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Once Upon a Time…Film Critics Became Joyless—A Review

*This article contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, somewhere far from Hollywood, critics decided that movies for grownups should not be fun, and that the filmmakers who make them should be punished. For publications like The Guardian, the latest unacceptable pusher of a good time is Quentin Tarantino, with his long-anticipated Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

“Whatever the merits of his new film, Tarantino’s films have revelled in extreme violence against female characters,” says the piece, entitled “End of the affair: why it’s time to cancel Quentin Tarantino.” Time Magazine went so far as to count “every line in every Quentin Tarantino film to see how often women talk,” tallying the results in data charts.

This nakedly ideological ire against not just the movie, but Tarantino himself, extends even to The New Yorker—the same New Yorker where Pauline Kael, a decidedly non-ideological film critic, presided for a generation. “Tarantino’s love letter to a lost cinematic age is one that, seemingly without awareness, celebrates white-male stardom (and behind-the scenes command) at the expense of everyone else,” writes Richard Brody.

Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood is a rollicking cinematic collage assembled around three main characters: a washed up B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who pines for the A-list glamour of his next door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Dalton, along with his stunt double and loyal friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), watch longingly as Tate and her husband, Oscar-winner Roman Polanski, pull out of their next door driveway. The couple then speed away in their breezy convertible—young, fiercely beautiful, and in love.

For Brody such scenes are exploitative, devoid of social concern. But Tarantino just wants us to go along for the ride. Here, the influence of the legendary B-movie director, Joseph H. Lewis, is unmistakable. The driving scenes are shot from the back seat, the way Lewis had filmed John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy—two actors playing bank robbers who, at one point, pretend to be actors. Only Polanski and Tate are not about to rob a bank. They are off to a party at the Playboy Mansion. They carve the Hollywood canyons to the rock ’n’ roll. All they want to do is dance. Drama is replaced with romance.

Margot Robbie is Tate incarnate. The real Sharon Tate, only 26 and two weeks from giving birth, would soon be brutally murdered by members of the “Manson Family.” (Manson himself makes a brief appearance, played by actor Damon Herriman). She and her unborn son were stabbed sixteen times. Roman Polanski, the wunderkind filmmaker from Poland who, at the age of 6, watched his parents taken away to Mauthausen and Auschwitz, would never recover. But for now, filmed in shallow focus, the world around them is a blur, defused, its brutality still distant. There is no moral telos in these extended scenes of driving and dancing. But thanks to Tarantino, we get to see Tate and Polanski, just a few beats longer, in their tragically brief innocence.

This isn’t to say that Tarantino’s style is above aesthetic critique. His films are tenuously stitched, meandering, overly referential, and perhaps too low on story for more traditional cinephiles (and of course there is the perennial foot fetish). Informed in part by Italian neo-realists, Tarantino’s loose ends don’t always play back into his plotlines. But cinematic tangents like Uma Thurman twist-dancing with John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, or Jules, a hitman played by Samuel L. Jackson reciting Bible verses before executing somebody, have become iconic. Brody insists that “Tarantino’s nostalgia is his film’s guiding principle, its entire ideology.”

To impugn ideological motives on filmmakers is nothing new for critics who want to see their own world views enacted on screen. And yet, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood had the biggest opening of any Tarantino project to date and has since crossed the $100 million mark—not bad for a movie whose characters aren’t adopted from comic books. The reason is that there is no ideology. Detached from these audiences, Brody serves up his doctrinal reviews under the misconception that people who go to the movies want lessons. But what they really want is to bask in 1960s Hollywood sun, to see Margot Robbie’ Tate dancing or Brad Pitt’s Booth shirtless, on the roof, fixing Dalton’s broken antenna.

They want to experience that first flirtation between Booth and Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a teenage hippy girl hitchhiking her way across Los Angeles. She sees Booth driving and flings him a peace sign. The “V” is returned, two fingers raised over a steering wheel with nothing more than Brad Pitt’s impish smile. The scene is slow and tracking, filmed from the point of view of a pedestrian caught in the crossfire of this bright, erotic exchange.

Tarantino buffs will surely pick it apart: Booth is a war hero, The Moviegoer’s Binx Bolling with Elmore Leonard’s wit, and Pussycat a flower girl based loosely on the Manson Family’s Kathryn “Kitty” Lutesinger—their encounter a brief ironic truce between generations. Pussycat will eventually get in the car and take Booth to the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch. Otherwise, it’s yet another tangent, one that will endure in movie history for its romantic change and visual beauty.

Perhaps Brody’s real grievance is that Tarantino’s way of seeing his female muses is unlike that of Jean-Luc Godard. In Breathless, a new wave breakout, the French auteur had filmed Jean Seberg in quick cuts, sparsely, under low light. Godard was a Marxist, his vision of female mystique black and white, like a documentary. But Tarantino is quintessentially American. He lets us linger and watch Tate in all her Technicolor radiance. He lets us love her. What’s more, he lets her watch and love herself. We follow Sharon Tate as she struts about Los Angeles. Finally, she stops in front of a matinee poster of The Wrecking Crew in which she plays opposite Dean Martin. She buys a ticket, takes a seat in the dark among strangers, and cheers along with the audience when she sees herself up on screen as the “klutzy girl,” Freya Carlson.

“The justice critics, the ones who want to count up every movie’s sins against approved sensibilities, say that the film is nostalgic, a term intended to damage it,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. “The justice critics aren’t interested in fictions that feel like memories. They want movies that adhere to their vision of the way the world should be.”

Wary of this new breed of cina-sseurs, “evolving into a sophisticated body in spite of themselves,” screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton had diagnosed this problem as early as 1968 in their piece for Esquire:

Now the students are responding with real fervor to works of art (and movies most often) only when they can somehow relate the movies to their own outside experiences, ideas, life. They bring outside interpretations to films or force films to correspond with preconceived notions, and then, if it seems to work, they dig the movie.

Benton and Newman, along with Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay of Polanski’s Chinatown, are the team behind Bonnie and Clyde. Released in 1967, the film stirred a controversy for its graphic violence. Critics from The New York Times and Variety decried it as “sleazy,” “squalid” and “moronic.” But Pauline Kael hit back in her now famous essay for The New Yorker, praising Bonnie and Clyde, and charging the mainstream critics for being out of touch with American movie audiences:

Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

Later, when asked about the influence of male fantasies on cinema, she offered this:

I hope men don’t give up exploring their fantasies, because it’s one of the most fertile fields in movies….The trouble with most of the women’s films now is that they are programmatic, they tell us how women should feel and they expose the smallness of men. But they don’t explore how men react to being made to feel small, nor the real sexual tensions that this new programmatic approach to sex creates.

This quote is taken from her rare TV appearance in 1982, when Kael was at the height of her fame as America’s reigning film critic. Fast forward to 2019, and a film about Hollywood, one without sex or nudity or indiscriminate killing, is dismissed by The New Yorker’s current critic as “obscenely regressive.”

Brody gets one thing right: Tarantino avoids artifacts of “political protest, social conflict, any sense of changing mores.” He goes on: “Tarantino never suggests the existence of a world outside of Hollywood fantasy, one with ideas, desires, demands, and crises that roil the viewers of movies, if not their makers.”

His moral objection, oddly enough, is to violence inflicted on deranged murderers. So fond of the 1960s hippy counter-culture is Brody, he reserves his utmost empathy for those acting on behalf of Charles Manson, the worst serial killer in modern history. (Would Mr. Brody also object to fanaticizing about killing Hitler, for instance, as Tarantino does in Inglorious Bastards?) But while Tarantino’s Hollywood is sun-drenched and dazzling, he stops short of music video gloss: true to her ’70s hippy grunginess, the young Pussycat has a full bush of black armpit hair. And Tate, asleep in her bed and glowing with morning light, snores loudly after a night of drunken debauchery.

Toward the end of the film, Dalton and Booth get “blind drunk.” Not coincidentally, the more intoxicated they become, the more things come into focus. The final controversial act of violence is not glamorized by graceful falls in slow motion, as Sam Peckinpah filmed it in The Wild Bunch, nor enhanced with an operatic score, as in Sergio Leoni’s Once Upon a Time in the West—skull bones crack, blood spatters, we are horrified and want to turn away.

At the end of the film, Hollywood itself is put in proper perspective, too. Booth finally gets invited into the House Polanski—but not because he had worked hard to prove a talented actor, but by chance: one of Tate’s guests, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) heard a commotion next door and wanted to know what happened. Tarantino understands irony, even if some of his critics don’t: talent alone is for naught in A-list Hollywood—success is about luck, glamour and who you know.

“This is a movie,” Tarantino told Harry Smith in a recent NBC Today interview. “It is just fantasy. And you get to have these verboten moments that you can watch and be appalled and then, as effed up as it is, I actually try to make it kind of funny. And you should be surprised at your own reaction and even questioning your own reaction. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s a great time at the movies, to have those kinds of conflicted emotions as opposed to just having images glaze over you.”

Alfred Hitchcock once said that cinema is life with the boring bits taken out. If Richard Brody wants to see “political protest, social conflict, any sense of changing mores,” there is no shortage of movies now that address social justice and society’s other ails. Tarantino makes an appeal to Aristophanic virtues, those of irony, passion, beauty and song. At a time when everything is soaked in political resentment, his principle aim is not to bog us down with ever more crises, but to distract us from them. He is not interested in New Hollywood’s naturalism or anti-Hollywood’s moralism. He doesn’t care who wins the du jour culture war. His is a bright, prismatic fantasy of Hollywood. It’s ahistorical, it’s a myth. It’s pure Tarantino.

 

Steven Volynets is a fiction writer and journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @StevenVolynets.   

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.