DVD Talk reviews Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse

James Chasse Poet MusicianFrom DVD Talk, by Kurt Dahlke

The name will mean nothing to most, not even to Portland, Oregon residents with short memory spans. But the message behind the name, behind the man, should mean everything to anyone who lives on this planet, and to anyone who has even the most glancing understanding of how we, as humans, understand and deal with mental illness, especially here in America. Screen this quietly powerful documentary if you think it’s time to change the conversation back to helping – rather than punishing – our fellow humans.

The title Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse comes from a song written by Greg Sage of The Wipers. It’s a take on James Chasse’s view of his own life as a young man gradually succumbing to mental illness while not really understanding what was going on. Chasse, known in the early ’80s Portland punk/new-wave scene as Jim Jim, was by all accounts a capricious, creative young man with lots to offer his friends. Everyone seemed to love him, even as he battled demons of the mind, gradually withdrawing from the world. Flashing forward to 2006, we find a disheveled, disoriented Chasse, harboring crippling fear of the police, tackled, tased, and beaten into submission by Portland police for the offense of public urination and fleeing the cops.

The injuries and neglect Chasse suffered in this incident resulted, within a few hours, in his needless death in the back of a police cruiser. It was just one in a long string of incidents highlighting the perceived abuse of power by the Portland police, resulting in a very high-profile public brouhaha that, as yet, hasn’t engendered much change within police ranks. The incident also served to point a spotlight on the systemic neglect of the mentally ill in pretty much every American city. If looking for outside proof of this shortfall in understanding, just look at any other widely publicized incident of violence or police abuse in this country, and you’ll likely find a mentally ill person who wasn’t receiving the help he or she needed.

Director Brian Lindstrom, over many years and with the help of hundreds of supporters, has crafted a startlingly effective and assured documentary that will bring tears to your eyes. Constructed in three parts, Lindstrom’s work at first smartly outlines Chasse’s youth, and his impact on friends and family, through archival photos, contemporary interviews, and Chasse’s own clever writing and protean cartoons. Chasse was clearly a neat guy and could have been a great writer/illustrator, and he was obviously well-loved.

Lindstrom’s middle act largely concerns itself with a fateful day in September of 2006, when Chasse was taken down with extreme force and neglected by police, fire, and EMT personnel. It’s both heart-breaking and shocking, but Lindstrom never applies a heavy hand, nor does he go for a maudlin reading of the material. The final segment mostly examines the impact of the investigation into police tactics, using the last minute inclusion of deposition footage of the officers involved in Chasse’s death. It’s jaw-dropping footage that lets the officers’ own body language do the talking. If there are conclusions to be drawn from the documentary, one might gain a deeper understanding of our societal impetus to let cops and prisons deal with mental illness, (editorial opinion: bad idea) but mostly it’s just to be reminded that the smelly, crazy guy you avoid on the street is a living human with feelings, friends, and family, not just a punching bag for a bunch of insulated cops to ‘take care of.’

Filled with sincere, sharp looking interviews, absolutely gorgeous incidental footage of Portland, Oregon, and incendiary footage of Portland police and their sometimes insular, circle-the-wagons union mentality, Alien Boy represents a documentary of highest quality and import. Lindstrom’s crowd-funded, years-in-the-making work leans heavy on the Portland community for insight, but you don’t need to be a local to feel the impact. It’s powerful, exemplary, and Recommended.

Alien Boy comes in a 16:9 ratio presentation on a dual-layer, professionally manufactured DVD9 disc. It looks just great. Interviews are sharp and solid, colors are deep and rich – especially in the lovely shots of Portland that hide the anguish within the film – and there aren’t any real defects or artifacts to be found.

English Stereo Audio is unremarkable but solid, and highlights some cool songs from Portland’s musical past. Dialog is clear and easy to understand, while the tasteful mix of music never overwhelms other audio aspects.

Extras are fairly slight, but nonetheless impactful. Closed Captioning and other Breaking Glass Pictures Trailers start things out. You also get a Photo Gallery to peruse. Most importantly included are these things: a 15 minute Interview with Director Brian Lindstrom covering many aspects of production, while delving more deeply into some of the issues raised in the movie, 5 minutes of interviews consisting of Reactions to Alien Boy from local public figures, and 6 minutes of Profiles in Courage, which are interviews from other Portland folks suffering from mental illness. It’s eye opening stuff.

Final Thoughts:
Alien Boy represents a documentary of highest quality and import. Detailing the life and tragic death of mentally ill James Chasse Jr. at the hands of Portland police, Lindstrom’s crowd-funded, years-in-the-making work leans heavy on the Portland community for insight, but you don’t need to be a local to feel the impact. It’s powerful, exemplary, and Recommended