By Christopher Sharrett.
Those who know me will be shocked to read this piece, a partial valuation of Quentin Tarantino’s last film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I have considered the filmmaker a nihilist – the word popped into my head when I saw Reservoir Dogs at its premiere (today, I think of that film as Tarantino’s best accomplishment, taking on as it does male codes of blind loyalty, with their implicit homoeroticism, that permeate male-oriented action cinema). One might call certain of Bunuel or Pasolini nihilistic, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but people like Bunuel, Pasolini, and Hooper see the current world as irredeemable under current assumptions, and create satire as they develop their caustic criticisms. Tarantino seems to have few if any convictions, an adolescent preferring instead the postmodern pastiche, with a focus on the pop culture and cinema of the 1970s, in which he actually, it seems to me, finds no value whatsoever as he sends up everything he puts on the screen. There is also a very annoying tendency by Tarantino and his advertisers to canonize each film as it is released (“The 9th film by Quentin Tarantino”), something shared by a few contemporaries (Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson), who seem to package their films as if they are worthy of instant veneration. Can we imagine Ford, Hawks, or Hitchcock doing this, or any of the European or Asian auteurs?
I seem to see a small change to Tarantino in his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; I’ve watched the film repeatedly to find out if my assessment holds. I see a certain spirit of generosity here, and sympathetic interest in human beings available in Tarantino only on rare occasion (Jackie Brown’s Pam Greer).
Tarantino’s title is derived from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time… classic films, a gesture recurrent in the cinema among filmmakers who somehow want to link themselves to Leone’s accomplishments in Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (the only appropriate title for this film – certainly not Giu la Testa, A Fistful of Dynamite, and the ridiculous Duck, You Sucker), and finally Once Upon a Time in America, the weakest of the three. Like Joris-Karl Huysman, Leone wanted to evoke “a dream of a place, rather than the vulgar reality of being there,” although Leone was never so effete. He invokes the fairy-tale as he creates a realm that depends on history (Leone’s legendary attention to period detail), but also both fancy and imagination, as he offers an approximation of the dream (or nightmare) state through his slow, carefully choreographed images of an unknowable world.
On this level, Tarantino fails. I find nothing entrancing in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but I have never been enamored of Los Angeles or Hollywood past or present. The few times I have visited these places were grueling ordeals for me; I was confronted by endless traffic, on boulevards that continued forever while taking me nowhere. There is no there there, as Gertrude Stein said. The Hollywood of 1969 that Tarantino recreates pays no heed to the film industry’s great accomplishments of the era – the work of Penn, Kubrick, and Peckinpah, and numerous others, don’t get the customary Tarantino allusion. What he cites is largely third-tier, in music as well as cinema. We hear pop tunes that indeed made a mark (I like the bold lasciviousness of Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right”), but were never of the revolutionary importance of the era’s major rock groups (we do hear an overproduced version of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time,” and a reference to The Doors as a hip group, but otherwise the cultural backdrop conjures little of what was important about the 1960s). We hear only fragmentary references to the murder of RFK and the attack on Vietnam. A then-popular disc jockey appears regularly on the soundtrack. Is this Tarantino’s point? America is about nothing but the trivial? Here, as in earlier films, he invokes commercial advertising, from print ads to TV and radio jingles which might cause a chuckle, but in their day were simply annoying. I don’t find Tarantino sensitive and perceptive enough to acknowledge America as a junk pile, so he must get a kick out of citing this stuff.
But aspects of characterization – and only these – draw me back to the film, making it, in my judgment, his only work to date at least marginally sympathetic to humanity.
Rick and Cliff
The relationship between fading TV and movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt man pal Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), speaks to the “gay subtext” Robin Wood noticed in the work of Howard Hawks. I would expand on Wood’s claims about Hawks to say that most male-oriented action cinema has at its foundation this subtext, since the expression of deep emotion is shared by men, with women on the sidelines to provide heterosexual legitimacy. We are asked to see this expression as the affection shared by “buddies,” indeed valid; there is no need to dismiss the idea. The male cinema has no need to display genital sexuality for it to express, at various levels of awareness, the close ties of men. The idea of “bromance” attempts to treat – with nervous humor – male affection, which at a very essential level is the basis of patriarchy in the first place. The sharing of affection is one guarantee of male rule, so long as codes of conduct are observed. One doesn’t have to rehearse earlier arguments here: male affection, indeed emotion, must be carefully managed, even in our so-called enlightened times. The affection men feel for each other, sometimes with an overt sexual dynamic, must be channeled into sports, business competition, warfare. I think of a wonderful Barbara Kruger image, consisting of a photo of businessmen grappling with each other alongside typical Kruger agit-prop lettering saying: You Construct Intricate Rituals Which Allow You to Touch the Skin of Other Men. Love must be transformed into competition and death. Some of the (densely compacted) sentiments in the Kruger assemblage are addressed in the relationship of Rick and Cliff.
Rick Dalton is utterly dependent on Cliff Booth. He literally cries on his shoulder, which Cliff readily accommodates. Rick is a wretch of a man, plagued by a stammer that he self-medicates with alcohol – one can figure early on what his outcome will be: he will be one of Hollywood’s dissipated alcoholics, forgotten by the industry, taken by early death. But in the context of this narrative, he is mostly a sad buffoon trying to deal with his weak sense of self; by the standards of American machismo, he is clearly wanting, but he seems mostly an emblem of the larger problem that is Hollywood’s representation of the male. But Rick is more than one of the paper-doll characterizations so common in contemporary cinema. It is difficult to like him, but his circumstances draw sympathy.
Reviewers have suggested that Rick’s TV series Bounty Law is Tarantino’s take on Wanted: Dead or Alive, the show that helped make Steve McQueen an international star. (Bounty Law might be a show that Tarantino wants to see, but his satire fails because TV Westerns were never so violent). But Bounty Law is one of the elements of Rick’s story about what might have been. Rick is not McQueen, and certainly not Clint Eastwood, a TV actor whose sojourn in Italian Westerns helped him become a screen legend. Rick represents the numerous careers that failed, the actors who tried Italian Westerns, or something else, and saw life evaporate.
Cliff Booth, on the other hand, seems the authentic man – his realization by Brad Pitt is one of the finer moments of recent American cinema. He is steadfastly loyal to Rick, willing to do any menial chore – like fix a TV antenna. This is not so much Rick taking advantage of a friend: Rick is mostly incapable of work, of completing any practical task since his life is so encumbered by booze and maintaining his persona, which includes careful preservation of his Missouri twang, and a deep onscreen voice that is the extra personality he needs to control his stammer. (I have to say that I have deep empathy for this character; as a lifelong stammerer, I know the intense struggle of trying to maintain fluid speech – this handicap has never been sincerely addressed by mass culture).
During Cliff’s repair of the antenna, we are treated to one of the most extraordinary displays of the male since Victor Mature, Rock Hudson, William Holden, Marlon Brando, and the rest of the nearly-incomprehensible moments of male beauty from Hollywood’s golden age. It is male beefcake (and surprising since Pitt is over 50) that has as counterpoint our growing suspicions about this generous man. Cliff goes into Rick’s garage, puts on his tool belt, replaces one tool with a can of beer and, with Tarantino’s use of stunt men (I assume), completes a couple of graceful, effortless leaps to the roof of Rick’s house, where he will strip off with a single movement his Hawaiian shirt and T-shirt (with its fitting logo for Champion spark plugs). He will spot a small truck that contains Charles Manson; we later see Cliff pulverize several members of the Manson gang – it is disappointing that the filmmaker doesn’t allow his fantasy to include Manson himself.
Most crucial to the roof scene is Cliff’s lapse into memory that takes him into a nasty confrontation with a stunt supervisor (Kurt Russell) and his wife, occurring after he shows himself the superior man to Bruce Lee, who seems a big-mouth, bragging about his skills as he stands about on a set. Some regard the Lee moment as unfair, even racist. I cannot agree. I know very little of the real Lee (although I fast became mighty sick of everything to do, in the 60s and now, with martials arts and its promises to make impervious the male body), but see the moment as the overturning of a certain notion of Hollywood machismo by a Mr. Nobody.
Cliff is the “real” macho male, but he is off-camera, unknown to the world. His role as Rick’s stunt man is ending, but he cannot part company. He is dependent on his boss, liking, it seems, his role as protector and confessor. And his affection for Rick is, typically, never articulated but palpable. One scene is especially noteworthy. Before the trip to Italy, with Cliff accompanying Rick for unknown reasons, they spend a night with the TV. Rick invites Cliff in to watch an episode of the deplorable series The FBI, where Rick plays the viilain, a marker of his failing career. Before he extends the invitation, Rick looks slightly downward, pausing as if afraid and embarrassed, concerned he might be turned down. But Cliff is way ahead of him once Rick makes the invitation: “Well, I just thought we would! I got a six-pack in the back and thought we’d order a pizza!”
What follows is the most delightful scene Tarantino has filmed. Cliff puts his LSD-soaked marijuana joint in Rick’s cigarette box, saying he would like to “trip here and walk in the woods, not at my place.” He cautions Rick not to smoke it by mistake, then says “if you want to smoke some, smoke some, but just leave some for me.” Rick, very much the straight arrow, says “My booze don’t need no buddy!” These are two boys with their toys, or baseball cards or candy, or cigarettes they have pilfered from dad. The moment continues when The FBI comes on. The camera stays on the TV, showing us a wonderfully computer-manipulated version of the TV show, with Rick/Leonardo inserted as the episode’s bad guy. Cliff praises everything Rick does in the episode (“smooth leap!”). Rick is afraid that his tough-guy gum-chewing is exaggerated; Cliff says “Strong!” The camera stays on Rick’s TV screen as the patter continues. Tarantino happens to capture a genuinely archetypal moment in American life, and a prosaic but most discerning affirmation of friendship.
It is to Tarantino’s credit that Cliff is not wholly likable. The camera follows Cliff’s ride from Rick’s, shooting down the Sunset Strip in his convertible, and out to the Van Nuys Drive-In where he watches Lady in Cement, one of the most misogynist Hollywood products, then goes home to his filthy trailer, perched near an oil field, where he lives with his well-trained dog Brandy. The camera scans the walls a bit too deliberately, taking in a poster of Ann Francis clad in a jungle sarong, and Kid Colt and Sgt. Fury comic books. Is Cliff a moron? The juxtaposing of actual garbage with the cheap glitz of Hollywood introduces other, more malevolent issues.
Rick tells us that Cliff is a war hero; when he and Rick briefly tussle, Rick begs off, saying “OK, Audie Murphy.” Audie Murphy, the most decorated US soldier of World War II, was rewarded with movie contracts, but died too early from self-medicating post-traumatic stress. His name evokes, to the informed, the tragedy that is America and Hollywood. Cliff seems not to have been traumatized by war, which, combined with the story that he killed his wife (we are given some evidence that the story is true), makes Cliff a Hollywood Babylon representative. He tells Tex Watson at the Spahn Ranch that he was once on a chain gang, evoking Robert Mitchum. Cliff is not merely the loyal friend (“more than a friend, less than a wife,” as the narrator tells us); there is a sordid aspect to him, part of Hollywood’s mortar that is cracking apart even while seeming durable.
The self-possession of Cliff and the self-doubt of Rick are effectively shown in two parallel sequences. Both men take part in “Westerns”: Rick at the pathetic Western set for the Lancer show, Cliff at the Spahn Movie Ranch, the Manson roost. Rick fumbles his lines in a TV show filmed on Hollywood’s idea of the Old West, two-story facades that never exists in the nineteenth century, with The Alamo, that “shrine to liberty” (actually about affirming slavery, but that is another tale) at street’s end, jammed in for no good reason. This inauthentic moment ends with Rick back in his trailer, hurling a whisky glass at the wall, deriding his stammer and himself.
Meanwhile, Cliff gives the Manson follower Pussycat a ride to the Spahn Ranch, known to him from his stunt work in episodes of Bounty Law. He does a mission of mercy by visiting George Spahn (Bruce Dern), then acquits himself well by beating the bejesus out of a Manson lackey who punctured his tire. The terror of the moment is about far more than the macho man vs. the wimp. The thoroughly dilapidated ranch, representing the lie of the Old West and its media simulation – as well as our knowledge that this is a home of latter-day fiends – is about Cliff’s failure as well as Rick’s. In the near future, the two will never work again, so the physical ruin around them exteriorizes defeat, much as Detroit exteriorizes the late capitalism’s betrayal of all of us.
F.R. Leavis’s instruction that “Life is a necessary word,” in the sense that every work of fiction must affirm life, must recognize vitality over its opposite (death, decay), might be acknowledged in this film by the resurrection of Sharon Tate, known chiefly to us as a victim of the Manson gang, then as the supporting actor of some camp films of late Hollywood. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reminds us that she was a vital human being, made radiant by the performance of Margot Robbie, possibly one of our important actors. Tate’s family, apparently assured of Tarantino’s intent, loaned out articles of jewelry.
Sharon Tate dances her way through the Playboy Mansion party, holding the hands of Michele Phillips and Cass Elliot, then sleeping peacefully on her stomach like a baby (making a vulgar little snort), driving downtown, where she good-naturedly offers a ride to a hitchhiker, wishing her well as she leaves Sharon’s car. She buys a first edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for her husband Roman Polanski. Did she read Hardy? Polanski’s film adaptation is dedicated to her. The tiny book-buying scene is richly conceived; at the store, Sharon admires a “Maltese falcon,” and gabs a bit with the owner, played by an aged Clu Gulager – one of Tarantino’s most commendable traits is his employment of forgotten actors.
After her shopping Sharon treats herself to a movie, The Wrecking Crew, in which she has a role. This is one of the most endearing scenes in recent Hollywood cinema – this may not be saying much considering what Hollywood has become; I would have thought it beyond Tarantino. Sharon is set to buy a ticket to the theater, which nicely evokes the neighborhood cinemas of old. She then asks the ticket seller if she can come in free if she is in the movie. There is nothing at all of the con artist here. If anything she is a naif, utterly lacking in guile, interested only in enjoying herself and making sure others aren’t inconvenienced. She takes the time to pose for a snapshot requested by the ticket-seller. She says “thank you” not as a reflex, but as a genuine statement of gratitude, without being unctuous. She sits, puts on her glasses, props her dirty feet on the empty seat in front of her, and gives us one of most striking homages to the dead imaginable. Sharon/Robbie is embarrassed at her line readings, tilting her head downward. She then perks up as people respond to her onscreen comedy. She is overjoyed as laughter breaks out, the audience fully involved. She tenses at a karate scene, the martial art taught her by a generous Bruce Lee (he’s not merely a big-mouth). When she drives to and from the city, the camera is on her face as it recognizes a glory in this person.
We await, I suppose, the inevitable slaughter, as the Manson ghouls cut Sharon Tate and her eight friends to pieces over the course of two nights. Some, no doubt, came mainly for this scene – they can get it in the often excellent if thoroughly oppressive film Charlie Says (2019). They are denied it here.
The Manson Killings
The ending of this film could justifiably be compared to the wiping-out of the Nazi hierarchy in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, a comic book of a film that attempts, I guess, to comment on The Dirty Dozen and other adventure fare. Aldrich’s film has some intelligence, but by no means the superb intelligence he displays in earlier films like Kiss Me Deadly, or the extraordinary Twilight’s Last Gleaming, one of late Hollywood’s greatest, most challenging achievements in the confines of an action thriller. Tarantino’s version of Aldrich is no more than Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, the comic book read by Cliff Booth in his trailer, except that film lacks the intelligence even of that, to a point, as with most Tarantino, that I don’t see what he is doing. Survivors of the Holocaust, and WWII veterans, have every right to be offended by what he does here, since Hitler and his friends were not comic book characters, and what they wrought on the world will never go away.
The same cannot be said for Charles Manson, who is by no means a world-historical figure, despite the many attempts of media and pop culture to make him one. He was a wretched little man able to seduce gullible, woebegone kids, even to the point of making them commit grisly murders. Manson can be examined, of course, as a perfect product of our child-rearing, minimal public safety net, and penal system, a person kicked around since he was a baby, turned into a very dangerous social outlier. He, like other serial killers, has become a “folk hero,” a measure of our degree of alienation. The savagery of such people needs to be understood, as long as we stay aware that people like Manson did not “end the Age of Aquarius,” although some writers would like us to think so. Many pundits and politicians wanted an end to the idealism of the 1960s before it appeared.
Charles Manson and his bemused followers (who might speak to the failures of the bourgeois household) deserve nothing from us except study by social scientists. When I heard about the dreadful murders, including the slashing to bits of an eight-month pregnant woman even as she begged for her life, I reconsidered the death penalty, knowing that it is simply state-sponsored murder, and today knowing that it a terribly unjust and unfair sentence applied to society’s least “desirable.”
Still, I hate Manson and the myth around him. He isn’t Satan or Jesus, and the culture that insists he is a disturbed one (how often have I seen horror fanzines turn his name into “Son of Man”?). The killing of nine people because they were bourgeois “pigs” isn’t worth consideration; it is adolescent nonsense that has nothing to do with creating a just society. Manson and friends (and later the Rolling Stones at the Altamont show) became grist for the media’s insistence that the values of the 1960s were perverse one, at last showing their true face when the killers wrote “helter skelter” on Sharon Tate’s wall – The Beatles were implicated too. John Lennon said of Manson: “He’s daft.”
So I am happy when the Manson killers, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkle, are turned into cartoons and bashed to bits and burned by Cliff and Rick, the killers too stoned to find the right door. The scene provokes a “there, but for the grace of God moment,” reminding us that we – and indeed anyone – can become (and are?) victims, to the whim of the state as much as Manson. Art should be, as my old undergraduate teacher Dan Rodden said (borrowing from Aristotle), “intellectual recreation through the contemplation of order.” But it is also a place where one rearranges the world. Proust’s Paris was his own, after all. This film opts to let Sharon Tate live, to welcome the futureless Rick into her home, to let Cliff affirm his friendship with Rick, single-handedly dispensing with two of the killers, Rick making a point, in his typically halting, insecure manner, to affirm his own dedication to Cliff.
There has been discussion of Rick’s incineration of the Susan Atkins character with his flame-thrower, a deadly prop he was allowed to keep. The incineration of the killer has been viewed by some as misogynistic. I can only look at such observations with amazement. Is there no concern for dramatic context? Susan Atkins was indeed female, but she had dispensed with every bit of her humanity. Susan Atkins, like the rest of her crowd, has her partisans; I’m not one. I believe she is no longer with us – so much the better, for the suffering she imposed on people who were not “innocent” if one wishes to impose a totalizing morality, but certainly ordinary people who wanted to live. The people who killed them were incapable, it seems, of ordinary self-reflection, of considering who they were and their responsibilities in their society. My generation had its nonsense – and its violence – but nothing so representative of the very savagery the Manson crowd supposedly criticized.
There is indeed misogyny in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: the hysterical wife of Randy, and the equally hysterical and crude wife of Cliff, in the flashback that apparently precedes her murder (the bitch deserved it!). The name Natalie appears, so the moment might reference the Natalie Wood death, which surely deserves more respect. This material is all-too-typical of the filmmaker.
What I have said here is not an apology for Tarantino. He is a coarse man whose ambitions elude me. He seems preoccupied with recycling the B-cinema of the recent past, along with the consumer culture that accompanied it, packaged with all sorts of racial and gender offenses. He has achieved an enormous reputation that almost makes him, after Spielberg, “Mr. Hollywood” of the present. But I thank him for a few moments of sensitivity, and hope, as he ages, that he will stay on this sort of path.
I can’t help but notice, even as I finish this piece, the amount of dismay over some elements of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, especially the Bruce Lee sequence. Lee was known in his lifetime for speaking out for the Chinese, here and abroad. His daughter Shannon Lee has complained about what Tarantino did to her father’s image, as a daughter would. She wishes to have a conversation with Tarantino. Thus far, the filmmaker’s responses have been, at best, disingenuous. Lee biographer Matthew Polly claims that Lee could be a braggart, but that Tarantino took this “to the point of caricature.” No one deserves to be unfairly besmirched, but I have to refer to Tennessee Williams: “It doesn’t matter much what people say about you.” On the issue of misogyny, I’m not about to make more excuses for a director I fundamentally despise. On what happens to the Manson killers, I stand with what I said above. The Manson murders, then and now, have evoked for me (and I think much of the nation, given that home invasions were relatively rare in 1969) a sense of “There but for the grace of God go I…” It could happen to any of us; and, correspondingly, the killers could have bumbled the thing by entering the wrong door. The film gives us a revenge ending that may assert life, but also be very deceptive to those who don’t know history (much of the country?). If it isn’t clear, much of the film bothers me. At the very end, as Sharon Tate is introduced to Rick, and everyone gathers for late-night party, a lilting theme appears on the soundtrack, as if a benediction for the moment. I would have liked to think Tarantino commissioned the piece. But no: it is from Maurice Jarre’s score for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, one of Huston’s lesser films. The real point is that Tarantino remains the very adolescent bricoleur to the end. And the actual ending, as the credits role, is a commercial for the campy Batman TV show. This is the way Tarantino pays homage to the dead, and to the past.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He has recently retired from thirty years of teaching film at Seton Hall University.