Thoughts on Charles Manson

Quentin Tarantino has a new movie out, which has the Tate-LaBianca killings in its backdrop, and I both do and don’t want to see it. I want to see it because I’m a fan of Tarantino’s work and have been since I first saw Pulp Fiction as a college freshman. Then as now, no one makes movies like he does. For all the talk of how he is a style thief and wallows in campy excess, he is one of the few directors today who can genuinely surprise me. When I watch something he’s made, I never know what’s coming next. He’s a rare filmmaker whose work is both a household name – who mainstream audience will pay theater-ticket prices to see on his name recognition alone – and a reliable critical success. I don’t like everything he’s done: Death Proof was a bridge too far, and Django Unchained left me cold. But in today’s world where everything is an existing IP, or a remake, or a reboot, or a comic book movie, his work is a reminder that cinema is supposed to be art, and art for grown-ups. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is almost too appropriate a title in that framework.

That doesn’t mean you have to like his movies, and it especially means you don’t have to like him. But he’s a damn rare thing these days, and I predict we’re going to miss him when he’s gone, and talk about him in the tones that people speak of Hitchcock and Kubrick.

I don’t want to see it because, and there’s no two ways about this, enough with Charles Manson. I’ve written before about how uncomfortable I am with the pop-culture awareness of famous killers. Manson wasn’t exactly a serial killer, but in many ways he was something worse. Jack the Ripper didn’t harm anyone but the prostitutes he sliced up, but cultists like Manson drag otherwise good people into savagery, too. As with Jim Jones, or Adolf Hitler, or Lenin, Stalin, Castro and the rest of the Reds, spiritual degradation is their work, as much as anything else.

So below, I post an essay I wrote about Manson for my defunct medium.com account, at the time of his death. I stand by it.

Charles Manson Was No One

And he does not deserve our attention

“First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the pig Tate’s stomach! Wild!”

-Bernadine Dohrn

Homo homini lupus est. (Man is wolf to man)

-Roman proverb

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Humans are apex predators. We are in fact the apex predator of apex predators. We hunt and kill apex predators. We kill lions. We kill sharks. We kill cobras. Not because we need to — at least, not all the time. Because we like to. There are humans who hunt for no other reason than hunting is in our DNA. It’s what makes us what we are.

And often, we hunt each other. Because being apex predators, we are threatened by the other apex predators, i.e., one another. So we kill each other for resources. We kill each other for mating prospects. We kill each other out of fear that the other will kill us first.

And sometimes, we kill just because.

Charles Manson is finally dead. Every few years, he would come up for parole, and every few years, he would be denied parole. It was a bureaucratic absurdity. He’d been condemned to die in prison long ago. He lived in prison. He was prison.

At the time he started his cult, Manson had spent most of his life in some correctional facility or other. He had never had a steady job. He had never completed a degree or diploma. He had never owned anything of value, and aside from getting a few women pregnant, had never contributed anything of value. He was, in short, a failure in every way that a man can fail. His existence was a hole where a human life should have been.

What does a human do when he’s consistently unable to function in human society? Very often, he reverts to default, to atavistic survivalism. He becomes a predator.

The insanity of the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, the horror-movie flavor of them, the sheer lack of a discernible purpose for them, have led people over the years to attribute to the mastermind of them some manner of demonic, dark-guru status. No less than four separate television interviews have tried to pry into the Mind of Manson, only to discover a howling void of nonsensical utterances.

look at yourself. You‘ve got to wear that, whether you like it or not. You‘ve got to do things. You‘ve got to get up and go through all kinds of changes; whether you want to or not doesn‘t matter. Your whole life is put in your paycheck. You couldn‘t pay me all the money in the world to do something I don‘t want to do.

If I‘m shoveling the barn, and you want me to go (INAUDIBLE) I say, no, no, no. I‘m doing something right here. I‘m helping this blind man. I feel better in doing what I want to do.

I did not break the law. Jesus Christ told you that 2,000 years ago. You don‘t understand me! That‘s your trouble, not my fault because you don‘t understand me. I don‘t understand you either, but I don‘t spend my whole life trying to put the blame over on you because my cigarette didn‘t light or because something didn‘t work right. What do you want to call me a murderer for? I‘ve never killed anyone. I don‘t need to kill anyone. I think it. I have it here.

I don‘t need to live in this physical realm. I walk around in the physical realm, and I put on the faces, and I talk, and I play (INAUDIBLE) it‘s just a big act, man. In the spiritual world is where I live. I exist in places you‘ve never even dreamed of. You talk about, you know, just the little physical realm you live in, guilty, and is he in sin? How‘s your courts guilty? How many people do you think you‘ve hung on the ventilators in the nut wards and forced medication on them?

You see what I‘m saying? You don‘t have any idea what the hell is going on.

-Charles Manson, MSNBC interview, September 2007

It is the human habit to seek patterns, to find cause and effect, to believe that if something exists, something is behind it. We want to listen to this man who speaks in prophetic cadences and hear what he has to say. If we pour over this quote, and analyze it, and search for meaning and truth, we will find none. And we cannot accept this, so we attribute to him some word that will cover it. Like “insane”. Like “evil”. But these are words indicating the lack of a something: the lack of reason, the lack of goodness. They do not attest to anything being there.

People have spoken of Manson’s odd charisma. And let us stipulate that he had it. But where did it come from? What does “charisma” mean other than people are fascinated by a person? And is it not plain that what fascinates us is nothing but what expresses something we have deep within?

The reason that the girls like me was — hey, now, hey, now, I‘m all around you, around you, hey, now, up on your heart I can sing through you. And I play, and I sing. And they‘d say, “Hey, man, you‘ve got — you‘ve got soul in that music.” And I said, “Yes, I play a little bit, you know? I like music.” “Man, you‘re really somebody.” I said, “Oh, I am? I just got out of jail. I don‘t know what somebody is.”

They like my music. They say, “Man, we want to get you over.” I said, “Get me over for what?” They said, “We take you down here to Beverly Hills, and we want to get you in because you‘re a star.”

-Charles Manson, MSNBC Interview, September 2007

Sometimes, we are attracted by what repulses us. In the extreme of horror is a fascination. In the brutal cruelty of the Third Reich, Germany created a monument to wickedness that our popular culture will not stop examining in books and film. The glamour of the Nazis and their evil were bound up in the same thing. By their refusal to abide by human obligations, they became something we feared, something we expended great effort to destroy, and something that haunts us still, 70 years later.

That’s why Bernadine Dohrn of the Weather Underground expressed such admiration in the killing of “those pigs”. Bernadine didn’t know those people, she was incapable of making any judgement upon them. They were “pigs” not because of some defect in their character but because that is how Bernadine chose to see them, as degraded beasts. This speaks to her moral degradation and nothing else. She was not seeing Sharon Tate. She was only seeing her own hatred of the society she grew up in. Any manner of hatred would have been acceptable to her. Manson had nothing to do with it. He had nothing to do with anything. That was his problem.

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Look at the eyes of Charles Manson on this album cover and tell me that the same howling void is not staring back at you. His eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming, as the poet put it. He looks like he’s not seeing you, or anything at all.

“…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”

-Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

And at times that emptiness fascinates the Bernadine Dohrns and the associated hipsters who delight in the inversion of human relations so that they can celebrate themselves for celebrating the inversion. The call to cast aside obligation, and wallow in Id-sense, to spit upon one’s hands and hoist the black flag, calls out to many of us from time to time. But the one who does it is not a hero, nor is he a mystic. He is only hostis humani generis, the enemy of all mankind.

The Tolkien Estate Gets to Veto Amazon

There’s apparently a trailer, or a teaser, or whatever, for the new Amazon series, but I’ll be damned if I can find it.

The important fact is, Amazon doesn’t get to hose this the way everyone expects they will.

Amazon has a relatively free hand when it comes to adding something, since, as I said, very few details are known about this time span. The Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered. Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, is returns to Númenor. There he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same. But you can add new characters and ask a lot of questions, like: What has Sauron done in the meantime? Where was he after Morgoth was defeated? Theoretically, Amazon can answer these questions by inventing the answers, since Tolkien did not describe it. But it must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say. That’s what Amazon has to watch out for. It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain “tolkienian”.

The Time Span referred to is The Second Age, the period when Aragorn’s ancestors lived on an island in the middle of the ocean called Numenor. It’s also the time when the Rings of Power were forged. So it’s a giant LOTR prequel, really.

But if there’s an army of canon-experts making sure that canon isn’t violated, then I’m suddenly much more comfortable with this.

If only someone at Lucasfilm cared this much.

Quick Review: Ingrid Goes West

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Weird little quirk of a film that somehow manages to condemn the age we live in, and the Matrix that we detest and fear and and cannot bear to be apart from (there’s no paradox there, the second thing leads inevitably to the first).

Meet Ingrid. Ingrid is unhealthy. Ingrid obsesses with people she only knows on Instagram. Ingrid lives on her phone. She’s almost (not quite) incapable of forming normal human relationships, because her entire reality is external to herself. She doesn’t have a self. She has no dreams, no goals, no real personality to speak of. She is a void that cannot be filled.

After an incident with one of her InstaFriends lands her in the boobie hatch, she takes a pile of inheritance and crosses the country to form another emotional codependency with a brand new girl who’s InstaFamous. Hilarity and tragedy ensues.

It has a comic sensibility, without really trying to be funny. Such, of course, is how the younger generation speaks the truth, in sly, awkward self-mockery. So it’s really geared for them, but the yearning to live an artful life, a not-mundane life, a beautiful life, is not something that only Generations Y and Z know. The methodology for conceptualizing that life has changed, become more democratized, and way more addictive. Ingrid seems more healthy when she’s drinking a beer on her couch, or even doing a line of coke in a parking lot, than when she’s compulsively liking every photo on her InstaFriend’s feed.

Aubrey Plaza is so perfectly cast for this that’s almost too on-the-nose. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. takes a charismatic turn in a part that could have been nothing. He makes it something, because he’s got something. Everyone else is blonde, and almost part of the landscape. They don’t quite feel real, which is sort of the point, so I can’t fault the performances.

Literary sidebar: the movie focuses on Joan Didion novels as a hipster vintage passion of letters, and it did inspire me to google her and then grab a copy of Play it As it Lays at my library. I suspect Joan Didion got or is getting an uptick as a result of this. I wonder if authors hope for such things. Probably not.

Bottom Line: Skynet doesn’t need to blow us up. It has us by the brain already.

Things That Are Going to Suck

Picard is going to suck.

It’s a bastardization of the character, reduced to catchphrases and some Borg plot.

The question is, why? Why is it being made?

Because member-berries?

Because the carnival of 80’s nostalgia that’s been gripping us since the late 90’s just Will Not Die?

Because J.J. Abrams ruined Star Trek and no one knows how to make it anymore?

Because we’re all getting dumber?

Because we’re isolated and cut off from each other by the false connectivity of the Web, and we long for entertainments that remind us of a time when that wasn’t so?

Because we haven’t figured out how to make culture in the age that Gibson prophesied?

Because I’m getting old and grumpy?

Quick Review: Stranger Things 3

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Stranger Things is starting not to get the 80’s right.

Probably it never did. Nostalgia coasts on dusting off old images, making people say “Hey, remember this!” and that’s only fun if it’s in the brightest possible colors. So much of the charm of Stranger Things lay in seeing boys riding around on bicycles, unattended, just like they used to (What about Elle? She didn’t ride a bike. Max doesn’t either; she’s a sk8er grrl).

But one of the things that occured to me with this new season was how *clean* everything looked. And the fact that I noticed it is suggestive.

Folks, the 80’s were dirty. People didn’t care that much about littering, nor about drunk driving. A street that didn’t have broken beer bottles on the side of it was a street that hadn’t been built.

Also, nobody in the 80’s talked about Soviets as being “enemies of the state”, especially not radical journalists. The 80’s weren’t the 50’s. Yeah, the Cold War was an ongoing thing, but we’d all gotten used to it. We were tired of it and wanted it to be over. Not that we suddenly liked the Soviets or disliked Reagan (whose landslide 1984 re-election took place within the timeline of Season 2), we just settled into it as being normal. If anyone found a nerdy Russian in Indiana who wanted to go to a County Fair, we would have bought him all the cherry slurpees he wanted. The 80’s were the great age of Yakoff Smirnoff. That said, I’m glad the show didn’t make the Russians the secret good guys, which I kind of expected during the first episode.

As for the plot: I liked it better than Season 2, which really felt like Season 1.5. Granted, the bad guy was the same, but the approach of it was different. And creepily so: a monster dissolving it’s mind-controlled victims into puddles of flesh that it then draws into itself. The merely Lovecraft-derived Demogorgons and Demodogs from the previous seasons look almost adorable by comparison. Elle finally became an actual character rather than a victim/plot device, and they nerfed her at the climax to underscore this. And they did something useful with Billy other than make him the new Steve Harrington. On the whole, I’m fine with it.

Let’s hope they stop after Season 4.

A Smart Analysis of The Sixth Sense

Over at Ace of Spades. I did not realize that The Sixth Sense would have been the #1 film  that year were it not for Star Wars. I haven’t seen it in forever, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t dislike it on rewatch (my favorite film from that year, however, remains Fight Club).

And, here’s the thing, with the Big Twist out of the way, it’s actually a much better movie. (How’s that for a twist!)

The build up to the twist—the sleight-of-hand that prevents you from seeing it—is actually sort of rickety. I remember someone complaining at the time that there are a lot of odd tropes abused by The Sixth Sense that (if you don’t overlook them) make it seem like you’re watching a very sloppy film. And I remember when I saw it the first time, I was like, “Huh. That was odd. That doesn’t make much sense. Why is that happening?” And I did overlook them and so was pleasantly duped.

I’ve always thought that movies work better when you let yourself get pulled into them. Your mileage may vary, but read the whole thing.

Bran Stark is Hosed – A Reasonable Prediction From the End of Game of Thrones

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The Kingdoms of Bran the Broken is neither a Kingdom nor is it Bran’s. Discuss.

This analysis, from A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, argues that the introduction of Elective Monarchy to Westeros, and especially the election of Bran Stark as its first elected king, is doomed to failure. The reasons are as follows:

  1. With the exception of the Iron Islands, which are at best inconsistent with the practice, nowhere in Westeros has ever practiced elective monarchy. Indeed, every one of the Six Kingdoms has a tradition of primogeniture (the eldest son of the king is the next king, girls only succeed in Dorne), with families that have held power for 300 years at the shortest, and some of them go back to pre-history. These constituent kingdoms will all have more power than Bran, and will have every incentive to keep the central monarchy weakened.
  2. In pulling out of the Seven Kingdoms, Sansa Stark left her brother with no power base to fall back on. Had Gendry Baratheon been elected king, he would have one of the Seven Kingdoms, the Stormlands, in his pocket, providing him with an army he could call upon at will. Had Tyrion been elected, he would have the Westerlands, Edmure Tully, the Riverlands, Robert Arryn, the Vale, etc. But now that the North has backed out, Bran has nothing but the lands around Kings Landing – the Crown Lands – which aren’t much.
  3. Bran is unable to fulfill several of the expectations of being a king in Westeros. He cannot be a fighter; he has shown no interest in leading armies, and has been a character people find more off-putting than admirable.

The article includes a discussion of how the Holy Roman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, two historical elective monarchies, worked (and didn’t work). Read the Whole Thing.