So, Quentin Tarantino has made a film about the so-called “Manson Murders”. It had to happen. Tarantino and Manson are perfectly matched, even down to the love of the N-word. But just what IS the enduring appeal of, the fascination with Charles Manson? I‘ve asked myself that question a hundred times, and been asked it as many. After all, I wrote a book “about” him, even if it was really more about me and all my unmade film scripts (including a Manson musical).
Essentially, I think, the appeal comes down to the involvement of the minor but attractive actress Sharon Tate and the Roman Polanski connection. Beyond that, there’s the link to the Beatles, and the Beach Boys, whose Never Learn Not To Love (see link in sidebar) started life as a Manson song. If Charlie’s acolytes hadn’t gone to Cielo Drive on that fateful night, and had just continued to waste minor drug dealers and failed/wannabe actors instead, we would be none the wiser. Sharon Tate would have had her baby, and given up acting (to which she only ever had a tenuous relationship at best) while Roman Polanski would have been marginally better adjusted, and might not have drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977. But the Family did go, they did kill, and – since Hollywood loves nothing better than talking about itself – film-makers, actors, musicians, gonzo journalists and lawyers (wannabe actors, in other words) have been keeping the story alive ever since. A lot of self-absorbed people – people like Mia Farrow – kicked up a lot of fuss about how they felt scared to go out of the house (or even stay in the house) while the rock stars who had known Manson, however tangentially – Dennis Wilson, David Crosby, Neil Young – heaved a collective sigh of “there but for the grace of God….” The grumpy old Canadian heaved the loudest sigh of all, on his brilliant Revolution Blues, from the brilliant On The Beach album. Here he is, playing it live in 2016:
I stumbled across prosecutor Vincent Buglisoi’s book Helter Skelter as an impressionable 14-year-old and I was suitably spellbound. Around the same time I also stumbled on Polanski and such similarly horrific films as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Dance of the Vampires (in which the most horrific thing is Sharon Tate’s performance). I already knew The White Album, the Beatles record on which Manson based his entire crazy philosophy of race war, so it all fitted together and kind of made sense (my interest in Manson, that is, not his ideas, which are about as far from sense as the “ideas” of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage).
The Manson murders more or less immediately prompted a slew of terrible, low-budget exploitation pics (I Drink Your Blood, The Other Side of Madness, The Manson Massacre, Deathmaster and, inevitably, a film of Helter Skelter). Then another eight years passed before the cycle started again, with Manson Family Movies, Summer Dreams, The Manson Family and – into the new millennium – My Name Is Evil, Haunting Charles Manson, House of Manson and the surprisingly charming Manson Family Vacation, which is at least funny and intelligent and doesn’t recreate the murders. Let’s hope Tarantino goes down that road!
Somewhere in all of this is an opera by the modern classical composer John Moran, featuring Iggy Pop in the Vincent Bugliosi role, which is very hard to track down but does exist on CD for devotees of the unlistenable (Stravinsky and Elbow fans take note). Then of course came the post-millenial novels (Emma Cline’s The Girls, Alison Umminger’s American Girls) a TV series (Aquarius) a podcast (You Must Remember This) (must we?) and another wave of newspaper articles and blog posts, of which this is obviously one more. And still people trot out the same old rubbish about Manson signalling the end of the hippy dream, as if the absorption of the counterculture into the mainstream hadn’t begun long before Manson, or the bad acid, or the Vietnam War or the Democratic Convention in Chicago (1968, a year before Manson hit the headlines).
Anyways, the dream never died, it took root and flourished in the 1970s, at least in the UK. Ah, the 70s. Time of communes (for those who like that sort of thing) gay lib (ditto) women’s lib (ditto) vegetarianism, legal possession of magic mushrooms, job satisfaction, decent affordable housing, decent affordable gigs, free festivals, free school milk… but I digress. Tarantino may yet surprise us. I‘ve been saying for years that he should hang up his guns and do something different, like Scorsese did with Age of Innocence and Kundun. Oh, wait, that was a terrible mistake! No, Quentin, stick to what you know! Give us another big-budget version of a video nasty, one that’s seductively-shot, moderately well-acted, and fashionably scored (plundering your extensive record collection, which is even bigger than mine). Throw in lots of knowing, post-modern dialogue. Just try to go easy on the blood-letting, maybe. There’s no way on earth anyone should attempt to portray the murder of Sharon Tate and her unborn baby for mere entertainment.
Here’s a suggestion – why don’t we all ignore Tarantino? I mean, he looks like Roger Federer with bad hair and sounds like a gibbering cokehead whose over-indulgent moneyed parents have given him the keys to Santa’s grotto. Read the summary of my unmade Manson musical instead. It forms the final chapter of my magnum opus, 68½ – MOVIES, MANSON & ME. You can download it from the link on the right, and go straight to the end. Or you can read the whole thing. You might understand Manson a bit better by the end. You’ll certainly understand me a lot more. Alternatively, read about one of Tarantino’s favourite films (and a big influence on Once Upon A Time…?) the criminally under-rated Pretty Maids All In A Row, by clicking the link below:
PS (July 2019) I just saw the trailer for Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and I’ve got to say, it looks good. Come back, Quentin – all is forgiven. Well, not quite all…. I still think The Hateful Eight sucks.