An L.A. State of Mind

There are days when the world just seems like an alien place, and Sunday was one of those days.

It began with a movie and ended in a tragedy. Both took place in Los Angeles, and both beamed me back to L.A., at least momentarily. I lived there for a few years a long time ago and, like a lot of people, got sprinkled with just enough of its magic dust that I’ll always remember those years fondly, even though I’m nearly two decades older and live 5,500 miles away.

This isn’t a blog about the magic of L.A., though. It’s about how a place whose primary industry deals in fantasy copes with life’s brutal and unforgiving realties.

The movie is Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which I ordered on demand Sunday to watch on our big-screen TV while the rest of the family went out for their third viewing of “Frozen 2” at the theater. I’m not interested in reviewing the movie here, just in addressing the way it portrays a particular moment of time.

I’d been meaning to see “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” since it was released last summer and figured the best way to do so was in the comfort of home, all alone, with no distractions. It’s the way I prefer to watch movies these days, and I don’t see that changing.

{Before we proceed: if you haven’t seen “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” and plan to, skip down to the next section titled “A Helicopter in the Fog.’ Otherwise you’ll read spoilers about the ending, which I found more than a little problematic.).

I knew the movie’s backstory, loosely anyway. It’s set in 1969 in L.A. and centers on a 40-something actor and former TV star named Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Dalton’s friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a stuntman. Dalton’s star is on the wane in a rapidly changing Hollywood, and he’s been reduced to playing bad-guy roles on TV shows. Booth can’t find much stuntman work, either, and serves as Dalton’s chauffer, handyman, good buddy and emotional support. Both characters are fictional.

The story that interested me, though, was the one involving real-life characters – Sharon Tate, Charles Manson and the rest of the Manson family – and how their lives collided with those of Dalton and Booth. The movie’s Tate/Manson tie-in was played up pretty heavily in ads and was a big drawing card for people of a certain age, including me.

I was 10 years old when the Manson murders happened. I hate to admit this, but they might represent the single most memorable public events of my childhood – more so than the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, and more so than Vietnam, urban unrest, protests, the moon landing, the Woodstock generation, etc. I don’t know what this says about me personally, but there was a special horror in the way Manson and his band of brainwashed, drug-addled and psychotic cult followers came into our newspapers and TVs half a century ago. It was seared into my memory and remains there still.

It wasn’t just the way Manson’s followers slaughtered Tate, a beautiful young actress who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time, and the other victims. It was the way they reveled in their brutality, celebrated it, showed no remorse, stuck their middle fingers out at America, mugged for the cameras and turned the whole trial into a three-ring circus.

The killers were basically just kids from the suburbs, from solid families, which made it even more disturbing. For me, another kid from the suburbs, it was all very eye-opening and chilling. The media coverage of the murders and their aftermath seemed to be everywhere and drag on forever, and grew more bizarre and horrifying with each passing day.

I won’t recount all of that here. If you were around at the time, you already know the details. If not, just google them. Suffice it to say that for those of us who lived through it, the Manson/Tate story was utterly frightening and unveiled a dark, violent and rage-filled part of America that we now know is always bubbling just below the surface.

Anyway, back to the movie. I suppose it was entertaining enough – mesmerizing in places and dull as dishwater in others. There were some hilarious scenes and some poignant ones and some silly ones. The acting was generally first rate, and the movie looked and sounded terrific. It was like a love song to a time and place, the time being the 1960s and the place being the City of Angels. The ‘60s Tarantino romanticized wasn’t the Hippie/Aquarius/Woodstock/Revolution version, but the one with Dean Martin and TV cowboys, cocktail lounges and old-school restaurants, swimming pools and movie stars.

But lurking in the background of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is the specter of Charles Manson and the horror his minions would inflict on Sharon Tate and the others.

Except….

Tate and the others are not murdered at the end of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” Instead, the Manson family members – Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel – are the ones who die, and in typically comic/violent Tarantino fashion. They’re on their way to Sharon Tate’s house to murder her, but get intercepted by the DiCaprio character, Rick Dalton, who lives next door to Tate and gets pissed off seeing these hippies and their loud junker car on his private road. He tells them to get the hell out. They do, for a minute. Then they decide to park the car, walk back up the road and murder Dalton instead of Tate.

But when they get up to Dalton’s house, they run into the Brad Pitt character, Cliff Booth, who’s a badass with a badass pit bull. Pitt and pit bull kill two of the three intruders. The other is torched to death by Dalton, who does the deed with a flamethrower he used in a movie once. Booth gets stabbed, but he’ll be okay. Dalton is unhurt.

The violence is vintage Tarantino: bloody, hardcore, well-choreographed, a little over the top. Booth slams Patricia Krenwinkel’s face into numerous hard surfaces, over and over and over again, until her face is a bloody pulp and she’s dead as dead can be.

And what of Sharon Tate and her friends? Well, after the cops and ambulances finally leave next door, they inquire as to what happened. Dalton fills them in on the details and they invite him up for a drink. Old Hollywood wins. Evil Hollywood loses. Happy, happy ending.

Except….

It wasn’t a happy ending, not in real life.

In real life, Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered on the night of Aug. 9, 1969, by human zombies who showed no mercy to her, her unborn baby or anyone else – even when they pleaded for it. A night later two more people were murdered by the same crew. The murderers not only killed these innocent people. They used their blood to write creepy messages on the wall (“Helter Skelter,” “Death to Pigs,” etc.)

Tate has been dead for 50 years, robbed of her life and the life of her unborn baby. Her friends Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger have also been dead for 50 years. So have Stephen Parent and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Three of the four murderers, meanwhile, are still alive: Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten. Susan Atkins, the fourth, died in prison. So did Manson, the mastermind. All but Manson showed remorse for their crimes. The others eventually confessed their sins and asked forgiveness while spending their lives behind bars. I’ll leave it at that.

As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino has a right to make any movie he wants with any ending he sees fit. He seems to have a habit of rewriting history. In his World War II film, “Inglourious Basterds,” the allied good guys killed Hitler and his cronies long before they actually died in real life, saving many thousands of lives in the process. In “Django Unchained,” a slave in the American South gets his bloody revenge on his abusers and slaveholders.

There’s nothing new about filmmakers putting their own personal stamps on large, historical events like WW2 and the Old South. In 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen,” a small gang of American soldiers imprisoned for murder, rape and other crimes wipes out a large gathering of key Nazi military personnel (and their wives, apparently). In “Gone With The Wind,” slaves are largely portrayed as happy, loyal servants devoted to their kind and loving masters.

But the Manson murders weren’t an historical abstraction. They represented specific crimes, involving specific people. The survivors of many of the victims are still around. So are most of the murderers.

What bothers me most about the movie’s ending is the way it has been celebrated on social media. I went on a YouTube thread about the ending and saw more than a few comments like this:

Good to see those dirty hippies get what they deserved!

Loved seeing the Manson family finally face justice!

I was so happy for Sharon Tate in the end!

I read those comments – dozens of them – and thought to myself, these people really, really seem to think the movie’s ending somehow patched things up all nice and tidy. Manson and his gang finally got the violent end they deserved, and Tate and the others finally got the lives back that were stolen so long ago.

I mentioned how ludacris all this was on one of the YT comment threads, and boy did I get blowback. Stop taking it so seriously! It’s a movie! It’s entertainment! Lighten up! You’re an idiot!

Ok, fair enough. It’s a movie. Just entertainment. I’m an idiot. I’m guessing a lot of the folks who wrote those things are Tarantino fanboys born sometime around 1990 or later, when the Manson murders were just a dusty memory from a long-ago past.

But suppose a movie came out about more recent events, like the September 11 attack. Suppose the 9/11 planes don’t actually hit their targets. Instead, all of the terrorists are overpowered by brave passengers, all of the planes land safely, and nobody but the terrorists die.

Or, suppose a movie came out in which the Sandy Hook school massacre never happened. Adam Lanza, the killer, is cut down by a brave and brilliant teacher before Lanza has a chance to open fire on all those kids.

What do you think the response would be?

My guess is those movies would never see the light of day. No producer would greenlight them. No theater would carry them. No company would sponsor them. There would be an outpouring of outrage, because the wounds are still fresh, and the survivors are still grieving, and you can’t just cavalierly rewrite history like that for the purpose of entertaining your audience and feeding your own personal fantasies.

Or, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe QT or somebody else will make a movie in which the Twin Towers don’t come down, and the terrorists get carved into pieces on the planes, and the audience will cheer long and hard because this time the good guys won. It’s entirely possible that I’ve already lost the argument and I don’t even know it yet.

Maybe we truly do live in a world where reality is whatever you want and need it to be. Maybe the worm has turned, and it’s never turning back.

A Helicopter in the Fog

Later that Sunday, news came that Kobe Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash in the mountains of Calabasas, Calif., in L.A. County. The news was shocking, because Kobe was so young and strong, and he was just starting a second act of his life that promised to be even more meaningful than the first act.

When it was later discovered that his 13-year-old daughter Gianna also died in the crash, and that the other victims included Gianna’s young friend Alyssa Altobelli, Alyssa’s parents, middle schooler Payton Chester and her mother, and two others, the story became unbearably heartbreaking.

From all available evidence, dense fog contributed heavily to the tragedy. The pilot had gotten special clearance to fly even though LAPD copters had been grounded.

I know how thick that fog is in Los Angeles (they actually don’t call fog “fog” there, BTW, but the “the marine layer.” Much more cinematic). When I moved to L.A. I was initially shocked at how foggy it can get in the morning. I always equated fog with San Francisco, not SoCal. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for a helicopter pilot to navigate through it. When I heard about the accident, my first thought was, why risk it? What’s the downside of waiting it out? What’s the risk/reward ratio of flying through dense fog?

We’ll learn more as more details come out, but for now it looks like fog might have been the main problem. About the best you can hope for is that measures will be taken in the future to reduce the risks. For now, there’s just the numbing sadness of what happened.

The time I spent in L.A. coincided with the Kobe/Shaq Laker dynasty, which dominated the NBA during the early 2000s. I hated those teams and hated Kobe and hated Shaq and hated Phil Jackson the most of all. That was partly because I was a non-Angeleno living in LakerLand, and living as an outsider in a town full of Laker fanatics can ride your nerves in the worst way, let me tell you. I adopted the Clippers as my L.A. team. It was really easy to get Clippers tickets, and for good reason.

Another problem I had with Kobe is that he was originally drafted by my hometown Charlotte Hornets in 1996, but he never had any intention of playing there. He was not the kind of guy to hang out anywhere but the bright lights and big city. A deal was worked out beforehand that would send Kobe to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Nobody knew at the time that Kobe would go on to become Superman, but everyone knew Vlade Divac would go on being Vlade Divac.

Kobe and L.A. were tailor made for each other. Like his adopted hometown, Kobe was supremely talented, supremely confident and supremely good looking. He was unstoppable on the basketball court and charming and intelligent off of it. He could be unpleasant at times, but so can everyone.

L.A. idolized Kobe Bryant. Worshiped him, almost. He was the biggest star in a town full of them, the coolest guy on the block and the most talented. L.A. stood behind him when he was involved in a sexual assault case in Denver, even as much of the rest of the world wondered what lay behind that A-list smile of his. The case was later settled out of court. Kobe, who was married when the incident happened, publicly apologized for his behavior, though he insisted that the relationship was consensual and did not constitute assault.

My feelings about Kobe were complicated at best. The sexual assault charge made me think less of him, but I was hardly alone there. I do believe he tried to evolve as a person, to be and do better. From all appearances he loved his family and was a devoted and good father. I feel terrible for the wife and kids he left behind and the good work he was yet to do as a publisher, filmmaker, mentor and community leader. Mostly, I weep for the young people who were on that helicopter.

I certainly admired Kobe in many ways. Among superstars in the sports world, he was among the brightest and most thoughtful. He was fluent in Italian because he spent part of his youth there while his dad, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, played for an Italian pro team. Kobe later learned Spanish because his wife was part Mexican-American and also because he wanted to endear himself to his legions of Mexican-American fans in L.A. He became a global icon, even here in the UK, which cares less than nothing about basketball but still mourns the loss of Kobe Bryant.

On the court, Kobe might have been the greatest ever. In terms of sheer talent, brains, intensity, athleticism, leadership, intangibles and overall basketball acumen, it was probably either Kobe or Jordan. If I had to pick one player to put a team on his back, Kobe or Mike would get my vote. And I was never a big fan of either player.

Los Angeles has reportedly been in a state of mourning since Kobe’s death and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. He was the King of L.A., the Alpha Hero in a city that loves its superheroes. Kobe was L.A., and L.A. was Kobe.

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