WEIRDLAND: Historical deviation in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Historical deviation in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Joan Didion, in an essay first published in 1973, described the Hollywood of that era as “the last extant stable society,” and Tarantino’s tableau confirms this view in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Life isn’t perfect, but it is coherent. People know their place. They respect the rules and hierarchies. The governing virtue in this world is courtesy. John Ford, one of old Hollywood’s greatest conservatives, ended one of his greatest movies with the exhortation to “print the legend.” Tarantino’s answer is to film the fairy tale. Alongside the knight and his squire, there is a princess — Sharon Tate — who lives in something like a castle and is married to a man who looks a little like a frog. Tarantino has a sentimental investment in marriage and a thing about wives.

Didion, in “The White Album,” wrote that “many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969, ended at exactly the moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brush fire through the community.” But what if the ’60s never ended? The music we hear isn’t a soundtrack of rebellion, but an anthology of pleasure. Tarantino’s anti-ironic celebration of the mainstream popular culture of the time amounts to a sustained argument against the idea of a counterculture. Those who would disrupt, challenge or destroy the last stable society on earth are in the grip of an ideological, aesthetic and moral error. Hippies aren’t cool. Old-time he-men like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are cool. Tarantino brilliantly uses the presence of the Manson girls to suggest something in the Hollywood cosmos that’s diabolical in its bad vibes. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there is a karmic justice that finds everyone getting what they deserve. 

Dean Martin and Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew (1968)

At the end of the film, the course of history is changed. Rick and Cliff decide to have one last hurrah as Rick’s expenses filming spaghetti westerns in Rome have crippled his finances. And Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) decides that Rick Dalton would make a better target than Sharon Tate because his work on violent TV shows have made society violent. Both of these decisions result in Cliff and Rick (with a movie prop no less) killing Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan 'Sadie' Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty), saving Sharon Tate and her house guests. This isn’t the first time Tarantino has used his films to take a participatory with history. He did it first in Inglourious Basterds (2009), and then again in Django Unchained (2012). Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, each of those films ended with the evil being defeated by flames as the filmmaker literally burns away the atrocities of our past—the Holocaust, slavery, the Manson murders—the effects and after-effects of which shaped America in the 20th century. 

But the historical deviation of Tarantino’s latest feels the most useful, the most lasting, perhaps because it is centered on one person. Rick and Cliff prove their usefulness, and so does Tarantino in this neo-Western. It’s not cowboys and bounty hunters who save the day, but filmmakers whose human flaws allow their main characters not only redemption, but connection. Although we can’t help but mourn the absence of the Sharon Tate who could’ve been, there is solace found in the fact that her legacy drives this work of art and is therefore irreplaceable and transformative, all things that Hollywood, at its best, can be. Tarantino had an almost impossible mission in fleshing out this story and he'll be collecting soon a heap of criticism, ignoring all his—frequently unnuanced—earnest efforts to advocate for women and minorities through strong portrayals. As a director he uses people, props and screen time to express a humanism so palpable it's damn near a fetish. Source:

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