Movies

Is Tarantino’s Twist a Gift?

Charcoal drawing by Maxwell Adams titled Backwards Hollywood

*Spoilers
Quentin Tarantino blankets the big screen with a 1960’s ambiance as he reconstructs history in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He successfully enhances the despair that existed in 1969 when Charles Manson directed his followers to murder Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and her housemates. On the big screen, he turns the tables of the real-life bloodbath, and in doing so, he successfully magnifies the misery of the actual event.

The well-known movie creator uses his darkly colorful style and his arsenal of the actual events of the past, a recreated history, and trendy advertisements from the time period to share with us a delightful dish for our eyes. His focus is on the Manson murders with little mention of the tyrant himself, but more about the life of Sharon Tate at that time. He reconstructs history by saturating the vibe with sensory details Sharon Tate herself would experience while she walked barefoot down Cielo Drive, dancing to the music that lives in her free mind. Tarantino uses the human senses to tell his new story of old history with color, his own brands, vibrant memory-inducing fabrics and styles, and music from decades ago.

Tarantino’s use of tunes from the past sets the mental stage for his movie, even a song that Charles Manson wrote called “I’ll Never Say Never to Always.” Manson does not have a part on the soundtrack, rightfully so, no matter how catchy and sweet his song sounds, but listening to a group of young women sing the song while walking barefoot down the city streets of LA adds gloom to the sunny setting in the movie. Songs like “Hush” by Deep Purple and “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel set the mind’s stage to a 1969 atmosphere. There are also different versions of songs like “California Dreamin’” by Jose Feliciano, which offers a more ominous sound than the other, more well-known and chipper version by The Mamas and the Papas. This lends a hint to Tarantino’s audience of a less than cheery setting. Another thing that darkens the mood are the historical facts that did exist during the days of Sharon Tate, offering Deja vu to viewers who lived during that time, and a true likeness of the era to those who are too young.

The most vibrant authenticity comes along with the face of the character Sharon Tate. Even her sister claims the likeness is astonishing, including her sweet, gentle demeanor, her quiet voice, and free spirit. Margo Robbie portrays Tate and her loving qualities freely allowing the harmony to juxtapose the brutal murders that happened in the true world. One way she does this is by bouncing down the street on her toes, feeling a high from having watched herself on the big screen, showing her humility. The movie theater she visits is littered with posters and run by a girl who takes Tate’s photo even though she doesn’t know who she is. Tate’s interaction with the girl and all others in the movie shows her generous nature and this flows from scene to scene as she smiles, waits for them to speak first, and offers hugs frequently. The scenes that are blessed with Tate offer smooth beauty and classic clean lines with no interruptions.

The only breaks during the two hour and forty-minute flick are classic radio ads, which don’t take the viewers’ attention away from the story and time but allow them feelings of “oh yeah” and nostalgia. Historically, radio ads are omitted from movies. Who would want a commercial interrupting the atmosphere of a movie anyway? Tarantino invited brands like Mug Root Beer, Tanya Tanning Butter, and even Numero Uno Cologne to enhance the ambiance of the film. Also included in the queue in the soundtrack are local ads like one for a Vagabond High School Reunion, and even a weather report for KHJ, a popular radio station in LA, where the cheerful women sing, “Los Angeles Weather!” and the deep male voice of a radio announcer speedily says, “Low overcast tonight low around 58, mostly sunny tomorrow with a high of 68.” The sound of the ads act as an eerie addition to the already unsettling time period in Los Angeles, inviting the audience to bring back to their senses the scent of vinyl warmed by the sun, and a cigarette that drapes off the ashtray, acid-dipped or not. The ads play in the car of Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, as he picks up a hitchhiker, one of Manson’s family members named Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley, a beautiful young seductress with all sorts of hair on her body. Tarantino keeps some of the names and characters of the time like Tex and George Spahn at the ranch, blatantly omits others, and creates his own, but Manson’s part is trim and curt.

Although Charles Manson is the focal historical cult leader in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there are scant hints of his existence, and the facts are pristinely accurate. Spahn Ranch, the property Manson and his “family” called home, is portrayed as if the footage was taken from a 1969 news story. Manson’s followers are characters in the movie as well, but the character, Charles Manson, played by Damon Herriman, only appeared in a short, yet creepy clip, minimizing his existence and repainting history, taking away from him the glory of the murders he committed with other people’s hands. In the character list, he is called “Charlie” which also shows Tarantino and Hollywood’s hate towards the historical villain by leaving off his well-known last name.

Remember: Spoiler

With the ending comes the sparing of a very pregnant Sharon Tate and her housemates who were killed in real life. Although Tate and her friends were saved in the movie, it does not mean the ending was bloodless. The violence that comes at the conclusion mirrors the anger felt by Hollywood and people around the world in 1969, creating an ending with no loss. Accompanied by the eerie song “Miss Lily Langtree” by Maurice Jarre, the happy-ending occurred, but the juxtaposition of the heavenly big screen conclusion and the real-life murders is not as satisfying as one would expect, because the truth is evident in history. If anything, it makes it more unbearable.

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Heaven Must Have a Green Door

I took this photo in 1989 on Christmas

“I’d like to play a song for my niece, Teri.”

We may have been in a local bar in Western Mass., at the gazebo on a warm July day in Easthampton at the rotary, or even at an outdoor pavilion surrounded by a setting sun and dancing people, barefoot, fun liquid sloshing around in their red plastic cups. He also played music at Jack and Jill celebrations in American Legions, surrounded by dancing smoke and the scent of crock pot lazy Pierogis, and at birthday parties about ages that end in zero. Life stood still when he played, and people loved to listen.

Every time, I knew what song he would play for me.

“It’s called ‘Great Balls of Fire.’” At that, my Uncle Joe’s hands would dance around the keys flawlessly and his rich velvety voice would sing with smooth syncopation while it accidentally commanded attention. I don’t think he had to even look where he placed his piano fingers, no crinkled piece of notepaper held the lyrics for him.

When he played that song, our song, the one I told him I liked when I was a little girl decades ago, I felt like a kid again, little and loved by my big strong uncle, the one who served in the Navy, the one who really loved cats, and the one I shared my love of music with.

He played in a band for most of his life, many bands actually. His favorite music to play was old rock like “Penny Lane” by the Beatles or “Green Door” written by Jim Lowe in 1956, a peppy and very catchy song that offers a riddle about what’s behind the green door that is making people so happy. Uncle Joe sings the lyrics, “Don’t know what they’re doing. But they laugh a lot behind the green door.”

Oh, Uncle Joe

He was Joe Joe, a guy who said what was on his mind, even if maybe he shouldn’t. That’s what made him so real.    

I remember the phone call we had after I lost my husband in 2009. I was in North Carolina and Uncle Joe was unable to fly down. We didn’t talk much. All I remember is hearing him choke out, “I love you.”

Years later he talked about his college and said I should give it a try.

“I went to Westfield State College. I think it’s called Westfield State University now,” he said. “It’s a great school.” I took his advice, and this December I will be finished with my degree at WSU.

I never wondered with Uncle Joe whether I was loved by him. He showed me by carrying around a giant bucket of Lincoln Logs he bought for me at Caldor, and by not getting mad when I got sick at McDonald’s. All over the place. He was kind when he found out I was seventeen and pregnant, and he always looked happy to see me.

How I will always remember him

It was rare to see him without a smile all over his face, and he didn’t simply walk into a room; he bounced. He had a strut stroll that was more of a cool saunter with rhythm, like coolness took no effort with him.

I still hear his deep, booming voice in my mind, and am thankful that he lives on in recordings of songs he played, present tense, but more than that, he lives on in me through the love that I have for him.

Rest, Uncle Joe, not peacefully, but full of oldies, cheeseburgers, and long-haired kittens.