Quentin Tarantino’s approach to faithfully documenting history in his films can best be described as lackadaisical. The director’s grindhouse style - part career-long homage, part frenetic frenzy - seems to actively reject notions of fidelity. Why make a typical World War II movie when you can rewrite history as a Jewish-American fairy-tale, complete with David Bowie songs and a surprise Samuel L. Jackson narration? Stories of slavery under Confederate rule become revenge mantras, punctuated frequently with fountains of the reddest blood. Reality has no place in this equation, not when there’s coolness to be achieved. Perhaps the times have changed so much in the past couple of years that the prospect of Tarantino taking on the era of the Manson murders inspires more unease than excitement in certain circles. Maybe we’re all still burned from the underwhelming The Hateful Eight, or, close to 50 years later, it’s still too soon to take on such a torrid period of modern history. Whatever the case, it seems that news of Tarantino’s next project has left more than a few of us uncomfortable with the idea.
The Tate-LaBianca murders left an indelible scar on Hollywood and irrevocably changed the way we talked about celebrity. Check out any sordid list of the most shocking crimes of the century, or the horrifying Hollywood moments that shook us to the core, and the chances are the crimes of the Manson family are somewhere in the top 5. It’s a fascinating historical event steeped in ceaseless tragedy, and one that’s become dishearteningly iconic. It’s no surprise that Tarantino seemingly finds the era so enticing as to turn it into a film, with major names like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie allegedly attached (with rumours that the director is also seeking Tom Cruise for a role). Think of the era and it evokes flower power and the crumbling of the old studio system coinciding with the rise of independent cinema. It’s Jim Morrison and Eve Babitz; anti-Vietnam and pro-free love; dreams and disenfranchisement. For a brief, shining moment in the Hollywood hills, barriers of class tumbled, and it felt like anyone could change the world or be a star if they had it. There’s a reason Joan Didion categorized those murders as the moment when the 1960s ended: It destroyed that fantasy, but of course, it made just as much sense as anything else.
As famous as the crimes of the Manson family are, it’s not a moment in time that has successfully translated to pop culture adaptation. There have been various tawdry horror films, the kind of slasher stories Sharon Tate probably would have starred in, and more than a few documentaries. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s document of the trial, Helter Skelter, is still the peak of true crime reporting, and Karina Longworth’s ‘Charles Manson’s Hollywood’ season of her podcast, You Must Remember This provided some much-needed cultural context to the era. The problem with making fiction out of fact, one rooted in Hollywood lore, is that for some, it will always be too soon. Even the most skilled and empathetic filmmaker approaching the subject would face opposition from the industry. It’s a time that brings back painful memories and uncomfortable truths some are unwilling to face. Covering the period in full would require appearances from everyone, from Dennis Wilson and The Beach Boys to Terry Melcher and Doris Day to, of course, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Many of these people are still alive, some with public reputations better than others, and juggling all those balls needs a deft hand. How do you take on Polanski as the philandering husband and director of the moment turned grieving widower with the historical weight of what follows that on everyone’s mind? Tarantino is many things, but deftness is not something he embraces. Often, he’s all the better for that, but one wonders if this is his story to tell.
Tarantino is at his best when he’s firing out dialogue at machine-gun speed, playing with familiar trappings of genre and style, and embracing the sheer trashiness of his material. Inglourious Basterds, arguably the peak of his filmography, works because it has no qualms about tearing up the rule book of history. We’re at a point where we can do that with World War II and Hitler. Nobody’s going to complain when you shoot him up. Django Unchained is trickier fare, and more divisive as a result. Tarantino likes to tell revenge stories of demographics he’s not a part of. At least with that story, as questionable as his approach was at times, the decisions he made were thematically sensible. There’s a reason it’s that violent, that tense, that unabashedly weird, and that emotionally complex, particularly with the Samuel L. Jackson role (one of the best the actor’s had in years). Tarantino has made his name from this sensibility and approach, and he’s been savvy enough - for the most part - to pick material that fits that. When he goes overboard or gives into his id too much, the work suffers, as was the case with The Hateful Eight.
How do you apply everything so definitively Tarantino to the Manson family story? How do you navigate that treacherous minefield of history without romanticising it or making it cool? It’s this director’s modus operandi to have coolness at the forefront of his approach. Making the Manson family cool and dangerous ultimately did more harm than good. Bugliosi’s prosecution was based on stirring the already full pot and ensuring Manson’s reputation as the most despicably evil man who ever lived spread across the land. He dined out on that reputation for decades from prison. It led to curious journalists giving him more than the time of day he deserved to spew incoherent ramblings on camera and feed the frenzy further. The very image of Manson and ‘the girls’ - shaven heads, Swastikas carved into flesh, the bastardised hippy - became its own iconography. Manson was never Satan on earth: He was a drugged up racist hippie, who knew a few chords on the guitar and could get women to talk to him, and he just happened to be in the right place at a time when that had some social capital. Even the most hardened take on the Tate-LaBianca murders can’t help but make the Manson family seem a little bit edgy, so how does Tarantino take on the era and those people without further helping to cement that image?
All of this is, obviously, speculation and concerns over a film about which we know next to nothing. There have been very early whispers that suggest the film will be more about the era surrounding the murders than the incident itself, akin to Spike Lee’s criminally underrated Summer of Sam. That would fit more with Tarantino’s style, and 1960s Los Angeles is certainly a period the director could go wild with (how Margot Robbie’s alleged role as Sharon Tate fits into that remains to be seen). There are ways the story can be done well, but there are more ways it can go disastrously wrong. Given what we know about Tarantino and his approach - so many N words - it’s no wonder even his biggest fans have questions. The role of cinema differs depending on who you ask, but even the rebels must follow some rules.
Now, on the topic of Tarantino’s Star Trek movie…