- James in better days / Breaking Glass Pictures
Alien Boy, winner of the best film award at the 2013 Local Sightings Festival, begins with references to Portland bands like Poison Idea and the Wipers, but it isn't a music film. It's a documentary about police brutality and mental illness, since subject James Chasse, also known as Jim Jim, suffered from schizophrenia, a condition that inadvertently contributed to his tragic death.
According to his parents, Chasse had a normal childhood until junior high, when things started to get weird. But music was a solace. He sang in a band and started a fanzine, The Oregon Organizm, to which notable writers like Joe Carducci contributed. Chasse's girlfriend remembers that he would wear whatever he wanted, including women's clothing, for which he would get beaten up. It didn't deter him, but the demons in his head were another matter, and his behavior became erratic.
When Chasse told Greg Sage of the Wipers that he felt like an alien, the singer turned that admission into the song "Alien Boy" (it's fitting that Kurt Cobain shows up, via archival footage, as it's hard not to hear Nirvana's origins in that adolescent snarl and bass-heavy rhythm), but the Wipers connection ends there.
Chasse maintained his friendships as best he could, but while his associates were finding their way in the world, he ended up in a mental institution and a series of group homes before eventually reentering society. Independence came with a price. When he neglected to take his meds, he would stop bathing, soil himself, and face rejection from the local establishments in which his parents, James and Linda, would attempt to catch up with him. They appear to have done what they could, but it seems clear that things would only get worse.
And that's what happened: things went from bad to horrific when an arrest for suspected public urination turned lethal. The cops used excessive force and Chasse, who didn't receive appropriate medical treatment, died in police custody. The Oregonian and The Portland Mercury documented the ways police failed Chasse, including the untruths they told his family (former Mercury news editor Matt Davis appears in the film).
- Photo by Jamie Marquez / The Portland Mercury
It's all pretty grim. In contrast to the officers’ testimony during the ensuing court case, photographic evidence and surveillance footage—including disturbing audio—confirm that they acted inappropriately. Chasse may have run from the authorities, but he wasn't combative, he wasn't armed, and he wasn't on drugs. He died in 2006, but the findings of the internal affairs investigation wouldn't be released until 2010, while the family's lawsuit wouldn't be settled until 2011.
As Linda puts it, "He didn't ever get to live the mainstream life of an average American man." All those avenues—college, a music career, etc.—ended when his illness kicked in. Consequently, there wasn't as much music content in the documentary as I had hoped, but there's value here for viewers interested in the intersection of the police, their training, and the way we treat the mentally ill. At the very least, Chasse's death has helped to inspire change in the city of his birth.
Alien Boy plays Northwest Film Forum through Thurs, Mar 13 (no 9pm show on Mon). Breaking Glass plans to release the film on home video later this spring.