Yeah, long time away. I've basically spent the summer off of social media of all types. I've embraced antisocial media and I have to say, it's been pretty great. I mean, I love you all. I really do. But I had too many voices in my head. So many that I couldn't hear my own at times. When and if I come back, things will have to change, but for the life of me I can't quite see what that looks like.
Anyways, this is a first step towards that. Longer pieces. Longer than I used to write. More sprawling. Less bite-sized. You're in for it or you're not. I can't spend any more energy worrying about whichever side of that you fall on, dig? That's really where the writer ought to be anyways, just not really giving a fuck about who's reading it until it's read/viewed/heard/whatever. I guess that's solipsism. Well, embrace solipsism. Which probably makes the perfect time to try and get my arms around ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
Weird, that you'd expect, given my public predilections towards recent history and the city of Los Angeles and all, that this would have been one of my favorite films of the year. I mean, bar none, on its surface, I should be into this. Los Angeles in 1969? That should be catnip to me. And yet.
Don't get me wrong. It's a film I enjoyed. I'm not sure it's a good film, though. Well, rewind. It's good as filmed entertainment, as visuals, as simulacrum of history (with some roadbumps but more on those down the line), as a thing to watch in a theatre with other humans, it was good. But that doesn't make it a good film. Maybe a good experience. Now, some of this is on me. I don't think I've wholeheartedly enjoyed a Quentin Tarantino film since JACKIE BROWN. That's a while now. And I'm a weird case. Always have been.
All this said, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is certainly a provocative film. It's got me thinking even a week after the original viewing. Part of that is the film itself, part of it is me picking this week to crack open my recently-acquired copy of HELTER SKELTER by Vinent Bugliosi (and Curt Gentry of THE LAST DAYS OF THE LATE GREAT STATE OF CALIFORNIA fame). I found a good hardback copy on a used book trawl about a month ago and the film was a good excuse to dig into a book I hadn't read since the eighth grade (in 1980 or 1981 and yes I'm old and was precocious.)
Needless to say, spoilers for ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD follow. (Oh, and minor spoilers for YESTERDAY as well. You heard me.) Bail out if you haven't watched yet or have any interest in watching. Because the central question of the film, the only one worth considering, no matter what the characters say or do, will be revealed and ruined if you stick aroud.
Still with me? Good.
Okay, let's start by acknowledging that Tarantino is in a position that I'm envious of. He gets to make the films he wants how he wants and is able to attract all manner of talented actors and crew to them. He gets to place music, set the tone, etc. I'd love to be in that position at some point, not in directing, but in writing certainly. That's the rub, right? In the age of the Howling Pit, you can write whatever you want to, but you may end up being the sole audience for it.
Ha ha, only serious.
Tarantino exploded from RESERVOIR DOGS to getting Oscar nods on his second (or was it third?) film, PULP FICTION. Yeah, he got just two for that one. Two. Oscars. And yet he was grouchy that he knew he wasn't going to get Best Picture. I saw that as at happened and it took some swagger to even bring it up while on camera. But hey, that's part of the package, right? Author as product.
Which may be one of the reasons he's where he is and why I'm where I am (selling dozens of copies but goddammit, it was the book I wanted to write.) Swagger sells. And me, I can't do swagger even if you point a .38 to my head and threaten to blow my brains all across the backseat of that Impala. It ain't in me. Whereas Tarantino is living, breathing swagger. It comes across in his writing at the best of times. It's convincing. You buy it. You're into it. At the best of times.
Gonna be honest. I was looking for that in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. There were flashes of it, some pretty pure verve. But it wasn't hitting like a pocket nuke. What would again? Is it even fair to ask for that sort of force to be unleashed? Maybe not, but the heart wants what the heart wants. You're given expectations. It can't be helped.
And while HOLLYWOOD wants to present an atom bomb to the culture, annihilation of history and immediate rewriting, absolution of accrued cultural sins, the innocent spared a heinous death and uneasy resurrection as martyr/victim where humanity is stripped away and they become a mere concept. It wanted that so bad. And I kinda wanted it too. Who wouldn't want to see a national nightmare short-circuited and prevented? I mean, Manson was found responsible for eight, nine deaths? (Legally -- speculation, founded and not, places the victim count of The Family at somewhere in the mid-thirties.) And it is Manson and the Family we're talking about here. The previews danced around that, teased it out, threatened murder and mayhem, as inevitable as Pere Gravity. The feckless and shiftless hippie murders, where American innoncence was gutted in its sleep and everything went wrong. Track it all back to nineteen sixty-nine, okay?
We're gonna short-circuit history. Write us a better world.
God damn I wanted to believe it. Just like imagining Adolf Hitler trapped in that movie theatre at the end of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS was a fitting end, seduced by film and burnt to a crisp. Purge the bad blood. Prevent the bad thing from even happening.
HOLLYWOOD a fairy tale, got it? Sure, it's something else for about 95% of the runtime. But that last few minutes? Pure fairy tale. Not a damn thing wrong with that. Just like when I say that ROCKET MAN is a legit musical. This isn't a criticism, but an observation. HOLLYWOOD wants to prevent the bad thing from happening, maybe make a better world out of it. That is an admirable aim. Instead of blundering into a house filled with tired pregnant and drug-dulled socialites and actresses, the Manson Family storms into a house with a trained pitbull and Stuntman Cliff who imagines himself able to take Bruce Lee in a fair fight. (Yes, this is a ding on things -- that entire sequence was bad and rang hollow as one of QT's onscreen appearances in his own films minus say DOGS.)
The final turn in the film is a bloody reckoning, a purgation, a fervid desire that This happened instead of The Bad Thing. You know, the bad thing, which was one of the harbingers of the end of the Age of Aquarius right alongside Altamont and the assassinations of 1968. I mean, pick your signifiers, right? It's nineteen sixty-nine, baby.
But see, I knew what I've known since eighth grade. Manson was a puppeteer and wasn't going to be scared off by one night of a setback. He'd still go after Leno LaBianca and wife or some other luckless souls who happened to be neighbors to addresses that he remembered out there in the Hollywood Hills. Or he'd have gone after Dennis Wilson or some other pigs. That's the What Was. Not to mention the murders before the most infamous ones. Those would still be in the bank.
And in my heart, I wanted to have the plot of HOLLYWOOD to be the thing that happened. Stuntman Cliff annihilates the Family and his buddy Jake Dalton pulls out Checkov's Flamethrower and burns the last would-be assassin to a crisp in his own swimming pool and then sets down to finish his pitcher of margaritas right out of the god-damned blender top. Imagine that. Imagine that America. Who knows what else would have been prevented? Everything. Everything could have been turned back.
I almost want to deal with this from the frame of alternate-reality fiction, and probably unfairly, already have. But QT isn't a speculative fiction writer (more accurately he writes comedies of manners in the middle-underworld and suffused in popcult, with guns and stuff.) Just like YESTERDAY falls real short as alternate-reality fiction (a world without cigarettes? What?) History has pivotal moments, certainly. But those pivotal moments and events and personages are vast collections of many, many smaller moments and feelings and disruptions and plans reached for. Short-circuiting The One Thing might not be enough. But, like I said, that's in meticulously-researched historical fiction. (This is not to say that HOLLYWOOD wasn't; I have no problem seeing that QT did the homework.)
Which leads us to historical simulacrum. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD traffics in that, hardcore. And it nailed that vibe, the sort of feeling when the Santa Anas kick up and native southlanders know that there's fire on those winds, but they don't want to think about it too much else the coax that conflagration into reality. Again, that's the crux of the film, that we know there's murder coming and that's the only way it can be. All the talk about Dalton's career and doubts and Cliff's gliding through life, all that is secondary. (Dalton, in particular is well-realized by Leonardo DiCaprio, no doubt, having to act as an only okay actor flubbing his lines and using that doubt to sharpen his skills. It's all on the screen. It's all on his face.)
Margot Robie perfectly incarnates the born-of-carnage and fashioned-in-retrospect myth of Sharon Tate. While largely superfluous to the plot of the film as it unwinds, the moments of Robie/Tate in the Bruin theatre watching the audience watch her performance in (one of the many) film-in-films of HOLLYWOOD was a pretty pure joy. She's radiant and kind and perhaps the nicest character ever to flow into one of QT's films (she even snores -- she's human like the rest of us!).
And, of course, Los Angeles plays itself to the nines. Isolated midcentury pleasure pads laid out in the hills, neighbors cheek by jowl but never knowing one another until Something Terrible happens. Hippie girls with mercurial moods and sharp teeth are out there rummaging in the Ralph's garbage bins. Traffic jams cleared out. Skies freshly smogged (really -- pre-catylytic convertor smog was a hell of a thing). KHJ radio blasts out the hits with the Real Don Steele between songs. The Van De Kamp bakery blue windmill is out there just off the freeway in Panorama City. (About the only bum notes were the closeups of the gag dog-food labels which read like something out of MAD magazine and seeing the wrong buildings off Cliff's shoulder as he drove down the 5 in the Valley.)
I wanted to come out of HOLLYWOOD entertained, and I guess I was. I still struggle with the last 5% of the movie obliterating much of what came before. I mean, I guess I understand why the plot moved the way it did, but I'm thinking that perhaps this would be a story better worked out completely bifurcated. One story of Cliff and Jake paling around Hollywood like Butch and Sundance. That was a lot of fun. But Cliff and Jake rewrite history and prevent one of the century's most infamous murders doesn't ring right. Or maybe it felt like it needed more weight. Sure, since the murders never happened, there never would be that psychic weight in the first place. I get that. Maybe the lightness was the point. You never think about the bullet that missed and the one that lands in your breast, well, that's all you end up thinking about. For a short while.
There's other ground I wanted to cover, like why does Polanski wear the velvet suitcoat that Alex does on his mall prowl in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (and is that in turn another fashion echo of DJANGO UNCHAINED?). Why even bother with Steve McQueen stating that he never had a chance with Sharon Tate (Yeah, I know why, if McQueen failed then what chance does any mere mortal have). The gross misrepresentation of Bruce Lee as a person (at least in the mind of Stuntman Cliff) really sticks, though we do see him instructing both Tate and Jay Sebring, for all the good it did them in That Which Happened, our world.
Ultimately it boils down to Tarantino making the movies he wants, the way he wants. I may not be blown away by all aspects of them, but the fact that they're still rolling around in my head more than a week after has gotta stand for something.
As a final aside, just finished the re-read of HELTER SKELTER that I'd started just after the film. I won't lie. That certainly colored my view of history as depicted (but I had largely the same objections as I watched the film, so there was a basis for that.) For a 400 page true-crime book, it reads pretty fast. I credit that largely to Curt Gentry, but I suspect Vincent Bugliosi's meticulous note-taking and logical construction of events made things a lot easier.