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Meade's movies established him as an iconoclastic documentarian dedicated to provoking his audiences at all costs.
In Vakvagany, Meade unapologetically invades the privacy of a Hungarian family whose peculiar post-World War II home movies have fallen into his hands. With the help of three entertaining but ultimately unqualified experts -- crime novelist James Ellroy, psychiatrist Roy Menninger and the late filmmaker Stan Brakhage -- Meade scrutinizes the family using the random images and "scenes" captured a half-century earlier. Then he tracks down the surviving siblings, both of whom are in states of mental disrepair, and submits his modern-day footage of them to the same panel.
Meade leaves viewers of Vakvagany wondering whether the Locsei family was involved in the pilfering of Jewish valuables. They also may have been sexual deviants. Meade gives the audience enough information to suspect many things but not enough evidence to prove any of them. Naturally, opinions of the film differed widely -- in Amsterdam, an audience nearly rioted as the credits rolled.
In Das Bus, Meade's madcap look at Kansas City bus culture, the director again toyed with the truth. He merged real interviews, fake interviews, archival footage, dramatizations, staged events, music videos and one belly dancer into an 80-minute exploration of true tales and urban legends without letting the viewer know which was which.
Meade takes a similar approach with Bazaar Bizarre, but this time his material already contained a concrete story line.
Which is not to say he followed it.
"As a filmmaker, Ben tends to internalize stories," says Mike Adams, director of photography on both Das Bus and Bazaar Bizarre. "So this film isn't really so much about what Bob did to his victims. The story is more what Bob did to Kansas City. And that's not something I think was readily apparent. Ben's style is to find the thread that runs a little deeper than the story."
There is a moment early in Bazaar Bizarre in which an interviewee refers to Berdella's crimes as the "ultimate objectification of another human being." In addition to raping and torturing his victims, Berdella went so far as to dissect a few of them. In one case, he hung a young man by his feet, slit his torso and watched as his entrails slithered to the ground.
Berdella took great pleasure in tearing apart his victims.
Meade seems to take equal delight in piecing the serial killer's saga back together.
As Adams says, "Who else would think to make a musical out of Bob Berdella?"
In its final cut, Bazaar Bizarre is obviously a product of Meade's fevered mind. There are annoying musical interludes, for example, three out-of-place music videos by the fictional rock band the Demon Dogs.
Other Meade trademarks -- a score by Boston's Alloy Orchestra, for example, and Ellroy's inexplicable but hilarious commentary -- do considerably more for the story. It is Ellroy, for instance, who provides one of the film's highlights with his pointed rebuttal of Berdella's televised assertion that he treated his victims no worse than the media treated him. ("That's preposterous," Ellroy belches, "and the most convoluted, most specious logic on God's green earth.")
Meade had signed Ellroy to the project early, allowing him to cement the connection in the title (James Ellroy Presents Bazaar Bizarre). But he also had set out to make a more straightforward documentary, based in part on the research of former Kansas City Star reporter Tom Jackman.
As a police-beat reporter in the late 1980s, Jackman covered the Berdella case, later spinning his reportage into a gritty account called Rites of Burial. Now out of print, the book was little more than grocery store discount-rack ballast. Its most affecting element, a series of crime-scene photos and Berdella-shot Polaroids, speaks to both the influence and the sensitivity of the book's coauthor, former Kansas City homicide detective Troy Cole. The cover features a mug shot of Berdella (captioned, "The butcher of Kansas City, Missouri!") surrounded by photos of his victims, one of them hogtied.