Celluloid Sunset

An analysis of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
(spoilers ahoy)

Quentin Tarantino has made a career making nostalgia acceptable to the critics by clothing it in irony. I think without his postmodern pose they would be hostile–or will be when the Feminist Inquisition finally comes around for him–to the recurring lament implied in all his sampling of the recent past: things were better before.

Coupled with another of his dominant themes–the necessity of violence to protect the weak from the depraved–it’s surprising they haven’t unpersoned him already. By celebrating righteous masculine violence through satire and pop culture sampling, giving it the veneer of irony (irony now, ironically, takes the place of false piety) he’s been pulling one over on hipsters and critics for a long, fruitful career. Nearing the end of that, and, probably, seeing the feminist tyranny on the horizon, his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood defiantly takes nostalgia from setting to story.

Tarantino’s never been much interested in the present; most of his films are not set in it. Even his breakthrough Pulp Fiction disdained the early nineties in which it was set by shuffling (“pulping”) a narrative peppered with references to recent history–even Samuel Jackson’s Jeri Curls and mutton chops mocked a present we found so boring we had to scramble it up and spice it with a more colorful past; critics and audiences responded instinctively. But there’s an implied theme here, who knows if it’s intended, fittingly nothing new, and its timing was perfect–we’ve gone soft.


Despite being seen as a norm-shattering postmodernist, Tarantino’s outlook is one of reverence for the past. Whatever else is going on in one of his films, there’s a continual celebration of film-making and its history, traditions and great men. It’s a conservative point of view in a world rapidly becoming hostile to any genuine conservatism. Hollywood is to be looted by diversity and womyn just like everything else now; its privilege earned for propagandizing on behalf of the new diverse order that will soon devour it–like baby spiders eating mom–is expired. Tarantino got his career in just in time; I’m not sure there’s a place for him now, despite his influence on the culture we have now.

Is there money now for something like Reservoir Dogs, about a group of white guys sitting around in suits speaking frankly? No; if it gets made now it’s handed off to a soulless JJ Abrams type who casts it with a diverse crew of uninteresting minorities, making no impression on the culture from which it is indistinguishable, like a drop of rain joining a puddle.

Tarantino’s references aren’t all pop culture either, but reveal the dedicated student of film; in his latest we find him once again paying homage to French director Robert Bresson, with his close shots of feet. I had to read about him doing this in Kill Bill to notice it here; side by side with his embrace of “low” pop culture, red meat for critics and commoners alike, there is an elitism, congruent with his themes of elite heroes operating outside societal norms. Tarantino is for hierarchy and order, whether he knows it or not.

The hero operating outside of the social order is an old, favored trope, but the fact is the social order has changed. There’s no place for operating outside norms now that the progressive left, for lack of a better term, sets them.

But the common people, for whom Tarantino distills film down to the good juicy bits the way a pulp novelist does, or the way a dj extends a break (his references too come just like samples in dj music) are attracted not just to the flashing violence and recognition of reference, but also to the strong leader. The people, as Tarantino’s more politically sophisticated supporters know, are naturally attracted to the fascistic.

Tarantino holds in himself the democratic contradiction, the source of his genuine, not critical, popularity: in appeasing the popular he praises the strong. His characters are violent elite ubermenschen (born to the role, that is it’s genetic) who uphold an order outside the law. Pacifism is depraved, egalitarianism disdained.

In his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he sets the story in the late sixties, pairing and pitting his two favorite types (and themes)–a movie star and a man of action–against what Tarantino sees as their loathsome opposites: degenerate hippies.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a television star who’s made a couple of films that a young Quentin Tarantino would have studied and whose career appears to be petering out. It’s 1969 and eight years since cancellation of his successful television series “Bounty Law”, a black-and-white western that belongs entirely to the previous era, but he doesn’t see that, even as he mutters about hippies on the street, driving home devastated after a meeting with an agent (Al Pacino) who wants him to go to Rome to make spaghetti westerns.

Brad Pitt is his stunt double, Cliff Booth, who’s relegated to gopher for the most part after getting caught sparring with Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet. It’s a welcome surprise: Lee is portrayed as a pompous ass who brags he would “cripple” heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and is then bested by Pitt. The scene even triggered the Lee family, used to years of fawning reverence.

We learn at some point DiCaprio lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive; as he enthuses over the possibilities of living next door to the “hottest director in town” it’s supposed to come off darkly comic: DiCaprio doesn’t know the horror history has in store. In reality a pregnant Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family not long after he says this.

But Tarantino is offering an alternate history, a preferred history, as he did in Inglorious Basterds. He imagines the 1969 horror as a sort of historic wrong turn, and our dual heroes, Pitt and DiCaprio, are redeemed by setting it right.

The Manson girls arrive in the film as a feral, dumpster diving, sexually charged pack (it’s hard not to see today’s lost girls in them), singing a song written by Charles Manson:

Always is always forever

As one is one is one

Inside yourself for your father

All is none all is none all is none

It’s time to drop all from behind you

The illusion has been just a dream

The Valley of Death may not find you

Now as then on a sunshine beam

So bring only your perfection

For then life will surely be

No cold no fear no hunger

You can see you can see you can see

From a sinister low angle we see the girls singing “as one is one is one” as they march single file past a mural of the Marlboro Man, contrasting the new self-erasing egalitarianism with an icon of the heroic individual–Western–ideal they’ve come to destroy. They are egalitarianism become nihilistic, and despite Tarantino’s nihilistic trappings (he’s sort of nihilistic-at-a-distance) as nihilists they are the other pole to his worldview of strong characters living by strong codes.

Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate appears and it’s just more subversion of the new feminist norms. She’s lovingly, unapologetically objectified; we see her in close shots, in slow motion, we see her dancing. There’s no edge to her; she’s all sunny, feminine optimism and enthusiasm. She’s also vulnerable by virtue of her feminine virtues, in need of a strong male protector–which she doesn’t have. In a hilarious scene we see her dancing at a party, being watched by Steve McQueen, who laments that Tate’s penchant for short, unimposing pretty boys meant he “never stood a chance”.

Tarantino has us follow Tate into a theater to watch herself on film. It’s a remarkable scene, where he brings that celebration of film-making to the fore. This is the opposite of the dark critique of Hollywood you might get from David Lynch or countless lesser directors. Tarantino sees in Hollywood–at least an earlier Hollywood–a blessed community of talent coming together to create excellent art. Tate dons a pair of glasses with massive lenses–like camera lenses–and revels at the audience’s approval of her performance. After decades of the culture ridiculing the vanity of actors–the easy gag–Tarantino offers a defense of it. Tate watches herself in a successful fight scene and recalls with joy her training with–who else?–Bruce Lee. It’s an unironic celebration of the joy of the multi-discipline magic in film-making and acting. It’s what he’s done with the picture as a whole, pairing a war-hero stuntman with an actor.

In a counterpoint scene later, DiCaprio, guesting on someone else’s television pilot and struggling, rebounds and nails a scene; his good-natured and simple Rick Dalton has learned finally to act. This is after an encounter with an eight year-old prodigy and her method acting comes as a harbinger of the future. DiCaprio’s tearful reaction to the success of the scene is the only earnestly touching moment I’ve seen in a Tarantino film.

Tarantino loads the film up with constantly shifting background pop music and advertising. Anytime someone takes a drive across town (and it’s an LA story so there’s lots of driving) we’re treated to a array of pop songs and radio commercials. It’s a noisy film but it works. The effect reminds me of impressionism achieving realism: just as a painter blurring objects on a palate seeks to represent a messy world as we see it, half focuse and in motion, Tarantino’s ever-shifting background of pop noise conveys how our chaotic, noisy world feels–more than a conventional, cleaner soundtrack.

The commercial samples are often used to great narrative effect: when DiCaprio catches first glimpse of his famous neighbor Polanski, he’s in his sports car with stunning Tate by his side, the image of carefree success; the radio commercial for a men’s cologne is an un-ironic celebration of masculinity. It encapsulates the dynamic, of the scene and a theme, perfectly.

The action is given mostly to Pitt’s stuntman, who encounters the Manson family at Spahn Ranch–where he and DiCaprio shot their successful television series and then later in a scene that will likely confuse people–the Manson killers arrive at DiCaprio’s house instead of next door. I’m still not sure if they get there by accident or if they changed plans.

But there’s a note here that seems to be Tarantino addressing the role of all the violent imagery he celebrates in the horror: a Manson girl suggests they “kill the people who taught us to kill”–DiCaprio being one of them. It’s a brilliant scene, though I’m sure he doesn’t intend it how I took it: there’s an element of blowback in the horror.

What he intended with that I don’t know. Is Tarantino acknowledging the pop culture he celebrates produced these monsters in the first place?
In killing them off does he see himself excising the sickness emerging from the culture he celebrates?
Awareness is key to producing art. Perhaps a certain lack of awareness is required as well.

I talked about the film a bit here:

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