Once Upon a Time in the Movies

booze, sex, Uncategorized
Patricia Arquette in True Romance (1993)
Patricia Arquette as Alabama Worley in True Romance.
Credit True Romance photo gallery on IMDb.com

In a recent episode of HBO’s Euphoria, the character of Cassie Howard (played beautifully by Sydney Sweeney) goes to a Halloween party dressed almost perfectly as Alabama Worley. Actually, she goes to two Halloween parties, but before the first one, her boyfriend makes her change. He thinks she looks too slutty and does not seem to get the reference.

At the second party (the next night), she hooks up with a guy who not only gets the reference, but charmingly compliments her choice and decision to wear the costume. But then he wants to go farther than she does, and when she stops him, her berates her about how worthless she is as anything other than a sex object.

That’s different from what happens to Alabama Worley in True Romance, who faces off with a hitman (James Gandolfini) in the third act, and takes a horrible beating from him. 17-year-old Cassie, who must have seen True Romance by way of a streaming algorithm recommendation would not have been thinking about that after the party, though. She’d have been thinking about how jerkish the boys in her life are, and rightfully so.

True Romance was released in theaters about nine years before Cassie Howard would have been born (Sweeney is 21).

Cassie might recall, probably much later, that Alabama ends up brutally killing the hitman with a shotgun after smashing him in the head with a toilet tank lid. It’s a rough fight, but she wins, and later saves her husband Clarence (Christian Slater) in addition to absconding with the drug money. And so she is the ultimate hero of the story and they live happily ever after on a beach in Mexico with their son, Elvis – named after the ghost of Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer) who occasionally visits Clarence when he needs advice.

Tarantino wrote the original screenplay, but he sold it, so his ending – where Clarence dies in the gunfight and Alabama gets away, but kills herself later to join him in death – was changed. Director Tony Scott said he just liked Clarence and Alabama too much not to see them happy in the end of the movie. In an early draft of the True Romance script, Clarence was writing his own screenplay, which Tarantino ultimately took out and wrote into its own script. That sold, too, and became Natural Born Killers, though Oliver Stone did some rewrites that left Tarantino displeased.

Patricia Arquette played Alabama Worley, making the character, by way of Euphoria maybe, something of a fashion icon now. But she was always an example of feminine empowerment, I would like to think. Arquette, of course, has become a vocal critic of Hollywood traditionalism, an advocate for equal pay and treatment for women in the industry.

I always liked True Romance, not least of which because I had an early sexual experience while it played on VHS in the background. It’s a pretty immature story, so maybe that makes sense. And the idea of a teenager going to a party dressed as Alabama Worley these days is not much different from me going to a party in 1998 dressed as Billy (Dennis Hopper) from Easy Rider.

Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider, of course, and he also appeared as Clarence Worley’s father in True Romance. He is mentioned once by name in Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. When the murderous Manson followers show up in the Hollywood Hills, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) yells at them, calling the guy in the car “Dennis Hopper,” an obvious reference to the hippies in Easy Rider.

This scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in August 1969, and the murder that’s about to happen when Dalton comes out of his house would be a few weeks after Easy Rider premiered. Dalton would have known about that film, maybe seen it, and probably not liked it. Ironically, although that’s possibly the point, Easy Rider was indicative of an era of New Hollywood independent film – a major influence on Tarantino. What he did in The Nineties was a direct result of what happened in the late Sixties and Seventies.

Amusingly, if you like this sort of thing, Sydney Sweeney plays one of the Manson followers, though not one of any consequence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Maybe Tarantino is making a comment on the way acting is sort of cyclical that way. Here is a young woman who appears in a series playing homage to an iconic character written by the director of a big movie that she also has a bit part in, released that same month…

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is all about actors, of course. And it’s no accident that the bad guy character Rick Dalton plays during a major sequence in the film is designed by makeup and wardrobe to look more or less like Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider, a cowboy style hippie. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is meandering and plotless in a way that working in Hollywood often feels like, going from one project to another and hoping you’re noticed, that you’re presence is felt, that your role or the way you play it is big enough to get you more work.

In his memoir On Writing Stephen King says that situational stories are better than plot driven stories, and so he’d probably like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (also because it’s nostalgic for a time he probably enjoyed, cinematically speaking). But the situation in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is difficult to define. It’s more of a phase of life, something often vague and arbitrary, though easy enough to describe for an actor of that period.

Dalton was a 1950s TV cowboy, the lead in a long dead series, who’s now exploring other opportunities. These include guest appearances on similar shows with different leads, a stint making action and war movies, and possibly venturing into the spaghetti westerns popular in Italian Cinema at the moment.

That’s the situation. Obviously a character study, and subtle in the way that aging often is. By contrast, Dalton’s stunt double and bestie, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) entertains no illusions about a fading career. He’s resourceful and along for the ride.

To really enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you really have to love cinema, and by extension Los Angeles, and appreciate some history of both. History, that is, that pays attention mostly to the look and feel of the time and place more than the facts. Hollywood Cinema has never been overly concerned with the facts of matters anyway. The form of popular feature presentation hardly allows for it, though honesty in this method of storytelling has more room to grow.

Rick Dalton, living in the alternate universe Tarantino has created for him in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is an inside out example of most of Tarantino’s early successes. Like John Travolta, who was playing the goofy sidekick to a wisecracking baby (voiced by Bruce Willis) in Look Who’s Talking (+ sequels) before he found renewed cool in Pulp Fiction. And David Carradine was nowhere to be found before Kill Bill. Rick Dalton is waiting for a director like Quentin Tarantino to come along and make him relevant again.

Tarantino acknowledges that it probably cannot happen, since Dalton is simply a character he made up, and one who’s likely to die soon-ish, if all that onscreen coughing is an indication of anything. He is also a heavy drinker and smoker. So maybe Dalton is the reason Tarantino made his early movies the way he did. And so all that’s left is make him a hero one last time. That’s why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends the way it does.

Transparency: I loved watching Margot Robbie play Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but the story isn’t about her at all, which is why I did not mention her above. There are a lot of complaints out there about Robbie/Tate not getting enough lines, having her conversations silenced by narration, that viewers never get inside her. Those are fair commentaries. While she’s lovely to see going to the movies in Westwood by herself to watch herself and appreciate the audience’s reaction to her performance in some terrible Dean Martin schlock, that’s about all her character gets to do. But we know what will eventually happen to her, and so seeing her go about her life innocently oblivious is devastating enough. It also creates a disturbing tension about how meaningless Rick Dalton’s struggles might be, considering what’s going to happen to his neighbor. Then again, maybe not.

Love & Marriage and Writing + Family Planning?

anxiety, booze, sex

I was sitting at my desk editing porn, about to go to lunch when my phone buzzed – an incoming all. This happened in 2005, and no one really texted very much. It was a call from Derek, an old chum of mine from high school. We hadn’t spoken in a while. Maybe I saw him a year or two previously, but we’d drifted apart more or less since graduation. Our ten year reunion was a year away, but I had no intention of attending.

“What’s up?” I said.
“Oh, I meant to call my Uncle Greg. You’re next to each other in my phone.”
“Okay… well you got me now,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Pretty good,” Derek said. “I’m about to get on a plane.”
“Where you headed?”
London.”
“Any reason for the trip?”
“I’m getting married tomorrow.”

I had plenty of follow-up questions for him, but I’d long ago learned not to bother asking for his logic. Derek was a kind and sweet guy, but not especially high wattage. We’d been friends since freshman year, when a girl who liked him wrote his name on a bunch of sanitary napkins and stuck them up all over the side of the building near his lunch spot. She also made a t-shirt that said “My name is Derek [Last Name] and I got this shirt for free.”

It was never clear to me why she did this. He liked to wear promotional and commemorative shirts that you get from going to radio station live events and movie premiers, so that was the angle. But why she’d unleashed her fury on him was a mystery. He just went about peeling the pads off the wall and threw them away.

That Derek was getting married at 26 was neither surprising or unsurprising to me. That he was flying to London was interesting, but not surprising either. He explained that his girlfriend was already over there because she’d just started a theater program. She was going to be there for the next two years.

“So you’re moving to London for two years?” I asked Derek.

No. He lived in Seattle and intended to remain there. I didn’t bother asking him why they were getting married if they were going to spend the next two years separated by a 9-hour flight.

I had one other friend who’d already gotten married by then, but he was even thicker than Derek. He’d moved out of his mother’s house and in with his girlfriend at 19. Five years later, she said he either had to propose or move out. He saved for two months, then bought a ring and suddenly they were engaged. The next year they were married. Kids followed pretty quickly.

***

Recently a woman in her 60s asked me when I’m going to get married. This happens occasionally, and it also happens every time I speak to my mother because she thinks it’s an indication of when she might officially become a grandmother.

“When I was your age,” this woman [not my mother] said, “I had been married for twenty years.”

She did not say this with disdain or judgment. Just stating a fact, and maybe contrasting her life and generation with mine.

“You were married very young,” I said. “But those were different times. A 20-year-old bride these days would be considered unusual, if not unfashionable.” Yes, this is how I talk to older people.

“They were very different times,” she agreed.

“Hemingway was on his third wife when he was my age.”

“Who?”

Ernest Hemingway.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “Hemingway.”

***

Laura Kipnis’s book Against Love is a long argument opposing the commonly accepted form of traditional marriage, understood as cohabitational sexually exclusive monogamy. For the wholesome among us, this is the default view of marriage, although many marriages fall outside of these constraints. And, of course, in this era many relationships fall inside of this definition without the formality of state sanctioned and/or religiously verified matrimony. Monogamy of this kind is the basically understood standard romantic relationship.

The book really has nothing to do with marriage in a modern sense, but rather describes the assumed ritualistic singularity of bound love. As the title suggests, Kipnis’s thesis is that loving like that simply does not work. She suggests it turns people into amateur detectives and petty thieves, forever looking to either skirt the self-imposed rules ourselves or seeking evidence that our partners are cheating us out of our rightfully earned access to their complete and undivided attention, affections, and the broad spectrum of their emotional portfolio.

It is as if the pain they might receive from the risk of loving another person is somehow negotiable, based on a measure of perceived deception and betrayal. To me, that’s a silly and immature way to become involved with others.

Why?

Because:
Life hurts.
Love is loss.
And the bliss you enjoy in love is matched by grief when it’s gone.

The rest are just novel details. But still, we find ourselves hunting for facts, bizarre and inconsequential proof of justified suspicion. Nowhere is this more prevalent and absurd at present than on social media platforms.

***

My mother was afraid of becoming an “old maid” if she did not marry soon after she finished community college. Her wedding was a week after her 25th birthday. Her first child was born a month before she turned 26.

In China, the term sheng nu is a popular way to describe unmarried women over a certain age (negatively). It means “leftover lady,” because they are considered too old to have children, I guess, and therefore will never marry.

Many young women in China, I’ve been told, see a very small window between being a student and becoming sheng nu, because they want to continue their education and increase their earning potential. Since it’s taboo for a man to earn less than his wife, the idea is to become as highly qualified as possible before aging out of marriage.

A friend of mine who works at a law firm in the Bay Area told me that many of her biologically female coworkers have been insisting that the company pay for their fertility interests. They believe their personal lives are put on hold in favor of working long hours that interrupt their ability to procreate. In this case, their personal lives are defined by family planning.

***

Hemingway had a total of four wives, with each marriage commencing no more than a year after its predecessor ended. Morley Callaghan suggested this also coincided with the completion of a major novel for Hemingway.

My friend Derek’s marriage to the thespian only lasted a couple of years, as far as I know. I heard he’s remarried and has a kid or two. Obviously, we haven’t been in touch in a long time (and I’m not on Facebook, where I would easily find out about these things).

The sexagenarian told me it was good that she married so early because her husband died young, and she was happy her grandchildren had a chance to get to know him while he was still with us.

***

In the autobiographical section of Stephen King‘s memoir On Writing, he describes the meet-cute where he and his wife first encountered each other at a poetry reading. The event was near the end of their university days, and he says they married a year and a half later. And then within three years, they had two children that were neither planned or unplanned, according to King. Then he details some of their financial struggles leading up to the publication of Carrie (at 26), a professional debut that turned a corner onto one of the most successful fiction writing careers in American history.

I’m sure a lot of readers view this type of portrait of young American parents fighting to survive until one (or both) of them are recognized for their genius as honorable, if not inspiring. That’s fair, I guess, if for no other reason than because it’s how it happened (King does not call himself a genius, btw). But it’s much easier to give a shit about these sorts of pedestrian tribulations in retrospect, long after the master has been regarded and awarded for their talents.

Reading about this decision, regardless of whether he thought it through at the time or not – and I cannot see how someone could not think this through, personally – strikes me as absurd, foolish and risky. Maybe even selfish, too. Idealistic as I was at 20 – compared to how skeptical and realistic I think I am now – I’m sure I’d have felt the same way if I’d read this account back then.

Maybe I have personal reasons for feeling this way. When I was a kid, most of my friends were the children of divorced parents. They almost all seemed to grow up with the attitude that they’d get married and have families just to prove they could succeed where their parents had failed. As an adult, I’ve noticed that many of my close friends have parents who are still married to each other. Obviously, these cannot be the same friends.

What’s that mean? I don’t know. But I do know that social media is the best friend of a predatory bridal industry. Trust me.

***

What about tradition? I don’t consider that a good question, but it is one worth addressing.

“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.”

Guess who said that? Woody Allen, but before you freak out, he said it as Harry Block, the titular character of Deconstructing Harry (1997). It’s a movie about a fiction writer who is only successful in his work, his art, which he bases on his life, which is completely fucked up. He’s an emotional menace, so selfish and destructive that almost everyone who knows him personally hates him, while everyone who knows his writing loves him (sort of). Maybe they see him as flawed, transparent, vulnerable. Or maybe they just think he’s imaginative. It’s a comedy.

If there’s a point I’m getting at, I guess it’s this:
Religion puts unnecessary constraints on somebody’s pursuit of life, liberty, and all that jazz. It’s not necessary to conduct arbitrary, arcane rituals when there are already so many challenges and restrictions on how we get along in this world.

Transparency: Most of the people I know who get married these days do it after they’ve been together for 7-10 years. Usually, that means they’ve been living together for about five years. Of course, these numbers drop in direct connection with how old they were when they started “dating.” There’s also the magic number for what seems like a vast majority of young women: must be engaged (at least) by age 30. I know there is a biological aspect to this. And I know there are reasonable social and economic conclusions about marriage if you want to make a family together. I know. But most of these things have been divorced from marriage for a generation at least, and in some subcultures, never were really present. So what are we spending all this money on, really?

One thing seems to be booze. White people in the Northeast United States apparently plan their social calendars around getting smashed at weddings. Back in my wasted youth, I declared to a friend that rock concerts were the ultimate venue: get as toasted as you want, wear what you like, dance how you please. Nobody expects anything from you other than not dying, ideally. And, in case this is not obvious, the music is mostly pretty good. Weddings? Well, I’ve seen some shit, but it almost always comes with baggage. Severed family ties, ended friendships, years of gossip, and a dress she’ll only ever wear once.

Daffodils in the Window

anxiety, booze, sex

A slightly different version of this story originally appeared in
The Philadelphia Secret Admirer Volume 5, Issue 198: 31 May – 06 June 2017

It was the kind of Thursday that felt like a yellow seven. July is always blue and the fourth is usually red. Obvious. I was in San Francisco for the festivities last year, such as they were, socked in fog. Three days later I was getting my shine back in the Golden State.

I met her the night before around midnight. Still nursing a hangover, I wasn’t drinking much, but she was. As she walked past, I said to my friend, “That chick is wasted.”

She noticed me nudge my friend and stopped.

Illustration by John Laben
Instagram: @ecuacalizona

Proving me right, she swayed and offered a half smile. I could see her ego battling her pickled intellect. She knew I was talking about her, but maybe I said something flattering. Her body type was what used to be called “full-figured” before the term was claimed by empowered obese lesbian burlesque performers.

Plus-sized, yes, but the pluses were healthy and appropriate. Anyway, I was nonplussed by her directness. She was cute but seemed likely too drunk to even remember this. I introduced myself. She shook my hand without giving her name.

My friend believes it is improper to release yourself from a handshake without both giving a name and receiving one. Since he was standing next to me I didn’t want to let him down. So I held onto this curvy cutie’s hand while she blinked slowly. Each time her eyes came back a little less.

“And you are…”

“Ginincumpooper.”

“Excuse me?”

“Jennifer Cooper.”

So it went. We found a booth and sat together. I had a second stout. She needed nothing else. In twenty minutes, I learned that she was a grade school teacher who liked music. Also, she was friends with a bartender who worked Fridays in a spot near my place. I suggested we meet there in a couple of days. We exchanged numbers. I texted her my name.

When I woke up the next day I saw a text from Jen. It was a simple nice-to-meet-you, so I didn’t answer right away. Instead, I sent a heavy amber stream into the toilet, which was a process that seemed to take fifteen minutes. Back in the bedroom, I noticed Jen sent another message asking what I had planned for the day.

The truth: nothing. I was just going to walk around and window shop. I replied that I was going to buy some gifts for friends and family back home. She said she was helping her friend move. Then she began quizzing me. What did I do, where was I from, etc. It was clear that my initial assumption was accurate. She didn’t remember much of what we’d talked about the night before. As the day went on, our text conversation continued. There was an underlying urgency to her curiosity. She probably thought we’d done more (physically) than we had, which was nothing. But how much more? Did she think we slept together and that I left before she woke up? If only.

At 5pm Jen invited me to meet her and her friend for happy hour. I asked if they were done moving and she said they were taking a break. Of course, I thought we were going to meet the next day, but when I reminded Jen about this, she said I should come now anyway.

So I did.

When I arrived, her friend immediately got up and left.

“She didn’t finish her drink,” I said.

“It’s just soda water,” Jen said. “She’s pregnant.”

It was a pint glass half full of ice and clear bubbly. Jen had the same thing, but hers contained a lemon wedge. And gin.

“How much more do you guys have to do?” I asked.

“We’re done,” Jen said.

“You loaded the truck?”

“No, I was just helping her pack. She has to get a truck tomorrow and move everything to storage.”

Jen went on to explain that her friend was six months pregnant by a guy she’d known for eight months. And they got married a month ago because he was from Ireland and couldn’t stay in the country otherwise.

When I suggested that was crazy, Jen agreed and then she got another gin and tonic. She came back and sat close to me. We kissed. It was cautious and exploratory. Like seeing one of those wet floor signs as you enter the bathroom but you can’t tell where the puddle is. Am I going to fall? Is it going to hurt?

I smiled. She finished her drink and studied my face strangely. She definitely thought I was the cat who ate the canary coming back for seconds. “Let’s go to North Beach,” she said, “I know a great place.” Then she ordered a car. In an instant, she was wasted again.

She tracked the car through the app and then got irritated when it went the wrong way (in her opinion) and took too long. She canceled and started over.

“Don’t they call you when they get here?”

She looked up blankly, then went back to eyeing her screen.

Eventually, our ride came.

“I didn’t go out alone last night,” Jen said to me in the car. “I was with a friend, but he left.”

“Oh? That’s cool.”

“Yeah, he went to another bar. He’s gay, so you don’t have to be jealous. He went to a gay bar.”

“Why would I be jealous?” I said. “You can have friends. And I hardly know you.”

“But you fucked me.”

“Um…”

“You want to fuck me,” she corrected herself.

We drove past the Condor Club. Its big vertical marquee looked bleak in the afternoon light. The fog had dissipated into a haze and the sun sat behind it like a big fried egg.

“I’ve heard the food is good there,” I said.

“At a STRIP CLUB?” she hissed.

“Sure.”

When the car stopped, she said this wasn’t going to work. I wish I could say I agreed just then, but it took me a minute. I followed her into the bar for another drink. There were daffodils in the window.

Transparency: There were no daffodils in the window. I just wanted to end this story with something poetic and positive. And to show that the narrator was drawn to something beautiful, but possibly illusory. This was part of a flash fiction contest with the first sentence as the prompt, but the narrator is me; it’s a true story. There was no prize aside from publication, which was worth almost nothing. The illustration came later, when I was thinking of making the story into part of a zine series that I decided I did not want to continue making.

Post Script: On the real day when this happened, I followed Jen into the bar and we immediately parted ways. It was a pretty stark turn and I was surprised to be dismissed so immediately over what I considered some meaningless chatter. Weren’t we just getting to know each other? They were serving a free buffet because it was Sunday in an Irish bar, so I got in line and made a plate. Jen went straight to the bar, sat between two geriatric regulars she was well acquainted with, and got another drink. I took my food to a table and ate by myself, but I noticed that Jen had moved to see if I was still there. She stared a little harshly at me, which I did not think was warranted. Had I really offended her that greatly? Since I’d just eaten for free, I decided to buy a shot, so I went to the bar and ordered a Jameson. Jen continued staring, now a little more curiously. I drank the shot, nodded to her, and left. I walked down through the Financial District back to BART and got a train home. Back in my apartment, I felt exhausted, like I’d just lived out a year-long relationship in the course of a day. I was grateful for that brevity.