Quentin Tarantino & American Mythmaking
I saw the new Quentin Tarantino movie last night, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” It’s a movie about the Manson murders, and Hollywood mythmaking (which is to say, American mythmaking). It’s as if Tarantino, who wrote the script, consulted with Joan Didion and Walker Percy. I thought it was a powerful film, and a pleasure to watch (the ultraviolence at the end was hard to take, but this is Tarantino, and you can turn your head if you want to). I’m trying to think my way through it, especially after this violent weekend, but I have a few thoughts to add now.
First, if you haven’t read this Caitlin Flanagan piece about the movie, please do. She talks about how all the Social Justice Warrior critics have excoriated the movie for being too white. Excerpt:
The justice critics aren’t interested in fictions that feel like memories. They want movies that adhere to their vision of the way the world should be. To them, the movie is too white, too violent toward women, and too uninterested in Margot Robbie, whose Sharon Tate has few lines. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody reviled the picture, calling it “ridiculously white.” But Charles Manson was a white supremacist, a fact that does tend to put a lot of white people in a movie. The majority of these white people are drugged-out sadists who live in filth, and scrounge in garbage, entirely repellent. And the Hollywood of the time was a deeply insular place from which progressive values flowed easily, but that never stopped to examine itself as a racially exclusive enterprise. Depicting it as inclusive would give the lie to the decades of hard work that have gone into changing that fact, work that is finally beginning to pay off.
As to violence against women, what can I tell you? If you don’t like it, don’t go to a movie about the Manson killings. Say what you will about Charles Manson; he really empowered women to pursue excellence in traditionally male-dominated fields. From armed robbery to sadistic murder at knifepoint, he put women in positions from which they had been traditionally excluded, and ultimately helped them to break that hardest, highest glass ceiling, the one that makes death row such a male purview. The Manson crimes became famous because of the savagery of the killings, the killers became famous because so many of them were women, and the most famous of the victims was a very specific woman, so particularly feminine—and at the height of femininity, the peak of her young beauty, and eight-and-a-half months pregnant—that her slaughter instantly assumed a mythic importance. Moreover, without giving away the ending, for many of us the violent scene that the justice critics hate was something we’ve been waiting 50 years to see. As for me, I closed my eyes during part of it, an option available to any ticket holder.
Flanagan talks about the Brad Pitt character, stuntman Cliff Booth, and how he embodies an older American masculine ideal, and how the movie contrasts this with the neurotic, emotional, narcissistic character Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose stunt double Cliff has long been. She goes on:
We can’t have a movie like this. It affirms things the culture wants killed. If men aren’t encouraged to cry in public, where will we end up? And the bottom line is the bottom line: Audiences don’t want to see this kind of thing anymore. The audience wants the kind of movies the justice critics want. But the audience gave Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the biggest opening of Tarantino’s career. The critics may not get it, but the public does. Is Tarantino making a reactionary statement at a dangerous time? Or does the title tell the truth, that the whole thing—including those old masculine values—was always just a fairy tale, a world “that never really existed, but feels like a memory”?
I think he’s doing both. Let me explain. I’m not going to give any spoilers.
The movie — I’ll call it “Once” — is a buddy pic about Rick (DiCaprio) and Cliff (Pitt) who are navigating Rick’s professional decline in the late 1960s. Rick got famous playing an old-fashioned Hollywood cowboy in 1950s TV Westerns. The time is 1969, and Rick’s character type is out of fashion. He’s melting down because the personal myth he lived by — that he’s a Hollywood Cowboy — no longer counts for much. Meanwhile, the man who actually did the rough stuff for Rick on screen — Cliff, the stunt double — is keeping his cool.
Meanwhile, Rick’s neighbors in the Hollywood Hills, director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate, are headed for disaster. Six months after the film’s narrative begins, Tate and others staying at the house will be murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult (Polanski was in Europe filming at the time). Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is the third major character in the movie. She embodies a mythological idea of American femininity. There’s a moment in which she’s dancing poolside at the Playboy Mansion, free as a bird. Tate is the poster girl for California dreamin’. We know, because we have lived through that history, and because we have read our Joan Didion, that that myth was dying.
The Manson family, as much as anybody else, killed it. They were the dark side of the counterculture. The hippie girls detached from their families, looking to explore their sexual freedom, and the pleasure of drug use — they became Charlie’s devotees. The tensest part of the film comes when Cliff, who ends up at the Spahn Ranch (where the Manson family lived), decides to go check on an elderly man there he used to know, and who he suspects may be being abused by the Manson cult. Though he is badly outnumbered, Cliff does his duty as a man. As Caitlin Flanagan writes, Cliff Booth lives by a Code. It is the kind of code celebrated in “High Noon.”
There’s a scene in which Cliff beats the hell out of a hippie dude who, believe me, deserves it. The irate hippie women stand around cheering for the victim. It’s a powerful scene, because in it, Tarantino is showing that these women, by siding with the hippie layabout coward, become complicit in cultural decline. Cliff executes what, under the old code, would have been rough justice. The female mob, though, exalts the kind of man-child the old code would see as contemptible. In another scene — I won’t give details — an old-style Hollywood manly-man complains that feminine movie idols like Sharon Tate stopped caring about men like him, and started going for weaklings.
It’s impossible not to see this as Tarantino’s comment on the demise of traditional masculinity. If women reward dirtbags like Charlie Manson and the men in his circle, that’s what they will encourage. That is not a politically correct point of view, obviously.
But Tarantino’s reactionary critique is more nuanced than that. Remember, the iconic masculine hero, Rick Dalton, is actually a self-absorbed punk. He is not a Real Man™; he only plays one on TV. The myth can is supported because, in Rick’s case, Cliff does all the rough stuff. Tarantino also seems to be saying that the myth rests on the willingness of flesh-and-blood men to inhabit it, to make it real by living it out.
For me, the most powerful moment in the film comes when Sharon Tate (Robbie) is so delighted by her own celebrity — in an innocent way — that she dips into a movie theater to watch a matinee of her latest movie, starring Dean Martin (by the way, Tarantino screens clips from the actual Tate film). It could have been a sequence set up to condemn Hollywood narcissism, but it doesn’t play that way at all. In fact, the sequence is luminously graceful; Margot Robbie does so much acting without saying a word. She makes us feel the bubbly pleasure Tate experiences, sitting there in the theater, unobserved by others, enjoying their laughter at her comic performance.
The Tate character is living out the phenomenon mentioned by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows him his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
That’s what’s going on with Sharon Tate in this scene, I think. She doesn’t come across in “Once” as sad or empty. I thought we were supposed to see her as blissed-out and shallow, but John Podhoretz points out in his review that Tate visits a bookstore to check on an order of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” that she has requested for her husband, because she read it and liked it. Sharon Tate is not dim; she’s unironic. but this sequence is revelatory in that we can see the relief that spreads across her face, like a morning glory welcoming the sunrise, when she hears the approval of the audience. It is so endearing it almost brought me to tears. It’s as if she had to go into that theater on a sunny afternoon to remind herself that she really was Sharon Tate™, that she was Someone who lives Somewhere. Put another way, she had to experience herself mythologized in order to be comfortable in her skin. To be certified.
DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, on the other hand, is losing his sense of self because he has mistaken the mythological figure he played on the screen for his real self. He has remained a man-child, because he assumed that all he had to do was to seem like a Man to be a Man.
“Once” is a movie about the difference between certification and authentication. Rick has never been authentic, is losing his certification, and is coming apart because of it. He watches TV shows in which he makes guest appearances, just to remind himself of who he is, or was. Sharon is a rising star; the fact that she feels the need to become a moviegoer one afternoon, and to experience certification, is a sign that she too will suffer from the same crisis one day. She doesn’t have the crippling self-consciousness that Rick does, but that’s because she’s young, inexperienced, and is the image of a myth that at the time was still powerful. Sharon is becoming Hollywood royalty; Rick is washed up, and will never be invited to party with the cool kids at the Playboy Mansion.
The only authentic one of this trio is Cliff. Why is he authentic? Because he lives by a code that tells him who he is, that gives him a stable identity. He doesn’t depend on the gaze of others to certify him. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that he needs to be certified. The thing is, he’s a loner. He doesn’t have a wife, or a girlfriend. Just him and his dog, and the man he serves. Pitt’s character is a true icon of American freedom, zipping around the L.A. freeway in his Karmann Ghia, living in a travel trailer, beholden to no one.
Before you get too comfortable thinking that Pitt is the only real hero here — and he is a hero — reflect on the character of George Spahn, the real-life owner of Spahn Movie Ranch. If you don’t know the Manson saga, it’s enough to know that Spahn was an elderly man who took in the Manson cult as residents. He turns up in this movie, played by Bruce Dern. His character is a version of what could happen to Cliff as he ages, and becomes vulnerable to predators.
Above all, “Once” is a movie about Quentin Tarantino’s love affair with Hollywood. As I said, watching it is purely pleasurable. More deeply, though, it’s a film about our relationship with myth, which for us modern Americans comes to us primarily through Hollywood. The Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi’s old blog was called “Church Of The Masses,” based on a quote from a 1930s film critic:
“Theaters are the new Church of the Masses — where people sit huddled in the dark listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human.”
Take that thought with you into the theater to see “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” The movie has a very Hollywood ending, which has proved controversial, though it reminds us why we all love Hollywood endings, and why we need to live by myths that tell us we live in an ordered universe, and that call us out of ourselves to make that order real.
I’m thinking of what Kamila Bendova, the Czech philosopher and anti-communist dissident, told me last year when I asked her why she and the other Charter 77 dissidents read Tolkien to their children. She said, “Because we knew that Mordor was real.”
Tarantino’s film reminds us that Mordor is real, but also that we need myths that help us fight its minions when they show up in our suburban driveways, in the flesh. When that happens, seeming, and certification, will not help us; only being, and authenticity, gives us a fighting chance.
Here’s a trailer for the movie. Caitlin Flanagan calls “Once” Tarantino’s most “transgressive” movie yet. She’s right:
UPDATE: I am not going to post comments that contain spoilers.