The End of the ’60s and the celebrity culture of evil

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino exposes the hollow and cowardly nihilism that masquerades as moral purpose.

Detail from a poster for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (Wikipedia)

In her book The White Album (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Joan Didion writes that “the Sixties ended… at the exact moment when word” of the Manson murders circulated. In his current film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which has just become the second best-selling of his career, Quentin Tarantino recreates the Hollywood of that summer, particularly of the days leading up to the murders.

Early reaction to Tarantino’s plan to make this film focused on the concern that he would end up glorifying Manson—something American pop culture has done since the early ’70s. Not only does he not do that, he goes in the opposite direction, undermining any grounds for sympathy with Manson or his clan. Tarantino reimagines the events of August just as he reconceives how we think about and respond to evil in our midst. In so doing, he turns decisively against the celebrity culture that surrounds violence and evildoers.

Manson is in many ways the archetype of the celebrity anti-hero, the mesmerizing and seductive nihilist who acts in defiance of what he takes to be the bankruptcy of conventional morality. Hollywood would eventually catch up to Manson, so much so that by the early ’90s, Silence of the Lambs, featuring a brilliant and artistically sensitive cannibal as its anti-hero, would win an Oscar.

There are numerous ethical and aesthetic problems with this way of depicting evil. Filmmakers engage in a kind of perverse competition to outdo one another in the number of violence scenes and in the level of graphic presentation. The effect on the audience is twofold. First, the audience becomes increasingly attached to the anti-hero or to the filmmakers’ technical virtuosity in the presentation of violence and thus becomes detached from, and indifferent to, the victims of such violence. Second, the graphic depiction of violence is subject to the law of diminishing returns as jaded audiences are no longer shocked or horrified by what would have terrified them in earlier films.

The result is that evil and horror on screen move in one of two directions: either toward more explicit or more highly stylized depictions or toward spoof and irony. Once audiences lose the sympathetic connection to innocence and goodness, evil itself is no longer a great mystery. There is no artistic depth, only surface violence.

There is also the possibility that filmmakers can return from violent terror to suspense and the drama of the mysterious battle between good and evil in our midst. The early films of M. Night Shyamalan and the Spanish language film The Orphanage take precisely this approach, which cuts back on the depiction of violence in order to probe the mysteries of good and evil. In such films, the deeper mystery is always that of goodness, usually goodness rooted in acts of heroic sacrifice.

Tarantino has gleefully indulged in hyper-stylized violence and in heavily ironic, self-knowing depictions of violence. His obsession with violence, present in his debut film Reservoir Dogs, reaches a peak in the two part Kill Bill. In the latter, the film contains lengthy, violent scenes the primary intention of which is to focus the attention of viewers on the sheer creativity of the filmmaker. Where possibly could a filmmaker go from here?

In his recent revenge films, such as Django Unchained, in which the target is pre-Civil War slave-owners, and Inglorious Basterds, which takes aim at the Nazis, Tarantino has veered away from an amoral celebration of evil and violence. While still quite violent, these films demarcate good from evil characters and imagine a world in which the evildoers get what’s coming to them in spectacular ways.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there is indeed violence but it is more limited in scope and provides a kind of catharsis for those aware of what actually happened in early August in LA. Moreover, some of the best scenes in the film skillfully use the threat of violence to build tension and suspense. Finally, throughout the film Tarantino undermines any possibilities of glorifying the evildoers.

Manson himself is nothing more than a side note making only one brief appearance. On the evening of the infamous Tate murders, the Manson devotees, who come across as deranged stoners, offer what the film treats as a lame justification for the attack. They will kill Hollywood stars whose films have taught them to kill. Tarantino exposes the hollow and cowardly nihilism that masquerades as moral purpose.

Interestingly this justification is one that Manson himself often gave in interviews, taunting conventional society by saying that he was simply reflecting its own deepest values. A version of this response sometimes surfaces in Hollywood responses to criticism that its products are fostering a degenerate culture. Here at least Tarantino is having none of it.

Tarantino instead reveals a degenerate culture for what it is. At the Spahn Ranch, the Manson clan lives in filth and neglect; the community is bound together by shrill tribalism, which the film tends to identify generally with the hippie lifestyle rather than specifically with Manson. Disturbing as it is, this sort of evil arises from ordinary human vices, not purportedly demonic characters beyond good and evil.

In fact, the film’s main storyline is not the Manson clan but the buddy tale of fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who occupies the house adjacent to Sharon Tate, and his irrepressible stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton’s anxious narcissism about his status in Hollywood contrasts sharply with Tate’s warm and unselfconscious experience of celebrity.

Tarantino has gone to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of Hollywood and Los Angeles in the late 1960s, including whole stretches of neighborhoods. In the film’s most delightful scene, Tate visits a bookstore in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, to pick up a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. She notices that one of her own films is playing at the local theater and decides to see it. After informing the young woman at the ticket counter, in the most self-deprecating way possible, that she is in the film, she settles anonymously into her seat and takes an innocent delight in the pleasure her, in this case comic, acting brings to audiences.

The film thus celebrates the innocence of Tate, even as it quietly draws our attention to the happy-go-lucky courage of Pitt’s stuntman who is duped neither by the follies of Dalton nor the pretensions of the Manson clan.

The Tate murders happened just days before Woodstock, an event that over the passage of time and with a good deal of revisionist, wishful thinking, has come to symbolize the end of the ’60s. Even if we concentrate exclusively on music, this was not true, as the year and decade in rock would end at Altamont Speedway, at a Rolling Stones free concert. Billed as a West Coast version of Woodstock, the concert witnessed four deaths, including one by stabbing.

In August of ’69, it was not Woodstock that dominated the national imagination; instead, the nation was fearfully entranced by the horrific murders in LA. Didion comments:

This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’— this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,” and that many people were doing it… — was very much with us… A demented and seductive… tension was building in the community… I remember that no one was surprised.”

The surprise of the summer of 2019, at least in the film industry, is that Quentin Tarantino would craft a film that eviscerates the “demented and seductive” flirtation with sin and excess of the late ’60s.


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About Thomas S. Hibbs 20 Articles
Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., is President of the University of Dallas, as well as Professor of Philosophy. He has written, edited or provided introductions for 12 books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas; his most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy. He has also written more than 200 movie reviews and dozens of essays and book reviews for publications such as National Review, Catholic World Report, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and others.

12 Comments

  1. Thank you, Dr. Dalton. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and feel of the movie. I remember saying to my wife, “Wow, there’s an old Vandekamp Restaurant Windmill in the background – they had the best peach pie ever!” Growing up in L.A. in the early ’70s it was still a time when you would bump into celebrities occasionally and they were normal people. One Saturday in 1970 we were eating at McDonalds and my 6 year old my sister complained that her hamburger had too much ‘picklemanga’ and started to pick them off as if they were insects and a British gentleman at the next table leaned in and said, “Picklemanga, my word how appropriate” and proceeded to pull his off as well. We had a good laugh together – the British gentleman was David Nivens.

  2. May I claim vindication and retain humility [Sunday’s Gospel theme]? Probably not. But I’m working on it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 2019 the murderous Manson cult is punished (Titus Techera). Techera’s pointed insight was that Tarantino uncovered the Dark Side of the vast many who vicariously identify with the slaughter of the enemy [largely in movie theaters] the malevolent inflicting justice on the malevolent. Everyone who posted Techera’s article panned Tarantino and the movie as mere ugly violent tripe conducive to more violence. Dr Thomas Hibbs like Techera sees differently. Although even here the commentators sidestep the article and prefer to glow over a happy 70’s moment. Since I’m preparing my homily for tomorrow and find myself reacting sans humility to other drivers or tempted by scantily summertime clad ladies [please don’t be shocked] I’m beginning to think that humility [for me] is really being honest with myself [who I am as in Carl Olson’s Sunday readings commentary] with the added recognition that I really amount to nothing while God is everything.

    • Fr. Peter, I read your comments on recent ‘Vigano Team vs Pope Francis Team’, after Professor Janet Smith shared on social media. Hoping you will read my question to you on yesterday’s Gospel Theme. (The priest has English as a second language, but I’m still trying to understand the ‘total unawareness’? ).

      • Margaret I’ll respond again here to elaborate a bit more. There are well meaning priests and those like your pious friend [who thought there was no need to raise the issue] who find it difficult to believe that a Roman Pontiff can be in error. Insofar as official Magesterial doctrine that must be believed the Pope has not erred. He has however erred regarding policy and by suggestive words and actions, manipulation leading many astray. Some examples are communion for D&R, embracing deviate sexual behavior while omitting need for repentance. Even good people can be beguiled and led into error especially when those who mislead use the aura of virtue. The Apostle Paul said, Even if an Angel of Light should preach a gospel other than what you received let him be accursed. Evil can proliferate by these means and there is a point when we must recognize evil and reject it. Otherwise we become responsible for condoning even promoting it. You will do good personally for yourself by this witness and for the Church by bringing these issues to this priest and anyone’s attention enlightening their conscience. At least they may give these matters serious consideration and eventually pursue truth and avoid error. The Church must have witnesses who speak their conscience when in the right to raise the level of awareness of our current dilemma. Our Lord inspires us to proclaim Him when others fail.

  3. We are told that Mr. Hibbs has written about St. Thomas Aquinas and Blaise Pascal among others, so it is safe to say that he walks in tall (literary) cotton.

    Why, one asks, does he waste his time on drivel such as the works of Quentin Tarantino?

  4. How about : Because Tarantino was informed by some of the wisdom of blue-collar workers ?

    Just as Aquinas and Pascal learned from a church founded on the wisdom of blue-collar workers, carpenters, fishermen, etc, who had walked on this earth with the living God, having imbibed that wisdom at its source, the wisdom that was to faithfully inform all wise people with a worldly intellect, such as Aquinas and Pascal; a wisdom that has been the foundational culture of the modern world.

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