To the artists and aspiring artists in our pool of readers: I am not sure how committed each of you is towards your particular craft. But without much risk, I'm willing to bet that Jim Van Bebber has got us all beat. His second full-length motion picture, THE MANSON FAMILY, has finally made it to DVD after a brief stop in theatres. This comes after the film initially went into production 17 years ago. In that time, Van Bebber tried in vain to keep things going with his own production house. He moved several times. He fell down in the gutter many times and fortunately got back up again. He would film and edit bits and pieces as he could, at one point working at Wendy's and selling his plasma three times a week just to make ends meet and hopefully pay for processing costs. And anyone who respects the pure art of cinema should get down on their knees and thank him for going through all of this. Because dear readers, his hard work has resulted in one of the most innovative, mind-blowing films I've ever witnessed.
I actually first saw THE MANSON FAMILY under its original title, CHARLIE'S FAMILY. The film was not finished. There was no music or credits. The print hadn't really been treated as there were color problems, scratches and editing markers. It was a 1997 workprint he showed at the FantAsia Film Festival and don't ask me how I got my hands on it. I was completely unprepared for just how radically different CHARLIE'S FAMILY was from anything I had seen. I immediately called it the most brilliant unfinished film I'd seen.
Many years and false starts later, Blue Underground gave Van Bebber the chance to finish the film. After giving the film its new title, it was released to U.K. cinemas in 2003 and it made a few stops in the U.S. last year. Now, it's on DVD for the world to see and it is twice the film I had seen before.
In a market flooded with cheap true crime cash-ins like GACY and STARKWEATHER, the temptation may be to write THE MANSON FAMILY as just another amateurish exploitation effort. This would be a grave error, since Van Bebber has given us one of the most complex and unsettling exposes of American homicide ever to grace the screen.
There are three facets to THE MANSON FAMILY. The story of the Manson family is told in flashback. This is intercut with a seasoned reporter who compiling interviews with the incarcerated family members in 1996. At the same time, a new legion of followers, specializing in drugs, S&M, body modification and minor league terrorism, makes their own plans.
The idea of the film is not to tell the story of Charles Manson, the figure who gets most of the attention. Nor is it to describe the investigation and trial so famously outlined in Bugliosi's book HELTER SKELTER. The emphasis this time are on the family members themselves, the people who actually drove the knives into the victims back in 1969.
Things start out innocently enough. The family is of course not a literal family, but one of ideas and a carefree spirit. Gathered at the Spahn Ranch, they enjoy all the benefits of the mid 1960s, especially drugs and sex. There are wall to wall naked hippies in this film. Charles Manson at first doesn't seem like much more than a den mother, but soon he becomes a camp counselor, then surrogate father figure and finally a deity in the eyes of the delusional young people. Lots of twisted rhetoric, frustrations with society and their own personal failings combined with botched drug deals and greed lead to one of the most notorious homicides of the 20th century.
Manson's presence is always felt somewhere in the background, his influence always tainting the water. But in the film, he is not much more than a supporting character. Some of the family members, Patty and Sadie especially, are hardcore Mansonites. Others have their doubts but continue on the path of destruction anyway. This even in the face of some pretty crazy warning signs.
Why make a film about the Manson family? More to the point, why are we as a society still fascinated by what were pretty much just a group of murdering junkies? If the crimes took place twenty years before or afterwards, we probably wouldn't. But the fact is that it happened at just the right time and place and to the right people in order to make it a symbol. The murders happened just as the sixties had reached a fever pitch and we were on the cusp of a new decade. They happened just a few years after the assassinations of JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They happened just as an even more heinous massacre, namely the Vietnam War, was escalating. And of course, some of the people killed were the rich, the elite, the seemingly untouchable working men and women of the Hollywood dream factory.
I can only speak as someone who was born years after the flames had died down. Still, the few years that are often referred to as "the sixties" were ones of chaos, change, and growing suspicion. The Anti-Establishment movement started out right, working for change. But alas, human frailty reared its ugly head. Soon, people dropping out of society and while history paints a rosy picture of the era, the fact is many undoubtedly were feeding their own self-interests. Thus, the expansion of the mind became tainted with the emotional baggage we all bring with us. Even the great teachings of peace and love were bogged down with the same old prejudices that ultimately cut us off from the world. And so you had the paradoxical teachings of Manson. The hippies of today are molded into the terrorists of tomorrow. The acolytes of Flower Power find themselves learning how to slit a person's throat. The idea of community and fellowship is bogged down with ugly, old-fashioned race hate. Whatever the initial goal was, it became twisted and distorted through our own failings. It's a shameful reminder of how easily any purity can be corrupted. It would not be much of a stretch to apply the model of the Manson family to other institutions that have been tarnished such as government, education and religion.
THE MANSON FAMILY tells us, "Every day, love is being killed." To mirror this, a newly added credits sequence features utopian images of flowers and the American flag being reduced to a disgusting whirlpool of blood. The Manson murders symbolize the death of the Love Generation, paving the way for the Me Generation. The community is still there, but it now drenched in the blood of innocents. It begins by showing the dreamlike existence of the "Do your own thing" philosophy, but soon asks what happens when "Do your own thing" exists at the expense of those around you. Within the film's 95 minutes, "You can have anything I got" has been warped into, "We're all in this together. You've gotta stab."
Van Bebber shoots the flashback sequences in a vintage style. The color scheme could easily pass for an old experimental film from the 1960s. In addition to the retro style, he has purposely aged parts of the film to put us back in that period of time. And yet, on top of this bold approach, he still manages to evoke some heavy emotion by a unique visual flair that was only hinted at in his debut feature, DEADBEAT AT DAWN. The early ranch scenes play so authentic and surreal, one wonders how many hours of stream of consciousness footage didn't make it into the film. There is more drug-inspired imagery on display than any other recent film. Van Bebber uses montage, still-photographs, kaleidoscopes, overexposure, animation and other techniques to put us in the mindset of this group of people who cut themselves off from society and embraced a failed song and dance man as their savior. What is so unsettling about the whole thing is that is seems so believable. Looking at prison interviews with Charles Manson, he is certainly animated and charismatic. But his story changes so often, so much of what he says is obvious gibberish. It's easy to wonder how anyone could swallow what this pathetic human being had to say. In Van Bebber's film, it is not hard to imagine at all. We are taken through the whole strange and nasty trip, from the frolicking in the fields, to the disastrous recording sections, through the terrifying blood orgy and beyond. From a distance, we can all feel above this sort of thing. But Van Bebber is so effective at painting the atmosphere around the Spahn Ranch, I had to ask myself, "At that time, in that place, under that much influence... could I have become a believer?"
Journalist Jack Wilson seems to think himself above the allure of such brainwashing. He is the modern-day journalist piecing together the documentary on "Charlie's family." He seems genuinely shocked and appalled by the romanticism associated with Manson and displays posters, shirts and CDs that capitalize on the Manson name. Still, although Wilson may think his motives are pure, it is clear that he wouldn't be doing a documentary if Manson didn't translate into money for the television station. One can picture Wilson's pitch to the board of directors. No matter what his motives, chances are the money men heard the words "Manson Special" and started fidgeting in their seats, awaiting the ratings windfall that would inevitably accompany such a project.
The interviews with the incarcerated family members are very effective. Naturally, they contradict each other on what exactly happened back in 1969. Each one of them seems to have a completely different personality and paints a different picture of what went on. Some naturally try to downplay their involvement as much as possible. It is also telling how many of the family members claimed to become born again Christians in prison. One of the most bloodthirsty of Manson's crew even became a minister.
Some have expressed doubts over certain sections of THE MANSON FAMILY. Many don't like the idea of contrasting the "new" family with the old. In my opinion, everything in this film works. Each storyline, each nuance adds a whole new dimension to the characters and story. Van Bebber's direction is top notch. The acting, often a problem in low-budget films, is fantastic. The soundtrack, which Van Bebber crafted and supervised himself, is as revolutionary as the images it accompanies, a mind-altering and multi-layered soundscape.
This is not an exploitive film riding Manson's gravy train. It is a film that shows the Manson murders (and not just Sharon Tate and her friends) in all their brutality. It dispels some of the myths surrounding Manson and his followers and shows the unflattering truth. Some critics have been upset by the violence in this film. To that, I say "Good, it should upset you." These were horrifying, tragic crimes. The victims are not names to be trotted out like advertising. Every single one of these victims suffered a cruel and horrible fate and no one should forget that. The Hollywood blockbusters are more offensive than THE MANSON FAMILY will ever be. They make violence acceptable by simply making it as impersonal as possible. Take away the blood and everything seems much cleaner. They don't show consequences of murder, they don't show the graphic details and films with the highest body counts inevitably become the marketing blitz of the summer.
THE MANSON FAMILY is an avant garde epic of transgressive cinema and films don't get much more perfect than this. It is hard to imagine a better film being released this year. If horror is truly the mirror to our society, Van Bebber strengthens that claim with utmost clarity. This is the most praise-leaden review I have written and with good cause, as I am continually in awe of this film. If it isn't considered a classic one day, there is no justice in the universe.