It all started off innocently enough at the screening I attended — far too innocently, in fact. Amid the barrage of previews leading into the feature film, the trailer for the new Fred Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stood out. As if last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor hadn’t been enough, apparently we’ll now have Tom Hanks occupying those spaces — that familiar bench, for instance, on which he changes into his sneakers — which in the documentary are inhabited by the real Fred Rogers. The trailer’s tone is all but impossible to pin down; Hanks both disappears and doesn’t into the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood footage the film so painstakingly recreates. It’s a textbook illustration of the “uncanny valley” — the sensation of a nearly-but-not-quite human object that provokes in us simultaneous feelings of familiarity and discomfort. The trailer, at least, risks coming off like an SNL skit — or more to the point, reminding viewers of the famous National Lampoon parody. A Thanksgiving release for the film is threatened.
In recent years, Hanks has seemed hell-bent on commandeering my childhood (or at least that of my children); he’s already got a creepy impersonation of Walt Disney to his credit (2013’s Saving Mr. Banks). That sense of historical hijacking — nowhere better demonstrated than in Forrest Gump, which writes Hanks’ character into chapters of American history in which he played no part — was no doubt stuck in my mind as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood flickered to life on the screen.
At 2 hours 41 minutes, Once Upon a Time is really two movies. The first is a smug and slick stylistic exercise, a soulless pastiche of the sights and sounds of late 1960s Hollywood (as well as the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up). My goodness, I thought to myself as the first hour trudged past, isn’t Tarantino very pleased with himself. Of course this might be said about any of his films going back to Reservoir Dogs — and for those of us who love him, this is no small part of why we love him. But Once Upon a Time takes it all to another level. And I won’t deny that there is sometimes a certain frisson to it all. A bumper sticker for STP motor oil shows up in an interior shot somewhere; I have no idea why, but those stickers were everywhere in Southern California in 1969. Seeing it immediately transported me back to sixth grade, when I had one proudly plastered cross my school notebook. (I was only 10. Not only did I obviously not have a car, I wasn’t even interested in cars! What, then, was the mysterious allure of motor oil?)
But all the film’s period-precise billboards and gas station signs and late-1960s cars increasingly come to feel like an empty demonstration of technical skill. (And those street scenes seem nearly impossible to shoot in 2018. An Angeleno can only look upon them with wonder.) But it all adds up to a series of cheap (or rather, very expensive) tricks, with no discernible payoff. Tarantino decides, for instance, to recreate the fabulous Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre sign (demolished in “real life” in the late 1990s) and have Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, live in a trailer parked behind it. Just because he can. He has the money. He has the technology.
Meanwhile the other movie within Once Upon a Time marches toward its inevitable date with the Manson family. In this summer of 2019 as we remember the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock, it’s perhaps not surprising that we’d have a movie about the murder of Sharon Tate and her houseguests. But surely it is surprising that this is that movie.
Once Upon a Time is a film obsessed with time and history — with doubling, round intervals, and anniversaries. The action opens on February 8 and 9, 1969, seemingly for no other reason than to put the date of the Tate murders, on the night of August 8–9, an even six months in the future. Of course, the film itself was released fifty years after the grim events to which it alludes (or is that which it eludes?). An early shot in this buddy film focuses on the buddies (stunt man Cliff and the fading actor for whom he doubles, Rick Dalton [Leonardo DiCaprio]) conversing in the parking lot of the iconic Musso & Frank Grill. The camera dwells on the lovingly restored period sign for the restaurant, almost insisting that we take in the date that the Hollywood landmark was established — 1919, fifty years in the film’s past. Or as we say on the Miller Analogies Test, Musso & Frank : Summer of 1969 :: Summer of 1969 : Once Upon a Time.
Perhaps I was conditioned by that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood trailer (did Hanks’ Mr. Rogers really have to sound so much like his Forrest Gump?), but my mind latched onto another anniversary, one to which Tarantino would seem not to be calling our attention. In July 1994 — just shy of the 25th anniversary of the Manson family killings, and 25 years before the release of Tarantino’s latest — Robert Zemekis made Hanks the loveable hero that Americans didn’t quite know they were waiting for. Faced with complex real-world issues like segregation, the Vietnam war, the rise of Black nationalism, and the criminal conduct of Richard Nixon, Forrest Gump blithely suggested that Americans not overthink things. Cinematically if not rhetorically, Forrest Gump proposes that late 20th-century American history would have gone, if not quite differently, perhaps a bit more smoothly had Forrest been an active participant. His small gesture of kindness to one of the Little Rock Nine helps usher in Brown v. Board of Education at Central High School; his oratory stirs the crowds at the March on Washington; his ping-pong skills smooth the way for US diplomacy with China; the Watergate burglars’ flashlights disrupt his sleep, prompting him to call to hotel security. Zemeckis’s film inserts Forrest into history and its technological accomplishments, recognized with Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects Emmys, are as impressive for its time as Tarantino’s are for ours.
One of postmodernism’s favorite tricks is the parallel text, the retelling of a famous story from an unsung point of view: J. M. Coetzee’s retelling of Robinson Crusoe from Friday’s point-of-view, Foe; Valerie Martin’s novel about Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde’s household servant, Mary Reilly; the hit Broadway musical Wicked. Forrest Gump is, to a certain extent, one of these parallel texts. So too, to profoundly different ends, is Once Upon a Time.
Part of the conceit of the parallel text is that the newly told story cannot contradict the facts established in the source; threading the needle requires the writer to provide new information that dovetails with the story we already have. It’s the writer’s version of improv: she can’t reject what’s given in the prior text, but responds instead, “Yes, and…” In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys retells part of the plot of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the first Mrs. Rochester: the “madwoman in the attic” who was just a plot device in Brontë’s novel is given voice, and agency, of her own. Three chapters from the end of Jane Eyre, we learn of the fire that destroyed Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall and killed his wife. Working back from that moment where the 1966 novel intersects the 1847 novel, Rhys constructs a backstory, and a logic, that explain why Bertha might just have wanted to burn down the house. But that fact of the earlier novel’s story cannot be wished away. Parallel texts have a date with destiny.
Not so with Once Upon a Time. Spoiler alert: neither Sharon Tate nor any of her friends is hurt. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, in familiar gruesome-cum-comic Tarantino fashion, but all the residents of Cielo Drive live to tell the tale. No members of Hollywood royalty were harmed in the making of this motion picture. This is Forrest Gump meets the Manson family, but with the character of Forrest split into two roles (Rick and Cliff), who between them have the ability to change the course of history.
Given its flagrant disregard of real history, it’s surprising that the film takes an almost prurient interest in triggering us with historical details that it wants us to piece together. Early in the film, as we’re leaving Rick’s house in the Hollywood Hills, the camera pulls back gradually until the frame is crowded with trademark SoCal bougainvillea from which a street sign peeks out: Cielo Drive. (10050 Cielo Drive was the address of the Roman Polanksi/Sharon Tate home.) Later, we’re meant to pull up short when George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the bedridden owner of the Spahn Ranch, calls out to one “Squeaky” in the front room. “Squeaky”? You mean that redhead who tried to stop Cliff from coming in? My God, that’s Squeaky Fromme! Just what kind of ranch is this? The film’s single most disturbing moment might be when we see Charles Manson talking with Tate’s ex-fiancé Jay Sebring in front of the Polanski/Tate home — but we see him from inside the house, through Tate’s bedroom window. These moments all derive their power to disturb from their connection to a shared national nightmare (shared, at least, by viewers of a certain age).
At the same time, Tarantino doesn’t trust us to know our history, or at least Manson family trivia. The first time Rick sees neighbors Polanski and Tate pull up to their gate, he has to explain to Cliff — and thereby, to us — that Polanski is Hollywood’s “hottest director.” “Holy shit, that was Polanski,” Rick gushes. “Here I am, flat on my ass, and who’s living next to me? The director of Rosemary’s fucking Baby.” Oh, that Roman Polanski. Now, wasn’t that helpful?
Another scene opens on a shot of the circular driveway at the Playboy Mansion (which, inconveniently, Hugh Hefner did not purchase and rebrand until 1971). It’s inexplicably captioned “Playboy Mansion” for us, complete with the trademark “Playboy” typeface. (As if the wait staff in bunny outfits wouldn’t have given the game away.) Once we’ve gained entry, the film strains to identify characters for us so that we can connect all the dots. In one shot, Steve McQueen, Michelle Phillips, and Jay Sebring all get captions, as if the film has suddenly slipped into documentary. McQueen proceeds to lecture to the camera about the Polanski-Tate-Sebring love triangle — which ultimately has no bearing whatever on the film’s trajectory.
Quentin Tarantino is of course under no obligation to accept the terms under which Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea. The strength of the parallel novel is its ability to create space for narratives of the historically powerless, like Scarlett O’Hara’s slave Cynara in Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone. But no one (outside of 4chan and 8chan, perhaps) is looking for a fictional backstory that would make Manson and his followers more sympathetic. And Once Upon a Time does, I suppose, deliver its own kind of satisfaction — if you find seeing Tex Watson killed by a pit bull, rather than running a ministry out of a San Diego prison cell, satisfying. Hollywood up, Hippies down. What’s not to love?
The film’s commitment to historical accuracy and its experiment in historical fantasy part ways definitively at the moment when the Manson family members sent to dispatch the residents of the Polanski/Tate residence on the night of August 8 decide that rather than carrying out Charlie’s orders, they’ll do the devil’s work in the home of Rick Dalton. And they reach that decision after Rick, wearing a bathrobe, holding a pitcher of margaritas, and looking for all the world like The Big Lebowski, storms out onto Cielo Drive and screams at them, “move your fucking car!” (They’re on a private road.)
I’m afraid it will sound like I’m telling Quentin Tarantino to get off my lawn, but some nightmares are private, too, and some real-life horrors too horrific to exploit. (Though this was, I suppose, the thinking that inspired the producers of “Springtime for Hitler” — and they were wrong.) My childhood home sits midway between the two epicenters of the Tate murders—11 miles south-southeast of Spahn Ranch, 14½ miles northwest of 10050 Cielo Drive. For those of us living in Southern California in the summer of 1969, the four months of helter skelter between the Tate killings and indictment of the Manson family members was simply terrifying. As we seemingly read the manifesto of another mass gunman online every week, the Manson family killings surely still have something to say to us. I’m just not sure that burning the Susan Atkins character alive with a blowtorch in Rick Dalton’s swimming pool is quite the analysis I was searching for.