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Laurence Merrick 2

Life imitating art?

One of the many unusual figures whose life trajectory intersects with the Manson Family saga is Laurence Merrick, an Israeli Defense Forces veteran who, as critic Bryan Thomas relates at Night Flight, was sent to the U.S. in 1960 “to speak in support of Zionism, and while he was fundraising in New York City, he met his future wife, a dark-haired aspiring Broadway showgirl and wannabe actress named Joan Huntington.” From there the pair “came out to the west coast, and set up the Merrick Studio, located at 870 N. Vine St. in Hollywood, California, and for a time it was an inexpensive place for actors” – including Vietnam veterans – “to learn lessons about their craft.”

The Merricks were subsidized by the government, too, which enabled them to make a lot of money running the school. They bought a nice house in Beverly Hills and then decided to put their studio profits towards making their own movies, which they could then cast with students from the school, a win-win situation for everybody.

Laurence Merrick

Merrick, Thomas writes, is “probably best known for co-directing the legendary 1972 documentary Manson with Robert Hendrickson, which […] ended up garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature-Length Documentary.” The Israeli “was also well-known in Hollywood […] for the fact that one of his students, Sharon Tate, would later be killed by members of Manson’s Family, during August of 1969, the same year he spent fourteen days directing [the biker film] Black Angels.” Note the interesting choice of words, too, when Thomas relates that Huntington viewed her husband’s movies as “training exercises”.

A 1977 UPI article states that “Merrick became interested in the Manson Family because actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered with four friends by the group, had been a student at his school” – implying that Merrick only took an interest in Manson after the killings had taken place; but Merrick and Hendrickson had begun conducting interviews with Family members “before and after the shocking murders that rocked the nation in 1969,” Thomas indicates (italics added). As his account of the making of Black Angels tantalizes, the totality of Merrick’s involvements with this movie, Tate, and the Manson Family strains the limits of what can be dismissed as mere “synchronicity”:

In fact – in yet another example of the parallels that existed between Southern California’s biker and hippie countercultures – members of Manson’s Family would occasionally drop by Paramount Ranch, located at 2813 Cornell Road, in Agoura, California, and visit the set while Merrick and his cast and crew were filming scenes. […]

Merrick’s script focuses on two biker gangs at each other’s throats, a white motorcycle gang called Satan’s Serpents — led by Chainer (once again played by Merrick’s favorite leading man, Des Roberts) — and a black motorcycle gang, called the Choppers (their leader was played by Bobby Johnston, whose biggest role previous to this one was as a prison guard in In Cold Blood).

The film’s title, Black Angels is actually the name attributed to the highway patrolmen who observe the two rival biker gangs from a distance, waiting for the race-motivated war for turf to explode.

Merrick recruited a real black biker gang to play the Choppers in order to provide authenticity.

The main plot concerns one “Black Angel” in particular – a lieutenant for the highway patrol named Harper (Clancy Syrko, who also edited the film) – who wants to see all of the biker gangs wiped off the face of the earth, and he plots to pit the two gangs against each other so they will end up in a race war leading to both of them being destroyed. […]

Black Angels

It’s interesting to note that this film’s concept of pitting white against black in a race war, in the year 1969, is very similar in some respects to Manson’s concept which he called “Helter Skelter”, an apocalyptic war arising from racial tensions between blacks and white, which he believed was foretold in Chapter 9 of the book of Revelations in the bible (as well as hidden messages he believed he heard in the Beatles’ “Revolution #9”).

Makes you wonder what kinds of conversations they were having at Paramount Ranch between members of the cast and crew and some of Manson’s followers.

There were also many interesting cameo appearances, including a real member of Charles Manson’s gang, Mark Ross (he plays “Singer”), who later claimed to write a theme song for the film that was never used […]

The film’s tagline “God forgives, the Black Angels don’t!,” incidentally, was borrowed from the hugely successful 1967 Italian spaghetti western, God Forgives… I Don’t.

Another tagline – and perhaps another reference to Manson? – was “A portrait of the family.”

Speaking of Manson and his family, again, it was during the film’s production that Merrick was invited to head over to Spahn Ranch, with a 16mm camera, in order to film the Manson family on their own turf.

Merrick also shot footage of them at Devil’s Canyon, their Barker Ranch hideout in Death Valley, and then later – during the Manson trial – at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, in addition to other locations.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who did as much as anyone to shape the public’s perception of the Manson Family mythos, participated in the production of Merrick and Hendrickson’s documentary and appears onscreen.

Guess What Happened to Count Dracula

Des Roberts as Count Adrian in Merrick’s Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?

Merrick’s previous movie, Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?, concerns the occult, mind control, and, at least subtextually, acknowledges Jewish power in Hollywood – and it only intensifies the Tate-LaBianca resonance of Merrick’s work, even featuring a minor character named Sharon. Thomas continues:

The movie featured several of Merrick’s students in key parts, and chiefly concerned what happened to Dracula’s son, Count Adrian (Des Roberts, who plays the vampire while sporting a wicked John Carradine-style goatee). Roberts and his musical partner, Andy Wilder, also provided the film’s musical score.

The film was shot at the Magic Castle in the Hollywood Hills, a mansion built in the 1920s which had been renovated for performances by magicians.

One of Merrick’s students owned the place, and had invited Merrick and his wife over for dinner, which left a lasting impression, and when the couple began thinking of locations where they could shoot their Dracula movie, they both remembered the Magic Castle, which was just about to undergo a renovation. […]

The movie also contains a subplot straight out of the then recent box office smash Rosemary’s Baby, when one character — an actor named Guy (just as John Cassavetes’s character was in Roman Polanski’s film), played by John Landon — is all too willing to sell his soul in return for being given a successful acting career.

It’s also interesting to note that Merrick’s film features a “surprise” ending that was clearly inspired by Polanski’s previous film, 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, when Polanski’s future wife Sharon Tate sprouts fangs in the film.

According to Horrorpedia, “more obscure X-rated edits of the film [Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?], with an emphasis on male gay sex, were released as Does Dracula Really Suck? and Dracula and the Boys.”

Adding to the mystique of Merrick’s Manson documentary is the fact that it features Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme caressing a rifle and explaining, “You have to make love with it; you have to know it […] so that you could pick it up any second and shoot.” This interview took place several years before Fromme was convicted of (supposedly) having attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in Sacramento. Merry Prankster and founding Yippie Paul Krassner claims that Manson sent him a letter instructing him to get into touch with Fromme around 1971:

I called, and we arranged to meet at her apartment in Los Angeles. On an impulse, I brought several tabs of acid with me on the plane. […]

The four of us [Krassner, Fromme, and her roommates Sandra Good and Brenda McCann] ingested those little white tablets containing 300 micrograms of LSD, then took a walk to the office of Laurence Merrick, who had been associated with schlock biker exploitation movies as the prerequisite to directing a sensationalist documentary, Manson.

Squeaky’s basic vulnerability emerged as she kept pacing around and telling Merrick that she was afraid of him. He didn’t know we were tripping, but he must have sensed the vibes. He may even have gotten a touch of contact high. I engaged him in conversation about movies. We discussed the fascistic implications of The French Connection.

Was Fromme “afraid” of the Merrick from the effects of the LSD – or did she have other reasons? This brief encounter, whatever its meaning, in combination with Fromme’s participation in Merrick and Hendrickson’s Manson constitutes another Israeli connection to an eccentric piece of American political assassination drama following the various Jewish and Zionist intrigues surrounding the murder of John F. Kennedy.

Bizarrely, Merrick himself was murdered in an outrageous episode further dissolving any distinction between reality and theater. Bryan Thomas relates the bizarre incident:

Dennis MignanoThen, in 1977, Merrick’s life would intersect fatally with a potential acting student named Dennis Mignano, who – much like Manson himself – had really wanted to have a music career, but when that didn’t pan out, the struggling rock singer decided to take acting lessons.

That decision had led him straight to Merrick Studio – which by now was teaching classes in acting, directing and cinematography – where he applied to be a student.

He believed that Merrick – due to his association with Manson, bikers, and magic – was the perfect person to help him launch a successful acting career (Mignano had reportedly been obsessed with magic as a child).

Mignano filled out an application to be a student, and then was told he was eligible for government assistance to pay for his tuition, but he had to wait for three weeks for the application to be processed.

Mignano grew irritated and felt like the delay was yet another setback and a disappointment, but he waited, and while he did so he watched episodes of a 1976 TV mini-series called Helter Skelter, which just happened to be re-airing on TV.

The TV series may have played a small part in reminding him that his life was now intertwined with Merrick’s and he then became obsessed with the idea that Merrick had actually placed a curse on him.

On January 26th, 1977, he went to the school and waited in ambush for Merrick to appear in the parking lot for a few hours and then pulled out a pistol and shot 50-year old Laurence Merrick in the back.

Mignano then fled the scene, and much like the opening scene of Richard Rush’s 1980 action film The Stunt Man – which, and get this, starred actor Steve Railsback, who had played Charles Manson in the Helter Skelter mini-series – he, by pure chance, happened upon a movie being shot mere blocks away, on Willoughby Ave., and the killer blended in with the crew (just as Railsback’s character did), pretending to be part of the film production team.

Merrick, meanwhile, staggered into his office at the studio, telling his students “Some son of a bitch shot me and I don’t even know why!” Some of the students thought they were witnessing an impromptu acting exercise, but quickly realized that their teacher was dying in front of them.

Merrick was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, but he was pronounced dead within an hour. Students at the Merrick Studio Academy of Dramatic Arts said that Mignano had been hanging around the building all morning, asking them questions about Merrick and his Manson documentary.

Mignano confessed to the crime in 1981 and was confined to a mental institution. Six months after his murder of Merrick, Mignano’s sister Michele, a topless dancer, was also murdered – a case that remains unsolved. Questions about Merrick remain, as well. Why was his actors’ studio receiving government funding? Did his work on behalf of Israel end after he left New York for Los Angeles – or did it continue in some capacity as he interacted with the Manson Family and completed his films?

Rainer Chlodwig von K.

burroughs

Burroughs: The Movie (1983), one of this writer’s favorite documentaries, makes for a must-see viewing experience in its extras-packed Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.

 

Unaccountably lionized murderer, heroin addict, pedophile, absentee father, allowanced wastrel, and “novelist” William S. Burroughs receives the star treatment in Howard Brookner’s 1983 film Burroughs: The Movie. “He’s up there with the Pope, you know?” gushes unashamed Burroughs groupie Patti Smith. “You can’t revere him enough. One of the greatest minds of our times, you know?” This is typical of the bizarre affection inspired by the eccentric writer, who gave Brookner unusually candid access to his life and was generous with his time in cooperating with the production of this entertaining documentary. Others appearing in the film include Terry Southern, Herbert Huncke, and Burroughs’s assistant and “son” James Grauerholz. Crooked-mouthed creep, brain damage evangelist, and NAMBLA alumnus Allen Ginsberg, who for a time was Burroughs’s lover, offers various reminiscences and characterizes Burroughs’s killing of his wife as a kind of assisted suicide (for a dissenting account, viewers of the Criterion release have recourse to a recorded conversation between Brookner and Burroughs biographer Ted Morgan).

Twitchy-faced Burroughs, whose incoherent mutterings published under the title Naked Lunch were included on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged “classics”, is imagined by his admirers to be some species of anti-establishment rebel; but, beginning with EMI’s inclusion of the notorious reprobate on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (glamorously, right next to Marilyn Monroe), Burroughs has repeatedly been promoted as a countercultural icon for gullible youth through collaborations and endorsements from entertainment industry figures like Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Dennis Hopper, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, R.E.M., U2, and self-pitying Nirvana belly-acher Kurt Cobain. He was even introduced as “the greatest living writer in America” when he appeared on Saturday Night Live on NBC in 1981, and his books, furthermore, are published by international giant Penguin.

The contradictions of the Burroughs persona are on display throughout, the patrician features and gentlemanly manners masking an ultra-degenerate who insists, “I don’t like violence,” but constantly talks and writes about it and delights in showing off his collection of guns and exotic weaponry. Burroughs, as captured in the film, speaks with relish of his dream of death squads that will hunt down and kill heterosexuals who oppose the establishment of a “Gay State”. For all of this, however, the film remains a bit of a whitewash, making no mention, for instance, of what Jim Jarmusch diagnoses in his audio commentary as Burroughs’s hatred of women. “Burroughs would have been a great CIA agent,” Jarmusch also observes, which, if true, says little about the moral caliber of that agency’s personnel. Curiously, Burroughs actually interviewed for a position with OSS founder William “Wild Bill” Donovan himself. Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Burroughs: The Movie is altogether a fascinating portrait of one of the most contemptible human beings who ever lived.

Rainer Chlodwig von K.

 

Graduate

This evening your humble reviewer attended a screening of The Graduate, which of course has long and correctly been touted as one of the greatest and most insightfully representative films of the 1960s.  He had seen it before and now wanted to see it again, this time on the big screen, because it is instructive and (more importantly) fun to revisit the classics, particularly when the classic in question features Dustin Hoffman in his star-establishing turn, Anne Bancroft in one of the most seductive performances ever to hit the screen, plus one of the finest pop soundtracks imaginable courtesy of Simon and Garfunkel – and yet there was something a little sad and discordant about your reviewer’s experience, beginning with the quietly stark sight of the almost totally bald head of the man standing in front of him in line to buy a ticket.  Your reviewer was one of only a very few people under the age of sixty in the theater, most of those in attendance probably having seen The Graduate in its original theatrical release.  The advanced age of these human remains of the 1960s was driven home when one straggling white-haired woman bumbled in, fell in the aisle, spilled her popcorn, and cried out “Help!” after struggling futilely to raise herself.  And yet, hard as it may be to believe, these geezers once belonged to a generation of rebels – as this second film of Mike Nichols attests.

The Graduate is a film about discomfort and uncertainty.  It opens and closes with images of pensively staring Dustin Hoffman in worried transit, first sitting in an airplane on its way to Los Angeles – mid-air furnishing for the movies a perfect metaphor for transition, a physical context for soul-searching in characters temporarily suspended between two geographical points representing stances and stations in life – and finally riding in a bus with somebody else’s bride, seemingly having won the day – but to what purpose?  Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock at no point appears comfortable with himself or in his surroundings until his cathartic coming of age in the arms of Mrs. Robinson; and even after discovering and asserting his will, he appears at the end to have arrived where he started – in uncomfortable uncertainty.  The Graduate is a film about the discomfort of being young in a world dictated by the old, the growing pains of a country and a civilization breaking out in revolting countercultural acne; the discomfort of innocence confronted with corruption; and (subtextually, the protagonist’s surname notwithstanding) the discomfort of an awkward Jew in good WASP society, with Dustin Hoffman doing for the quirky Jewish nebbish what Marlon Brando did for the t-shirted blue collar macho slob in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Benjamin Braddock is a young man of few if any discernable ideals or positive ideas about the changes he would like to effect in his life and his world; he is an intelligent and even scholarly but thoughtlessly selfish person and yet heroic in his way as he attempts to find his path on a shifting emotional and societal ground.  In 1967 his generation’s rebellion was newly blooming, a work in progress, its future a glorious mystery.  Now Braddock’s bus ride of destiny is over, the revolution very nearly complete.  His generation’s leaders, once installed in the centers of cultural and political power, proceeded to usher in an era of rot and corruption worse than anything that had outraged them in their university days.  Now that the hippie is the Man, politicians are more untrustworthy than ever, young men are still shipped off to die for corporate profit in absurdly unnecessary conflicts, and crony capitalism now masquerades as progress as yesterday’s victims set themselves up as despots, the only discernable accomplishment of their druggy governance being the gradual dismantling of everything that was still right with the world before they came along, took it over, and congratulated themselves on liberating it.

Still, and as The Graduate wonderfully documents, there really was an exciting time when nobody knew where the bus was going; the journey was just beginning, the travellers were young and beautiful, the music was gently thoughtful and vividly happening, the cultural impulse seemed to be to freedom rather than cynical tyranny; and the knowledge that the bus would eventually swerve drunkenly off the road of restraint and all reason and into an abject abyss of squalor in no way diminishes the artistic achievement of The Graduate and its classmates of the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls cohort, eloquently bittersweet though certain of their triumphs may have become in retrospect.

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