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

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Smartphones and mental illness: observations from Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

From Cal Newport's new book: Digital Minimalism:

"Eliminating solitude also introduces new negative repercussions that we're only now beginning to understand. A good way to investigate a behavior's effect is to study a population that pushes the behavior to an extreme. When it comes to constant connectivity, these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995--the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet interconnectivity. As most parents or educators of this generation will attest, their device use is constant. . . .

My first indication that his hyper-connected generation was suffering came a few years before I started writing this book. I was chatting with the head of mental health services at a well-known university where I had been invited to speak. The administrator told me that she had begun seeing major shifts in student mental health. Until recently, the mental health center on campus has seen the same mix of teenage issues that have been common for decades: homesickness, eating disorders, some depression, and the occasional case of OCD. Then everything changed. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.

She told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change, she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. . . . She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students' brain chemistry.

. . . the plight of iGen provides a strong warning about solitude deprivation. When an entire cohort unintentionally eliminated time alone with their thoughts from their lives, their mental health suffered dramatically. On reflection, this makes sense. These teenagers have lost the ability to process and make sense of their emotions, or to reflect on who they are or what really matters, or build strong relationships, or even to just allow their brains to power down their critical social circuits, which are not meant to be used constantly, and to redirect that energy to other important cognitive housekeeping tasks. We shouldn't be surprised when these absences lead to malfunctions."

Newport's book can easily boiled to one urgent lifestyle tip: Get away from your smartphone. The device is much more sinister and addictive that we can fully comprehend at the moment.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

“I love human beings as the monster, as the horror.” Exploring the Twilight Zone elements of Us

I very much enjoyed Us, in part because one can brood on its mysteries indefinitely. Here is Aisha Harris' thoughts on the Twilight Zone elements of Jordan Peele's film.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

"Take this pink ribbon off my eyes": 5 notes on Captain Marvel

1) Annette Bening's work as the Supreme Intelligence in Captain Marvel was almost enough for me to forgive her for starring in 20th Century Women.

2) It's not hard to root for Brie Larson. Now, two of the stars of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World have large superhero franchises, which only seems fitting.

3) In this short-attention-span-junkfood-saturated-with-media environment we live in where our phones devour hours of our attention each day with addictive devices and apps, one likes to think that the Marvel studio executives know what they are doing by now. But still, I find it ironic that we can take pleasure in watching Brie Larson assume her superpowers partially because Marvel movies have always starred male leads. It's about time that changed. The fact that she's not some hulking muscle-inflated stud grunting out pronouncements of arrogant male privilege can still delight, just as Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman did. Later in the movie, after many actions scenes that often involve fire bolts shooting out of her hands, Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel still takes a moment to help Nick Fury (a weirdly digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) do the dishes. I don't remember Thanos doing anything like that in Avengers: Infinity War. As a star, Brie Larson remains recognizably human in spite of the corporate carpet-bombing synergistic media campaign swirling around her.

4) I did like the movie, and yet . . . how many unnecessary problems this film has. An early scene involves Vers and various Star Force Kree warriors infiltrating some planet on a secret night mission, and I could hardly tell what was going on as the green lizard shapeshifter people known as the Skrulls guerrilla fight Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and his gang in the dark purple murk.  Then movie treats us to a clumsy dream/exposition sequence where Vers memory allows her to bop around her past life as she faced various challenges (a go-cart race, an Air Force bootcamp rope to climb, etc). Also, we see her drunkenly singing in a bar, and all of these skittering non-scenes are incoherently accompanied by some Skrull barking in a voiceover. I think that the Skrulls were mining her mind for some secrets concerning the Supreme Intelligence or something, but I can't imagine that green lizard men with large ears will age well.

5) Fortunately, the lighting and the humor improve once Vers crash lands on earth back in the 90s, in a Blockbuster Video store. Once she changes into a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and jeans, hops on a stolen motorcycle, joins the de-aged Fury, and sets out on her journey to learn just what those mysterious glowing early dreams mean, the movie finds its footing. There's a scene-stealing cat, many jet fights in outer space, No Doubt's "Just a Girl" playing over a slightly better lit later fight scene, and bolts of light-speed engine-worthy photon blast energy erupting out of Captain Marvel's eyes and hair. It's about bloody time.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

automate us links

---"I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself."  --from David Wallace-Wells' "Time to Panic"

---"Children of Men: Why Alfonso Cuaron's Anti-Blade Runner looks more relevant than ever" by Stephen Dalton

---A Night at the Garden

---"At its peak the planet’s fourth most valuable company, and arguably its most influential, is controlled almost entirely by a young man with the charisma of a geometry T.A. The totality of this man’s professional life has been running this company, which calls itself 'a platform.' Company, platform — whatever it is, it provides a curious service wherein billions of people fill it with content: baby photos, birthday wishes, concert promotions, psychotic premonitions of Jewish lizard-men. No one is paid by the company for this labor; on the contrary, users are rewarded by being tracked across the web, even when logged out, and consequently strip-mined by a complicated artificial intelligence trained to sort surveilled information into approximately 29,000 predictive data points, which are then made available to advertisers and other third parties, who now know everything that can be known about a person without trepanning her skull. Amazingly, none of this is secret, despite the company’s best efforts to keep it so. Somehow, people still use and love this platform."  --Tom Bissell

---"Why I Quit Entertainment Journalism" by Phil Brown

Shroooms from C A T K on Vimeo.

---“Forget the cliché that if it’s free, ‘You are the product,’” she exhorts. “You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life.” The worst, though, is still to come, she argues, as tech giants shift from predicting behavior to engineering it. “It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us,” she warns; “the goal now is to automate us.”  --Evgeny Morozov quoting Shoshana Zuboff in "Capitalism's New Clothes"

--"It’s a great time to be someone who makes things because there are lots of places to go and they’re all hungry for content. That’s the good news. The obvious problem is how to draw eyeballs to your project against a level of competition that was unimaginable when I was coming up in the business. I would never have thought people would be targeted with so much content all day, every day. I just couldn’t have imagined it. Given it’s impossible to get eyes on everything, I think most people are looking for a filter. That can come in a variety of guises. It can be a filmmaker, it can be a genre, it could be a certain platform that you’ve become loyal to. Any of these things can help the viewer cleave their way through all of these options, but it’s hard. Like I said, it’s a great time to be making stuff. It’s just harder and harder to be the signal in the midst of all the noise." --Steven Soderbergh

---"Nolan Book 2.0: Cerebral blockbusters meet blunt-force cinephilia" by David Bordwell

---previewing Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

Sunday, January 20, 2019

surveillance capitalism links

---David Bordwell revisits Hitchcock's Notorious

---"The Best Video Essays of 2018" via BFI

---6 Filmmaking Tips from Barry Jenkins

---"The 50 Most Anticipated American Films of 2019" by Dan Schoenbrun

---Kim Morgan discusses The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould

---"Under the regime of surveillance capitalism, it is not enough simply to gather information about what people do. Eventually, you have to influence behavior, beyond the simple suasion practiced by targeted ads. It’s not about showing someone the right ad; you have to show it at the right place and time, with the language and imagery calibrated for precise effect. You have to lead people through the physical world, making them show up at the sponsored pop-up store or vote for the preferred candidate. Armed with a veritable real-time feed of a user’s thoughts and feelings, companies are beginning to practice just this kind of coercion, which is why you might see makeup ads before a Friday evening out or why inducements from a personal injury lawyer might pop up on your phone as you sit in a hospital waiting room. When we want things — health information, travel schedules, a date — is also when we are most vulnerable, when intimate data yield themselves for corporate capture. 'The result,' as Zuboff notes, 'is a perverse amalgam of empowerment inextricably layered with diminishment.' We seem ever more exposed to and dependent on surveillance capitalists, our benevolent info-lords, but their operations are defined by opacity, corporate secrecy and the scrim of technological authority."  --from "How Tech Companies Manipulate Our Personal Data" by Jacob Silverman

---"What's Not to Love? The New Wave of Unlikable Women in Cinema" by Anne Billson

---"Edited By"

---"How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation" by Anne Helen Petersen

---Three Reasons: Harold and Maude

---"An unapologetically mean review, too, is a big swing, and the ultimate weapon for passionate but principled critics who want to love everything but will not hesitate to really, really, really hate something. A truly vicious pan, a merciless slam, a full-scale ethering is born of a righteous fury that can transmute into pure joy. 'The secret of the bad review is that you can get a lot of pleasure out of it,' A.O. Scott tells me, chatting via phone in late December. 'It is a kind of a dopamine rush. First of all, editors—especially editors at The New York Times—love it. They love bad reviews. And they’re fun to do because they give you access to a lot of writerly tools that are fun to use. You can be funny. You can be clever. What you’re doing is, you’re demonstrating your superiority to a thing that you’re writing about.'"  --Rob Harvilla


A FICTIVE FLIGHT ABOVE REAL MARS from Jan Fröjdman on Vimeo.

---Vimeo's Best Shorts of 2018

---"Elaine May" by Melissa Anderson