Book review: ‘Real subject of Tate biography is Charles Manson’s twisted family’

SharonTate

My first book review in a few months recently ran in the Sunday Buffalo News.

It is nearly impossible to look at the image of Sharon Tate and not think about the slaughter that ended her life. That undeniable truth presents a major obstacle for any biographer. Everything that comes before her encounter with Charles Manson’s doe-eyed acolytes – her early days as a model and actress, her marriage to filmmaker Roman Polanski, her glamorous life in the public eye – feels like a grim coming attraction to the sad feature presentation.

Clearly, the public narrative of Sharon Tate’s life, sadly, is focused solely on her ending. And in many ways, the latest Tate biography is more of the same. However, “Sharon Tate: A Life” by Ed Sanders is not really about the life of Sharon Tate – despite its title. The doomed icon is instead an entry point for a chilling dive into a fantasia of violence, sex, drugs, and celebrity.

As a biography of Sharon Tate, then, Sanders’ book is a failure. As a gripping, comprehensive, relentlessly involving revisiting of the Manson murders, however, it is a stunner. Once Sanders turns his attention from Tate’s life and career to the story of her death, “Sharon Tate: A Life” becomes the most engrossing read I’ve encountered in 2016.

Before then, we have the standard chronicle of Tate’s life: Success in beauty pageants during her youth, discovery by producer Martin Ransohoff, stardom in “Valley of the Dolls,” falling in love with Polanski during the filming of “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”

Sanders – who wrote of Manson in the bestseller “The Family” – does unearth some unique, very personal details I’ve not come across before. For example, the first meeting between Polanski and Tate’s father Paul, aka “The Colonel,” was a telling view into the couple’s unconventional relationship:

“She’s too nice,” Polanski told Tate’s father. “I’ve been trying to toughen her up.”

“I wouldn’t try too hard,” he replied. “She doesn’t get mad too often, but when she does, oh, son, you better watch out. And when she’s done with you, then you’ve got me to reckon with.”

The author certainly captures the slightly menacing vibe of the time, especially as we draw closer to “that fatal night.” Anyone who has read “Helter Skelter” or watched any of the dramatic recreations of the Manson story knows the broad strokes of what comes next. But the skilled Sanders brings the era to vivid life. It all starts on page 115, in a chapter titled, with chilling blankness, “1969: Cielo Drive and Pregnancy.”

Sanders recounts the murders with fascinating detail, including the killers’ strange life at the Spahn ranch and the backstory of the small gathering at the Polanski household that night. It all culminates, of course, in a nightmare:

“Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were chatting in Sharon’s bedroom when the knife stabbed into the gray screen, slicing an entrance into the empty nursery at the far end of the house.”

The remainder of the book is a chronicle of real-life horror and its aftermath. And it’s enormously effective.

There are significant issues with “Sharon Tate: A Life,” and they start with the title. This is a book about death, not life. And as stated previously, Tate feels like a secondary character in her own story. At times the focus is so removed from Tate herself that things feel slightly disrespectful.

The illustrations by Rick Veitch don’t help matters. The work of the underground comic artist is generally fascinating, but here feels overly cartoony. A final illustration depicting Tate clutching her unborn baby in the clouds (called “Sharon in the Sky”) is particularly silly.

Interestingly, there was a very strong book about Sharon Tate released last year, one that focused on her life, rather than her death. “Sharon Tate: Recollection” is a lush, gorgeously composed visual appreciation by her sister, Debra, that restores Tate to her rightful place as the vibrant style icon of her era. This bold, bracing approach divorces her from the too-often-used classification of “Manson victim.” Debra Tate rescues her sister from being known by many as simply a casualty.

One image in particular – a shot of pregnant Tate in 1969, wearing a black headband – carries more emotional weight than any moment in “Sharon Tate: A Life.” She appears breathtakingly alive, a stunning force of power and beauty.

Comparatively, the Tate that appears in Sanders’ book is constantly surrounded by danger. She is emotionally scarred and threatened at all counts by a system that saw her only as a sex symbol. She is quite simply, doomed, and her collision with the Manson family feels almost predestined.

Was her murder, in fact, predestined? Was it a wrong-place, wrong-time scenario? Was Tate chosen? These questions haunt us, and Sanders. The author saves his final flourish for the afterword, nine pages of mind-detonating theories, rumors, and could-bes. It sent me racing to google “English Satanists,” and, typically, more dead-ends.

The book ends with Sanders reaching out to Charles Manson himself via letters. Sanders asks several key questions, but of course, these pleas go unanswered. This hammers home a sad truth. We’ll never really know why Sharon Tate was massacred. As Sanders puts it, “So far, no answer, no phone call.”

Interestingly, the finale successfully turns the focus back to Tate. The sad miasma of conspiracy theories that make up the afterword are, in a way, the author’s attempt at understanding and rationalizing something that can never be understood or rationalized. Whatever led to the murders, Sanders believes, is secondary to the result. In the end, it’s the deaths of Sharon Tate and her friends that truly matter:

“[E]ven though the world moves on, decade after decade, that does not prevent loose ends flapping in the multi-decade breeze, and no loose ends can prevent our sense of outrage and anger for the horrible injustice perpetrated upon Sharon Tate and her friends.”

In “Sharon Tate: A Life,” Ed Sanders brings that horrible injustice to life once more. Even if he fails to capture the life force that made Tate one of the 20th century’s most tragic icons, he succeeds in shedding new light on the horrors of 1969. This is true crime lit at its most grimly compelling.

From the April Spree: BNFF, Brando, Brazil, Holzman, and Hot Docs

TIFF Kids International Film Festival; PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

TIFF Kids International Film Festival; PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

I just realized my Coming Attractions column in the May Buffalo Spree will be posted on BuffaloSpree.com in a few days, and I’ve not posted my April column. There are still a few days left this month to enjoy these screenings, so take a look.

April was once considered a quiet time before the summer movie season, but it’s now the launch pad for dull fare like Fast Five and Captain America: Winter Solider. This year is no exception, with Disney’s live-action Jungle Book and a ho-hum quasi-sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman set to drop. Happily, it’s also busy with cinema series, screenings, and even film festivals, in WNY and beyond.

Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival (BNFF): 

Local festivals come and go, but Bill Cowell’s Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival—along with its eclectic approach—is a survivor. This year, there are over 100 features, documentaries, and shorts from Western New York and around the world, as well as workshops, a comic-con day, and a fallen soldier commemoration featuring portraits by Kaziah Hancock. Special premieres include Stanley Isaacs’ new documentary, It’s Always About the Story: Conversations With Alan Ladd Jr. (producer of BraveheartThe Man in the Iron Mask, and Gone Baby Gone) and a twenty-year reunion premiere of Larry Bishop’s Mad Dog Time(starring Diane Lane, Burt Reynolds, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Idol, Rob Reiner, among others).

April 1–2 at Barton Hill Hotel & Spa, Lewiston; April 13–17 at the Tonawanda Castle (check thebnff.com or call 693-0912 for times and information)

Kid-Friendly Classic Film Series: Dipson Theatres began its family film series in February with a heavyweight (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), and starts April with two underrated gems, A Little Princess (Apr. 2) and The Iron Giant (Apr. 9). Two more high-profile affairs follow in Shrek (Apr. 16) and School of Rock (Apr. 23), and the month finishes with Wes Anderson’s delightful Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (Apr. 30). While some might quibble with the “classic” label on a few of these (Rango and The Lorax are classics?), it’s an affordable—just $4—Saturday morning option.

10 a.m. at the Dipson Eastern Hills Cinema, 4545 Transit Rd., Williamsville; dipsontheatres.com 

Kaleidotropes—David Holzman’s Diary: My days as a media study major at the University at Buffalo opened up to me an entire world of film (and video) art, and few of these made a greater impact on me than David Holzman’s Diary. Jim McBride’s 1967 satirical mockumentary still packs a dark comic punch. Diary is a perfect pick for Squeaky Wheel’s fab Kaleidotropes series.

7 p.m. on Apr. 27 at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Arts Center, 617 Main St.; squeaky.org

Buffalo Film Seminars: Is this the best month in Buffalo Film Seminars history? It’s possible. The opportunity to see Spike Lee’s epic Malcolm X (Apr. 5), the stunning Waltz With Bashir (Apr. 19), and Michael Haneke’s devastating Amour (Apr. 26) in the company of Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian is hard to pass up. But the real treat is Beau Travail (Apr. 12), an adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd from the great Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum, Bastards). A tale of sexual repression among soldiers in the French Foreign Legion, Beau Travail features one of the great endings in cinema history, actor Denis Lavant’s solo dance to Eurodance thumper “Rhythm of the Night.” The discussion after this one should be fascinating.

7 p.m. at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; csac.buffalo.edu/bfs.html

Burchfield Penney Art Center: BPAC’s ambitious (and free) “History of Terrorism” banner begins April with one of the best of 2002, Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (Apr. 7). It’s a brutal, unforgettable film that interweaves several stories involving organized crime among young gangs in 1970s Brazil. Netflix drama Narcos and 2010 Mexican drama El Infierno follow on Apr. 21 and 28, respectively. Plus, this month the Beyond Boundaries: Dare to be Diverse Film Series features Up Heartbreak Hill (Apr. 14), a documentary about one year in the lives of three Native American teens.

6:30 p.m.; 1300 Elmwood Ave.; burchfieldpenney.org

TCM Big Screen Classics—On the Waterfront: The Marlon Brando documentary Listen to Me Marlon was one of 2015’s most acclaimed. Watch it, and then experience his still-stunning performance as dockworker Terry Malloy as Turner Classic Movies presents Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

2 and 7 p.m. on Apr. 24 and 27 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville; fathomevents.com

TIFF Kids International Film Festival: The annual Toronto International Film Festival is a cinephile must each September, and the TIFF Kids International Film Festival is a fun offshoot. Last year, the fest featured greats like When Marnie Was There and Shaun the Sheep; check tiff.net for upcoming news on the nineteenth annual installment.

Apr. 8-24; details TBA; tiff.net

Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road: While April sees a number of real gems gracing WNY screens, I don’t think anything tops the Wim Wenders retrospective hitting the Dipson Amherst Theatre. The prolific German filmmaker has been creating fascinating films since the seventies, and this four-film series features several of his most important works. Starting with 1976’s Kings of the Road (7 p.m., Apr. 7), the series continues with the great Harry Dean Stanton-starrer Paris, Texas (7 p.m., Apr. 14) and the gorgeous Wings of Desire (7 p.m., Apr. 21). The final screening is downright newsworthy. The five-hour director’s cut of 1991’s Until the End of the World (12:30 p.m., May 1) has been rarely seen, and is considered a drastic improvement over the 158-version released to theaters. In any form, World is one of his most ambitious efforts, but the director’s cut of this a globe-trotting tale set in 1999 is a cinephile must-see.

Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; dipsontheatres.com

Cultivate Cinema Circle: The spring season for the Cultivate Cinema Circle series features some real gems, including Jacques Demy’s perfect 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort and Werner Herzog’s latest documentary. On April 16, the series features director Brandon Loper’s “love letter to, and meditation on, specialty coffee,” A Film About Coffee. The free screening is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at the Buffalo Central Library. It’s the first film of CCC’s Public Espresso-themed trilogy about coffee and Constructivism. Next up is I Am Belfast, at 9:30 p.m. on April 28 at the North Park Theatre. Tickets for Mark Cousins’ film about Northern Ireland’s capital are $9.50. Note that the film was shot by frequent Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle. That means Belfast is most certainly a visual stunner.

cultivatecinemacircle.com

North Park Theatre: Leave it to the North Park to find new ways to top itself. One of the theater’s delights is its ongoing Family Matinee Series, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki (director of animated classics My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away) have been highlights. One of the Studio Ghibli legend’s strangest and most fascinating efforts, Porco Rosso, screens at 11:30 a.m. on April 2 and 3. Yes, the film is centered on an anthropomorphic pig. But this is Miyazaki, so the results are unimaginably glorious. And at 7 p.m. on April 22 the North Park hosts the world premiere of The American Side, the Buffalo- and Niagara Falls-shot film directed by Jenna Ricker. (She co-wrote Side with Greg Stuhr.) It stars Matthew Broderick, Janeane Garofalo, and Robert Forster.

1428 Hertel Ave.; northparktheatre.org

The Screening Room: It’s a month of pleasures at Amherst’s Screening Room, and it all starts with The Fly—the original, from 1958—at 7:30 p.m. on April 1, 2, 3, and 5. Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is set for 7:30 p.m. on April 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, and 16. Back to the Future recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, and screens at 7:30 p.m. on April 13 and 17. Also this month is some horror, featuring the local film Johnny Revolting vs. the Undead, at 5 p.m. on April 3; some zaniness, with Don Knotts and Tim Conway in The Private Eyes on April 23, 26, and 29; and director from Stratford, some Shakespeare, with Hamlet screening on April 28 and 30.

3131 Sheridan Dr., Amherst; screeningroom.net

Riviera Theatre: There’s something for everyone—literally—at the Riviera in April. First is the wonderful seventh film in the Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens at 8 p.m. on April 1. The beloved (by some) Bette Midler tearjerker Beaches is next, at 7:30 p.m. on April 14. The Riviera’s Family Film Series presents The Land Before Time on April 17 and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on April 24. Both films screen at 2 p.m. Lastly, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is set for 7:30 p.m. on April 28.

67 Webster St., N.Tonawanda; rivieratheatre.org

Also screening this month …

  • The Shea’s Free Family Film Series presents 2003’s handsome, unjustly forgotten Peter Pan, starring Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. (2 p.m. at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.; sheas.org)
  • The Roycroft Film Society screens Bong Joon-ho’s dark South Korean drama Mother. (4 p.m. on Apr. 10 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Ave., East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)
  • The Dipson Amherst Theatre presents the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Don Quixote and the Royal Opera House’s production of Puccini’s Tosca on the big screen. (Quixote: 12:55 p.m. on Apr. 10; Tosca: 11 a.m. on Apr. 24; at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; dipsontheatres.com)
  • Toronto’s Hot Docs is North America’s largest documentary festival. (Apr. 28-May 8; details TBA;hotdocs.ca)
  • The Rochester International Film Festival features short films from around the world. (Apr. 14-16 at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House International Museum of Film and Photography, Rochester;rochesterfilmfest.org)

Review: James Franco’s short stories probe youthful angst in ‘Yosemite’

140033-1024x768

I reviewed “Yosemite,” a film based on costar James Franco’s short stories, for the Buffalo News. I gave it 3 stars.

Say what you will about the ludicrously overextended James Franco, but never deny his ambition. What other young male actor would star in a re-creation of the sexually explicit deleted scenes from 1980’s “Cruising,” play himself in the “Veronica Mars” feature, and direct a movie about the creation of Tommy Wiseau’s epicly awful cult hit “The Room”?

Yes, only Franco has the chutzpah, for better or worse, to tackle such a head-spinningly diverse selection of projects. If his starring role in Hulu’s soon-to-debut Stephen King adaptation “11.22.63” is a shout, Gabrielle Demeestere’s intimate drama “Yosemite” must be termed a whisper.

Showing from Feb. 5 to 11 in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst), “Yosemite” is based on two short stories written by Franco and features the actor in a small role.

While not as emotionally resonant as 2014’s “Palo Alto,” the teen drama based on a collection of Franco’s short stories, “Yosemite” shares that film’s appreciation of the somber minutiae of adolescent life.

Set in 1985 Palo Alto, Calif., “Yosemite” is centered around a trio of fifth-graders, all in the same class, all deeply rooted in a fractured suburban existence. Hovering over the film is the hunt for a mountain lion that is on the prowl, and giving pause to every child and adult in the area.

We are introduced to Chris (Everett Meckler) on an overnight trip with his recovering alcoholic father (Franco) and younger brother. The relationship between child and adult feels suitably forced; clearly, there is a distance between Chris and his old man.

Joe (Alec Mansky) is a quiet, sullen comic book fan whose parents are no longer together after a family tragedy. He was once close with classmate Ted (Calum John), but now the two are at odds.

All three of the young leads are natural, convincing actors. Perhaps the most involving character of the bunch is Alec Mansky’s Joe, a boy clearly in search of guidance and friendship.

He finds it, to some degree, from Henry (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis and the talented lead of Gus Van Sant’s offbeat 2011 film “Restless”). This loner with a stack of comics encourages Joe to read the superhero tales aloud, and seems curiously concerned with his safety.

But like most relationships in the film, there is an undercurrent of danger. There is a definite lack of follow-through on several fronts, specifically the relationship between Henry and Joe. Is he a predator? Is his interest in Joe unhealthy? Demeestere never answers these questions, and that’s clearly intentional.

In fact, the interactions between the three fifth-graders and the adults are all fraught with tension. Even the seemingly normal relationship of Ted and his insomniac father, an early user of the Internet, is, to say the least, strange. (Pay close attention to the text on the computer screen.)

The minefields of youth are clearly of interest to Franco, and Demeestere does a fine job of showing just how difficult life is for all three kids. Even Ted, the most nondescript of the bunch, suffers the loss of a pet (possibly to the mountain lion).

For all its modest successes, “Yosemite” cannot help but feel sleight. Just 80 minutes long, the film always is intriguing, but does not lead anywhere profound. There is a spiritual undercurrent that is especially pronounced in its closing scenes, but like the Joe-Henry relationship, never quite pays off.

Still, Demeestere’s work here is impressive. This small-scale drama is visually arresting and worthy of contemplation, and shows her to be a filmmaker on the rise.

Just her first feature, “Yosemite” is a strange, involving, very quiet film, and whatever it lacks in theatrics it makes up for with mood. It is another unexpected foray for Franco, and while it may garner less press than something like the high-profile “11.22.63,” it deserves an audience.