ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD:
As Brilliant as it is Shitty
TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses both extreme physical and sexual violence.
SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Inglorious Bastards and The Hateful Eight can be found below.
STORY: A one-time-big-time TV star finds his career in slow decline. He makes efforts to revitalize it, but obscurity’s momentum is strong. Then one day, he and his friend fight off, and kill, some random home-invaders. This catches the attention of a currently-big-time director who might just give our actor his second shot. THE END.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Romeo and Juliette only makes sense when you have an understanding of both internal family politics, and inter-tribal conflicts. Avengers Endgame only makes sense if you have an intricate understanding of the 10,000 interwoven MCU narratives that came before.
Context matters. Quintin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood knows this. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes it a step further. Its story is one of the failing actor, the one I described above. Not much of a story, really. Not without context.
CONTEXT: Late, on the night of August 8th, 1969 (and into the early hours of the 9th), at the instructions of Charles Manson, three members of the Manson ‘Family’ entered a Beverly Crest home shared by Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski. Having already left a body in their wake, they proceeded to murder Tate (8 ½ months pregnant) and her three guests, smearing the word “Pig” on the front door in Tate’s own blood. (Polanski was out of town.) Among countless horrendous events, this night has stood out as one of the grimmest chapters in the greater Hollywood narrative.
The film on its own is quite impressive. It possesses some truly great elements. Character, dialogue, scene construction. These are all strengths we’ve come to expect from Tarantino’s work. (Despite an increasingly masturbatory catalogue, the man’s craftsmanship is undeniable.) But most of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s tension is drawn from the audience’s existing knowledge of the context. Because our struggling actor just happens to be Sharon Tate’s next-door neighbor.
Yes, it’s a story about a fading actor (Leonardo DiCaprio). But as its key plot points wrap themselves in true events whose outcomes are both known and deeply charged, it’s also a story about the story of a fading actor.
We call this meta-narrative—narrative that exists outside the text of the story, yet shapes how the story is experienced.
Such meta-narrative structuring is apparent throughout the film:
Most notably (for me) it was present in a short scene depicting Zoë Bell and Kurt Russell as husband and wife. This (I’m certain) was a playful nod to their roles in the previous Tarantino film, Death Proof, in which the two of them are pitted against each other in a terrifying duel of screaming motor vehicles. (Zoë Bell’s car even gets trashed in the scene, really bringing the reference home.)
In the same scene we see DiCaprio’s stunt double (Brad Pitt) in a (not so friendly) sparring match with none other than Bruce Lee. He does pretty damn well, too. This fight would mean very little if we didn’t know who Bruce Lee was. But we do, and so it speaks volumes about the stunt double and what he’s capable of.
One of the film’s key scenes drops Brad Pitt into the Manson Family’s compound—an abandoned outdoor film set where he used to work. The scene plays with our expectations. We know who these people are (murderers). We know they have much to hide, and are not to be trusted. So when they offer an unlikely explanation of how it is they’re allowed to live there, we’re not inclined to believe them. When Pitt wanders deeper into their lair to investigate their claim, this disbelief opens a line of tension in our minds. And when everything they say turns out to be true, this tension releases in an unexpected, and oddly unsettling way. The scene is brilliant. It’s brilliant because it’s shaped by meta-narrative.
So goes the film as a whole:
As we approach the climax, each scene is given a time stamp. (9:15 PM, 10:42 PM, etc.) Because we know what’s to come, these act as a countdown, building tension. Meta-narrative.
Familiar with Tarantino’s work, as most the audience is likely to be, we know he’s perfectly happy to re-write historical events to suit his story (as he did in Inglorious Bastards). So as the dreaded home-invasion approaches, we’re left in suspense as to how it will actually play out. Will, they attack and murder Tate as history would have them do? Will they enter the wrong house and kill our protagonists? How does such a story end when Quintin Tarantino’s the one writing it? A part of us is afraid to find out. Meta-narrative.
Using the audience to craft their own film-viewing experience, as it does, is where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows its brilliance, where it shows that it is undeniably a work art. It’s not the story of a declining star and a random home invasion. It’s a second draft on history. It’s a revenge story for the real Sharon Tate, even as it rescues fiction’s Tate from gruesome violence.
Pretty smart, huh?
But it’s more than that.
Because Quintin Tarantino clearly wants us to see his narrative in context. Meta-narrative. Right?
So let’s look at the context. As much as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (the film) exists in a world where the Manson Family did murder Sharon Tate, it exists in a world increasingly—and acutely—aware that institutional social structures have been built to not merely ignore, nor even just condone, but in all too many cases, to actively endorse the victimization of women—at the hands of powerful men. A society which, when addressing acts of violence (against women), all too often frames the story from a sympathetic (male) perpetrator’s perspective.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood exists in a world where one of the focal points of social pushback against the mistreatment of women (a horrible fellow by the name of Harvey Weinstein), maintained a decades-long close working relationship with Quintin Tarantino.
Once upon a time in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax—and later the Weinstein Company—in which Quintin Tarantino found tremendous success and acclaim, was credibly accused of raping 14 women.
In that Hollywood, in this world, within this context, in a time when outrage over violence against women is finally finding a home in open discourse, Quintin Tarantino—beholden not even to events as they occurred in life—chose to re-frame Sharon Tate’s story into one where two powerful men erase one of Hollywood’s darkest memories by murdering the absolute shit out a pair of teenage girls. Becoming heroes in the process (and rewarded thusly).
Because the scene where they ‘save the day’ is brutal as fuck. Yes, there’s also a male home invader, but he’s quickly disposed of. After that, Pitt (who you’ll recall, we recently saw taking on Bruce Lee) and his pet pit-bull rip the two remaining girls to pieces. It’s rough. One girl escapes into the backyard and falls into the pool where DiCaprio finds her. He dons a working flamethrower he still has from a movie he’d been in, and finishes her off by burning her alive. It’s ROUGH.
(And not for nothing, Tarantino’s last movie ended with two men who hated each other coming together to murder the shit out of a woman.)
I know, I know. Those particular women were monsters within the framework of the film (as they were in real life). They’re crafted as terrible villains and it’s satisfying to watch them defeated. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood demands we look beyond its own narrow framework. Tarantino INSISTS we bring context to the film, that we find meaning in the meta. This can’t be ignored. So even as I found myself swept up in the stories expertly crafted action, I was pretty darn aware that I was watching one physically powerful man, and another with every privilege a person could dream of, murder the absolute goddamn shit out of two teenage girls.
And I could only ask myself: is this work of art (for art it is), at this moment in time, worth its own existence?
Answers: I really don’t know.
Once upon a time in Hollywood, Quintin Tarantino had complete creative control over the story he wanted to tell. Once upon a time in Hollywood, Quintin Tarantino told a story that could only be fully appreciated in the light of greater context. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood erases the female victim of a true-life crime, replacing the story of her terrible murder with one about the glorious murder of two other girls.
For all its artistic virtues, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may not be remembered kindly.