Manson Nation, Part 2: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

This is part two of our two-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders. Part One, on the murders themselves, is here. Today we review Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Note well: I always include spoilers. I ain’t no nanny gonna cover your wittle ears.

I initially said this post would be related to the first one but now I’m not so sure. In important ways Once Up a Time in Hollywood isn’t about the Tate-LaBianca murders AT ALL. It is about Manson Nation.

Much has changed in 50 years. Events roughly as horrifying and strange as the Manson Family killing sprees happen routinely nowadays. I write this less than a week after America witnessed an unprecedented TWO such events in a single day, one in El Paso, one in Dayton. (Addendum: in the middle of writing this, there was yet another mass killing in Southern California). And in many respects it was ever thus. Much like his hero Adolf Hitler, who threw America’s twin sins of slavery and genocide in Roosevelt’s face, Charles Manson was given to hurling self-serving truths at those who would judge him, reminders about America’s ongoing crimes against humanity in Vietnam, the inner cities, and the Jim Crow south. Or as Stalin is reported to have put it “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Sharon Tate’s death matters; napalmed babies in Southeast Asia not so much, apparently. Manson was wrong, but he wasn’t wrong.

Anyone can tell the story of the Tate-LaBianca murders, and believe me, anyone has. There are some shitty, shallow motherfuckin’ movies out there on the topic. Luckily, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t one of them. Tarantino has bigger sauerkraut to fry – and he’s got just the flamethrower to do it. You wouldn’t know it, judging by the obtuse commentary I’ve read on the topic, some of it by purported critics. I could only bring myself to look it a teeny sampling of people’s superficial reactions. I didn’t want to taint my own thoughts on the subject, and the little I read seemed like it was written by people with heads full of cement. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and I’ve saved my thoughts for the anniversary, rather than get drawn into any conversations before I’d thought it through.

Let’s start with who you think Quentin Tarantino is. What you think he does. If I may hazard a description, having seen all of his movies multiples times, and heard him speak from time to time: it seems to me that, boiled down to its essence, Tarantino’s wheelhouse is a dialogue with pop culture history in the form of satirical commentary. His business is to editorialize, footnote, graffito, and MST3k the existing canon, much of which is violent. It’s not, as many have accused him of, aesthetic glorification of the violence itself, in my view. Such a charge could be laid at the feet of Peckinpah or Scorsese. But Tarantino is an ironist. What he does is several removes from reality. Any piece of authorship containing this much quotation intends to be something other than literal. It is an essay upon human culture. If it’s not satire, then how come all of his characters act and talk as dumb as a bag of hammers? Do you mean to tell me he’s not making fun of those characters? Yes, they’re often cool and stylish, but they’re also ridiculous. Their puppetmaster is a nerd who regards these characters with envy and cruel judgment. You say it’s too much fun, that we relish it too much? That it is homage and not parody? I say all satire, in order to be effective, cleaves as closely as possible to its target, shadows it, mirrors it, inhabits it. But we are there in the spirit of laughter. You don’t read Gulliver’s Travels and give a shit what happens to the Lilliputians. Tarantino deals in Karo Syrup, not hemoglobin.

This sort of discourse (satire, parody, burlesque) is as old as Western Culture (ha! I said “western”) and it has been misunderstood by the majority of people since the very beginning, too. It is doubted, suspected, misjudged, and misinterpreted. And even the people who love it will often love it for the wrong reasons, providing more fodder for the people who hate it. Dave Chappelle quit comedy rather than continue to be misunderstood in this way. Tarantino’s own producers clearly don’t care about his ambiguity. OUATIH is damned from the outset by its association with the three movies Tarantino’s distributors chose to promote in the “coming attractions” preview before Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: an astronaut movie, a race car movie, and a secret service movie, two of which highlight the prominent inclusion of non-ironic daddy redemption. These movies all looked like jokes, and I laughed heartily throughout the trailers. That, I believe, is the correct spirit with which to look at such movies. But the producers are looking at it through another lens. They are thinking to themselves “Tarantino’s movie is full of Man Shit. Men will watch, and we need to market these other movies, which are also full of Man Shit, to Men.” It’s as crude as an algorithm, and come to think of it, that’s probably what made the decision. Some audiences and critics have made the same mistake, but who could blame them when the producers themselves are setting the tone?

Let’s let Tarantino set the tone. Since the obvious eludes so many people, let’s point out that he’s titled his film in reference to three Sergio Leone films, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Once Upon a Time…The Revolution (a.k.a Duck, You Sucker, 1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). One could reasonably anticipate that the movie will have more than a little to do with spaghetti westerns, and it does. In fact, it has far more to do with that genre than it does with its purported jumping-off point, the Tate-LaBianca murders. It’s about people who make and consume violent entertainment, and what the repercussions of that are, including, but not limited to, a bunch of misguided young people living in a fake western town who decide to commit a revenge killing.

Like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, OUATIH chronicles a three way confluence of ultimately clashing parties: the Manson Family, Sharon Tate & Co., and a pair of fictional characters who our main concern: Rick Dalton, a minor Hollywood actor (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). If you didn’t immediately notice that the former is named after a family of western outlaws, and the latter is named after a famous assassin, even after Tarantino has gone so far as to have one of his characters point that out, you are part of the problem. And if you think they are intended to be objects of pure admiration, even after Tarantino has gone so far as to have one of his characters talk about Sergio Corbucci’s anti-heroes, you are again part of the problem. I don’t know how anyone could make their purpose any plainer than by literally articulating their intentions in the dialogue of the film, but plenty of people are either missing it, or dismissing it. The magician literally just said, “Kids, don’t try this at home.” If people are still obtuse about that, as far as I’m concerned, it only reinforces Tarantino’s point.

Corbucci, by the way, directed Django (1966), partial inspiration for Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained. With The Hateful Eight (2015), this makes Tarantino’s third meditation on westerns in a row. Before that came a war film, and before that a martial arts film, and before that crime stories. You could come to the conclusion that Tarantino is obsessed with violence. OR you could come to the conclusion that he is obsessed with movies, and MOVIES are violent. I tend to regard the question as chicken-or-egg, nature-or-nurture. We all know the legend of how Tarantino taught himself the form by watching all the movies in the video store where he worked. Was he already wired to express himself violently? Or did his cinematic education condition him to express himself that way? The question is not irrelevant, because we happen to be asking it at this very moment with regard to our own culture. Are guns the problem? Violence in the culture? Something inside human beings, in our DNA? And the Manson Family raises the same question. Are we are all potential killers, just waiting for the right buttons to be pressed? One is reminded of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Why are we so chilled by a cult? Your tax dollars turn men and women into killing machines every day of the week.

Tarantino explores the Jekyll and Hyde theme by making his two main characters doubles. While they look alike, and play the same parts, the men are opposites in many ways. Di Caprio’s actor stutters. He’s insecure. He cries. He sweats and chain smokes. He is full of fear and worry. Pitt’s stunt man is cool as a cucumber. He faces down enemies and kicks ass. He is content to take life as it comes. The dichotomy reminds me of the contrast between Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma. Rick and Cliff are not the only doubles in the film: Roman Polanski (Rafal Zaweirucha) and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) are compared, and Polanksi and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) also physically mirror each other. Later, when Rick and his new bride get off a plane from Italy, it visually echoes an earlier scene featuring Polanski and Tate. The film even has a pair of contrasting dogs (Tate’s and Cliff’s) Most significantly, there is a scene in the film where Di Caprio’s character plays a villain in a western, and he is costumed in a manner not unlike the Byrds’ look of the time: fringe jacket, long hair, droopy mustache. When he loses his shit both in and out of character, the resemblance to Manson is jarring. Something connects all these characters.

“I’m not a hippie, but I play one on tv”

I’ve seen it written that Tarantino based the Rick/ Cliff relationship on Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. BTW, Tarantino was supposedly named after Reynolds’ character on Gunsmoke, Quint Asper (tweaked a little to Quentin). Reynolds was actually slated to play George Spahn in the movie, but he passed away before shooting. Tarantino also draws a strong relation between his Rick Dalton character and Steve McQueen. Dalton stars on a violent TV western called Bounty Law, based on McQueen’s real-life show Wanted: Dead or Alive. (McQueen is also referred to in two key scenes in OUATIH. More than that if you count all the scenes of Bullitt style driving). There are also similarities to Clint Eastwood, who got his start on Rawhide. Yet, Dalton, with all his flop sweat, seems more like one of the forgotten ones, like James Drury of The Virginian. Or the real life stars of Lancer, James Stacey and Wayne Maunder, played in the film by Timothy Olyphant of Deadwood and the late Luke Perry is his poignant final performance. (Many will assume that, like Bounty Law, Lancer is a made up show, that’s how forgotten it is if you’re younger than a Baby Boomer).

Bounty Law is an absurdly violent show. Dalton’s character Jake Cahill prefers to kill criminals for the reward rather than bring them in alive. “Whether you’re dead or alive, you’re just a dollar sign to Jake Cahill”, intones the announcer. The name references two John Wayne westerns, btw, Big Jake, and Cahill, U.S. Marshall. But when we meet Rick Dalton, Bounty Law is in his past. He flounders for a time, until spaghetti westerns become his salvation. Since 2007 I have seen over 800 westerns as research for a book and screenplay project. And one thing I can tell you, the invasion of spaghetti westerns in the 1960s brought an UNPRECEDENTED level of violence to American audiences. With them came a new cinematic ethic of revenge for its own sake. Not that the concept of revenge was new in America, where we “Remember the Alamo” and used Pearl Harbor as a rationale for Hiroshima. But in classic Hollywood movies, revenge was always frowned upon as a motive, and always punished. Characters just killing their enemies with impunity because they are mad at them? That was new in the 1960s. By the 1980s, in former movie cowboy Ronald Reagan’s America, the concept would become mainstream. Again, I call your attention to the title of the film.

Also relevant here is the fact that Dalton starred in a World War Two picture called The 14 Fists of McClusky, clearly based on The Dirty Dozen. His character’s weapon of choice in the film is a flamethrower. In a clip from the movie-within-the-movie, we approvingly watch him take out a group of high-level Nazis with it, but the image is still unsettling. It seems like overkill. Burning people alive is the sort of thing we did in Vietnam. It seems to be on the other side of the line of what Americans are supposed to find acceptable. I mention Vietnam advisedly. There are only a couple of mentions of it in the film but the references are important. The Hollywood dream factory is a bubble. Somewhere outside that bubble people are dying. What happens when, as Malcolm X put it, “the chickens come home to roost?”

Is our society worse than the Manson Family? I’ve always felt that, at the very least, there is truth in the statement, if not a complete truth. Tarantino strongly implies as much. Long before it was home to the Manson Family, Spahn Ranch was the site of film crews cranking out violent stories to warp the American mind. If you have any doubt about who the real danger is, there’s a moment in the film where Family member Steve “Clem” Grogan (James Landry Hebert) commits a fairly adolescent act of vandalism (slashes Cliff’s tire). And our presumed hero proceeds to grab him by the hair and beat his face to a pulp. And we like it. That whole section of the film is telling. Cliff is there on an ostensible rescue mission. But George Spahn (Bruce Dern) doesn’t want to be rescued. After all, his life consists of constant sex with young women, naps, and television. Cliff seems unsatisfied by this development. When the Family protests his beating up Clem, Cliff threatens them with the “step back” language cops always use on outraged neighbors after the fuzz has used excessive force. He essentially holds the village hostage like a soldier looking for insurgents in Vietnam. When he cruises away a few minutes later in his boss’s huge Cadillac DeVille I was reminded of the swift boat in Apocalypse Now.

In another scene, possibly a fantasy, Cliff embodies another juvenile daydream by kicking Bruce Lee’s ass in hand-to-hand combat. Lee is presented as boastful and arrogant and basically asking for a beat-down. At the moment Cliff takes him on, he is praising a litany of African American boxing heroes. Curiously, given Manson’s projections of a race war, and Tarantino’s track record with films such as Jackie Brown and Django Unchained, this scene is one of only a couple of references to race in the entire film. (Another is a Jewish agent named “Schwarz”, played by Al Pacino. Schwarz is the German word for black). And there are a smattering of stereotyped Mexican characters and references.  It seems like Tarantino has decided that to go too deeply into race conflict in this context would be to yield to Manson’s narrative, and that is something he decidedly will not do.

Instead, the story is told as a sort of collage of entertainment detritus: television and movie clips both genuine and fabricated, pop songs, radio advertisements, billboards, and voice-over narration. The fact that the narrator is a television director (Kurt Russell) raises questions. Is he Tarantino’s mouthpiece? Did he “direct” this film? At the very least, it suggests a manufactured story. When Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to a bookstore to buy a copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles for Polanski (which she actually did, by the way), there is a replica of the Maltese Falcon on the clerk’s desk. In other words, “the stuff dreams are made of.” And that’s what we get in this film. Dreams, legends. We don’t know who or what to trust. Dalton’s legend is that he was up for the Steve McQueen part in The Great Escape. Booth has two legends: 1) that he killed his wife, and 2) that he kicked Bruce Lee’s ass. Tarantino presents both scenes in such a way that we wonder if they really happened. He cuts away before Cliff shoots his spear gun at his bitchy wife, though we strongly suspect he will pull the trigger. And in the scene with Lee, Cliff throws the martial arts legend into a car door, which collapses with the force (though this was a time when cars were much sturdier than they are today. You’d break all your bones before a car door would give, back then) But in both cases, what matters most is the rumor, the lore of it. People are known by their legends.

Tatesque, I guess, but definitely not Tate

This is also the case with Tarantino’s treatment of the Manson Family/Tate subplots. Tarantino doesn’t present some documentary-real depiction of who the actual people were. It seems to me what he’s done is his own version of all those terrible made-for-tv movies I mentioned in the first half of this double-essay. He gives us the IDEA, the oft-digested myth of it, complete with Tate signaling her pregnancy to the audience by rubbing her belly, and her awkward, self-conscious mention of Paul Revere and the Raiders as though she had never heard of the group until 5 seconds before the camera started rolling. (As we mentioned in part one, the lead singer of the group, Mark Lindsay lived in that very house. The Raiders had been one of the most popular bands in the country for about four years at that point. The name would roll off the tongue as easily as “the Rolling Stones”). Personally, I felt Margot Robbie was so consistently artificial and “off” as the character, right down to her make-up, that I venture to suggest that the tone is intentional. This is not Sharon Tate. This is “Sharon Tate” in the Sharon Tate movie, and the “Manson Family” in the Manson Family movie.

Indeed, this is ALL pop culture shit! Cliff’s entry to George Spahn’s house plays like a scene in a horror film and indeed uses the music from Hitchcock’s Psycho, I believe, just as the end of the movie uses what I think I recognize as music from Valley of the Dolls. And isn’t Cliff Rick’s movie sidekick? Like Tonto to The Lone Ranger? The moccasins he wears seals that impression. When Cliff fights Bruce Lee (The Green Hornet’s Kato), we have a sidekick sidekicking a sidekick! Then, later he leaps onto Rick’s roof to shirtlessly repair a TV antenna, a sight evoking Ron Ely’s Tarzan, also mentioned in the film. The drive-in movie screen near Cliff’s trailer immediately made me think of the climax of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 shooting spree movie Targets. When we first meet the Manson girls they are parading past a mural of James Dean in Giant. And when Cliff first sees the same girls, the song “Mrs. Robinson” from The Graduate comes on the soundtrack. Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin) watches Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man on Fright Night hosted by Sinister Seymour. There are ads for The Illustrated Man with Rod Steiger and Three in the Attic, a movie in which three chicks get their revenge on college lothario Christopher Jones by trying to fuck him to death. When we first meet Polanski it is to the sound of a mod cologne commercial on the car radio. Tuning into his own radio, Cliff hears Neil Diamond sing “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, a song that just happens to be about a charismatic evangelical preacher mesmerizing his followers on a hot August night. Even the decorations in people’s homes are promoting the products of Hollywood. Rick’s house is full of western movie memorabilia. Cliff has a poster of Anne Francis as Honey West. And there are familiar locations. There’s that mosaic wall at LAX from The Graduate. And I’m not sure, but I think the movie theatre Sharon Tate attends to watch The Wrecking Crew is the same one from the finale of Blazing Saddles. Media messages permeate every second of the characters’ lives, and not just because many of them work in the industry but because it is the air. In fact, the only time we see Charles Manson in the film, he is trying to do a meeting with a record producer. (He arrives to the tune of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Hungry”). The media is all-powerful and it is culpable. But what is it culpable for? What is it cushioning, hiding, reinforcing?

Well, materialism for one. “You’re just a dollar sign to Jake Cahill.” While Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth may be best friends, only one of them is in the 1%. Rick lives in a mansion; Cliff lives in a trailer. Rick’s car is a Cadillac; Cliff’s is an old, beat-up sports car. Cliff does all of Rick’s dirty work, including, in the end, bodyguard duties. He doesn’t take a bullet for him, but he almost does, and he definitely takes a knife. Like cops and soldiers, he’s an enforcer, a member of the underclass who will do what he’s told, right or wrong, for the man in power. Rick on the other hand, is pampered and privileged. When the Manson family drive their loud junk car up Cielo Drive, he comes out in his bathrobe, pitcher of margaritas in hand, ranting about his property taxes, his private road, and how people driving a “hunk of shit…don’t belong here.” The outburst resembles nothing so much as Cliff’s wife’s insults and nagging in the seconds before he is supposed to have murdered her. And where exactly is “here”? There is a clue earlier in the film when Rick sings the song “Green Door” in a movie musical. The 1956 song, by Jim Lowe, is about noisy neighbors in some sort of private club.

If Rick Dalton is one of the privileged class, Tate and Polanski are in the stratosphere. One of my favorite scenes in the film simply depicts the pair of them getting into their car, driving through winding lanes for about two minutes to the tune of Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and arriving at the Playboy Mansion. It hadn’t been built yet, but Tarantino has made his point. Hugh Hefner had a stable of women who did his bidding and parties where people did drugs, not unlike a certain scruffy cult leader. Hefner, the rich one, was widely approved of. Even if the murders had never happened, would the same be said of Manson? If you’re rich and famous and anointed the world is your oyster. Sharon Tate gets to see a movie for free just because she’s Sharon Tate, even though no one even recognizes her. Watching scenes in The Wrecking Crew and the trailer that preceded it (C.C. and Company with Joe Namath), I got the feeling that, geez, if people like Sharon Tate, Joe Namath and Rick Dalton are the stars, it could really be anybody up there. This isn’t exactly a meritocracy, it’s just luck, and the lucky ones form a protected class who get to enjoy things like fabulous parties, mansions, and free admission to movies.

White men are at the top of this luck-based hierarchy, of course, and the movie gets surreptitiously topical in addressing the issue of their privilege. Cliff apparently murdered his wife and got away with it. Later, that fact nearly prevents him from getting a job, until the boss is told he is war hero, and then he is hired. So, if you’re a war hero it’s okay that you killed a woman? And, in one of the film’s more striking subplots, Rick, who has been whining that he is “washed up” and “useless” meets an eight year old girl (Julia Butters), who’s twice as smart as he is, more professional, more competent, hard working, self-assertive, and resentful of the gendered job description “actress” and the patronizing pet name “pumpkin puss.” She is serious, and seems like the future. And yet, after acting in a scene with Rick where he loses his shit and acts violent, something happens to her. Something like Stockholm Syndrome takes over. “That’s the best acting I’ve ever seen” she gushes in his ear. “Did I throw you on the floor too hard?” he asks. “No, it’s okay. I throw myself on the floor all the time,” she replies, somewhat masochistically. It is not convincing, but it pleases him. Is this to be regarded as a happy outcome? My instinct is that the director of Jackie Brown, Death Proof, and Kill Bill considers it a chilling one.

Something Mansonesque about this development

Almost in parallel, Cliff encounters an underage hitchhiker with the prescient nickname of Pussy (Margaret Qualley). We know that Tarantino is making a point because the real Manson Family member’s name was Kitty. “We love Pussy!” says Gypsy, one of Manson’s main lieutenants, here significantly played by Lena Dunham. We are unavoidably reminded of the Pussy-Grabbing Pig in the White House, who pulls off the amazing feat of being both an oleaginous celebrity AND as amoral and manipulative as Charles Manson. In one loaded scene in the movie, Cliff turns down an offer of oral sex from Pussy because she is plainly under 18. Interestingly, the exchange reminds us that Roman Polanski is STILL at large for a statutory rape beef in the U.S., and also that Tarantino’s longtime producer Harvey Weinstein is in legal trouble for dozens of sexual abuse allegations. “When I go to jail,” Cliff says, “it won’t be for poontang.” Apparently, it won’t be for murdering his wife, either!

So we come to the movie’s controversial climax. I can’t tell you how many people told me “I have to see it again before I decide whether I like it or not.” Their issue was the character of the violence in the unexpected final showdown. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a frequent and harsh critic of what I feel is unnecessary violence in pop culture. I don’t believe in censorship, but I do believe in criticism. As a general rule I don’t enjoy action movies or slasher style horror. I have never returned to The Walking Dead since the Day of the Baseball Bat. But when it is called for, and it is clear that the director has some purpose (beyond titillation) I am all for it. Not only do I enjoy it in the work of directors like Tarantino, but I write it into my own work. I’ve already stated above why I think Tarantino’s use of violence is legitimate, and I defiantly enjoyed this movie with a clean conscience on the first go-round. (I’ve seen the movie three times at this writing). And, really! A movie about the Manson Family by Quentin Tarantino, and you expected it wouldn’t be violent?

I expect some people fear a vigilante takeaway, that Tarantino is declaring a rationale for murdering the members of a killer cult (and doing so with enjoyment), as he seemed to have done with Nazis in Inglorious Basterds and slaveholders in Django Unchained. If he were drawing that equation, I think he would have spent much more time depicting the evil of the Manson Family. Tarantino does very little of that here. Instead, he does what he can to demystify them and make them appear foolish and toothless (in the case of Clem, literally) and this is a good instinct. Making them “monsters” always empowered them. Instead, he flips everything. In this alternative history, Cliff is the maniac on acid who ends up committing several brutal murders to the tune of Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On”, aided by Rick and his trusty flamethrower as well as his savage pit bull, a trained killer. The Manson Family, having accidentally met Rick on the way to the Tate house, decide to do a political murder that will take out one of the guys who’s been infecting American culture with his appearances on violent television programs. And in so doing, they learn just how violent American culture is, which is far worse than they imagined. The headlines this week (and every week for years, really) have been heartbreaking testament to the extent of America’s nightmarish predicament. And, yes, the movie itself is an expression of that violent culture, even as it critiques it. But maybe it’s like the old saying: it takes a thief to catch a thief.