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Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

As its title suggests, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, a fable, a fantasy. Jeet Heer even suggests at The Nation that it’s science fiction, presenting an alternate reality version of a historical event in a manner that critiques the conventional Hollywood happy ending, which our own flawed and dissatisfying world is almost never accorded. This roughly marks the film as the third in an interrupted trilogy of historical revenge fantasies from Tarantino, following Inglourious Basterds (the leaders of Nazi Germany are slaughtered in a movie theatre) and Django Unchained (antebellum Southern slave owners receive brutal comeuppance). Tarantino brings back a pair of the big-name stars of those films for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Brad Pitt from the former, Leonardo DiCaprio from the latter, respectively as laconic man-of-action stunt double Cliff Booth and fading, self-doubting genre movie and television star Rick Dalton.

The lion’s share of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood coasts seductively on the ample charisma of DiCaprio and Pitt as they move through an obsessively-detailed re-creation of 1969 Hollywood, while also peppering in appearances by flashy, jet-setting rising actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Married to then-hot Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), Tate lives with Polanski and Tate’s ex-fiancée and perpetual houseguest Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, although they’ve never met and, judging from the hip Playboy Mansion parties that occupy their nights and the solitary pool-floating alcohol consumption that occupies his, their orbits may never truly cross. Of course, everyone knows what happened to Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive in 1969. Although that does not happen in this movie, Tarantino counts on our dread anticipation of that terrible moment in the film’s “last act”, when Cliff and Rick cross paths with a menacing hippie commune living on Spahn Movie Ranch, calling themselves a “Family” and following a long-haired mentor named Charlie.

The air quotes around “last act” reflect the looseness with which Tarantino, who of course writes as well as directs, approaches the traditional three-act movie structure in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Indeed, Tarantino approaches plot pretty loosely in this film as well; we are introduced to Dalton and Booth and Tate, and we mostly watch them live their lives for a couple of hours until some dirty hippies show up one night, spoiling for murderous violence. Dalton takes a meeting with producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), struggles but ultimately triumphs minorly shooting a villainous role in a pilot for a television western, then takes Schwarz’s advice and flies to Rome to make spaghetti westerns for Italian directors (Tarantino tiptoes right up to directly referencing Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West at this point, which is clearly hat-tipped in the movie’s title and is among the strongest of his extremely numerous career influences). Booth cruises through the California sunshine in his car and in Dalton’s, as cool as anything (Tarantino makes everybody look inescapably cool, as he is wont to do), but ends up making a tense visit to Spahn Ranch with Family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). Robbie’s Tate, for her part, seems to spend half of the film’s runtime sitting in a movie theatre appreciating her own screwball comedic performance (or the real Tate’s performance, to be precise) in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew.

Tarantino spends an inordinate and amusingly compulsive amount of time in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood re-creating contemporary period details, and this being Tarantino, those details are obnoxiously obsessive and impressively obscurantist. His period Los Angeles streetscapes are choked with neon signs for now-closed restaurants and cinemas and stores and clubs which he either remembers himself or painstakingly researched; there’s a sequence of such signs of establishments clicking on with a foreboding whirring sound, as dusk falls on the night of the Family attack. He painstakingly re-creates scenes from real television shows and movies (and period-type fictional movies and shows, including another Nazi-massacring flick which was a career highlight for the younger Dalton) airing in 1969 and digitally inserts DiCaprio’s Dalton in them, including an iconic scene from The Great Escape with Dalton in the Steve McQueen role, which he is telling a co-star on the pilot that he was close to getting (that whole pilot episode production is based on a real, short-lived Western series called Lancer). The carpet-bombing soundtrack delves into less-trafficked corners of countercultural late-’60s pop and rock, alternating with silence on the music track during Tarantino’s trademarked involved dialogue scenes.

Also, there are a lot of feet. Women’s naked feet, mostly (but sometimes in shoes or boots as well). Often dirty, frequently thrust up insistently into the foreground of the frame. This Quentin character pretty clearly likes feet. A lot. It might be a fetish. Probably best not to call attention to it. Not really sure if it means anything.

Does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood mean anything, beyond Quentin Tarantino’s aggressive nostalgic completistness and conspicuous podophilia? There’s been a robust late-summer debate about that, with critics and commentators across the discourse plumbing depths or bumping into a shallow false bottom, depending on the perspective and trajectory of their particular reading. Is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a superficial, breezy trifle that trivializes the Tate murders, or is it a sly and transgressive minor masterpiece that subtly deconstructs Hollywood mythmaking on multiple levels? As it happens, I think that there is something going on here, beyond the wish fulfilment fantasy of erasing one of the most horrifying things to ever happen in Hollywood. But what’s going on isn’t beyond that fantasy, it’s another facet of that fantasy, intricately linked with it, immersed in its shimmering waters as if in a nutrient-rich birth pond.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale fantasy of the fading, trailing edge of Hollywood’s golden age, a golden age that, like the swinging free-love Sixties counterculture itself, was brutally ended with the Manson Family atrocities even as it pivoted into a new phase behind the rise of a new creative generation of filmmakers. The rise of television and the expansion of American popular culture was fracturing the rigid regime of the Studio Era, as new creative voices (still almost entirely white and male, mind you) influenced by the formalistic freedom and rebellion of European art films (especially French New Wave and the glut of quick, cheap, aesthetically brazen movies out of Italy, the spaghetti westerns included) injected fresh lifeblood into mainstream American film.

Much of this is deep in the background here; of course Roman Polanski was an inventive young auteur direct from the Old World shaking up Hollywood at the time, and Dennis Hopper gets a shoutout, though not a positive one (Dalton insults the “dirty hippie” Family members idling in his cul-de-sac by comparing the male one to the Easy Rider director/star). What’s more in the forefront is what is identified by The Atlantic‘s Caitlin Flanagan as a sense of romanticist, heroic embrace of old-fashioned, cool-headed action-star masculinity, the kind which sidelines women and minorities and is underscored and maintained with the stiffest and most devastating violence. Patriarchy, in a word. Flanagan argues that Tarantino trangressively throws these “values that have repeatedly been proved—proved!—to be dangerous, outdated, the thing that people don’t want anymore” at the audience in this movie, and they eat it up (best opening weekend of Tarantino’s career, after all). This is not so much reactionary (although Flanagan seems to wish it was) as a fulfillment of the promise of the title. Was the inherent benevolence of the stiff-lipped masculine heroism that Dalton and (especially) Booth represent – of which Steve McQueen is the exemplar of this period, referenced not only in The Great Escape casting moment but also played in cameo by Damian Lewis – in this film ever real? Or was it, as Flanagan puts it, “always just a fairy tale, a world ‘that never really existed, but feels like a memory'”?

You might have guessed that Flanagan’s reading influences mine, cigarette-flicking edgelord right-wing-curious though it may be. Cliff Booth is certainly cool, sexy, capable, and highly able with violence. Rick Dalton is splashed across movie posters and marquees and screens as a tough-guy hero, but it’s his stunt double, who tags in anonymously for the most dangerous stuff, who is the genuine article, and not always in a good way. While fixing Dalton’s television antenna on a hot day, Cliff flashes back to a fight with the legendary Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a movie set; Lee is arrogant and insufferable in talking up his warrior prowess, and Cliff calls him out and then throws the martial arts legend so hard into a car that it dents the side door (Lee’s family has objected to the moment, but it’s clearly contextualized as Booth’s rose-tinted memory of how he got thrown off a movie set, the unseen true events no doubt less flattering to him).

It’s an anticipation of Cliff’s mastery of violence in the rousing, comedically gruesome climactic face-off with the Family would-be-murderers, but then so, in a darker way, is the nasty rumour that he killed his wife (a flashback shows the lead-up to the moment on their boat, and leaves very little doubt as to how it played it out or what it was about). Cliff will turn his violence against women if need be, as the final battle demonstrates (two of the Tate murderers were women, after all). He is a man with a code, and although that code precludes sex acts with a teenager like Pussycat, it doesn’t preclude gory violent acts on her fellow female Family members, threatening to kill him though they may be.

Although Cliff’s (and Rick’s, and Rick’s Italian starlet wife’s, and Cliff’s dog’s) violence at the film’s conclusion spares Sharon Tate and her houseguests their horrific real-life fate, critics of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have found Tarantino’s superficial, objectified portrayal of the surviving Tate through Margot Robbie to be a cold comfort tribute. Robbie remains a compelling screen presence, and her relationship with the male gaze of the camera (always already very present in a Quentin Tarantino movie) is one of the most fascinating in contemporary cinema (I would write a full essay on that subject but the effort would no doubt necessitate a re-watch of Suicide Squad, which is not an acceptable price to be paid). But her Sharon Tate is simply not accorded the agency or the psychological depth of Rick Dalton or Cliff Booth here. She is a cipher for appealing, guileless feminine sex appeal, the unthinking, uncaring beneficiary of the patriarchal forcefulness brought to bear by Dalton and especially Booth. This is kind of the point (her murder kept the celebrity-watching public from getting to know her and watch her career grow), but what’s even more the point is that Tarantino could not conceive of a role for Robbie’s Tate beyond this. Like his general whitewashing of the Manson Family saga (no mentions of an apocalyptic race war or Manson’s driving racism to be found, though to be fair the Charles character is only in a single scene) and late ’60s Hollywood in general, one can’t help but feel that Tarantino could have done better with Sharon Tate.

With all of this in mind, it’s difficult not to also read Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as Quentin Tarantino’s complex subtextual negotiation with the scales-falling-from-the-eyes aftershocks of the curtain-lifting Hollywood scandals of the #MeToo wave. Tarantino owes his acclaimed directorial career in no small part to Miramax and its now-disgraced serial sexual predator head Harvey Weinstein, and although he pushed back upon learning of Weinstein’s abuses on at least a couple of occasions, there remains a stain of complicity that Tarantino has acknowledged he cannot quite wash away. Given this disturbing darkness at the heart of Hollywood unveiled by the Weinstein revelations (as well as those about Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, Louis CK, Brett Ratner, John Lasseter, and many more), Tarantino’s choice to carefully immerse himself and his audience in a sunkissed fantasy of a vanished Hollywood starring strong, upright screen cowboys might seem like an embrace of nostalgic escapism as a coping mechanism. But of course, this sunny view through the bauble is bent considerably by the contrast with the Manson Family murders, even if those murders are rousingly headed off before the end.

Certain points of light amidst Tarantino’s kaleidoscope of references stand out as flashlight beams into hidden dark corners of these supposed halcyon days. As Rick and Cliff pull onto Cielo Drive for the first time, the car radio chatters about the town’s celebrities and Bill Cosby, whose fall from celebrated entertainment god to convicted rapist might be the grandest of our era, is conspicuously mentioned (in the same breath as Frank Sinatra, too, rumoured in the popular discourse to be the real father of Ronan Farrow, who was raised in the orbit of accused underage predator Woody Allen and who was the key journalist behind the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse story). Roman Polanski is a character in the film, of course, and although he drops out of it halfway through and the unforgivable crime that has led to his ostracism from Hollywood remains still in the speculative future, the film-culture-knowledgeable (and Tarantino always pitches his films to them) will keep it forefront in their minds as they absorb this film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, on a surface level, preserve its vision of Hollywood’s waning halcyon days and fading patriarchal masculinity’s allegedly heroic glow by snuffing out the Manson Family threat and its bloody exposure of delusional murderous fantasism (a mindset integral to Hollywood action flicks) as a destructive force at the core of American culture. Unsuccessful as multiple murderers in the film’s historical revenge fantasy, what the Manson Family becomes instead is a metaphor for those dark forces within the culture of Hollywood and America that Tarantino slyly undercuts and critiques, all while simultaneously and a little subversively/problematically reifying their aesthetic manifestations. Squatting like stray hippie dogs on a former movie set where Hollywood shot westerns, those pre-eminent Studio Era cinematic projections of conservative individualist American values, the Family are like vermin in the temple, an infection in the larger corpus of Hollywood myth that stands in amorphously for all of those bad parts of that myth that Tarantino can’t quite pinpoint (or perhaps can, and decides not to, because it’s easier to punch a few nasty hippies than wrestle with the wasting disease of the American soul).

Before their fateful assault on Dalton’s home, the Family members discuss and seek to preliminarily justify their attack by claiming to have been taught violence by Hollywood, so how fitting to unleash righteous violence in revenge on one such purveyor of those images, after all (as a side note, I had a knot in my gut through this scene, as Maya Hawke plays one of the Family members plotting murder; what a distracting and troubling moment it would have been for Tarantino to have launched Uma Thurman’s daughter into an orgy of ultraviolence after notoriously endangering Thurman’s well-being in their last film together, but fortunately, Hawke plays Linda “Flower Child” Kasabian, who tapped out of the murders at the last moment and testified against the others in exchange for immunity). Although Tarantino gives his audience the climactic orgy of violence they have come to expect from him, he is simultaneously prefacing that violence with an aggressive in-text critique of it and, by emphasizing the dimwitted hippie colloquialisms in the speech of lead critiquer Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Mikey Madison), making that critique seem ridiculous and risible (and also making the Manson Family seem like liberal media critics and not nihilistic right-wing racist radicals they were, as Boots Riley pointed out on Twitter).

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a hopelessly tangled dialectic of messy positions and counter-positions, of nostalgic invocations and their cynical, worldly negations. If Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained reduced grand historical forces like fascistic, anti-Semitic genocide and racially-based chattel slave socioeconomics to exquisitely hateable movie villains to be violently dispensed with (and that assessment of those films is itself unfairly reductive), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood productively fails to boil down the social and cultural faultlines revealed in all of their intractable ugliness by the Manson Family madness to an antagonist that can be effectively killed away. The ideas percolating beneath the sunsoaked cool and brutal climactic slapstick of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cannot be so easily channeled into revenge tropes, and Quentin Tarantino seems to at least partly realize this as he goes on, and even leans into it before he’s done. The result might not be his best film (there are broadly speaking two Tarantinos, in a way, their oeuvres and obsessions divided by the Kill Bill duology as a pivot point, and his best work is likely on the further side of that dividing line), but it might be his most rich, problematic, and infinitely discussable. Like all good fairy tales, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood troubles the waters as much as it stills them, and quite possibly unsettles far more than it serves to comfort.

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