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September 16, 2009

Saved! + Helter Skelter + South Park=Leslie

Observations from Day 7 of the Toronto International Film Festival

My getaway day film at TIFF was Leslie, My Name is Evil, a camp-kitsch satire I described on Twitter as a cross between Helter Skelter, Saved!, South Park, Carrie, and Forrest Gump. With maybe a dash of Rocky Horror Picture Show thrown in for good measure. "Just because I want to make out with her," one of the jurors says of the titular Manson girl, "doesn't mean I wouldn't vote to put her to death." You get the idea.

Or maybe you don't. Nothing in my description yet would indicate that the idea is this is an anti-war film, a coda underscored twice in the film (by comparing former president Richard Nixon unfavorably to Charles Manson) and reiterated by the producer and director introducing the film by invoking the deaths of Canadian citizens in the Iraq war and suggesting the film was a valentine to America because it was about a time when it was okay to express dissent. Ummm....well...okay.

I'm sympathetic to just about every idea in Leslie, My Name is Evil, though I confess I often wanted them to work together better than they did. I like nachos. I like ice cream, I like curry. Just not in the same dish.

It's hard to write succinctly about the film because there are a lot of things to talk about, some formal and some thematic. Like South Park (actually, a bit more like Team America), the film is deliberately transgressive, and so it is rather pointless to talk about whether it crossed some self-defined "line" separating the legitimately satirical from the grossly offensive. For me, I tend to care more about the perceived intention in being transgressive than I do about the exact nature of their envelope pushing. I imagine the scene that would most offend most Christian viewers (who might through some fluke find themselves in the audience unaware of what they are in for) would be a dream sequence in which protagonist Perry fantasizes about recreating a Manson ritual he has heard related in court with his naked, pious fiancee alternately lusted after and stabbed to death. That scene is so over-the-top in its stylization--and it, at least, has an underlying thematic point about repression which one may or may not agree with but can recognize--that I found it more subversive than obscene. Your mileage may vary.

Actually, the scene I had the most trouble with was the recreation of the actual murder. The victim, who was, you know, an actual historical person who really did suffer and really did die, is rendered faceless and identity-less, wrapped in an American flag so that the stabbing can have a more political than personal signification. A few years ago, I stumbled across a book that contained actual archival photographs of Jack the Ripper's crime scenes and of the autopsies of his victims. Since then, I've had a real hard time with the commercialization of true crime. Even when works of art don't glorify or romanticize the killers (and this one doesn't--Leslie and Manson both are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs) there still seems to me to be something about them that is exploitative in their co-opting of the suffering of others.

Which is a shame, maybe, because the film actually hits its mark as often as it misses. A scene in which the trial judge and district attorney discuss what euphemisms for copulation are acceptable for being said in court smartly underscores the seeming absurdity of straining at gnats while drowning in a sea of camels. There is a brief abortion back story that manages to be, somehow, both subversively pro-life and bitterly accusatory towards those who speak in terms of values but act in terms of self-interest (real or imagined). God's answer to prayer and Perry's obedience to (some of) the light that he has is one of those conclusions that can be read equally plausibly as sincere and mocking, thus encouraging viewers to think about why the implications are troublesome rather than simply being offended.

Early this week, the guy introducing Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime said, "If the film disturbs you, [the director] is doing his job." I'm not sure everyone will buy into the notion that this can be the primary purpose of film: I know I don't buy that it is the only purpose. Leslie is a bit more cartoonish than, say, Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness, more prone to present its characters as absurd rather than petty, but I could totally picture director Reginald Harkema's film playing as a double bill with Solondz's and not suffering by the comparison.

Coming Soon: Festival wrap up and best bets.

Guest blogger Kenneth R. Morefield, an English prof at Campbell University, is writing about the Toronto International Film Festival for CT Movies.

Related Tags: Leslie My Name Is Evil


Thank you so much for a sympathetic review-from a Christian site no less! The film may be a mess, but it's a challenging mess (I remember screening it at my theatre - everyone who came in invariably said "what the ****?!"). And the performances are amazing, from Ryan Robbins super-intense Charlie to Gregory Smith's Perry - going from neutral to crazy without even raisng his voice. It helps to remember director Reginald Harkema is a hard-core anarchist - his last film (A comedy! MONKEY WARFARE) showed you how to make Molotov Cocktails.