Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[Spoilers: this article discusses aspects of the film’s ending]


Cinematically speaking, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s most unconventional film so far, but it’s also perhaps his most reactionary work. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays actor Rick Dalton, once a leading man of TV westerns now cast as the heavy opposite up-and-coming stars, and Brad Pitt his stunt double and right-hand man Cliff Booth, also out of work and subsidized by the actor. DiCaprio and Pitt play them with a southern drawl (carried over from their previous appearances in Tarantino films), as though they were simply extensions of the characters they play on screen. Their Dalton and Booth (Protestant, old-worldly names) are living relics out of phase with the times. Dalton is a distant cousin of the character DiCaprio played in Revolutionary Road (2008) and is modelled on a straitlaced, middle-class, Eisenhower-era executive. He lives alone in a suburban mansion at the edge of Beverly Hills. He spends his day time at the studio working and his evenings at home preparing for his roles or watching himself on television. He prefers beer over drugs, abstains from parties or pub-hopping and detests those hippies knocking about town.

Booth, on the other hand, lives with his dog in a trailer behind a drive-in theatre. He drives Dalton around and runs errands for him. The unequal power relation between the two is mitigated by the fact that they share a genuine bond (“Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”). The professional obsolescence the two characters face is a symptom of the larger societal changes of the decade they are shielded from. Hollywood is drawing new blood which, from Dalton’s and Booth’s perspective, are outsider figures like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). It’s 1969, the year Easy Rider enshrined hippiedom and two years after Bonnie and Clyde romanticized criminals as real heroes. Nixon has been elected president and protests against the ongoing war in Vietnam are at their peak. There’s a cultural-historical revision afoot in Hollywood. Filmmakers like Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman are turning the ideology of old narratives inside out, positing that the white man might perhaps not the saviour of the world. This change coincides with Dalton’s displacement from the centre into villain roles, garbed in biker-hippie attires.

Dalton and Booth respect their places in the hierarchical world they embody: Booth lives in the valley, Dalton in the hills, Polanski and Tate even higher. When Booth drives to the Spahn Ranch, once a studio, now populated Charlie Manson’s followers (one of whom is played by feminist sweetheart Lena Dunham), he is scandalized by their encroachment of a private property. Dalton, who owns a mansion, is enraged when noisy intruders infringe his privacy; he exercises his Second Amendment rights, stocking a flamethrower in his house. Dalton and Booth, in their understanding, are the original inhabitants of a place now being occupied by outsiders.

Both men have a strained, somewhat desexualized relationship with women, paralleling Tarantino’s own view of his lady characters. Dalton doesn’t bring them home, and prefers the company of the more-than-brother-less-than-wife Booth. The first and only woman in his life comes in the form of his Italian wife, whom he abandons on their first night back home to hang out with Booth. Cliff, who turns down a soliciting Mansonite girl, is said to have killed his wife, but no one knows for sure. A brief flashback shows him with his nagging spouse on a boat, but nothing else. Tarantino’s decision to bring up this accessory detail only to suspend it as dubious industry legend reeks of a scepticism that has noxious implications in a post-Weinstein Hollywood. The wives of Dalton and Booth are presented as indulgent shrews asking for it and the only other women the men encounter are the Mansonites; except Tate, who comes across as an embodiment of purity and innocence untainted by her surroundings.

So, in the absence of any contradicting information, Tarantino’s film neatly pits macho, relatively decent, law-abiding, Christian white men against hippies, immigrants, squatters, libertines, druggies, cultists, and women—the posterchildren of the counterculture movement. For all the cathartic relief its denial of a historical tragedy brings, the film’s ending, with two white men saving a pregnant woman and her household from invaders, has a jarring contemporary resonance. The graphic, men-on-women violence the film showcases—and asks its audience to partake in—is indented to save the pure maternal figure: a conflict that stems from a binary vision of womanhood long outmoded. The larger connotation, that the country needs valiant war heroes, like Booth once was, to save it from anti-social elements who don’t belong here, serves as a right-wing dog whistle well in line with certain political sentiments in the US today. (This radicalism is not to be conflated with the classic conservatism of Eastwood and Spielberg.) Moreover, the choice of flamethrower as a weapon and the image of a charred corpse floating in water register as distasteful echoes of the Vietnam War brewing in the film’s background.

Maybe Tarantino is describing, through Dalton and Booth, old Hollywood as it was, the can of dog food entertainingly smashed on a woman’s face being simply an extension of the grapefruit on Mae Clarke’s. The dilemma the film proposes is perhaps that a desire to see old Hollywood persist means to accede to its unsavoury aspects as well. But we never get a sense of what new Hollywood stood for or the changing mores it represented—very reasons enabling the idea of an “old Hollywood”. Save for a coy pool party Tate attends, the film is tightly bound to Dalton’s and Booth’s view of events. It could be argued that this tale of a woman saved from unspeakable tragedy by chivalrous machismo is a compensatory fantasy of men losing their power—Booth’s fight with Bruce Lee is given, after all, as his recollection. However, in the absence of any framing device, this fantasy becomes the filmmaker’s own. Compare this to Altman’s Buffalo Bill (1976), where the yearning for an old world is constantly interrogated, turned upon itself. Otherwise a self-aware filmmaker, Tarantino nevertheless chooses not to contextualize Dalton and Booth’s perspective, which also means choosing the morally-simple forms of classical Hollywood over the subversive self-reflexivity of what came after.

Or maybe Tarantino decided that the best way to pay a tribute to the upheavals of new Hollywood was to make a film that’s as amoral and provocative as Bonnie and Clyde; and that provocation today means to go against the liberal pieties of his industry. For all their shocks, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained were on “the right side of history”, somewhat softening the enfant terrible image Tarantino had cultivated till that point. Hateful Eight can be seen, in this light, as a statement of non-alignment, the image of a woman (whose character Tarantino equated with a Mansonite) strung up by a black man and a white man encapsulating the film’s ideology. In this new film, he has managed to stir up the dominant, liberal side of film culture by taking a political U-turn. For taboo-breaking in our time starts with the thought that everything’s too PC these days.


[First published at Silverscreen India]

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[Spoilers below]

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, weaves a fictional narrative around the Tate murders of 1969, in which a pregnant Sharon Tate and four of her friends were killed by members belonging to the cult of Charles Manson at her residence in Hollywood. The film unfolds through a collage of four perspectives: Rick Dalton (a hammy Leonardo DiCaprio) a waning Western TV star ruing his sunset, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), once Dalton’s stunt double, now his pal and go-to-guy, actress Sharon Tate (Robbie Margot), who has just moved in next door to Dalton with her husband Roman Polanski, and the Manson Family, a hippie commune living in Spahn Ranch, a run-down movie and TV studio where Dalton and Booth used to shoot. The film begins six months before the murder and charts Dalton coming to terms with his imminent professional irrelevance, Cliff’s apathetic life alongside Dalton and Tate’s stuttering rise to public recognition. If not for its ending, the film registers as a transitional work for Tarantino in the way it leaves behind many of the filmmaker’s stylistic traits.

To be sure, Once Upon a Time turns out exactly the way one would expect a film written by Tarantino about the Tate murders to. But it doesn’t look anything like a Tarantino movie. For one, there’s a lot more “dead time” here than in any of his previous films. Nothing much happens in these long stretches except for characters driving around Los Angeles, the radio turned on, wind in their hair, Tarantino asking us to just absorb the atmosphere. The extreme close-ups that he usually reserves for a telling detail is generalized and multiplied. There are at least three identical shots of the Manson Family members walking towards Tate’s house – a superfluity that is symptomatic of the whole film. The pace is measured and the individual scenes themselves are much longer than usual, many of them outlasting their nominal purpose. There are three protracted sequences dedicated to Dalton bemoaning his decline. The last of these unfolds as a conversation with a precocious eight-year-old child actor (Julia Butters). It’s a remarkably insipid scene, even more than the other two, too shallow to be sincere and too cliched to be smart, and it’s surprising to find it in such prominence in a Tarantino film.

Secondly, Tarantino’s relationship with his influences is given much more showcase and precious attention than we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. Tate looks at a poster of The Wrecking Crew (1968), her newly-released picture with Dean Martin. While this would’ve been a passing glimpse in the director’s previous works, here we get a shot of Tate looking at the poster, then a close-up of the poster and a reverse-shot of Tate again. Scenes of the real Tate in the film are also played for us. When producer Schwarz (Al Pacino) names the Dalton movies he’s seen, we see a detailed film reel of fake films starring Dalton. The reel comprises of Westerns, a musical, and an action movie where Dalton torches Nazis with a flamethrower, and serves as a wish-fulfilment for the Tarantino. Home turf for QT, the Hollywood milieu might have allowed for many more tributes, a temptation that he avoids for fewer, more elaborate quotations.

What most distinguishes Once Upon a Time from Tarantino’s earlier works, however, is the startling absence of suspense and a curious undercurrent of sentimentalism. While the film intercuts between Dalton, Booth and Tate from the outset, there’s no tension that the juxtaposition produces. It’s February 1969 and we know that the murders happened only in August. The first conflict of the film, and its first instance of accelerated editing, doesn’t occur until two hours in, when Booth visits the Spahn Ranch and picks up a fight with one of the Manson Family members. The only expectation the viewer has all through the film derives from the tragic consciousness of the Tate murders and even that is thrown into doubt considering Tarantino’s tendency to rewrite history. Unlike in any other QT film, the film’s only real tense sequence arrives at the end, on the day of the murder, when the filmmaker quickens the crosscutting with arbitrary, pointless time markers, expanding the sequence with extreme detailing of events.

The film’s emotional locus is instead vested in the friendship between Dalton and Booth, one of the few sincere relationships in Tarantino’s body of work. The friendship gets its own emotional climax, in a restaurant scene where Dalton, now married and washed-up, confesses he can’t afford Booth anymore, and a parting shot in which Dalton tells Booth he was a good friend. Also nagging the film’s conscience is Booth’s tragic professional situation. Like countless professionals Hollywood’s technological progress has left behind, Booth leads a ghost-like existence in the shadow of Dalton, himself fast becoming a shadow. He lives in a trailer park, drives Dalton around and even does household chores. His vocation is of no use anymore in the new Hollywood, where actors are expected to do their own stunts. Tarantino’s ode to the profession includes a fight between Booth and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), presented in long takes, and several shots of Brad Pitt doing stunt-like activities.

This sentimentalism might be interpreted as nostalgia, but what Once Upon a Time deals with is nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was possible. His yearning is not for the old movies and movie studios but the neon lights of cinemas and restaurants that once dotted the Hollywood landscape. It’s a yearning that’s second-hand, for Tarantino couldn’t have himself lived the experiences he describes. The film is set in 1969 (two years before The Last Picture Show was made), a time when the studio system had collapsed and the movie brats had started to shape up the business and method of making films. The Vietnam War (and protests against it) continues under the newly-elected Nixon. Tarantino frequently cuts from Dalton to Tate to set up a contrast between an eclipsing, old Hollywood of the fifties and the rising, new Hollywood of the late sixties. Somewhat of a relic, Dalton is modelled after the suburban, middle-class, Eisenhower-era executive. He is mostly seen at the lot or back home. He spends his evening preparing for work or in front of television. He prefers his beer over drugs, hates the hippies and wants nothing to do with the debauched lifestyle of the times. It’s noteworthy, for a film set in Hollywood, how little of Hollywood or its people we actually see. The only party we are shown owes to the presence of Tate, Jay and Polanski, people wholly of their era, unlike Dalton. As Tate watches The Wrecking Crew, Tarantino regularly jumps to Dalton’s shooting of a TV Western. It’s a “old-timey” Western, but made in Tarantino’s style of long takes and direct sound. We don’t see the camera crew for the most part and the decoupage is presented as Tarantino would conceive it. There are several shots in Once Upon a Time of actors snoring, spitting and slurping – sounds rare in classical Westerns. The intercutting between an actor performing and another actor watching herself performing signals the shift of American movies towards greater self-reflexivity.

This opposition between the simple forms and moral clarity of old Hollywood and the darker, self-reflexive anti-authoritarianism of new Hollywood takes on a politically-noxious flavour when combined with Tarantino’s desire to deny the Tate murders. In Once Upon a Time, the Manson Family members enter Dalton’s house instead of Tate’s. Booth, under the influence of an acid-soaked cigarette a hippie sold him, kills all of them with the assistance of Dalton, who is finally invited home by a relieved Tate. In other words, the old heroes of old Hollywood, with their clear-cut notions of good and evil, have protected the Polanski household from crazy hippies squatting over the ruins of Hollywood. The implications are odious: that though home-grown antisocial elements denigrate them, it takes soldiers and war heroes, like Booth once was, to protect the country; that the movies and TV shows of old might have shown violence, but the mediatized images of the Vietnam War have rendered the violence in movies more real, more immediate, making them even more responsible for the violence in society. Tarantino’s reactionary re-revisionism is the opposite of the necessary process of cultural reexamination filmmakers such as Penn, Peckinpah and Altman were undertaking during the time the film is set in.

In Tarantino’s dichotomous image of Hollywood, hippies, cultists, druggies, squatters, libertines, the counterculture in short, are pitted against a pragmatic, intuitive world of cowboys and Mexicans – a strangely anachronistic vision that seems to belong to the film’s era and not current day. There’s no equivalence between the Manson’s Family’s real violence and the fictional violence that Booth and Dalton exercise on them. They are home invaders and so any violence on them doesn’t carry the same moral sanction as their own violence does. Before they leave their car, the Manson Family discusses television shows. One of them wants to “kill the people who taught us to kill”. This twisted reasoning helps Tarantino justify his excesses: movie violence, no matter how graphic, is ultimately harmless compared to real violence. This gives him the carte blanche to abandon himself in the thrill of brutal imagery, as Booth smashes the face of one woman against various hard surfaces of the house, including a framed movie poster. Dalton burns another one down with a flamethrower.

It is, however, impossible to precisely pin down the politics of a Tarantino film and Once Upon a Time, like all Hollywood tentpoles, is riddled with ideological paradoxes that makes any reading tenable. It is quite possible that Tarantino simply wants to further his project of harnessing cinema’s capacity to forge myths and correct historical-representational errors. His film is set in Hollywood, an ahistorical zone where fact and legend mix. Booth is said to have killed his wife, but nobody knows. The production of its films is based on a lie that the actor and the stuntman are the same people. Tarantino recreates a scene from The Great Escape with Dalton/DiCaprio in place of McQueen, even as Dalton clearly states that he was never in the running. It’s a lie that QT visualizes nonetheless: why shouldn’t cinema belie history, when every sane person in their implicit contract with the movies knows it is all made up? One has to be as deranged as the Manson Family, the filmmaker seems to say, to take what is represented for fact. Most auteur films Hollywood tend to be bitter about the industry and its people, but Tarantino’s too much in love with its history for that. In the final passage of the film, he cycles through various characters watching prime-time television. Through the cross-cutting, this shared cultural experience takes on a communal quality. Something resembling a prayer, which is what movie-going is for Tarantino. The prayers have been answered. The movies have made America safe again, if only on screen.