Few names are as evocative as that of Charles Manson. For better or worse, everyone knows that name. Say it to anyone...you might get a disgusted response, a slightly humored response, a fearful response, even a crazed response...but you'll get a response. Since his trial (and the trials of some of his "family" members) in the late 1960's, ol' Charlie has gotten tons...tons of media attention. From Geraldo Rivera to "Sixty Minutes", and every other news show and publication out there, Charlie's ca-way-zee hijinks (from behind bars) have been the source of lots of media dollars. He's a regular cash-cow, that Charlie. Charlie Charlie Charlie. The dude has gotten a bit long in the tooth (he now looks more or less like what he is...a grizzled, crazy old hippie), and his words no longer carry quite the sting they once did, but his legacy lives on. So, Charlie's apocalyptic rants about "Helter Skelter" don't hold much water, so what we're left with is the profound effect he had on everyone around him. And no, I'm not talking about how he made grandiose self-promoter Vincent Bugliosi a very wealthy man. I'm talking about Charlie's Family. Aside from the occasional interview with one of Charlie's former flock, we've just never truly had their perspective. It's easy to forget that it's quite possible that Charlie himself never actually killed anyone (directly). His de facto "family" carried out those evil deeds just fine by themselves, thank you very much. But, it's part of the American Way to lay the blame at the doorstep of a single person that represents all that is evil and strange in the world (e.g. Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, et al). That said, American media has been flooded with basically the same story, told from the same perspective, over and over again. The "official" story is that Charlie was the leader of the family...that he held sway over them with all the influence and power of a dictator, and that his horrible will was imposed upon his "followers" to such an extent that they were willing to...and did...kill for him. Time and again, this story (or much of it) has been refuted by "family" members (mostly from behind bars). They maintain that while Charlie acted as a figurehead for them...something to which they should aspire...he was little more than that. Instead, he gave suggestions, and the occasional demand, and the "family" willingly carried out those acts with childlike glee and truly sick fervor. The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between. Charles Manson's name is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler, and even such prolific serial killers as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. What he really was (and is) is debatable, but one thing is clear: Charles Manson represents everything that the "average American" loathes, and embodies everything we fear. It makes little difference that we've projected much of that reputation onto him, with little to no intervention on his part. That brings us to Jim (Deadbeat at Dawn) Van Bebber's long-awaited The Manson Family (formerly called Charlie's Family). About fifteen years in the making, The Manson Family tells the story of the "family" from the perspective of some of the "family" members.
Well, actually...how the hell do you synopsize something like The Manson Family? I mean, it's practically a documentary. Obviously, it's not a "real" documentary... but it's not really a "mock-umentary" either. Let's just say that it's presented as a documentary, with recollections of several key members of the "family" about life on Spahn Ranch, about Charlie's failure to "break into the music business", and about his subsequent fall into total madness. But, as one key character puts it, "Every time they [the media] even make a mention of the murders...the 'family murders'...it's 'Charlie, Charlie, Charlie...the Prince of Evil', right? Very seldom have I ever seen them mention the kids that put the knives and the bullets in the victims...that's what gets me." And that, frankly, is the crux of The Manson Family...the story of the kids themselves, told from their perspective. Of course, that perspective is interspersed with vivid, often violent "re-enactments" of not only the crimes, but the day to day lives of the "family". Being the sixties, those day to day lives included such wholesome family activities as extensive (understatement number one) use of psychotropic drugs, indulgence (understatement number two) in every imaginable sex act (and usually in a group setting), and a high degree (understatement number three) of social paranoia. Those elements mixed to create a poisonous brew that bubbled underneath the visage of "free love", and loyalty to Charlie and his ideals. Charlie was the catalyst, but it's clear that even if your only knowledge of the Manson Family and their crimes came directly from this movie, you'd be certain that these were some profoundly fucked-up kids to begin with. So, aside from the indictment of society as well as Charlie himself as the key elements in these horrific events, the murders very likely would have taken place anyway...maybe not at that precise instant or with those exact victims, but someone would have died...a lot. So, what we're left with are the drug-hazed recollections of those who perpetrated the crimes proper. Tex, Sadie, Bobby, Squeaky, Leslie...they're all here, recounting their immoral tales. The interesting thing is that quite often, the key players contradict each other. Rarely does any given "family member" own up to their precise degree of involvement in those deeds, preferring instead to pass the proverbial buck to others who may or may not have been present. For Tex, it's always, "It was Sadie's idea", for Sadie, it's always "It was Tex's idea"...but despite these variances and diverse shades of meaning, the fact remains that these people were responsible for, at the very least, the deaths of eight people, but that figure is probably more like ten to twelve when the final tally is taken. In addition, they may or may not be guilty of rape, as at least one fledgling "family member" was coerced into brutal, prolonged group sex at the hands of nearly every "family member". The point is that The Manson Family, in its own way, documents every last detail of what likely happened that summer. I'd also like to add that Van Bebber makes effective use of music in The Manson Family...from "sixties-sounding" pieces to classical music to many of Charles Manson's own songs, the music is important to the overall feel and tone of the film, and it just plain works.
Of course, there's a major caveat associated with this kind of filmmaking: while the events being protrayed no doubt occured, and very likely in a strikingly similar manner as is presented in The Manson Family. However, this is still a movie, and as such, it's an "entertainment" ... designed to portray the vision of a person or group of people...to present one possible viewpoint. Jim Van Bebber has made a film that could act as a "document" of what really happened, if only it were possible to determine exactly what really happened. Van Bebber makes no claims as to the total accuracy of his vision, and he makes no attempt to pass it off as pure fact. Instead, he takes what is known about the "family" and their crimes, and creates a vivid sketch based on those tenuous facts. Then, he fills in some of the coloration and detail to create a masterful portrait...perhaps the most detailed portrait ever...of the murders and the events leading up to them. He also, interestingly, avoids simply passing judgement on Charlie and his family. Instead, he shows them as they probably would have seen themselves. Only when the focus shifts onto the various family members "today" recounting their stories does he make any firm statement about them as individual criminals. What becomes clear is that while we may never know precisly what happened or why it happened, we will know who did it, and we will be certain that they will always always always try to defer their individual guilt by constantly changing their stories to suit their needs...and that is the best "trick" that Charlie tought them.
Now that I've provided my own version of why I think The Manson Family is such an important film, I'll tell you that technically, it's a masterstroke for Jim Van Bebber. This was a labor of love. If you don't take anything else away from this review, or from the film itself, let that be the fact you're stuck with. The Manson Family, from start to finish, is a work of total commitment on Van Bebber's part. Commitment to what? Well, period detail, tone, style, visciousness, performances, editing, use of varying film stock to vivid effect, sound, lighting, fucking every technical detail of this film just works, it's that simple. Is it the most polished movie? No, not by a long shot. But, Van Bebber so perfectly integrates subtle nuance into his film that it's impossible to do anything but be totally absorbed by the world he creates. Of note also is the ever-shifting stylistic approach that Van Bebber accomplishes. One minute, he's in full-on exploitation mode, and the next, he's visually quoting (particularly through editing techniques) many films of the era in which The Manson Family is set...most notably Easy Rider and even shades (naturally) of Natural Born Killers. The effect is as intoxicating as it is evident of Van Bebber's skill as a filmmaker. This film may have taken about 15 years to put together...and it shows, sometimes...but it remains a stunning achievement given the budget and roadblocks Van Bebber and company encountered on their long, strange trip. Now, there is one element of The Manson Family that I question. At times, the focus of the film shifts off of the matters at hand and onto a group of modern-day "Manson inspired" punk/goth kids who seem to be preparing for something. Time and again we are given glimpses of these kids playing with knives, injecting drugs, putting on death-mask makeup, listening to thrash metal, and generally just walking around half-naked and acting like boneheads. While the point is clear and the parallels between these kids and the various Manson family members are obvious, I still hold that these scenes are unecessary at best and highly distracting and even silly at worst. I'm fully aware of the parallels Van Bebber is trying to draw here, and I'll add that he succeeds...but the question is "why?" Why add these scenes? We know that Manson has become a "cult" or "counter culture hero" figure for many disturbed individuals, and we know that his "influence" reaches out from behind the bars of his jail cell, but honestly, I think these sequences only serve to undermine the carefully crafted notion of individual responsibility and accountability that Van Bebber so carefully crafted during the rest of his film. In an effort to ground his story in the "present reality", he has inadvertently come dangerously close to negating the whole point of his movie...at least as I see it. Still, it's a minor gripe, and I suppose it's a matter of interpretation, as with all things. Just be warned that these sequences will jolt you out of the moment, and possibly detract from your ability to soak in the overall coherence of the film. That said, The Manson Family is a damned near perfect film nonetheless. It's scary because it's true, as the saying goes, and the film totally succeeds in drawing the viewer into the world of Charlie's Family.
This Two-Disc "Unrated Director's Cut" Edition from MPI Home Video is quite nice, indeed. The first disc contains the film itself, here presented in a bright, clean 1.33:1 "full frame" transfer, in which the film was shot. The sound options are nice; a standard stereo track as well as a 5.1 surround track. The surround track might be overkill, as the sound isn't all that dynamic to begin with. Still, it's nice to have choices. The second disc contains all of the special features worth mentioning. They include a fairly detailed "making of" featurette, which uses current interviews with many of the principals as well as Jim Van Bebber and the producers, who (in an interesting parallel with the structure of the film itself) use their recollections to piece together the long, hard voyage to get The Manson Family made and finally released. Sprinkled throughout this piece are little nuggets of "behind the scenes" footage and a few outtakes. This piece is by far the most valuable feature on the disc, and should be required viewing for not only horror buffs, but indie film crews, as it perfectly demonstrates just what all is involved in putting together a project like this. Also on the disc is a collection of footage documenting the film's tour on the indie circuit, which is quite fascinating in its own way. One of the stranger features that I've encountered in a dog's age is the inclusion of an "interview" with Charles Manson himself. It's always interesting to see Manson "perform" like the trained monkey he's become, and this footage is no exception. He jabbers and dances, rants and philosophizes, and jabbers and dances some more. I'm not sure why this was included on this disc...it's more of a curiosity than anything of true value (again, like Manson himself). Perhaps it's simply to illustrate that Manson is a total whack-job without even a glimmer of sanity left (if there ever was any) in his overheated little mind. It's kind of creepy, I guess, in the same way that the nonsensical ranting of an insane homeless guy (with which Manson bears a startling resemblance) are creepy. But, it would have been far more interesting to hear from the family members themselves, once again shedding their ever-changing perspectives on their involvement in the crimes in question. As Jim Van Bebber himself explains in the previously mentioned "making of" feature (paraphrasing), "I consciously avoided getting in touch with or interviewing the family members themselves. The last thing I wanted to do was to become pen pals with a bunch of murderers." I see his point...but still, it would have been a more interesting inclusion within the context of this release and the film itself. Still, the features are noteworthy, and they do serve their intended purpose of shedding further light on this long-suffering production.
The Manson Family is a truly powerful, important piece of cinema. It may be somewhat unpolished, but any lack of sheen only serves to strengthen the impact of the images themselves. Thus, it's a fitting tribute to the victims, as well as to the end of an American era. It's graphic and unsettling, by necessity, but it's also surprisingly tactful about how it treats the victims. They were totally innocent people who basically were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fell under the wrath of Charlie's Family. While it's not a perfect film, or a perfect release, it's still profoundly effective and vividly rendered. I give The Manson Family the "Atrocities Cinema Essential Award". This package is set to be released nationwide on April 26. 2005, so go get it...avoid the R rated single-disc edtion, though, unless you're a wimp, of course.
The Atrocities Cinema Scoreboard
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