“There have been times when I’m eating a meal and feel guilty I’m eating a meal.” — Leslie Van Houten, California prison inmate and former member of the Manson Family. (1)
How do you continue to live after doing something terrible, such as holding someone down to help your accomplice in murder stab them to death (as Leslie Van Houten did)? Or drugging and then raping a 13-year-old girl (as Roman Polanski did)? Or how do you keep on living and enjoying after you, perhaps, kill your wife (as the movie character Cliff Booth does)?
In one of the strangest reviews of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles spends a whole 11 minutes on YouTube praising Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth as an ethical hero, a character who embodies the classical Aristotelian virtues of justice, temperance, courage and prudence (2). Only at the end, in his concluding remarks, does the Bishop mention in passing that Cliff Booth, icon of goodness though he may be, is perhaps not quite a Catholic saint – there’s even a suggestion he may have killed his wife many years before the events of the film. If you’ve seen Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, you’re probably asking yourself how, given that the Bishop correctly identifies Cliff as the moral backbone of the film, does he fail to realise that this whole might-have-killed-his-wife thing is a deliberate provocation on Tarantino’s part? The Bishop tells us that the question is “never resolved” and therefore seems oblivious to the fact that Tarantino clearly wants the viewer to resolve it for themselves.
In the flashback to the incident in question, Tarantino lines up everything: the motive (the ‘nagging’ wife, Billie, in mid-rant), the weapon (a loaded harpoon gun) and some clever framing (notice how the angle of the harpoon gun points to the the top right-hand corner of the frame, forming a neat triangle that cuts the frame in half and which our gestalt-driven instincts will try to form, even if that implies the firing of the gun through Billie’s torso). Because Tarantino cuts away from the flashback, leaving us in the dark as to whether Cliff killed Billie or not, the question — at this point in the narrative — remains a matter of dry conjecture for us. We think ‘oh, my goodness, could this guy really have killed his wife?’ And it’s at this level that every internet article examining the question seeks an answer: looking for clues in the flashback structure, looking for clues in small lines of dialogue (such as when Cliff refers to manslaughter in an exchange with Bruce Lee), looking for intertextual explanations that link the scene to other scenes of impulsive or accidental murders in Tarantino’s work, and on and on in a dispassionate detective-like manner. This is the wrong way to go about answering the question.
We have to go back to our experience of watching the film and thinking about our moment-to-moment subjective investment in the characters and their actions. At the point when we are presented with the flashback to the boat, we are not yet invested in the answer to whether he actually ‘did it.’ Of course, we will wonder about it and recognise that we are being offered a pleasing piece of ambiguity to chew on. But we are not yet properly invested at that stage i.e. putting our enjoyment at stake in the answer one way or the other. In fact, my experience of watching the film for the first time was that I didn’t get invested in the answer until the very moment, in the final set piece, when we find ourselves hoping that Cliff will rise to the challenge of the moment and demonstrate himself capable of the most extreme levels of violence, even against young women (which, although we are talking about defending yourself from the Manson Family, still remains a deep-seated social taboo). At that moment, we want Cliff to be a fucking psycho capable of anything. Not just because we want to see three members of the Manson Family crushed in a moment of revisionist justice, but because we want to experience the ecstatic release of tension that builds throughout the first half of the sequence, as we realise we are being promised an outbreak of cinematic ultraviolence. The gun is loaded by Tarantino, but the triangle is drawn by us.
In his book dedicated to cinema, The Evil Demon of Images, Jean Baudrillard writes that film images provoke “a kind of brute fascination unencumbered by aesthetic, moral, social or political judgements”(3). But even if a misogynistic film has some scenes which provoke this brute fascination, it’s still a misogynistic film. Even though I could appreciate the technical mastery at work, my initial judgement on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a terrible feeling of having been subjected to the worst kind of cinematic manipulation. By presenting Manson’s Family as a dangerous group of idealistic (but confused) young women in pursuit of sexual freedom and equality who can only be stopped by a violent middle-aged man who previously killed his wife, it felt like the film’s subtext was saying #FuckYou to #MeToo. And if that’s reading too much into it (after all, Tarantino started working on the project long before #MeToo), perhaps the political theorist and blogger Jason Read laid out the accusation more pointedly when he complained that “it is hard to shake the thought that the entire film is not a contrivance to get an audience to cheer at a woman being smashed in the face with a dog food can” (4).
But Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was stuck under my skin for a long time after the first viewing — a signal that it couldn’t just be written off as an interesting but repugnant provocation. I recalled a touching detail from the story of John Waters’ friendship with the convicted killer and former Manson Family member, Louise Van Houten: she sometimes finds herself enjoying eating and then, immediately, feels guilty for doing so. Although this anecdote turned out to be the key that unlocked the mystery of Tarantino’s movie for me, the link between the two (the Manson murders) was obviously coincidental, nothing more than a happy accident that worked its magic within the unconscious. Before delving into the detail, let me give you the headline: Cliff Booth only becomes truly readable as an ethical figure when we realise that his decision to go on living in good faith after killing his wife — to, contra-Van Houten, accept that the enjoyment of eating is unavoidable — is a form self-acceptance that most of us do our best to avoid, constantly living our lives trapped in various different forms of bad faith.
You can’t compare Pitt’s Cliff Booth to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton without talking about self-acceptance. Our first proper introduction to their relationship (not the expository television interview that opens the film, but their discussion about Rick’s future career) basically sees Cliff impress upon Rick the importance of self-acceptance. It’s clear that Rick suffers from anxiety, from the worry lines on his forehead, to the paranoid look in his eyes, to the nervous mid-sentence pauses and that slight stutter. He later becomes conscious of the true source of his anxiety when, recounting the plot of a pulp novel to a stranger, he becomes tearful and inadvertently reveals that he’s “coming to terms with being slightly more useless each day.” Attempting to divert Rick from his midlife crisis, Cliff explains how, without much of a career to speak of, he prefers to enjoy the here and now, taking each moment as it comes.
The philosophical difference between Cliff and Rick’s attitude to enjoyment seems to be best captured by G. W. F. Hegel’s concept of substance versus subject. Every authority, Hegel claims, presents itself as substantial (i.e. lacking nothing) – but this substance is merely an illusion and the fight for human freedom demands that we uncover the presuppositions which reveal the authority of substance to be based on nothing more than the presupposition of a desiring subject, transforming figures of authority from substance into subject (i.e. incomplete, lacking). Throughout the entire film, Rick treats the idea of a ‘career’ as a substance, a source of authority that he aims to master. When Cliff says he hasn’t had much of a career himself, Rick tries to correct him: “What you talkin’ bout? You’re my stunt double, come on now.” Of course, Rick is saying this partly because he wants Cliff to feel better about himself (offering Cliff the false dignity of what Rick views as substantial i.e. a coherent sense of career), but Cliff’s reply is to immediately disavow any sense of completeness: “I’m your driver, man. I’m your gofer. I’m not complaining. I like driving you around.” Cliff explicitly presents his embrace of incompleteness as the key to enjoyment.
But Rick cannot help himself. When the two men pull into Rick’s driveway, he points out to Cliff that his new neighbour is the fashionable film director, Roman Polanski, who Rick clearly considers as having mastered the thing he views as substance i.e. career. And even as the two men get out the car, Rick continues to explain to Cliff that he views having bought a house in LA (as opposed to renting) as part of his edifice of mastery: “Hollywood real estate means you live here. You’re not just visiting, not just passing through. You fuckin’ live here.” Of course, the irony here is that Rick, who fears he has failed to master his career, is the homeowner whilst Polanski, the one surfing high in his career, is renting. The authority of substance needs some link to capital — either the perceived importance of one’s place within the production process or the investment in real estate.
For the film theorist Todd McGowan, Hegel’s framework of substance versus subject shows us that the most important political films are not those which put on display the undeserved and immoral enjoyment of successful capitalists. McGowan criticises, for instance, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) because, by portraying its protagonist as a debauched anti-hero, the possibility of full enjoyment is presented as substantial and non-lacking (5). By contrast, the character of Rick Dalton belongs to those cinematic inventions celebrated by McGowan for showing that full enjoyment is impossible and that enjoyment pursued to its limits is always accompanied by suffering. Perhaps this is why, in the final set piece, we see Rick sitting in his pool, drunk, enjoying a fluffy novelty song by the Royal Guardsmen called “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” – there’s no happy medium to his enjoyment, he’s either suffering the neurotic overload of (faltering) stardom or he’s drawing infantile contentment from the most throwaway and unthreatening of pleasures such as singing along to superficial pop songs or reading pulp Westerns.
If Rick is at a turning point in his career as a star, the dark figure who lurks in the background of the film is, of course, Charles Manson. He appears only fleetingly in one scene, turning up at the Tate-Polanski residence hoping to find the previous tenant, music producer Terry Melcher. At this point, in the final edit of the film, Tarantino makes the mistake of cutting the second half of the scene (which, thankfully, is to be found amongst the home video extras). About to leave, Manson spots Cliff perched on the roof of Rick’s house, fixing the TV aerial. Cliff’s downwards gaze is ambiguous, so Manson tries to connect with him, making the peace sign with his fingers. Cliff just continues to stare, forcing Manson into an angry, manic ‘performance’ in which he contorts his body and spits out vocal gibberish. “Fuck you, jack!” shouts Manson, before leaving. Although Tarantino decided to cut all this out for pacing reasons, the scene would have provided a key thematic link between the Cliff-Rick dynamic and Manson as the lurking threat. Manson is triggered by Cliff’s refusal to return his peace symbol because, even though Cliff is a complete stranger to him, Manson is forced by something within himself to treat Cliff as an anonymous authority figure – in other words, a figure of undivided substance. Cliff’s willingness to just stare Manson out forces Manson to struggle with the frustration of his own desire for recognition, which is then immediately discharged through his zany body movements and bizarre vocalisation. Manson cannot, without enduring psychic pain, acknowledge his own subjective desire for recognition in his reaching out to Cliff.
The other reason this deleted scene feels important is that it’s the second time in the film that a stranger tries to connect with Cliff by making a peace symbol. We’ve already seen Cliff happily reply with the peace gesture when a fictional member of the Mason Family, Pussycat, invites him to. Of course, this is because he’s attracted to Pussycat, but the nature of this attraction is ambiguous. It’s not clear whether he is truly sexually attracted to her or just appreciates her youthful vibe. On my first viewing, when I watched Cliff turn down Pussycat’s offer of sexual contact on the basis that she’s unlikely to be of legal age, I took at face value his explanation that the authorities would use it as an easy way to get him in handcuffs. But, on closer viewing, he really doesn’t look tempted at all. Is this because he just doesn’t find her attractive? Unlikely, I think. Is it not more likely to be because, as per my central thesis here, Cliff knows that enjoyment is only ever partial and that, by turning down Pussycat, he is embracing the incompleteness of enjoyment? If Cliff were a true sexual pervert, he would have pursued his encounter with Pussycat all the way through to the act of consummation, trapped in the belief that complete and total enjoyment exists.
When the action moves to Spahn Ranch, the entire thematic question of enjoyment and its vicissitudes iis dramatised further when we see Cliff attempt to rescue George Spahn from what appears to be the disaster of total enjoyment. It’s clear that George, the owner of the Ranch, wants for nothing, being provided for in all manner of ways by the Mason Family who have otherwise taken over. Blind and frail, we realise that all of George’s agency has been robbed from him by being force-fed a diet of complete enjoyment: sex, drugs and TV shows. The Manson Family slowly realise that Cliff is a threatening figure to them and they deploy the various stock defenses they have in place to keep any threats to their exclusive enjoyment of the Ranch at bay. In their paranoia, the Manson Family and Rick are mirror images of each other. Whilst the Manson Family construct a self-contained territory for their hippie lifestyle and ready themselves to repel outside intrusion, Rick experiences the presence of hippy enjoyment around him as a kind of existential threat to his bourgeois tastes. Cliff, meanwhile, is a nomadic figure, moving freely between various modes and scenes of enjoyment. This willingness to accept all different types of enjoyment means that, unlike Rick (for whom the invasion of Manson Family hippies into his home is like a paranoid fantasy come true – as if they have come for his enjoyment itself rather than to merely slaughter him), Cliff has no particular terrain of enjoyment to defend. In this sense, Los Angeles in 1969 is Cliff’s perfect environment and Tarantino expertly presents us with a world in which its subjects are bombarded with enjoyment, particularly the inescapable and time-consuming presence of radio, movies and television.
Finally, what then of guilt in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood? The film presents a world of characters who appear to be beyond guilt or innocence. This brings us to the story thread which, throughout, I have conspicuously avoided discussing: Sharon Tate’s visit to a random cinema to surreptitiously watch her own performance in The Wrecking Crew (1968). Frequently celebrated as an ode to the magic and pleasure of cinemagoing, I think there is something much more interesting going on in the scene. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once claimed that the ultimate fantasy is the fantasy of attending one’s own funeral — a fantasy in which one is reduced to a pure gaze that wanders amongst the post-mortem attention of others. And if one’s performance on film, frozen for all eternity, can be considered a form of death (because, of course, the only form of eternity we know is death), then to shuffle into a cinema and become a part of the audience watching our performance on screen, is surely to fantasise about our own death. The cinematic poetry of the scene lies in its irony: a woman who we think we know is due to be murdered by fate, joyfully indulges a deathly fantasy on a whim. But rather than representing anything grim, the scene rather magically humanises her. Trying to access the public’s enjoyment of one’s performance might have been a narcissistic ego-trip, but the scene generates a split (enforced by the strange experience of accepting that both the actress Margot Robbie in Tarantino’s fiction and the real Sharon Tate on the cinema screen are one and the same being) that prevents full narcissistic closure. If narcissism is a connection between the subject and its image that serves as a boost to agency, Sharon’s visit to the cinema is the opposite: instead of seeking more agency, she willingly dissolves into the audience.
If the corrupted and degenerate body of George Spahn is left for dead by the force-feeding of the essentials of life (particularly sex), then Tarantino’s vision of Sharon Tate is of a soul who briefly takes a sip of death in the service of some truly innocent joy. As I write these words, Leslie Van Houten remains in her prison cell, fifty years after the crime that put her there. The problem she faces is not that she cannot live, but that she cannot merge with a crowd, anonymously, and die just a little. She is fixed in place as Leslie Van Houten, the notorious Manson Girl. Perhaps this is why she can never just enjoy the simple pleasure of eating a meal. What, then, after viewing Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, can we suggest might lie beyond the seesaw of guilt and innocence? Nothing less, I think, than living, dying and the partial forms of enjoyment that always present themselves somewhere in between those two states.
- Waters, J. (2009) ‘Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship, Part 5 of 5’, retrieved from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/leslie-van-houten-a-frien_b_247142
- Barron, R. (2019) ‘Bishop Barron on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_vc44IwiBY&t
- Baudrillard, J. (1987) The Evil Demon of Images, Power Institute of Fine Arts: Sydney, p. 27
- Read, J. (2019) ‘Alternate Ending: On Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’, retrieved from: http://www.unemployednegativity.com/2019/08/alternate-ending-on-once-upon-timein.html
- McGowan, T. (2015) ‘Accumulation and Enjoyment on Mulholland Drive’, The Comparatist, Vol. 39, October 2015, pp. 101-15