You know you’re a hardcore independent filmmaker when you use own money and take over a dozen years to create a film. You’re even more independent when that film has no viable reason to be made. So much of today’s filmmaking is really marketing. You learn to strike while the iron is hot and before the blood dries. Stories of missing white women, ecological disasters, and epic battles seem to be the cinema du jour. The Charles Mason murders are dated and to reflect upon this is not marketable, even from a nostalgic viewpoint. Perhaps this is why it takes some one from Dayton, Ohio, not Hollywood, California to breathe some new life into one of history’s most iconic criminals.
Jim Van Bebber is born to make film. Some folks are born to sing, some folks are born dance, some folks are born to sell used cars. Folks like Van Bebber make films, not because they think its fun or easy or cool, on the contrary they’d tell you its hard fuckin’ work. Guys like Van Bebber make films because it’s in their blood. In fact, Van Bebber sold his own plasma to complete the film and while that’s a piece of folklore any good independent film director tries to attach themselves with it doesn’t feel quite as honest as it does when Jim Van Bebber rekindles that myth.
Blood or no blood, The Manson Family is a wonderful piece of old school filmmaking. Minus a troubled side-story that I’ll get to later, watch The Manson Family is like taking a trip back in time to a point when drive-in’s still existed, when grindhouses lined 42nd Street, and when every young independent filmmaker didn’t dream of making it to the big leagues. Here’s a film that knows its role, knows its limitations, and knows its audience. The Manson Family is not Van Bebber’s attempt to cash in on a ready-made market. Neither a fan of Manson’s lore or the hype that surrounds the cult of Manson, Van Bebber’s film asks more questions and provides little answers about one of America’s most notorious crimes. Thought the title was changed to draw a stronger immediate connection between the film’s subject matter and its famous namesake the emphasis should fall more on family than Manson. This is not an attempt to understand the warped logic of a truly madman, but rather a look back at a screwed up group of followers, full of drugs, looking for love, and gullible enough to believe the crazed whims of a father figure that was more manipulator than messiah.
The Manson Family utilizes a buckshot approach that combines old footage, doctored new footage, and the audience’s preconceived notions of film style to create a decopage design that mimics recent crime shows. Reminiscent of the less than noble Natural Born Killers Van Bebber’s film integrates his oldest footage, shot over a decade ago, that depicts life at Spahn Ranch as a halcyon daze of drugs and debauchery with manipulated modern day interviews of the various members of Manson’s murderous family. Their patchwork of stories creates a larger picture that is more cubist than correct. Since no one knows exactly what happened out at the ranch, in the desert, or at various murder scenes the conflicting stories create a palpable sense of chaos, confusion, and consciousness laced with remorse or righteousness, depending on who’s account you believe.
For the most part the actors are believable. Most notable of all is probably Marc Pitman who plays Tex. Less admirable are his moments of drug fueled hysteria before and during the murders, but only when compared to his stoic and sane retelling of past events during video interviews after the fact. Due to lack of trust worthy record Van Bebber’s fictional re-telling of the Manson murders are given lengthy leadway in their portrayal of persona, but each of his actors convey a mixture of lost, doped, crazed, and homicidal traits that create convincing impression of just the sort of people lured to Manson’s side. Leslie Orr and Maureen Allisse both turn in wonderfully on edge performances as Pattie and Sadie, respectfully and Van Bebber himself is capable of stepping in front of the camera to take on the role of Bobby – the first family member to slip from follower to murderer. Interestingly enough, Van Bebber’s performance shows the most growth, not just from his earlier film Deadbeat At Dawn to The Manson Family, but within The Manson Family itself. There is a noticeable difference between the early footage of young Bobby at Spahn Ranch and present day Bobby, serving a life sentence with a rather obvious fake moustache, but a chillingly real performance, real in the sense that it is believable, even if it may not accurately represent the real criminal. I suspect that the most ardent Manson historians would dissect each performance as only the sickest of fanboys seem capable of doing. I for one know very little about the actual accounts of the Manson murder trials even though I have read more books on the matter than I have read on our nation’s civil war. Still, if one is willing to suspend their disbelief enough to look past Van Bebber’s phony moustache, a few throw away lines, and the obvious physical differences between actors and subjects than one can truly appreciate the crazed portrayals that each actor delivers.
Necessary to the length of his shoot, the patchwork of film pieces he was left with and the disappearance of Marcelo Game, who plays Manson – in a suitable, but not stellar fashion, which probably helps Van Bebber’s objective – Jim Van Bebber is forced to construct a piecemeal portrait of a family that so many have tried to understand. In Van Bebber’s telling there is no hope of understanding the madness and manipulation that lay at the base of the Charles Manson phenomenon. Utilizing a tactic pulled straight from crime television and the likes of Geraldo Rivera, Van Bebber cast Dayton newsman Carl Day as a modern day crime reporter, covering the anniversary of the infamous Manson murders. It is here that the film’s purpose enters the foreground of film with Day openly stating that he is not interested in Manson as much as he’s interested in the folks who actually committed the crimes. This too is the purpose of Van Bebber’s film, less interested in Manson himself, in fact by about two-thirds of the way through the picture Manson is all but removed from the film.
If the use of Carl Day as an investigative reporter helps tie together the multitude of film clips and video interviews that make up the bulk of The Manson Family than the inclusion of a group of modern day Manson followers is more problematic. The idea that an overtly weird group of individuals would lash out at reporters or individuals looking to defame Manson’s legacy is rather interesting especially when Van Bebber makes joking references to modern youth who see Manson as an icon, but know little of the reality behind his rise to iconic status. Still, the freakish depiction of these modern Mansonites, mixed with gothic overtones and a transition from pot and acid to heavier drugs comes across as muddled and misguided, even desperate. I truly think that such a side story would work if it were not for the hyper kinetic camera style that Van Bebber chooses to shoot these most modern sequences in. Speed up footage that plays more like Our Gang antics than gritty digital realism undercut the sheer terror of possible modern day Manson disciples. When so much of Van Bebber’s footage seems straight from a different, dated era, this newest footage seems forced and out of place. Why he did not choose to shoot these sequences on a consumer level one-chip digital cameras, the sort of store bought or stolen equipment that these punks could easily access make little or no sense for a film that seems so sure-footed in its scratched up archival film style.
Rumor has it that the Manson family filmed much of their exploits and that somewhere in Death Valley those films sit buried. Van Bebber appears to have found them or at least created what he imagines to be captured on those rolls of film. The Manson Family depicts the violent and infamous murders in a shockingly brutal fashion. Though there will always be those who say that any depiction of such violent acts is really a form of exploitation or celebration. Van Bebber’s film surely shows enough skin and debaucher to fall prey to such accusations, but he also bothers to show the horrific consequences of such deadly acts and in a way he attempts to warn the world that just because Manson is now safely behind bars that does not mean that there is less evil in the world.
After countless attempts and over a decade since he shot his first roll of film Van Bebber finally delivers a film that is not perfect, but perfectly suited to its subject. Besides one mis-step Van Bebber does something that Jean-Luc Godard once proclaimed to have done with his endtimes social critique – Weekend – he pulls a film from the scrapheap. Most filmmakers would have given up on a project such as this a long time ago. Van Bebber is no saint for providing the world with another retelling of the Charles Manson story, but he devil of an independent filmmaker.