Once Upon A Time In Hollywood -Tarantino’s Fairy Tale Triumph

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Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, is his masterpiece. There, I’ve said it.

It almost feels glib to make such a bald, bland statement about this often breathtakingly complex work, but if this is to be his penultimate movie (and his tenth and final film will be “epilogue-y” as the director recently stated), then he has left us with something that not only stands as a brilliant expansion and culmination of his cinematic style and obsessions but also as arguably the most intricate and layered film in his body of work.

It’s a beautiful and elegiac love letter to not only Hollywood but also international filmmaking, it uses a potentially troublesome real-life tragedy and gives it catharsis in the most surprisingly touching and tender way, and it presents a simple bromance that eventually reveals itself as something deeper.

Set across two brief moments six months apart, Tarantino shows us a Hollywood in transition, beset by television, the dying embers of the studio system giving way to the bright flames of New Hollywood, the encroachment of international films and indeed, of the death of the 1960s as an ideal, we’re introduced to fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman-cum-personal driver-cum-gopher, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

As the two weave their way through dwindling career opportunities, we meet their mirror opposite, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whose star is on the ascendant and ready to burn brightly. As Al Pacino’s Hollywood producer offers Dalton a lifeline in Italy to feature in Spaghetti Westerns and Euro-spy movies, Tate glimpses the wonder of her craft and the two threads play out with some of Tarantino’s most perfectly measured storytelling since Jackie Brown (now my second favourite film from the director), all the while magnificently slowly building towards the tension and violence of the era-ending and personal tragedy we know is about to unfold.

DiCaprio continues his run as a driven, fearless performer, handling every level of Dalton’s movie star bragadoccio and insecurities with ease, never failing to find the most human of reactions, while Pitt further reveals himself to be the character actor in a movie star’s body those of us with more attuned tastes have always known him to be. His role could easily have played as unlikable or even offensive, but he strides across this with his easy going charm, leaving us with an arresting and enjoyable ambiguity.

Pitt and DiCaprio make for such an impeccable screen teaming that if it wasn’t so all-fired perfect here already, I’d be begging to see more. But their transition from employer and employee to deep friendship is so beautifully bittersweet that I can’t see any other, future pairing as anything more than anti-climatic.

There has been much criticism of Tarantino’s handling of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, with many saying she is underused. This is, of course, complete nonsense (as is the storm in a tea cup over Bruce Lee’s role in the story, which willfully misunderstands the nature of the film). Tate is the joyful glue that binds the film, an even more impressive feat of both writing and acting considering many of her scenes see the character playing not off others, but reveling in her life, by and for herself, in the moment before her Hollywood stardom explodes.

Robbie, the writing and direction of her, gives us a wonderful character and a heartfelt tribute to the real life actress. The scene of her watching herself on a Westwood cinema screen, delighting in not only her own performance (made even more multi-faceted by the fact we see the real Tate) but also in the reactions of the audience around her, has instantly become one of my favourite Tarantino sequences from all of his films. Rather than marginalize the actor, Tarantino has the confidence in his star to let her carry this all out wordlessly.

It’s a scene which also stands as one of two moments in particular (though I suspect further viewings will reveal more) which startlingly play with perceptions of how, and perhaps even why, we watch films in ways I’m still trying to unravel, but this and DiCaprio’s incredible address to himself in his mirror where he instead makes perfect eye contact with the audience were genuinely spine-chilling.

The playful blending and juxtaposition of films in our real world and films in Tarantino’s reel world is also sure to leave film lovers with examination and critique that will no doubt reward, infuriate and entrance for decades to come.

Tarantino’s films all pay off with multiple viewing, but this is a genuine treasure chest which unfolds to reveal multiple levels of jewels which will catch the light to reveal themselves the more we look into it.

Standing as a love letter to Hollywood and an ode to that town’s ever-changing tides of filmmaking, as an ode to the end of an era, as the reclamation of a terrible real-life crime and celebration of the life of the woman involved in that event, as a charming buddy movie examination of the changing dynamics of friendship and as an investigation of cinema and our relationship to it, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood really is Tarantino’s most emotionally mature and singularly impressive work.

It’s also the first Tarantino film to bring a tear to my eye, with a quite beautiful, and delicate closing scene which perfectly encapsulates what the film is: a Hollywood fairy tale, with all the romance and darkness of the very best fairy tales.

In fact, it’s his masterpiece. There, I’ve said it again.

*You can read more about the cinematic legacy of Charles Manson here.

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Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – The Manson Legacy

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Out Of Dave’s Head is proud to publish our first article by another writer; welcome aboard Jon Harman, celebrating the release of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood with a look at the cinematic legacy of the real-life horror haunting the movie.

Charles Manson has been a defining Hollywood story for 50 years, ever since the fateful and brutal killings in August 1969. With Tarantino returning to this arena in his latest offering Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we look at the impact and legacy of the Manson Murders in cinema.

The Manson Murders took place in the summer of 1969 and were the culmination of activities by a hippy cult lead by Charles Manson, an unemployed ex-convict who had spent more than half of his life in correctional institutions. Manson’s dreams of becoming a singer/songwriter had been snubbed by Beach Boys record producer Terry Melcher and he was suffering delusions of grandeur that he was the new messiah. He was also obsessed with the Beatles, particularly their 1968 self-titled album, and was allegedly guided by his interpretation of the band’s lyrics. He adopted their song, Helter Skelter, as the text to describe an impending apocalyptic race war.

On August 8th of that year, Manson instructed his followers, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel to go to Melcher’s house in Cielo Drive in LA and murder the inhabitants, who were film director Roman Polanski’s pregnant actress wife, Sharon Tate, her hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and her boyfriend Voytek Frykowski. The following night he instructed them and Leslie Van Houten and Steve Grogan to perform a copycat killing of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca at their residence.

Manson occurred at a defining moment for counter-culture and Hollywood, starting a transition to a post studio system, as Peter Fonda’s Wyatt uttered the immortal words “we blew it” in Easy Rider, the love affair with hippiedom was over, but the kinetic, youthful and independent style of Easy Rider was opening a door to a new cinema. Then on August 8th-9th the brutal slaying of the Tate party in Cielo Drive ensured Hollywood and violence were fused together in a thematic way that has permeated US cinema for decades, with constant reference to the perfect boogeyman in Manson. 

There are the biopic, literal tellings of the Manson story over the years, but there are also countless films that channel a Manson theme within. Very early on, numerous exploitation films captured the salacious nature of the crimes like Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969) which was retitled as Cult of The Damned (1971) to feed off the ever growing notoriety of the case, not to mention the bizarre attempt to add two minutes of footage to Sign of Aquarius (1970) to suddenly make a Mansonesque blaxploitation flick, Ghetto Freaks (1970) which was a fusion of too many themes to comprehend).

As the investigation played out in 69 and 70, aspects were already fusing into the lexicon of cinema, such as John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs (1970), which had Divine running a circus freak show as a front for robbery and murder and convincing her husband that he killed Sharon Tate in a drug induced haze. Waters was obsessed with the case and wrote references into his film as the case unfolded, later dedicating Pink Flamingos (1972) to “Sadie, Katie & Les” (Manson’s nicknames for Susan Atkins, Linda Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, the main perpetrators of the murders). Waters has spent years advocating the release of  Van Houten, describing her as his friend.

The first attempt to bring the actual Manson story into cinema was The Other Side of Madness (1971) which itself was later retitled as The Helter Skelter Murders, a strange curational mix of documentary and re-enactment footage filmed in some of the actual locations whilst never actually using any of the names from the crime. The hippie noir depiction of the crime scene is both brutal and exploitative for a film of its time with strong mondo undertones leaving it a curio in the Manson legacy. At the same time, exploitation duo Michael and Roberta Findlay jetted down to Argentina to make The Slaughter (1971) about a Mansonesque death cult resulting in a film with either very limited or no distribution until independent low-budget distributor and sometime producer, Allan Shackleton picked it up and added a notorious murder scene as the finale and calling it Snuff (1976), spawning an entire urban myth strand of modern cinema about the existence of underground snuff films in its own right (which is another whole article by itself). 

Likewise in 1971, fledgling writer/ director Wes Craven was typing out his script for what would become The Last House on The Left (1972). Whilst being an American retelling of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), it had a Manson Family undertone in its brutalism and striking similarities of character with it’s female villain “Sadie,” played by Jeramie Rain, cast just after playing Manson family member Sadie Mae Glutz in the off Broadway Manson musical 22 Years the same year. 

The zeitgeist of the Manson Murders was permeating new cinema as much as the raging Vietnam war at the time, which conflated in a later movie. Writer Peter Biskind, in his 1998 book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls saw Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in his compound in Apocalypse Now (1980) as: 

“another incarnation of Charlie Manson, the scourge figure who had gone native and now, unchallenged, ruled over his family. The compound was his Spahn Ranch” 

The sense of crime family, hippies, war and brutality also infused the zeitgeist of Tobe Hooper’s film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), in particular the opening prologue directly cites Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s description of the crimes as “the most bizarre mass murder case in the annals of American crime” to add weight to the false claim the film is a true story. 

1976 saw the release of CBS made for television film Helter Skelter, which depicted both the crimes and the trial in detail, based on Bugliosi’s book of the same name. Steve Railsback defined the persona of Manson for the viewing public (though retrospectively, this comes across as being quite histrionic and the film comes off as a weird episode of Perry Mason tonally), to the point he never really escaped its impact and stunting his fledgling acting career. The film reached an estimated 50 million Americans on release and thus defined much of the Manson story. CBS later remade Helter Skelter (2004) with Jeremy Davies playing a more subtle and realistic Manson, though not as eerie, this time the film focused more on the persuasive nature of Manson as guru and the lead up to the crime. 

Always lurking in the exploitative realms of cinema, Manson re-emerged in an early found footage piece that built on the earlier legacy of Snuff (1976) and ran with an assertion from Ed Sanders book The Family (1971) that they stole an NBC film crew truck and used the equipment to make snuff films. The imagined output is surreal. Manson Family Movies (1984) which is all filmed from the perspective of the family on super 8mm film and dwells on mondo-style, exploitative gore once again to entice the salacious viewer disturbed by the ever winding myths around Manson.

In the same vein, Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family (2003) takes a transgressive view on the subject matter and relishes in the hyperbole of cult and barbaric murder. Famously taking 15 years to produce and finish, for many murder groupies, this is seen as the definitive film of Manson. Van Bebber firmly asserts that if you cover this story, you have to cover it warts and all in an NC-17 way. The film does successfully channel a late sixties, early 70’s aesthetic in its tone and thus has a further authenticity of Manson as cinema, rather than cinema about Manson. Van Bebber has a certain connection with the Manson psyche as a film-maker, and is somewhat reminiscent when ranting to distributors about film to DVD transfers of his work too.

From this moment on, Manson as myth and cultural icon becomes a touchstone to regurgitate in direct to DVD movies or sleight of hand references in TV series. Manson, My Name is Evil (2009), House of Manson (2014), The Wolves at the Door (2016) and The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019) all carbon copy the salacious aspects of the case, water down the nuance and add to the myth-making of Manson, whilst never really tackling anything new and can be largely dismissed for wrapping themselves in Manson iconography with little substance. It is also  difficult not to see the Family fingerprints all over most home invasion horror films of recent memory, invoking the horror of being disrupted, held hostage and murdered by some counter culture creepy crawlers, they set the narrative template for this modern American horror fable. 

Manson has also continued to guest star in such shows as American Horror Story: Cult (2017) Aquarius (2015)  or Mindhunter (2019) illustrating he is still a strong cultural bogeyman in the American psyche that people want to explore and visit. Films like Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene (2011) nicely explore the phenomenon and psychology of cult radicalisation with strong nods to Manson, without getting caught up in all the salacious aspects of the case. Equally, Charlie Says (2018) explores the indoctrination psychology and less salacious aspects through the eyes of Manson’s disciples and here we see (former Doctor Who) Matt Smith play Manson in a more subtle and believable incarnation as oppressive seductor rather than histrionic mad man.

There will of course always be room for such oddities as Live Freaky, Die Freaky (2006) – a stop motion musical comedy about the Manson crimes, or Troma’s Honky Apocalypse (2014) – that imagines an alternate universe where Manson’s proclamation of a Helter Skelter race war comes true in typical Troma, independent trash cinema style. 

It is inferred in the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) that we may actually only be getting more the guest star in cultural context of Manson this time around and possibly revisionist takes on the myth whilst delving into the transitioning movie business in 1969, illustrating how much Manson has become synonymous with Hollywood either as protagonist or background player. The film opens here next week, so we’ll know more then.

We’ve even seen one of the stars of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Brad Pitt, do his own modern day interpretation of Manson in Tyler Durden, of course. Rewatch Fight Club through the lense of cult radicalisation and guru instructed mayhem, compare Tyler’s speeches in the film to Charlie’s real-life speeches and you see much synchronicity.

Charlie changed Hollywood, Manson is a Hollywood story, myth and bogeyman that perpetuates to this day in so many aspects of our popular culture.

It was only natural for Tarantino as the pop culture maestro to visit and explore, having ditched other Hollywood arch manipulator Harvey Weinstein. Tarantino’s obsession with killers in his work, with numerous nods like having written Daisy Domergue in Hateful Eight (2015) as “a Manson girl out west, like Susan Atkins or something” was leading him here. Indeed what was Charlie if not the ultimate director manipulating and coercing players to act out his Hollywood scene like a doting Hollywood entourage, whilst he laps up all the attention? And we’re still talking about it 50 years on.

Jon Harman is a film producer, director and lecturer. Producing work from web series to feature films, documentaries and mind numbing live pop fare for Disney. Jon has the media bite mark scars on the leg that Quint and Hooper would drunkenly argue over. Jon also contributes to Cinema Under The Stairs podcast on Spotify. His trailer homage to Lucio Fulci and Man Bites Dog “Cool Clyde” (made when 16) is hidden on Youtube somewhere as a special easter egg.

Why I Love Doctor Who

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Note: an earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Norwegian publication, Z Filmtidsskrift, Number 4 in 2013, editor-in-chief: Ingrid Rommetveit, guest editor: Marte Stapnes.

For those poor, deprived souls who have never encountered this most wonderful institution, Doctor Who is a weekly British sci-fi (or more accurately, fantasy) television series, produced by the BBC, which began, just a few months before I was born, in November 1963 and ran successfully until 1989. Apart from one brief revival attempted in 1996 it lay dormant until a major relaunch in 2005, which has seen it scale heights of mass popularity with the general viewing public that are genuinely surprising in an age of dumbed-down, lowest common denominator appeal programming.

At its core the show is a simple and ingenious idea, a person of mystery on the run, able to travel anywhere in time and space, through means of a machine permanently disguised as a 1960’s London Police Box (which is bigger on the inside), alongside one or more companions who act as the viewer’s eyes on the Doctor’s never ending adventures.

Rather unusually, the show was created not for children and not for adults. Instead it was a drama show intended to appeal to the entire family, broadcast in an early evening spot where it was reasoned that everyone would be together. That reasoning worked perfectly in my household; I can still feel flickering, luminous black & white images of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor imprinting on me, as he did battle with Yetis on the London Underground and evil Daleks swirling around Victorian England while my parents and grandparents sat close by, never more than the safety of a comforting lap away. Thankfully, young and imaginative minds such as mine were oblivious to the show’s paucity of production budget during its original 26 year run, reveling instead in its wild flights of fancy.

The show took a bold leap in regards to its casting. After three successful years in 1966, lead actor William Hartnell’s deteriorating health could have signaled an end to its run; instead, the producers decided to take a chance on re-casting the role with a new actor, the mercurial Patrick Troughton, by use of a plot device which saw the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, able to physically regenerate themselves twelve times, thus gifting the character with a distinct new personality every few years and thereby ensuring a potentially limitless run for a successful TV show. It was a brave move from the producers, but one that still attracts massive amounts of publicity for the show, as seen with the recent casting of the Thirteenth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, boldly changing the character’s gender for the first time.

Fans of the show are often asked “Who (pun no doubt intended) is your favourite Doctor?” the answer to which is usually the one you grew up watching. For me, however, that’s a tricky question, as I have brief memories of irascible First Doctor, William Hartnell and stronger memories of the playful Patrick Troughton. I suppose Jon Pertwee’s eccentric but groovy, uncle-like Third Doctor was probably where I became hooked (probably because I also had an eccentric but groovy uncle in real life), but it was with the truly off-the-wall Tom Baker that I became a die-hard fan, rubbishing rival TV channels’ attempts to lure me away with imported productions such as The Man from Atlantis and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century; glossier undoubtedly, but with far less substance.

We are regularly treated to storylines which feature the likes of shape changing robots powered and driven by miniature people, religious orders focused on bringing about the death of the main character, multiple timelines, Winston Churchill ruling the Roman Empire from a steampunk London overrun by Pteranodon, life or death chess games, heartbreaking nods to characters in the show’s past, ingenious resolutions to character relationships and infuriating solutions to questions posed in the last few years of story lines and yet more questions set up for the future.

And the show still has the ability to chill and delight, as illustrated by one of its more recent creations, the Weeping Angels; a fearsome race of aliens which disguise themselves as stone statues, unable to move so long as you watch them, but ready to ready to pounce as soon as you blink or look away. The children’s game of peek-a-boo has been craftily subverted by successive showrunners Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall, and is guaranteed to have children and adults alike scurrying to watch from behind the sofa.

The show’s attitude to sex and relationships has also been a delight since the relaunch, openly espousing not just a confident attitude to heterosexuality or homosexuality, but indeed to omnisexuality: just one more way in which the makers refuse to speak down to the audience, and one more reason why the BBC should be held in such high regard, for supporting such a consistently adult outlook for a family appeal show.

And above all these values, Doctor Who consistently succeeds at what its far-sighted creators set out to achieve in the dim and distant early 1960’s, to make a drama show for the whole family that educates and entertains. Almost fifty years later it’s still doing that, with a flair, creativity and an ability to stimulate the imagination that dazzles and leaves me breathless with envy and awe.

Doctor Who’s approach to creative drama is one of the reasons I pursued and have succeeded in a creative career, and it continues to inspire me as an adult as much as when I was a child. Its sheer breadth of imagination stirred, thrilled and excited me, fanning the flames of my own need to create stories, a thread which has run through my career, from my years as a comic book writer and artist into my later work as a writer and director for animation.

My love for the show also led me to bring the 50th anniversary film, The Day of the Doctor, to Norwegian cinemas in 2013 (but that’s a story for another time).

Doctor Who is a series which rewards both the casual and dedicated viewer, and in a television landscape littered with deathless reality shows and tired genre formats; it rises high above its faults (which now tend towards a surfeit of ideas rather than the dearth of budget which often plagued the original run). It is unique, charming, exciting, terrifying and thought provoking in equal measures, and I will always adore this wild and wildly eccentric show.


Dave King is the creator and editor of Out Of Dave’s Head. For his sins, which are many and varied, he also works in animation as a writer, director, producer and lecturer. He still waits to be acknowledged for his talents as a lounge singer. 

“Please Won’t You Be My Neighbor…?” Tom Hanks Clears Shelf Space For His Next Oscar

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There’s really not much to say here, except: Tom Hanks, Mister Rogers, next year’s Oscar winner. Here’s your trailer (get your tissues ready):

If you’ve seen Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighboryou’ll already be on board with this film. If not, you should prepare your heartstrings to be tugged by A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.

Tom Hanks playing one of America’s great cultural icons frankly seems like a sure bet for Oscar nomination, and if it turns out to be as heartwarming as this trailer (spoiler alert: it will be), then we’re in for something quite lovely, and probably rather needed, given the times in which we’re currently living.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, starring America’s nicest human being ™ , Tom Hanks, and directed by Marielle Heller (Diary Of A Teenage Girl), opens November 22. That gives Mr Hanks three months to prepare shelf space…