Lore Report: “Whistle While You Work” (Episode 120)

Note: I’ve fallen a bit behind with this feature, but it’s time for me to get back on track with my reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s acclaimed podcast…

Yes, caves and mines might hold the riches we seek, but they can also be dangerous and unpredictable. There might be mysteries to dust off, or superstitions to pay attention to, but they contain a powerful warning: be careful how deep you dig, because you never know what you might find.

The 120th episode of Lore strikes the mother lode of narrative ore. Mahnke focuses on the profession of mining, establishing such subterranean delving as a pre-Industrial Age endeavor. Even more surprisingly, he details how mining was a spiritual activity for ancient cultures, who revered the precious substances (e.g. red ocher) unearthed as something sacred. Given such a mindset, it is not hard to fathom that miners across the world would fill caverns and underground tunnels with guardian spirits. Once again demonstrating an impressive knowledge of global folklore, Mahnke cites mining tales of mythological figures such as the German kobolds and the Australian Mondongs.

As a lover of American Gothic, I was especially pleased when Mahnke shifted the episode’s sights to the New World. As we have learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, people carry their supernatural beliefs with them when traveling to distant lands; that proves precisely the case here, as Mahnke discusses how Cornish immigrants transported their folklore to America. Stephen King’s 1987 novel might have brought tommyknockers to pop cultural prominence as undead extraterrestrial menaces, but long before then such figures (an Americanized version of Welsh “knockers”) were regarded as the spirits of dead miners, who sometimes served as an uncanny warning system for living workers.

With mines forming recurrent sites of “unexpected disaster and horrifying death,” it is little wonder that many haunting tales of mining accidents have accrued. Mahnke regales listeners with a dark gem of a story (concerning a ghostly emergency whistle) that traces back to an incident at a Minnesotan mine in the 1920’s. Episode 120, though, is not simply geared toward fearmongering; tommyknockers are considered as protective spirits more than punitive forces, figure deserving of respect and not just dread. The closing discovery alone–that such a thing as the Pennsylvanian “Society for the Relief and Support of Displaced Tommyknockers” actually existed–makes “Whistle While You Work” quite a rewarding listen.

 

Family Spree

Opting for exorcism rather than exploitation, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, never presents the graphic reenactment of the Manson Family’s murder of Sharon Tate (and company) that audience members are expecting/dreading. This proves in direct contrast to how American Horror Story: Cult approached the same event two years earlier in the episode “Charles (Manson) in Charge.” Now, AHS isn’t exactly known for restraint, but its decision to go there in showing the savagery is questionable at best, and downright disgraceful at worst. I recently joined back up with Cult, rewatching the aforementioned episode and considering the ostensible merit of the reenactment scene.

For sheer shock value, the scene succeeds. Much like the previous dramatization of the Jonestown massacre, it undoubtedly disturbs with its unflinching depiction of violent death. But did viewers really need to watch a pregnant Tate (Lily Rabe), standing with a noose around her neck and weepily begging for her unborn baby’s life to be spared, end up being stabbed multiple times? One can easily argue that this is a gross disrespect of the memory of the slain celebrity; the show’s producers demonstrate a striking insensitivity to the feelings of the relatives of Tate and the other real-life victims of the Manson Family’s bloody machinations. The scene, with cult leader Kai (Evan Peters) providing voice-over as he tells the notorious story to his Project-Mayhem-type acolytes, is marked by a certain flippancy of tone that adds another level of inappropriateness. Granted, Kai is Cult‘s grand antagonist, and we are supposed to be repulsed by his behavior. And AHS, as the show’s own title unabashedly establishes, is in the horror business, not that of giving viewers the warm fuzzies. Still, a line seems to have been crossed here, and the nadir of distastefulness neared.

That said, is there anything to appreciate about the scene? I did like how the actors from the season’s main storyline were utilized in the reenactment. Billie Lourd’s turn as the reticent Linda Kasabian cleverly reflects the outlying position of the actress’s Willow character in relation to brother Kai’s cult/political movement. Similarly, Sarah Paulson playing the (t)witchy Susan Atkins forms a nice piece of foreshadowing of her main character Ally’s dark deviation at season’s end. Indeed, the real impact of the scene is not its recreation of the murderous incident on Cielo Drive in 1969, but its set-up of the horrors to come on Cult. A raving Kai (whose psychotic break is evident when he subsequently holds conversations with a hallucinated Manson) calls for a “Night of a Thousand Tates,” a frightfully exponential copy-catting of Manson Family madness. Kai’s preparation of his hit squad in the season finale (complete with a knifing tutorial using a plastic anatomical model, and a practice stabbing of watermelons) ranks amongst the most chilling moments in the show’s history.

Of course, not even AHS would dare go that far, and the Night of a Thousand–or even a Hundred–Tates never comes to pass. Significant suspense, though, was created by the use of the Tate-murder reenactment scene. I don’t know if this ultimately justifies the show’s artistic choices, and for me the decision to depict such a scene remains controversial. “Charles (Manson) in Charge”–that mocking, unsuitably unserious note can be discerned in the very title of the episode–leaves me questioning what those in charge of the show’s content were honestly thinking.

 

Say Hello to Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino has never been known for strictly linear plotting, and his latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, to no surprise unfolds in a slow-burning and circuitous manner. No doubt there will be plenty of viewers who grouse that the film is self-indulgent and frustratingly digressive, but I certainly do not count myself part of that camp.

There’s undeniable artistic purpose to the proceedings here. Tarantino takes the time to establish the various characters whose lives are destined to intersect spectacularly. Start with the male leads: a wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio as the flawed, past-his-prime actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt (who oozes charisma, and gives one of the best performances of his career) as his stunt-double/driver/buddy Cliff Booth. Margot Robbie’s starlet-next-door Sharon Tate is developed as a full person (although the camera does tend to linger fetishistically on her legs/feet), not just some cinematic celebrity made more famous by her eventual savage demise. Even seemingly minor figures are woven deftly into the tapestry: the Hollywood hangabouts who prove no mere hippies, but the dangerous constituents of the Manson family.

Outstripping his thorough commitment to character development is Tarantino’s determination to establish the film’s titular setting. The Hollywood scene of the late Sixties is brought to life in stunning detail, from filmings on studio back lots to parties at the Playboy mansion. Clearly this is a loving recreation on the director’s part, a relishing of not just a time and place but a cultural moment just prior to its tarnishing by carnage.

Versed in the bloody details of what transpired on Cielo Drive in early-August 1969, the viewer has to wonder if Tarantino has built up this Hollywood scene merely to burn it back down. Yes, there’s a plethora of era-evoking movie magic on display here, but a palpable sense of dread also hangs over the film. And for all its concern with the Western (which helps further the thematic exploration of the nature of heroism and villainy), the film aligns just as much with the horror genre. The scene in which Cliff visits–and then investigates–the Manson-family-infested Spahn ranch is an interpolated masterpiece of squalor horror. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much sweat-wringing dread, so much fear for a character’s well-being.

Likewise, the film’s extended climax is rife with suspense and deadly menace. Yet it offers a surprising twist in its handling of one of the most shocking, Gothic moments in Hollywood (and American) history. Defying audience expectation and refusing to devolve into an exercise in exploitation, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood concludes on a more cathartic than horrifying note. While veering from the historical record toward the realm of the fairy tale, the film’s story is gloriously well-told, and in the end, epically satisfying.