Bob Schwartz

Movies and Fairy Tales: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
Joan Didion, The White Album

Joan Didion is one of the great essayists, and The White Album may be her finest essay. It gave title to a superb collection published in 1979. The White Album is about the entwinement of her life and life in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of which she reflects on as being strange and even surreal.

Los Angeles in the late 1960s is also the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Up a Time…In Hollywood. The center of the film is the event mentioned in Didion’s quote above: the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in the Hollywood Hills by members of the Manson Family. But is about much more than that.

The title of Once Upon a Time gives away just what kind of story this is. It is a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not either absolutely light or dark. As modern scholars now regularly say, fairy tales are meant to reflect something about ourselves—who we are, what we need—and in that sense could not be just light or dark. They are merely true.

The opening paragraph of The White Album is one of the best explanations of story ever written:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

If you are a fan of some or all of Tarantino’s movies, you are already planning to see Once Upon a Time. If you are not a fan, or affirmatively dislike Tarantino, you should consider seeing it anyway. As with other movies that play with Hollywood as story (Robert Altman’s The Player is an excellent example), the inescapable point is that Hollywood makes things up, even as the movies may attempt to reflect actuality, because that is what they do. They tell and sell fairy tales. Light and dark. As long as we appreciate the subtle differences and similarities between actuality and story, we can be entertained and the better for it. We do, as Didion writes, tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Rhetoric and reality: Ideal America has always depended on us

It may come as news to the less historically minded, but democracy, the kind we embrace in America, is a relatively new and novel way of government. We are still in the process of learning how it works, how it lives and how it dies.

Rhetoric has always been the way of government, long before modern democracy. Leaders say stuff, citizens repeat that stuff or say different stuff, citizens believe some stuff and don’t believe other stuff, and leaders respond to what citizens say and do.

In its relatively brief democratic life, America has typically embraced rhetoric. Much of it, in simplest terms, concerns just how exceptional and durable—eternal—American democracy really is.

As usual with compelling rhetoric in any sector—government, business, religion, whatever—rhetoric can make us lazy and careless. We come to believe that rhetoric is reality, almost a form of magical thinking. What we say and believe becomes the way things are.

And so, looking at just one aspect, Americans don’t vote in nearly great enough numbers, and those who do vote don’t always study and think hard about the issues and personalities, both of which are complicated. Things will just naturally be alright, we think, because this is a democracy and this is America. Both will last uninterruptedly forever.

But in reality, talk is not just cheap, it can be useless and tragic. All of this, all this glorious American democracy, has always and solely depended on us.