Saturday, October 15, 2011
#118: Charlie's Family aka The Manson Family (Jim Van Bebber, 2003)
NOTE: I'm not sure why Rue Morgue calls this movie Charlie's Family on its list. Charlie's Family was the film's working title as it was being shot, but The Manson Family is the theatrical and DVD release title and the one you should look for if you want to see it.
Jim Van Bebber is a persistent man. What began as a friend's idea for a quick exploitation movie turned into a heavily researched obsession that took years to complete. Van Bebber started shooting his Manson film in 1988 and finished the bulk of that shoot several months later. Years of financial problems followed before more shooting in 1996 and a rough cut that played a few festivals the following year. Van Bebber endured even more financial trouble before finally securing enough backing to complete the film, which was finally released in 2003.
Was all that trouble worth it? The story of Charles Manson, his followers, and the murders they committed has been told repeatedly. Manson has become a meaningless counterculture T-shirt image and a passing fad for several immature rock stars and surly teens, a sort of mass murdering cult version of t-shirt Che Guevara or dorm poster Einstein. Books, movies, TV movies, TV specials, talk show discussions, CD and vinyl releases, posters, magazine articles, t-shirts. The Manson market is saturated. In 1988, when Van Bebber started work on his film, Manson was experiencing a resurgence of interest in his weird life story thanks to a sensationalistic Geraldo special. In 2003? Was anybody clamoring for another addition to the Manson media pile? My own ambivalence to yet another retelling of the story kept me out of the theater when the film played my city.
After seeing Van Bebber's take on Manson's family last night, I have to admit that Van Bebber's exhaustive efforts to get his film released were worth it. Van Bebber tells a familiar story, but he tells it in such a structurally inventive way with such energy and low-budget indie resourcefulness I couldn't help but be won over. This is the kind of low-budget exploitation/art/horror/sex/gore/underground/psychotronic filmmaking that hasn't really existed since the Internet became a thing we all have. Van Bebber also wisely chooses to make Manson himself a peripheral character. Instead, he focuses on the family members who carried out the murders. There's really no explaining the appeal of Manson or any other cult guru. The people who choose to follow these guys and their reasons why are the interesting part of the story, a part that is too often marginalized. Why would someone follow David Koresh? That's always fascinated me more than Koresh himself. Also, this movie has more boobs than a Russ Meyer film, so there's that. (A boobstravaganza, you might say, if you're a dork like me.) Wangs, too, straight ladies and gay men.
Van Bebber has done a lot with very little money. He has an accomplished visual sense, with a sharp eye for shot composition and editing. He skillfully creates his narrative from an offbeat structure that juxtaposes recreations of the family on their compound in the desert and the murders they commit in the city with faux-documentary footage of interviews with the members in prison years later, conversations between news producers putting together a special about the murders, and a group of crazy, drugged-out punks planning their own murder spree in the present (well, the then-present of 1996). On top of this roiling stew of formal structure, Van Bebber adds stylistic flourishes adopted from non-narrative avant-garde and underground exploitation filmmakers. Van Bebber interestingly uses a variety of film stocks and video to give each section a distinctive look. The 1960s-set scenes look like a late-'60s/early '70s film with scratches and grain, the faux-documentary stuff resembles 1980s videotape, and the 1990s-shot footage looks like a low-budget '90s movie. Everything clicks and the various parts add up to a unified whole.
Van Bebber primarily used non-professional actors, and some of the performances are pretty rough. This roughness, rather than detracting from the film, adds to its handmade charm. I'd rather see an awkward amateur give it a good try than a talented Hollywood star sleepwalk through another big-budget mediocrity any day. Besides, several performances, including Van Bebber's own as Bobby Beausoleil, are strong. The film continually walks a fine line between exploitation and a genuine portrayal of the cowardly, horrible crimes these people committed. The violence is intense, bloody, and copious. No attempt is made to sugarcoat or glorify the behavior of the family.
Though the film was inspired by Geraldo's ridiculous late-1980s TV special about murder that featured his Manson interview (I taped it off the TV as a kid and watched the VHS over and over again), in which Geraldo comes off even worse than Manson does, one never gets a sense of who Manson is and how he exuded the charisma that enticed people to follow him as a fucked-up Christ figure. Some critics consider this a weakness. Maybe it is, but if Van Bebber chose to move in that direction, the film's focus would have shifted away from the others. Van Bebber instead gets the multiple, contradictory perspectives of the family members, the way they each downplay their own involvement and implicate others, their differing accounts of certain events, their various entry points into the cult. This varied perspective nicely matches the varied structure.
Part of the pleasure I took from The Manson Family was in recognizing an aesthetic that's largely disappeared thanks to the Internet's ahistorical, context-free potpourri of everything except the stuff you can hold in your meaty fists and the samey corporate look of most media. Van Bebber, a Midwesterner who gave The Manson Family a convincing Southern California look even though it was filmed in Ohio, has assembled a film that doesn't just tell the story of the Manson family. The film's lengthy production has accidentally produced a historical curiosity, a museum piece that documents the ways Midwestern kids like me sought out and soaked up the counterculture from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s. This film stirred up so many memories for me. The 1970s blaxploitation, slasher, vigilante, and hippie films I caught on late-night TV when I was in elementary and middle school; the Hustler magazines my friend smuggled into school and showed us in the boys' bathrooms; magazines about skateboarding, punk rock, heavy metal, horror movies, and pro wrestling (Thrasher, Rip, Reflex, Fangoria, Gorezone, Pro Wrestling Illustrated) I'd buy at the grocery stores or look through in friends' basements (I remember one cheap wrestling magazine I often bought that had B&W newsprint that came off all over my hand and featured advertisements for videos of women's bikini oil wrestling in the back); cheap cassette dubs of friends' older brothers' thrash metal and hardcore punk tapes; fanzines; drive-in movies; USA Up All Night movies with Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear; straight-to-video exploitation VHS rentals from convenience stores; true-crime books from the library; catching Geraldo's Manson interview or G.G. Allin's appearances on Geraldo and Jerry Springer and Morton Downey on afternoon TV; word-of-mouth stories about movies, bands, and news events not readily available. None of this stuff happened alone in front of a computer. This was a mixture of the randomness of chance, genuine curiosity, and the small community of like-minded weirdos who thought, "There's something else out there besides football, blockbusters, and sitcoms. I need to see some weird shit and I need to see it now." This movie just exudes that sense of Midwestern isolation leading to cultural investigation, and how one went about finding it through trial, error, and accident in a huge but semi-hidden pile of exploitation, art, and trash in the last pre-Internet era.
P.S. One of the extras on the 2-DVD set is a documentary about the making of the film. Van Bebber is interviewed while chain-smoking cigarettes and chain-drinking Foster's. He sounds pretty drunk and spends a lot of the interview veering between down-to-earth descriptions about the practicalities of low-budget filmmaking and insanely hubristic pronouncements about his own talent and vision. He also brags a lot about drinking and smoking weed. He's a pretty hilarious guy.