Once Upon A Time In Perdition

My feet are soggy. I’m making a picture with my plastic camera in a flooded out rest area on the Mississippi River. If I don’t grab this shot I probably won’t get another chance for a another few years. I think it’s been at least 5 since I’ve seen the water this close to the highway…or maybe 8…or maybe 23? Who knows. They say the only things that make you grow are aging and loss. Maybe this is why the Rolling Stones song “Out of Time” hits so hard whenever I rewatch one of my favorite films of all time, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s QT’s most on the nose “needle drop” of his career. The man has literally said he hates needle drops that are too on the nose in interviews, so when he finally does it here, he makes it count. It hurts. It hurts just like it did the first time. The fist in the “aging out” gut punch seems to go right through you. It not only smashes down upon the characters in the film, it drowns out your whole being and then floats angrily around the room for awhile. Then it makes you smile for no apparent reason other than you are grateful for the opportunity to hang out with these dudes for a couple hours.

Any time heavy doom vibes lurk around me I pop in the life and times of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, it’s better than any beer I can chug or Xanax pill I could pop. OUATIH is a hot dog at the ballpark, pizza by slice, sneaking a smoke behind the dumpster at work or taking a moment to “just be.” There’s just something about Brad Pitt and that comically large celery stalk in his Bloody Mary that just puts me in the greatest of moods. An instantaneous mood elevator. Everything about this film is perfect, and let me tell you, very few things in this world are.

When I reach my destination I find my father at his girlfriend’s house and at least he’s standing up. I didn’t think I would find him that way after our conversation last night and my subsequent family emergency away from work. He can’t hear a fucking word I’m saying though. After pointing and miming for a few seconds I realize his right arm isn’t working and I must help him put his hearing aids in. Despite operating a hearing aid and filming a hearing aid testimonial of my mother in law on my iphone some months back that has aired roughly 5,000 times on the nation’s 3rd largest home shopping network…I can’t figure out how to push the bugger into his ear. Thankfully the girlfriend is still there to help. Next, I have to put his sneakers on and tie them like he’s my son. I’m sure he once did this for me, but I can’t remember it because my parents got divorced when I was around the same age as my son is now.

“10 years treading water…now it’s a race to the bottom.” Rick Dalton is in tears as he slobbers this line to his stunt double Cliff Booth. Former stars rarely work “further down the trough.” Rarely do they go out on top in sports, art, film or television. I think about this sometimes when television personalities at my work see selling a certain item as a “career nadir.” It takes a certain amount of guts to just keep putting yourself out there I guess. I get it. You feel slightly more useless each day. You don’t want to pass the torch, but many don’t realize this is going to happen with or without their consent. We are all equal given a long enough timeline. Do you pick the life of forced obscurity, retirement and acceptance…or the supreme flameout of denial?

I get the old man to the car and up to his apartment without either of us tripping on the lobby stairs to the elevator. He seems fine on the couch and I head back down to get his stuff out of my vehicle. Once there, the sickening feeling hits me that I forgot his apartment keys in the apartment and I can’t get back in the building. I call up to be buzzed in and he doesn’t answer. I call his cell phone and he doesn’t answer. I am in full on panic mode now. I leave a message and he eventually calls me back as I stand outside with an armload of shit. He doesn’t know how to work the buzz-in mechanism and insists on coming all the way back down to let me in. Then, once he is outside, he vehemently insists that we go across town to the house of the guy he is currently working for. He emphatically insists that he needs to get some “papers” – he is so determined that I think this must be extremely important business paperwork to be signed or notarized or immortalized in some fashion.

When I drive him up the hill on the outskirts of town and pull up to the immaculate small town mansion I see one tiny newspaper in a bright yellow plastic bag. We came out here to get a fucking newspaper? My dad couldn’t even remember his right from his left when giving me directions as his brain had 6 of 9 cancerous lesions zapped less than 24 hours ago. It’s not even a real-sized newspaper, it looks like one of those old-timey “shoppers” that is 75% ads. “What’s wrong with you?” I shout. “Is this really a priority right now?” He gives me the “When I say I’m going to do something, I do it” speech. I am ecstatic to see a tiny camera attached to the brick on the ornate gateway so there is a recording of me holding his dead right arm as we go to fetch the paper which looks like the kid from the video game Paper Boy threw it there in 1989. I am still grumbling as we pull away but attempt to change the subject as we leave the cul de sac. “Who else lives up here?” I say. “Rich people.” he responds dryly.

As we pull back up to my dad’s apartment I parallel park in front of his beat up truck filled with landscaping refuse and his shiny black BMW (what is it with boomers and their BMWs? What Madison avenue commercial drilled it into their heads that they all need to own one before they die?). Before I’m even finished helping him out of my vehicle he is staggering a shaky bee line to the Beamer. I watch him wing the small yellow roll into the back seat with his good arm. The back seat is filled with loose paperwork and more similarly packaged yellow rolls. I think of my dad’s loyalty to his millionaire buddies…I used to tell him to go work for a big landscaping company in Minneapolis. He definitely could have made more money there than he did scraping and clawing for the better part of 50 years with his own small town mom and pop operation. He always called it “freedom to be his own boss”…the man wasn’t gonna tie HIM down! In the end we both ended up in the same place, pledging undying loyalty to our corporate overlords. I look at the sleek black BMW he probably can’t afford and think about the futility of loyalty and the futility of life. My dad is only 24 years older than me. That’s nothing. And hey, I’m not here to bag on the rich man because guess what? The guy with the mansion and others like him banded together to pay for my dad’s room in the assisted living facility when he was knocked down by cancer last summer. Life is complicated and some people are just meant to carry the load.

All of these things cross my mind as I watch the loyalty Rick Dalton has for his rascal stunt double Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. TV star Dalton passionately argues for his loyal companion to get work on his set. A millionaire playboy throwing some table scraps to his buddy who’s a little less than a spouse and a little more than a brother. “Hell you can throw him off a building, light him on fire, you can hit him with a LINCOLN! He’s happy for the opportunity!” This is my dad, and this is me. That line will always get max guffaws in this household. My father and I are forever Cliff Booth getting run over time and time again for our wealthy (but well intentioned) benefactors. “Hey Dad,” I say. “Do you need any help?” “Nothing that a good shotgun couldn’t cure.” He says dryly.

My dad is always threatening to go for “a walk in the woods” these days. It’s kinda funny, but it’s definitely a black comedy in progress . I think of this as I watch Rick Dalton trash his trailer and threaten to kill himself in the mirror if he flubs another line in the TV show. This movie is highly satirical of the industry and of life. Yet there is something so innocent about it. I’m not only talking about the period perfect 1969 vibes it shoots off in all directions. I’m talking about it’s heavy 2019 nostalgia as well. Before the great Pandemic, the end of the Trump Era was beginning to peak out over the horizon, the beautiful summer of 2019. Things weren’t so bad were they? Then my 17 year old cousin died and various parts of hell began to shake loose. Just one domino at a time, subtle and slow, both internally and externally, until one day I’m aging out just as fast as my father. Then Dalton (in character as Caleb DeCoteau in the TV show Lancer) says “I told you they’d come to parlay!” as 90210’s Luke Perry pulls up on a magnificent steed. The scene is played. The scene ends. We wrap for the day. The lights on the strip slowly light one by one. And away we go… the next chapter. “We’ve reached the end of the trail Cliff…”

A few days later I am driving up the hill to the mansion again. This time with my dad and my younger brother in tow. My dad insists on arriving exactly at 2:00pm and not one minute earlier. I threaten to moon the guy’s security camera this time. My brother helps my father down the brick laden path to the front door with the yellow packaged old timey newspapers. A friendly old man answers, he shakes my dad’s hand (the dead one, without realizing it). My dad shuffles back without any help from my brother, and he is grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato. As we drive off he is flashing three crisp fifty dollar bills. “You got a hundred fifty bucks for that?!” I squawk. The other two stop what they are doing and stare at me for a beat. “Well that changes everything!” We all laugh like hyenas all the way down the hill. We’re all just captives on the carousel of time.

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