This film makes us ask fundamental questions: what is truth; where is the fairytale? In modern terms: where is the fake news? And what is the difference between them? And it does that in amusing ways. It’s a very good film.
It toys with “true events”—the murderous rampage led by Charlie Manson and his band of followers. But that event which is expected throughout the film is only the background to the film. It is not the true story of those events. Or maybe it is. After all, what is truth anyway?
It tells the entirely fictional story of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) Hollywood stuntman to star Rick Dalton (Leonardo diCaprio) a fading Western movie star and Sharon Tate, (Margot Robbie) a real person who was brutally murdered by the Manson gang. Dalton lives next door to the house shared by Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. That lends an ominous quality to the film right from the start. Given that Quentin Tarantino is the director we always expect (no dread) the worst. Al Pacino plays the role of a casting agent and Kurt Russell as a Hollywood hot shot and Bruce Dern plays an old blind former star who wants to warm his hands one more time at the fire of life with a Manson girl. When Booth shows up at his home where he is sleeping and introduces himself as a stuntman, he retorts, “every man needs a stunt man.” For sure.
Though inspired by actual events nothing is straight-forward in this film. After all truth is murky. To misquote Bob Dylan, reality does not talk it swears. Characters in the film are or are not based on actual characters. What else would you expect about a film based on Hollywood’s golden age that went sensationally down in fire after the murder of Sharon Tate and friends?
But the finale still surprises. There are multiple story lines but all revolve around the world of make believe, and of course, we never believe. No one tells the truth, and no one cares. An 8-year old child star sounds like a middle-aged matron. Actors may or may not be acting. Like the Beatles said, ‘Nothing is real.” Nothing to get hung-up about. It’s all Helter Skelter, reputedly the words in a Beatle song that inspired Charlie Manson. For a while the action moves to the Spahn Ranch, that was also used as movie set, was where the Manson team hung out in dilapidated splendour is the scene. Here we get to meet the Manson clan on their own territory and it is not a pretty sight.
Tate spends an afternoon girlishly watching herself in a recent Dean Martin film. Dalton plays scenes that may or may not be real.
Needless to say, the night of the planned murders do not go according to plan. It is a melee. The Manson gang goes to the wrong house, but they see that Dalton is a worthy candidate for murder too. After all why not, “kill the guys who taught us to kill?” Since we’re in Hollywood that makes sense doesn’t it? To the others it seems like a “great idea.” The night ends up being the blackest of comedies.
Here is a conversation between Cliff and a young Mansonite:
Cliff: “You are real right?”
Teen: “Real as donut.”
Cliff, thinking it is all a joke, asks, “Who are you?”
Teen: “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business.”
That explains it. Or does it?
When all is done, the survivors party on. No one cares about the dead. Would you? After all, nothing is real. Except maybe escapism of Hollywood movies. That is true escapism. True lies.
1 thought on “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood”
a few minor quibbles.
the issue is less whether hollywood’s golden age went down and more whether the “freak” alternative to the west’s bourgeois dream went down, and to that i would say yes, although the hell’s angels gang bang at stones’ altamont concert was as decisive as the manson gang’s dirty work; speaking culturally and symbolically now, not politically, because the fbi war on the “movement”, among other things, was probably more materially important. the ugly leftist putsch/days of rage in chicago in ’69 and the assassinations of the black left in the late 60s were good examples of that material reality.
parenthetically, the nostalgia about hollywood’s golden age is a bit much as well. just take a look at what really was happening with the female stars.
and relative to “truth and beauty” i’ll put a lot of contemporary asian film up against anything hollywood was able to put out in that golden age or now for that matter.
what the the flame out resulted in is really directly related to where we are now, in this cess pool of proto-fascist dominance. this is a generational failure, we boomers fucked up. we joined the party after all, although we have yet to admit it. and our “children” are now opioid addicts.
so what we get is somebody like tarantino who is clever and a very good film maker, technically, but certainly not wise or profound in any way. he fits perfectly with the present weltanschaung. everything is “flat.” cynicism reigns.
the problem with truth and reality is driven and compounded by commodification and digitalization of everything and everybody.
back to my previous comment on your blog about truth and beauty….i don’t know how we get out of this post-modern cesspool. clearly modernity’s vaunted subjectivity looks impossible to recover.
appeals to our “better nature” certainly do not cut it. ethical and moral standards are clearly gone.
the enlightenment and the much ballyhooed force of “reason” appears useless. the internet is ruled by pathological affect. witness orangey’s crowd.
speaking most immediately, valorization of a politically bipartisan rescue plan for covid in yanqui land which savages the poor once again by leaving them out entirely and “nickeling and diming” the crucial state and city governments is too much good will for me.
the issue here is not optimism versus pessimism. the west has been in trouble for a few hundred years, if it was ever lodged in some lofty realm to begin with; and i very much doubt that.
it is much more profound than that. the cat is out of the bag, god died, and now what do we do without that transcendental monotheistic ass/insurance, that balm of gilead, that covered up all our sins, like 1st nation genocide, nuclear bombs, napalm, slavery, and that astonishing mass of plastic floating in the pacific.
gird the loins, pray without ceasing.