Film Notes

John Roecker's 'Freaky' Puppet Show

Friday, January 27, 2006

Any movie about cult figure Charles Manson needs lots of sex, drugs and blood. But as John Roecker discovered while filming his first feature -- screening Friday and Saturday only at the Avalon -- the key to amping up the gore is an old standby: puppets.

The writer-director based "Live Freaky! Die Freaky!" on "Helter Skelter," the 1974 book by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry about the trials of Manson and his followers. Roecker's visual style, though, drew on a far different source: children's Christmas TV specials from the '60s and '70s ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" et al). That style -- using puppets and stop-motion animation -- has, he says, "a creepy aspect to it, to these things that were supposed to be entertaining to kids."

"Live Freaky!," however, is definitely not for kids. (See review on Page 39.) The movie opens in 3069, the voice-over announces, after the environment has been destroyed by global warming and pollution. When a man finds a copy of a book called "Healter Skelter" in the sand, he believes it's the story of a messiah and begins worshiping him. The rest of the action takes place in 1969, with a sex maniac named Charlie Hanson (voiced by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong) luring his followers ("the Family") into murderous schemes -- culminating in a string of slayings in Beverly Hills -- and the media circus of the ensuing trials. There are moments of dark humor and peppy song-and-dance numbers, with music by Roddy Bottom (from Faith No More) and Tim Armstrong (of Rancid).

Although Manson's story is a juicy topic, Roecker reveals another reason he used "Helter Skelter" (whose title he changed for the film): "There were so many copies of the book at thrift stores in the '70s. I was thinking this was going to be the book that would outlast everything."

The director says he wanted to show the parallels between the violence of Manson's tribe with the violence inflicted on others in the name of religion. The members of the Family feel persecuted, and they kill to "save" their victims from their own self-destruction. Roecker compares the gore in his film to that of "The Passion of the Christ," saying his movie's violence was intentionally outrageous: "I went over the top, but you can thank Mel Gibson for that."

Ultimately, though, "Live Freaky" is just puppets and fake blood. Roecker says he didn't know how hard working with puppets would be. "I like stop-motion; it's kind of a lost art," he says, adding, "Now I know why." It took two years to make the movie, a time span he partly attributes to "flaky" animators. By the end of shooting, he says, "those poor puppets -- they were falling apart." When asked why he wanted to use puppets in the first place, Roecker jokes, "We tried using blow-up sex dolls, but they kept popping."

The puppets' voices come from a crew of punk rock musicians Roecker knows from his years in the San Francisco Bay area scene. (While filming "Live Freaky," he was also working on a documentary about Green Day called "Heart Like a Hand Grenade," slated for release later this year.) Vocal talent includes Theo Kogan (Lunachicks), Jane Wiedlin (the Go-Gos) and someone named Nelly Pozbourne, described on the film's Web site as "gifted and talented and beautiful and comes from very famous parents . . . draw your own conclusions."

Roecker says that, above all, he made the film because "I wanted to look at how people deal with death" and the mixed messages about it. "Why is Henry Kissinger not in jail and Charles Manson is?" he asks. The film "is kind of exposing this hypocrisy." He concludes that when it comes to violence, "it's this kind of sick fascination that we have."

"Live Freaky! Die Freaky!" screens at the Avalon Friday and Saturday at midnight. Tickets are $9.50 for adults, $6.75 for college students, seniors and military personnel; only those 18 and older will be admitted. If you miss the screenings, you can get your own copy of the film Tuesday, when the DVD and soundtrack CD ("Two places to put your drinks," Roecker says) arrive in stores. The Avalon is at 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-966-6000 or visit http://www.theavalon.org .

Family Time

Looking for something completely different? On Saturday morning, the Avalon is showing movies for children, part of its Weekend Family Matinees series. From 2004, "Stellaluna" is based on the popular children's book by Janell Cannon. In the 41-minute movie, a young fruit bat is adopted by a family of birds after getting separated from her mother. "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is Chuck Jones's 1975 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's story from "The Jungle Book." Narrated by Orson Welles, it's about a mongoose adopted by a British family in India that protects the family from scheming cobras. Also featured is Jones's "Yankee-Doodle Cricket," about a cricket's role in the Revolutionary War. The triple bill starts at 10 a.m. Saturday; tickets are $5. The Avalon is at 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-966-6000 or visit http://www.theavalon.org .

-- Christina Talcott


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