In her book The White Album (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Joan Didion writes that "the Sixties ended... at the exact moment when word" of the Manson murders circulated. In his current film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which has just become the second best-selling of his career, Quentin Tarantino recreates the Hollywood of that summer, particularly of the days leading up to the murders.
Early reaction to Tarantino's plan to make this film focused on the concern that he would end up glorifying Manson—something American pop culture has done since the early '70s. Not only does he not do that, he goes in the opposite direction, undermining any grounds for sympathy with Manson or his clan. Tarantino reimagines the events of August just as he reconceives how we think about and respond to evil in our midst. In so doing, he turns decisively against the celebrity culture that surrounds violence and evildoers.
Manson is in many ways the archetype of the celebrity anti-hero, the mesmerizing and seductive nihilist who acts in defiance of what he takes to be the bankruptcy of conventional morality. Hollywood would eventually catch up to Manson, so much so that by the early '90s, Silence of the Lambs, featuring a brilliant and artistically sensitive cannibal as its anti-hero, would win an Oscar.
There are numerous ethical and aesthetic problems with this way of depicting evil. Filmmakers engage in a kind of perverse competition to outdo one another in the number of violence scenes and in the level of graphic presentation. The effect on the audience is twofold. First, the audience becomes increasingly attached to the anti-hero or to the filmmakers' technical virtuosity in the presentation of violence and thus becomes detached from, and indifferent to, the victims of such violence. Second, the graphic depiction of violence is subject to the law of diminishing returns as jaded audiences are no longer shocked or horrified by what would have terrified them in earlier films.
The result is that evil and horror on screen move in one of two directions: either toward more explicit or more highly stylized depictions or toward spoof and irony. Once audiences lose the sympathetic connection to innocence and goodness, evil itself is no longer a great mystery. There is no artistic depth, only surface violence.
There is also the possibility that filmmakers can return from violent terror to suspense and the drama of the mysterious battle between good and evil in our midst. The early films of M. Night Shyamalan and the Spanish language film The Orphanage take precisely this approach, which cuts back on the depiction of violence in order to probe the mysteries of good and evil. In such films, the deeper mystery is always that of goodness, usually goodness rooted in acts of heroic sacrifice.
Tarantino has gleefully indulged in hyper-stylized violence and in heavily ironic, self-knowing depictions of violence. His obsession with violence, present in his debut film Reservoir Dogs, reaches a peak in the two part Kill Bill. In the latter, the film contains lengthy, violent scenes the primary intention of which is to focus the attention of viewers on the sheer creativity of the filmmaker. Where possibly could a filmmaker go from here?
In his recent revenge films, such as Django Unchained, in which the target is pre-Civil War slave-owners, and Inglorious Basterds, which takes aim at the Nazis, Tarantino has veered away from an amoral celebration of evil and violence. While still quite violent, these films demarcate good from evil characters and imagine a world in which the evildoers get what's coming to them in spectacular ways.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there is indeed violence but it is more limited in scope and provides a kind of catharsis for those aware of what actually happened in early August in LA. Moreover, some of the best scenes in the film skillfully use the threat of violence to build tension and suspense. Finally, throughout the film Tarantino undermines any possibilities of glorifying the evildoers.
Manson himself is nothing more than a side note making only one brief appearance. On the evening of the infamous Tate murders, the Manson devotees, who come across as deranged stoners, offer what the film treats as a lame justification for the attack. They will kill Hollywood stars whose films have taught them to kill. Tarantino exposes the hollow and cowardly nihilism that masquerades as moral purpose.
Interestingly this justification is one that Manson himself often gave in interviews, taunting conventional society by saying that he was simply reflecting its own deepest values. A version of this response sometimes surfaces in Hollywood responses to criticism that its products are fostering a degenerate culture. Here at least Tarantino is having none of it.
Tarantino instead reveals a degenerate culture for what it is. At the Spahn Ranch, the Manson clan lives in filth and neglect; the community is bound together by shrill tribalism, which the film tends to identify generally with the hippie lifestyle rather than specifically with Manson. Disturbing as it is, this sort of evil arises from ordinary human vices, not purportedly demonic characters beyond good and evil.
In fact, the film's main storyline is not the Manson clan but the buddy tale of fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who occupies the house adjacent to Sharon Tate, and his irrepressible stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton's anxious narcissism about his status in Hollywood contrasts sharply with Tate's warm and unselfconscious experience of celebrity.
Tarantino has gone to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of Hollywood and Los Angeles in the late 1960s, including whole stretches of neighborhoods. In the film's most delightful scene, Tate visits a bookstore in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, to pick up a copy of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. She notices that one of her own films is playing at the local theater and decides to see it. After informing the young woman at the ticket counter, in the most self-deprecating way possible, that she is in the film, she settles anonymously into her seat and takes an innocent delight in the pleasure her, in this case comic, acting brings to audiences.
The film thus celebrates the innocence of Tate, even as it quietly draws our attention to the happy-go-lucky courage of Pitt's stuntman who is duped neither by the follies of Dalton nor the pretensions of the Manson clan.
The Tate murders happened just days before Woodstock, an event that over the passage of time and with a good deal of revisionist, wishful thinking, has come to symbolize the end of the '60s. Even if we concentrate exclusively on music, this was not true, as the year and decade in rock would end at Altamont Speedway, at a Rolling Stones free concert. Billed as a West Coast version of Woodstock, the concert witnessed four deaths, including one by stabbing.
In August of '69, it was not Woodstock that dominated the national imagination; instead, the nation was fearfully entranced by the horrific murders in LA. Didion comments:
This mystical flirtation with the idea of 'sin'— this sense that it was possible to go 'too far," and that many people were doing it... — was very much with us... A demented and seductive... tension was building in the community... I remember that no one was surprised."
The surprise of the summer of 2019, at least in the film industry, is that Quentin Tarantino would craft a film that eviscerates the "demented and seductive" flirtation with sin and excess of the late '60s.