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.

My iDigital Life

anxiety, drugs, sex

If you ask either of my parents what my brother does for a living, they’ll say the same thing: “Something with computers.” My mom will then tell you that he’s married to a woman but has no children, because that’s what she thinks you really want to know about. My dad might tell you a story about how he sent my brother to computer camp when he was 12, which set him on course to make tons of money doing whatever he does (with computers).

I’ve suggested that my brother was lucky to have an interest in a developing field, but he says he planned it all that way. Now he’s rich and he lives in Europe. And even though he looks like a Seventies Guru mated with a biker and dresses like a lazy cult leader, he claims everyone wants to bang him. Or he used to. We haven’t spoken in about 3½ years. I don’t know what he claims anymore.

***

Back in the day, in the early 90s, being online could be creepy and weird. A lot of people, my brother included, more or less built their own desktop computers. “Talking” to people with words on computer screens was transgressive and could be unsafe (sorta). My brother loved it. He was always on dial-up bulletin board systems – BBS communities – full of weirdos who knew how to connect with each other this way.

The concept of chatting was unusual in the real world. Average teenagers could barely type then. Most adults did not communicate this way at work, or for any other reason. Email was barely a thing. But the reason to log on to a BBS was simple: to make friends. That can mean a lot of different things, but in this space it was pretty obvious. We were looking to meet ladies in something like an inclusive space. We wanted to come together.

These were generally smart people who were largely intelligent, charismatic online but reserved in person. They did not want to be dismissed for being unconventionally attractive. Regardless of all that, the cute young women always got the most attention. Supply and demand.

How did we know who the cute young women were in this text-based line-by-line environment? It was not by exchanging altered pictures, because that was not an option in those days. We just knew. We always knew.

There were in-person events. Weekly meetups in the park, at pizza joints, that sort of thing. People got together. And if anyone even remotely attractive showed up at one of these gatherings, then the word immediately got around.

Members provided basic public information: age, gender identity, location. I’m sure some people lied, but I mostly made friends with people I met in person, and their info all checked out.

Age was probably the most commonly self-reported inaccuracy. Technically, you had to be sixteen to join, but there was not a strong verification system. And there was no age limit and seemingly less ageism. So, it was not uncommon for a group of teens to be chatting away in an open forum with people ten, twenty, thirty, forty years older than them.

***

One night I had a date with a lady I met in cyberspace. My mom asked me where I knew her from and I said, “The computer.”

“You’ve never seen her?!” My mom said, scandalized. “What if she looks like Dracula?”

At the time, Interview with the Vampire was one of the most popular and exciting new releases at the movies among my crowd, so that tells you how much my mom knew about anything. Almost all of the chicks in these online chat rooms leaned at least a little funky in some way, alternative, punk, or goth, or trashy, or something else off the beaten track. That was half their appeal.

Mainstream trendy girls would not know the first thing about typing out their innermost thoughts on a keyboard, on a computer, and zapping them over phone lines to guys they’d met across town at a mixer in the park. They didn’t have to do things like that.

“Dracula?” I said. “Have you ever heard of Elvira? Or Morticia Addams, or the bride of fucking Frankenstein?” Okay, so I didn’t say this, but I definitely thought it while huffing exasperation.

More to the point, my brother’s friend had already met this chick and her sister and vouched that they were both beautiful.

On our second date, this beautiful sapling revealed to me that she’d lied on her profile and was actually one year younger than she stated. This made her two years younger than me, which was probably not as much of a problem as it seemed then. Two teen years can feel like a lot, but the bigger problem was the lie.

The truth can be a slippery fish, I know. And I do not expect every person in every situation to present it ready for examination autopsied like in an anatomy class. Lord knows I don’t do that. It’s bad for business, for one thing. It can also be socially inappropriate. But let’s get something straight: misdirection and withholding information, or lying by omission, these are tactical responses for advantage.

“We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information requested but, hypothetically, if such data were to exist, the subject matter would be classified, and could not be disclosed.”

My school friends and neighbors all knew everything about each other, the vital statistics anyway, because these came with the context of classic acquaintanceship. Meeting people online has none of that. In its place is a shifting masquerade of intention and confidence. That’s how we were introduced well ahead of the middling mainstream to trolling, catfishing, spamming, and other byproducts of decentralized mass communication.

I decided playing in this field was for socially inept weirdos. The people who could not make it on the outside for some reason. Introverted, arrogant intellectuals – yes – but also just socially awkward folks, which is ironically almost everybody.

One girl I liked back then was a kind of a funky lite punk suburban chick with long, loose honey-colored curls. She had divorced parents, neither of whom felt much reason to instill any religion in their daughter(s). When she got her braces off, she was also allowed to replace her glasses with green contact lenses, all the rage at that moment. Her eyes were light brown, I think. When she went away to college a couple years later, she dated a devout Mormon dude; he got her into the club. They broke up, but she remained a member, and told me years later about the benefits of eternal blessings bestowed on the faithful.

So, yeah. There were plenty of disciples in that scene, as there always are in fringe movements.

***

My freshman class was the first to automatically receive an email address upon enrollment at the university. That was 1996. A year before that, almost nobody I knew aside from the geeks on the bullet boards had email addresses. Now, you cannot do anything without an email address. Most people have two or three and think nothing of it. It’s not even a way to casually communicate anymore. So, in that way, what’s roughly 25 years ago is no different from 50 years ago, or 100 years ago. That’s why talking about pre-internet times feels like reliving the years before the industrial revolution.

But even the World Wide Web did not attract most of the normies aside from plagiarists and porn afficionados. No, it was the social media that got them. And moving it away from a corner in your house to your back pocket. It still has us, held in a constant state of incubation, seeking validation in what’s become a basic commercial enterprise.

***

They don’t even give you a discount for using the self-checkout. Doesn’t that mean we’re building machines to enslave ourselves?

Transparency: I truly believe it’s text messaging that’s changed our social order more than anything else. The ability to send and receive instant messages from one’s body to another, used in the way most of us do, as endless sterile conversations, leaves us in a state of constant reaction — and catches us between our physical environment and our virtual correspondence. There’s rarely a strong focus on either status, which is why I believe depression is on the rise. There’s too much anxiety in being constantly available and fear about losing that possibility. Not to mention that communication between intimates is composed of more than just words on a screen. Non-verbal cues include scent, tone, expression, heat, proximity. Delivery counts.

In The Weeds

anxiety, drugs, sex

I spent years lying next to someone with limited ability for sexual response while encased in an exclusive, monogamous, domestic arrangement. So, interacting with people whose arousal is expressly pronounced, people in active pursuit of coital congress, was something of a revelation. It’s the sort of thing that makes one choose inappropriate partners.

This is commonly known as being on the rebound, of course. And that’s how I found myself smoking weed again with Birch. She remains easily the *craziest* person I’ve ever known. By that I do not mean wild or fun. I mean she was a sociopath.

Birch told me that when she was out walking around, if she encountered a (hetero) couple holding hands, she would stare into the guy’s eyes alluringly to see if he would let go of his girlfriend’s hand. If he did, she’d feel a tingle of self-worth.

One night, I was sitting in her apartment, high as a fly and drinking a vodka concoction, when she came out of the bathroom with a bottle of perfume. It was one of the fragrances I sold at work, but I’d never seen an example of it out in the real world before. She spritzed it around in the air and danced into the mist. “I love this shit,” she said. “Do you think we can get a discount?”

Birch was what they called in the Beauty Industry, a devotee. Maybe even an evangelist. If social media influencing could have been a thing back then, she’d surely have been a huckster for swag. But this was back in 2010, thank heavens.

We were supposed to meet some friends of mine at the movies, but Birch was taking a long time to get ready, deliberately, I believe, since everything she did seemed cunning and transactional. So I got too high and had a panic attack pondering the nature of human relationships and life as we know it.

From age 17-24, I smoked weed all the time. In the beginning, it just felt great. Like I was floating above the crowd on a secret cloud of grace and love. By the end, it freaked me out a lot and I started obsessing over physical minutia, unaware that by altering my sense of perception, what I then perceived to be altered was simply a projection of my altered sense of perception. In other words… ah forget it. I sometimes thought I had trouble breathing, but the shortness of breath was probably just another element of anxiety, exasperated by the worry that it was something else.

Once, I walked to the hospital, but I just sat on a bench outside until my high went down. There were no stories in the news about people going to the emergency room after consuming too many edibles in states where cannabis had been legalized for recreational use. This was back in The Nineties. You couldn’t find edibles unless your friend’s hippie aunt randomly showed up at a party. Otherwise, you rolled up a joint, packed a pipe, took a bong hit. Maybe you smoked a blunt if that was your thing.

I believe I was addicted to marijuana, although I guess it’s debatable whether I was chemically dependent on it. A former heroin junkie friend of mine said he thought weed was addictive, just not the same way as smack. “It won’t make you steal your mom’s DVD player and sell it, but it will make you call everyone you know to get some before a pinball tournament. And feel really sad if you can’t score.”

But I don’t think comparing the severity of addiction is a useful way to look at it. Substances tend to have a personality that comes out the deeper one gets. Why do some cokeheads do up the whole stash and then call their guy back several times in the same night? It’s an upper. They can’t get to sleep, so why not keep going? Why do meth users sleep in dumpsters? I’m not really sure.

I know that everyone considers those hard drugs differently, and I do, too. But I also know what a craving feels like. I know that smoking a lot of weed gives a person a tolerance to the point that they don’t even feel very high. And that the best way to get high again is to stop smoking (or eating) it for a while, and most of my stony friends are incapable of doing this.

Also, most of the people I know who fill their “free time” or their non-work waking hours stoned are generally miserable. If they can’t get high, they won’t go stick up a corner store. They won’t sell off all their stuff and then break into their neighbor’s house and sell off all their stuff, too. They won’t sleep on the street or lease their body parts. But like I said, it’s not comparative. Drunks don’t do that either. And a lot of drunks cannot function, socially speaking anyway, without being drunk, and do not really function while being drunk either. Most of my friends, myself included, figure out ways to never run out of weed.

For anxiety, I just don’t find it to be beneficial. At least, not the brain-scrambling kind. It’s just too hard for me to relax on that shit. And when I was smoking, nobody was talking about Indica versus Sativa. We were talking about dank, chronic, kind bud, good shit, the bomb. And we smoked whatever the fuck was around.

After Birch successfully took too long to make it to the movie, my mind exploded. I saw my life in humanity like a wave pattern, this series of partners pulling me in uncomfortable directions. But it wasn’t sinister. It was like water running through a canyon, shaping its walls by the natural occurrence of accumulation, gravity, rock formation, heat. Indifferent, you know? Powerless. There is no free will. Or so it seemed.

I saw myself from afar, out of body like. This was a common symptom of generalized anxiety disorder for me, amplified by the wrong kind of weed. So I became agitated, nervous. Mouth gone dry, face flushed, heart racing. I knew from CBT what these things were and how to manage my perception of them.

But the situation was problematic. Birch suggested I was having this reaction because I was tired. Of course, that made no sense. Exhaustion, if that’s what she meant, would not cause this. It was claustrophobia. I’d wanted to go to the movies, to meet my friends and have a drink after. Birch wanted my full attention and was actively attempting to sever me from them. That’s not a paranoid view; well, okay maybe it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. She was an abuser in a controlling manipulative sort of way. That’s why I was baked. Getting high was my choice, but I was only high because I was there with her.

And I know it sounds stupid for an grown man to whine that she made me do, that I would not have gotten high without her. That’s not really my intention. I’m not blaming her. It’s just that this was the situation and I wasn’t dealing with it well. But don’t worry, it’ll get more surreal.

We ended up in The Mission, wandering around looking for a place to eat. There was a French restaurant a block and a half away from my place. I’d never been there before. It was too expensive.

Once seated, Birch tried to turn this mess into a date. She ordered wine along with several appetizers and entrées. Much too much for the two of us, but she did that a lot. She wasn’t pleased unless the bill was obscene.

Then she ordered a Caesar Salad. I should say that she was an American white woman from Kentucky, with processed blonde hair and a southern accent. She was a blind faith protestant, 23 years old, republican by default. Not a great match for me.

The server was a tall, thin, dark-haired white man who spoke with a heavy French accent. How do french restaurants in California find all these French speakers to work as servers? “We do not have Caesar salad,” he said.

“Why not?” Birch wanted to know.

“Because… zeez eez a French rez-tar-aunt,” the man said. The sentence and manner of delivery instantly and permanently became indelible in my hippocampus.

Birch looked confused. “What kind of salad do you have, then?”

He told us about an arugula salad with a lemon vinaigrette.

“That’s fine,” she said curtly. Then, after he left us alone, she said to me, “They should have Caesar salad.”

“This is a French restaurant,” I said, trying not to sound snooty. “Caesar salads are usually found in Italian places. Although they were invented in Mexico.”

“So what?”

“So, you think that just because you want a Caesar salad right here and right now, that this place should have one?”

“Yeah, why not?”

She excused herself to the washroom and I wondered where people like this came from. Kentucky was too obvious an answer.

The server came back to fill my water glass while Birch was gone. He asked me where we were from.

“She’s from Kentucky,” I said, trying to distance myself from her vacant chair.

“How long are you here for?” he asked. “In town.”

“I live here,” I said. “I live a block away. She just moved here. From Kentucky.”

Our eyes met. I could see him reading into my gaze: the cannabis, anxiety, exasperation. Then he seemed to realize the situation, that I was on a date with a cute girl I didn’t know very well, and that I was beginning to conclude I did not like her very much, and I was trying to determine if the juice was worth the squeeze. He seemed to understand this implicitly, instantly, to grok it, so immediately I assumed French people must be more sensitive to this type of thing.

And even though my personal situation was turbulent at the moment, knowing this other person recognized some of that, and seemed sympathetic made me feel seen and gave me a brief sense of piece.

Transparency: Birch and I only dated for a couple of months in total. Immediately after the relationship became sexual, she demanded that I pay for her birth control prescription ($50/month). As a feminist, I’m in favor of universal access to reproductive care and means, equality and self-determination. But it’s untenable for me to pay for this individually for anyone I happen to sleep with. Purchasing the “morning after pill” is another story (I’m happy to contribute), and I’m also fine with procuring and wearing condoms. When I suggested to Birch that paying for her prescription sort of sounded like she was asking for rent money, she became predictably offended. Besides, she probably made more money than I did. So then she said that I should at least pay for her pubic waxings ($40/month). I may have a preference as to how a woman wears some of the hair on her body, but not one I’d expect anyone to adhere to for my benefit. Anyway, the notion that waxing off all or most of the pubic hair is some kind of standard required maintenance for a sexually active person is absurd to me.

Viewpoint: At the moment it seems we’ve chosen to identify The Patriarchy as devil incarnate, with cis het white men its minions. I understand that impulse. However, I do not believe the best path to social and cultural progress is by defining polarized tribes of good and evil based on demographic details instead of deeds and intentions. Meeting hate with hate is like debating a drunk; it is not constructive. While we know patriarchal culture has historically weaponized words to marginalize women (and other groups) by calling them hysterical, unhinged, shrill, etc, that’s not my design. I’ve know many impassioned women and belligerent men. When I say a person is “crazy,” that is based on my experience with their actions, a shorthand for a longer conversation, and not gender specific. As a self-described feminist, I’m sensitive to being miscategorized otherwise, and I hope that I’m seen as I try to see others: as continuously learning and capable of improvement.