At the Movies: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino, courtesy of the Internet

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.

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8 thoughts on “At the Movies: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

  1. Tarantino’s “satire,” if it can be called that, is all the more hard to take given his cheer-leading for gun control. That makes him a propagandist of the worst kind in my view and a hypocrite beyond measure .

    As I understand it Tarantino is a fan of the type of drive-in and underground cinema movies during their height of popularity of the 60’s to 80’s. Those movies have heavily influenced him. Many of them featured over-the-top violence. The term “Grindhouse” comes to mind. Even so those movies probably had more life lessons and morality contained therein than Tarantino seems to have. He has claimed he is only going to make 10 movies and then retire. As I understand it that leaves him one movie remaining. No doubt he will find a way to be even more vulgar in his future “artistic expression.” His only gift seems to be getting great performances out of great performers, but contained within awful material created in his juvenile mind. Sadly it is a formula that has made him very wealthy and respected by the Academy and industry. What does that say about the SAG, etc?

  2. Same. I saw one Tarantino movie years ago. It was about vampires and not funny in all the wrong places. Tacky. That was enough for me.

  3. I won’t see that movie. I can’t stand that kind of violence in movies. There was another movie so violent that they pulled it because of the recent shooting. It was about wealthy liberals hunting and killing so called “deplorables.”

  4. Oh, my God. I am horrified just by your description. For years people have tried to get me to watch Pulp Fiction, but I saw one horrifically bloody repulsive moment and that was enough for me. It seems as if Tarantino is not the filmmaker for me. As my taste in movies is a bit more Capraesque, I guess that isn’t a surprise.

    I really appreciate Di Caprio’s and Pitt’s acting skills, and I thought they made an interesting combination. I might have been tempted to see this movie, that is until I realized it centered around the Tate-LaBianca murders. Any refehrence to those murders and the human scum that perpetrated them and it gives me chills, it’s hard to think of without feeling a sense of evil. I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly use them to comedic effect.

    And I dislike the revising of history. It has been done since the beginning of films, but it seems like people know less about actual history and tend to fill it in with the pop culture version of things like this more and more these days.

    (I agree with your comments about violence in movies, and this desesitization. I tend to watch classic movies and documentaries when I watch TV – so I’m a history nerd and fan of classic movies – so I don’t see a lot of stuff on other networks. Every once in a while I’ll scroll through channels to see if I am missing anything, I never appears as though I am, and I have noticed there are so many shows that seem to glorify violence – the only name that comes to mind is a show called “Evil Lives Here” – and I ‘ve seen advertisements for shows depicting serial killers and gruesome murders as weekly show. I can’t help but wonder how these things became entertainment. It really troubles me.)

  5. Tarantino reminds me of an incredibly spoiled & obnoxious child that constantly misbehaves in an attempt to see just how much he can get away with.

    What mystifies me the most, is why talented & well respected actors agree to perform in his productions.

    1. If I recall correctly, did you previously mention that once upon a time you were in a class with Tarantino?

      I don’t watch violent movies. I get enough violence at work. It intrigues me that your law enforcement friend would recommend the movie; maybe his work has desensitized him. Just this week I heard every last detail about my client’s experience with witnessing a loved one blow their brains out in front of them. I don’t find cinematic violence entertaining at all.

  6. I enjoyed reading your review and I’m sorry I will miss the good acting parts that you mentioned. I wanted to see it when I saw the poster until I learned it related to Sharon Tate the Manson killings. Nothing good could come from combining this director with those events. My friends thought he was cool, so we watched a couple of Tarantino’s films on video in about 1997 or 1998, a few years after they had come out. I think I liked aspects of the performances and style (beyond the violence), but I don’t remember them well – partially because I was probably stoned as I often was then. Overall though, they made me feel empty. I thought I just wasn’t getting something that my friends did. To them, f-d up things happened in life and that’s what films reflected. The “that’s really f-d up” humor came partially from the rage that they felt, but back then I desperately needed something that would put violence into the context of a meaningful world. I needed to be reminded that there were things mattered and those films just heightened the feeling that nothing mattered, which I saw reflected in the world around me at that time. Years later I went to see Kill Bill when it came out in the theatre because my ex-husband likes action movies and was enough. My head was clear by then, and there was a scene that rubbed me the wrong way and felt a bit misogynistic. Uma Thurman, the director’s former muse, played the strong, beautiful heroine who seeks epic revenge with impressive sword fighting skills. It felt a little like, “Isn’t she beautiful, and amazing and strong? But he-he.. let’s watch her get raped while she’s in a coma.” Of course, it was part of the back story of her revenge, but it also felt like it was something else. Like you explained with your Steve McQueen example, I watch some really violent shows, but the violence has a context. While these shows revel in the graphic aspect of the violence more than what you describe in the McQueen film, there is still a sense of humanity and context. If a beloved character is being violated or hurt, it doesn’t encourage the audience to laugh at their expense. The Hand Maid’s Tale depicts rape, torture, and genocide, but it never abandons its characters to use them in this way. Game of Thrones didn’t either (with the exception of terrible villains). It’s like Tarantino turned on Thurman’s character in that scene. Actually, there was a very disturbing article that came out around the time of #Metoo, in which Thurman talks about Weinstein but also about Tarantino pressuring her to do her own car stunt during the filming of Kill Bill, which caused her to get seriously injured. Was it satisfying to watch the Uma Thurman character get revenge? Somewhat, yes, but then the reason for her boyfriend/husband, (Bill) turning on her, to begin with, was all a big misunderstanding, he-he. The kind of misunderstanding that leads men to kill their women every day. Hilarious. I think the director is talented and has his own signature, but his perspective feels sociopathic to me now. I agree that that kind of outlook is not helpful for society, and feeds the mental environment where mass killings seem like an option to express one’s rage and alienation. I believe that disconnection is one of the ingredients.

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