Over the weekend I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is supposed to be director Quentin Tarantino’s last film (but he keeps signing on for more films). This experience was different for a few reasons namely that it was my first time going to a theater on my own and secondly that it was one of the first times in a while that I had gone to see a Tarantino feature in theaters. I’ve long since said that Tarantino is my favorite director but I skipped recent theatrical releases of his last two films; but I had a free ticket from Alamo Drafthouse to celebrate my birthday so I decided let’s see a movie and let’s see a movie that I had some mild hype for. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood centers around a mostly washed up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his somewhat sketchy stuntman/friend (Brad Pitt) and it’s all set in the backdrop of Hollywood in the late 1960s. It’s a movie about not being as good as you used to be, an ode to cinema and film-making and a glorious, damn near mastabatory look at the late 1960s through fashion, places and making us all see that apparently you could smoke on airplanes and honestly, everywhere for that matter. As far as the movie goes: I liked it. It’s far from my favorite Tarantino but still is an enjoyable romp with some damn good action. Tarantino is nearly meta in his fetishization of feet (almost like he’s in on the joke now) and the soundtrack is solid and the shots are beautiful. But there are a few things in the movie that kept going back over in my mind and that means I’m going to spoil this movie so here’s your warning but the thought was: wow, Tarantino has a hard-on for changing history. Let’s go over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s attempts at revisionism first. So there’s one thing about the movie that’s hard to put into words and that is the tension in this film: another character that is heavily featured is Margot Robbie’s version of Sharon Tate. For anyone who has put the pieces together of Sharon Tate, late 1960s and California then cool, you’re thinking what literally everyone else was thinking. Manson and Manson Family nonsense runs rampant through the film, it’s honestly a little distracting and it made me very anxious. At every moment I was concerned about the hippies that may be murderers and as Sharon Tate becomes a more important character I felt like watching a Death Note background character, just sort of waiting for her to be brutalized but she doesn’t. She’s okay. She survives. In fact, the two male leads of the movie kick some serious cultist ass in this weird violent fever dream of a conclusion. It was a shock for sure and it was surreal to think of a scenario where Sharon Tate walked away okay. The movie also indulges in a little bit of great white man fantasy by having Brad Pitt kick the ass of an at his prime Bruce Lee (who honestly in this movie is a bit of an asshat) which is just a little insulting but hey, power fantasy gotta power fantasy.
In isolation, this movie is a love letter to a bygone era but if you take this movie as part of the Tarantino filmography then a pattern emerges: Tarantino hates history so much that he has to write fanfiction about it. Hot take aside, it would seem like Tarantino has a thing for revising history. Two of my favorite of his films both take a strange power fantasy approach to two of the worst times in human history: World War II and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Inglorious Basterds is entirely about Jewish-American soldiers taking revenge against Nazis and Django Unchained is the story of a black man who takes revenge against the white systems of oppression in place.
I think this form of revisionism is fascinating because it feels a little like fanfiction. It feels like Tarantino as a director being able to comment or change an aspect of history that is shameful and subverts expectations by giving power to those who typically in those historical situations were powerless. That was what was so brilliant about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was sort of waiting for Sharon Tate to perish and especially in a post #MeToo-era, I was worried about seeing nothing but an excuse for Tarantino to work out some sexual violence against women (which he seems to enjoy) and honestly, I was happy to see a story where things turned out okay for Sharon. It’s a radical moment and one I didn’t respect to find so empowering. By taking the power away from the Manson Family, Tarantino; like he did in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained takes away power from those who are at this stage mythological as far as terror goes.The last battle of frantic, sloppy and insane and takes away some of the legend and horror from a force so monstrous that when I said that I was listening to I Am the Walrus when I was in high school, my aunt told me that I could not listen to that song and I saw fear in her eyes for the first time in my life.
Restraint is not something I’d expect to say about Tarantino but his choice to have a fairly happy ending at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was shockingly touching and I was able to release my held breath when Sharon spoke over the intercom of her gated driveway asking if her neighbor was okay as she was not the victim of the Manson Family’s violence but her neighbor, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth are the recipients of that violence and they do in fact conquer over the darkness that would cloak Hollywood for decades in paranoia and fear.
I liked this movie. This isn’t my favorite Tarantino as it is a slow burn and I am bored and want more hyperviolence but it’s good. It’s a masterclass in set up and pay off that should honestly be studied in film classes as well as some of the best character acting and cinematography I’ve seen in awhile. It’s a good film and I’m glad I saw it and I’m glad that in this reality that Sharon Tate is okay.
Before we go, there’s one scene that to most would be a throwaway but as I talked about it with Carlos, it really ended up being poignant. In the film, Sharon Tate visits a theater where one of her movies is showing. She’s asked to pose next to a poster and sits in with the audience and watches her own feature. She smiles as people smile and comment about her performance and she laughs when the audience laughs. But in the film, it isn’t a weird Margot Robbie clone as Sharon Tate in the movie, it’s actually just the film she’s in: The Wrecking Crew. And if you think about it, if you didn’t grow up during this time or if you were a kid during this time, you may never know Sharon Tate as an actress, just as a victim. You know her as a notch in Manson’s belt, not a vibrant and brilliant and talented woman who was lost too soon and that choice to humanize the real Sharon Tate was wonderful and I cannot thank Tarantino enough for the chance to truly see Sharon Tate as she would want to be remembered: not as a victim, but as a star.