She’s the new neighbor, this girl next door. Her boyfriend is Polish, a director in fact, an up and comer, these two are new Hollywood, young, fresh, they synthesize the Summer of Love and the new American dream, it’s morning for the first time in America and doesn’t the sunshine feel lovely.
She’s stylish and rumor has it, pregnant with Polanski’s baby. We see her on her day out, enjoying the California air, paying no mind to the sounds on the radio that read off Vietnam death tolls between new rock & roll tunes and the cheering hippies, thumbs askance, hitchhiking to Big Sur, San Francisco, or Spahn Ranch. What will she do with her day, we don’t know, the world has opened up for her, well since that Golden Globe nomination and Roman’s success with Rosemary’s Baby, “If you don’t own a house in LA, you’re not really from here.” She spies a theater playing The Wrecking Crew, her latest, and well, it may be indulgent, but it’s the 60s baby, she goes to see it, our eye places the theater above like a theater in occupied Paris from earlier in the century, postmodernism is allusion upon allusion until it’s an illusion which allusion we are discussing is it not?
She buys herself a ticket. The attendant prints one. She looks at it, “I’m in the movie you know.”
“Oh yeah?” the attendant says, then looks back to the ticket guard. “She’s in the movie.”
“Oh yeah?” the ticket guard says. “Well, can we take a picture?” The three rotate for the camera. She grins.
Inside the theater, she slides off her ballet slippers and lifts her pumice stoned feet onto the seat in front. The big screen shrinks for her, opulence, decadence, those feet. What’s bizarre is how gently we see her, how calm and lovely she is. She enjoys her performance, she’s proud and we are proud for her.
We expect her to die; that’s the story. Her joy contrasts mightily with what we, the viewers, know to be her reality, one in which she is not a young starlet, but a tragic victim of the acid soaked underbelly of the decade. Yet, in this timeline, in our world of Hollywood magic, she lives, rescued not by the aesthetic politics of the New Left 1960s, but by the magic of film. Barthes suggested that death and the camera co-mingle, strange bedfellows. What if we used the camera for life? Wouldn’t it be nice, The Beach Boys.
The most striking elements of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are its inversions. Tarantino is the ure-Gen-X filmmaker in a way that Linklater or Thomas Anderson aren’t because at his heart he is a nerd alluding to other products. There is no new creation, history ended in 1989. His most abiding interest is not the making of films but viewing them, changing them, loving them. His decision to revive Sharon Tate Polanski in the imaginations of his film represents not only a development of maturity, but also an outgrowth of the surprise inherent in catharsis. In Inglorious Bastards, a similar motif occurs with the savage murder of Hitler, but instead, here, we have the rescue of a Christ-like blonde woman, a promise of New Hollywood, the 1970s will be alright.
Tarantino doesn’t concede Didion’s depressive clarity. Contra Tarantino, Didion suggests that the summer Sharon Tate Polanski and four others were murdered by the Manson Family was consistent with the “paranoia of the time.” Rather than a surprise in the poker game, by the fifth card, the river, all was revealed: the Manson murders represented the 1960s. Fisher refers to this stance by Didion as a depressive’s desire to believe that hope is a dangerous illusion. Didion thinks of the 60s as a “cutting room experience,” the type of thing that induces vertigo. Disorder was its own teleology in the 1960s and the grafting on of, not only joy, but also onto ignorance, ignorance of the slop undergirding that joy grates at Didion’s sensibilities.
Gornick suggests, in an earlier decade, that the revolution was just around the corner, but when a revolution arrived, even a lackluster one in the summer of love, Didion saw a future “no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be ‘addressed’ plans to be implemented.” Those plans turned into the Reagan years, the Clinton years, Bush years, Obama years, Trump years of neoliberalism, and the 2019 revisit of the Manson Murders suggests what Fisher calls our postmodern impasse: an inability to make new memories.
Didion, ever denying her position as an ideologue, suggests that she is a journalist, who seizes on ironic details, the sort that make up compelling journalism, the sort of thing I would read. But what Didion documented, Fisher codified: our normalization of crisis, what Adam Curtis calls “hypernormalization,” our lives enfeebled by an excess of self-awareness. Didion’s rehashing of her mental health records suggest her own self-awareness, but anyone who has put in effort in CBT therapy for even six months knows that self-awareness counts for a half point if your body still feels bad.
Enter then Claire Vaye Watkins’ short story “Ghosts, Cowboys,” first a history, in a classical sense in that she dramatizes the story of the Spahn Family and their ranch turned cult, and the secondary-narrative, that in family history there is trauma, and sometimes that trauma comes home as a half-sister on a motorcycle. Watkins seizes on ironic details “boom times” repeated both sarcastically and definitely, the narrator’s father is Manson’s “‘number one procurer of girls.’”
Watkins story moves the Manson Murders away from the glamour of the coast to the inland, to the dusty “orange mushroom clouds” that roil and boil across Nevada. Her telling relies on lineage and debt: Manifest Destiny, its ethos, its death hovers like fog, the Joycean lament “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.” Family history is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake. Personal history is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake. Intellectual history, subaltern history[ies], literary history, Western history, American history, the big schema historical battles that make up being a neoliberal subject that create delirium and confidence, metanarratives, the sort of feeling where I stand on the ledge and say “jump or do not jump there is no try.” Neoliberalism is about the new, but I can’t wake up from this dream, from the belief that perhaps the murder of Sharon Tate Polanski, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steve Parent does mean something, surely it must mean something it is so grand, epic, a contra point amongst the deadening block of the Nixon years and the Carter, “well we must live with less” concession, a breakage that begot the death-driven Reagan years, charge the credit card, spend, spend, spend, morning in America once again, are you awake? The sun is up.
Fisher suggests our moment has created a prelapsarian near past “rife with political potential.” I’ve decided 1968 doesn’t have political potential. Anymore. Didion remembers no one was surprised by the murders. Boom times. Boom times. Boom times. Watkins’ narrator says her father didn’t kill anyone and “he’s not a hero. It’s not that kind of story.” Perhaps I am too far removed to feel the wrenching pain in my gut for these deaths, for what was lost, for what they mean, perhaps SSRIs have muted my response, perhaps our culture and politics have become boom times, the ironic kind, small differences mean big allegiances and things like opinions equal ideology rather than ideology being the fountainhead of opinions. Neoliberalism is an economic mode with communal, spiritual affects.
I sat with my cousins at a brewpub in Fishtown. Someone told the decorator the décor should be Bavarian, and thus, suitable and necessary for the concept. They telegraphed Munich to Front Street. A symbol though, not an homage. That’s where I met him, we never went on a date, texted, flirted here and there. I remembered his name though I doubt he remembered mine. Berlant comes to mind: slow death, like dragging a pile of wet trash to the dump.
Years later, I see his Instagram story, and though I don’t really lust for him, I check it, I’m bored. He tells a story outside, walking late at night. I think he looks a little drunk, if I’m honest. Turns out, he’s crying. His boyfriend hurt him; he feared for his life; the police did nothing. He feels helpless, lost, why is this online? They seemed so happy. I’m glad he’s out and safe. I keep watching. He posts from the morning, on a pillow, telling the world he’s safe, with his friend, but that he’s helpless, listless, a tad lost at what to do.
The whole event is mediated by my phone into my eyes and ears and I am meant to feel something. There is no inflated rhetoric in this “genre of trauma;” there is however, slow death, an affectless, low hum of pain experienced in blue light effigy.These feelings of distance exist in the atmosphere, exist in a place just beyond the material realm. This single event repeats in my mind, I am alone in the theater, watching myself on screen, my feet are pumice stoned and lifted onto the back of the seat in front of me. I would like to leave, find something else, but alas, this film looks pretty good, perhaps I’ll stay here for a while and see what happens. I am not telling myself a story. I am telling you one; you are alive.