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A reader suggested that I review this oddity, so it’s with a tinge of sadness that I report that I don’t like it very much. This hodgepodge of conspiracy theories, urban legends, magical realism, cult consumerism, and synchronicity is essentially a hipster version of The X-Files with a self-consciously quirky and ironic millennial spin. Ne’er-do-well protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) becomes obsessed with secret messages in popular culture after reading a cheesy zine called Under the Silver Lake. Strange occurrences start to haunt the befuddled hero as he combs Los Angeles hunting for clues, seeking the ultimate profundity of it all, and also tries to track down elusive inamorata Sarah (Riley Keough), who is apparently supposed to be some kind of fascinating woman of mystery but just seems like a dumb and gross pothead to me. Amplifying my annoyance with this movie is that, at 139 minutes, it’s so goddamned long and just keeps getting less and less interesting as it progresses. Maybe it’s only that I’ve become a middle-aged fogey, but fuck this movie, altogether a disappointing non-delivery on the promise of writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s previous effort, the superior horror outing It Follows (2014).

3 out of 5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Under the Silver Lake is:

Pro-drug. Sam and Sarah bond over weed and a movie after a meet-cute occasioned by dog poop.

Anti-Alt-Media. As much as Under the Silver Lake might like to market itself as an homage to conspiracy lore and to find an audience among extremely online devotees of hidden history and various autistica, the filmmakers’ condescension is plainly in evidence. The characterization of the pop music industry as an establishment contrivance, of course, has some validity; but, mixed as it is with whimsy about underground tunnels decorated with Egyptian ephemera and guarded by hobo initiates, the brief whiff of truth here and there in this movie is most often overpowered by the stench of bullshit. Sam – whom production designer Michael Perry describes in the DVD extras as a “conspiracy nut” – is a kidult who still plays video games and seems incapable of managing his life. Unconcerned that his rent and car payments are overdue, he instead spends his money in a bookstore or a bar or orders a pizza, the responsibilities of life apparently being beneath him. This representative conspiracy researcher is also a dope smoker for whom, in Perry’s words, “everything’s connected. So we have the Kennedy assassination, World War II, aliens” – dissident investigation of political murders or the facts of the Second World War apparently being on par status-wise with UFOlogy. The writer behind the Under the Silver Lake zine, once Sam meets him, is a bugman whose home is filled with toys, comic books, and pornography – the preoccupations of an arrested development. Even when Sam’s investigations seem to validate his suspicion that surface reality conceals a world of secret meaning, his adventures can still be interpreted as a mere satirization of what goes on inside the heads of alternative media consumers. Under the Silver Lake is not an endorsement of the work of David McGowan, for example, but a cinematic snicker at the suckers who read him. Smug liberal consumers of corporate media will be able to view this film in the comfort of bias confirmation, their point of view personified in the screenplay by Sam’s friend played by Topher Grace. “I used to think that I was gonna be someone that, like, people cared about,” Sam complains. “Maybe do something important” – which his skeptical friend diagnoses as “narcissism and entitlement” – the qualities that presumably motivate rabbit-hole explorers and dissident researchers in the opinion of David Robert Mitchell. Sam’s friend, giving voice to the TV believers, internet conspiracy pooh-poohers, and pop psychologists in the audience, dismisses Sam’s feelings of being followed as “the modern persecution complex. Who needs witches and werewolves anymore, right? Now we have computers. I swear to God, at the very least, the entire population is suffering from mild paranoia. See, our little monkey brains, they’re not comfortable knowing that they’re all interlinked and routed together now in some kind of all-knowing, alien mind hive, and that shit is a straight-up cesspool for delusion, for fear …” In another scene – one that contributes nothing obvious to the advancement of the story – Sam catches some youngsters vandalizing cars and brutally beats them; and I can’t help but wonder if this moment, like the ones I recently spotlighted in Drunk Parents and The Prodigy, speaks to a tribal industry’s anger and anxiety about trollish young white men in the era of the Alt-Right and Trump.

Nihilistic and anti-human. One of the most off-putting things about Under the Silver Lake is that its characters are so unlikably casual and desensitized. Sam absently screws some floozie, for instance, as they watch a news broadcast, and he later turns an old man’s face into a crater, smashing his head repeatedly with a guitar – all of which the filmmakers thought I needed to see in graphic detail for some reason or other – I suppose because they think it’s funny. The casualness with which Sam and the women in his life approach their sexual relationships – the screenplay seems a bit confused as to whether the character is cool or a loser – makes his infatuation with Sarah a bit of an arbitrary head-scratcher given that there’s nothing particularly intriguing about her apart from her looks; and nightmare visions of Sarah and other women barking like dogs serve to reinforce an impression of general contempt for the trainable human animal. The revelation, too, that popular culture emanates not so much from the brilliance of revolutionary artists as from a hidden establishment with ulterior motives, contributes to a feeling of futility and despair as opposed to wonderment. Give up. You can’t win!

Rainer Chlodwig von K.

Rainer is the author of Drugs, Jungles, and Jingoism.

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.

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