Toon of the month: Old Man

Putting pictures to the words issuing from an elderly Charles Manson’s head.

Chris Robinson
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I’ve never fully understood the fascination with Charles Manson. He wasn’t the first, second or last mass murderer in human history. Perhaps it’s because the Manson murders signified (symbolically at least) the end of 60s and all the hippies’ peace, love and understanding stuff. Perhaps, too, the attention derives from our fascination with human darkness. We’re all an unharmonious mix of light and dark. Sometimes one overshadows the other; rarely does one take over completely – at least to a Manson-like extreme. So when we have an opportunity to peek inside the mind of someone who has gone over that so-called edge, we grab it.

Which brings me to Leah Shore’s short Old Man, a brash and raunchy impressionistic portrait of Manson as an old man.

After a screening of her student film Meatwaffle at the Sundance Film Festival, a producer approached Shore with an opportunity to make a film based on unreleased phone conversations between Manson and a Canadian writer named Marlin Marynick. [It’s an approach with a rich track record: compare to Josh Raskin’s Oscar-nominated 2008 I Am the Walrus, illustrating an uncovered recording of an old interview with John Lennon.]

Shore spent three months editing hours of recordings down to five minutes. She then spent another two years animating. The result is a whirling, manic visualisation of Manson’s freewheeling thoughts on life’s big questions: religion, humanity, power, good and evil and… air. Yes, air.

Manson’s freewheeling rants are gold for an inspired young animator like Shore. Her array of animation techniques and drawing styles are perfect companions to Manson’s rambling, wide-ranging monologues.

From the ambiguous title to the character design (Manson’s face is replaced throughout the film, at least until the end credits, by a scribbly black mass), Shore tries her best to be non-judgmental and to separate Charles Manson the myth from some crazy, rambling old guy. “I wanted to make it as non-judgmental as possible,” she says – “though admittedly I edited the audio, so there is some bias inherent in that – and let the viewer decide if what Manson is say is ‘sane’ or ‘good’ or ‘insane’ or ‘bad’.”

She doesn’t quite pull that off, though. On the first frame, we’re told that these conversations are Manson’s. It might have been more interesting to hold off the reveal until the end credits. That way the audience’s reactions toward the character and his thoughts might be more conflicted. Do we give more (or less) credence to his words solely because we know it’s Manson? How would we have responded if they were just the words of some anonymous old guy? As Shore discovered, “there is some significant portion of the audience that sees ‘Charles Manson’ and reflectively hates it, or hates me. It’s hard for anyone to see it as what I intended: an art piece and character analysis.”

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