Although there are only two months remaining in the politically turbulent year of 2019, I have attended only two films at the cinema. As a former Chicagoan who watched the film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s program “At the Movies” on television during my youth and young adulthood, I should be ashamed that my total is a measly two movies. However, I believe that I have chosen wisely as a consumer who must be frugal due to a lack of steady employment. It was during August when I attended Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood with my wife from Italy; Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist married a woman named Francesca at the end of the film, and this is also the name of my wife who married me during the month of March. In fact, the director of the film having an Italian surname wasn’t lost on either my wife from the town of Narni or her American husband who loves Italian food(it was consumed in Chicago’s Italian restaurants and in Italy itself). I hadn’t seen one of Tarantino’s movie on the big screen since 1994’s Pulp Fiction; the fact that Tarantino is a bit of an arrogant asshole prevented me for attending any additional movies that he made, and it is the same reason that I avoided the film about a young fan of Bruce Springsteen with the recent Blinded By the Light(Sarfraz Manzoor would have added two more tickets in sales to his box-office bomb if only he had refrained from self-aggrandising promotion using his big mouth and Twitter account). Regardless, Tarantino’s brilliant film is a time capsule into 1969 and the fringes of Hollywood where success isn’t a guarantee for men and women with ego that is often bigger than their actual talent. Yet, Tarantino is able to shed a bright light on the vulnerabilities, insecurities, and actual abilities of fictional and nonfictional people from a city on the cusp of tragedy in August of 1969 with the multiple homicides committed by the Manson family cult. Tarantino attempts to restore the innocence that was shattered with his alternate historical ending in which the bad guys lose and the innocent people are allowed to continue living in the bliss of a successful life that includes friendship, outdoor parties in the perfect weather, and a night sky where the western stars shine brightly despite the smog created by thousands of motorists.
Western Stars? What was the name of that new film’s title? It could have easily been a vanity project by a legendary rock musician who was merely perpetuating the cliche that all rock stars have a desire to be actors while all of Hollywood’s actors are “secretly” hoping to become rock stars. Bruce Springsteen could have easily fallen into the cinematic trap of his hero, Bob Dylan, by either starring in a terrible movie(Hearts of Fire, 1987) or creating a mess of a movie(Masked and the Anonymous, 2003) that had better potential as a song than a film; the latter film guaranteed that Bob’s only home would be the road for touring as a musician and tossing his “acting” dreams on a dusty shelf. As the story goes for Dylan when he “acted” as the character Alias in the movie Pat Garret and Billy the Kid(1973), Bruce is better at creating songs for a movie than being the actor who portrays the screenplay; Bruce is the storyteller instead of the story itself in Western Stars. The songs aren’t autobiographical in the same manner as Bruce’s more personal work with Tunnel of Love(1987) and Lucky Town(1992) when he experienced either conflict or contentment in the context of marriage. The thirteen songs performed live from Bruce’s barn in Colts Neck, New Jersey are enhanced by a full orchestra of strings and horns to redeem a subpar album released in June without the context of an accompanying film(note to Bruce and his management team: you’re supposed to release the soundtrack to a movie by only four days ahead of it instead of a confounding four months in length). When Bruce isn’t appearing on the stage of his barn, he is featured in the desert of southern California at the Joshua Tree National Park. Bruce does a series of voiceovers regarding the lessons of life and the way in which any wisdom gained is through making mistakes, learning from the pain, and calling on your better angels to refrain from the making the same mistake again. It was during the desert vignettes when I thought of Tarantino’s film and the character of Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt. Cliff is an ageing stuntman who repeatedly takes a fall for his friend, Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In fact, you get the sense that if not for the friendship with Rick, then Cliff wouldn’t have any job in Hollywood other than menial labour jobs for putting his battered body to work in the hot sun. Bruce performed a song entitled “Drive Fast(The Stuntman)” about a character similar to Cliff Booth but older with the surgeries, pins, and metallic body parts to prove it. The vast majority of Springsteen’s characters from Western Stars are ageing with 1969 being a distant memory when the turbulence of that year is replaced with the turbulence of 2019 but without their younger energy to actually give a damn about it.
The Old West and New West met in 1969 and 2019 for the stars of California, a place where being ignorantly blissful is an assumed component of relocating there from anywhere else in the USA. Politics aren’t much of a consideration in either Once Upon in Hollywood or Western Stars. The characters in both projects are merely trying to stay employed, keep their heads above water, and retain any relationship that prevents a dangerous isolation from their communities. Despite the weakness of the song, there is quite a party happening at “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” from Western Stars with a type of fun that is also filled with desperation. On the night of the infamous murders that included actress Sharon Tate in August of 1969, Rick and Cliff spend the evening drinking heavily at a bar to celebrate Cliff’s final performance as Rick’s stuntman; the party is eventually moved to Rick’s mansion where he and Cliff are able to thwart the murders of four innocent people who are also celebrating quietly in the privacy of their own home next door. Tarantino’s alternative history plays into the narrative that cowboys and heroes from the Old West can protect the damsels in distress from the New West where cults and Trump supporters have sullied the land with pointless violence and sheer ignorance. Perhaps this could be the tie that binds Once Upon a Time In Hollywood and Western Stars, the only two films that I have experienced in 2019; a common thread is knowing the mantra of “go West, young man” doesn’t have any meaning without friendship, family, and a community to protectively cherish. Cliff Booth is unimpressed with the Manson “family” at Charlie’s ranch but won’t leave until one of the cult members is held responsible for slashing the tire of Cliff’s car; it is a bold request for a man who is outnumbered by zombies with a propensity for violence while under the spell of a lunatic. Have I described the Manson cult in that previous sentence or a gun-toting group that is able to vote in American elections? Nonetheless, the stuntman and hitchhiker of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Western Stars are willing to take their chances on the open road where anything, even the worst possible outcome, is always a possibility. These men of Tarantino and Springsteen might be lost in an emotional sense, but they have a sense of morality before the world became insane from the cult leaders and demagogues who found their gullible followers.
I can only conclude this unread essay on a positive note, as this was the intent of both Quentin Tarantino and Bruce Springsteen at the end of their artistic offerings in 2019. Cliff Booth was shot by one of Manson’s young zombies but is still smiling while laying on the gurney in the back of an ambulance; his best friend, Rick Dalton, has promised to visit him in the hospital but only after accepting the invitation to a party from his next door neighbour, a pregnant and grateful Sharon Tate. Springsteen concludes his album and film with two songs of joy despite the circumstances that could easily precipitate a solitary resentment instead. “Moonlight Motel” features a lonely man who traces his lost love to the same place where they have shared their love and their shared love of alcohol; the character is now alone without his lover, he is drinking alone, but he feels grateful and connected with the love that he had previously experienced despite his sad situation. As the added bonus and homage to the songwriters who inspired Western Stars, Springsteen performs a rousing cover version of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” for the ultimate fish-out-of-water celebration that could have easily been a rural man’s bitterness toward the urban way of life in America’s biggest city. Therefore, the West has been transported to the East with Springsteen singing from his barn in New Jersey and with Glen Campbell’s declaration of how a cowboy will triumph in a land that can’t be more different from a place where the western stars are shining brightly…with the land of Hollywood included.
Paul Campbell Haider, (Weybridge, England)
October 29, 2019