Manson At The Movies

Digging through a dumpster with bare feet

Charles Manson was in more movies than Spider-Man this year. I’ve been repeating this to myself like it’s an anti-corporatist mantra over the last few months, as Disney merged with 20th Century Fox and laid off hundreds of Fox employees, ended repertory screenings for Fox titles, announced its plan to crack down on password sharing among users of its upcoming streaming video service, mortally devalued traditional animation by releasing an endless flood of hideous artless CGI cover versions of their classic films, imposed near-extortive conditions on theaters who want the privilege of exhibiting new Disney films, and released so many numbing ugly interconnected wisecracking jagoff superhero movies that at this point I hate my twelve-year-old comic collecting self even more than I did when I was twelve. It's nice to have a counterculture figure to cling to in a period of depressing corporate artistic hegemony, I guess is what I'm saying. Heroes are in short supply, so you make do with what you've got.

Not that I have any illusions that all these Manson movies are some kind of subversive protest. It’s way more likely that Charlie’s year of supporting performances is a result of our current true crime podcast cultural moment, along with the recent fiftieth anniversary of the murders. In some ways, Manson as a movie character isn't much different from Spider-Man or Harry Potter or any other corporate intellectual property that represents a worthwhile return on investment. It's just that the audiences are different for each of those characters (That is, until they release the movie where Manson fights Spider-Man, which is not as unlikely a premise as you might think). 

With all these Manson Family movies, this summer felt sort of like that year when Deep Impact and Armageddon came out within weeks of one another, except with Tex Watson in the place of a giant Earth-bound meteor. Manson may be dead but he’s definitely not forgotten, least of all to an entertainment industry still horrified at how close it allowed him to get to legitimate stardom before he and his followers started killing people. Man, it sure would be ironic if that industry’s attempts to process that horror over the last fifty years turned Manson into an even bigger star as a boogeyman than he ever would have been as a folk singer, wouldn’t it?

I loved Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, but it's a movie that's really more about Quentin Tarantino than it is about Manson. It plays as sort of a retrospective clip show of Tarantino's work, referencing spaghetti westerns, stuntmen, feet, 60s pop music, muscle cars, women’s feet, cartoonish Nazi violence, ladies’ bare feet, and lots of other familiar signifiers in its story of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Dalton, a fading western TV star, is a man with a mood disorder and a substance abuse problem who’s endlessly frustrated with his inability to grasp the Hollywood stardom he feels he deserves but just can’t seem to reach. Oh hey, wait a minute, who does that sound like?

It can't be a coincidence that the character Dalton plays on Lancer, the show-within-the-movie, is dressed sort of like Manson, who would be wearing a very similar fringed buckskin outfit when he's arrested in Death Valley months after the murders. Charlie is going through a pretty similar period of artistic insecurity at this point in his life in 1969 - he can't get any traction in the industry with his music, he's watching his peers as they're granted opportunities he feels should have gone to him, and he's getting older, about 15 years older than most of his followers.

The western TV scenes play out as a bizarro-world Manson story: fringed hairy weirdo Leo has basically taken control of a western backlot town and keeps his followers living in fear of him, even entertaining him on command. The Lancer director describes his look as a "Hell's Angels hippie," recalling the Straight Satans motorcycle gang that provided security for Charlie at Spahn Ranch as he grew more paranoid and convinced that the Black Panthers were coming to get him. Even Julia Butters's performance in this scene strikes this weird Manson Family note - she's being held hostage with a gun to her head, but she's still mirroring Leo's unpredictable mood, laughter and fun alternating with terror.

Manson himself only shows up very briefly in his Twinkie truck, but his shadow looms over the whole story. In this film, he's just as much a "heavy" - a villain who's defeated as a gimmick to prove the worth of the hero - as any of the TV roles Rick laments having to play at this point in his career. You get the sense that Tarantino, who’s spent his entire career digging through the dumpsters of exploitation cinema with bare feet, can relate to him a little.

It’s too bad Mary Harron’s Charlie Says only got a fraction of the attention that Tarantino’s film did. Although it doesn’t have a roster of movie stars or a budget that would have allowed it to painstakingly recreate late 60s Los Angeles, it’s a sensitive examination of why anyone ever would have wanted to join Charlie’s family, and also why those same people might not have wanted to leave after things started to go bad. Manson himself appears only in flashbacks, which is appropriate for a film mostly concerned with moving on from him.

Merritt Wever plays Karlene Faith, a real-life Canadian writer and activist who was tasked with tutoring Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten in prison after their death sentences were lifted in 1972. In Faith’s initial cell block visits these women seem unreachable, hopelessly in thrall to Manson’s cult programming even years removed from Spahn Ranch. Their continued commitment to Charlie’s ideology makes a lot of sense when you consider what they’ll have to face if they finally get him out of their heads. Faith seems to understand this, maintaining a persistent empathy for people who haven’t generally received a lot of it in popular culture.

It's hard to argue that some of the scarier figures in history deserve more of our love and understanding, but the film makes an interesting argument that empathy was the most fitting punishment here. Years of cops and judges and jail couldn't force these women to feel guilt or remorse for what they did, and Merritt Wever does it by engaging and listening and caring. And in doing so, she yanks them out of their programming and basically destroys their lives with the guilt and shame of what they've done (Well...two of them, anyway). It's a much more significant punishment, and justice, than anything the state could have accomplished.

Then again these are the plot keywords from this movie’s IMDb page, so who knows whether this nuanced message is coming across for anybody.

And then there’s The Haunting of Sharon Tate, the movie Goofus was making while Gallant was already in post on the previous two. Director Daniel Farrands takes the gruesome murders of five actual people and repurposes them into an ill-advised horror riff on Groundhog Day in which Sharon has repeated prophetic nightmares of her violent death that allow her to prepare and fight the Manson Family when they finally arrive. On premise alone there’s some potential for cathartic historical revision, but that premise also conveniently allows the filmmakers to stage those gruesome murders roughly 9000 times over the film’s endless 94 minutes. 

Hilary Duff plays Tate with an accent that veers between “19th century London chimneysweep” and “Katharine Hepburn having dental surgery” depending on what scene you’re watching, and still somehow gives a better performance than her co-star who’s doing what sounds like a Transylvanian take on Wojciech Frykowski. The whole thing plays like a fake movie that Tobias Fünke is auditioning for in the C-plot of an episode of Arrested Development, like at any moment a cutoffs-clad bald man covered in blue paint is going to walk into Abigail Folger’s bedroom and start rattling off oblivious Freudian double entendres. 

In one scene, Tate finds some recording equipment in her house left by previous tenant Terry Melcher. She starts the tape and hears Manson’s actual demo of “Cease To Exist,” a song that plays repeatedly through the rest of the movie, partly because the reel-to-reel is haunted but mostly because a deceased cult leader can’t sue anybody for unauthorized use of intellectual property. Tarantino’s Sharon Tate film earned a lot of praise for including scenes of the actual Tate from The Wrecking Crew, allowing her work to live on for a new generation of audiences, and Farrands commits essentially the same act of cinematic preservation here, but with Charlie’s folk-mystic noodling instead of Tate’s martial artistry. 

If you wanted to dismiss this one as exploitative trash I certainly wouldn’t blame you. But I think there’s a value in seeing the wide spectrum of artistic reactions to such a seismically tragic event. The Lizzie McGuire Manson movie is undoubtedly hovering near the lowbrow pole of that spectrum, but it at least acknowledges the existence of Steven Parent, something Tarantino’s better-regarded film never bothers to do. Unlikely as it sounds, there’s some good stuff to be found here, even if you have to dig barefoot through a dumpster full of garbage to find it.

In one of the two Spider-Man movies Disney released this year, Jake Gyllenhaal steals a vast arsenal of robotic weapons technology, and when Spider-Man finally defeats him and takes it back, he obediently hands this tech over to the government, believing for some reason that they will handle it responsibly. The film plays as basically a feature-length defense of American drone warfare, despite awful reports like this one about pine nut farmers killed by US drones emerging pretty routinely to better reflect the reality of that scenario. And Spider-Man tends to be one of the less openly bloodthirsty warmongering characters in the Marvel movies. With our movie heroes pulling shit like this, it’s no wonder some filmmakers are gravitating toward familiar villains instead.

Manson was an irredeemable racist pimp, but the cultural and political conditions that produced the Manson Family - endless unjustifiable foreign war, a caustic generational divide, impending environmental peril, and a national media seemingly doing everything it could to engender antipathy toward any youth movement attempting to address any of these problems - don’t seem to have changed a lot in the last 50 years. And with Disney’s Marvel movies now literally partnering with the military for recruitment efforts, it’s not hard to imagine why some young people might reject an authoritarian monoculture and look elsewhere for guidance.

In the late 60s, the most lost among those kids looked to Manson, sparking a chain of events so violent and traumatic that Hollywood’s still making movies about it. A lot of today’s disaffected kids are swept into hatred and violence by slightly more organized white supremacists who use YouTube and social media. I guess it remains to be seen whether these newer villains will have the same lasting cultural and artistic impact as Manson. Unfortunately, I don’t think Spider-Man is going to help us with any of them.