Wednesday 6 June 2018

Cult Cinema #10: Manson Family Vacation (2015)

I was going to get to Charlie Manson and his Family eventually. It's an obligation, really, rather than something I especially want to do, a recognition that of all the weird little religious and pseudoreligious movements that have intruded on our culture, this one people remember. And it's nearly fifty years ago now, but it's one of the quintessential toxic cult stories, one of the pop cultural touchstones for cults in California, and it's got everything, whacked-out hippies and drugs and malleable minds getting warped by a charismatic leader and celebrities. And the standard take on it is pretty shallow: charismatic nutjob gathers group of impressionable young women, mainly for the purposes of having sex with them, insinuates himself into the lives of some celebrities, and then convinces his followers to murder a bunch of people in Beverly Hills, most famously Sharon Tate, then heavily pregnant. He's caught, tried, and spends the rest of his life in prison. He becomes iconic. He becomes a T-shirt design.

And it's that T-shirt we see Conrad (Linas Phillips) wear for much of J. Davis’s 2015 film Manson Family Vacation.

For some reason, he has trouble getting a lift.
Conrad is the brother of successful attorney Nick (co-producer Jay Duplass). But while Nick is happily married, a dad, settled in LA, Conrad has never really managed to find his place in the world and his relationship with Nick and, we'll find, their late dad, was never what it could have been. Nick and Conrad have very different ideas about whose fault that was.

But Conrad is passing through town this week, on the way to a vague job he's got waiting for him in Arizona. And before that, what he really wants to do is the Manson tour. Nick is by turns baffled and appalled by this, but with some encouragement from his wife Amanda (Leonora Pitts), who inevitably has a much clearer view of the family dynamic than Nick ever could, Nick agrees to drive Conrad around, and then, trying his damnedest to connect, becomes Conrad’s reluctant accomplice in this. They bluff themselves into the LaBianca murder house, and of course they're rumbled pretty quickly. And that whole sequence, which is excruciatingly awkward, works as a great interrogation of why a Charlie Manson fandom is a big problem, and how treating the site of a murder as a tourist spot, even decades later, is still actively harmful for the people who have to live there, even the ones who aren't otherwise related to the victims.

But, while addressed with sensitivity and humour, this isn't the central theme of Manson Family Vacation. The film begins with text explaining that Manson orchestrated the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson was imprisoned, but then, of all the facts that it could share, it then tells us that he received (Manson was still alive when the film was made) 60,000 letters a year. Then, we have archive footage of Manson being interviewed. Why, the unseen interviewer asks, does he get so many letters, mostly from young people? Because he's a kid too, he never grew up and never had a family. He raised himself. And then we see Conrad, hitch hiking to the Valley, wearing that T-shirt.

Conrad’s fascination with the Manson Family isn't just ghoulish. There's an attraction there, best expressed by the scene where, Conrad inadvisedly shows his copy of Helter Skelter to Nick and Amanda’s young son Max (Adam Chernick).
What are all these dead people?
Conrad: OK, here's like, a nice picture of a family.
Max: Are they real brothers and sisters?
Conrad: No. They're um… They're not a real family. It's actually better than a real family, because they went out and found each other.
And Conrad’s takeaway from the Manson Family, his Manson Fandom, isn't about the ghoulish celebration of a murder. It's about finding family. And sure, the murders are the most significant action of the Manson Family, central to the Manson mythology, and they're a site of pilgrimage, but that's not why Conrad is so tangled up with this stuff. He's spent his entire life confused about his identity, an adopted child supplanted by an unexpected and adored natural child, dad distant and playing favourites. And so of course he's attracted by a family who choose each other. Because the one that was supposed to have chosen him never worked out for him.

It doesn't help though that Nick doesn't see this, instead understandably flipping out that Conrad has shown Max a book full of pictures of “awesome dead bodies”.

In the final act of the film, Nick, in a last ditch attempt to patch things up with Conrad, is made by Amanda to drive his brother to the “environmental group” Conrad is supposed to be starting a job with, and we realise that they too have a connection with Manson, and that Conrad’s obsession with Charlie is deeper and more familial than we had thought.
Does it ever, you know, creep you out?
Manson Family Vacation is a low-budget gem. It is an example of one of my favourite things, a film that looks like it’s heading one way and winds up going quite another, and more than once. It’s got the most grown up approach to cults in general and Manson in particular that I've seen for a while. The film approaches the damage that Manson’s crimes keeps doing more sensitively than you'd expect, but it also addresses the man's charisma, and why someone might wind up joining a group like the Manson Family, offering reasons beyond simple evil or a will to mayhem.

And that's an important thing: people don't actually join murderous cults because they want to murder people. They join cults because they want to belong, and then they wind up doing the stuff that the cults do because they want to stay belonging. Because we do many of the very worst things we do because we want to belong.

And that's not a justification. It's not an excuse, it's not a mitigation, and plenty of people want to belong and don't murder pregnant celebrities or shoot up their classmates. But it is often the reason why terrible things are done by people who should have been better, both on a small group level and on a larger, national level. Manson Family Vacation is a film where, in the end, no evil is done. It has no real violence. But it nonetheless is a fantastic meditation on where evil comes from, and on how perhaps how to stop that evil before it happens, by asking the question: how do we belong, and all in the shape of a funny and sometimes moving family drama.

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