Before I begin, I want to start by saying that the word “boycott” obviously means that I haven’t seen the film. It’s kind of unusual for me to argue about something without fully informing myself of the facts first, but this is something I had to write about.
(and I will watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood once I can source it for free…)
Okay, so now that we have the disclaimer out of the way, I want to begin by saying I used to be a massive Tarantino fan. I still am, to some extent. I love violent films and gore, and I am never one to shy away from anything because it is too weird or too violent (I’m not saying I class Tarantino as particularly weird, but I think he wants to be, and for mainstream films, he’s not the most basic).
But, looking back on his films now from the perspective of someone who knows a little bit more about the world than the 15-year-old girl who persuaded her dad to watch Pulp Fiction with her, I feel uncomfortable. Not about the violence inherently, not even about the violence against women inherently, but about the fact that every punch in the face that a pregnant Uma Therman received was directed by a man.
Obviously, feeling uncomfortable is kind of Tarantino’s end game here. But how much power over our emotions should be demanded by a white man who has never come up against societal oppression in his life? It’s weird. And that’s even before you start thinking about how many N-words you hear in his films. He does pay homage to the blaxploitation film trend with Jackie Brown, but… he’s not black? So is it his trend to reclaim?
Moving on from Tarantino himself, I next wanted to talk about why it was Once Upon A Time in Hollywood which particularly spiked my annoyance. And this is where I get to nerd out about one of my favourite true crime stories of all time – the Manson Murders. In a way similar to Tarantino reclaiming a narrative which is not his to reclaim, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the true crime story of the Manson Murders is a story which, I believe, should be reclaimed by women.
The Manson Murders are one of the most widely talked about true crime stories out there. It’s also my personal favourite, another reason why I got so annoyed about this film being made. Charles Manson was a very troubled man who wanted to be a rockstar. Towards the end of the sixties, after a troubled childhood and adolescent spent in and out of prison, he began to gather a cult around him, known as “The Family”, convincing vulnerable young women who had run away from home that he was the messiah and would save them from the imminent apocalypse. What he really wanted was to record and release an album in response to the Beatles’ White Album, which he believed held the secret to surviving the apocalypse and was calling for him, in secret messages, to respond with his own music. When his demos were rejected by the music moguls of Hollywood, Manson told his followers that they had to enact revenge on those who wronged him, leading some of his right-hand women to kill an 8-month pregnant Sharon Tate and some of her friends who were in the house with her.
[This is a very condensed version of what happened. For an in-depth version, I recommend the podcast ‘You Must Remember This’ and its series named ‘Manson’s Hollywood’.]
Manson used a variety of methods to ensure that, once in the cult, the members were not able to leave. They felt they depended on him, and he constantly fed them lies about being the chosen one, how special they were to him, as well as giving them tabs of acid and talking to them whilst they were tripping. This sort of tactic obviously includes a lot of manipulating, brainwashing, gaslighting and more, even before we get to the illegal drugs. This sort of operation could only have happened on this scale at this time – i.e. the late sixties, where it was commonplace to “turn on, tune in, drop out” (a.k.a. running away from home to practice free love and take lots of acid) – meaning that there were plenty of young women and men roaming the streets. Manson’s “commune” on his ranch must have seemed like the perfect opportunity for them to find like-minded people who also believed in a new world. Charles Manson gathered followers over the years and told them of ‘Helter Skelter’ (so named after the Beatles’ song) – the apocalypse led by black people who would kill all the whites. This obviously sounds crazy written on paper, but after leaving their whole lives behind and being brainwashed instead by a guy who had smooth-talked his way into living in one of the Beach Boy’s homes (seriously, he did that), his followers were primed to believe anything.
The Manson Murders are a gendered issue. And this is where I have a problem. It’s literally a tale of how one man manipulated a bunch of women. Vulnerable women, at the hands of one man who, after years of coercion and brainwashing, were manipulated into carrying out one of the most bizarre and bloodthirsty crimes that the States have ever seen.
“Hold up now, weren’t there men in Charlie’s cult as well?”
Well yes, anonymous keyboard-owner, there were. And I’m glad you asked. There were indeed men involved in Charles Manson’s cult, but it was only the women who were subjected to the sexual manipulations, coercion and rape which Manson inflicted on his followers. He also predominantly targeted women to join The Family. Men were collateral damage in this instance, people he just picked up along the way. His main priority was finding women to follow him, and for him to have sex with.
The crime itself was carried out by Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Kenwinkle and Linda Kasabian. It was predominantly women who committed the best-known act of Tate’s murder (and the murder of the LaBiancas which I’m going to guess isn’t given as much screen time in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because by this point Margot Robbie isn’t around?) and the murder of Tate’s unborn child in a perversion of motherhood which many see as a complete rejection of her femininity. Again, this story is a gendered crime. The manipulation which led up to it was gendered. It’s an extreme case of gaslighting and manipulation, sure, but it wouldn’t be the first time a woman has been manipulated by a narcissistic man.
And somehow, I don’t think Tarantino would take all of this into account when directing his film.
I have yet to watch it, of course (and I will post a follow-up review once I have and we can see if any of these predictions were right). But what I have done is read The Girls by Emma Cline. One of the best books I have ever read, The Girls is an occasionally overwritten but nonetheless a beautifully hazy and melancholic look at the end of the sixties, and loosely based on Charles Manson and The Family. It’s such a good read, whether you know about the Manson Murders or not (I have read it once before, and once after, becoming a nerd about this subject matter). What it’s especially good at, however, is bringing in the context of being a woman in this society. I have a few passages highlighted in this book. One of them is as follows; “All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” She recognises that the fiendish acts of Manson would not have been able to occur had patriarchal inequality not existed. There are other examples of this being recognised, Charlie Says being one of them – a slightly underwhelming film by Guinevere Turner and directed by Mary Harron, the team behind American Psycho. This film uses the art-rehabilitation program in the Santa Cruz Prison Project – aimed to rehabilitate female inmates with feminist praxis and reading, and other art-based creative projects designed to give them more of a sense of self, independent from Manson – to frame the narrative and explore deeper the characters of the Mason murderesses. Unfortunately, it’s a great idea carried off without much success, but this is only one drop in the ocean of Manson-related media.
We as a culture are obsessed with him. There’s countless films about this guy – Helter Skelter, The Manson Family, Summer of Love (which was never actually finished). He has almost 40,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. I see Once Upon as a film which panders more towards the status of Manson and examines his crimes in the way that Tarantino tends to look at violence – with curiosity, and without moral judgement. I’m not saying you can’t make a fun film about the late sixties but I guess I would feel more comfortable if it was guaranteed that these issues would be explored sensitively by someone who understands them.
But hey, I guess I could be wrong. I haven’t seen it after all. The film, from what I can tell, does not focus so much on “The Family” and instead chooses to follow at Leo and Brad as a failing actor and his stunt double. Does that make it better or worse? Does Margo Robbie get the well-rounded character development she deserves before Tate is brutally murdered by the women of The Family? And that’s another thing – Tarantino’s history of woman-on-woman action and fighting is not the most reassuring thing for me to base this essay on. It’s fetishistic and bloody – take again the scene of pregnant Uma Therman being beaten up by her co-workers in Kill Bill. It’s not to say his scenes in which he depicts violence against men are not completely horrible as well (the rape in Pulp Fiction, for example), but – as far as I’m aware – that scene was not based on a true story.
Tarantino has also, in his personal life, defended both Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski (also weirdly caught up in the story of the Manson Murders as he was married to Sharon Tate at the time). He has also caused Uma Therman permanent injuries of her neck and knees due to what she describes as “criminal negligence” during a dangerous driving scene in Kill Bill, which he insisted she did, instead of a stuntwoman. I’m just saying, he may not have the best understanding of how violence against women, and women’s issues in general, should be portrayed onscreen.
Then again, I haven’t watched the film. But after reading this piece, I would hope that you understand why I chose not to.