas given the repulsive Jeffrey Swinford, a mohawked porker who is without remorse about beating a gay man to death: "That's just one less problem the world had to mess with."

"I learned that the world is not a better place," Dong said in an interview after completing the film. Two hundred gay men have been murdered in America in the last three years. A sobering message of Licensed To Kill is that you don't even need to be homosexual to be a gay-bashing statistic. Four random people were shot dead in a North Carolina family restaurant by Kenneth French, one of those interviewed. This Fort Bragg Army sergeant drank a fifth of whiskey, then went wild with a rifle in anger over President Clinton's one-time plan to lift a ban on gays in the military.

THE LATE GAY photographer Robert Mapplethorpe directed two short films, the five-minute "Lady" (1984) and the 13-minute "Patti Smith: Still Moving" (1978). "Lady" segues between visions of Mapplethorpe's favorite model, body-builder Lisa Lyon. She's shown spinning nude on a pedestal, also in Helmut Newton-ish kinky outfits. The second short, far more arresting, features barefooted, punk Patti, messy brunette in a white robe, a Surrealist apparition. Mapplethorpe's real-life roommate recites poetry, talks of her one-to-one relationship with God, and poses languidly for the photographer, who sports a studded S&M bracelet.

The Mapplethorpe duo play May 15 and 16 at the Harvard Film Archive, along with Robert Frank's "Summer Cannibals" (1996), a Patti Smith rock video, and Jonas Mekas's "Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol" (1965-82), with Edie and Andy's gang.

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