With his ninth and penultimate film, Quentin Tarantino churns out another high-budget blockbuster overflowing with star power and classic cinema references that will invariably leave his fanboys wet in the pants. But for the rest of us watching, it might be time to consider dethroning the king.
Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood is an imagined retelling of the months leading up to and culminating in the infamous 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, actress and wife of director Roman Polanski, and her four friends by members of Charles Manson’s hippie cult. Although Tarantino pitched Sharon Tate’s character to actress Margot Robbie as “the heartbeat of the story,” most of the film follows the daily life of Tate’s next door neighbor, Rick, a has-been actor of TV westerns (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his yes-man stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt). In fact, Robbie’s Tate has almost no lines at all.
Although choosing to narrate this historic event — a moment that writer Joan Didion famously called (in The White Album) the day “the Sixties ended abruptly” — through the eyes of two actors deeply saturated in the patriarchal structure of old school Hollywood creates interesting tension, Tarantino consistently fails to use this as a method to critique either side of American culture.
When the film premiered at this year’s Cannes festival, months after Uma Thurman came public about the abuse she suffered under Tarantino’s watch while filming Kill Bill, Tarantino soured at a reporter who asked why Robbie had so few lines. Brad Pitt came to his defense by saying the film was about the loss of innocence. But what innocence might that be? At least half of the two and a half hour film is set on the studio lots where DiCaprio is filming his westerns. Here, we witness an industry where lunch breaks consist of male prophands watching Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and stuntman Cliff showcase their masculinity by crushing cars with their brute strength, acting roles are awarded based on how brooding and square jawed a man can look, and the only scene we witness being filmed involves DiCaprio’s Rick holding a speechless young girl hostage with a gun before he throws her down onto the ground in a fit of rage. The scene ends with the young actress kissing DiCaprio on the cheek and telling him it’s the best acting she’s ever witnessed.
It would be one thing if this depiction of Old Hollywood were being glorified ironically, if Tarantino were using his Blockbuster celebrity to undermine the very thing he’s selling. He did this ten years ago in Inglorious Bastards, when Shosanna heroically lights a movie theater on fire and we watch all the men in uniform, who got off on violence and murder, burn up alive. In that moment it was as if Tarantino were also critiquing us, his filmgoers, infatuated with any horror he sells us. But Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood seems blissfully unaware of its own missteps, never reflecting on itself in the way Tarantino’s great films have. But we don’t experience that kind of irony in this film.
For a brief moment some self-awareness seems almost possible: Brad Pitt picks up a hitchhiking hippie who finds out he’s in the industry. As he drives her back to an abandoned 1950s western film set, where the girl lives with more of her kind, she sits in the passenger seat and complains about his industry that sells us a facade of our own heritage, a fake version of who we are. As they pull up to the ranch, where Pitt himself once filmed some westerns, we see the world the hippies have built from the set’s ashes as they ride bareback on horses and live off the land. And yet, the moment devolves into another fight scene where Pitt beats a young man to a bloody pulp and then drives off into the sunset to remain the hero of the film. Fuck your self awareness, Tarantino seems to say.
The ellipses in the film’s title appears in two different locations depending on the source, which Sony Pictures has argued was a purposeful choice. In all marketing material the title appears as Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood calling back Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, a genre about the American west with stolen plots from Japanese samurai movies and filmed in Italy with primarily Italian casts. The critic in me wants to see this as Tarantino knowingly participating in the perpetuation of the facade.
And yet, in all billing, written material, and the official instructions to critics, the film is Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, choosing instead to reference the fairy tale aspect of the film’s creative third act. ‘Once upon a time’ stories are fables and fairy tales where we are given a lie to help convey a moral truth. And in that regard, Tarantino has disastrously failed.