Monday, December 8, 2008

You're a Good Man, Charlie Manson

Shenan read Helter Skelter a while back, and pretty much became obsessed with the whole Manson Family debacle. She'd start mentioning little details about the murders in conversations, or tell little anecdotes from the book. She even downloaded one of Charles Manson's songs to her iPod, the one that Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys rewrote and put on a Beach Boys' album. I think she's really getting into this true crime stuff... the same thing happened after we saw Zodiac, she went out and got the books and really started digging deep into the subject.

Look, I have some weird hobbies too, okay? Like, for a while back in college I couldn't stop watching all the Slumber Party Massacre and Sorority House Massacre movies. I even went to the trouble of watching tangentially connected movies, like Cheerleader Massacre, or even worse Hard to Die, which is a near scene-for-scene remake of Sorority House Massacre 2, shot back-to-back with the same cast. I've seen Slumber Party Massacre 2, my favorite in the series, at least 3 times, so I can't really criticize how my girlfriend spends her leisure time.

Well, I mean, I can criticize her if I want to, but I'm a good guy so I don't. Instead, I magnanimously extended the olive branch of romantic harmony (or whatever), and suggested combining her love of Charles Manson lore with my love of staying in the apartment and not having to get up off the couch. So over the span of a week, we watched 3 different movies depicting the Manson Family murders.

First up was Helter Skelter, a 3 hour TV movie from the 70's, based on the book. I'll go ahead and say this was probably the best all around of the Manson movies we saw. After a horror-movie-ish opening (the score even reminded me a bit of the Friday the 13th score) showing the build up to the murders, the movie then shifts focus to the long and complicated investigation and prosecution of the murders. This structure, along with the film's interest in weird side details and anecdotes and it's attempt to try to piece everything together, makes it feel a lot, at times, like an early precursor to David Fincher's Zodiac. Minus the ambiguity, and not nearly as good, but similarities exist.

The filmmaking is not the most exciting in the world. Visually, there's not much going on here, in fact probably 1/3rd of the movie is made up of people standing around in an office talking to each other. Still, the story itself is fascinating enough that you're compelled by default, and the movie's strategy of slowly but steadily revealing the facts about the Manson Family and the murders helps, too.

If there's a major problem with the film, it's the point-of-view, or perhaps lack thereof, on the Manson Family. It just doesn't understand what made them tick, and can't begin to explain why a bunch of people would fall under Manson's influence. The guy who plays Manson is effectively creepy and intimidating, but no effort is made to give Manson any charm or magnetism. It shows that he had a powerful influence over his followers, but doesn't begin to explain how. He's portrayed as a complete looney, with no sense of the real person inside. It's entertaining to watch this nut spouting off shit like "I'm not on trial, you're the one on trial" and trying to attack the judge, but the movie doesn't provide any insight into his character.

This may be because the movie is based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson case. The narration at the end of the film, a weird sort of last minute attempt at relevance by warning viewers that the Manson case could be some sort of harbinger of doom, suggests Bugliosi didn't really see Manson as anything but pure evil. It's also pretty comical, since this movie is 30 years old, hearing a prediction (that the Manson Family's crimes may inspire generations of young hippies to follow suit) that very obviously didn't come true. It's like if you found some old TV clip of someone calling the Beatles a flash in the pan, or whatever. The irony that they thought Manson would be some sort of influential cultural figure in the future is too rich.

To be fair to Bugliosi, I haven't read his book, so I'm not sure if he paints Manson as a cartoonish villain like this movie does. But if the ending narration really comes from his book, then he must be some sort of crabby, cantankerous, "get off my lawn!" style old man.

Almost 30 years later, they remade Helter Skelter, still based on Bugliosi's book, but this time the story is told more from the Manson Family's POV. This was the 2nd movie on our list. It's not as fascinating as the earlier film, I think due to the fact that the narrative is told more straightforwardly, in a linear fashion. Instead of learning about the events after the fact, we watch them unfold. So we get a lot of the same facts, hear a lot of the same quotes, etc etc, but since we are seeing them in the framework a more standard narrative, they have less impact. The big moments feel less like "shit that actually happened in real life" and more like "shit that happened in this movie." It's about a true story, and hews as close to the facts as the other film did, but it's structure and style make it feel more like fiction. There's some awkward expository dialogue, and not as much dramatic momentum as the earlier film... we're watching a lot of weird stuff, but we're not really invested in it.

So it's not as good of a movie, but there is one massive accomplishment that it has all over the original Helter Skelter that makes it worthwhile, and that is it's depiction of Charles Manson himself, and Jeremy Davies performance in the role. Davies is great in this, and the real trick to his work is that he gives Manson an off-handed charm and sense of humor, while still making it clear that he's a dangerous weirdo. You actually understand why people would like this guy and want to hang out with him. This movie shows Manson as an ace manipulator, who uses a laid-back exterior as a way of getting others to drop their defenses, so he can insinuate his will on to their own. They make especially clear how he was able to manipulate the women, offering his love and compassion to weak willed, vulnerable girls who in turn start to idolize him. Maybe Davies isn't as creepy or threatening as you'd expect in the role, but he feels much closer to an actual human being.

Finally, we watched The Manson Family, a low budget, horror-movie-ish take on the same tale. As we've established, the Manson story has already been told as a police procedural, and as a drama told from the family's perspective, so filmmaker Jim Van Bebber logically tells the story in the only genre left to tell it in: the faux-documentary cum acid freakout cum borderline supernatural horror movie cum behind the scenes story of the making of the faux-documentary cum speculative fiction about a cult of Manson imitators, all edited together as one narrative. Exactly the approach Kenneth Branaugh used when doing his version of Hamlet.

Perhaps I need to explain this further. So there is some TV news dude who is making a documentary about the Manson Family. We frequently see clips from the (fake) documentary, but then sometimes the movie jumps back in time to show us the "actual" events happening. It's a re-enactment for the movie, not for the movie within the movie, and it's a mix of fact-based stuff with weird flights of fancy into what was going on in everyone's head while they were tripping out on drugs. Then, meanwhile, there are some weirdo Manson worshipping heroin addicts hanging out in a basement somewhere, including a dude with an American flag colored dildo strapped to his face, and they are planning to kill the TV news dude for making the documentary. This part also contains weird, abstracted, and I guess drug-induced hallucinations.
Right, okay, if my description still doesn't make any sense, that's because neither does this movie. I'm not going to pretend that this is a good film in the traditional sense. It's confusing, pretentious, the acting isn't very good, and there are a lot of unintentional laughs. Even though it contains a lot of the same facts and details as the other two movies, I don't think you get hardly any insight into Manson or the family. Yet, if I ever watched one of these 3 Manson movies ever again, this would be the one. It's just so god damned weird, and so committed to it's terrible, nonsensical vision that it's fascinating and maybe a little awesome. It's like someone took the strangest parts from House of 1000 Corpses, removed all the polish and stretched it out to feature length. Worse, it's like they took Rob Zombie's style and kicked it in the head until it got brain damage, then gave it a bunch of acid to drop and read Helter Skelter out loud to it, and this is what it was imagining.

So maybe it's a bad movie, but that's a meaningless distinction here. It has like 8 gratuitous orgy scenes, including one where Manson turns into Devil, complete with goat horns. Every now and then people's voices are dubbed over with creepy demon voices. I already mentioned dildo-face, but he hangs out with naked drug addicts who shoot each other up, and there's some dude in bondage gear strapped to his bed. One of the killers in the Manson documentary is being interviewed is in a church dressed as a priest and it's never explained. So what if it's terrible? It's the most remarkable movie I've seen in a long damn time.

I have no idea what the director was going for here. It seems like maybe he's trying to make some sort of statement about the popularity and/or commercialization of Manson's image/status as a public figure, or maybe he's making an ironic statement about people's supposed fears about Manson's influence on the youth. I don't know, this movie isn't coherent enough to figure any of that out. Most reviews I read of this mentioned that the movie was genuinely disturbing. I don't agree. It's not convincing enough, and at times too silly, to disturb. But I guess I will give it some credit for being the only one of the three Manson movies we watched to deal with all the sex and violence graphically. It doesn't gloss-over anything, and doesn't try to present its tasteless material in a tasteful manner, which adds a weird honesty/purity to the movie, if nothing else.

So the first Helter Skelter was the best movie we watched, the remake had the best acting, and The Manson Family was... something else, to say the least. I get the attraction to the material... it's just a damn gripping, strange story, but all three films fail to ascribe any real significance to it. Not that there is anything wrong with telling a good yarn, but none of these filmmakers really cracked why this is an important story to tell. Maybe it's not one. The original Helter Skelter makes a misguided rant against youth culture that falls flat at the end. The remake seemed to try to show Manson becoming a cultural icon, but doesn't really explain why that would happen or what it means about this society. And The Manson Family, I mean I honestly don't know what the fuck that was about. The main common point between all three movies is that the murders were awful, shocking acts. So maybe the Manson saga is more becoming a shared American myth about evil, more than any sort of morally or socially relevant message. And that's cool, maybe Charles Manson is the American boogeyman, and we'll be telling our grand kids about him a hundred years from now.


Shenan said...

Does it make me seem even creepier that I downloaded the Manson song like a year before ever reading Helter Skelter? Like, creepier than I normally am as a walking compendium of knowledge on the Manson Family, Zodiac killer, etc? Maybe I should leave that part out of conversation...

Anyway, good assessment on all three movies. I agree. Except with the re-watchability of the third movie. I probably wouldn't have enough interest to watch it again, except maybe to play a drinking game to its ridiculousness.

But I think maybe, overall, it's impossible to make a definitive movie on the Manson Family- you've either got to give up the outsider, learning-about-it-after-the-fact-as-the-details-reveal-themselves perspective that Bugliosi had in writing the book that makes it so terrifying, or you've got to give up the insight into Charlie Manson's character, which requires an insider-POV from his beginnings, or the beginnings of the family before it was The Family. Can't have the best of both worlds. That's why maybe it should just be law that anyone who watches one movie must also watch the other.

Dan said...

I don't know, I think you could combine the two... focus on the investigaation while also trying to flesh out the Manson Family.

In fact, all three movies really failed to explain why people would want to join the family. The remake of Helter Skelter did a good job of showing Manson as a charisthmatic and manipulative figure, but didn't really explain why these people were there in the first place, or why they were so succeptible to his message.

Shenan said...

this is true. they did take the next step in showing the attractive parts of charlie manson's persona, but didn't take the further step of showing why the girls would be so open to that figure in the first place (their own experiences/home lives/etc).