I just saw my first Quentin Tarantino movie. I just saw my last Quentin Tarantino movie.
The first movie Quentin Tarantino made was, I believe, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992. I avoided it, because reviews and friends all talked about the violence in it and I was having severe problems watching any kind of violence in those days, specifically portrayals of violence involving a gun. Since then, every new Tarantino movie has been characterized, by reviewers and friends alike, as exceptionally violent, so I have made a policy of not going to see any of them. To be honest, part of that refusal to watch any of his movies was also the opinion of knowledgeable people I trust who felt Mr. Tarantino’s films were all derivative and unoriginal schlock.
But recently, another friend, a retired law enforcement officer whose wit and intelligence I respect, said he too had avoided Quentin Tarantino movies until his wife dragged him to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He said he liked it, and so I let my wife drag me to it.
To quote a malapropism by controversial forties fight manager Joe Jacobs, I shoulda stood in bed.
To begin with basics: the movie runs two hours and forty-one minutes. Even a mildly competent editor could have reduced that by thirty minutes simply by cutting looooooooong driving scenes where not a single word is spoken and where the driving itself does nothing to advance the plot, and by reducing scenes with dialogue that could have effectively advanced the plot in a quarter of the time. Overly drawn-out and too lengthy scenes are caused by directorial self-indulgence and are the result of a director in love with himself and his own work.
Another basic: much of the film will only work for those of us who have spent time in the Business and are privy to some of the inside jokes. There are very clever parodies and portrayals of both the monstrous egotism of actors (in the movie, every actor’s house is decorated with posters of his or her own movies and/or television series) directors, and producers, and the equally monstrous sadness that comes when those careers begin to fade. Watching Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton coming to grips with the self-destruction (think booze) of his own career is heartbreaking. But for those who are unfamiliar with the Business, many of the subtleties will pass by unrecognized. Nick Hammond’s performance as the obsequious and obnoxious director from hell is all too familiar to those of us who have been there. All of the performances are excellent, including the unknown (to me) girls who play the soul-dead, braindead acolytes of Charlie Manson, equally willing to exchange sex for a car ride, or someone else’s life for a joint. Nick Hammond, ten-year-old Julia Butters, Al Pacino, Margaret Qualley, all are excellent. And Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as the fading star and his fading stunt double are magnificent, individually and together. Every moment with Brad Pitt brings the screen to life in the ineffable ways only true stars can achieve. He is the closest thing to a reincarnation of Steve McQueen as we’re likely to see in this lifetime, yet he is very much his own special brand of magic.
One of the most poignant moments is when Sharon Tate (played with charming vapidity by the beautiful Margot Robbie, every bit as beautiful as poor Ms. Tate) goes to watch herself in her own movie. The camera is close upon her face as she reacts with childlike pleasure to own her own performance and to the reactions to her performance of the other people in the theater, and her obvious delight is made all the more tragic by the ending we all know she has. All Ms. Tate’s extraordinary beauty and delight in her own blossoming success are made tragic by the horror of what we know is going to happen.
Which brings me to the thing I hated most about this movie. The well-known and carefully foreshadowed tragic end, when some sad, lost, dangerous, soul-dead, braindead, brainwashed, drug-addled children, following the instructions of their evil loser-leader, Charles Manson, mindlessly butcher Sharon Tate and her houseguests, that well-known crime never happens in the movie. Mr. Tarantino has chosen to alter history for comic/violent effect (as if the reality of chopping four people to death with knives wasn’t violent enough?), and I found that rewriting of history offensive beyond words. If I were Roman Polanski, or the heirs or relatives of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, or Wojciech Frykowski, I would sue Tarantino for trivializing an incomparably brutal tragedy for comedic effect and personal gain. It’s like a sick parody of an Andy Hardy movie: Gee, kids, let’s do a comedy about the gas chambers in Auschwitz!
I also think Mr. Tarantino’s treatment of violence is the most adolescent, vulgar, insensitive thing I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. Burning someone to death with a flame thrower should not be treated as a yuck-yuck-wasn’t-that-hilarious moment. Read my August 6th blog, Mass Shootings, for a very brief summary of what the latest psychological studies have shown about the effects of excessive violence in movies; now add to that the distancing factor of making an audience laugh at the suffering of a human being.
Since I compared Brad Pitt to Steven McQueen, let me compare one of McQueen’s most famous and iconic films to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Bullit, directed by the great Peter Yates, is by far the more violent of the two movies. A smalltime gangster, two hitmen, a girl, an airport police officer, and the ultimate villain of the piece are killed graphically, and a police detective is severely wounded. The small-time gangster and the police detective guarding him are both shot with a shotgun, and the incident is portrayed with as much realism as Hollywood could muster in those days, which was pretty close to the real thing, but the camera does not linger in the-poor-man’s-Peckinpah-style on writhing, bloody bodies because it is not necessary, nor is there any attempt to make it comedic. And later, in the hospital, as McQueen walks past the room where the wounded officer is lying unconscious, the officer’s wife looks up and sees McQueen, the lead detective responsible for her husband’s welfare, and for a moment she and McQueen look at each other and her stony gaze speaks volumes.
The two hitmen are burned to death in a fiery car crash, but unlike Tarantino’s lewd and lascivious lingering on the comedic screaming and writhing of the girl being burned, Yates simply gives us a quick shot (perhaps one second) of the already dead bodies being licked by flames, a shot that is justified by the need to make clear to the audience those two men are no longer a threat, nor potentials leads to be interrogated. Later, McQueen is called onto the carpet and nearly taken off the case by his superior officer for that incident, an event that wasn’t his direct responsibility. Tarantino’s take on the aftereffect of his over-the-top sadistic/comedic scene (it is DiCaprio who burns the girl to death with a flame thrower) is to have DiCaprio have a casual, what-me-worry intercom chat with his neighbor, Sharon Tate, before strolling up the driveway to have drinks with her.
In Bullit, the girl is killed offscreen and we only glimpse her strangled body on the floor after the fact. When McQueen’s girlfriend (Jaqueline Bisset) unexpectedly walks into the motel room and he sees her staring in horror at the body she was not supposed to see, he immediately hangs up the phone and steps in front of her, obscuring her view. Later, she attacks him for living in a world of death and violence and asks how her world of creativity and his of law enforcement can possibly co-exist, and how he can exist in that world without becoming benumbed to the ugliness and evil.
After McQueen kills the ultimate villain (immediately after the villain has murdered an airport officer) shooting him through a glass door at the San Francisco airport in front of a crowd of screaming and horrified witnesses, McQueen first moves forward to kick the villain’s gun away, checks for any sign of life, and then takes his tweed sportscoat off to cover the dead man’s face and torso. Tarantino chooses to linger on the charred corpse of the girl DiCaprio has burned. Later, instead of going out for drinks, when McQueen goes back to his apartment in the final scene and sees Jaqueline Bisset asleep in his bed, he walks into the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror, a long, questioning look full of weariness, as if he too is asking the question Ms. Bisset asked: how can artistic creativity exist in a world of dehumanizing violence? It is the final shot in the movie, and it is a question Mr. Tarantino ought to ask himself.
Which movie sounds more humane to you? Which one portrays violence, if only within the moderate confines of a visual medium, as the horror that it is? Which one shows a humane man treating a deceased human being he has just killed with respect and recognizing the weight of his own completely necessary actions? And on the other side, which movie is most likely to inspire a sense of disassociation with the consequences of violence, treating human beings as meaningless points to be scored in a video game?
Congratulations, Mr. Tarantino.
Just to round it off, there is a puerile quality to Mr. Tarantino’s movie I find incredibly obnoxious. I can best sum it up with one quick example: Brad Pitt goes back to the tacky little trailer he calls home and starts to feed his pit-bull, Brandy (played by three different, beautifully trained dogs) with a food called “Wolf’s Teeth: Good Food for Mean Dogs” and selects a can marked “rat flavor.” Right. That’s about as sophisticated as it gets in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.