This fall, I’m focused on writing new fiction as often as possible while working with my existing customers. I am also researching topics in sports, history and the arts for new magazine assignments, so stay tuned. I recently interviewed literature scholar Shoshana Milgram about Victor Hugo for an article which is coming soon. Also, stand by for a link to an article about Pittsburgh and Ayn Rand in this winter’s edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly.
Meanwhile, I’ve added a couple of movie-themed article links to the site archives. My review of John Ford’s 1960 motion picture about a Negro soldier accused of raping a white woman, Sergeant Rutledge, which is truly heroic unlike the heavily hyped Black Panther, can be read here. This week, the World Series ended, so I’ve included my 70th anniversary review of The Stratton Story, starring June Allyson and James Stewart. This inspiring, romantic movie is a simple and heroic baseball tale; read my review here.
My recent viewing of Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix moved me to finally see Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). While I notice certain similarities, it’s the differences with that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Rocky, that really caught my attention. My analysis found both a flaw and much to appreciate. Look for a new review soon. Meanwhile, read my newest classic movie breakdown of another Academy Award-winning Best Picture, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which I recently watched in Hollywood’s historic Cinerama Dome, on The New Romanticist here and Aurora’s classic movie site, Once Upon a Screen, here. My theme about this exceptional movie is that its value lies in its depiction of one man’s intransigent pursuit of a heroic life.
New movies I’m planning to see and may review include the new Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) picture about one of my earliest heroes, Harriet Tubman, Harriet, featuring her husband Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope) and son as well as Janelle Monae (Moonlight, Hidden Figures). I’m also planning to see the new movie about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks, probably while I’m on assignment in Pittsburgh among fellow Pittsburghers who knew Mr. Rogers best. Time permitting, I also want to see The Current War, Judy and Motherless Brooklyn. Later this year, I plan to preview my writing for the new year, including my adult educational media and writing courses and other new writings. Wishing you a happy Halloween until then.
Joker, seen in Hollywood’s historic Cinerama Dome, is as plain, satirical and chilling as its title. There is no article. No Cesar Romero, no Jack Nicholson, no Heath Ledger to animate and add antics to this version of what begins the terrible Batman comic book villain. He’s just joker.
Aren’t we all? This is what director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the script, aims to provoke the audience to think about. You there, so-and-so with the laughing face, knee-slapping after 30 seasons of Simpsons and neverending cynicism on South Park, Sopranos, Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live and every slice of sinister humor embedded in this culture from sniveling Greg Gutfeld to sniveling Bill Maher and, in particular, the late night put-down set? You’re part of what’s driving man to madness and mayhem. Really. You are, Joker shows and tells. Here, Phillips depicts with a penetrating portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix (Her, Walk the Line) of the much-maligned, non-college-bred white male, which is why the “social justice” thugs hate this film sight unseen, the various factors that breed one of today’s most persecuted minorities, the American outcast, into monsters.
Comics fans, especially original Batman fans, and I am neither, will recognize the cues, though thankfully this isn’t one of those atrocious “Easter egg” Disney Marvel films in which the audience is expected to hunt and howl for ads, plugs and marketing tie-ins. But I see Joker as much as antifa’s origins story as Joker’s. Want to know how the masked anarchist and his roving gang of socialist, anti-wealth thugs comes to rule the streets? Here, again, have a look. This makes Joker less a great movie than an extremely disturbing social commentary, which is what I think it really is. It’s a good movie for what it is.
But it’s a scathing indictment of the cynical, Puritanical, maniacal axis which spawns attempts to sanitize the West of any sign of free thought, expression and association, including “social justice” types’ attempts to squash and suppress this film, which echo the irrationalism of the Me, Too and similar movements. Joker certainly gushes blood and gore but it owes more to 1976’s Network than other villain tales. In this sense, fanboys, geeks and mindless Rotten Tomatoes types may spin into dumbed-down withdrawal from all the thought that’s gone into Joker and what comes off the screen.
The setting, which is precisely accurate with one glaring videotape exception, is financially troubled New York City stand-in Gotham City in the 1970s, which the man deemed a joker listens to on the radio as he gets ready for work. The rich get richer in some vaguely cronyist society while everyone else gets poorer, especially the sick, weak and creative. That he makes a living from holding a sign saying “everything must go” sets up the film’s theme that making a joke out of what one ought to take seriously breeds an utter and total abandonment of optimism, benevolence and reason.
The lead character honestly does his best to remain human. He works. He takes help when it’s offered. He sees a mental health therapist. He keeps a journal. He takes care of his sick mother. He knows he’s losing a grip on reality and he addresses this, too. His sole vice is that he smokes cigarettes. But he remains an outcast. Like so many of today’s malcontents, such as the mass murderer a policeman pointed out had pleaded for help when he was caught in a downward spiral (read about it here), he is both spawned as monster and spurned as man.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T,” he writes with a prophetic all caps in his journal. But he shows up, again and again and again, for Mother, for work as a promotional and children’s hospital clown, for therapy. Phillips in his best choice depicts the Joaquin Phoenix character facing a long flight of concrete stairs. You almost feel his weary body shrink from the sight of it. Knowing it’s a slog, he climbs, day after day, perhaps like you do, striving to make ends meet, to meet the demands of the day. Draw a bath for Mother, watch the late night TV host (Robert De Niro, tying into his own performance in King of Comedy) check the mail, show up for work here, ride the subway there. Like those stairs, it’s a slog.
But the outcast, facing injustice, drudgery and worse, makes the effort. Perhaps like you do, too. This Joker counts upon. It’s like it knows one’s innermost struggles, shames and hardships. And the toll hardship takes on clarity. It’s hard to say where he crosses the line into delusion, like a Jesus or an eco-freak railing against the rapture or the weather, or, appropriate to Joker, a nihilist raging against “the Man”, the rich or the corporation. But Joker dramatizes the cackle in the climb (and, later, in the descent) on those stairs. And in a stunning marker of a horrible crime on a one-tracked train gliding toward Gotham’s skyline like a viral bug racing toward the nerve center.
Lights flicker and dim, on the subway and in the hospital, as art by Stephen Sondheim and Charlie Chaplin accompanies the batty, emaciated clown’s modern interpretive dance, dolloping the film with an impending sense of loopy dread, doom and chronic despair. Whether in a street riot against the rich or a men’s room confrontation with a businessman turned politician, Joker gives a great sense of the character’s being alone, completely alone, the lonely one being beaten down and ridiculed while he dies laughing and, as some or much of the world seems right now, goes slowly insane.
Finally, the misanthrope rides a graffiti-riddled bus crossing a bridge symbolizing perhaps his last moments of semblance before the mob subsumes his soul, as matters of motherhood, madness and mayhem collide in one perfectly logical prelude to what putting on a happy face really means in practice. Smile or don’t smile; in Joker, the joke’s on you. More exactly, it’s on the cult of today’s code of Nothing Worship, which aggregates men’s thoughts, sneers at honesty and blurs the serious and the sniveling to the point of delusion while turning what Victor Hugo once called “the man who laughs” into the one who’s no longer able to distinguish what ought not to be destroyed.
Last night’s impending impeachment compounds other recent lessons affirming my contention that America is dwindling, slipping into a culture of faith, not reason. I think it’s an insidious decline because America coasts on the Industrial Revolution’s aftereffects and its progressive byproduct, today’s technology with advancement in medicine, aeronautics, science, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Yet regression is real.
Two recent cases in point come from CBS News, press that I’ve praised (read my post here). The first instance involves two anchors for the CBS News streaming app, Vladimir Duthiers and Anne-Marie Green, both of whom thoroughly and feverishly endorsed the concept, if it can be called that, of divine intervention after reporting on a child’s brave attempt to survive her father’s suicide and attempted murder.
After the man jumped with his daughter in his arms in front of a New York City subway train, the girl survived, apparently by lying down between tracks. After the deadly leap, someone jumped down and assisted in rescuing the child by guiding her out of danger, instructing her not to look at the dead father and, instead, to “crawl like a puppy”, treating the child as a child, encouraging her to come out from underneath the train. Green and Duthiers raved instead about what Green calls “divine intervention”, trivializing the girl’s intelligence and the heroism. It’s an instance of irrelevant, inappropriate and improper editorializing, really proselytizing for faith, during what should have been a somber report on suicide and an act of heroism.
Also on CBS News, billionaire media titan Oprah and bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates appeared with Gayle King, Tony Dokoupil and Anthony Mason on CBS This Morning to discuss a new novel being promoted by Oprah in partnership with Apple Books via Oprah’s book club. The hosts were interested in knowing whether Oprah’s running for president. There was one line during the entire segment about the novel. The author was reduced to fragments.
Here, faith lies in the cult of a woman’s personality, in this case Oprah. As I’ve written before, the cult of Oprah Winfrey is entirely based on Oprah Winfrey. She is the ultimate narcissist. Everything she does is centered upon herself in crass, vulgar and undignified ways and means. That most of her musings appear in superficial bursts on self-improvement makes her narcissism more insidious.
Consider her appearance on CBS This Morning. Rather than invite the author of a potential new bestseller to appear on the program to answer informed and intelligent questions about the plot, characters and theme, the trio, declining to disclose that one of the hosts maintains an intimate personal relationship with Oprah Winfrey, proceeded to defer to Oprah — strictly on the grounds that she’d bestowed attention upon a new novel, whose author sat silently and obediently by her side. Coates was asked to speak once or twice. Though this is presumably done for the sake of “diversity and inclusion”, note that the intellectual was sidelined and excluded.
The religion for this particular application of faith is multiculturalism. The audience learned next to nothing about the book; not the price, not the publisher, not the publication date, certainly not the characters, plot or meaning — really, nothing was learned in any substantial sense. However, the audience did learn that Oprah read the book twice and that her friend Gayle is in the middle of reading it, too, and that Gayle called Oprah to find out what’s going to happen next.
This is the culture of belief in the superficial; facts and analysis matter less than faith in personalities, small talk, impressions, what others think because others think it and trends.
Greta Thunberg is another example. I call this braided girl the anti-child. The teenaged environmentalist and activist is clearly disturbed. Her faith that the world will end in 12 years based on apocalyptic preachings is apparently encouraged by her environmentalist-activist parents. I can think of few transgressions worse than exploiting a child for religious purposes. The new religionists tout environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, statism and total government control or totalitarianism and they are wildly irrational and overzealous. Propagandizing this delusional, hostile, wayward child became a media sensation.
That a child on an internationally sponsored press tour preaching alarmist rhetoric gets more press at the expense of examining the fact that millions of Americans suffer and struggle to pay for unaffordable health care after nearly 10 years of the monstrosity known as ObamaCare, enacted as the preposterously named Affordable Care Act, or that rebels launched a historic protest against Communism in Hong Kong or that the Islamic dictatorship of Iran escalates acts of war against the West is an unmistakable sign of regression.
I’ve encountered everyday signs, too. During a recent airport ride with a Lyft driver, I observed the danger of religious zealotry.
Upon activating the ride, I had pre-designated the destination airline. But the driver asked which airline when she arrived to give me a ride to the airport. I told her the airline. The driver would ask again — and again — which airline. The most disturbing part of the trip involved her explicit proclamations of belief that God is in control of life on earth. As the driver of the vehicle, she was in control of mine. Accordingly, I remained silent. Upon each mention of God, I diverted the conversation from her belief in a supernatural being. At one point, she explained that she believes God controls her every action. In that moment, she struck me as mentally unstable. As we came closer to the airport, and she asked again which airline, she slowed to five miles an hour — a rate of speed she maintained for the trip’s duration — as I sat in silence. She rambled about speed, God and what she called theneed to believe in obedience.
This calls to mind Starbucks’ new Sirens blend, another example of belief without evidence — in feminism.
Starbucks introduced the blend this week in an email professing the company’s commitment to women. I have never heard of a coffee blend being produced on the basis of discriminating on behalf of one’s sex. Starbucks, which claims it’ll donate some of the blend’s revenue to women’s groups, broke the mold by singling out a single sex, excluding the opposite sex, with charity toward women because they’re women. This act sanctions feminism’s premise that identity is based on sex. Early advocates of what was once called women’s liberation promoted feminism as a means of achieving equality with men. Today’s feminists have dropped this pretense. Big business takes this offshoot of egalitarianism, which at once segregates and blurs the two sexes, on faith.
Last night’s announcement that America’s Speaker of the House supports an inquiry into impeaching the American president over a telephone call with a foreign leader is the ultimate profession, however, of faith. She literally declared an inquiry into impeaching the president without evidence.
I was an early Trump critic long before it was considered acceptable, let alone hip or “trending”. I argued against Trump on my blog. I did so repeatedly and on principle. I did so after Trump was elected president. But Trump’s supporters, whatever their faults and errors, are right to dub the Democrats’ delusional opposition as Trump Derangement Syndrome. The opposition to this president is worse in its irrationalism than the opposition to the previous president (which includes mine).
Today, President Trump released a transcript of his conversation with the president of the Ukraine — the supposed flashpoint for the Democrats’ grounds for impeachment. If and when the Democrats pursue impeachment on these flimsy grounds, the contrast between a president who takes America and its interests seriously — and, whatever his vulgarity, stupidity and errors, Trump does — and the party that wants the government to control every aspect of every individual’s life will be inescapable to the most disinterested, apathetic and asinine American voter.
“The House must impeach,” 2020’s Democratic Party presidential frontrunner Sen. Elizabeth Warren posted yesterday on Twitter. “It must start today.”
In fact, in accordance with frontrunner Warren’s wishes, impeachment did. Senator Warren is the matriarch of a new Inquisition. With her radical environmentalism and feminism, vehement opposition to capitalism in favor of statism, attempts to rationalize explicitly fraudulent multiculturalism, redounding to her authoritarianism, Sen. Warren is the ideal preacher for today’s faith in the statist — and regressive — status quo. America’s been dwindling from decades of welfare statism. The United States is dimmer after 50 years of Earth Day and poorer after 10 years of ObamaCare. As Americans strive to live better, facing the scowl of an anti-child, the congregation of brash believers gathers, chants and peddles influence, preparing to strike in a grab for power.
The Goldfinch inspires. It’s the second movie this year that I instantly knew I wanted to feast on for its sumptuousness again as soon as it was over. The movie, based on a novel by Donna Tartt, unwraps, rewraps and unwraps its mysterious gauze. What remains is refined, simple and respectful of an ideal. This alone makes it exemplary.
I watched the Warner Bros. film this week at one of Pacific Theatres’ theaters at the Grove, having never read the book, which The Goldfinch makes me want to do. Since I lost my friend and fellow movie critic Kathy to suicide years ago, I often attend press screenings alone. I tend to avoid the movie media herd. They’re brash. Some cackle across the theater as they file in, shuffling and putting on a show of conversation no one but them wants to hear. They chatter or act out in shrill voices about what movies they “looove”, by which they mean the opposite, and hate. Despite my efforts, it was impossible not to learn in advance that the pack hates The Goldfinch.
Now that I’ve seen it, it’s easy to see why. Like 2019’s best picture so far, Rocketman, that other film I immediately knew I wanted to watch again, The Goldfinch is multi-layered, deep and serious. Naturally, dilettantes, who gather in tribe, hate it for its earnestness. But “[t]here’s fun in being serious,” as jazz composer Wynton Marsalis once observed.
So, the dissonance of modern life begins in a visual haze as a narrator invites the audience into a hotel hallway. This starts the peculiar tale of troubled young Theo (Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort). With lingering shots and precision in color, or lack of color, pitch and tone, The Goldfinch under adaptation by Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and direction by John Crowley (Brooklyn) gently, if not flawlessly, stitches and unfurls a beautifully rendered movie. In scope, relevance and humor, it recalls The World According to Garp. In psychological tone, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, down to that picture’s water-themed plot points and contrast of cold mother figure with warm, sweater-wearing radical, comes to mind. Add intrigue ala The Da Vinci Code and The Bourne Identity, with each of those films having origins in books, and The Goldfinch is at once sharp, wondrous and original.
Nicole Kidman (The Human Stain, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) co-stars as a patroness of the arts with proximity to the title’s famous painting, which is believed to have been lost in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Theo was visiting with his mother (perfectly cast and featured Hailey Wist). Amid works of art and an insistence on “keeping busy”, possibly so she won’t have to think about her Jekyll and Hyde husband (Boyd Gaines, always spot on) or her too-close tie to her first-born son, her family, the Barbours, comes out of a John Irving novel.
Enter Theo after the bombing of the Met, which flashes back in patches, enshrouding the shellshocked boy in nightmares. Every nook and cranny in this sprawling, involved and richly detailed movie comes with a certain purpose, from the sound of wailing sirens, his yellow bag, and knowing lines to references to Oz, Noah’s ark and a civics textbook. The Goldfinch is best viewed as a puzzle to solve and to save.
“You never know what’s going to decide your future”, Jeffrey Wright’s character counsels Theo, a lost white male innocent of the fact that it’s become a religious commandment to malign white males. Theo faintly evokes Earl Hamner’s New York-bound observer John-Boy (Richard Thomas) character from fiction, movies and TV. These are more reasons why dilettantes hold Goldfinch in contempt, especially given the plot’s splendid resolution. The honest and discerning audience is likely to see in this child character the curiosity and innocence that comes from taking ideas and life seriously. But this is a movie, which becomes obvious at times, such as in Sarah Paulson’s slightly overdone performance as Theo’s trashy stepmother in the picture’s most underdeveloped role.
Watch Luke Wilson (Legally Blonde, The Family Stone) as you’ve never seen him. Marvel at dangling threads being tied into a theme that man, emphatically against what today’s college professors insist, is not only not dust in the wind; he has a capacity for enlightenment and goodness, which comes from clearing away dust, including the residue of whatever havoc he’s wrought with his mistakes. Whatever flaws in its execution, this premise is profound.
The Goldfinch (as against Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) also properly depicts the scourge of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol as an increasingly common means of evading hardship. Crowley and Straughan employ Tartt’s wet/dry clues and allusions about lost kids, cleansing one’s soul and escaping the dead end. In an era of daily mass slaughterand post-September 11’s mass delusion and evasion, The Goldfinch portrays post-trauma better than any movie since Peter Weir’s Nineties gem Fearless. Given today’s drug-induced mindlessness and socialist-anarchist mania, it knits an alternative to American Pastoral’s hard take on making a proper society, family and life. Nodding to L. Frank Baum’s Oz, there’s a glowing metropolis, a wise man (who worships the manmade and wants to know: “Is [a claim] true?”) and an adorable dog.
A key character’s twist leads to resolving inner conflict, calling what constitutes fraud, originality and ownership into question. With an initiating event that echoes America’s near-daily mass death, the almost exalted way in which Crowley stirs dust particles from a passenger jet, swingset and terrorist attack aftermath into the film’s final frame makes The Goldfinch an elegant challenge to the blank, thick-headed nihilism of American Beauty, Tarantino movies and today’s dogma that one must be “woke”, jaded and smaller than life and certainly oneself, leaving zero emissions behind.
The Goldfinch exists to provoke thought. Send to hell what the dilettantes think (or say they think). Go see The Goldfinch and judge for yourself. But let for once a movie build you up.
Hong Kong’s protest leader Joshua Wong recently Tweeted this image of a painting, which imitates Liberty Leading the People (1830) by French romanticist painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), whose painting is at the Louvre in Paris. This brave young anti-Communist and his fellow rebels in Hong Kong fight as I write this for their freedom, lives and future. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, those supporting and participating in the Hong Kong protests fight for the future by living in it today.
Nothing on earth, based on what I know, matters more to the West’s survival at this moment than Hong Kong. That few think about, let alone grasp the meaning and magnitude of, this assertion is a fact of reality. Those that don’t want to know or do not care about Hong Kong, the West, America, rights and individualism are, ultimately, of no consequence.
Among those who do, it’s additionally discouraging to know that few choose to stand with Hong Kong. Rare friends, who on these issues are more like brothers, such as Andrew, Maryallene, Rohit, Amy and Mark, make a point to take the lead, express support and in clear and explicit terms.
Most do not, even among those who claim to know better, as I recently reaffirmed while skimming social media. After reading a portion of an extended comments thread from a post about a dispute between the author of an innocuous commentary about being gay and an anti-sex critic, this inversion became clear. The thread chiefly consists of aimless speculation about what one might do about this or that in response to (!) an arbitrary assertion. The comments are posted by those who claim (or ought) to know better as Hong Kong hangs in the balance. The frenzy’s not an occasional occurrence. Posting about trivial issues “while Rome burns” is chronic. Today’s best minds are consumed by memes, pictures and nonsense.
Meanwhile, Communist China, which poses a military threat to the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, Australia, South Korea and every pro-Western nation, allied with America’s worst enemies, Iran and North Korea. This comes as Hong Kong’s rebellion spins Communist dictator Xi Jinping and his dictatorship into turmoil. Today’s New York Times reports that
… at a meeting that has not been publicly disclosed, Mr. Xi met with other senior officials to discuss the protests. The range of options discussed is unclear, but the leaders agreed that the central government should not intervene forcefully, at least for now, several people familiar with the issue said in interviews in Hong Kong and Beijing…Now Mr. Xi faces an even bigger trade war, with much higher tariffs and greater tensions. The [dictatorship] appears to be hewing to a strategy of waiting out Mr. Trump, possibly through his 2020 re-election campaign, even as the dispute has become a drag on the economy…[Red China’s puppet in Hong Kong] offered a candid assessment of Beijing’s views, even if one she did not intend to make public. She said Beijing had no plan to send in the People’s Liberation Army to restore order because “they’re just quite scared now.”
“Because they know that the price would be too huge to pay,” she went on. “Maybe they don’t care about Hong Kong, but they care about ‘one country, two systems.’ They care about the country’s international profile. It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile.”
… State television and the party’s newspapers now refer to [Xi] as “the People’s Leader,” an honorific once bestowed only on Mao. “The People’s Leader loves the people,” The People’s Daily wrote after Mr. Xi toured Gansu, a province in western China. Mr. Xi’s calculation might be simply to remain patient, as he has been in the case of Mr. Trump’s erratic shifts in the trade war. In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Xi also gave a possible hint of the government’s pragmatism.
“On matters of principle, not an inch will be yielded,” he said, “but on matters of tactics there can be flexibility.”
Journalist John Stossel once told me during an interview in New York City that real news, i.e., the first draft of history, happens slowly. I think this is true. What happens in Hong Kong matters.
I’ve been writing about Asia, China, Korea, Vietnam and the Orient for decades and it’s impossible for me to ignore that, in this singular act of rebellion led by brave Mr. Wong and his comrades, the East comes to a climax which has the potential to uproot Communist China and pivot to buy time to save the West. The rational individual ought to dispense with the meaningless and instead watch, think, evaluate, judge and exercise free speech to support the rebellion for liberty in Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, who was arrested for crimes against the state and is out on bail, strikes me as savvy enough to know that even the best minds in the West are too easily distracted by pictures and other sensory diversions. So, he’s posted a painting as propaganda to support his noble cause. But in words and deeds, nothing less than his life, and his love of it, is at stake.
Nihilistic cultural commentary on quality, 35mm film with good performances; this is my essential thought of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Writer and director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Grindhouse, Django Unchained) has something to say about American culture and the arts. His movie is interesting if only as cultural commentary. What Tarantino has to say is that mindless art fosters mindless acts and that Americans are hollow.
It doesn’t matter to Tarantino that his otherwise meticulous re-creations of television programming are not remotely accurate in terms of content. If you’ve seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and you’re too young to remember TV shows or the type of TV shows being depicted, don’t take Tarantino’s depiction as truth. The shows are not as flat, plain and gratuitously violent as he depicts. He distorts the history of television in this sense. Why is this important? Because the distortion, however slight and I don’t think it’s slight, reflects his deeper distortion to come.
For example, Al Pacino’s character, itself an exaggeration or caricature of the Hollywood Jew, reacts favorably to a work of art by praising the “killing of Nazis”. Even in the era of Kelly’s Heroes, Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen in the mid to late 1960s, major Hollywood films depicting Nazis being annihilated went over for deliverance of justice, not for the residual thrill.
But in this way Tarantino seeds the notion that his brand of mindlessness and titillatingly violent depictions were somehow mainstream and acceptable. They were not. The films of Sam Peckinpah, among others, for instance, were considered shocking and controversial.
Tarantino’s are not characters as much as they are ciphers. Of course, there certainly are empty people, increasingly and especially in today’s culture. But even vapid people do more than exist in the way Tarantino dramatizes. Almost every character in the film chooses to be consumed by rock music, radio, television and movies. They don’t really have conversations. They’re like automatons moving in robotic like ways without much if any thought. Sound familiar? In this way, Tarantino certainly mirrors and projects a forecast of the vacant culture to come. The mindlessness of his characters is paramount.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is made with deliberation. Every frame and shot is calculated to provide a certain perspective on the meaning of what’s to come. This includes a few aerial shots and scads of close-ups. Tarantino is too calculated and the film, which is about 40 minutes too long, is contrived. For example, a scene in which Brad Pitt’s stunt man character picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be one of the Manson Family is so contrived as to be totally artificial. The actress’s lines and the performance do not match the powerful impact that her character’s actions, presence and consequences have on the plot. Put another way, the youngest female of the Manson tribe is depicted by Tarantino as too middle-class and decent to be the type of confused, lost and vicious, cornered subhuman she was being molded into at the hippie commune where she’s kept. Her character delivers a crucial transition yet she’s a total lie.
Let me examine each major character. The most interesting character is the actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio (Catch Me If You Can, The Great Gatsby, Titanic). For all of his flaws, and he’s insecure, vain and shallow, he’s the most realistic. He’s the most human. He’s the only character in the film with values. He thinks for himself to some extent. He lets himself experience emotion as he goes through an extremely painful self realization which he faces bravely and alone. He expresses his emotion without shame, which I think is admirable, especially in a man — especially in the late 20th century when feminism emasculated man, seeking to make men feel small and unimportant. The DiCaprio character is the only character that seeks to be productive other than a lone girl. He strives to be his best. He hates his flaws and strives to overcome them. He struggles. He doesn’t give up. To a certain degree, he succeeds.
Yet DiCaprio’s character is tormented. He’s miserable for most of the movie. By the end, he more or less gets what he wants and has earned but Tarantino mocks and trivializes it. Mr. Pitt’s character, on the other hand, is vacant. By all outward appearances, he lives like Charles Manson without the explicit philosophy and cult following. He lives in a filthy home of his own choice and making with a menacing dog behind a drive-in movie theater in the San Fernando Valley. He’s like an ignorantly blissful dolt. His best days are behind him. He looks old and haggard. All he has is a decent physique and an ability to fight and do menial, manual labor. He has no friends, family or romantic companions. His highest experiences are mild amusement at older children of the opposite sex, especially a vagrant or wandering hippie who parades around in cut-off‘s and doesn’t shave her armpits. The biggest and most serious commitment he makes in the movie is when he says “yes we do” after he agrees with one of the Manson Family in a way that lets the audience know he’s as vulgar, raunchy and vacant as the hippies on the commune. After the dust settles following the film’s cartoonishly heinous climax, he’s unemployed, unemployable and he’s lost his closest relationship. His response? In parting, he tells DiCaprio‘s character: “bring bagels.” This line represents the scope and depth of his commitment to living. He’s not that into it.
This is the point of Tarantino‘s film. He dramatizes that Southern California in particular and America in general, are shallow, empty and meaningless. He shows that everyone seeks to get stoned. He depicts no real regard, let alone reverence, for humanity. He demonstrates that we’re all a few tokes or violent TV episodes away from being mindless cult followers.
Tarantino backs this up with scads of visual references, cues and cuts, including flashes back to George Putnam‘s talk radio show, the Pantages theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and parties at the Playboy mansion. Audiences will probably take this as a whole as brilliant and terribly meaningful. I submit that it isn’t. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be interestingly rendered with attention to detail, and it is, and much of it is well done. But, from barefooted actors and re-casting of old TV shows to rock music as an incessant and blaring soundtrack in everyone’s heads as they drive everywhere with the windows down in a kind of mindless stupor, the whole city of Angels is portrayed as being under a kind of hedonistic spell of nothingness. Maybe this is Tarantino’s point. But then what’s the point of having a point? It drains even the antiheroism of any real interest. You watch for the sake of watching and react for the sake of reacting. It isn’t any deeper.
There is a singular aspect of the film which I think is useful. I think this is the part audiences may respond to with verve and some degree of enthusiasm which I think is unearned. Tarantino portrays hippies for what they are: vacant. It isn’t more complicated than that. He lingers on the hippies. With the exception I mentioned, he shows their evil goals. He doesn’t whitewash hippies, their subculture of communalism, selflessness and religion. Though he pointedly omits their indulgence in drugs, probably because it undercuts his thesis, he depicts with lingering precision the pure evil of the hippies that chose to apply New Leftideals to their logical extreme and commit mass murder in Southern California. This culminates in an effective series of scenes on Spahn ranch in Chatsworth where the hippies congregated and planned their acts of evil.
With one caveat, a character apparently intended to be Susan Atkins, he consistently dramatizes Manson’s Family as evil. The Atkins character blames their actions with some degree of plausibility (on the movie’s terms) on television. It’s an interesting sidebar and it’s undeveloped. I think there’s truth in what the character says. But as delivered it’s tossed aside and unexplored. “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” she says. When those people kill back, it sort of vindicates her assertion.
None of this should be taken as deep and intelligent filmmaking. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood flashes thoughtfulness here and there but to say it’s thoughtful is too generous. It’s carefully rendered nihilism.
The theme of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is that writer and director Tarantino thinks that everybody must get stoned, to paraphrase a song by Bob Dylan. There are good scenes and depictions. Some of them are sharp. But the movie is more cultural commentary than artful fairy tale. Parts are stylishly rendered. But the main character, a stunt man played by Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 12 Years a Slave, Meet Joe Black), is as mindless as Charles Manson, the monster who made the Manson Family that butchered productive Southern Californians on an August night 50 years ago today. The fact that one of those innocents, Steven Parent, is not depicted in Tarantino‘s film, is extremely revealing. For all of the supposedly meticulous details, including a holding shot on an ice cube tray, excising the extermination of a young man’s existence from a story which purportedly seeks to rectify or at least re-create with an alternate version, one of the most horrific and influential crimes of the 20th century, says everything about the filmmaker. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood belongs with In Cold Bloodand another Sixties shocker, Midnight Cowboy, in focusing on the depraved at the expense of the good, the able and the innocent.
Tarantino’s notion of what’s being saved by this alternate version takes the form of Sharon Tate, capably play by Margot Robbie (I, Tonya,The Legend of Tarzan). She, too, is a cipher as depicted here. She’s attractive, intelligent and careful about her appearance down to the smallest details if without much effort. The actress goes to Westwood to buy a book and takes in one of her own movies. But she does so as an exercise in wanting to cash in on being a movie star, not that there’s anything wrong with that, which undercuts the character’s credibility. The fact that she apparently removes go-go boots and socks in the movie theater and puts her bare feet up on the seat back in front of her is utterly out of character. This is true for both the character portrayed in the film and what we know about the real actress who was stabbed by Manson’s hippie women (please stop calling them “girls”) over and over and over and over repeatedly until Tate and her almost full-term fetus were butchered after Sharon Tate pleaded for her life. This is the sense in which Tarantino trivializes that which ought to be revered, the life of a single human, and delivers it into one extravagantly violent and supposedly giddy display in the film’s last 20 minutes.
It isn’t funny. And yet, due to the vacancy of the main character, the stunt man played by Brad Pitt, it’s intended as a kneeslapper. The humor is supposed to be justified because it’s an alternate version, not the facts being re-created. But butchering others in self-defense while hallucinating on drugs is asinine at best. The fact that Mr. Pitt’s character chooses to get not just stoned but deeply, fundamentally stoned, negates everything good about what he does. “Happy, self confident men do not seek to get stoned”, Ayn Rand — who outlined and created her literary masterpiece and a philosophy for living on earth in Chatsworth where she lived with her husband — wrote about the year 1969. As is usual, Rand is right. Quentin Tarantino’s clever and elaborately winking twist on mass murder attempts to show otherwise.