“The Manson Family” is an epic independent film, more than a decade in the making, which I Associate Produced and Co-Edited with iconoclast director Jim Van Bebber. The flick garnered some notable reviews during it’s theatrical release, including my favorite of all time, Roger Ebert’s conflicted, almost tortured take on the picture.
The Manson Family – by Roger Ebert / October 22, 2004 – 3 Stars
“The Manson Family” has scenes so foul and heartless they can hardly be believed. Killers stab victims again and again and again, relentlessly, with glee. A throat is cut on camera. A dog is sacrificed. Victims plead piteously for their lives. The action is recorded in low-tech film and video footage, some of it scratched and faded to look archival. There are passages as amateurish as a home movie. Actors snarl at the camera as if they’re doing screen tests for snuff films. Some images (like an opening shot of blood dripping onto white flowers) are groaningly ham-handed. Although Charles Manson is extolled in the film by members of his “family” as a messiah and seer, he says nothing of value, and has the charisma of a wino after a night in a dumpster.
All of this will lead you to conclude that “The Manson Family” is a wretched film, but I am not sure I would agree with you. It filled me with disgust and dismay, but I believe it was intended to, and in that sense was a success. It has an undeniable power and effect, but be sure you understand what you are getting yourself into. This is not a “horror” film or an “underground” film, but an act of transgression so extreme and uncompromised, and yet so amateurish and sloppy, that it exists in a category of one film — this film.“The Manson Family” has scenes so foul and heartless they can hardly be believed. Killers stab victims again and again and again, relentlessly, with glee. A throat is cut on camera. A dog is sacrificed. Victims plead piteously for their lives. The action is recorded in low-tech film and video footage, some of it scratched and faded to look archival. There are passages as amateurish as a home movie. Actors snarl at the camera as if they’re doing screen tests for snuff films. Some images (like an opening shot of blood dripping onto white flowers) are groaningly ham-handed. Although Charles Manson is extolled in the film by members of his “family” as a messiah and seer, he says nothing of value, and has the charisma of a wino after a night in a dumpster.
I’m tempted to say you should see it just because you will never see a film like this again, but then I wonder: What need is there to see a film like this at all? Its insight into the Manson Family is that they were usually drugged, had absorbed the half-assed hippie philosophy of the time and fell into the hands of a persuasive, gravely damaged man who persuaded them to gladly murder for him. I do accept that those who did the actual killing were acting under the influence of Manson. What I cannot find in this film is the slightest clue as to how Manson obtained or exercised such power. He seems like the kind of deranged and smelly lunatic any reasonable person would get away from quickly and permanently. That such figures as Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys even briefly gave him friendship and shelter makes a persuasive argument against drug abuse.
“The Manson Family” has been around in several unfinished forms for many years. Its director, Jim Van Bebber, began shooting it in 1988, ran out of funds on various occasions, showed rough cuts at underground venues and finally found completion money to make this theatrical version. If there is not perfect continuity because the actors grew older during the shooting, you’ll never notice it, because the filming technique uses such fragmentation, jagged editing and chronological anarchy that we’re rarely sure anyway what shot belongs before or after another shot.
What we absorb from the experience, as if wringing it free from the miasma of its making, is that Manson gathered followers with the lure of drugs and sex orgies, that they found an old and confused man and turned his farm into a commune. Charlie was addled by dreams that he would become a rock and roll God, and found portents, patterns and messages in rock songs and, for all I know, in his tea leaves. In a way that is far from clear, his disappointment at his lack of progress led to Helter-Skelter, an operation during which innocent people, including the pregnant Sharon Tate, were murdered. His theory was that the Black Panthers would be framed, and a race war would result in — what? Charlie taking over? This makes no sense, but did you expect it to?
What Van Bebber does accomplish is to make a film true to its subject. It doesn’t bring reason, understanding, analysis or empathy to Manson; it wants only to evoke him. It is not pro-Manson, simply convinced of the power he had over those people at that time. In a paradoxical way, it exhibits sympathy for his victims by showing their deaths in such horrifying detail. In its technical roughness, its raw blatant crudeness, it finds a style suitable to the material; to the degree that it was more smooth and technically accomplished, to that degree it would distance itself from its subject and purpose.
We come to the question of a star rating. Convention requires me to assign stars to every film. Do I give “The Manson Family” four stars because it does what it does so successfully and uncompromisingly, or do I give it zero stars, for the same reason? I will settle on three, because it is remarkable enough I do not want to dismiss it. That doesn’t mean I think you should see it.
Here’s one from Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers:
” Had enough of Manson mythology? Cult director Jim VanBebber cuts right through it. Fifteen years in the making, this ultragraphic film gains its strength from the intercut narratives of Charlie’s Family and a showdown between a TV reporter and a gang of armed miscreants. By creating a continuum between acid-mad anti-hippies and the current crop of nihilist punks, VanBebber shows a desperate, marginalized mind-set that remains virulently alive. Crucial.”
Here’s one from Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly:
The Manson Family replays the story of Charlie, his girls, and their famous crimes in the form of a staged documentary, complete with a bushy-bearded actor (Marcelo Games) who looks like a refugee from Jesus Christ Superstar cast as Manson, plus ”interviews” with the killers recorded on faux–scratchy ’70s film stock. Much of the movie is crudely done: A luridly silly framing device glorifies latter-day Manson cultists, and the Tate/ LaBianca murders are played as ketchup-soaked scenes out of a Herschell Gordon Lewis blood feast. Yet the director, Jim VanBebber, who worked on the film for 15 years, nails one dimension of Mansonia better than anyone else has. He digs deep into the erotomania of life on the Spahn ranch: the orgies that escalated into violation and then violence. For Charlie, sex was power, and in The Manson Family the sexuality of his shiny angry hippie cult keeps intensifying. The film evokes how homicide became the ultimate orgasm for kids who had turned themselves into zombies of flesh. You can call Manson many things — monster, messianic devil — but to a certain punk sliver of middle-class America, he has always been cool. The cornerstone of the Manson mystique is the bizarro intensity of his personal power, and while nothing in The Manson Family can match the artistry of Jeremy Davies’ unheralded great performance in the CBS remake of Helter Skelter (he seethed like a wasp with a broken stinger), the film lures you inside its murder-with-a-smile extremes.
Also Rotten Tomatoes has a very large collection of ‘Manson’ reviews.
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“The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman,” a wicked satire of Hollywood bottom feeders,is currently in it’s second season. I edited much of season one, including the pilot, and was very gratified at the reviews. Here’s what TIME Magazine said:
Show Biz Without Glamour – by James Poniewozik – July 30, 2006
HBO’s boutique hit Entourage is a Hollywood wish-fulfillment comedy: a movie star and his buddies enjoy the material and sexual perks of fame. The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman (IFC, Fridays, 11 p.m. E.T.) is a Hollywood wish-deferment comedy. Jackie (Laura Kightlinger) is a writer for an obscure film magazine who wants to be a screenwriter; her best friend, Tara (Nicholle Tom), is going nowhere as a production-company assistant. “You’re in the industry?” a neighbor asks Jackie. “Not as far as the industry knows,” she answers.
Here’s a bite from The Austin Chronicle:
“Move over, Carrie Bradshaw. There’s a new dame on TV. This woman is a woman’s woman. Beautiful, smart, not so hot with men, a better friend to her gal pal than she is to herself. Talented, and yet not quite grasping that brass ring. The woman is Jackie Woodman.”
“…as the cringe-worthy moments abound, we’re strangely (and guiltily) drawn back for more.”
And here’s one from LA Weekly:
“Kightlingers buoyantly cynical brand of comedy is somewhere between Sarah Silvermans bubblegum shock and Kathy Griffins devilish glee… when a TV comedy gives me the chance to laugh more at funny women than funny men, Im onboard.”
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“Grave Matters” (aka “Master Criminal)is an ultra low budget 16MM feature which I Associate Produced and Edited. This was the dream project of three guys I went to Berea High School with; Denis J. Underwood, Evan Lloyd and Kevin Hines. The film was directed, under great duress, by another BHS alumni and a close friend, James A. Pearson. Here’s how they describe the flick on their website:
“Grave Matters” (AKA “Master Criminal”) is ultimately a story of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness. Neil Bohanan has made a habit of skirting his responsibilities over the years and feels he has lost his place in a world that has not lived up to his skewed expectations — expectations based on Hollywood. Neil’s best friend from childhood, Bobby Strack, is dying. No one in Neil’s world understands why he has made such little effort to find his way back home for one last visit with his old friend. Not until Neil’s ex-fiancée, Helena, turns to him for help with a dilemma of her own does he callously choose to return home, abandoning her.”
Here’s a segment produced for the Sundance Channelon the making of “Grave Matters.” The shooting took place in the small town where most of us attended high school. James and I came in from New York, Denis from Chicago and Evan from San Fransisco, only Kevin and Alan Kradlak, the set photographer, were still living (and still are) in Berea. Here are some photos courtesy of Alan.
Checking out the monitor during a night shoot in downtown Berea.
From L to R: Denis Underwood, James A. Pearson Evan Llyod,
Striking a dapper pose between set ups during the funeral scene.
Clockwise: Denis, James, Evan and Kevin Hines.
Evan contemplates his humanity at the bar, one of the main locations of the picture.
Evan and Jennifer Wiech, between takes on the quad of Baldwin Wallace College.