Quentin Tarantino’s latest “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a masterful depiction of 1960s America, when one era was fading and a new, darker one came to life. The picture follows Rick Dalton, an aging film star (played by Leo Dicaprio) and his trusty stuntman Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt). They are sturdy, old-time men, the kind who worked a shift, went back to their homes, cooked a dinner of beans and beer, and did it all again the next day, ever thankful for the simple joys in life.
But the world is passing them by, as the hippie counterculture comes to full flower. A new breed of creature is coming to the fore that sees the old ways as dark, stifling and oppressive. Notions like personal responsibility and hard work are seen as burdens rather than virtues. The thing to do is break away from all that, and live a life of the senses, free of tradition.
The movie depicts Charles Manson and his followers as the most grotesque form of this new trend. The scenes showing that motley crew haunting Spahn Ranch, the abandoned movie studio they called home, will chill your bones. They are so knee-deep in their ideology, their black-and-white vision of the world, in which Charlie is God and all else is suspect, that they appear more like zombies than living humans.
In the third act, the audience is shown the infamous evening when Manson’s followers walked like ghouls in the night up Cielo Drive, knives drawn and prepared to murder actress Sharon Tate. They are sure their violent deed is something noble, a means of striking a blow against the immoral nation they are unlucky to be a part of.
Throughout, Tarantino seems to ask: Why? What drove these people to want to destroy a society that in so many ways was flourishing? Hollywood was in its golden age, an epic period where towering geniuses like Kubrick, Hitchcock and Brando churned out classics with ease. The economy was booming, government was getting things done in civil rights, feminism, poverty and a host of other areas.
It was the peak of American power — and yet the Manson family could only look at the world around them with rage.
What’s remarkable about the 1960s is that, in their attitude, those deranged hippies were not alone. So many other groups were equally dissatisfied, from the radical underground activists who engaged in domestic terrorism to the far-right libertarians who flocked to the Republican Party, with the goal of undoing the social safety net.
Unlike the civil rights movement, which sought integration for black folks in American life, not revolutionary destruction, these folks each embraced the same flawed thinking: What exists needs to be torn down, we are the good guys, and those who oppose us are the creatures of the dark.
Which was of course crazy. No one has all the answers nor a monopoly on virtue. Progress comes from a synthesis of competing perspectives, deliberation and reasoned debate. When criticizing others, we should be humble, for we have much to be critical of in ourselves. The rebels of the 1960s too often failed to recognize this, and instead saw the rest of America as irredeemable. And after accepting that premise, it immediately became logical to them that violence against others was right, either by passing cruel laws or picking up a gun.
For if you truly believe you are surrounded by wickedness, acts of destruction become acts of justice.
Like a virus in the body politic, the same thinking is with us today. When Antifa assaults a Trump supporter at one of his rallies, they feel they are attacking fascism itself, not a hard-working American who happens to like the GOP. When far-right conservatives see the president separate families at the border and preside over unjust migrant camps that leave children sick and dying, it is a cost they are willing to bear, a necessary means of stopping the “immigrant invasion” of crime-prone, murderous foreigners. The notion that they are condoning human rights crimes unprecedented in American history never crosses their mind.
When young progressives at UC Berkeley recently bullied a fellow college student for opposing a resolution on LGBTQ issues, they felt they were striking a blow against bigotry, rather than bullying and traumatizing a peer. The young woman in question, a member of student government, refused to endorse the proposal for biblical reasons, but said she hopes all LGBTQ people are treated with “respect, acknowledgement, legal protection, and love.” Ever still, the harassment she received was intense and ongoing.
Too often we have found ourselves sucked into worldviews that warp our thinking and teach us to see others as enemies rather than dignified human beings. We find ourselves marching up our own metaphorical Cielo Drive, political knives in hand, our posse by our side, blindly ignorant to the wickedness we are about to inflict.
This is Tarantino’s warning to America.
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a magna cum laude graduate of UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. “Democratic Voices” runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.