A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

An old rock star (Bradley Cooper) tilts his hat down before walking out on stage. It’s hazy, the stagelights are blinding but all we can see clearly in the tracking shot is Jackson Maine’s hunched back. He’s crushed with the weight of something we’re not familiar with yet. Before going on stage to tell his story for the sea of listeners he hesitates, takes a step backstage and downs a drink, illuminating the reason for the weight he carries in his slouched shoulders. He’s a cliche of rock stardom, writing his own swan-song, completely comfortable with the slow poison of his suicide solution. He’s ashamed of it, refusing to make eye-contact with others and performing without looking at the crowd, instead opting for the brotherhood of an interlocking guitar solo. A fretboard won’t judge, and you can’t shove alcohol down your throat in the middle of a guitar solo. A guitar only ever asks to be played and Jackson Maine can at least answer that prayer, even if he’s already given up the ghost of his own life. A song is only a respite from his problems. When the crowd goes home and talks about how amazing Jackson Maine was that evening, he sits alone, letting a dwindling bottle of alcohol become his new audience, but that’s soon gone as well. He has to chase a new muse, but on this night, he finds more than alcohol.  

Ally (Lady Gaga) is not a rock star. She blends into the surroundings at her job, forced to wear a uniform that betrays star power. Bathe yourself in the waters of conformity if you want to disappear. She’s a singer, but right now she’s a waitress. No amount of talent keeps her from the uncaring world of 8 hour shifts that denigrate employees to meddle around in trash before they get off work. When Ally leaves her job, to get to the gay bar she’s set to perform in that night she hums Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It’s a nice homage to the woman who made the 1954 version of this story shine, but it has added context when sung by someone wishing for a falling star. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an anthem of dream chasers and when Ally walks up the back-alley street and the title card fades in like prophecy “A STAR IS BORN”.  

A Star is Born is a familiar story told four separate times, before Bradley Cooper’s instalment, over different generations of American filmmaking. Legendary director George Cukor made the only two exemplary versions before the newest one was released. Cukor’s earliest, What Price Hollywood? (1932), laid the groundwork for everyone who would follow. In these movies, one star fades out, as another fades in, a dissolve made into narrative. The most well-known example of this story comes with Cukor’s 1954 adaptation, which loosely reimagined What Price Hollywood?, but took the romantic angle from William A. Wellman’s, A Star is Born. Featuring greatest of all time calibre performances from both Judy Garland and James Mason the 1954 version is a tough act to follow. Cukor’s second verse of this story is the classic epic Hollywood tragedy with a lightning in a bottle moment from its stars and director, all of whom are at the very peak of their talents. It’s near impossible to top, but in A Star is Born (2018) Bradley Cooper comes close by insulating the romantic angle in a bubble which amplifies the tragedy that comes in fracturing a perfect world self-made between two people. But first Jackson needs a drink.  

As if by fate Jackson stumbles into a gay bar. Quite the feat considering he is neither gay, nor plays the kind of music that’s celebrated in establishments such as the one he’s just walked into. He’s even greeted at the door with a “you sure you’re in the right place?”, but any bar is home if it has alcohol when you’re looking to get plastered. Jackson’s need to get drunk lets him become comfortable quickly among the queens, but he quickly gets sidetracked when he hears this girl sing. Nearly everyone has been lip-syncing or performing karaoke all night, but she’s different. The otherwise loud bar dips into a stone cold silence before she begins to wrap herself in the sensuality of her performance of “La Vie En Rose”. The girl that’s singing is Ally.  

In these movies it is vital to deliver the “star-making” moment and Bradley Cooper’s version of this story arguably creates an entire film around this idea in the overwhelming awe Jackson has for Ally throughout. The moment where this is crystalized is Ally’s performance of “La Vie En Rose” which suits Gaga’s mid-range vocal abilities to perfection. Gaga, to her credit, completely controls the moment, making the song not just a performance of vocal ability but of how she moves her body. She manages to travel the floor and encompass nearly every square foot of the bar before she ends up in front of Jackson Maine. Bradley Cooper uses a close-up on Gaga to stand-in for Jackson’s own point of view reaction to making eye contact with Ally for the first time. This is not just a star making scene, but the moment where two people fall in love. His decision in form here foreshadows how the rest of their relationship would be shot. The moment they lock eyes and Ally’s face completely overwhelms the frame, while being lit in a deep scarlet red with just enough sea green to make the image lush, we know his love for her is real. It insulates the two in a bubble almost immediately and the tracking shot we saw earlier of Jackson, in its formal conceit, to create a stoic singular figure, falls away and shows this man willing to open up his world for another person. The camera makes space for her, and Jackson does too. Jackson’s blurry vision and failure to make eye contact goes away with Ally. He focuses on her. His eyes light up and show life for the first time and he’s pulled out of the sea and back onto land when in her presence. Jackson Maine looks at Ally in awe, not only for her talent, but for love.   

Jackson meets Ally backstage and immediately there is something between the two characters. It’s a crowded room full of queens, but their eyes seem to follow each other. Even with everyone surrounding them they’re framed like the only two people in the world. Jackson is interrupted occasionally to sign a pair of fake breasts or take a picture with a starstruck fan, but his attention to her never wavers. Jackson is acting, as if in a focused trance, after Ally’s performance and Ally, not completely realizing it just yet, because, she too is somewhat starstruck, has been captivated by him the entire time. Despite her obvious interest Ally keeps a shield up. Folks in the music industry have always burned her in one way or another and she’s worried Jackson may be the same, but that changes later that evening when the two of them find their way into a cop bar. After another fan insists on getting a picture with Jackson, this time rudely, Ally punches him in the face, because he’s invading the space she and Jack have created for themselves that evening. Jack’s impressed, and Ally laughs it off, not knowing what got into her.

They travel to a grocery store at his insistence and he cares for her swollen hand, using diy medical techniques, like using duct tape and peas to keep her piano hand from further injury. Jackson and Ally sit in the grocery store parking lot and in a low-angle wide image they’re the only two in frame. The entire world is theirs in that moment. Everything belongs to them, and they can be as comfortable and vulnerable with one another as possible. They talk about childhood troubles, songwriting and cheetos. Ally is wearing Jack’s leather jacket so she doesn’t get cold, and after hearing about Jack’s childhood issues she writes a song on the spot that would become the grand centerpiece of the film, “Shallow”. The entire sequence in the grocery store and the parking lot drifts. The images take their time and these two characters slip into one another in that way people do when they’re having a perfect conversation. Everything is smooth and easy and trapped in time. Minor on the surface, but the sort of evening you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s the beauty of falling in love in the single image of Jackson and Ally’s warm isolation from the rest of the world. Their intimacy spreads beyond the scene, and outwards, like all the best love stories. In the back of our mind we know how this story ends, because we’ve seen this story before, but in this moment, everything is perfect, and you forget that this won’t last forever.  

Following that parking lot scene Cooper does a lot formally to emphasize the shelter these two have in one another with grace-notes involving human touch. There are obvious ones like Ally applying makeup to Jackson’s face in a bubble bath while he holds her, and others that are subtle like Jackson running an index finger up Ally’s calf while they ride a motorcycle. All of this is to say that their relationship is sexy and tactile in nature, but it also goes to sure up how Cooper articulates his shot selection to keep a tone of the two of them against the world. Jackson is in love with Ally, because she’s a greatt artist, a better one than he is, and Cooper acknowledges this in just how much of the movie he spends staring at Ally in awe of her abilities, but also because she’s the first person he’s let into his world in ages. Despite all of this Jackson still drinks, even to Ally’s protests. Love isn’t enough and the bubble between the two of them fractures when Ally’s career begins to take off after her concert appearances with Jackson go viral. There’s a short scene between Jackson and Ally after she moves in with him where Jack thanks her for giving him a home. She asks him to clarify and he said “this place never felt much like one before you were here”. That home might as well be Jack’s life, and the tragedy of the movie is the perfect world they made with one another, by nature of their own relationship, slipped through their fingers before they even knew it was gone. Ally’s world expands with her stardom, but Jackson was comfortable where he was at in his life. Jack’s friend, George (Dave Chappelle), likens his life to a ship being at sea, “You set sail, you’re out there for a long time, chasing something, but you dock into port, and you find you kind of like it here. Years go by, and you forgot why you set sail in the first place, but you don’t mind, because you’re comfortable.”  

Jackson and Ally get married. Ally makes a pop album.  

Many have criticized the movie’s second-half for failing to give Ally an equal share of the narrative as Jackson, and while I think this is a fair point, I think this is exactly the point of what the film conveys. The camera sticks with Jackson, because he is in stasis, and he struggles with the loss of the world he and Ally had when it was just the two of them, so he drinks more and more. Ally’s story expands, like a star exploding, she’s on SNL, she’s nominated for Grammy’s and she gets giant billboards plastered all over the city adorned with her face. Ally needs more than Jackson, but she doesn’t want to lose Jackson either. The fissuring of their relationship comes at the cost of her expanding career and his inability to cope with the specific circumstances that come with being a woman in the music industry. Jackson wants her to sing, and tell her story, but that’s never enough for a woman. She has to know how to dance, she has to be attractive, and she has to cultivate a self-image, because the industry is functionally different for her than it is for him. He sees this as a tragedy, and while she isn’t entirely comfortable with pop star trappings, she still thinks it’s “fucking awesome” at the end of the day. This isn’t a question of rock music versus pop music in the larger scheme of things, because Ally always mentioned wanting to have “hits” and Jackson obviously never kept up with the world around him and saw how the industry changed since he broke out in the 90s.. Jackson can play rock music to the same crowds as he did in the 90s, because he has a built in audience, but Ally has to create her own image and narrative, and he struggles with that reality. He loses her to the pop machine. He’s selfish to some degree in wanting to keep her where she is, but he’s honest about it, and it does come from a place of love. To watch him struggle with the realities his relationship is now facing is harrowing, because we have the context for how these stories end. It’s like watching someone morph into a corpse in real time, and Cooper, to his credit, plays the downfall with just the right mixture of self-righteousness and vulnerability. Ally never loses her love for Jackson, but she constantly makes comprises for his sake, because she still wants to keep the world they fostered at the beginning of the film alive. She wants him to be on tour with her, and protect him from his own problems even if it comes at the expense of sponsorship, additional tour dates and freedom. She makes these sacrifices because Jack is her person, and she’s willing to do anything for him, even when she knows what’s broken cannot be fixed.

A Star is Born is a movie of love and the sacrifices you have to make when your life becomes entangled with another person. Love is not independent. There is no singular “you” when you’re in a relationship that really counts. You fold yourself into the person you love and become like one single entity. Their problems are yours and there isn’t a worse feeling than failing to solve the problems of the person you love. Ally’s story reduces in the second-half of the film, because she’s away working hard to become the artist she knows she can be, and when she’s home she sacrifices herself to help her troubled husband rise back above water. She is selfless, even to the point of breaking her own heart if it meant he could find peace. She gives everything, even when she knows it’s impossible. Jackson does too. You do that when you’re in love.  

Destination Wedding (Victor Levin, 2018)

Keanu. Winona. We tend to refer to them by a singular name, like Madonna, Cher or Prince. It should have been common sense that these icons of Generation-X would play off each other in a romantic comedy or starred alongside one another in a multitude of projects, but Destination Wedding is only the second time these two have shared a screen. Their first collaboration was in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula (1992), which wasn’t exactly the “of-the-moment” event these two stars needed at the absolute zenith of their careers in terms of popularity and creativity. The two have seen dips and valley’s in their career following Dracula, and luckily Destination Wedding comes at a time when both are on the crest of a new wave in popularity. Both Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are as hip today as they’ve been in a very long time, with both experiencing something of a career renaissance. After a long period of sexism induced blacklisting by Hollywood at large Ryder has begun to make the first stabs at a comeback with her role on the very popular Netflix series Stranger Things. Winona Ryder has deserved a large scale comeback for years, and she should have never been pulled out of the public sphere, especially considering there are men who have done much much worse things than shoplifting who continue to make film after film. It’s a shame that it has taken this long for doors to open for her again, but I’m nonetheless happy she’s back. Keanu Reeves by extension has the massively popular action movie series, John Wick, which has not only turned him into an icon for an entirely new generation, but propelled him into the conversation surrounding the greatest action movie stars ever. His stoicism and ragged physicality, built upon a jangled trauma of an unwanted skill and the recurring domino effects of violence of his job as a hit-man in the Wick movies has reinvigorated him. It’s a role only he could play. Enter Destination Wedding, which sees the two stars on a collision course for one another, and the only bullets here are the barbed wire insults they sling at each other until they realize “this is the only person as fucked up as me” and they begrudgingly admit that it’s better to hate together than apart.  

The basic premise of Destination Wedding is a tale as old as time: boy meets girl, boy immediately hates girl, they end up at a wedding together, they cross paths with a mountain lion, and tolerate each other long enough to have sex. This has happened to literally all of us. The boy in this case is Frank (Keanu Reeves) and the girl he hates is Lisa (Winona Ryder). Lisa is going to this wedding because she wants to get closure with her ex-fiance, and Frank? Frank is the estranged brother of the groom. They both hate the groom so they find an initial bonding over the double act of hating each other and hating this other person they know intimately. Nothing says a meet-cute like an expletive leaden brush with jealousy. The framing device that director Victor Levin uses throughout the movie hollows the world out around from Frank and Lisa through predominate medium-wide shots where Lisa and Frank often appear to be standing in a room full of mannequins. This is probably how they view the other guests. The formal decision to keep them separate from everyone and focused entirely on their banter throughout the miserable wedding is a smart one, if not entirely effective. Levin sometimes pushes the camera too far away rendering Keanu and Winona ant-like in the frame, and it makes their chemistry and witty back and forth harder the discern because we can’t see their faces. When Levin’s drops the pretenses of the wide-mannequin rendering shot, the script blossoms in the hands of these two iconic actors.  

The rapid-fire delivery of the dialogue recalls screwball at times. If the camera were more interested in catching the actor’s physicality in motion instead of standing back and letting their verbal skills do all the work it would be appropriate to discuss the film in these terms. Levin doesn’t have the chops or the understanding when to let his formal ideas expand and it holds the film back pretty significantly at times. In the hands of a more seasoned director Destination Wedding would likely be considered among the finer comedies of the decade, instead of merely, being a great exercise in verbal dexterity from two the finest actors of the 1990s. I do not want to short change just how good Reeves and Ryder are however; their pitch perfect, charred, hate-fuelled rants at anything and everything are a constant joy and the sheer annihilative pitch and speed in which the film spews bile almost renders things abstract. It’s akin to being stuck in a punchline whirlpool, and if you enter into this movie with the full intention to get down on the level of Lisa and Frank’s debased sewer spewage bile the film will reward you with a deranged symphony of laughter.  

Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018)

“I’ve been praying for the day he’s released.” 

These  words are said by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) after stumbling  across the latest crime scene committed by Michael Myers. In the newest  incarnation of Halloween the film gestures toward a narrative  about trauma and the aftermath of violence, but does so with a  distinctly simplistic, offensive and male idea of survival. The above  phrase stuck out to me while watching the movie like a sore thumb and a  Rosetta stone of sorts on this movie’s understanding of traumatic  events. To put it in the most basic way: I was offended at the notion  that this is what post-traumatic stress disorder looks like in women.  The last thing a trauma victim would want is the release of their  monster into the world to do damage to more people, but this doesn’t  seem to bother Laurie. Probably because those in charge have no idea  what trauma actually feels like.

I was in a  Costco about a year ago with my in-laws stocking up on groceries for  the winter season. It was a regular day, and despite the store giving me  anxiety due to the sheer amount of people aisle to aisle and the  occasional unwanted brushing up against other customers I was mentally  holding it together. Going down the freezer aisles, however, was a  disaster, because I saw someone who looked eerily similar to my father,  and I couldn’t breathe. I hyperventilated and shut down. I stood there,  disassociating, until he turned around and I realized it wasn’t actually  my father, but I still had to be taken into the food court to calm  down. I have no concept of whether or not I made a scene or was noticed,  but it felt like a black hole was pouring out of me and pulling me  inward. I was disappearing. I didn’t realize how badly I had shaken  myself up until my fiance gave me the finer details of what happened  later that evening. He was there to calm me down, but I don’t know what  would have transpired if he had not been there. With post-traumatic  stress disorder we do our best to move forward in day to day life. We  try to make a life out of something damaged and we do our best not to  dwell on things that may trigger or send us spiraling into the abyss of  our own memories. This is not typically how post-traumatic stress  disorder is characterized in motion pictures. In movies, it’s an avenue  for revenge, but the last thing we’d ever want to do is to be put into a  position where we could be hurt again. What we want is sanctuary and  peace of mind. Not bloodshed. 

What Halloween suggests  is that the only way to get closure is to kill your abuser and ensnare  your entire life around the past waiting for the perfect moment to take  back what was lost. I would respect Halloween’s understanding of  trauma if it were at all intellectually rigorous or honest in its  intentions toward recognizing images of bodies, power and gender like in  the Female Prisoner Scorpion series,  but it is merely a short-cut for the same boring “strong-female lead”  characterizations we’ve been seeing for the better part of twenty years  now in place of women who feel like actual human beings. Laurie stalks  Michael’s place of hospitalization to keep an eye on him, she stockpiles  fire-arms and lives in constant panic that he’s going to come back. I’m  not going to assert that everyone who experiences PTSD is the same, but  to insist that this, of all things, is a stunning portrait of female  trauma is absurd to me. The real strength that lies with us is the  understanding that we can still live our lives. Laurie Strode doesn’t.  She’s a plot-device waiting to spout a one-liner before blowing her  victimizer’s head off. She’s little more than a frat boy’s idea of a  badass grandmother. Jamie Lee Curtis does her best playing this  character who is obviously fractured and scarred by her past, but you  can only do so much with a script that cares more about the jokes that  are inserted to de-escalate tension than it does the victim’s  themselves, including Strode. 

Even if one were to look  beyond the absolutely abysmal rendering of trauma and pinpoint only  director, David Gordon Green’s chops as a filmmaker you’d come across  with the same tired result of Carpenter copy-cats that have run this  series into the ground sequel after sequel. Rob Zombie being the lone exception.  Green renders all of his slasher showdowns and kills with  over-calculated consideration for the shot above the actual violence or  the humanity of the characters. He can snake his camera through a maze  of trick or treaters in a long tracking shot, but he can’t give anyone  any depth or linger on shots long enough for us to feel the full impact  of the violence. It’s the same tired slasher bullshit. The only person  who comes away from this movie unscathed is John Carpenter who created a  soundtrack to accompany the film, updating his score from the 1978  picture with some consideration for modern sensibilities while still  leaning on his classic synthesizer horror. He’s still the master. His  music is the only thing that gives this movie life, lifting the  otherwise rote filmmaking out of the gutter from time to time. I’d say  John Carpenter deserves better, but I’m sure he’s very happy cashing  checks on movies that only further cement his legacy as someone no one  can equal in a genre of filmmaking he helped create.

The 50 Best Movies I watched in 2019

2019 felt indescribably long. When I look back on the list of movies that made an impact on me in the last 365 days I am taken aback that some of these weren’t watched in 2018. My sense of time seems to be corroding to some degree, and I’m not sure how I feel about that happening. It’s strange, but living in 2019 was strange. There’s a a ghostly quality to the last few years, as if we’re on a sinking ship, while hoping we can patch one of the biggest holes in 2020. I don’t know how things are going to turn out, but cinema is my one constant, and in 2019 I watched more movies (401 if Letterboxd is to be believed) than I had in the previous four years. When I look at this list the biggest thing that pops out to me is how much I used the Criterion Channel streaming service, which both guided my viewing and gave me the opportunity to explore an under the radar director like Keisuke Kinoshita. Theresa Russell’s movies with Nicolas Roeg made a gigantic impact on me, and I think in Russell I’ve found a new actor to obsess over. I’m unsure if Bad Timing is actually the best movie I watched last year, but putting it anywhere but number one felt wrong, because Russell’s performance so grabbed ahold of my psyche that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the character since. Her turn as Marilyn Monroe in Insignificance created a similar effect. Naoko Yamada’s work with Kyoto Animation was also significant, with K-On! being like a life raft in dangerous waters. I so looked forward to returning to the mundane lives of those teenage protagonists in the Fall of the previous year. Jacques Tourneur, Powell and Pressburger and Amy Holden Jones were also dominant in my viewing patterns. This list is a reflection of everything that burrowed its way into my body and mind in 2019. I greatly admire all of these films. I am sure that 2020 will bring more.

1. Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg, 1980)
2. K-ON! (Naoko Yamada and Kyoto Animation, 2009-2011)
3. School on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1988)
4. Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
5. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944)
6. A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)
7. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
8. Insignificance (Nicolas Roeg, 1985)
9. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
10. Anne of the Indies (Jacques Tourneur, 1951)
11. Stars in my Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950)
12. The Adolescence of Utena (Kunihiko Ikuhara, 1999)
13. The Slumber Party Massacre and The Slumber Party Massacre II (Amy Holden Jones, 1983 and Deborah Brock, 1987)
14. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
15. Blackout (David Lynch, 1993)
16. Somewhere in Dreamland (Dave Fleischer, 1936)
17. Puce Moment (Kenneth Anger, 1949)
18. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (Mamoru Oshii, 1984)
19. Asparagus (Suzann Pitt, 1978)
20. Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946
21. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (Leslie Harris, 1992)
22. Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993)
23. It’s Always Fair Weather (Stanley Donen, 1955)
24. Woman (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)
25. The City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980)
26. No Regrets For Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
27. Career Girls (Mike Leigh, 1997)
28. Death Dream (Bob Clark, 1974)
29. Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)
30. Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)
31. To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)
32. Love Letters (Amy Holden Jones, 1983)
33. For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989)
34. Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (Shusuke Kaneko, 1999)
35. Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)
36. The H-Man (Ishiro Honda, 1958)
37. On the Town (Stanley Donen, 1949)
38. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
39. His Motorbike, Her Island (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)
40. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
41. Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992)
42. Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobson, 1996)
43. Girl Pack (Lisa Baumgardner, 1981)
44. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zamen, 1962)
45. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer, 1936)
46. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
47. So Dark the Night (Joseph H. Lewis, 1946)
48. Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)
49. Sister Street Fighter (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1974)
50. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

The influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on the career of David Lynch

David Lynch is one of the few directors of the past fifty years whose cinematic influences are almost non-existent within his actual work. This is not to say that Lynch is not a cinephile, much to the contrary. There’s breadcrumbs placed throughout his work that signal a deep affection for cinema. Laura Palmer is named after the 1944 film, Laura. In Twin Peaks, Lynch gleefully named FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole after a character from Sunset Blvd (1950). He has talked openly about his love for Federico Fellini and in his newest book, Room to Dream, his wife at the time admits that they were in the Cinema rather frequently during the 1960s. One can sense that David Lynch is drawn towards film noir with its dusky skies and midnight troubles. That genre is all over his work, but not to the point where you could say David Lynch was influenced by Jacques Tourneur, Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang, but in the shades of their work in genre. He never gravitates toward a specific director or film. His influences are closer to painters like Francis Bacon. It would likely even be more honest to say David Lynch is a painter who sometimes makes surrealist movies. He is otherwise a near total enigma. He’s merely David Lynch.  

After recently revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s, Psycho (1960), I began to think that maybe this is a movie that David Lynch was influenced by and there are a handful of key moments in particular that struck me as adjacent to images that would show up later in the cinema of David Lynch. One can consider that maybe the loosest connection between David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock is their approach at plotting in terms of conspiracy theories, gender, and mystery. Alfred Hitchcock is famous for his “wrong man” movies which see an everyday hero thrown into a situation of extraordinary circumstances, frequently pitting him against spies and government agencies or criminals. North by Northwest (1958) and The 39 Steps (1939) are two examples and in The Wrong Man (1956) he takes the title literally and brings it to its natural endpoint. David Lynch, on the other hand is known for the trope of “the woman in trouble”. This is true of Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1992, 2017), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). The Woman in Trouble arc usually shows a woman suffering at the hands of some masculine evil, sometimes metaphysical, completely at odds with her own actions. Sometimes bad things just happen. Lynch, like Hitchcock, also seems to have a thing or two about blondes. In addition to these smaller coincidences and looser narrative ties they share another similarity: the door that shouldn’t have been opened. For Alfred Hitchcock, this was never achieved to greater effect than in Psycho.   

Seeing something you weren’t supposed to witness, or opening up a door that leads you down a rabbit hole into hell is central in Psycho and in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In Psycho, a handful of people fall prey to the rising swamp that is the Bates Motel. On the surface Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, who is a total ball of nerves and never better) seems like a normal enough guy. He’s nice, hospitable and open, but he’s also lonely, pathetic, almost like someone you’d pity. Norman’s a guy you’d try to make feel better, but in reality he’s a deeply traumatized individual battling a psychotic cocktail of exaggerated horrific factors like transsexuality, oedipal lust and trauma. Marion Crane (Vivian Leigh) never stood a chance, but she only rolled into Norman’s life to get out of the rain. She’d die for making that paranoid precaution on the dusky, drenched highways of the west coast. As audience members we feel for her, and we’re just as trapped as she is. As soon as we see that monolithic house and the ghostly feminine silhouette in the window we’ve stepped into territory that is decidedly unsafe, and things only get worse from there. Marion found her way into hell. Lynch was good at leading us into that direction too.  

In Blue Velvet, Jefferey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) finds his own worst nightmare in the presence of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Jefferey doesn’t know any better, he’s just a teenager, a voyeur, coming from a good-hearted place to help Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini), but still finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun he never intended. After finding a severed ear he becomes overwhelmed with an urge to investigate. Jefferey ends up in an apartment closet of a young woman’s apartment, witnessing something he wasn’t supposed to. I get the feeling we weren’t supposed to either. We’re both voyeurs, in the cinematic sense, the movies are always about looking, but rarely does a movie ever make you feel bad at taking a peek. These two films do. Norma Bates looks at Marion Crane as she’s showering. Jefferey looks as Dorothy wields a knife against Frank Booth only for him to become violent with her and collapse into the hissing howls of a pained word he’d repeat frequently: “Mommy”. This is fucked up. We don’t know where we’re going, and wherever it is, it isn’t good. Jefferey’s an audience surrogate and when Frank finds him we’re whisked away too. A brand new world of mundane strangeness, unnerving the senses. Ants under the rock, an unravelling underworld. Down the rabbit hole of our own worst anxieties for having looked. We’re fragile, the threat of violence leaning closer and closer into the young body of Beaumont and us as an audience. It’s suffocating, but then, it’s exasperating to be left with Norman too.  

Twin Peaks is all about opening up a door that should have stayed locked, but in this case Lynch was tearing open the heart of small-town America. In that show Laura Palmer is found, wrapped in plastic, on a muggy morning in the pacific north west. It’s perfect for fishing; not finding dead bodies, but there she is, beautiful, tranquil, gone. What’s her story? The wrapped in plastic image has become one of Lynch’s strongest, both culturally and thematically in his own work. Laura’s story is more complex than the fashion in which she was discovered. The plastic has persisted, but she wasn’t the first girl to be treated in such a way. Norman buries Marion Crane in a plastic shower curtain, carried off in the same way Laura was. I’d be hesitant to argue that David Lynch imprinted on the image of the woman wrapped in plastic in Psycho, but the image is startlingly similar to the death image of Laura. The similarities are only amplified in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) when Laura’s murderer has struck again, and is loading his latest victim into the back of a station wagon for removal. Norman does the same with Marion’s body, only thirty years earlier.  

Lynch could have gotten these ideas anywhere, but there’s a point to be made about Psycho’s twisted puzzle-box of layered terror appealing to David Lynch on an unconscious aesthetic level. As is, Psycho is one of the great American horror films, and has become iconic to such a degree it would be impossible not to be influenced by Hitchcock’s images and mood. Lynch certainly was, and while I’d argue his cinema remains at a distance when trying to piece together the key factors of his influences as a director, it does make sense that a film as mammoth as Psycho found its way into his brain. Like it has with just about all of us.  

“I Bet You’d Stick Your Head in Fire if You Thought You Could See Hell”: on House of 1,000 Corpses

you Malibu Barbie middle class piece of shit. I’m trying to work here. You ever work? Yeah, I’ll bet you have. Scoopin’ ice cream to your shit-heel friends on Summer break.”  

Otis Firefly

Rob Zombie started his filmmaking career in the world of the music video. He was the lead singer of popular heavy metal band White Zombie, but he wanted more than what that band offered him creatively. It all started with their single, More Human Than Human (1995), a title which is taken from Blade Runner (1982). A doomsday prophet in a gas mask clogs up a highway, he’s covered in tiny American flags, and his sign bears the name of the song, the bass heavy synth rhythm unfurls and there’s a cut to 8mm footage of children on a carousel, the drums kick in and another cut, to a lanky man with a pumpkin placed atop his head. This is the world of Rob Zombie, all his pet interests of lower-middle class Americana and the escape of pop culture horror therein. This was merely a taste of what filmmaking could be from Rob Zombie. He’d direct a dozen music videos, all of them trapped within his style of planting his seed in horror’s past, before he’d make his first feature: House of 1,000 Corpses (2003).

Corpses follows a group of four teenagers (Rainn Wilson, Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick and Jennifer Jostyn) as they travel the backroads of Texas as they do research for a book where they chronicle to the kooky hillbilly attractions spread across the Southern United States. It’s your typical plotting designated for a throwback to 1970s horror films like The Hills Have Eyes where white upper class yuppies stumble upon something they never should have seen and pay for it, but its similarities to those films is only on paper as Zombie diverges quickly and often in form, theme and plotting.  The kids are screwed as always, but their joyride to death’s door is complicated by Zombie’s interest in the Serial killer, not as someone innately evil, but an effect of society turning its nose up at those it deems worthless.  

These hapless teenagers come across a roadside advertisement for Captain Spaulding’s Fried Chicken and Gasoline, complete with a murder ride, and the two young men of the group can’t miss this brilliant opportunity to capitalize on the central idea for their tour book across the south. When they meet Captain Spaulding (veteran genre movie actor, Sid Haig) he’s just fended off a pair of dimwit robbers and is mopping up their blood. Bill (Hardwick. Fuck him btw) and Jerry (Rainn Wilson) are enraptured by this roadside den of the damned and Jerry strikes up a conversation with Spaulding. He asks him a lot of basic questions but when he laughs a little too hard at the way the Captain speaks, Spaulding interjects, his eyes turn downward and violent, his stare becoming blank and coarse and he sees why they’re really here. He turns up his accent and states with directness, “I see why y’all are here. You think us folk from the country’s real funny don’t ya?”. Jerry freezes. Spaulding stares. The camera sits, waiting to cut the silence and after about ten seconds of uncomfortable tension the Captain laughs loudly. “I’m just messing with ya. I’m a clown.” But that conversation planted the seeds. After the four of them finish taking Spaulding’s murder ride (which is closer to a hall of presidents, if the head of state was Ed Gein, couldn’t do worse), he gives them directions to an old hanging tree where Dr. Satan (the main event of the murder ride) was rumoured to have been hanged. The trap is set, and they were foolish enough to fall into its vice. 

Zombie takes an everything but the kitchen sink approach to his first feature. He directs as if this may be his very last chance at making a movie, and in doing so he inserts everything he can think of including odes to creature features, The Munsters, old Flesicher brothers animation and 1970s American carnage features like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is both a good and a bad thing, as he has not quite figured out how to sew together all the bits and pieces that fascinate and excite him as a filmmaker, but the material that is good is downright incendiary, and rises above his influences, foreshadowing the great director he would become. Zombie, having gotten his start in music videos, frequently shoots this film like one, inserting negative images, black and white photography, and low-grade video footage, among other techniques he learned while cutting his teeth making groovy heavy metal flicks for MTV’s Headbangers Ball. You could argue Zombie is too much of a stylist, and that would be a fair enough argument, film critic Dave Kehr states as much, but that would be wilfully ignoring how music and cinema are intertwined for Zombie. He uses music to punctuate, and while he almost certainly leans on music video technique a little too much, it also gives the film a freewheeling feeling that anything can happen at any given moment. This is sometimes to the detriment of the snobby, upper-middle class, white victims of the movie, who do not get time to make a true connection with audiences, but he more than makes up for it with his serial killers, who are some of the most fascinating cinema has ever seen.   

One of these murders is the, seemingly, demure, sex-pot, Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie). She’s stranded on the side of the road, decked out in a cow-girl outfit under an umbrella that’s capsizing under the weight of the downpour happening all around her. Bill wants to pick her up, the other three passengers are unsure, but Bill’s horniness wins out and as soon as Baby enters the vehicle she reads the situation, sees that Bill is the weak link and immediately begins to weaken him through her own sexuality. Sherri Moon Zombie plays the role like Betty Boop, if every Betty Boop cartoon had the impact violence and gore of Itchy & Scratchy. Sherri Zombie is a smart actor who utilizes her voice very effectively in the first of her collaborations with husband, Rob Zombie. She speaks in a child-like high pitched tone to disarm everyone around her. If they think she’s helpless she won’t be seen as a threat, and in doing so she becomes the most dangerous of all these killers, because she subverts the idea of a serial killer merely through her gender and how she uses it for her own means. The vocal technique, in particular, is interesting, because we, as women, sometimes will be socialized into altering the tone and tambre of the way we speak when we’re out in public, or in a professional job setting, as a way of seeming nonthreatening or vulnerable. It’s something we sometimes have to work through as we get older to find our real voice, because we’re taught and expected to speak in a certain way. As a technique, we also learn it can be used to alter a situation, either as a survival mechanism or to bend a scenario to what we’d want depending upon the specific parameters of what we find ourselves in at the moment. In a horror context, it’s a brilliant acting strategy, and something only a woman would have ever considered through her own firsthand experience. The subversion of the woman as serial killer image is only amplified when she’s using tools that saw their genesis in socialized girlhood. It’s telling that Denise and Mary, the two women on this journey, don’t fall for the act. They know exactly what she’s doing, even if they still wouldn’t consider the notion that she wasn’t looking for sex. She was looking for blood.  

Shortly after Baby gets into the vehicle the car busts a flat tire. Too much of a coincidence to have not been another in a long line of traps set by the Firefly clan, as the news outlets would call them in the sequel film: The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Baby suggests they crash at her place until morning. These preppy college kids wanted to see something fucked up, and they were about to bite off way more than they could chew. It’s here where we’re introduced to Mama Firefly (Karen Black) and Otis Driftwood (Bill Mosely). There are other members of the family who get minimal screen time like Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple), Tiny (Matthew McGrory) and Rufus (Robert Mukes), but stand-out in their brief appearances. Karen Black, ever the pro, plays Mama like a mature version of her daughter Baby. She and Sherri Moon are completely in sync with one another to the point where they feel like a real mother and daughter. We get the sense that Mama Firefly has passed down everything she knew about luring prey into a spider’s web to her devious baby girl. Mama, still has a trick or two up her sleeve though and Black delivers all her dialogue like a sleek-couger on the hunt for young men. Her voice dripped in a backwoods velvet and she uses her body for maximum coverage. Black is as good as it gets, and she uses her physicality to completely overwhelm the inexperienced Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwicke, both of whom are merely meat being tenderized in the palm of a smarter woman’s hand. Otis, on the other hand, has no greater goal towards outsmarting his enemy, instead opting for running head first into the chaos of violence almost immediately. He preaches, like a cult leader, about the virtues of murder, Halloween and society and you get the sense he is much much smarter than anyone would ever give him credit for being. When Otis is introduced Zombie inserts grainy home video footage presumably recorded by the Firefly family of Otis waxing poetic before tearing into his latest victims. It gives Bill Moseley an excuse to chew scenery. Something he’s been good at since his role in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II. These travelers who just wanted to make fun of hillbillies would not last much longer would hear plenty of Otis’s gospel. It’d be the last thing they ever hear.  

Bill Moseley gets one such scene shortly after they begin to torture these teenagers. Otis has Mary upstairs, tied to a chair with a Dunce cap placed atop her head, perhaps placing the shoe on the other foot of how society at large sees him. When he sees Mary he becomes indignant when she starts making demands so he gags her and he speaks his truth. He talks about the benefits of “work” and the holiness of the body, how it’s all we’ve all got, and he damns Mary for her privileged life of ice cream cones and white socks with Mickey Mouse on one side and Donald Duck on the other. Otis has a lot of pent up aggression against the world, and he takes it out on the privileged. He’s comfortable in the life he’s made for himself, but you get the sense that being a murderous hillbilly is the only opportunity he was ever given. He’s obviously smart and speaks with grandiose oratorical skill, but he doesn’t look the part of an intellectual, only a monster. He can be both. Otis wears a dirty tank top with the words “Burn this Flag” printed above the stars and stripes. You could argue he’s just an anarchist, but the system he’s railing against is distinctly American and you can’t help but get swept up in his drive toward a purity that doesn’t see class or rights or skills, but only bodies. Those that live and those that die, and in that field he’s a fucking genius.   

Rob Zombie complicates the notion of victim and predator in his Firefly clan motion pictures. Roger Ebert stated in a review of sequel film—The Devil’s Rejects– that if you were going to follow a group of mass serial killers at least these ones are interesting, and he’s absolutely right. They’re rock stars, but they have an ethos we can understand. They were wronged through expectations, because they didn’t fit the mold of what society deemed acceptable in a person. No one ever likes white trash. Things like NASCAR and Country Music are always low-hanging fruit for those who live in metropolitan cities. White trash families are a source of comedy on television shows like COPS that completely neglect their own humanity, even against whatever struggles these people may be going through at the time. Zombie touches on that with a carnival-esque beauty that paints these killers as every men, but not so much that you completely root for them. He repeatedly reminds you that these people are still monsters, even if they have a point, and in addition to that he gives them a way out. Tiny doesn’t kill people. He’s inbred, but passive. Even if Otis and Baby argue that they were born into this role Tiny subverts the argument that they can only kill. Maybe it doesn’t matter to Otis or Baby why they kill, but whose life they end, and even then rhetoric can only go so far, even if they make it seem like death is deserved.  

The most significant of these scenes is one in which Denise’s father, Don (Harrison Young) and a group of cops investigate the Firefly house after being told by Captain Spaulding that the Firefly house was the last place he saw them. Her father and these cops were dead before they even arrived, which fosters sympathy, but Zombie pushes this further than any other horror director at the time in asking for thoughtfulness through the eyes of a horrified father. It doesn’t entirely work, because we barely have a grasp of these victims and at this point Rob Zombie is piss poor at writing women, leaning on Virgin/Whore tropes that luckily left his work around Halloween (2007), but it’s brilliant in theory. Don and a young Sheriff Deputy played by the always excellent, Walton Goggins, investigate out back. It’s a trap, and we know it way before they do. Otis flips a latch that opens the barn door and there’s Denise writhing, nude, in terror, with a half-dozen dead girls piled up behind her. Slow-motion shots of Don’s reaction crystalize this moment of loss. Harrison Young has to do a lot here, he has to convey the realization that he failed at protecting his daughter, he has to come to grips with the fact that both he and his daughter are likely going to be killed any second now, and he has to do this all while seeing the monster who did this to his baby girl approaching him. He doesn’t entirely nail it, but it’s good enough to tug at the heart strings, and Zombie smartly includes home video footage of Denise and her father enjoying a picnic to represent a possible final last memory to pick up the slack. He re-works this scene entirely with Brad Douriff in Halloween 2 (2009) in what is one of the greatest scenes in the history of horror films. Don dies running away from his daughter. He was a coward and Denise saw all this happen. Zombie doesn’t utilize that disappointment, because he doesn’t entirely understand his characters yet so the scene falters to a degree here, but the possibility of what could have worked here is good enough reason to follow Rob Zombie into hell, because he obviously has greater ideas for the genre.  

Otis doesn’t kill Denise. It was his way of torturing her further. You can’t root for him despite his seductive words.   

The film falls apart after Don’s death, and loses a lot of its unique qualities in the final third, which devolve into typical slasher tropes of chase and run. All of this is done better in countless other films like Corpses’s greatest inspiration: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The close is copycat filmmaking right down to the night time thrills and the fake-out ending where the traumatized woman is left hanging between life and death and we’re left unsure of her own escape. It’s unfortunate, because in the earlier portions of the film Zombie shows a clear vision of who his killers are and what he wants to showcase in his savage world of class politics being Frankensteined onto a splatter nightmare. It’s different, unique, and totally his, but the climax could have been made by anyone. He seems formally disinterested and the shift from the Firefly clan to a supposedly more menacing big bad in Dr. Satan is ill conceived and silly. This final third doesn’t negate the power of what happens earlier, but it keeps Zombie’s debut from reaching heights it suggests at times. The good news is that he never made a film as mixed as House of 1,000 Corpses ever again. The only mediocre picture in an otherwise captivating filmography to come. Rob Zombie would later become one of the only iconic horror filmmakers working today, especially when placed alongside the increasingly conservative output that would plague horror in the next decade.

Rabbits (David Lynch, 2002)

Rabbits

It is coming.”

That’s seemingly a throwaway line of dialogue in David Lynch’s web-series, Rabbits, but it chills in its vagueness. Something is coming, but we don’t know what that will be or how it will make itself known. The only information we know to be true is that a presence will appear, and it will be there soon.  

David Lynch’s work as a horror surrealist comes to its most mature state in this web-series that follows the lives of three humanoid rabbits who live with one another in a lime green room. Lynch never once wavers from a singular wide shot of the living area so we cannot see or understand the world surrounding these characters. To the left is a door, and footsteps can repeatedly be heard, but often this is merely a red herring, a way to lull viewers into thinking the footsteps aren’t a danger, but the door remains horrifying, because we cannot achieve with clarity that the outside world is safe. Additionally, there is a hallway behind the living room area where the female rabbit (Naomi Watts) can be seen entering and returning before an alluring hypnotic crimson light overtakes all visibility in the living room, and a demonic voiced creature makes itself known. This, however, is not the “It” that is coming. This may merely be a smokescreen for what happens later. Lynch never once moves the camera, and it’s because of this that the passage of time can be felt with such intensity that it only amplifies the horror of the unknown that lies within this haunted living room. It’s a Chantal Akerman technique, where if the camera is placed in a static shot and we are left waiting, we have to pay attention to closer details, which breeds deeper introspection into what is actually happening in the frame. The film begs for a cut, something to take us to a safer place, but that never arrives.  

In horror films there is typically a safe zone or safe area where viewers can rest before tension rises again. This is used very frequently in modern horror films as a rhythmic technique to space out various jump scares, because if the entire film is a jolt then nothing separates the action, which would force the horror to be constant and thus less effective. However, in the case of a film like Rabbits the safe-zone of horror is corrupted due to the rhythmic eccentricities of Lynch’s lack of camerawork and the insertion of a laugh track. The laugh track pads the space, but it arrives in these jarring, angular, punch-lines that step on the dialogue. Lynch describes Rabbits as a sitcom, perhaps because it’s shot like one that doesn’t have the tools of a two camera system or an editor. Instead of cutting or taking us to another story we’re forced to sit with this one as characters repeat ominous, scattered phrases like “Something’s Wrong” or “Blood smothered mirror” which convey very specific mental images of terror and the vulnerability that comes with falling under the hand of violence.  

It is in Lynch’s rigorous destruction of anything that resembles editing that gives this series its surrealistic terror. If there is not an edit then you cannot escape whatever it is that’s going to happen. It is a foregone conclusion that something is coming and it is to be feared. All three Rabbit characters turn their heads to the door every time footsteps can be heard, which in turn makes viewers look , and we wait and wait, sometimes without anything happening. Lynch only breaks up these tense sequences with the laugh-track as punctuation, which doesn’t let the viewer breathe in a typical manner. It is terror and architecture as mathematics: an equation for horror. The anticipation that comes in waiting for forty minutes without a break in action, waiting on the unknown to make itself known frazzles and strips at the subconscious. There is a total envelopment of the senses in Lynch’s constant rain, the humming sound of nothing in every house, and the occasional sound of someone outside. That we don’t know who is outside is what stuns. In Rabbits you are not safe, and when that door finally opens you are not prepared for what lies ahead. It is coming. Whether you like it or not.  

Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977)

Smokey and the Bandit

When Bandit said goodbye to his one love, that’s when I knew I loved Burt Reynolds.  

It’s all in the way Bandit (Burt Reynolds) looks at her right before she’s about to get on a bus to god knows where, and be forever in his rear-view mirror. It floors me, because there’s this deep juxtaposition with who this man is actually supposed to be in conflict with what Burt Reynolds is conveying through his eyes that deepens the character. Bandit is forever cool, and seems to get by in a state of effortless relaxation, even when he’s dodging police vehicles and blistering the highways of the Southern United States at speeds of over 100 miles per hour, but Frog (Sally Field) pulls him out of his comfort zone. We never fear that Bandit will get caught. That’s not even a question, but losing the girl? That’s real, and in that moment he knows that to be true as well. He’s shook, paralyzed, in the same way Humphrey Bogart is in Casablanca (1942) right before he’s about to say goodbye to Ingrid Bergman. It’s classic cinema, and Burt Reynolds pulls it off beautifully. It’s in the way his eyes darken and his smile fades under the brim of his one protection: an old cowboy hat. It opens up his humanity to all of us, and he becomes more than an outlaw. We finally see Burt Reynolds as not just a gunslinger, but someone with a heart. That’s why women loved him, and why his screen presence is still special to this day. It’s timeless in a way that movies don’t really aim for anymore. Of course, after he says his goodbye to Frog (Sally Field), he soothes his pain with alcohol and a cheeseburger. It’s how every tough guy deals with loss, but the fact that he is in fact experiencing loss is what’s important. He’s vulnerable, not just a love ’em and love ’em bastard with a great car. He has depth, and he’s capable of being something more than just a great driver, even if the driving is sexy. It showed he cared, and Burt certainly did too as an actor. The moment where these two star-crossed lovers are entangled in the warm embrace of a Hollywood meet-cute that is potentially upset by romantic tragedy wouldn’t work if he didn’t.   

Frog and Bandit would eventually ride off into the sunset, but that moment wouldn’t feel nearly as earned if it hadn’t been in danger of vanishing altogether, like a black trans-am speeding away on the interstate, never to be seen again.

Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985)

Taipei Story

When we came across an abandoned playground it had just started to rain, giving the grass an open, welcoming, lush scent that made the area feel like it was calling out to us. We were too grown up, too big, too adult to really enter the play area, but there was an old swing set that felt more attainable. The swings were covered in rust, and looked like they hadn’t been used since we were kids, but we took the chance anyway. You could have called it a time machine, but everything was off, different, weird. I couldn’t get the momentum I used to, and the subtle bouncing of my breasts going up and down with each push of my legs made me realize I was far past the age where things like swing sets were appropriate.  Being in this area for children felt like a dome, a sanctuary, from things like death, bills and responsibility, but even being there on  that day was awkward. That lush feeling that the rain had given off earlier turned melancholic and the longer we spent doing things we cherished as children the more uncomfortable it became. We knew we had to leave all of that behind. We’re too far down the rabbit hole for this to have felt reassuring. When we left the playground it faded into the distance as we walked further into the mist until it wasn’t visible any longer. We only went there to keep grief at bay; attempting to wash the death of a loved one off of our skin, and escape the mourning of things out of our control, but even with this effort it was impossible to take anything with us when we left the playground. It was already gone. It had been for a very long time. 

An Essay on Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Charles Manson only has one scene in Quentin Tarantino’s newest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s work likely assumed that Manson would play a larger role in the film, because he structured the movie around Sharon Tate, and in the cultural lexicon you usually can’t bring one up without talking about the other. I’m guilty of that in the first couple sentences here as well. Charles Manson has been covered endlessly in podcasts, films, television shows and books. He’s always had a platform, and his voice has always been loud, and even after his passing he still has a foothold in American culture. He’s an iconic image of America because we haven’t shut up about him, and I think it’s a bold, and exciting move on Quentin’s part to minimize Manson’s place in this story to that of a footnote. It’s fantasia of a dead Hollywood, but one I found myself eager to return to again and again throughout the Summer.  

In Tarantino’s film Sharon Tate gets to live a normal life. She could hardly even be considered a character, because she’s not beholden to Tarantino’s usual plot mechanizations. Margot Robbie plays the young actress and there’s this beautiful private moment she has as Tate in the vehicle of her own car. She’s listening to music, off somewhere in her own thoughts, and we as an audience don’t get to hear what she’s thinking, but there’s peace in her eyes. and in that moment she gets to live. She picks up a hitch-hiker and the two of them gab about things we never hear, because the soundtrack has the tunes of the late 60s cranked all the way up. Tate and this young girl, in full flower-power fashion, strike up a quick friendship, and they have an easiness in each others conversation. Hollywood gives Sharon Tate a lot of scenes like this one. My favourite is when she sees her name across the marquee of a local movie-house for her latest feature The Wrecking Crew. She asks the ticket-taker if she can go in for free if she’s in the movie and she does just that while ambling down the aisles to sunny pop music playing over a movie trailer for a Joe Namath starring vehicle. When Robbie’s Tate watches herself on screen she isn’t viewing The Wrecking Crew as something recreated, but the actual Sharon Tate. We see her through the eyes of Robbie, and while it’s difficult to say whether or not Tate would have gone on to become an iconic actress it hardly matters, because the possibility of it is present in these scenes. The possibility of hope, juxtaposed with the work of the real actor, is a beautiful, poignant sentiment. It isn’t common in the movies of Quentin Tarantino where the shedding of blood is law. Tate’s all smiles and the promises of what this city could bring to pretty young girls.  

While watching this movie I thought a lot about Sharon Tate. Not Charles Manson. She is the defining image of the movie, but it doesn’t come without the creeping dread of real-life. Quentin never gives Manson a soapbox, but because he’s always had a platform to speak, we know that he’s a manipulative racist who took all of his shortcomings as an artist out on Hollywood. It wasn’t necessary to let him speak in this movie, because the actual context of the real history behind this story tangles around Hollywood at times. When the would-be murderers pull up on Cielo Drive soundtracked to a rumbling muffler and a haunting spectre of California tragedy by way of the Mama’s and the Papa’s hit song Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon) the film acknowledges that whatever happens next can’t bring Sharon back. It’s the way the car comes fully into frame when that song soars into a minor-key that does it and it sends chills down my spine. It is an understanding that cinema isn’t enough, but because this is a fairy tale (it’s in the name) the Manson Family won’t succeed in their mission to kill these people tonight. When the Manson family murderers have been dispatched by Cliff Booth (a wonderful performance from Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (likewise for Leonardo DiCaprio) it’s exaggerated, and violent. Likely a choice of form on behalf of Dalton and Booth’s inebriated state and a great stunner of a joke involving a flamethrower in the case of Dalton. In spite of this happening, we still never get to see Sharon Tate’s face in the closing moments: another acknowledgement that cinema can’t change what’s happened. Her voice appears over an intercom to ask Dalton if he’s alright and there’s this really wistful music cue that lingers in and Dalton looks away from the intercom, and I feel for a moment again that the real history informs the scene. DiCaprio plays it not like he’s getting his big break as Dalton, but like an Angel is speaking to him directly. There’s a crane shot that peeks above the trees like a god’s eye point of view, after the gates to the Tate/Polanski house opens like those of heaven and it feels like an afterlife. They get to live, but only in the images of this movie. It’s a complicated ending to a balancing act of images on behalf of Tarantino. If you insert Manson too much then you’re just giving him another platform to be a boogeyman of the late 1960s. If you kill him it’s too simplistic and it betrays the kind of person Quentin Tarantino viewed Sharon Tate as. I don’t think he believes she would have wanted more violence and he keeps her away from it, up the street, behind the gates, safe in her own home. By refusing to give Manson space in this story and taking the crimes, legacy and iconography away from him the film does its best to honour Sharon Tate. At heart this is a fantasy of her life. Not one of revenge on Charles Manson. By ignoring Manson Once Upon a Time in Hollywood allows Sharon Tate to be more than a murder victim. She’s allowed to be a person.