We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five… We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
– Joan Didion, The White Album
“If Hollywood was the forbidden planet,” Peter Biskind writes early in Easy Riders Raging Bulls, then Charles Manson “was the monster from the id.” The murders committed at 10050 Cielo Drive the night of August 8, 1969 were, as Buck Henry tells Biskind, “the defining event of our time. It affected everybody’s work, it affected the way people thought about each other.” As reports and rumors spread like wildfire, Biskind concludes, “there was a sense of closure, that an era was over, that people had gotten away with a lot for a while and, for the more apocalyptically minded, that the Grim Reaper was going to cut them all down.”
These inflection points in history have long been a fascination of mine, and none has exerted more gravitational pull than the summer of 1969 in Southern California, when the tectonic plates of the generation gap were already shifting so seismically that one night of shocking violence could become a spiritual “Big One,” setting first Hollywood and then America off on the course of disillusionment and strife that would characterize so much of the following decade and beyond. An unimaginable crime committed by hippies straight out of central casting inflamed an already simmering generational anxiety by conflating terrorism with fashion stylings intimately connected to anti-war demonstration; having modeled his charisma and messaging on the rock gods of the day, Manson associated an entire sphere of popular culture with violent radicalization, presaging the so-called “Satanic panic” that arose in the ‘70s. And by contributing to a culture of fear and despair for an emerging generation of Hollywood storytellers, the murders at Cielo Drive would have reverberating influence on years of mass media, rippling across the country to be ingested by audiences and so integrated into the nation’s collective cultural worldview.
As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, her 1978 essay that dissects the close of the ‘60s in Southern California, “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 in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969.” And on the night of the Cielo Drive murders, “the paranoia was fulfilled.” It’s a plot turn that satisfies my lifelong urge to look for a narrative arc in the scrum of real life. Just one night can change history—if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with stories, nor their capacity to help us process and understand our place in the universe.
And this was the story I expected as I walked into Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood on opening day, though not until later would I realize just how much I was counting on this film functioning as a realist’s eulogy for a phase of American life. I longed for that definitive fictionalized rendering to finally crystalize what mattered about that place during that summer. And so I was enchanted by how much my longed-for sense of aching melancholy—for lost time, lost innocence, a lost shot at a happier future—was embodied by the first 2 1/2 of its nearly three-hour runtime.
Then, of course, the doors of history slide. Rather than 10050 Cielo Drive, Manson acolytes Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel1 enter the home of Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) next door neighbor, aging TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), where they’re killed in the most hyperbolically violent way possible by a drunk Rick and his LSD-dosed stuntman/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Sharon Tate survives the night, and one of the most raw and lingering wounds of the 20th century is prevented.
If you’re familiar with Tarantino’s filmography, it’s an ending that’s shocking but hardly surprising, echoing as it does the conclusion of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which saw Adolf Hitler, along with a good deal of his coterie and several hundred additional Nazis, burned alive and riddled with bullets for good measure, ending World War II a full two years ahead of history’s schedule. It was always a safe bet that Tarantino would use Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood to round out a loose trilogy of revisionist score-settling alongside Basterds and its 2012 follow-up, Django Unchained, which aimed to provide symbolic revenge for the Atlantic slave trade in the form of another ostentatious spectacle of overkill.
But I’d pinned my hopes on the idea that this time Tarantino would leave history unchanged. I’d wanted my wistful and aching tribute to an epochal tragedy, and I’d wanted it so intensely that I’d convinced myself this most audacious of auteurs might choose an uncharacteristic moderation. And so the conclusion left me shaken and unnerved, struggling to grapple with the historical implications of preventing the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends, what 2019 might look like if that figurative butterfly had never been stepped upon. Like a sort of preemptive and extendedKuleshov effect, I had interpreted all that preceded the climax through its association to the ending I presumed was coming, and now my understanding of the film’s entire purpose was thrown into disarray.
As I began a long weekend of wrestling with Tarantino’s ninth film, one minor detail became a raft that I clung to in my interior storm. It’s a moment that occupies less than half a minute of screen time, but one that itched at my mind, a thread I couldn’t help pulling at, and one that would lead me to recontextualize not just the conclusion of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but my entire understanding of what it means to fixate on this so-called death knell of the 1960s.
You hear it towards the close of the film’s first act as Cliff pulls Rick’s car into the driveway of the Cielo Drive home where, unbeknownst to them, in six months’ time these men will change the course of history2. Rick has just finished a meeting that’s triggered a wave of nearly insurmountable existential sorrow, and Cliff has just caught his first sighting of the group of teenage runaways we now call the Manson family. As Rick prepares to go inside for another night of lonely binge drinking, the camera lingers outside the car in the dusk, allowing us to hear the ominous pitchman’s voice booming from the stereo: “Don’t dare stare at the Illustrated Man. There are fearful pictures on his skin. But the most fearful thing is tattooed on his soul.” This particular Warner Brothers motion picture, the adman snarls, is “an incredible journey to the outer limits of imagination.”
This advertisement is for Jack Smight’s feature adaptation of The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury’s collection of loosely connected short stories. In yet another example of Tarantino’s longstanding history of granular attention to detail, Smight’s film would indeed see release about one month after the events of the first two-thirds of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and though it may seem like a simple period detail anchoring us in the film’s specific date, the moment stands out. No film promo granted precious uninterrupted screen time—as well as a spot on the soundtrack album—would be chosen carelessly by a walking cinephilic encyclopedia like Quentin Tarantino. No choice in a Tarantino project is unconsidered, but this one in particular—the only contemporary film advertisement given any extended focus in the film save for the trailers that run before a later screening of The Wrecking Crew—serves as an interpretive key useful even beyond what its creator may have intended. From its position at ground zero of the angst that accompanied the turn of the decade, The Illustrated Man explores the same concerns—the paranoia with which aging generations survey those on the rise; the perils of an unwavering conviction that the horrors of the past dictate the potential of the future—that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood surveys from the vantage of a half-century’s remove, a warped mirror that only amplifies the thematic resonance of each film.
In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, the three stories play out across one day in February 1969, with prologues set the preceding day, and a united epilogue set six months later. In one thread, over-the-hill TV cowboy Rick struggles against a life-threatening despair induced by missed opportunities and impending obsolescence but summons all his creative power for one last burst of greatness that leaves him reenergized and ready to take the next step into an uncertain professional future. Meanwhile, Cliff drives a teenaged hitchhiker to derelict film location (and now-famed home base of the Manson family) Spahn Movie Ranch, where he forces a meeting with the ranch’s owner (a former colleague now symbiotically bound to Manson’s cult) only to be rebuffed and then forced to fight his way out. And finally, Sharon is lured away from her afternoon’s errands to take in a matinee of The Wrecking Crew, her follow-up to a star-making role in Valley of the Dolls, basking in her ascendant fame and the delight she takes in her craft.
The stories told in The Illustrated Man are far more isolated, each taking place in a different imagined future, though they’re united by both recurring actors and a sense of apocalyptic doom, be it personal or global. In “The Long Rain,” a grizzled, aging colonel stranded on Venus struggles towards an uncertain home base, holding despair at bay as his remaining crew succumbs to suicidal madness. In “The Veldt,” two children are gifted a virtual reality playroom that allows them to conjure any scenario they wish, but when a tool meant as a therapeutic aid for purging violent impulses instead fosters their growing sociopathic tendencies, they use their playroom to murder their parents. And in the final installment, “The Last Night of the World,” every adult on earth shares an identical vision of the planet’s destruction, causing the global government to rule that all children be given poison capsules at bedtime to spare them the apocalyptic pain, a choice that backfires horribly when the vision is proven false, ending the story on an image of traumatized parents weeping over the children they’ve sacrificed for no reason.
Beyond even this similarity in narrative construction, it’s the framing device that would seem most relevant to the concerns of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. In the thread uniting Bradbury’s ominous tales, a young traveler named Willie (Robert Drivas)—crossing a dusty yet idyllic landscape that’s not hard to envision lying someplace just north of Los Angeles—encounters Carl (Rod Steiger), a volatile drifter covered head to toe in tattoos, hypnotic images that draw Willie in and provide gateways to the stories. Thus, even as the fantastical triptych exists independent of the Illustrated Man’s metanarrative, his presence is never far from the viewer’s mind, a panoptic third eye that lords over the stories—powerful, mysterious, and deadly.
Similarly, for a majority of American audiences, it’s impossible not to view the three storylines in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood as existing under a malevolent metanarrative of their own: that of the decades-long shadow cast by Charles Manson’s actions and influence.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was marketedfrom its earliest announcements as “Quentin Tarantino’s Manson movie” and there was understandable public anxiety as to how a director so prone to playing hyperviolence as breezy entertainment would handle such a gruesome real-life event. The Cielo murders were defined by brutality so appalling that few cinematic depictions attempt to convey the true scope of the horrors done to Sharon Tate and her friends. But if any director had the resume to suggest he might be willing to fully engage with this level of depraved violence, it was the man whose films can have body counts to rival their runtimes (see: Kill Bill Volume 1’spurported 95 deaths across 111 minutes). As the director remained defiantly cagey on his plans for the story, there was simply no guarantee he wouldn’t indulge his bloodiest impulses, with the only concrete mitigating factor being the eventualpublic approval granted the project by Sharon Tate’s sister, a notable break in her usual perspective that cinematic depictions of Manson’s crimes are tasteless.
To anyone concerned Tarantino might revel in a tawdry exploitation of Manson’s wild-eyed image, however, The Illustrated Man’s radio ad provides a near-subliminal nod to the director’s true intent. The words that come rumbling out of the car radio are a warning: “Don’t dare stare” at this violent psychopath.
Manson is an unquestionably beguiling figure for a vast multitude of reasons. In his intersections with show business,3 he lends a titillating whiff of transgressive danger to the glamorous image of celebrity life. With the media circus surrounding his criminal trial he presaged the modern cycle of elevating murderers into celebrities, soon to be followed by the Zodiac killer and Ted Bundy. And so Manson has remaineda constant figure in our mythmaking across the past half-century. In him we find the ideal American bogeyman, a mesmerizing character who can also stand in for any number of symbolic purposes the storyteller may have in mind.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, however, makes the startlingly unorthodox choice to deny the audience the opportunity to stare at Charles Manson. While the trailer teased an active and involved role, these promotional shots turn out to be among the only ones Tarantino offers4. In his sole scene, Manson visits Sharon’s house prior to her day of errands, knocking on the door in search of the home’s previous owner only to be sent away by Jay Sebring5The scene is just enough to provide a good look at Manson, one in which he adopts a mode of deferential humility, making him manifest for the audience just long enough to deny him the status of a nefarious unseen puppet-master.
And then Manson is removed from the picture, elsewhere referred to only by his acolytes, and in only the most basic terms—on Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch, the cult is less concerned with waxing rhapsodic over their guru than they are with neutralizing the threat Cliff represents, and Charlie is simply an unseen and unknown quantity who’s mentioned briefly as someone of significance to the community6. For most viewers, Manson is a figure already looming large in the story, and so he can’t help influencing one’s interpretation of everything that unfolds in the stories of Rick, Cliff, and Sharon. To further indulge this pervasive cultural urge, though, would overwhelm the story like a black hole, drawing all energy towards him rather than focusing on the stories that matter.
In Smight’s film, Willie is well aware of the danger of the Illustrated Man’s influence and attempts repeatedly to break away. Each time, though, he’s drawn back by his limitless fascination with what he sees, no matter how dark and depraved the vision. But before too long, Willie looks at a patch of bare skin and sees one final vision: his own doom. And this, if the radio advertisement can indeed be taken as a subtle prod, is the warning nodded at by Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: there’s a price to be paid for being intrigued by a villain. In a July 2019 interview with Time magazine, Tarantino mentions having set the story aside for several years, recalling his concern over “whether I wanted to let the Manson family into my head that much.” Dare stare into the void, he seems to have known, and the void will stare back. And you may lose some vital part of yourself in the bargain.
Given that Smight and screenwriter Howard B. Kreitsek conceived their version of The Illustrated Man roughly concurrently to the era depicted in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it’s no surprise that the cultural shifts Tarantino charts are reflected and refracted in the prior film. In addition to the Atomic Age futurist anxieties explored in most any mid-century Bradbury story, Smight and Kreitsek imbue their adaptation with a hefty dose of generational angst, the ultimately well-founded fears that Eisenhower-era traditionalists harbored over the existential threat represented by the flower children and their utter disregard for restrictive cultural mores.
And so The Illustrated Man carries themes of generational tension both textual and metatextual. The dynamic that Rick is warned of by veteran agent Marvin Schwarzs—that shifting into the role of “heavy” opposite young upstarts represents a shift towards irrelevance—is embodied by the casting of Steiger and Drivas. After nearly three decades of work with directors from Kazan to Lumet to Lean, Steiger is here reduced to an addled bruiser, whileDrivas, with his long hair and gentle features, embodies the “skinny androgynous” mold of leading man that Tarantino describes in a July 2019 episode of the New Beverly Cinema’s Pure Cinema Podcast as the oncoming tide that would subsume the prior decade’s traditional model of masculinity.
This generational clash is present in not just the framing device but the film’s bookending stories, “The Veldt” and “The Last Night of the World,” which provide a paired inversion of the struggle between youth and maturity, as well as a tone of mournful ennui that’s by now so entwined with our cultural understanding of the sunset of the ‘60s7.
“The Veldt” tackles a pet theme of Bradbury’s: the insidious influence of mass media, a concern already synonymous with the author’s name after the 1953 publication and 1966 screen adaptation of his novel Fahrenheit 451. But where in that story the danger of projected imagery was left as a secondary undercurrent, in “The Veldt,” the threats represented by what parents and pediatricians now call “screen time” is of sole concern. The central children are not merely influenced by the carnage they enjoy in their digital playroom, they’re so entranced by it that they become able to manifest the horrors into life.
Watching as this outlet meant to placate the children instead radicalizes them, it’s not hard to draw a line between “The Veldt” and the theory that Tarantino’s vision of Susan Atkins details as the would-be killers prepare for their assault on Rick’s house. “We all grew up watching TV,” she snarls at three more members of the first generation for whom this was possible. “If you grew up watching TV, that means you grew up watching murder. And every show on TV that wasn’t I Love Lucy was about murder. So my idea is: we kill the people who taught us to kill.”
Once again blurring the textual with the metatextual in its tapestry of generational warfare, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s cinematic Manson family is rounded out with as many young celebrity scions as possible. Outside of the Cielo killers (or would-be killers in Tarantino’s telling), the most prominent Manson acolyte is Pussycat, the hitchhiker who brings Cliff to Spahn Movie Ranch, portrayed by Margaret Qualley, daughter of actress Andie MacDowell and fashion model Paul Qualley, while prominent cult member Linda Kasabian8is played by Maya Hawke, daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Lena Dunham, who plays Spahn resident Catherine Share, was known prior to her own creative success as the daughter of prominent visual artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, and with even Harley Quinn Smith (daughter of Kevin) appearing as a non-speaking extra in the throng of Manson girls, it’s clear this was no casual choice.
In his Pure Cinema Podcast appearance, Tarantino speaks of the anxiety felt by stars like Rick as the new generation seemed made up of “hippie [kids] of famous people,” citing Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Arlo Guthrie as examples9. And so who does he cast as George Spahn, enfeebled benefactor to the parasitic Manson family, but Bruce Dern, who became a key figure of the New Hollywood era after his collaborations with Easy Rider producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. Just as Dern’s brethren devoured Rick’s old guard, so Dern’s character is now fed upon by the spiritual grandchildren of Rick’s generation—eventually, the old new must always make way for the new new.
The conclusion of “The Veldt,” then, serves as an apt metaphor for the generational shift that climaxed around 1969. From the perspective of the old guard, the youth of America lost its collective mind and turned their violent attentions upon their elders, a cynical and paranoid vision only lent supporting proof when a group of (as Rick mutters in the opening sequence) fuckin hippie motherfuckers went into the night to do their self-appointed devil’s business.
With its global generational genocide, “The Last Night of the World” comes to the bleakest conclusion of the three stories tattooed upon the Illustrated Man. And yet it’s the catastrophic themes pondered in this segment that have led me counterintuitively to an optimistic reading of, and a belated serenity towards Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
On what they erroneously believe to be the eve of the apocalypse, the two central parents10 bow their heads with the grave weight of responsibility and then deliberately end their children’s lives. Much as they may claim it’s their duty, they do it by choice, a decision that’s shortsighted and (barring an immediate and efficient repopulation effort) may in fact hasten humanity’s demise.
And much as we may sit down for any story concerning the Cielo murders with a heavy heart, for many of us who are compelled to consider and reconsider this event doing so has the feel of a solemn ritual, an observation of an American station of the cross. Tate has become a modern martyr—if her murder is considered by so many to be a turning point in 20th century history, then she died for our world to be born, and we nod and brood as we earnestly witness this passion play. Repeatedly, and with no apparent sign of slowing down, we sacrifice some effigy of Sharon Tate, whether embodied in docudrama by a glamorous young star likeHillary Duff orGrace Van Dien, or in somethinly fictionalized story that draws on our collective awareness of these true events. Our stomachs churn as the events unfold, but when the next Manson story arrives, we turn up again to study this spiritual “Big One” and perhaps help us understand where we are today.
But if, as Joan Didion so famously believes, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then the stories we select make all the difference in how we live. And as we compare and contrast the paranoia and disillusionment kicked off by the summer of 1969 against the cultural turmoil of today—their cynicism and our pessimism, our corruption and their excess—we search for more connecting threads to root our confusing lives in a comforting sense of being part of some comprehensible narrative of causes and effects. Like the parents in “The Last Night of the World,” who cite historical record of an analogous collective prophecy to justify their belief that this current vision will come true as well, we increasingly treat tragedy as inevitability.And it can be hard not to wonder what symbolic bloodletting we might allow next, believing it’s our fate as Americans caught in the interlocking cycles of history.
Quentin Tarantino, it would seem, is more concerned with another question: what if? This is the question that Bradbury, in his introduction to the reissue of The Illustrated Man, cites as forming the core of so many of his own stories, including one of his most influential, “A Sound of Thunder,” which coined the image of a crushed prehistoric butterfly as a metaphor for the massive rippling consequences of the smallest moves. As Tarantino’s camera recedes into the sky, leaving behind a night of brutality that’s shocking in ways wholly divergent from historical record, the soundtrack fills with eerie strains of a Maurice Jarre composition11 that would not sound out of place at the close of one of Bradbury’s Twilight Zone installments. And then the viewer is left with nothing but iterations of one essential question: what if Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steven Parent had awoken on August 9, 1969? What cultural cycles instigated by their deaths could have been nipped in the bud?
Quentin Tarantino is well aware that he made a film running counter to what pop culture has conditioned us to expect. In his Time interview, he acknowledges the temptation to craft a more conventional plot through which to march Rick, Cliff, and Sharon. “But,” he concludes, “I thought, we don’t need a story. They’re the story.”
And this is the offering that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood makes to the memory of Sharon Tate, one I couldn’t appreciate until my second viewing. The third act, which takes place the night of a certain savage multiple homicide on Cielo Drive, is narrated in dulcet voiceover by Tarantino repertory stalwart Kurt Russell. This narration acknowledges the reality that both Rick and Cliff are aware of: due to the financial realities of Rick’s career, tonight is “the end of an era for both of them.” And as the night proceeds, Tarantino allows the viewer to believe that this is the end of an era for America as well, at least by the reckoning of many cultural historians12. We watch as Sharon and her friends progress through their evening, Tarantino applying that trademark granular attention to detail as he conjures not just the restaurant Tate and her friends visited but the song Abigail Folger played on the piano upon returning to Cielo Drive. As Russell’s voice catalogues the night’s activities, timestamps appear onscreen in a storytelling ritual intuitively familiar thanks to countless popular works of true crime. And so we take it for granted: these details of Sharon’s night are significant because they’re her last experiences on Earth.
But we’re wrong. With the revisionist ending a foregone conclusion, these become just a few facts about one night in the life of Sharon Tate as conjured by Quentin Tarantino. These details are meaningful not retroactively because of her death but immediately because they are worthy of consideration and honor simply by virtue of her humanity. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was sold on Sharon’s story, but in the end, it’s revealed that Sharon is the story.13
As far back as the trailer’s debut, I had understood that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would be a what if story, but I accepted the central thought experiment at face value: what if you were Sharon Tate’s next-door neighbor? It’s an intriguing question, but one with an obviously mundane answer that’s easily obtainable from any book on the Manson case. I was so busy longing for a glossy reminder of a story I already knew that I didn’t consider how much I might actually need a promise instead: the assurance that history doesn’t have to be written by the villains.
There are valid reasons to question how Tarantino delivers this message—particularly the semiotic meaning of creating yet more imagery of (unusually graphic and brutal) violence done by men to women in service of what’s ostensibly an exorcism of a male demon, as well as the questions of what positive social change that arose alongside ‘70s disillusionment might be erased in this rendering of an ostensibly better way forward for America14—but there is nothing inadvertent about his choice to hold back the title card until the film’s final frames. Once the story’s fantastical intent has been laid bare, those four magical words appear on-screen, the incantation that we learn as children can unlock infinite worlds of possibility.
This is a film dense with allusion and theme, one meant to be studied and analyzed and debated. Just as much, though, it’s a vision to be felt on something like a preconscious level, one that invites us to ponder what we might do with the present if the past we gauge ourselves against had one less persistently aching wound. It’s not a film that presumes to offer answers, but to suggest that it should seems to misunderstand something about the core purpose of storytelling. When Trudi, Rick’s young costar and pint-sized oracle, asks for the story of the dime store novel he’s reading, Rick declines, saying he hasn’t gotten to the end yet. “I didn’t ask for the whole story,” she scolds him. “What’s the idea of the story?” Concrete conclusions can be gratifying, but more often than not, it’s the deeper wells of primal humanity drawn out of us by narrative that provide the true and lasting satisfaction.
Bradbury titled his introduction to the reissued Illustrated Man “Dancing, So As Not to Be Dead,” after his reckoning of the purpose of his storytelling. Writing stories “filled my years, the years when I refused to die. I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, at noon or 3:00 a.m. So as not to be dead.” And in this brief essay he offers another interpretation of the purpose of storytelling: “We theorize about what goes on in the brain, but it is mostly undiscovered country. A writer’s work is to coax the stuff out and see how it plays. Surprise, as I have often said, is everything.”
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, a melancholy elegy with a fairy tale at its core, is a work of surprises, from an unconventional structure to stylistic flourishes to a cartoonishly outrageous denouement. But after delivering all these surprises to a captive audience, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood sends that audience staggering and blinking out into the light with one more what if to ponder: what if the future isn’t dictated by the past? What surprises might still be in store?