Monday, November 20, 2017

Charles Manson on Film

Charles Manson has died at the age of 83. Unlikely and unfortunate as it may be, Manson was one of the most recognizable figures in the last quarter of the twentieth century and his public persona and the crimes committed by his followers had an indelible impact on American culture and in particular motion pictures.

After drifting in and out of prisons and other institutions throughout the early part of his life, Manson came to lead a hippie commune during the countercultural movement of the 1960s. Under Manson’s direction, members of the commune committed a series of murders (although it is unclear if Manson himself actually killed anyone) and the ensuing trial became a media circus. The lurid details of the crimes and the troubling narrative of middle class youth brainwashed to become brutal murderers—as well as Manson’s charisma and his skill at doublespeak—coalesced into a cultural moment. The murders signaled the end of the hippie movement and Manson became a cultural icon dubbed “the most dangerous man alive.”

The transformation of Charles Manson from a murderous conman into a generational icon of evil was a result of a symbiotic relationship between Manson and the media. During the trial, news outlets racked up ratings and sold newspapers through Manson’s image and he played to the camera. In the decades following Manson’s conviction, various media personalities from Tom Snyder to Charlie Rose to Geraldo Rivera to Diane Sawyer would interview Manson for highly publicized television specials, vainly trying to pin him down. (The best of these was probably Manson’s 1987 interview with Heidi Schulman for NBC’s The Today Show precisely because Schulman just let Manson talk.) The press and the criminal used each other and turned Manson into one of the biggest cultural icons of his day.

The influence of Charles Manson on feature films is unmistakable.  The most obvious evidence of that are the many dramatizations based upon the Tate-LaBianca murders and the trial that ensued.  Of these, the essential title is probably the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter in which Manson is played by Steve Railsback. Based on the book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter distilled the investigation into a three hour movie and Railsback is electric in the marquee role.

Movies directly based upon Charles Manson and his “family” are still being made. The Tate-LaBianca murders were the basis for television programs Aquarius and American Horror Story: Cult as well as recent feature films like House of Manson, Manson’s Lost Girls, Manson: My Name is Evil, the 2004 remake of Helter Skelter, and Wolves at the Door, among others. Upcoming features inspired by Manson include James Franco’s Zeroville and Quentin Tarantino’s untitled next project.

For the most part, these real life depictions entrenched the myth around Charles Manson: that he was a mad philosopher and a criminal mastermind. This is all nonsense. Manson had an undeniable charisma and he was a smooth talker who created the impression of profundity. But his rants are logically and ideologically incoherent and his pretensions to grandeur are just that. Even the race war motive used to explain the Tate-LaBianca murders was probably bullshit; the Tate house had been the home of a music producer who reneged on a record deal with Manson but he was not there when the family struck. Far from “the most dangerous man alive,” Manson was a sad, pathetic figure who lived an awful life.

Aside from the dramatizations, Manson’s influence can be found in virtually every psychopathic criminal and cult leader to come out of American cinema since 1969. A glut of movies about murderous hippies were released following the trial including I Drink Your Blood, Snuff, Sweet Savior, and John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs. The television interview sequence in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was deliberately patterned upon Geraldo Rivera’s interview with Manson. Rob Zombie’s movies, namely House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects also make reference to the Manson Family. In The Devil’s Rejects, Bill Moseley plays a killer with an unmistakably Manson-like appearance and before killing one of his victims he says, “I am the devil and I am here to do the devil’s work,” a quote attributed to Manson Family member Tex Watson.

As a result of being crafted into a folk outlaw like Jesse James, Al Capone, or Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson became a popular figure in the underground scene. The best example of this in motion pictures is probably 1997’s The Manson Family directed by Jim Van Bebber. It’s a wild and vicious film that likely bears little resemblance to the way things actually played out but it is also a bold movie that epitomizes the excess and madness associated with Manson’s public persona.

Also worth mentioning is the cottage industry of Manson documentaries. They can be divided into two camps. The first is simply documentaries that attempt to recount and explain what happened.  Manson: Journey Into Evil was produced for A&E’s Biography program and it’s fairly authoritative. The other camp of Manson documentaries are apologetic works. These films suggest that Manson was somehow misunderstood or was the messianic figure he claimed to be or was framed for his crimes. Among  the most notorious of these documentaries is Nikolas Schreck’s Charles  Manson Superstar, which has been accused of celebrating Manson and emboldening the mythology around him.

Charles Manson is not a figure to be celebrated or memorialized. He wasn’t fighting for anything. He wasn’t a criminal mastermind or a cultural commentator or a renegade philosopher. Manson was a pimp and a thief who led gullible young men and women to murder eight people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s undeniable that Manson was one of the most influential people in American culture—and in particular American film—in the last fifty years. The sheer number of movies about him or inspired by him and his cult of followers and their crimes is a testament to that.