Quick Context Summary: Jeff is a documentary about the notorious serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. It features interviews that are intercut with a re-enactment of what one would call a day in the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.
Already from the title, you have an idea that this documentary is not going to be your average sort of history channel documentary and it isn’t. The chief point of departure for Jeff, structurally speaking, is the extensive use of the “historical re-enactment.” The film in fact begins as a narrative film would with the main protagonist found in a pet store buying some fish after which you begin to get the talking heads. This serves to produce a sense of sudden disjunction at the beginning as it moves from a grainy, film-like texture to the hypercrisp video interviews. There is also archival footage but this is framed in the way that archival footage is usually framed inside of the speech from the talking heads. It can thus be said the the film is split into two parallel lines. Another important point to be made is that the “re-enactment” does not take much care to be period specific. This may or may not be intentional but, nevertheless, serves to produce the sense that this could have happened at any point in time including the present. This was especially felt to me when The Books were played in the background of the apartment at one point. Another point of interest in the composition is that the interviewers were not always shot statically, often there were, what I would call, unmotivated pans. These served to spice up the montage but were somewhat distracting due to their arbitrary nature.
The interviews focus mainly on one of Dahmer’s neighbors, the chief investigator, and the forensic pathologist. These are all people who were involved with the case and/or knew Dahmer personally. As such, the focus of the interviews is on who he was, the relationships these people had with him, and the details of the case. The chief interest of this film lies here yet this is also where the film encounters certain problems.
Overall, the explanation of the case and its details is pretty thorough, however, knowing that Dahmer had boxes and boxes of severed penises does not really attempt to explain anything about what motivated him. On the one hand, the film seems to be trying to bring Dahmer down to Earth through all these accounts of people’s personal experiences and the re-enactment shown and yet, on the other hand, his character profile is left empty so that we can maintain his Otherness as a freakish monster who need not be explained on account of his inexplicable evil essence. This emptiness might be due tot a desire to maintain him not so much as a specific individuality but as an “average guy” whom we can project ourselves on to so that we might horror at his normality. In any case, this omission seemed glaring to me but there is some room here for redemption.
The most thought-provoking parts of the film were the ones where the question of Dahmer’s sexuality or his celebrity were addressed in some way. There is a section where a voiceover speaks of the horror and fascination that people have towards killers and this sense that their material artifacts are somehow infected with their essence. The idea of wearing Dahmer’s jacket is revolting even though there is nothing wrong with the jacket but what does this mean exactly? Dahmer, via his acts that have brought him celebrity, has established himself as otherwise than human and yet painted in human colors. If this can happen, then the realm of the Other is not discrete but can invade and overflow being and I think it is this sense that there is no clear separation that produces an anxiety of falling into the void. The big questions of the film are: Is it Dahmer’s similarity or alterity from society that disturbs us? Is the act of making Dahmer as evil and inexplicable as possible useful or just facile? Is the act of humanizing Dahmer better?
As for sexuality, this is another issue that was mostly ignored in the film. It was hinted at that Dahmer had homosexual proclivities but this was never explored in any way. What was most interesting for me was the segment where Dahmer’s amateur lobotomy procedures were described. It was said that Dahmer drilled holes in the heads of his victims in an attempt to lobotomize them so that he could have a dumb passive body to use for sex but that this procedure always failed resulting in death. This is why I now think of Dahmer as the literal obsessive as his murders could be seen as the logical conclusion of the obsessional neurotic tendency to ignore or destroy the other. In most cases this is done through self-isolation, domination, or aloofness but, in this case, it was done literally. Dahmer’s desire for control over sex lead him to this physical mutilation of his sexual object of desire in an attempt to deny the subjectivity of the other and take it for himself. This can also be seen in the subsequent breaking down of the identifiable body into constituent parts destroying the specificity of the other. Dahmer had disembodied penises and skulls turning the other subject instead into a collection of parts for his use. And as a grand final act, he ate his victims thus absorbing the other into himself.