Tuesday 29 October 2019

Cult Cinema #17: The Atrocity Tour, part 1

When cults enter the conversation, it becomes inevitable that the great Cult Atrocity Stories get mentioned. They are black holes of narrative, irresistible gravitational forces. They are the stories about the occasions where belief has turned so toxic it has become lethal. You probably know about some of them. I’m talking about the Jonestown massacre, the siege of the Branch Davidians, the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult, the Tokyo subway attacks perpetrated by the Aum Shikiryo sect. And of course there’s what the Manson Family did. They are the reason we are afraid of cults, the reason we're terrified our kids will be brainwashed, the reason that we assume that fringe sects are always malevolent.

A lot of the films I've been looking at depend on these stories already, as underlying assumptions, the things that we know and expect about cults. The Passion of Darkly Noon depends upon you knowing what happened at Waco. The unease of Martha Marcy May Marlene is partly borne from the resemblance Patrick's MO bears to Charles Manson's. The Endless expects you to have, at least unconsciously, some idea about Heaven's Gate. The Invitation is perhaps a little more oblique, but Jim Jones's shadow falls across it.

In a sense, at least half of the films in this project deal with the Grand Atrocities. But some deal with them directly, either by dramatising them, approaching their consequences, or retelling them. In this part of Cult Cinema, I'm going to look at a film about Manson, a film about Jonestown and a film about Waco. This is our Atrocity Tour.

Charlie Says (2018)

Charlie Says is not a bad film. It's well made, well constructed, well performed, well photographed and about as tasteful as the subject matter will allow, and that's not really a surprise, given Harron's (and screenwriter Guinevere Turner's) track record. It's not a terribly important film, and its biggest issue is simply that once again, someone thought "What the world really needs is another film about Charles Manson."

This happens a lot. It is not generally a good idea. But loads of Manson movies exist, and although the abortive start of Helter Skelter was 50 years ago now, it's still being filmed, and now more than ever. In the last year alone, perhaps because we've just had the 50th anniversary, Manson has popped up in cinema again. There's been a horror film based on the case (The Haunting of Sharon Tate). A significant part of Quentin Tarantino's inevitable wish-fulfilment fanwork Once Upon a Time in Hollywood deals with it. And Mary Harron made Charlie Says. Charlie Says is, I suppose, the most interesting one of the last year, since at least it tries to present a version of the story that isn’t really romanticised as much as many of them are. And that's really why I picked it above the others, because it tries to say something true.

Charlie Says concentrates on the women who Manson groomed and convinced to commit murder In the early 70s, particularly on Manson Family member Leslie van Houten, who Manson renamed “Lulu”. It’s not the first Manson movie based on van Houten’s story – there’s also the 2009 film Leslie, My Name Is Evil – but this one is largely drawn from writer, educator and human rights advocate Karlene Faith’s 2001 book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult.

Leslie van Houten, along with Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins had been sentenced to death but in a rare move towards the 20th century, in 1972 California abolished the death penalty. The three women were incarcerated together for many years. They were not ill treated, and prison governor Virginia Carlson, a heroic advocate for reform, decided that they needed some help. Enter Karlene Faith, who visited them, taught them college courses and helped them to understand the gravity of what they had done and to escape the control of Manson, whose hold on them extended across prisons, from his cell to theirs.

The film begins with Faith (Merritt Wever) being asked by Carlson (Annabeth Gish) to visit van Houten (Hannah Murray), Atkins (Marianne Rendón) and Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) in prison and giving them classes in humanities; the plot then goes back and forth between Leslie’s history with the Manson family and the arc of the three women’s rehabilitation.
At the start of the film, they are defiant that they were right, that Helter Skelter will still happen, and what Charlie says is true. And again and again, they reinforce each other by saying what “Charlie says” (present tense). Charlie says this, Charlie says that. But Faith keeps trying with them, teaching them about history, and the rights of women, and racial politics, and helping them to see. And eventually they break free of the hold of Manson. And of course, to see what the hold of Manson meant, we have to see it. And so we see the story of Leslie and the others in flashback, and how they got to here, and we meet Charlie.

In the flashbacks, Manson is played by Matt Smith, whose post-Doctor Who career has supplied him with villainous roles more than you’d think. Smith is a good actor, and his performance as Manson is pretty good at getting across the main contradiction of the man: how a rambling loon with a near-bottomless fount of bullshit could be so charismatic. The film doesn’t hold back on the man’s delusions, and I think it gets across how Manson’s control of his followers works. We have a scene early on where everyone is around a campfire, and Manson singles out Sandra Good (Julia Schlaepfer), more or less humiliates her, forces her to strip and then gets everyone to shower her with love, and it’s experiences like that – that breaking down of who you are, that infusion of warmth and adoration – that transform a person. They make you a believer (and let’s not forget that in real life Sandra Good is, as far as the internet is concerned, one of the Manson Family members who never stopped believing in him).

Manson is well-documented, and none of this is really new ground if you know anything about this stuff. He ingratiated himself with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and tried to use that connection to kick off a musical career, and it didn’t work out, and in this version we get the distinct impression that it’s just because he’s basically a bit crap. He does this ridiculous performance before a record company executive where he’s so obsessed with getting the girls to dance with their shirts off that he misses out the part where he has to give a good performance himself. In the film he fails to get a recording contract, driving him into a vengeful rage (in real life, he did, but no one bought the record, and emotionally the result was the same).

And that’s pathetic, perhaps. But he is nonetheless compelling. Because none of the pathetic stuff matters, really, because he’s already got these people under his spell. It’s all about him. He makes it all about him, he’s always turning conversations around to himself. The process of changing the girls’ names, of building them up and knocking them down, and pitting them against each other, and controlling their movements and punishing and casting out people who challenge him, it’s all boilerplate. You isolate people from outside influences. And then you get them to reinforce each other. And that’s really, as I keep saying, how brainwashing works.

Harron’s film presents the brainwashing of the Manson girls in a very naturalistic, straightforward way; in Harron’s interpretation, Manson’s leadership is the leadership of the narcissist, the abuser, the gaslighter. He lies and wheedles and manipulates, and discards those who offend him. And they choose to stay. In a pivotal scene, Leslie has a liaison with a biker, who a little later, driven by genuine concern, comes back for her and offers to help her escape. And she refuses. In a coda to the film, we see an imaginary scene where Leslie takes the guy up on his offer gets on the bike with him, riding away, and this invites us to speculate how Leslie would have lived a different life if she had made that choice.
Harron does freely alter chronology for the sake of drama (for example, she has the women shave their heads in protest at being kept in isolation, rather than at the trial, because it’s a powerful image) but that’s the business of filmmaking. It’s more important that Harron’s film departs from Karlene Faith’s book more profoundly, I think, when it comes to the question of Leslie’s agency.

The real Karlene Faith advocates strongly in her book for Leslie, Susan and Patricia not having agency in their crimes, that, being brainwashed and forced to be extensions of Manson’s will, they were not responsible for their actions. And this goes double for Leslie because, of the two murders, she was only present at one, and while an accessory to the second, and responsible for a horrible act, she did not herself commit murder. The main reason she, like Patricia and Susan, who did commit murder, will never leave prison is because Manson told them that they had to be tried together, and they obeyed him.

Faith sees this as a miscarriage of justice; she argues that the women were acting at Manson’s behest, having been convinced that they were doing the right thing in order to make “Helter Skelter” happen (would things have been different if Manson had known what a helter skelter was?) and makes the fair point that in the same year Lt. William Calley got off lightly for instigating the My Lai massacre, and that Calley had used what amounted to the Nuremberg Defence. He was “following orders” (Faith 2001, p52). But the monstrosity of women committing an ostensibly inexplicable crime – most murders committed by women have some sort of extenuating circumstance – was not a thing that could societally be left unpunished, regardless of the agency of the women.

So did they have agency? Did they choose?

Brainwashing doesn’t turn you into a robot. Brainwashing is the result of a system of control, punishment and reward. Social capital and social censure are used to manipulate behaviour, to drive a person with the balance of love and fear into the embrace of the cult. And the thing is that brainwashing is really not really all that different from the structures of control that society inflicts on us all.

Faith writes:
The warnings to young people to avoid following gurus, and to avoid indiscriminate drug use and sex, were the most obvious moral lessons to be drawn from the story of Leslie’s association with a dramatic crime, a crime that has no redeeming value. But consider that the Manson murders were emblematic of the ending of the late 1960s’ idealism, the closing of a historical era. In the end, Leslie’s story, a 1960s search for enlightenment gone bad, resonates because on some level, like other crimes, it could have happened to anyone in her situation in those times (Faith 2001, p48, emphasis mine).
It could have happened to anyone. And that’s why we’re so afraid of cult leaders, of evangelical religious groups, of radicalised Islam, of Moonies and all the others. Because it could happen to us. Because it does happen to us. It happens to us every day. It happens online, with the way that forums and online communities create their own socially policed microcultures with strict codes of behaviour, written and unwritten, the tendency of even the best meaning communities to lovebomb.
Communities and subcommunities police beliefs and behaviours; their members do it to each other and do it to themselves, and complex hierarchies of authority develop. "Brainwashing" is what we call it when a subcommunity does this in a way that encourages submission to the will of a usurping authority in such a way that these new beliefs stand against the wider norms of society, to the extent that they isolate and separate the subcommunity from the outside world, psychologically and literally. This is why so many reactionaries are so keen to characterise progressive thought as being like a cult – even while writing this I saw someone railing on social media against "our children being indoctrinated by transgenderism", in fact. Because their idea of what norms are, which themselves are subject to various ideas of authority, don't allow for, for example, gay and trans people to exist. I mean, fuck'em, but the fact is few things are more existentially terrifying than the thought that you might unwillingly have your ideas about life, love and self changed. Your thoughts are your own (note: and let's not even start on the online cesspits that give us MRAs and incels, as much brainwashing movements as any communist splinter cell).

Both Faith's book and Harron's film present the long process of the three women's awakening to Manson's perversion of their ideological worlds, and both I think refrain from easy answers as to the question of their free choice in the matter of the Tate-LaBianca killings. Both however agree that Leslie van Houten was a victim of Manson. To what extent that meshes with her responsibility in the killings is a question that is much less straightforward than it seems, on both sides of the argument.

And the hate and fear that people like Leslie van Houten receive is due to this. It could have happened to you. Because, actually, it has happened to you already. It happens to you every day. You're just being brainwashed in socially acceptable ways.