The Unsettling Core of “Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood”
Why is Quentin Tarantino a good director?
I’ll temper the remainder of this post by letting you know now that I won’t even come close to satisfying that question here. Reasonable-sounding answers include his mastery of dialogue, his ability to create razor-sharp aesthetics, his consistently engaging plotlines, or maybe just his knack for relentlessly shocking audiences — even and especially those who know that shock is coming.
His latest feature, Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, (spoilers follow) is certainly no exception to this last quality. The film hits a emetically violent speedbump immediately prior to its conclusion, but even that violence is trumped by the shock of the movie’s almost painfully sentimental final scene. Tarantino has made a brand out of obliquely inserting violence where many think it doesn’t belong. What shocks about Once Upon A Time isn’t its momentary bloodbath — one would think the vast majority of viewers were prepared for something like that — but what follows.
Watching the title manifest onscreen, sealing everything the audience has just seen for good, must have given any Tarantino fan great pause. The director violently imposed himself on history by killing off Hitler in Inglourious Basterds; in doing so, he used his classic tools of subversion to show how an act of violence can achieve something as powerful as the destruction of the Third Reich. In Once Upon A Time he turns the tables back on the audience.
Any audience member even vaguely familiar with the Manson murders would have felt dread in their stomachs when the movie shifted its timeframe to August 8, 1969. We all knew what was coming, and we were wrong. The violence in the film didn’t shock me, it was the omission of violence that did. Tarantino saved Sharon Tate — why?
The murders perpetrated by the Manson family almost instantly stopped being murders and instead become massive cultural symbols: old Hollywood (and American culture writ large) was dying, and then it was dead. For Tarantino, Sharon Tate’s death was certainly a tragedy, but what it represented was no laughing matter either.
Even a cursory glance at Tarantino’s filmography shows an obsession with a certain type: well-dressed, slick, and very male men that carry a certain edge to their mannerisms (as well as a gun). Reservoir Dogs perhaps best demonstrates this obsession while also showing its incongruities — the contemporary sleaziness of Steven Buscemi looks a little strange in a 1950s salesman getup. Or perhaps the Tarantino-written True Romance works just as well, with Christian Slater’s fixation on Elvis and general “cool”ness somehow allowing him to survive a massive firefight between around a dozen cops and well-armed gangsters.
Tarantino’s masterful craftsmanship makes all of his movies eminently watchable, so much so that it sometimes becomes easy to forget how antiquated he likes to make his subjects. Reservoir Dogs reads more like The Killers than it does any modern heist flick, and the director’s fixation on blaxploitation techniques in Jackie Brown and Django Unchained feels more like longing than homage. Tarantino wants old Hollywood to last forever, and in “Once Upon A Time …” he made it happen.
What saved Sharon Tate in that movie? It was not her ingenuity, her previously shown training with Bruce Lee, or even sheer luck. It was a string of coincidences ending in Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio’s capability of enacting murderous harm on the three intruding members of the Manson family. In Tarantino’s imagined world, the whole of counterculture died at the hands of Brad Pitt, his dog, and an improbably functional flamethrower.
When I first saw the movie, I was equal parts shocked and touched that Tarantino would dedicate an entire movie to letting Sharon Tate live and embrace a legacy beyond the confines of her own murder. It took a little longer for me to realize that this wasn’t quite what Tarantino intended. He wanted the Classic Man to triumph, and Tate’s survival is just a bonus feature of letting Classic Men act like Classic Men.
Tarantino’s technical ability makes him great; there’s no denying that. I’ve now realized, though, that one of his greatest assets is often something that actually holds back other filmmakers of lesser stature: he feels no need for his movies to include a message, moral, or artistic consideration of major consequence. His films are supreme entertainment of the highest order, period.
That’s what makes Once Upon A Time so shocking. Tarantino is laying his cards on the table, letting any viewer see exactly what he wants for and from the world. For once, we’re forced to consider the man as anything more than the ringleader of the world’s most exciting and bloody circus. With his latest feature, Tarantino is making us view him as an artist.