“We are not so much a society where nobody knows anybody as we are a society where only media celebrities are considered to have actual existence.” – Gary Indiana
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Offered up in December 2019, Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer is a Netflix “docuseries” advertised with reckless disregard for its brain-staining content.
“It’s an unbreakable rule of the internet. He should have listened,” reads the woefully ambiguous tagline. This rule is not really a rule to begin with, though, because a rule implies that there is some consequence for deviance, while it’s understood that the internet is just one huge, sometimes hideous, hiding place. The he in question is the convicted killer and all around zero at the center of DFWC who will remain nameless in this cautionary essay. As an attention-seeking psychopath, he littered the internet with specious images of himself before diabolically exploiting the antagonism inherent in the medium by uploading sadistic videos of kitten abuse. A fitting description of his primary motive appears in Gary Indiana’s genre imploding book Three Month Fever (1997), about another murderous hustler, where Indiana writes, “The culture of narcissism [has] segued some years ago into the culture of total-self-aggrandizement-by-whatever-means-present-themselves.” He goes on, “We are not so much a society where nobody knows anybody as we are a society where only media celebrities are considered to have actual existence.”
After a blitzkrieg montage of the media coverage ignited by the international manhunt for the psychopath in 2012, DFWC introduces its main storytellers, two self-described “internet nerds” who fancy themselves cyber sleuths. Their Facebook group managed to track down this killer of cats, or at least to identify him before he murdered a man in Canada and fled to Europe. The nerds, John Green and Deanna Thompson, became his pursuers two years earlier when they viewed a video posted on the dark web, 1 boy 2 kittens. Outraged by what they witnessed, these animal rights activists vowed to pinpoint the perpetrator and bring him to justice. They meticulously analyzed the crime scene by breaking down the video into thousands of stills and isolating the details of the small bedroom that is the setting. Wall outlets, a pack of cigarettes, a blanket all helped to target the location in North America.
Early on in the 187 minutes of this joyless journey, Thompson lifts her laptop and announces that she has never seen the video in its entirety but has apparently agreed to watch it for us now. In a discomfiting redundancy, Thompson describes 1 boy 2 kittens as we are shown its opening moments with the psycho caressing his feline victims. Their cuteness quickly becomes gut-wrenching once we understand what is about to happen. The boy places the kittens into a clear plastic bag attached to a vacuum cleaner and proceeds to suffocate them with the flick of the switch. As the video reaches its explicit climax, Thompson lays her laptop on the floor, her eyes flooded with tears. The camera stays on her for another agonizing 25 seconds as the sinister sound of the vacuum persists, effectively transforming the empirical into the personal, one’s imagination abnormally activated to complete the scene. She says, “I fuckin’ hate this shit, dude.” At first we might assume that she is referring to what she has seen and heard in the video as the shit she hates, but I sense another connotation. I think she resents having been coerced to suffer a traumatic event for the sake of the series.
Sounding like a boyfriend with blue balls, an off-screen voice is faintly heard to say, “You wanna stop?” And this voice belongs to none other than the director, the dude at issue. Mark Lewis is an Australian documentarian known for his nature films, which, according to Wikipedia, “do not attempt to document the animals in question or their behaviors but rather the complex relationships between people . . . and the animals they interact with.” He first garnered attention in 1988 with his sarcastic documentary on cane toads.
In DFWC, as the nerds are introduced, the director lingers on how uncomfortable they are in situating themselves before his camera. He appears to have more contempt for his storytellers than he does for the killer, who remains mystified by dereliction, glorified by pandering. Lewis doesn’t tease but taunts us with bits and pieces of the snuff videos, making us see, and sometimes just listen to, the unspeakable acts.
When I think about this coarse manipulation of sound, I’m reminded of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), a documentary about an animal rights activist who was killed and eaten by a bear. During the attack, the man’s camera was recording, but because the lens cap was left on, the surviving document is audio only. Herzog spares us from hearing it, though, having the coroner who had already endured it describe what he heard. At one point we even see Herzog himself listening to it. After removing his headphones, he suggests that the tape be destroyed. I’m guessing that destroying the snuff videos, or at least keeping them sequestered, would never have occurred to Lewis, as he presents a sort of retrospective for them, honoring the psycho as an auteur, not advocating the erasure of these trophies of atrocity but creating a virtual display case for them.
From the snuff videos, Lewis shows the aforementioned kittens going into the airtight bag and, later, their dead bodies being played with; another cat strapped to a stick as it is about to be drowned in a bathtub, with a haunting close-up of its helpless, terrorized face; one in a cage being doused with flammable liquid, and one more in the playful moments before it is eaten by a python.
Between these paralyzing pretexts of passive agony, the director attempts to fashion the nerds’ sedentary sleuthing into a thrill ride, turning the fervor of “the internet search” into observational comedy. Lewis struggles to transform the tedium of typing and scrolling and clicking into a droll dramaturgy, including misspelled words and animated emojis. And the aural abuse continues too, conjuring another comparison. In Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time (1991), the director allows the commonplace clicking of Stephen Hawking’s computer mouse to become sublime, versus its mischievous conceit and perverted outcomes in DFWC. As the self-styled detectives comb through EXIF data, GPS coordinates, and Google Earth street views, the clicking is incessant, but these online expeditions routinely become roads to nowhere. Even when the nerds do uncover something useful, their red flag whistleblowing falls on deaf ears because their PI Facebook group has no credibility and the internet no accountability.
Then by poring over the psycho’s final video, 1 lunatic 1 ice pick, DFWC effects its contentious conclusion, practically celebrating the killer as a nuanced conceptual artist. This 10-minute video features a young man being stabbed to death, his corpse defiled via necrophilia, cannibalism, and decapitation, interrupted by the killing of a little black puppy. In their analysis of the scene, the nerds take pride in decoding the psycho’s cinematic Easter eggs. The Casablanca movie poster on the wall intimates that he will flee Montreal for Paris, which he did. The New Order song that plays in the background is a nod to an early scene in American Psycho that contains the line “I want to stab you to death and play around with your blood.” The modified screwdriver as weapon and the camera’s careful composition of the bed-bound victim point to the opening death-by-stabbing scene in Basic Instinct, which, as Lewis would have us believe, extends to include the Canadian police interrogation video, an undue swan song where the psycho is shown asking for a cigarette and crossing his legs in supposed homage to Sharon Stone’s character from that movie.
This obsession with thriller tropes is something that the director either shares with or appropriates from the killer. But DFWC is so subservient to its forward momentum that it completely ignores the psycho’s childhood of abandonment, including the institutionalization of his father, a violent schizophrenic, and of his home-schooling mother, a germophobe who reportedly left the family’s pet bunnies outside to freeze to death on one catalyst occasion that is never mentioned. Also, the time devoted to the real human victim, the man murdered in that video, 33-year-old Chinese international student Jun Lin, clocks in at less than 5 minutes. In the interviews with the nerds and the Montreal detective who actually sifted through the psycho’s macabre mess, including Lin’s body parts and the puppy carcass, they don’t seem to have a problem describing what they witnessed in all its disturbing detail as it pertains to the human victim, but when it comes to the puppy they get choked up and can’t go on. Their emotional discrepancy, while appearing callous, is fundamentally conditioned and involves our collective attitudes toward both age and faces. The face of a dead kitten or puppy becomes synonymous with every kitten or puppy face and represents innocence. In the human hierarchy, an instantly recognizable face belonging to a virtual stranger identifies celebrity and signifies achievement. When the face is unfamiliar and the body full-grown, we are more likely to dissociate.
Further consideration of what is happening on a subconscious level, not just in DFWC but in the steady proliferation of the true crime category in general, leads me to Peter Wollen’s 1997 essay “Vectors of Melancholy,” where the author provides the following sociological autopsy:
The scene of the crime is a fertile site for fantasy – morbid, fetishistic, and obsessive. The dominant paradigm for crime stories remains that of the obsessive investigator, seeking to restore meaning to a scene of traumatic chaos, thus warding off the underlying sense of panic brought about by violent and transgressive acts. Alongside this, however, we also encounter the fetishistic attraction of the crime scene exhibits themselves – matchboxes, bismuth tablets, eggcups – displaced signifiers of the crime. We share in the sadomasochistic enjoyment that the onlooker secretly imagines that both the perpetrator and the victim may have experienced, the site of guilty fantasy. Finally, there is the awareness of a sense, haunted by degradation and terror, which is insistently fascinating, which suspends time and freezes the spectator into immobility yet, in the final analysis, remains safely removed from reality.
For the investigatory nerds, it is the distance of time rather than space that has been breached. When the post-crime parlor game becomes a vigilante video game in real time, a paradox of affirmation occurs. And on a couple of occasions, Thompson does consider her culpability in anointing the psycho with notoriety. “Did we feed his narcissism?” she wonders, displaying a legitimate crisis of confusion. And even though she earns my sympathy with her existential insight, Thompson’s concerns are unfortunately coopted by Lewis as an open-ended peace-out.
In his in-house interview for Netflix, the director grins with coy satisfaction as he alludes to this exploit, announcing, “There is this sort of slightly daring moment of filmmaking at the end,” referring to the instance when Thompson breaks the fourth wall to address us, suggesting we are all complicit in the psycho’s pathology, advocating we turn off our computers. To effect this clumsy coda, Lewis again has Thompson do his bidding, obviously having instructed her to engage the camera, to antagonize the audience. I would love to see the outtakes of this staged scenario, as the bloopers would surely expose its wrong-headed contrivance.
Confronting viewer morality (insinuating that one has somehow failed the director’s traumatic trial simply by having endured it) provokes a defensive posture that is only partially relieved when the closing credits appear, because the screen is immediately shared by a Netflix teaser for yet another true crime docuseries that the algorithms recommend. Although the psychic residue of Lewis’ self-righteous hypocrisy and redirected clickbait still lingers like a stink bomb paying tribute to a fart.