“Phoenix Rising” is an outcry. In the two-part documentary series, actress Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld) opens up about the abuse she allegedly suffered during her four-year relationship with shock rocker Marilyn Manson.
It is by no means the first of its kind. In the course of #MeToo, countless cases of sexual assault – a large part of them from showbiz – have become known. Numerous victims finally felt safe enough to speak up. Their stories are sometimes used on film. Sometimes with more, sometimes with less sensitivity. The pop culture processing of the debate has certainly contributed to a greater public awareness of everyday sexism. However, it remains questionable how great the learning effect actually is in dealing with such accusations.
The Amber Heard case has shown it once again. Regardless of what really happened in the marriage to Johnny Depp: The process was reduced to the size of tasteless trash entertainment in a very short time, and a kind of modern witch hunt for the actress broke out on social media. It seemed as if a wide audience had just been waiting to finally be able to defend a screen hero against allegations of abuse and the threat of banishment from the entertainment business associated with it.
The important issue of domestic violence quickly fell behind – and the malice that spilled over Amber Heard will certainly not make it easier for those affected to go public in the future.
The pitfalls of showbiz
Whether the documentary series, directed by Amy Berg (“Deliver Us from Evil”), will help the #MeToo movement – or at least not harm it – is no small question in this newly charged atmosphere, which seems to be showing the first signs of oversaturation. The answer to that is: It’s complicated.
“Phoenix Rising” does a lot of things right. This is mainly due to the fact that there is enough contextualization in the two almost one and a half hour episodes. After an opening sequence in which Wood, with friend and activist Ilma Gore, comments on old diary entries from the time they got to know Marilyn Manson, “Phoenix Rising” dares a leap into their childhood.
Fed with archival footage, private family photos and surprisingly candid interviews with Wood’s father, mother and brother, the documentary series explores the turbulent marriage of the actress’ parents and, in the process, illustrates how arguments and psychological terror became part of normal relationship behavior early on .
More importantly, by looking into the past, “Phoenix Rising” sheds light on Wood’s early difficult experiences in the entertainment industry. After his first roles at the age of only five, Wood’s breakthrough came with the scandal-ridden film “Thirteen”.
However, the early success came with a high price: The actress describes how uncomfortable she felt on the set as a fourteen-year-old when she had to exchange kisses with a partner twice her age – and how she suddenly felt that after the sexually charged youth drama about drug and alcohol excesses image of a problem teenager, a wicked Lolita.
“Phoenix Rising” is outcry and reckoning
“Phoenix Rising” is not just an outcry, but also a systematic reckoning: with the structural problems of a showbiz that first sexualizes (too) young women in order to then stigmatize them for that image – and thus educate them to become the perfect victim.
The documentary series is particularly strong when it deals with the legal grievances surrounding domestic violence. Wood played a key role in the implementation of the Phoenix Act, which increased the statute of limitations for such cases from three to five years.
Together with other people affected, she actually campaigned for a ten-year period – also because victims only feel safe enough to take action against the perpetrators many years later. Unfortunately, the scenes in which Berg devotes himself to this topic are scattered a little too sparsely – just to be relevant enough for the title.
The Lolita with the heart-shaped glasses
Which leads to the weaknesses of “Phoenix Rising”. First and foremost, these lie in the visual implementation of what has been mentioned. Not only the retrospective in Wood’s childhood and youth is sometimes told via an animation in which the actress is irritatingly portrayed as an “Alice in Wonderland”-like character with oversized eyes.
The first encounter of the then 18-year-old with Marilyn Manson, who was twice her age, and how Wood literally “gets into his clutches” are also illustrated in this way: The singer is portrayed as an oversized, sinister octopus who puts his arms around her.
On the one hand, the aforementioned dubious Lolita image is reproduced and, on the other hand, the topic is robbed of its seriousness by a Disney-like, simplified counterpart of children’s book heroine and villain.
The presentation of the individual steps through which Manson Wood is said to have manipulated also seems unnecessarily dubious. Keywords such as “grooming”, “love bombing” and “isolation” appear before Wood’s remarks together with short definitions – in the style of a fairy tale book, of all things.
The recourse to this imagery is all the more disconcerting given the fact that Manson himself flirted with the childish image of his much younger partner during their relationship. When they first met, he is said to have raved about her performance in “Thirteen” and told her about his film project “Phantasmagoria” about Lewis Carroll – the creator of “Alice in Wonderland” is still said to have pedophilic tendencies.
What’s more, in the music video for 2006’s dedicated Heart-Shaped Glasses, Wood can be seen wearing the iconic heart-shaped sunglasses that lead actress Sue Lyon wears in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. “I was raped on camera,” she says of the shoot. Instead of just playing the sex game, Manson is said to have actually penetrated her, contrary to the mutual agreement.
The end of an idol
But even if Wood’s report is partly questionably illustrated – the narrative structure of the documentary series is all the more powerful. The depictions of the individual stages of escalation are stringent – her explanations of how she became increasingly dependent on Manson and how their relationship was increasingly characterized by psychological and sexual violence.
Probably also to take the wind out of the sails of criticism of the credibility of their allegations, there is a particularly painful sequence at the beginning of the second episode, in which several ex-boyfriends and former employees of the musician come together and report on experiences that coincide with Woods.
Again and again there is verbal and physical humiliation – like scarification – to the point of rape and broken bones. And finally: death threats and attempts at blackmail when one of his victims tried to evade him. This is one of the reasons why Wood only named the perpetrator – Brian Warner, as Marilyn Manson’s real name is – at the beginning of 2021.
However, the argumentation of the documentary series becomes precarious when Marilyn Manson’s art is used for the “evidence”. The musician’s old concert performances or music video snippets can be seen repeatedly, which more or less self-explanatory are intended to underline his readiness to use violence. True to the motto: “You should have known it.”
Without wanting to bring up the old debate about whether one can separate artist and work from one another: if one follows this guiding principle, one places (pop) culture, which deals with the dark aspects of life, under general suspicion. Then one automatically assumes that creative people who use a similarly martial aesthetic or devote themselves to dark themes have a penchant for violence or a dubious moral compass. Nothing would be more inimical to art than such a conclusion.
The start of a new mud fight?
Although no final judgment can be made without a legal review of what exactly happened between Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood: At the end of the approximately two and a half hour documentary series, the impression can be made that the relationship was characterized by various forms of abuse and Marilyn Manson too tyrannical behavior towards other people around him, no longer negate it.
In the end, “Phoenix Rising” is not just an outcry and reckoning – but also an impertinence. A particularly painful impertinence for all those who have been fans of his art for years and now have to accept the fact that they can count one less exceptional artist among their idols. An impertinence that is particularly worth seeing at the same time, because it embeds the Marilyn Manson case in structural grievances that make encroaching behavior like his possible in the first place.
Nonetheless, after “Phoenix Rising” there is the unpleasant feeling of having attended an entertainment of domestic violence in this case as well. In no way comparable to the spectacle surrounding the trial of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp – but ultimately an entertainment production, with a glossy finish.
One may ask oneself whether this harms the seriousness of the topic. What options other than a media work-up would have remained for Evan Rachel Wood to defend herself against her alleged tormentor after the alleged acts have long since become statute-barred, as well.
What is certain is that events are far from over: in response to the documentary series, Marilyn Manson sued Evan Rachel Wood and Ilma Gore in March 2022 for inflicting mental distress and defamation. It could all boil down to a similar mud fight as in the Depp vs. Heard case. You don’t want to hope so.
The two-part documentary “Phoenix Rising” will be broadcast on Sky in Germany from June 24, 2022.