'Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood,' not Woodstock, turns out
to be the 1969 nostalgia item
KILLING IMAGE: Damon Herriman plays Charles Manson in 'Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood.'

The commemorative Woodstock concert just crapped out, whereas the fest's ghastly double is going strong. Quentin Tarantino's well-tempered and lovable hit Once Upon a Hollywood is good enough to lure an audience back for seconds, even on the same week it came out. It's a historical rewriting of the Tate-Labianca murders, which took place 50 years ago this weekend. Even half a century ago, the motiveless spree seemed the definitive end of '60s idealism, a judgement day, in contrast to the founding of a Woodstock Nation back east. In The White Album, Joan Didion summed it up: "Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed... I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised."

In OUT...IH's second half Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate is prepared for the sacrificial altar. Tarantino builds the suspense through increasingly shorter scenes, time stamping, and a literal needle drop onto a record player. It was Joanna Newsom's "The Sprout and the Bean" in the Mansonoid thriller The Strangers (2008); here it's "Twelve Thirty" by the Mamas and the Papas. Music is a conduit for the Manson legend: sick jokes for Sonic Youth and San Jose's own Diesel Queens alike, as in the latter's "Manson Family Feud"—"prizes include a weekend at the beautiful Spahn ranch!"

Tarantino isn't alone in toying with history. In Charlie Says (2019) director Mary Harron included a fantasy of Leslie van Houten (Hannah Murray) saving herself from lifelong imprisonment. Charlie Says ought to become a companion piece to Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, as it emphasizes the plight of the actual Manson girls. Plus Harron burrows into the LSD-drenched eschatology of Manson (Matt Smith, excellent) with his gabble of race war, and the coded messages he deciphered in The Beatles "White Album." Poor Charlie, born 30 years too soon for QAnon.

One could program a film series of Mansonmania, from the indirect approaches (American Horror Story: Cult) to the factual adaptations (two different Helter Skelters, derived from the most popular true crime book of all time). I prefer the psychotronic versions. The title of I Drink Your Blood (1970) is glimpsed on a drive-in marquee in The Other Side of the Wind—Leonardo di Caprio's Rick Dalton would have fit in perfectly at John Huston's all-night party. In I Drink Your Blood, the Satanic cult is played by a group of shirtless theatrical actors who are about one chorus of "Day By Day" from turning into a production of Godspell.

Made in Buenos Aires, The Slaughter (1971) has a producer and his pregnant star attacked by a cult of hippie harpies. Recut with discount gore effects, it was renamed Snuff and sold as an actual snuff film in which a woman was killed in front of the camera, suckering concerned people into picketing theaters. Its deathless ad line: "The film that could only be made in South America... where life is cheap."

The contrast between the grandness of theaters and the seediness of 1969 movies is as essential to Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood than the actual Manson rampage. Hollywood was in decline, with backlot ranches bulldozed for housing developments and studios sold to holding companies. Yet Tarantino's film is crammed with cinephilia. The camera soars over the top of a drive in screen, like an aerial shot of the Alps; it revels in the era when theaters had lobby cards to wonder over, as in Sharon's happy day at the Bruin Theater.

We're stirred by the noble tower of the Fox Village theater (1931), today a world heritage site. It's showing a pooch, Pendulum with George Peppard—one of "the three Georges" Rick Dalton complains were job-blocking him. At the Bruin is the last of Matt Helm; at the drive-in, the last of detective Tony Rome in Lady in Cement. (Hidden on the bottom half of the double bill with that bad Sinatra film is Pretty Poison, a small masterpiece of noir dumped by the studio.) And the Cinerama Dome is showing Krakatoa, East of Java—I saw it there on its one and only run, dressed in a full Cub Scout uniform.

I simultaneously loved Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood while entertaining a shadow of a doubt that the reason why was my Boomer (or actually, Buster) solecism acting up.

Of course there's been a backlash; the astute critic Johnathan Rosenbaum argues that Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood's message is "MAGA." Isn't it "MMBA"—make movies big again?

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