Friday, 16 August 2019 18:13

Vincent Bugliosi, Tom O’Neill, Quentin Tarantino, and Tate/LaBianca, Part 2

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“The only good thing about this picture [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] may be that Tarantino has said he is only going to make one more,” concludes Jim DiEugenio.

Part 2

A Review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the wrong film at the right time. As noted in Part 1 of this discussion, the highly questionable thesis of the Vincent Bugliosi/Curt Gentry massive bestseller Helter Skelter is finally being seriously questioned. Therefore, it would have been a good time to review the subject matter for a more truthful rendition of those infamous events. Quentin Tarantino is not the guy to do it. The man who turned the Third Reich into a comic book and American slavery into a Spaghetti Western was not going to make any real attempt to confront the Tate/LaBianca case.

In fact, the current film spends considerably more time on its two major characters’ travails in Hollywood. Those two characters are Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Dalton is a TV actor trying to transition to films. Booth is his stunt man/friend. They are loosely modeled on Burt Reynolds and his pal, stunt-man-turned-director Hal Needham. Why a director/writer would want to configure Tate/LaBianca around two men who, when they finally made it big in movies, decided to give us stuff like The Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit and Stroker Ace, eludes this reviewer. But since Tarantino handed Needham a Governor’s Ball Oscar in 2012, he apparently thinks that somehow Needham’s oeuvre should be given further homage.

The film begins in February of 1969 with a TV preview of Dalton’s Western series, Bounty Law. That fictional series is modeled on Steve McQueen’s Wanted Dead or Alive. We then watch an interview with Dalton and Booth to promote the series. The following credit sequence cuts between the two main characters and Sharon Tate arriving at LAX. Although Dalton lives next door to Tate and her husband Roman Polanski, and Booth spends a lot of time at Dalton’s, there is no direct relationship between them until the very last scene.

Al Pacino plays Dalton’s producer/manager. At the beginning of the film he tells Dalton that his career has plateaued with television. Between the series he does and guest shots on other televisions series he will never break through. He advises him to go to Italy to make features. (The film uses the name of the Italian director who hired Reynolds to do Navajo Joe, which closely resembles the film title used here, Nebraska Jim.)

The locations are meant to recall Burbank, the home of a few studios. And this is how the Manson Clan is introduced. Pitt/Booth sees some of the them standing on corners trying to hitch rides. After dropping off Dalton from work, Booth jumps in his VW Karmann Ghia and drives home. Tarantino has always been obsessed with people driving in cars with the top down—just ask Uma Thurman. He somehow thinks it is emblematic of film art to show the driver’s hair being blown by the wind as he or she drives fast through traffic. Booth/Pitt lives in a cheap trailer with his pit bull dog right next to the Van Nuys drive-in. As we shall see, the dog will be important to the resolution of the film.

This drive across town by Booth is then echoed by Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate as they go to a party at the Playboy Club. As they walk in, they are greeted by celebrities like Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, Steve McQueen and McQueen’s hair stylist Jay Sebring. This shows that the director understands some of the true underpinnings of the real story, for in addition to Sebring being a victim in the Tate murder, McQueen and Elliot were involved in the drug dealings around the Polanski home. (See Part 1)

The story is filled with what former film critic John Barbour has characterized as aimless and pointless scenes, like Pitt/Booth fixing his friend’s TV antenna and this being crosscut with Polanski and Tate waking up the morning after the Playboy party. There is another scene between Pitt and Bruce Lee from his Green Hornet days getting in a sparring contest. (I will deal more with this incident later.) There is then a very long sequence with Dalton guest-starring in a segment from a real western series, Lancer. During this part of the film, there is also a hint that Booth murdered his wife on board a boat. (Is this supposed to remind us of the death of Natalie Wood?)

The only time we see Charles Manson is in a scene where he goes up to the Polanski home and finds out his acquaintance, music producer Terry Melcher, does not live there anymore. Jay Sebring tells him that. Manson then walks off never to be seen again. It was apparently more important to show us Tate driving to a bookstore to pick up a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and then walking into a nearby theater to watch herself in the (bad) movie The Wrecking Crew. We know the character enjoyed this since Tarantino has actress Margot Robbie take off her shoes and put her bare feet on the seat in front of her. (Her feet looked kind of dirty to me. The sign of a true auteur.)

Before the ending of the film, the closest association between any of the main characters and the Manson Clan comes when Pitt picks up one of the girls on a street corner and drives her to Spahn ranch in Chatsworth. This was where Manson was living with the permission of the owner George Spahn. Spahn sometimes rented out his property for filming Western movies. Pitt insists on seeing Spahn against the approval of just about all of the Manson followers, who do not want him there. Tarantino directs him going into Spahn’s room with the weighted threat of some kind of slasher film. But before that, he has about 14 of the Clan watch him as he enters the cabin Spahn is in. This included three males. After doing nothing but talking to Spahn, Pitt leaves and walks to his car. The one remaining male has stuck a knife into the left front tire. Pitt then beats him up and makes him fix the tire. Like many scenes in the film, this made little sense to me. Besides all the pretention of the music and dark lighting before the Spahn meeting, why would the Clan have given the guy a flat tire if they wanted him gone ASAP? From the very cold greeting he received, he would have already gotten the message.

The film then flashes forward to August of 1969 and Dalton’s return from Italian film making. For no real reason, Kurt Russell, who plays a stunt supervisor in the film, now narrates it a bit. (Why him? Shouldn’t it be Pacino, who sent him to Italy?) The actor and stunt man have made four films abroad and Dalton is now married to an Italian wife. After dropping off the spouse, the two friends go out drinking and Dalton tells Booth that they will probably now have to split up. (Again, I found this inexplicable. Which was about par for the course with this film.) There are other pointless scenes in this part of the story: for instance, Tate being visited by her actress friend, Joanna Pettet, and Lee teaching Sebring martial arts. The (overdue) ending comes with Sharon Tate going out with her friends: Sebring, Abigail Folger and her boyfriend Voytek Frykowksi. This is crosscut with Booth and Dalton getting bombed at a bar. Both parties go home, and as the reader may recall, they are neighbors.

The climax comes with Tex Watson driving a junky car up Cielo Drive since Manson has told him and his three cohorts to kill the residents at Terry Melcher’s former house. But Dalton hears the car idling on the street and comes out to yell at the driver and passengers since they are making too much noise. They drive back down the road and one of the girls—who is inexplicably Asian—delivers an unbelievable monologue from the back seat of the car. I had to see the film twice to understand this scene, since it is the nexus for what follows. She has recognized Dalton as a TV star who usually plays law enforcement figures. And he usually ends up shooting someone. She says something like, “forget what we were told to do and instead give back some of the violence our culture has taught us on those who presented it.”

The idea that anyone in such a motley crew as Manson’s would ever utter such a thing in this situation is so stupid as to be beneath any comment. It’s clearly a cheap plot device. The Manson attackers now directly meet up with the protagonists inside Dalton’s house. Dalton has gone out on his patio pool as they enter the home. Pitt is inside and recognizes them from his visit to Spahn ranch. Tex Watson pulls a gun while the girls have knives. Dalton’s Italian wife is woken up and dragged into the living room. How do the unarmed good guys win? It’s out of an R-rated Lassie movie. Pitt’s dog attacks Watson’s arm and gets the gun loose. The dog then attacks Watson’s crotch and begins biting on it. (I saw the movie twice and took copious notes, so I am not making this up.) When Pitt gets stabbed in the hip, he goes bonkers and starts slamming the Caucasian woman’s head into anything on the wall that Tarantino can think of, such as the phone and the top of the fireplace, just for starters. The Asian girl has also been smacked and she starts screaming hysterically and waving her arms and the knife. She actually smashes through the glass doors onto the pool deck and into the water. She is till screaming and waving as the pool gets bloody. Dalton goes to his tool shed and—again I am not making this up—he brings back a flame thrower and incinerates her. (This had been planted earlier as a prop Dalton used in a war film to incinerate some Nazis. Tarantino evidently was doing an homage to himself—Inglourious Basterds.) We are then treated to some nice medium close ups of her charred body in the water as this scene—mercifully—comes to an end.

At the very end, after the cops have left and Booth/Pitt is taken to the hospital, Jay Sebring comes over and asks what happened. (We are supposed to believe that somehow a drunken Dalton heard the car idling outside his house, but no one heard the utter and complete mayhem going on during this murder and destruction scene.) Dalton talks to Tate through the intercom and she invites him in for a drink. The end.

As I have tried to point out, in the form of a story, the differing strands do not connect, let alone comment on each other. They really don’t even support each other in a structural way. There are examples of film narrative structure where writers do handle disparate strands of a story with skill and adroitness, and as a result, the ending packs a punch. For instance, in the film Network, Paddy Chayefsky kept the nine pins of his plot spinning throughout the entire two hours. And what came before in the film was at least some justification for a rather wild ending. That does not happen here. As I said, this film has an added-on ending in which one can see the writer working through his characters, almost using them as puppets for his preordained finale. This is why there is no emotional payoff at the end.

I would have liked to say that somehow this pointless story is redeemed by some skillful filmmaking. Nope. Tarantino is simply not a gifted director. He has no eye for striking compositions, little sense of how to stage violence with any kind of sensibility or poetry, and there is not one performance in the film that merits any real comment. But one cannot really blame the actors for that, since there is so little characterization for them to work with. That even includes a proven performer like Pacino. Brad Pitt gets by on his personal charm. As Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie strikes a series of poses. She might as well have been on a modeling shoot. DiCaprio has a couple of scenes where he has to register some pathos and self-disgust. He does it adequately. And that is it for the acting.

The violence in the film is pretty much of the Kill Bill variety—a previous Tarantino pastiche. I couldn’t sit through Part One, let alone Part Two. This is kind of ironic, considering Polanski is a character in the film. Because Polanski is famous for memorable and telling treatment of violence in his films. Who can forget the scene in his film Chinatown where, in an acting role, he slit Jack Nicholson’s nose? Or the gripping final fight scene in Macbeth? —to name just two instances. Scenes like those—not to mention what men like Kurosawa and Peckinpah have done—justify the use of violence in films. With Tarantino it’s pretty much just a bunch of bloody junk being thrown at us. In that regard, he makes Martin Scorsese look imaginative and artistic.

There is something else I have to mention about this film which others have pretty much ignored. I don’t see how anyone cannot detect its anti-Asian bias. Many have pointed out the scene in which Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) boasts of his being able to defeat Cassius Clay. The very fact that Tarantino has Lee call the heavyweight champion Clay in 1969—four years after he changed his name to Ali—shows that he wants to demean him. But further, the justification for the scene is false. There is also a scene from the Tate movie The Wrecking Crew where we see her defeat Nancy Kwan in a fight. And then there is the incineration of the Asian girl by flame thrower at the end. Evidently, the director thinks that Asians have gotten too much praise and respect in our society. He wanted to take them down a peg.

To me, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is simply an unrewarding mess. In every way. It surprises me that more people are not calling it out as such. In the end this reminds me of Dwight Macdonald’s review of the 1966 British film, Morgan! Karel Reisz’ film was popularly praised in certain quarters at the time of its release. Macdonald didn’t see it that way. He asked some pertinent questions. If the film was a comedy, he did not find it funny. If it was supposed to be a drama, or to wring pathos, he was unmoved. If the film was a satire, where was the edge to it? But he was asked, you aren’t taking it seriously are you? It was really a fantasy. Not really. Because fantasies that are really well done do take themselves seriously. They follow their own set of rules. And by showing that kind of discipline, there is a payoff at the end. For example: who can forget the memorably done ending of Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait?

As Macdonald said in his review, an “in” thing to do back in the 18th century was to visit a mental asylum; in 1966, one goes instead to Reisz’ film. Well, in 2019, we go to this film. And somehow, through an industry-wide PR plot, no one is supposed to say that they got snookered. The idea that Quentin Tarantino is some kind of genuine talent is due to the utter collapse of American film criticism. The truth is the man simply has nothing to say, in both the narrowest and widest sense of that phrase.

In a real sense, we are all still paying for Jane Hamsher taking out that option from Tarantino while he was a clerk in a Manhattan Beach video store back in the nineties. The intellectual bankruptcy of the man is he did not even understand how Oliver Stone, in Natural Born Killers, had turned his sow’s ear of a script into a silk purse. Hollywood is a bereft place today. It consists of Marvel and DC comics and the likes of Tarantino and Jordan Peele. To see Peele’s Us and then this film is to be really disheartened about the state of the American movie business. The only good thing about this picture may be that Tarantino has said he is only going to make one more.

Let us all try and hold him to that promise.

Go to Part 1

Last modified on Friday, 04 October 2019 06:40
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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