Saturday, July 27, 2019

Manson and Tarantino: A Conversation about Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

I happen to be married to a Charles Manson expert, someone who has read Helter Skelter 10 times and knows all of the minutiae of the murders of the summer of 1969. We both enjoyed Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and afterwards, we sat down in a local SC diner to discuss our thoughts about the film. Note: we were not concerned about spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie, please read no further:

FD: How accurate is the movie in terms of its treatment of the Manson family?

B: I think it's very accurate. For example, Sharon Tate did buy Roman Polanski a first edition of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles because they were planning on making a movie after the baby was born, and of course he later went on to do a film version of the novel called Tess with Natassja Kinski, and it was dedicated to Sharon. Also, Celio Drive where Tate lived was in a secluded area rather like they depicted it with the electronic gate and the embankment on either side, because the killers crawled along the embankment to break in. The filmmakers didn't focus on Steven Parent, who was killed leaving the guesthouse. That was not so much a mistake as an exclusion.

FD: Not emphasized.

B: Yeah, there were also houses close to Tate's house, and their residents did actually hear some things. The fact that the houses were close together, but the inhabitants couldn't see, but they could hear was accurate. The Manson "family" lived on Spahn ranch, and Squeaky took care of George. That's how they kept him quiet. That girl (Margaret Qualley) hitching a ride and bringing in Brad Pitt's character Cliff Booth to the ranch was a thing the girls did, luring guys out there with their bodies, all that was accurate. They had lookout people like Clem Davis, who apparently had a low IQ, stick a knife in Rick Dalton's car's tire is also very Manson-y, since they all had knives.

FD: Of course, the end of the film is not accurate.

B: Tarantino is probably counting on people having a base knowledge of what happened so the viewer could get caught up in the specific events of that night and start worrying about the murders in advance. Tate and friends did go to a Mexican restaurant that night. Her friends were smoking marijuana and hash in the house. Sharon Tate liked to go around in her bikini panties and her bra. In the movie, they actually had her covered up quite a bit. She was eight and a half months pregnant. Everything until up to when the car pulls up in the driveway after midnight strikes me as accurate.

FD: What did you think about the change that Tarantino made afterwards?

B: I think it's interesting that Tex does largely say the same thing--"I'm the devil. I've come to do the devil's business."--but taken out of context of the original murders, the movie makes him sound absolutely crazy and not very interesting.

FD: Right, Tarantino makes him banal.

B: Tex says it to Cliff (Brad Pitt), and that's not very scary in the bright kitchen with Cliff and his pit bull Brandy.  Cliff will beat the crap out of him. Tarentino shows us that the whole night depended on what house they chose. If they had chosen a different building, they might've all been killed instead of doing the killing. Cliff with his pit bull (Pitt and pit) emphasized how everything was the same in the movie, but they just chose the wrong house.

FD: What did you think of the movie's organization? It seemed a bit disjointed at times as it switches from the Manson family to Rick Dalton's television clips and his cowboy acting crises to Sharon Tate enjoying watching herself in The Wrecking Crew . . .

B: I think Tarantino wanted to show everybody's desire to be part of the industry. Even the hippie girls who were opposed to the Man or whatever, those in the counterculture, were having themselves reflected on television when a producer obliged Dalton to wear long hair and dress in a fringe leather coat. Meanwhile, they shot Bonanza and other westerns on the Spahn ranch, so the movie has a lot of underlying connections.

FD: In the film, Manson cult members did make the point that television shows mostly consisted of murder narratives, so it makes sense that they would turn to killing as a reflection of that pop culture. "You showed us the technique, so why wouldn't we practice the same activity?" Do you buy that argument?

B: Yes. But that explicit statement is also Tarentino's tongue in cheek reference to his own frequently murderous movies. Also, it you grew up in the Vietnam war era, you were exposed to violence on TV all of the time. It's interesting how both Cliff and Dalton are not participating much in that counterculture zeitgeist. Though Cliff is on the fringe.  He lives in moderate squalor, buys acid-laced cigarettes from a hippy girl, gives a girl a ride, and wears suede moccasins.  Manson often wore buckskin and suede.

FD: Dalton and Cliff were throwbacks to the late 50s to some degree.

B: Right--the western is in that Eisenhower-era world, where the bad guys are rounded up at the end and all Native Americans are villains. As an actor, Dalton moves from playing the good guy to being the heavy, and it's easy to tell who is who in the Hollywood mythic world. However, the liminal grey area is what most people live in. It's a Hollywood fairy tale to believe otherwise.

FD: What does the movie emphasize about the cultural differences between the late 60s and today? You can make the claim that everything changed after the Manson murders. Up until that point, you had the summer of love atmosphere of peace, brotherhood, and pastoral pleasures outdoors, but then the Manson gang reintroduced a fear of strangers that we still live with today.

B: Well, a lot of people hated the hippies. Dalton (DiCaprio) pronounced them dirty. Meanwhile, Cliff wears moccasins, but then again, Manson also wore moccasins. Manson also wore the fringe jacket much like the one that Dalton wears (that one also sees on Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy 1969). At times, the filmmakers dress up Dalton so that he strongly resembles Charles Manson with his long hair parted on the side. Manson wore lots of buckskin leather.

FD: It's funny how the cowboy and the hippie come together in unexpected ways.

B: They are both renegades. They live by their own rules, outside of the civilized culture. 

FD: What did you think of Tarantino's development of characters such as Sharon Tate or Cliff?

B: Sharon Tate is mostly in the movie to be seen until the end. Cliff (Pitt), on the other hand, is interesting because, in contrast with Dalton, he has no ambition in a city where most people are the opposite. He doesn't care about success happening to him. He's content to drive Dalton around or fix his television antennae. In comparison, Dalton is crippled by his ambition. He wants to be successful. He can't stand the fact that he's a has been.

In many ways, even though the Manson family appeared to be antiestablishment, Manson had a lot of ambitions. He had many schemes, and all of it involved power. He wanted to be a rock star. The girls were otherwise a means to an end. He just used the girls.  I think that comes across in the film to some degree.

FD: What did you make of the fact that Manson hardly appeared in the movie at all?

B: That's probably accurate of his presence in the real 1969. He was the puppeteer behind everything. That's the way he is in Helter Skelter (1974). He was the last person captured in the raids because he was hidden. He was "good" at his job because he would convince people to do things and then he withdraws.

FD: At any rate, I'm still intrigued by the complexity of the psychological kick at the end of the film. Tarantino specializes in violent death, but in his best work he is a filmmaker of resurrection. Take for instance, Pulp Fiction (1994). Vincent (John Travolta) brings Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) back to life with the blunt jab of needle full of adrenaline through her breast-plates after she overdoses on some of his heroin that she mistakes for cocaine. Later, Tarantino manages to restore Vincent to the living by arranging the time sequence of the movie so that in the last scene, Vincent isn't dead yet. In comparison, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood restores Sharon Tate to life by having much of the film painstakingly build up to the August night of her real-life death and then rewriting the ending so that the killers get killed by the two buddies (Jules and Vincent replaced by Dalton and Cliff). This new ending gives the new killings a gleeful judgmental force, since the viewer can enjoy the cosmic payback against the perpetrators of all of those years of lurid bad blood and outrage against the death of the pregnant Sharon Tate. Instead of that, we hear her voice on the house intercom, alive, cheerful, a fairy tale resurrection that's bittersweet. Just as in the case of John Travolta's career being saved by Tarantino casting him in Pulp Fiction, so could Dalton's career be salvaged thanks to Tate's appreciative friendship, and by extension, Roman Polanski's. The conclusion may be a kind of mock Hollywood happy ending that's emphasized in the title, but just as there's an ambivalence in the title's ellipsis, so does the ending succeed in direct proportion to the viewer knowing the contrast of what really happened. Thus, the ending becomes less happy and more simply the right one, the just one, with the movie paying chivalrous homage to Sharon Tate by keeping her alive. I found Margot Robbie's voice through the intercom spooky, just like her scene in the theater watching the actual Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew. In both cases, Tarantino restores her to her former glory, giving her career a burnishing that she never fully had when she was alive. 

B: If you go back to The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate end up together, and in the last scene, she's also resurrected at the end of that movie too. At any rate, I agree that Tarantino does foreground Sharon Tate when it comes to the various victims. Also, the Tate family has fully kept the Manson gang imprisoned until some have died in jail, including Manson himself last year. The violent ending of the movie is cathartic, but after that, the alternate storyline about Sharon Tate is bittersweet because the audience knows it's not true. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The enduring depth of the charmingly shallow: 4 notes on the pleasures of North by Northwest

1) In our household, Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) has always been held in particularly high esteem, although I prefer to teach Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960). In terms of film technique, North by Northwest strikes me as comparatively shallow, a knock off variation on The 39 Steps (1935), although one could say shallowness is the point. Family members often quote various scenes, especially Eve Kendall's lines like "Plane travel vs. train travel. Rather innocuous considering he was a fugitive from justice. Who did he kill?" My son, who now teaches filmmaking, describes the movie as a series of set-piece scenes that often humorously lead to satisfying climaxes, with someone getting punched, or drunken humor, or motherly humor mixed with suspense. Given that the plot of the movie tends to want to kill off Thornhill through elaborate means, Roger is equal to the challenge, perhaps in part due to his career in advertising teaches him how to lie and adopt various personae fluidly. Hitchcock seems intent about torturing Cary Grant, as if in a kind of jealous reply to his fame and good looks, (which reminds me of the treatment of Emma Stone in the more recent The Favorite), yet Roger is something of an expert fraud, a man of surfaces in a movie full of allusions to other Hitchcock films, a man happy to become in the moment what the occasion requires, be it a red cap, a murder victim, a killer on the loose, a witness testifying in court, and/or a derelict son to his doubting mother. Is the beginning of Roger's drunken driving scene a reference to the various cliff-edge over water moments in Grant's "Suspicion" (1941)?

2) Among the set-piece scenes, I like the auction one especially in the way Roger subverts a social ritual of the rich in order to attract the police. An auction implicitly asserts the manners of the privileged class as it makes its artful purchases, but Roger undermines the ceremony until a woman says to him, "You're no fake. You're a genuine idiot," to which Cary Grant replies, "Thank you." The scene is not only very funny, it also shows how Roger is happy to play the cog in the fateful apparatus dictated by criminals and the CIA. According to the impossibly smooth Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), Roger will play a corpse next: "You're very next role. You will be quite convincing, I assure you." But Roger keeps finding ways to slide out of the storyline assigned to him. Roger embodies the disruptive element that revolts against the narrative he's in.

3) Just as the design elements of Psycho sometimes juxtapose the vertical old creepy house with the blandly modern horizontal Bates hotel, so does North by Northwest revel in vertical/horizontal dichotomies. For instance, at the very end of the movie, the scene switches from the cliffhanger conclusion on the cliff faces (ha!) of Mount Rushmore to the speedy horizontal of a train ride, where (again) Roger pulls Eve up to the upper bunk as a kind of nostalgic return to the interior decorations of their escape from the police earlier. So, the vertical and the horizontal keep switching off and accumulating on each other, even amidst the lewd joke of the final shot. The movie begins with the Saul Bass credit sequence's vibrant vertical lines of a skyscraper iconographically preparing us to upcoming heights of the United Nations building, the various floors of several luxury hotels, and, of course the attack of a crop dusting plane as it swoops down to try to assassinate Roger from above.

4) When I wrote earlier that the movie is shallow, it is also full of absences, given that the main earlier  McGuffin of George Caplan doesn't exist at all, as much as Vandamm's men look for him, as much as Roger stumbles into embodying him. The end of the movie keeps returning to the blanks in what Roger calls "that same silly gun of" Eve's. Why is there so much emphasis on fake bullets? Are they supposed to be like little George Caplans, creating lots of effects, but not really existing? Are we meant to associate Roger's fake killing at the hands of Eve with the actual assassination of Lincoln whose visage looks out upon Mount Rushmore? As Vandamm says in his last line, "That's not very sporting, using real bullets."

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood official trailer

"I’ve been listening to podcasts about the history of Hollywood, the transition from silent films to talkies, the advent of television, the musicals in the sixties, the directors’ era of the seventies. And now we’re talking about streaming services. I don’t want to act as if I’ve been around since . . .  silent cinema, but I see this as a huge shift in the way movies are going to get done, what gets financing. The studio system has tons of content, libraries of things that they can make movies of, but in a lot of ways they are hemorrhaging. They’ve become—much like in the twenties—these corporate empires that have taken over the artistic vein of moviemaking. We’re now in an era when there’s a flush of cash into streaming. But with an overflow of content, there’s a lot of garbage out there. Now I do see a lot of chances being taken for story lines, certainly documentaries, certainly giving some artists opportunities to make out-of-the-box story lines that I don’t think ten years ago would have been possible. But these types of films that Quentin is doing are also becoming endangered species."
     --Leonardo DiCaprio