It’s a groove, man. An Age of Aquarius blast of info, no getting around it. But what, precisely is the message?
Hey GET DOWN!
Oh, sorry; just someone at my neighbor’s door. More mass shootings this weekend so I’m a little jumpy.
Are you with me here? I’ve spent much of the past nine months revisiting late sixties, early seventies Hollywood, courtesy of Orson Welles, Eve Babitz, Charles Bukowski, Robert Stone, and now Quentin Tarantino. So much concentration on when and how it all ended: Manson of course, Altamont, or merely young people getting older. This is nonsense: it never ended, it was only just beginning. We just didn’t realize what “it” was.’ We thought those geeks in the Silicon Valley were outliers but they were the heart of it, the elite forces of the New Age. Maybe they need to be schooled by #MeToo but they created it, too, and every other virtual force for good or whatever.
They were later on the scene, behind TV, that first harbinger of unavoidable reality and the undermining of the American myth. Aquarius! Tarantino’s film is about the demise of old Westerns and GIs taking on the evil Nazis, all those black-and-white heroes with their guns drawn, ready to teach the bad guys a lesson. Guns are just so effective.
Take it back further, to road trips taken with Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, all that rootless post-war generation that crashed into the sixties with a rumor of enlightenment and a stalwart despair, with the urge to keep moving, but meanwhile think. They’re back again in Stone’s book (he sadly managed to miss the sexual escapades of Eve’s Hollywood). Unlike the naifs they inspired, the beat generation had some experience of the world; whereas the flower children, the protestors, the trippers – they were drunk on vivid possibility as much as chemical substances. They – we – thought ourselves good.
Today we know better. We see the havoc wrought by our immigrant ancestors and parents and obstinately selfish selves, or else we see how we’ve been cheated, and how cleverly, and by whom. Too many of us are frightened and refuse to see, and turn to guns to try and stop the coming righteous horde. But we know all that. I’ve written an entire novel about the inevitable moral crisis that must follow on our growing awareness of our imprint on everything everywhere.
Hollywood, manufacturer of every mimicked gesture and solution and recourse, passionately denies any responsibility for gun violence. The town has always worshipped and profited from violence. Tarantino, via Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, unexpectedly delivered me yet again to Musso and Frank, at this point my regular literary hangout. My God, what is it about this place, that everything I read or see ends up in its dim, comforting confines? Tarantino’s Hollywood is a town in sad transition, its studio system moribund, its narratives suddenly trite and suspect. The hero of an old TV Western (Leonardo DiCaprio)and his sidekick / stunt man (Brad Pitt), a veteran given to violence, are on the outs in this new world, and Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, are very in, but Manson and his crew are watching, figuring in their clouded, resentful way about how to inflict pain on the fortunate. They’re terrified but ultimately ridiculous children, under the malicious influence of the most pathetic child of them all, the brutalized child of a brutal system. The tension builds, an unlikely detour occurs, and there’s Tex Watson pointing a gun at Brad Pitt’s character, who, stoned out of his mind, humors him and points a finger gun back. It is one of the most astonishing moments I’ve ever seen on film.
Because of course Tex is a joke; obviously any rational adult would recognize a narcissist, a fascist, a lost child, and all the other scared assholes inexplicably running around loose. Only no, it turns bloody in the end; I guess somebody, somewhere wasn’t paying attention. In his movie, Tarantino plays at God and gives the victory to the old-timers; they vanquish the specter of natural consequences just like they won over the Germans
It’s absolutely lovely, but it didn’t happen that way, and here we are with all this truth.
Except it’s not that simple, either. Hollywood, though, is an industry town, hungry for the dollar, self-referential, always willing to go as low as it takes. And arguably movies are destructive by definition. To make something, anything, beautiful is to make it obsolete, to effectively kill it. So maybe the trite old movies did play a part, did pave the way by getting our illusions out of the way.
We’ve never been very conscious or considerate about how we use art; we just throw it out there. Orson Welles started filming The Other Side of the Wind in the fall of 1970. It was to be his comeback movie, a movie about a famous director making a comeback movie in transitional Hollywood, a film designed for young audiences, filled with meaningless sex and violence. Welles film debuted, miraculously, last fall; his doomed director delivers its final line:
You shoot the great places and pretty people. All those girls and boys. Shoot ’em dead.
Photo credits: Sarah Stierch, Charles Manson (CC BY 2.0) / Andrea Pass, Sixties (CC BY 2.0)