As a fan of the unfairly maligned Boxing Helena, and a fan of her dad’s films, I had to see Surveillance. And what a treat this turned out to be. The first half of the film features all the signature Lynch family-values weirdness amongst a cast of the most unlikely police officers and FBI investigators, on the case of a brutal crime not at first fully revealed. But the characters featured are either so damaged, inscrutable, or immoral, they make you deeply uncomfortable and your empathy just cannot settle anywhere but upon the little girl, the survivor of the crime. It’s like walking into a room and realising everyone has been talking about you. The second half unrolls one outrage after another so quickly, it’s actually hard to process just how mangled and amoral, in that they have no boundaries at all, the people in this world are. At the end I turned to my girlfriend and said, “That’s some freaky-assed shit, right there.” She agreed. The film has one gigantic twist that will make your head turn 360 – though for the first time in my entire life I actually worked it out ahead of the reveal. And I think it was because the entire film kept screaming “there is something not right here” at me, which made me go into a second-guess mode. A brilliant film – in the same weird noir vein as the unforgettable Romeo’s Bleeding, The Last Seduction and Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead. Close to being film of the year for me, tied with District 9.
On a similar Americana dysfunction culture kick, I finally blew the dust off my copy of Helter Skelter and read it. Helter Skelter is perhaps the most famous true crime book after Capote’s Cold Blood (which I thought tedious), and essential background reading for the novel I am working on now. And I have to say Helter Skelter is the most gripping police procedural read I have encountered outside of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. What I found particularly interesting in the prosecution’s case (the prosecutor is one of the authors) is the importance of motive to a jury. No matter how compelling the evidence, without a motive believable to ordinary people, a jury can find it hard to accept the accused committed the crime. With less evidence and a strong apparent motive, a jury seems more likely to convict. Motive is circumstantial, but circumstantial evidence is clearly important to the mindset of the jury. I think readers, just like jurors, need psychological reactions and motives to be ‘authentic’. I admit, there is little as frustrating in fiction as a character (or an entire cast) who does not react in a plausible way to the events of the story in which they have been cast. Writers take note: keep it real. In 1969, the prosecutor of Charles Manson (aka Jesus Christ) and the Family, had to convince middle-aged, middle-class Americans that seven people were murdered (including a pregnant woman) in cold blood across two nights, and randomly by strangers in order to bring about a race war called Helter Skelter, as foretold in Beatles lyrics on The White Album and reinforced by the Book of Revelations and the Church of Scientology. And the murders had to be committed before Charlie Manson led the Family down a hole in the desert, where they would live in a cave of gold beside a river of milk and honey to wait out Helter Skelter. The prosecution had prints, a murder weapon, witnesses, and corroboration, but a motive? Now who in 1969 would believe this motive beside the tripped-out hippies in Haight-Ashbury? Today we wouldn’t blink, but 40 years ago …
Recently, I also devoured the excellent novel, Sway by Zachary Lazar, that explores the evocation and invocation of occult forces in the late sixties, as understood by Kenneth Anger’s creative vision in film. Before the Manson family’s first act of murder, the death of Brian Jones, and the stabbing at a Rolling Stone’s concert, Kenneth Anger foretold in ritual magic and surrealism, and then observed close-at-hand, the end of the Summer of Love and the beginning of a new psychic dark age. This novel is a fascinating imaginative investigation into the first incarnation of the Stones, the curious figure of Kenneth Anger (who reminded me so much of Francis Bacon, the English painter), his Manson-family lover, Bobby Beausoleil, and the late sixties in America. In fact, I’d say this was one of the very best fictional treatments of the pure design, purpose and role of the occult I have yet read. It’ll take patient reader, but is worth every minute spent between its absorbing pages.