The charming and comical absurdity of Hollywood

The review of Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

The Golden Age of Hollywood lasted from the 1920s to the 1960s. This period is called the “golden age” because of the immense amount of profit the movies produced and the whole new shiny, charming, exciting reality and fuss its stars had created (such as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, City Lights, Roman Holiday, It’s a Wonderful Life, etc.)

Hollywood is certainly not only a geographical location in the U.S where actual people live their day-to-day lives but also, or more so, a gigantic factory where ideology and certain esthetics were produced or speculated on and which is still expanding.

However, actual people do live there, too. Now imagine living there or very near during the most peak times, in the 1960s, Hollywood’s Golden Age, being young and full of hopes and grandiose dreams, being in the center of it all and still more isolated from the fame, luxury, “cool people” and fancy parties than if you have lived on Mars. Gradually, you start to realize that, most probably, you’ll never be part of a dream world. But wait! From these movies and their shiny posters, you have read, heard, and learned countless times that “you can achieve anything” and “you can become anyone” All the ideas and stories you’ve been fed with is just beside you, but yet, you will never be welcomed there. So, you start to get angry, even furious. Because, who are you then? Who will you be in the future? According to the same movies, stars, and posters, according to the people you look up to, you’re simply a loser, an outsider, someone who has not tried hard enough or just is not cool enough.

The Manson Family was a cult in California in the 1960s, and its leader was Charles Manson. The group/Mansons followers consisted of roughly 100 people, mostly young women from a middle-class background. They “believed” in hippie culture and communal living. Manson Family members murdered five people connected to Hollywood on August 8–9, 1969. The most known victim was Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate. The murders are considered to be the end of Hollywood’s golden age.

Tarantinos Movie “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is exactly about this period of time in California, Los Angeles — the year 1969, but still, it’s hard to claim the movie itself is precisely about the murders or Manson family — they are just a big part of the plot. Still, the movie is more about Hollywood in that moment of time; its romanticism, charm, and absurdity are expressed through these particular events, people, and their stories.

Why is Tarantino’s Movie called the way it’s called?! Which associations do we have when we hear “Once upon a time”?! We think of fairy tales, of the nonexistent made-up world where anything could happen, where nothing is completely for real, or everything is and feels only half-real, where nothing can be taken too seriously. This attitude and perception could be quite demoralizing when implanted into the real world because then, even murder could feel almost like a game, only half-immoral.

In Tarantino’s movie, there are two central characters whose friendship story is a mainline — Rick Dalton, Hollywood star at the end of his career, and Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double. In the scene where Manson-family members enter Rick Dalton’s house to kill him, they stumble across Cliff, played by Brad Pitt. Cliff, while being high on acid, looks at them confused but not at all scared and asks: “You are real, right?” One of the hippies, Tex, answers aggressively: “I’m as real as a donut, motherfucker.” Cliff laughs hysterically. The cult members, overfed with lies, delusions, with “you can do it all” ideology based on shallow individualism, became “adults” with caricatured belief systems and, of course, faced with the reality, turned into mutants. The “fairytale” got ugly.

Even if it’s quite obvious that the movie is not about analyzing hippies, the Menson family, or even the murders, it still contains a light message to the audience, which is rarely mentioned: simply not to take Hollywood conspiracies and stories too seriously, not to take this whole fame-luxury world too seriously — even today, or especially today.

The comical thing about Hollywood and hippies who were known to criticize the materialistic culture and advocate nonviolence, love, freedom, and even fight for equality is that in reality, they too were the product of “Hollywood” just as much as Megastars.

Hippies felt alienated — so their looks and beliefs, everything about them was just a desperate scream for attention. And more so, the Manson murders were a desperate scream for attention. The last chance to get at least 5 minutes of fame. They were hypocrites- criticizing the materialistic culture exactly because they wanted to be part of it but simply could not. Their protest was not a real one. It was a pathetic and desperate one- and that’s exactly why it turned into evil and ugly stupidity so quickly. That’s why it was or would have been very easy for anyone to manipulate them.

Tarantino makes fun of the megastars showing their insecurities and fears brilliantly: showing how they too, already being in Hollywood, being a huge part of it, were still pressured to live up to it, and by getting older, they felt outdated, forgotten. Even they felt like losers, which is absurd. Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) feels like his “expiration date” is nearing. His insecurities about not being the hottest, youngest, and richest star anymore are presented hilariously in the movie — especially when, after shooting one of the scenes, a kid from the set tells Dalton: “THAT WAS THE BEST ACTING I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY WHOLE LIFE.” -and Rick immediately starts crying, starved for such praise.

Tarantino also makes fun of hippies- presents them in a very caricatured way, not scary and often dumb (or maybe scary only because of their dumbness). For example, the scene in the car — the moment when they decide to murder the stars. The whole absurd spontaneity of the decision. The immense stupidity of it. Tarantino presents them simply as a contraindication of Hollywood, not at all as something opposed to it or fundamentally different from it ideologically.

In the history of “Hollywood’s golden age,” Charles Manson is a crazy person who killed stars shockingly and brutally via a weird cult. There are tons of books and articles exploring the family and the murders. There are too many conspiracy theories and speculations around him. But let’s just simply look at the facts that are easily rechecked. First of all, who was Charles Manson before the fame, which came to him via a weird cult and the murders? And voila! If you were waiting for some left-wing activist for equality and against social injustice, or just someone opposing show business for objective reasons (which were tons), you are very wrong. In fact, on the contrary, he was trying to get into show business quite desperately as an aspiring musician.

How vulgarly symbolic it is that he, with his cult, consisting mostly of young women (somehow brainwashed by him), was living on the old, abandoned movie ranch.

You could also easily listen to Manson’s tracks online. Even if, at first, listening to him sing about love in his heart, “birds and butterflies” and peace, might be creepy and disorienting, the music itself is surprisingly and almost undeniably good. “Manson’s songs play on, sampled or covered by artists in almost any genre that we can name, and streaming now on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.” — writes Jim DeRogatis in a New Yorker article.

“Make love, not war” — hippies prophesied. Manson’s cult members identified themselves as hippies too. Yet, they did make “war” in the name of love, freedom, and justice.

For Tarantino to end the movie in such an absurd, funny manner when the audience was expecting a serious, scary murder, must be a way of showing that we do not need to search for huge conspiracies behind a murder story or any Hollywood story, just because It might have easily turned out the other way around. It was just a matter of chance, timing, manipulations, and simply dumb decisions. But that does not cancel the tragedy of actual murders, of course.

Yet, I should also mention that Tarantino presents the ways of Hollywood with huge love and nostalgia.

When “hippies” attack Cliff, he recognizes the intruders and tries to recall the name of one of them. The boy answers in a pompous “Hollywood” manner, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business.” Cliff laughs and responds — “Na, it was dumber than that. Something like… Rex?”

In this scene, the message from the director to the audience is the clearest: Just relax already. “Hollywood”, no matter how shiny it tries to appear, is much dumber than you imagine.