I started out wanting to observe, for what it’s worth, that every single movie name-dropped in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is terrible, but that’s not quite true. THE GREAT ESCAPE is a fun movie, and FUNNY GIRL is OK. But it’s startling how many stinkers are featured. CANDY is a very unusual and kind of interesting bad movie, and John Dykstra worked on it, so I guess it’s an in-joke too, since he did this film’s model shots (the drive-in crane shot, and the Pan-Am jets). But then we get a poster for Mike Sarne’s JOANNA… holy crap.

Then we have THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (described by its own director, before it opened, as a piece of crap); KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (the most geographically inaccurate title ever?), THREE IN THE ATTIC (QT once tried unsuccessfully to get star Christopher Jones out of retirement), THE MERCENARY, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, DON’T MAKE WAVES (OK, the last two have Sharon Tate in them so one can understand them being mentioned — but DMW was such a miserable experience it caused Alexander Mackendrick to give up film-making), THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, THE SERGEANT, LADY IN CEMENT…

Vulture’s article on this cites a few actual good films I’d forgotten or missed: 2001, PRETTY POISON, THE BOSTON STRANGLER. So there are good films in the mix: I guess a recreation of 1969, if accuracy is the aim, ought to feature more bad films than good, since that’s the way the balance always swings. But I don’t understand the nostalgia for this kind of stuff.

I suppose true nostalgia could definitially be about ephemera and garbage, stuff that exerts an emotional pull on us despite or maybe even because of its seeming worthlessness. But that kind of nostalgia — “Remember Space Hoppers?” — is pretty useless. It gets its power from an unrelated source — “I was young once” — and the specific things it focusses on are meaningless to others of a different generation.

The weirdest hommage to me is THE WRECKING CREW, a Dean Martin “Matt Helm” movie — I’ve always regarded that series as genuinely toxic. We all know the sixties Bond films are chauvinist; the Flint movies with James Coburn are seriously sexist; but the Matt helm movies are actually misogynistic. The filmmakers sincerely seem to hate women and devote as much screen time as they can to demeaning them.

This makes for an odd, unreadable scene in OUATIH when Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate goes to see the real Sharon Tate in TWC. I like that they didn’t digitally replace Tate with Robbie, or reshoot the movie. But if the intention is to pay tribute, the material used seems a strange choice. But then Tate’s movies are not a glorious bunch, alas: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS is probably the least obnoxious, and I guess VALLEY OF THE DOLLS has camp value.

I get the impression that the scene is supposed to show Tate enjoying the audience’s reaction to her performance. And I guess maybe it works that way for some. But THE WRECKING CREW devotes most of Tate’s screen time to humiliating her character, showing her as clumsy, stupid, annoying to the hero, while displaying her body at every opportunity. Margot Robbie seems to have a hard time overlooking this, or at any rate her reactions don’t totally convince as those of someone enjoying the experience in a clearly readable way. I think Tate was too smart to have behaved this way, and Robbie is too smart to convincingly act it. There’s some kind of barely-tangible discomfort that manifests itself in a kind of blankness — the smile is big, apparently sincere, but somehow empty and non-specific.

When you see interviews with B-movie starlets looking back on some trash they were in, there’s always a rueful quality, and also a little pride — “At least I was a trouper, I put up with it all.” To me, showing Tate with that attitude to a really dumb, obnoxious movie she was in would give her more credit as a thinking professional.

(Acting watching a movie seems to be hard: when the kids go to see Harold Lloyd in HUGO, it’s maybe the most forced bit of performance in any Scorsese film; Kiarostami, no slouch, made a whole movie focussing on an audience watching an imaginary film, and it’s weirdly pointless and unmoving.)

Look, I know it’s not great film criticism, but I just really, really despise the Matt Helm series. It may be what’s stopped me looking at director Phil Karlson’s earlier noirs, which are supposed to be very good. Although I stumbled on a few fun Henry Levin movies — Henry helmed the two Helms that Phil didn’t film — and they’re modestly enjoyable. Both men seem to be bone-weary, disenchanted and dyspeptic by the time they get to Dean Martin spy caper hell.

In the memoir of gap-toothed comedian Terry-Thomas, he writes about working with Sharon Tate. Like everyone else who knew her, he was struck by her sweetness. She told him she couldn’t act at all, but that he shouldn’t worry, it seemed to come out alright. And he observed that she appeared to be correct: she played her scenes quite naturally, didn’t seem to try to act, and was perfectly effective onscreen. That self-deprecating, insightful and carefree attitude MIGHT leave Tate able to look at her work in THE WRECKING CREW and smile. But I think it’s a more interesting insight than anything Tarantino offers.


22 Responses to “Trash”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “The Fearless Vampire Killers” is wonderful. Alexander Mackendrick’s big problem on “Don’t Make Waves”was Martin Ransohoff. He has exactly one produce credit of value “The Loved One.” I suspect he left Tony Richard, Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood alone to craft that piece of inspired insanity. He had Sharon Tate under contract and was fighting constantly wit roman about her career.

    Interesting what Terry-Thomas says about her inability to act and her awareness of same. What she could do was project her innate charm and beauty. That’s not as easy to do as you might think.

    “Valley of the Dolls” has HUMUNGOUS camp value but more for Patty Duke playing Judy Garland than anything else.

  2. Matthew Davis Says:

    Maybe we should all chip in and buy Tim Brooke-Taylor a ticket, as he’s probably one of the last surviving people to have have done any extended acting with Sharon Tate. Apparently he also helped direct Orson Welles’ scenes in 12+1 when Welles and the original director had some falling out.

  3. Mackendrick managed to get Terry Southern to work on Don’t Make Waves for a bit, but most of that material got cut. The experience of working very hard, battling the producer, and still ending up with a movie that really wasn’t very good, made him decide to retire.

    The Loved One was, supposedly, sabotaged by Richardson, who was upset at not getting his fee raised after Tom Jones. So casting Robert Morse as a Brit in a film which has the inappropriate casting of an American in a British role was part of his sense of humour. I asked Richard Lester if he thought Richardson capable of sabotage like that, and he said, “With great glee.” His wilful demolition of the movie you’re watching turns it into something of a masterpiece.

    Sharon Tate, in other words, had natural talent. “Don’t fuck with a natural,” as Nick Ray would say.

  4. Tate’s surviving co-stars include Polanski, Nancy Kwan, Claudia Cardinale… but TBT is probably the one I’d most like to have dinner with.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Well, Ransahoff *is* listed as producer on CASTLE KEEP and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE and THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and CATCH-22. My experience with Matt Helm is slight: MURDERER’S ROW, somewhere in
    my youth (shadowy memories of Technicolor costumes) and THE SILENCERS. I turn to the latter for Stella Stevens and Cyd Charisse and that awesome title sequence. Same choreographer as Ray’s PARTY GIRL, btw.

    As for the trashiness … it reminds me of that line in PRIVATE LIVES about “potent cheap music.” Potent cheap film-making? Only there’s a ruefulness and self-consciousness in Coward’s line which I hesitate to attribute to QT.

    Oh, and I take it that there’s no need for me to recommend Karlson’s PHENIX CITY STORY and 99 RIVER STREET. I like ‘em quite a lot.

  6. I was 14 in 69, so I gravitated towards anything that smacked of Playboy-style sex and high living. Siblings and I saw at least a couple of the Matt Helms in theaters with parents. Even then I sort of grasped that they were intentional jokes (the Batman TV show had come and gone by then).

    The Flints I knew from TV, so I didn’t get the full effect. Again, campy comedy and almost-satire, but Coburn’s cold-bloodedness — even when played for laughs — gave them a weird gravity while the Matt Helms all played like a joke told by a drunk … sometimes a mean drunk.

    The Matt Helm “Murderer’s Row” I only caught up with a year or two ago. Ann Margret as a missing scientist’s daughter seems to be playing a teenager; her square boyfriend is a rich college boy and Martin makes jokes about ages throughout (his adult son’s band is in a disco scene). They end the film in bed together, which actually shocked me. There’s a line between now-ironically-funny male chauvinism and flat-out creepy, and they crossed it.

  7. Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico is worth breaking your embargo for.

  8. Yeah, I have a sense of which Karlsons to try whenever I get over my revulsion… I’m reasonably confident his ripped-from-the-headlines noirs won’t remind me too forcibly of Dino’s orange jowls.

  9. Recently watched Phil Karlson’s post-Helm Framed with Joe Don Baker. Brutal and well worth watching.

  10. revelator60 Says:

    Speaking of Karlson films, “Gunman’s Walk” is not Noir but it is a superb Western.

  11. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I don’t think Tony Richardson “sabotaged” “The Loved One” at all. His bizarre casting of Bobby Morse sprang form Morse’s great success on Broadway in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.’ He’s still in fine fettle and was superb in “Mad Men” — where he even got to sing.

    Part of the film’s organized insanity was the casting of Robert Easton as “Dusty Acres” — an actor in westerns who the studio wants to turn into a new James Bond type hero. Gielgud’s character is briefly hired to try to teach him to speak with a British accent. Easton — who was 6 foot 4 — was one of the “Whiz Kids” on radio (calling J.D. Salinger) as the IMDB notes, he was “known as the “Henry Higgins of Hollywood” as he was a master of dialects, and frequently coached other actors.” Among those he coached was Forrest Whittaker who tanks to Easton won an Oscar for playing Idi Amin.

  12. I think it was Terry Southern who put forth the “sabotage” story — he was in a position to know, but maybe not the world’s most reliable narrator.

  13. ehrenstein47 Says:

  14. ehrenstein47 Says:

    A wonder Quentin didn’t cast him

  15. This is a very good deep dive on QT’s not-so hidden racial and sexual assumptions:
    Looong but excellent.

  16. ehrenstein47 Says:

    The author that piece appears to be “embarrassed” at being white 9for some reason) but has zero comprehension of the power and Absolute Authority of whiteness.

    Sondheim (no surprise) understand what’s going on a lot better

  17. It’s easy to feel embarrassed about being white when one is, to quote Lindsay Anderson, “Surrounded by fucking arseholes.” When those noisiest in their white pride are as obnoxious as, for instance, the US president, I feel embarrassed to be HUMAN.

  18. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Trump is not human. He’s a Lectroid from Planet 10.

  19. ehrenstein47 Says:

  20. You’re a generous soul, DC. Given your fundamental misunderstanding of the most sublime moment in recent cinema history, I am more grateful to you than ever. Your checklist got in the way, preventing you from experiencing SPIRITUAL COMMUNION, but you are a good friend and great co-writer.

  21. Film critic John Powers once said that QT has enormous talent and no taste whatsoever. I suspect that he knows that The Great Escape is superior to The Wrecking Crew, but loves them equally. Some dogs will eat crap. If you look at the schedules for The New Beverly Cinema, a revival theater he owns and programs, it’s mostly crap. I’m surprised at QT’s omission of Easy Rider as even a momentary background image in OUTIH, except for DiCaprio’s derisive Dennis Hopper quip, considering the film’s success and impact in 1969.

  22. Too obvious for him, maybe? I guess part of what give the film a feeling of authenticity is it’s so stuffed with ephemera, not the obvious things people remember. But it ends up being 1969 with the good bits removed, which I find a little oppressive.

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