The Manson Family (1988-2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
I suppose I should explain the date(s) above.
Independent filmmaker James Van Bebber started to film his no-budget
Manson film in 1988. The guy who played Manson lived on a
ranch/farm, and his dad had some animals on that property. It was a
suitable location to recreate the storied Spahn ranch, a location
which had been used for many films and a place where Manson and
his family had lived for some time. The director had a vague inkling
that he could finish his film with his mostly volunteer cast in a
few weekends of shooting at that ranch.
He was close. He finally finished the film 16 years later.
The finished movie basically consists of three parts:
Those first few weekends at the ranch did manage to complete a big chunk of the film, which is to say most of section 1 above - from the peaceful hippie days until the Gary Hinman murder.
The rest of it was harder to do. A lot harder. Money ran out, and the guy who played Manson actually left the production. The Goth sub-plot, with four new actors, was added in 1996. The family member interviews were shot catch-as-catch-can. In one sense, the long delays in filming provided a benefit that no-budget independent filmmakers rarely achieve - the actors' aging was completely believable, because the normal process of cheap make-up effects was replaced, or at least supplemented, by the natural aging process. The actors had aged about as much as the characters were supposed to.
Van Bebber took an unfinished version of his film to FanTasia Montreal in 1997, at which time he made a deal to get some completion money. That deal fell through, and he was back to scratching and saving again. Miraculously, he did eventually manage to complete the project, and the film swung small theatrical distribution deals in the U.K. and the U.S.A. The British reviews were weak, but the American reviews included a fair share of praise. Two highly respected reviewers had some positive reactions. Roger Ebert raised a few eyebrows by seeing the film and awarding it three stars, although he kind of held his nose while doing that. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly chimed in with some praise and a B-.
To me the effusive praises and pans of this movie boil down more to the nature of the observers than to the quality of the film itself. The film is what it is, and it is all out there in the open. On the debatable side, the film takes the stance that the Tate-Lobianca murders had nothing to do with Vincent Bugliosi's famous Helter-Skelter theory, but that they were simply meant to exonerate a family member for an earlier murder by showing that the killer was still at large. On the negative side, the acting troupe consists of amateurs, some of the effects and make-up are laughably bad, and the Goth subplot seems unnecessary, clumsy, and tacked-on. On the positive side, the film recreates the look of old newsreel footage, old home movies, and 1960's underground films, and the director does a good job of making the viewer feel present with the family at the actual events, down to all the nitty-gritty details of the sex, drugs, and violence. Although it is a low budget film with amateur participants, the sex and violence looks real, and the film gives off the feel of the films of that era, as well as the actual acid-warped experiences which inspired many of those films.
In essence, it was neither the negative elements nor the debatable ones that inspired the most negative reviews. It was, ironically enough, the greatest strength of the movie that caused the harshest criticism, and that is the real point of this essay. You see, the sex and violence and drug use looks real. There have been many, many filmed accounts of the Manson murders, from docudramas to fiction to documentaries, but none of the previous efforts has ever tried to show what it was really like to be there and see Sharon Tate stabbed all those times, or to be lying on the grass next to the family members as they created one of their frenzied, drug-fueled orgies. This film does all of that, and does it convincingly and graphically. Van Bebber does not pull away his gaze when a more traditional filmmaker would.
Is that good or bad?
If you want to be coldly objective, you'd have to say that it is good filmmaking when the director makes you feel that you were a participant in the events portrayed, or at least that you were a fly on the wall. Critics did not all agree with my last statement, however. Some felt that the recreation of that sex, that drug use, and particularly that violence was simply a way to use tragic real events to justify the creation of a cheap exploitation film, which was akin to making a porn film about the holocaust. Those on the opposite side felt that the film's accurate portrayal was the one way to convey the true monstrosity of the people involved, and to show how the gentle hippies underwent a metamorphosis into blood-letting sadists, a transition which the sanitized film versions could never explain convincingly.
I'll leave the spin to you. I suppose about half of you will fall into each camp. What I will state with some certainty is that the sex, drug use, and violence does seem real, and feels intense because it is driven by fast edits, desperate screams, and a hard beat on the sound track. It took Oliver Stone a massive budget with a lot of big stars to recreate this era in The Doors, but Van Bebber accomplished something very similar on a shoestring. That was an achievement. Is it something I enjoyed watching and would want to watch again? Hell, no. But that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile in some way. That which disgusts me is not automatically bad. In fact, one might argue that, given the subject matter, it would be bad if it did NOT disgust me.
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